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BEST OF ROCHESTER '09: Critics' Picks

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Best Upscale Comfort Food: Corn Hill Grill's Macaroni & Cheese

In these tough economic times sometimes there's nothing more reassuring than noshing on some good ol' comfort food. And when you're really craving something simple, cheap, and quintessentially American, it doesn't get any better than mac 'n' cheese. It fits the bill for all kinds of appetites: vegetarians, kids, men, women, and lately, food connoisseurs. Chefs in major cities have picked up on this culinary trend (which is now something of a movement in Boston and Manhattan) and have devised their own takes on the classic dish -- and our very own Corn Hill Grill (298 Exchange Blvd, 232-2060) has done the same. Corn Hill Grill's version expertly blends together four different types of cheeses: cheddar (the classic), Monterey Jack (a good partner), parmesan (for added flair), and Velveeta (can you do American comfort food without it?). And just when you thought it couldn't get any richer, Corn Hill Grill tops it off with breadcrumbs and a drizzle of truffle oil before baking it to crispy, melty perfection in the oven. Try sharing it with a friend or even a group -- a few bites of this heavenly concoction are all you need to send you into pure, cheesy bliss. -- BY SUSIE HUME

Best Beef from Happy Cows: Seven Bridges Farm

I first encountered Seven Bridges Farms beef at a Slow Food Rochester potluck last fall held at the farm owned by Jeff and Barrita Shank. Before dinner out at the couple's cabin in the woods, we got a tour of the spread near Lima. Seven Bridges Farm is nothing like the farms I grew up around. The cattle barn is tidy and smelled of a pleasant mixture of cow and hay rather than the overwhelming odor of manure. The cows wandered about, munching on fresh hay or standing and ruminating peacefully as the mood took them. They looked to be living the bovine equivalent of the good life. If you're going to eat meat, you have to confront the fact that something dies for your dinner. I can eat Seven Bridges Farms beef with a clear conscience, knowing that their cows live in something close to paradise.

            The payoff for all the attention that the Shanks lavish on their cattle is apparent in the meat. Rich, beefy, beautifully marbled, and almost sweet-tasting, even the cheapest cuts rival some of the best prime-graded meat that I've bought at local grocers and butchers. Since that first dinner, I've been a steady customer at Barrita's stand in the winter shed at the Rochester Public Market, carting home stellar beef at bargain prices. Still don't believe that happy cows make better beef? Pick up a steak or even a pack of ground beef at Seven Bridges and at the supermarket. Grill 'em up and you'll be going back to see Barrita real soon. -- BY JAMES LEACH

Best Meeting of the Sweets: Open Face's Cookie Splits

Earlier this yearCity Newspaper held its inaugural Recession Procession in the South Wedge, and Open Face Sandwich Eatery (651 South Ave, 232-3050) served up half-off half-and-half cookie splits for its "ridiculous offer." The wee café was mobbed, with people literally waiting upwards of 30 minutes to get their hands on the cookies nearly as soon as they came out of the oven. My friend Courtney was one of those people, and as the server handed her one of the coveted confections, still piping hot and wrapped in waxed paper, the poor girl dropped it, and it crashed to the floor, exploding on impact. I watched her tortured face for the next 30 seconds as she seriously considered picking the pieces up off the ground and eating them. That's how good the Open Face splits are.

            These are more than your typical half-moon cookies. The basic version combines a deliciously salty, buttery, and sweet chocolate-chip batter fused to a subtly sweet chocolate cookie that tastes like cocoa turned solid. These cookies are loaded with butter, but they don't taste dense. Instead they're crumbly and moist, and all of the flavors complement one another brilliantly. On top of that, the Open Face Bake Haus creates special triple splits, adding a third section infused with flavors ranging from savory sage to zippy cinnamon to sweet maple.

            For the record, Courtney didn't eat the cookie off the ground. (I gave her one of mine.) But if the roles were reversed, I probably would have ended up licking the floor boards. -- BY ERIC REZSNYAK

Best Source for Fresh Herbs: Herbly Wonderful

Shortly after I moved to Rochester, I discovered Herbly Wonderful at the Public Market. Everything I'd lost in a disastrous attempt at gardening was waiting for me at bargain prices: perfect basil tops; bunches of thyme, rosemary, and sage; bouquets of parsley and cilantro -- all organic, all freshly picked, most of it selling for only a buck a bunch. During the summer, Tracy and Doug Gaus' stock of herbs -- along with the occasional tray of free-range eggs, a few heirloom tomatoes, a bagful of eightball squash, or a bouquet of fresh cut flowers -- are a nice addition to a Saturday morning trip to the market. There's often even a bunny or two for the little ones to poke at and pet while you try to decide which of the herbs you want. But when we are in our third of six months of winter, and the herb garden outside the kitchen window is long-since dead, it's nice to know that Herbly Wonderful is there to take up the slack.

            Herbly Wonderful keeps a steady stream of foodies in fresh herbs all year long. They can also get you hard-to-find herbs and spices if you give them enough notice. Kaffir lime leaves, curry leaves, sugar cane sticks for use as barbecue skewers or as swizzle sticks, and rosemary skewers for lamb are all things that have been obtained for me over the years. If it exists and you can be patient, Herbly Wonderful can find it for you. -- BY JAMES LEACH

Best Shop for Head-Bangers: Heavy Metal Records

There's something to be said for knowing what you are and making no bones about it. But while Webster's Heavy Metal Records (75 W Main St, Webster, 872-4129) takes the cake for directness and truth in advertising, there is a little more to this charmingly unassuming music store than meets the eye. Once considered a fringe musical category and lifestyle choice, heavy metal has become such an expansive genre and cultural force that it encompasses everything from Blue Oyster Cult to Iron Maiden to Slayer to stuff so extreme it makes all of the above sound like soft rock by comparison. Which means you don't necessarily have to consider yourself a card-carrying metalhead to find something you like here. And if you're looking for niche sub-genres, like death and ultra-Satanic forms of black metal, this place may as well be your Mecca.

            Located in a teeny space in the basement of a church, Heavy Metal Records no doubt has one of the highest densities of Metal Per Square Foot (MPSF) in the region. And it is the hot spot for imports. Looking for that obscure Japanese re-issue of that 1978 Judas Priest album, the one with the alternate cover and a different bonus track than the bonus track that came on the European version, where the songs were in a slightly different order? This is your place. A strong selection of vinyl, DVDs, and t-shirts means that you should bring enough money, or you might have a metal meltdown choosing between, say, that Helloween bootleg and the new Anvil. -- BY SABY REYES-KULKARNI

Best Place to Get That Vapors Song Stuck In Your Head: Hammergirl Anime

I have one word for you: POCKY. If you've had it, you're right this second resisting the urge to be that guy who pumps his fist in the air with a hearty, "Hell yeah!" If you haven't, get your ass over to Hammergirl Anime (376 Jefferson Rd, 475-9330) and get yourself some. Now.

            Pocky, in addition to several other delicious and not-so-delicious (read: weird, creepy, and downright odd) Japanese snack foods are just one of the perks of knowing about Hammergirl, which is in the running for the niche business most of Rochester doesn't know exists, but really should -- especially if you have teens in the house.

            But those who find comfort in books that read from left to right -- preferably those involving katanas and epic battles -- likely already know about Hammergirl. This hidden gem is Roc's leading source for all things anime, manga, and Japanese pop culture. If you're searching for the latest CD by J-Pop group Budo Grape, they've got it. And if you're into cosplay (that would be costumed play), well, you know. Anime-themed toys, accessories, DVDs, action figures, and books round out the selection, along with the requisite fan boys who lurk around the store for the continual anime showings and card league tournaments.

            Sure, the big-box book stores have impressive manga sections, but Hammergirl's is epic. It's also local, and the owners know what they're doing. A bonus is the friendly and knowledgeable staff that won't ever look at you crazy if you think Yaoi is chick lit. For its presence in Rochester, I just say "ureshiiwa." -- BY LAURA KEENEY

Best Reason to Be Late for Work: Scott Regan

Listening to the radio on my way to work, a song comes on that I've never heard before. It sounds so good; I've got to find out who it is. It's followed by another song, one I love, and I'm singing along in my car. Then another, by an artist I know, but I've never heard this cut. By now I'm sitting in my work parking lot and I can't leave until the set is over. I'm late for work again and I blame it all on Scott Regan.

            Regan is the host of "Open Tunings," the morning music show on WXXI/WRUR FM for five years now. It runs Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. until noon, playing a triple-A format (Adult Album Alternative), or as Regan describes it, different styles and different ages talking to each other. When WXXI and WRUR joined forces, they discovered that the triple-A format, although well known in the national radio community, was missing in our area. When this was explained to Regan he realized the format sounded just like his personal record collection. With a few simple lessons on how to work the studio, he began hosting the show, first as a volunteer and then as an employee.

            "Open Tunings" is like the "World Café" of upstate New York radio. Broadcasting a wide range of music, it also features interviews and live studio performances of new and established musicians, both local and touring. One thing I especially like is that every song is credited. You're never left frustrated, wondering who you just heard. Regan acknowledges the artists. And you never know who you're going to hear when you tune in. But once you do, don't be surprised if you can't stop and end up walking into the office behind schedule. -- BY DALE EVANS

Best Lecture Series: RIT's "Visionaries in Motion"

Between Rochester Arts & Lectures and the myriad offerings at area colleges and libraries, our community enjoys a wealth of public talks in any given year. But for the past four years, no series has rivaled the breadth of luminaries comprising RIT's "Visionaries in Motion," part of the Caroline Werner Gannett Project. Where else can you hear about the nanobots that could one day inhabit our bodies, keeping us free of diseases so that we can live indefinitely? From high-tech innovators Ray Kurzweil (the nanobots), Rudy Rucker, and John Maeda to eclectic artists MairaKalman, Stefan Sagmeister and Lynda Barry, the series has brought some of the most fascinating people on the planet to Rochester.

            This year's line-up is no exception. Astronomer Adam Frank will discuss his ideas linking science and spirituality, comic artists Nick Gurewitch and Chris Onstad will showcase their bizarre creations, and religious scholar Reza Aslan will discuss his new book, "How to Win a Cosmic War." That's not half of the offerings. You could pick a talk at random and it's a safe bet you will leave with a slightly different worldview.

            The woman who chooses the speakers, founder and director Mary Lynn Broe, Caroline Werner Gannett Professor of Humanities at RIT, is hip to just about everything happening on the cutting edge of our culture. Broe and her advisory board are tuned in to the zeitgeist and they make sure we receive the frequency. For more information check out cwgp.org. -- BY RON NETSKY

Best Piece of Local Americana Worth Protecting: Vintage Drive-In

Drive-in theaters hit their peak in America in the 1950's and 60's, before the advent of cable, the VCR and multiplex theaters. In their heyday, there were more than 4000 drive-ins in existence, and New York was one of the first 10 states to open one. Today, less than 800 drive-in theaters remain nationwide, with fewer than 30 in New York state, and only one in the Rochester area: the Vintage Drive-In in Avon.

             While many of our state's drive-ins are living legacies from when the theaters were in their prime, the Vintage Drive-In was built in 1997 by owner Paul Dean, who also owns the adjoining Avon flea market. And while our drive-in may only be a little over a decade old, it still operates in historical tradition: its three screens all play double features; the concession stand serves more than just popcorn and candy (cooked-to-order burgers, hot dogs, and more are on the menu); and it's a haven for families and canoodling couples. At the same time, having a newer drive-in gives patrons the benefit of modern sound and picture technology.

            In addition to supporting an American tradition, going to the drive-in is also a cost-effective way to see new releases: tickets cost only $8 per adult for a double feature, less than half the cost at the multiplex. The Vintage Drive-In is currently closed for the season, but will reopen in mid-April. For more info check vintagedrivein.com. -- BY SUSIE HUME

Best Torchbearer: Betty Strasenburgh

When the Eastman Theatre reopened this October as the renovated Kodak Hall, it was the realization of many dreams in the Rochester arts and cultural community. But it was perhaps most satisfying for Betty Strasenburgh, who had spent the previous decade fervently pushing for the project, never giving up hope even when prospects looked bleak. She says she couldn't give up -- after all, she'd been entrusted with the plans as part of the designer's dying wish.

            Strasenburgh had become friends with architect Bob Macon through his work in the Grove Place neighborhood. Back around the turn of the 21st century, she says, Macon had been approached to design the renovated Eastman Theatre, incorporating the box seats into the existing structure, and designing the rehearsal space and other elements for the planned new wing. But the project stalled, and two days before Macon died in 2002, Strasenburgh says Macon's wife came to Strasenburgh's door and gave her his sketches for the Eastman project, in the hopes that Strasenburgh could see it through.

            Over the intervening years, that's what she did. Strasenburgh, an Eastman alum who has served on the board of the RPO and of the Eastman Renovation Project, put her own resources into the project, and also helped secure critical state grants. She recalls a specific meeting in 2007 at Abyssinia that she attended with State Assembly members David Gantt and Joe Morelle. The state had already committed $8 million to the project, but for the job to be done properly, she says, they needed an additional $5 million. And by the end of that meeting, they had what they needed.

            The project went forward, thanks to leadership from University of Rochester President Joel Seligman, and with construction carried out by Macon's former firm, Chaintreuil, Jensen, Stark. Standing in the finished hall, Strasenburgh says she's certain Macon would be proud of the finished project -- and so would the hall's founder, George Eastman. But Strasenburgh also says that her work isn't finished. The new wing isn't due to be finished until sometime in 2010, and she and the board continue to ensure that things are done exactly as they should be. Next on her agenda: a January visit to sculptor Dale Chihuly'sSeattle studio to inspect the massive glass piece he's creating for the new atrium, and fighting to make sure that the planned café gets built in the front of the Eastman Theatre lobby. A torchbearer's work is never done. -- BY ERIC REZSNYAK

Best Place to Learn Outdoors: Nazareth's Council Oak

NazarethCollege isn't lacking for internal classroom space. But it also has a rather fanciful outdoor classroom that many members of the community may be unaware of. At the center of a small stand of trees just off the ArtsCenter parking lot, just a few dozen feet away from East Avenue, stands a tree called the Council Oak, which was reportedly a significant landmark when the Iroquois Nation called the area home. According to Rachel DeGuzman, marketing and publicity manager for the NazarethCollegeArtsCenter, a Nazareth neighbor named Mary MaCarty noticed that the Council Oak was becoming overrun by trees and brush. MaCarty went to Nazareth to get a bachelor's degree, and earned credits for surveying the trees on campus. She came up with the idea to clear out the brush and turn the area surrounding the tree into an arboretum, which eventually turned into the outdoor classroom, which McArty funded.

            Now, the Council Oak stands in a clearing, surrounded by benches and a lecture chair created by chainsaw sculptor-lumberjack David Jewett out of the Norway spruce trees that grew around the oak until the classroom was built in 2005. Today the classroom is used by a variety of Nazareth classes, from environmental science to biology to art to economics. -- BY ERIC REZSNYAK

Best Geek Ambassador: Jon-Paul Dyson

Superheroes come in many shapes, sizes, and forms, and are often found in the unlikeliest of places. Rochester is no exception to this rule. I tried to harness my inner Lois Lane and keep this man's identity a secret, but screw it -- sometimes good things just need to be celebrated, and, simply put, Lois could be an annoying twit.

            So I'm spilling it: we have a superhero among us who is simultaneously helping put our city on the map while exponentially increasing geek street cred. For those of you not familiar with Jon-Paul Dyson, he basically holds a geek's dream job. As the director for the Strong National Museum of Play-based National Center of Electronic Games (ncheg.org), he collects video games and studies how they have affected the ways we play, learn, and interact with each other. He's also the mastermind behind such feats as bringing the "Videotopia" exhibit to Rochester and creating the "American Comic Book Heroes" exhibit at Strong along with a skilled team of designers, engineers, carpenters, and more.

            No, he didn't pay me to write this. Quite the opposite. In fact, I'll be lucky if I ever get to interview him again because this exposure is likely +10 Mortification for a humble dude like Dyson. But so be it. I want to celebrate this man and his awesome ambassador-ness for our fair city. Because of him, I can hold my head high when debating the finer points of the Marvel Universe timeline.

            So when the permanent 15,000-square-foot electronic gaming exhibit "The Revolutionary World of Electronic Play" opens at Strong in 2012, and Rochester stakes its claim as the central hub for game geekery, join me in thanking Dyson and his team for making gaming, and those of us who enjoy it, so much cooler. -- BY LAURA KEENEY

Best Alternative to LakeOntarioBeach Slime: Hot Shots

Yeah, sure. We have beaches here. But unlike the rest of the world that boasts water that you can actually swim in, we like to close our beaches frequently due to this little thing called "contamination." So what are you to do when you get the urge for some sand between the toes, yet the health department has decreed said sand may make your toes fall off? Hit Hot Shots (1046 University Ave, 461-1220).

            I admit, I never knew this place existed until my son was invited to a birthday party there. For those not familiar, Hot Shots is an indoor beach volleyball facility with several sand-filled courts on which you can get your beach fix. Granted, my first time there was a weird combination of Chuck E. Cheese meets Paisans Night, as there were several very large, boisterous men at the accompanying bar tawlkin' wit' da ladies. Still, the kids had a ball. (And it looked like one of the dudes was going to score. Go him.)

            Hot Shots has a grill, the aforementioned bar, and several indoor volleyball leagues for anyone from beginners to Gabby Reece wannabes. Personally, I suck at volleyball, but since we live in a place where the beach is closed more often than it's open, this place rocks. Sign the kids up for a league, grab a cold one, and follow up with a home science experiment on how pollution can affect water, and you too can be the parent of the year. -- BY LAURA KEENEY

Best Underground Art Movement: Sockhop Series

You may be familiar with the old story of the unestablished arts community in Rochester: a lot of frustrated talent, a lot of cynical bitching, a general mass exodus to other "emerald cities," and often, the disillusioned boomeranging back to home-sweet-Rochester for more bitching. While many of us lament our lack of an integrated arts scene, some people are doing something about it -- in the form of one hell of a party.

            Since July, Dub Land Underground (315 Alexander St) has been hosting the Sockhop Series, one-night multimedia art and music events brought to us by the DJ/event coordination collaborative group The Oxford Street Collective (Antonio Aresco, James Niche, and MikilBudhai). These multi-tasking men of action had been throwing one-off events every six months or so that integrated visual art and live music, plus live art creation, while also promoting area vendors. But they wanted something more consistent, in order to promote Rochester's younger emerging talent.

            So began the Sockhops, which generally feature a horde of local DJs, a group of local visual artists, live graffiti demos on the patio next to the club, and wine and chocolate tastings by local businesses. There's also usually a non-local headlining DJ, but Niche says the big name isn't the only hype-maker -- the local artists, musical and visual, draw a lot of their friends in by posting the event on Facebook and through word of mouth. "People want to support their friends and community," Niche says.

            Why it's so great: you get a lot for very minimal bank, and it's an opportunity to show off your talent or support your scene. The Sockhops have all of the benefits of a hip modern art salon, with none of the snooty pretense. And as anyone knows, when you're trying to make a name, you've gotta show your stuff. So make sure you show for the December 10 Sockhop, because the series might be on hold until the spring.

            For more information on the Sockhops (note that the events are ages 18 and over only), check out actliverochester.com. If you'd like to participate as a musician, artist, or vender, contact Niche at info@actlivemusic.com. -- BY REBECCA RAFFERTY

Best Comeback that Ain't a Comeback: The Jet Black Berries

Last year's Scorgies reunion concert at The German House was a class-action resurrection. A handful of bands from the fertile mid-80's/early 90's music scene in Rochester re-banded for one enchanted evening. For the most part, the bands that got back together did it as a one-night-only kind of thing. Their "Let's see what happens" attitude was tempered with a pervading "Hey, it's just for one night" decree.

            One of these groups was The Jet Black Berries, an ominous, trippy ensemble that rode the punk horse into the pre-neon New Wave before the genre got drowned in Manic Panic. Originally formed as New Math, The Jet Black Berries recorded three albums on the Restless and Enigma labels, and had a track featured in the movie "Return of the Living Dead" before breaking up in 1989.

            Three of its core members -- Roy Stein, Gary Trainer, and Chris Yockel -- have kept busy in The Atomic Swindlers, a group that in retrospect sounds like what might have been a logical progression for The Berries if the band hadn't called it quits. The Scorgies reunion re-ignited the spark.

            The three dug up original keyboardist Mark Schwartz and brought in singer-guitarist Johnny Cummings -- a kid as old as the original band -- and within days they were laying down tracks. An EP is due in mid-November and the wigs and suits are beginning to sniff around.

            Sonically the band seems unfazed by its almost 20-year hiccup. Is this the music the band would have created during the 1990's had it not broken up? Or is this what the band would have wound up sounding like anyway? Either way, it sounds great. It's timeless with relevant and reminiscent components throughout. The band still walks among us; just don't call it a comeback. -- BY FRANK DE BLASE 

Best Place to Satisfy Your Noise and Bubble-Tea Fix: KC Tea & Noodle

While several venues around town have hosted experimental music to varying degrees of success, the most unusual must be KC Tea & Noodle (363 S. Goodman St., 271-1420), an Asian restaurant and bubble tea parlor that has recently opened its doors to the Rochester Killharmonic Orchestra on Sunday nights starting at 8 p.m.

            A cross between an open mic and a noisy group improvisation, Killharmonic night is actually organized around a structured format. Participants put their names down on a sign-up sheet, enter and exit the music in order, and follow a handful of pre-determined creative parameters. Of course, there's plenty of chaos, atonality, and abrasion, but the results can also be surprisingly cohesive and atmospheric.

            Even after a straightforward explanation from KC owner Jimmy Poon ("Sunday nights are slow, the musicians buy a lot of drinks, and they're nice people."), the fact that a middle-aged Korean couple has thrown their support behind this music still defies all conventional logic, and the contrast makes for a charmingly surreal experience in unintended ways. It's safe to assume that life presents few chances to have your nerves fried by your local corps of avant-garde musicians while sucking huge, chewy tapioca pearls from a passion fruit soy milk tea drink with an oversized neon-colored plastic straw. Well here's your chance. -- BY SABY REYES-KULKARNI

Best Opportunity to Embrace Your Inner Liza: Broadway Karaoke

Karaoke is entertaining under almost any circumstances. Good karaoke is a blast, and if we're being honest, bad karaoke is often even better. But if you want something a little more...shall we say, fabulous...than your average night of tipsy bar hounds warbling "Brown-Eyed Girl," consider Broadway Karaoke, which will return to the Rochester nightlife scene this January at a new location, the Park Avenue Pub.

            Broadway Karaoke is run by Laura Marron, a fixture in the local theater community who had been snapping up Broadway karaoke discs for years just for fun. Initially she just brought the equipment out for personal parties, until someone suggested that she could have a hell of a sideline gig if she took it public. And that's what she did this summer, in the bar area of Edibles on University Avenue. In a town that's home to the Eastman School of Music and dozens of theater troupes, there's no shortage of people bitten by the showbiz bug, and after a few weeks the modest space was crammed with dozens of singers looking for their Great White Way moment in the Flower City. Popular choices ranged from new musicals like "Wicked" and "Avenue Q" to standards like "Carousel." And the set list wasn't strictly show tunes; pop, country, and classics from the American Songbook were all on the menu.

            Unfortunately, things might have gotten a little too popular, and Edibles had to pull the plug on the event in early fall due to noise concerns from the neighbors. But a few weeks ago Marron made a deal to bring the event back on a bi-weekly basis at the Park Avenue Pub, and she's looking forward to the extra space to spread out in. For a schedule and more information check out the Broadway Karaoke page Marron has set up on Facebook. -- BY ERIC REZSNYAK

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