Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Portland, ME: The Portland Lobster Company

lobster roll with fries and cole slaw

I was in Portland earlier this month for a wedding, and knew that if I left without getting my paws on some lobster, I'd have failed.  Though lobster rolls are not my number one all-time favorite way to ingest the sweet, delicious flesh of the spiny crustacean, it’s certainly among the tidiest and most accessible, and I’ve found my lobster roll consumption steadily increasing each of the past few years.  Since Maine essentially equals lobster, I expected any lobster roll I ate there to automatically rise to the top of my personal best-ever list, which is of course entirely mental and not really organized at all. 

After taking recommendations from a local, we made our way to the Portland Lobster Company, which sits prominently on Commerce Street, Portland’s main tourist drag.  I’m sure there are more rustic, true lobster shack-type places to get a lobster roll fix, but you really couldn’t beat the setting here.  We sat perched at a counter-height table, looking out over the water, and the weather couldn’t have been better.  So of course I snapped that shit for Instagram (@shelbsandcheese - follow me!) so people knew how fucking rad my Saturday was.    

At Portland Lobster Company, you place your order with a very friendly cashier, who then hands you a plastic lobster that will buzz and light up when your food is ready, just as they do at Bostwick’s when your table is ready.  If you order your drink with the cashier, you need to show your receipt to the bartender who will pour you your drink, though you are of course free to simply order from the bar as well.  We all went with the lobster roll, and I had a glass of white to ease myself out of my Friday night.  Robbie also ordered onion rings, which were coated in a very thick and very tasty batter before being dunked in the deep fryer, from which it emerged with a shatteringly crisp shell.  Though nothing even close to an onion ring connoisseur (in fact, I usually hate the things), these were pretty good representatives of the form.  You could even take a bite without pulling out the whole damned onion.

onion rings
It took a while for that lobster roll to make its way to our table, but once it did, I was all over it.  I've found there are two basic tenets when it comes to lobster rolls: the mayo-laden cold lobster roll, and the butter-slicked warm lobster roll.  I tend to prefer the latter.  Nothing against mayo, but I just paid sixteen fucking dollars for a lobster sandwich, and I’d like to taste the damned lobster.  And I also like the meat to be a bit warm, since I think the texture is better that way. Of course, regardless of the style, a split-top, heavily buttered and griddled bun is a necessity, since it makes even the shittiest of lobster rolls worth eating.  But this, this my friends, was not the shittiest of lobster rolls.  The bun was super buttery and griddled to a golden brown, and the obviously fresh and incredibly sweet lobster claw and tail meat spilled over the top.  The two teeny bits of butter I found in my roll spoke to the preparation – the lobster meat must have been tossed with chunks of the stuff after being plucked from its shell, allowing the butter to (mostly) melt around it evenly.   Whatever they did, it worked.  The simplicity allowed the quality of the product to shine, just as it should when you’re sitting on a dock in Maine.  

180 Commercial Street  
Portland, ME 04101
(207) 775-2112

Monday, September 24, 2012

Rad Stuff I Love & Think You Will Too: Shake Shack's Coffee and Donuts Custard

Just about a year ago, I left my spacious Union Square apartment for my current and (much) less spacious East Village digs.  I while love my 'hood, my block, my current milieu, this has meant my admittedly all-too-frequent stops at the Shake Shack on my walk home from work came to a screeching halt.  Though just a couple of blocks out of the way now, my new locale adds about 10 minutes of time to the shack-to-freezer equation.  Meaning that, were I to purchase a pint in the middle of summer, I'd be left with a whole lot of custard soup by the time I made it home.  But sometimes things just work out.  I could have been depressed by the sudden chill in the air this morning, by the fact that summer got the fuck out of dodge as soon as it was released from its official duties, but there was a silver lining.  Today is, of course, the last Monday of September, meaning the last time in the near future I would be able to get my grubby paws on a pint of Coffee and Donuts custard, my favorite flavor to cycle through the Shake Shack custard calendar.  No other Mondays have afforded me the opportunity this month to grab a pint on the way home, being all 'summery' as they were.  But today, today was perfect.  My phone told me it was a cool 63 degrees as I left my office this evening, perfect weather for me to hustle back to my apartment in my column skirt with no slit that while very cute if I do say so myself made taking steps larger than 8 inches very difficult.  Though the little bit that melted around the edges of the container will be a bit icy after they freeze back up, the pint was pretty much none the worse for wear.  

And it turns out that you can also get your Coffee and Donuts tomorrow (or today, as it likely is) should you so desire (and you should).  As I stood in the B-Line at Madison Square Park today I noticed a sign with the day's specials, and it looks like the Shack is offering pints of "yesterday's custard." Today's custard will be yesterday's custard tomorrow (yup), and if you like coffee ice cream, and you like donuts, and you like all that is good and true in this world, you should get your ass over to Shake Shack and grab yourself a pint. While the Coffee and Donuts flavor is appears on the Custard Calendar a few times a year, there's no telling when that next time is going to be, and I can say with confidence from experience that it's better to have Coffee and Donuts custard than to not.  

(Shack Shack is apparently now large enough that it must post calorie counts of all its food.  Just do me a favor, buy the custard before you check the figures.)

Shake Shack
Multiple Locations (I visited Madison Square Park)
Custard Calendar

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Milan, Italy: Del Vuoto


Not sure if you’ve ever been, but August in Milan is like New York City on Labor Day weekend, except the exodus lasts for an entire month.  The majority of the city’s population heads off on month-long holidays.  So when I did some research into where to eat when I was there solo that first week of August, the first couple of places to pique my interest were already closed for the August holiday.  Luckily, one of the place I’d heard about was open until the 11th, and so on Saturday night I enjoyed my own company at Del Vuoto

Del Vuoto, meaning the vacuum, is so named because of the heavy reliance on the sous vide cooking method.  Nearly everything served is given the hot bath treatment.   The restaurant is nestled away in a distinctly non-touristy area of Milan, about a 20 minute walk west of the bustling Navigli area.  There were no English menus to be found and the owner and waiter didn’t appear to be used to addressing English speakers.  Music played softly in the background, complementing the buzz of Italian heard all around me. 

Dining alone can sometimes be an awkward endeavor, particularly in a higher-end establishment.  Not the case at Del Vuoto.  I was directed to my table, which had already been set for one because I had e-mailed to make a reservation the night before.  Enrico, the proprietor with whom I’d e-mailed, could not have been more gracious.  He offered me a glass of prosecco on the house before guiding me through the rather complicated menu.  While by no means an Italian speaker, through my extensive dining experiences, in New York and abroad, I've gained a pretty solid handle on what I'll call 'menu Italian.'  This was something far beyond the purview of what I was used to, as the menu was littered with lesser-known ingredients and nontraditional cooking methods.    

Salt cod amuse.
After Enrico poured me the prosecco, the waiter greeted me with an amuse bouche of cod mousse with olives.  It was fishy, smoky and overall just plain good. 

Once I was through with my prosecco, I went with a Sicilian white, the name of which I can’t recall.  Though the menu didn't list by-the-glass options, Enrico was more than happy to open a bottle to pour me a glass since it was obvious I wouldn’t be finishing a bottle on my own (he clearly doesn't know me).  The wine was lovely with my first course, octopus with smoked eggplant puree and toasted breadcrumbs. 

Let's pretend this isn't the worst picture ever taken, k?
This octopus is undeserving of such pathetic treatment.
Now, I’ve eaten a lot of octopus in my life, and this might just have been the best I’ve had.  Incredibly tender from the sous vide and sporting a nice crispy exterior from a post-bath sear.    The eggplant was puree lent only a whiff of smoke, just enough to make you notice it, but not so much as to overwhelm, as smoked things are wont to do.   The breadcrumbs were rather flavorless and could have used a hit of salt, but they served their intended function of lending texture to the dish.  A healthy glug of olive oil completed the dish and made for some good bread dippage at the end.  I could have used a bit of acid, like some tomatoes or olives, but the dish overall was truly great. 

A slightly better pic of the octopus plucked
from Trip Advisor

My empty plate was whisked away and I was left to observe those around me.  The couple to the left of me sat in pronounced silence for well over the majority of their meal.  So did I, of course, but I signed up for it and was quite enjoying myself.

Vacuum-cooked turbot

I moved on to the turbot, served with dilled potatoes and braised fennel.  Though I love the effects of sous vide, I will always be just a little bit weirded out by the shapes proteins often take on during the process.  My fish was tender and moist as hell, but the effects of the vacuum-sealed bag in which it’d been cooked were readily apparently, its shape distorted and pinched where the bag had come down around it.  The fish was seasoned merely with salt and showered with olive oil to let the fresh, clean flavors of the fish come through.   The accompanying potatoes had also taken a plastic-wrapped bath and they tasted of nothing but pure potato; as a girl who used to eat slices of raw potato (yea, I know), these were potatoes I could get behind. 

The incredibly warm service continued after my entree was whisked away.  I was brought a dessert menu, and decided to order the most obscure thing from it, chocolate with a sorbet of something that, even translated into English, I'd never heard of before, which I was drawn to because it was described as bitter.  But before that was brought out, Enrico stopped by to hand me a glass of lovely dessert wine on the house, and to gab a bit more.  

Chocolate with...something.  You're welcome.
Then, dessert, the chocolate taking the form of a more luxurious, super-rich pudding littered with chunks of chocolate meringue, offset entirely by the refreshing, bitter bite of the sorbet.  I had no idea what it was made from, but I couldn't really have given less of a shit.  It was delicious.  

Though certainly not the most traditionally Milanese of meals, I can't really speak highly enough about this restaurant.  While the food wasn't flawless, it was very well-executed, really quite good, and given the quality of the ingredients and the portion size, really quite affordable.  The effusive service and obvious zeal of the owner and the staff just made the meal that much better.  

+39 02 94555592 
For reservations e-mail 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Lula's Sweet Apothecary

Peanut butter chip atop
vanilla with raspberry and brownie

I’ve discussed it here before, but there was a time where I shunned meat. And cheese.  And eggs.  Though my quasi-veganism lasted but two or three short months, I learned a good amount.  I learned that it is possible to eat a varied and healthful, even exciting, diet devoid of animal products.  I learned that I like being a contrarian, which is perhaps not my best quality.  I also learned, perhaps most importantly, that there is some really fucking good vegan ice cream out there.  Sure, there are a lot of vegan facsimiles of typically dairy and meat-laden goods.  Some of it is absolutely atrocious, its mere existence a disservice to vegans and vegetarians everywhere.  But some of it is completely delicious in its own right, vegan or otherwise. 

It’s no secret that I love ice cream.  I have at least a little bit of it, even if it’s just a spoonful or two, every day.  Vetting the ice cream situation was necessary before I took the plunge into my short-lived quasi-veganism (that's a lot of qualifiers right there...).   Throughout my testing, I ran into quite a few awful ‘frozen non-dairy desserts,’ but the good ones, man, they’re good.   Take, for instance, Lula’s Sweet Apothecary, an old-school soda fountain type place.  It feels like where Archie would’ve taken Betty (or Veronica) for a date if they lived in Portland in 2012 instead of Riverdale in the 1950s.   

Good vegan ice cream is not good “for vegan ice cream,” but just plain good, sans qualifiers.  The stuff at Lula’s is among the best ice cream I’ve had, vegan or otherwise.  The hard ice creams are made from soy, coconut or cashews.  The latter two are the best options, as the fattiness carries over in the best ways possible.  Add to that some intelligently thought out add-ins and spot-on flavors, and you’ve got something special. 

I walked away recently with a double scoop: peanut butter chocolate chip and vanilla with raspberry swirl and brownie, both recommended to me by the fella working the counter.  The peanut butter flavor was super rich, impeccably creamy and just plain delicious; the vanilla tasted much lighter and served almost as the J to my scoop of PB.  Though I could’ve used more brownie chunks, the raspberry rippled through the vanilla in aggressive swirls that served as a nice counterpoint to all of the heaviness in my cup.  The maple walnut, which I’ve had in earlier trips, is also a winner.

Lula’s is not one of those holier-than-thou vegan joints.  It’s not health food. What it is, most meaningfully, is amazing, in both the magical, incredibly rich things done without the crutches of eggs and dairy and in the quality of the product churned out.  Go there; just, go. 

Lula’s Sweet Apothecary
516 East 6th St (b/w Ave A and B)
(646) 481-5851

Friday, June 22, 2012


I would typically never attempt to try a restaurant on its first night.  But the plywood up on the corner of 10th and 2nd had been tempting us for far too long not to make a go at it.  While we were quoted a two hour wait, the crowd outside the restaurant wasn't so bad, so we left our number and retreated to Rob's apartment to wait it out.  Thankfully, they're willing to take cell numbers; a few places I've visited lately have not had such a policy, which I just don't understand, particularly when the establishment doesn't have a bar area large enough to accommodate those waiting. We got the call that our table was ready just about an hour later, and nary five minutes later were seated at our table in the center of the restaurant.

The interior is spacious, with high ceilings, spare exposed brick walls and more space between tables than one would typically find in an East Village establishment.  As we were perusing the menu, Martha Stewart left the restaurant, looking exceptional for 70 years old, I should note, and Michael White raced out to bid her adieu.  White was clearly in and out of the kitchen all night, and stopped by each table in the place to say thanks and get reactions from the first-night crowd.

We started with a liter of the house wine, a light red, the name of which escapes me but which I guzzled nonetheless.  The menu is divided into four sections: snack-sized Assagini e Sfizi, Antipasti, Insalate and Le Pizze.  The three of us had been waiting long enough for the damned place to open, so we figured we'd go big.  We started with two orders of the suppli, the tiny fried risotto balls (which was one order too many; we'd been told by the waitress that there were four small rice balls per order, but it turned out to be five, which would have been plenty).  As far as fried things go, they were pretty delicious.  The coating was paper thin and perfectly greaseless, harboring a scalding hot filling of risotto, molten mozzarella and itty bitty pieces of sausage.  They sat in some sort of deliciousness that merited a dunk and a re-dunk (and later a super classy swipe of a pizza crust).

We also ordered the calamari, which was stuffed with summer squash, soppresata, bread crumbs and oregonata.  Though I've found baked calamari preparations hit or miss in terms of doneness, here it was incredibly tender, not even chewy in the least.  Though the pork could have played a bigger role, it didn't stop my greasy little mitts from reaching in for more well past my point of satiety.

carrozza, or, fried, breaded cheese puck
Rounding out our appetizers was the carrozza, which was described to us as mozarella encased in bread - you know...because we didn't have enough mozzarella and bread in our order already.  The dish we were ultimately presented did not quite fit the mental image I'd conjured up, but it was indisputably tasty.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that breaded, deep fried high-quality mozzarella is satisfying at a base level to all but the lactose averse.  Indeed, this was better than breaded cheese need be; the shell was crisp and didn't lend unnecessary greasiness to the rest of the plate, which was bright and acidic with basil, olives, peppers and anchovies.

But we were just getting started.  Our gluttonous asses still had pizza on the way.  Our waitress told us that, as the pies were 12", she recommended one per two people.  Being the disgusting humans we are, we decided that three was the perfect amount for the three of us.  What can I say, it was hard to make a decision since all the pies sounded awesome, so we each chose one, plenty aware that we'd be feasting on leftovers.

The pies are somewhere between a thin crust New York pizza and the thicker, DiGiorno-thickness pies ubiquitous in much of the country.  I'd read that White was going for a midwestern bar pie, but these sported a far thicker crust.

The tables are equipped with these rather ingenius metal rods that pop out of the marble and to which the wait staff attaches a metal disc to hold the pizzas.  They achieve the dual purposes of 1) not compromising table space and 2) looking awesome.

side effect of the pizza stands: shadows,
this photo of the tartufata fell victim to the LoFi effect;
may it rest in peace
The first of our pies was the Tartufata: mozzarella, mushroom cream, roasted wild mushrooms and procsiutto cotto.  A pleasant funk from the mushrooms dominated this pie, but I far be it from me to bitch about it.  There was truffle in the mix, too, and the prosciutto cut through the earthiness of it all with its salty heft.


We also had the carbonara, with cream, pancetta, pecorino romano, scallions, black pepper, crowned with a runny-yolked egg.  This one was Robbie's favorite (though he may have been biased since he ordered it).  All of the elements worked well together, and it was at once rich, salty, meaty, and bright.  Another winner.

My favorite (again, I may be biased, but it was the majority favorite as well) was the fume, which was not met with a great amount of fanfare when I announced it as my choice.  What can I say, though, I am a sucker for smokey, salty flavors, and the fume delivered.  The smoked scarmaza cheese was the star of the show here, playing well with the mozzarella, it flavored the pie with a hint of smoke without smothering, as smokey flavors so often can, and it paired quite well with the speck.  The radicchio cut through the richness with its bitter edge, while the thyme gave it all a bit of pop.  The flavors were a bit unexpected, but a total home run.

The crust on the pies was great, too, and was a great base for the assertive, high-quality ingredients placed atop them.  The pizza arrived to the table a deep golden brown, crusts glistening with a generous coat of oil.  The crusts themselves crackled and gave way to a pillowy soft interior breadier than a typical New York slice, but no less awesome because of it.  The pies were much thinner in the center, but never approached the drippy-wet interior of a Neopolitan slice.  Purists may scoff at these pies, as they can't quite be pigeonholed in a distinct category.  I typically like nothing thicker than a New York thin crust, but I can't argue with what Michael White is doing at Nicoletta.  Midwestern-New York-Neopolitan-Bar-Whatever the Fuck You Want to Call It style, this is some delicious pizza.

photo courtesy Kathy YL Chan via Serious Eats

Edited to add: WHOA! I cannot believe I forgot to talk about dessert.  Yes, we somehow also managed to cram some dessert down our greedy little gullets. The dessert menu at Nicoletta focuses around the fior de latte soft serve, which you can get in a float (root beer or fanta) or in a cup with two toppings (or more at an extra charge; we chose whipped cream and chili peanut toffee sauce).  The soft serve was a bit icy on our visit, but had the bright, unmistakable flavor of fresh cream.  And who gives a shit about a little iciness when there's peanut chili toffee involved?  Nobody, that's who.  This sauce kicked so much ass that we requested some extra on the side.  The waitress probably had to tell us that there would be an extra charge (50 cents, big whoop) for it, lest we get all pissy, but this stuff was like crack, and our order was already so over the top that no up-charge was going to stand in our way at that point.  In any event, if you go to Nicoletta (and you should), you owe it to yourself to finish your meal with peanut chili toffee topped fior di latte soft serve.  And a root beer float, because damn right we got one of those too, and it was awesome.

160 2nd Avenue (at 10th St.)
(212) 432-1600

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dirt Candy

Dirt Candy has been on The List for ages, pretty much since it opened in 2008(9?), in fact. I've been clamoring to get a taste of Amanda Cohen's purportedly revolutionary treatment of vegetables (or, as she calls them, "dirt candy"). Reservations are not easy to come by in the 20 seat space, and typically require booking a month in advance. That's why, when Mackenna and I were looking for a dinner spot a mere two days out, I jumped at the 9:30 pm Friday reservation as quickly as I could.

And the subterranean garden-apartment space is, indeed, teeny. There are 12-14 seats at tables against the banquette and another six lined against the opposite wall, with just enough room between them for the servers to pass through.

The menu is likewise small, offering up but a mere 4-5 choices for each course. This theoretically should make the task of ordering far simpler for an indecisive diner like me. But without the crutch of "I feel like fish tonight," and with a list of entrees that all sounded delicious and different, I faced some difficulties. Nothing a little chat with our server couldn't fix.

Though I sound like a broken record, I apologize for the poor picture quality.  The light was very, very low.  Also, I am a terrible photographer.

Jalapeno Hush Puppies with Maple Butter
We started with the jalapeno hush puppies, which arrived piping hot with a side of softened maple butter. The hush puppies were a pinnacle of the form, the crispy exterior giving way to a steamy, fluffy corn interior.   The jalapeno provided a lingering heat, and once in a while, a real punch of spice. The maple butter was, as you'd imagine, delicious; entirely unnecessary for the exterior bites and not unwelcome for the fluffy innards. The house bread also served as a canvas for the maple butter, though I preferred dipping the focaccia-like batons into the olive oil, which had been strewn with herbs.

House bread with Herbed Olive Oil
I've had and loved the portobello mousse before, and would have ordered it to enjoy the full restaurant treatment, but my dear friend is an avowed mushroom hater (something I will never understand). It was between the red pepper soup and the carrot buns, then. Seeing as soup might be tough to share, we went with the buns.

Steamed Carrot Buns with Cucumber and Carrot Salad

I love me a good Chinese steamed bun, cha siu bao in particular, that spongy, airy dough encasing rich, sticky-sweet Chinese roast pork.  The sweetness Cohen coaxed from the carrots paid homage to cha siu, but was impressive in its own right, bright with hoisin and a carrot reduction.  The treatment of the roots within was inspired, as the carrots feigned meatiness.  The buns were dyed various shades of orange from the juice of the different carrots used, which didn't affect the taste, but sure was adorable.  

Yes, these carrot buns were delicious, but I could not keep my fork out of that little pile of awesome to the left.  This, my friends, was a crispy white carrot, cucumber, ginger and sesame salad, topped with carrot halvah.  Oh, never had carrot halvah, have you?  I'm really sorry about that, because this was one of the more creative, no-holds-barred delicious things i have tasted in recent memory.  (No, but really, I'm sorry I didn't tell you about this sooner, the carrot buns are apparently no longer on the menu.)  A definitely ate more than my fair share of the salad even though we were to be going halfsies (sorry Mack).  

Chard Gnocchi

Then there were the mains.  Mackenna went with the chard: chard gnocchi, grilled chard, garlic granola, drunken fig jam.  The gnocchi were light, if a bit on the soft side.  The grilled chard crunchy, buttery, delicious. There was a  thin layer of goat cheese sauce coating the bottom of the plate, which lent a lovely tang to the whole thing and perked it all up.   The fig jam felt awkwardly out of place, its flavor strong and overwhelming, and not really meshing with the other elements of the dish. As it appeared as a small pile crowning the gnocchi, it was easily cast aside (and eventually eaten separately, since it was quite good in its own right).  

Cucumber, Coconut Poached Tofu
I oscillated between the cucumber: coconut poached tofu, shiso galangal sauce, salsify and hearts of palm and the corn: stone ground grits, corn cream, pickled shiitakes, huitlacoche, tempura poached egg.  Though the corn was the thing that called out to me immediately - I mean, tempura poached egg, for fuck's sake; top that with pickled mushrooms and huitlacoche and I was sure I'd be there.  But in the end, I went for the cucumber, since it seemed lighter and brighter than the corn, and I was getting some corn (and heaviness) via the fritters.  I can't say I regret my choice, either.  The tofu seemed to have been seared prior to poaching, as it had a lovely golden crust on its topside.  The sauce was verdant, alive with the vague citrus notes of shiso, and kept the whole dish interesting.  The crunchy fried things, also, awesome. What can I say? I love crunchy fried things.

The food at dirt candy is a wonder to behold.  These are not dishes that placed on a menu as a thoughtless consolation to vegetarians, but a celebration of vegetables in their own right.  These are not meant to replace meat, or to substitute for it, but to draw your attention to the merits of vegetables as their best, most interesting versions of themselves.  

Dirt Candy
430 E 9th St (b/w 1st and Ave. A)
(212) 228-7732

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Horchata Chronicles: 3rd Ave Taco Truck

I'm not sure exactly when my love for horchata began, but I'd surmise that it was right around the time I first heard of it.  "Horchata" wasn't really a word that was thrown around my household as a kid, and I fear that it was well into my 20s before I had a taste.  That's a lot of wasted horchata time, if you ask me.  Time to make up for it. But how, how can I ever begin to make up for all those lost tastes and the unknown enjoyment? With a horchata series of posts, of course. I'm hoping to use this series as a way to motivate me to taste every horchata that crosses my path - sweet or spicy, virgin or spiked.  Especially spiked.  Recommendations welcome and encouraged!

I passed by the taco truck on 3rd ave and 14th street (I believe it may be called Patty's, but do not quote me) every day for a solid two weeks before I finally stopped and treated myself to some horchata.  Not sure why I chose that particular day, since it was borderline freezing out and holding the icy cup caused my hands to do that thing they do when all my blood decides to travel elsewhere in my body.  Also, not sure it was worth it.  

This horchata was a far cry from the horchata I love at Tacombi.  Though there was a good deal of ice, the $3 serving was more than ample, particularly once I tasted it and was attacked by its saccharinity.  It was very one-note - any semblance of spice was lambasted by aggressive sweetness; it tasted more of pure white sugar than anything else.  The drink was also quite thin; the faintly creamy milkiness I was searching for was nowhere to be found, while the cinnamon notes were barely discernible.  They can't all be winners, I suppose.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Newport, RI: Franklin Spa

Unsurprisingly, after our long, drawn out dinners inNewport, we were pretty slow-going in the mornings.  But there were things to do, cliffs to walk, mansions to tour, and we needed to be refueled.  Given the duration and relative fanciness of the previous night’sdinner, we wanted something casual, but (of course) not at the expense of deliciousness.  Franklin Spa showed up on nearly every best-of breakfast / brunch list we came across, so we figured it must be a reliable spot.  So we headed on over and found a bustling breakfast scene.  After a wait of just a few minutes spent ogling the food being ushered past us, we settled into our corner booth, ready to enjoy some straight-up comfort food.

Franklin Spa is the epitome of a greasy spoon - not exactly what I had in mind when I heard the name of the joint.  From the swiveling stools at a counter in front of an open kitchen to the vinyl booths and the no-nonsense yet affable hey darlin’ sort of service you’d expect from a local joint, you just know you're in for an enjoyable meal. 

Most of the time, when I eat out, I am looking to experience new tastes and experiences and discover combinations I’d never have dreamed up on my own.  That’s not always the case for brunch.  Sometimes I am looking to be wowed, but sometimes I just want some comforting food prepared by someone else, someone who has their shit together at the ungodly hour of one p.m. on a weekend day. 

Smoked Salmon Benedict

For me, comfort food at brunch time is found in the form of smoked salmon and poached eggs.  It’s a go-to of mine because it’s relatively healthy (though hello, sodium!), straightforward and simple.  Despite this simplicity, it’s surprising how frequently the dish falls short of its potential.  I suppose I can’t expect busy kitchens to present me with perfectly poached eggs every time, but at the very least I expect to be met with runny yolks.  Diners tend to be well-seasoned egg-slingers, so I put my faith in the short-order cooks behind the counter and ordered a smoked salmon benedict – hollandaise on the side (so sue me, I’m not immune to the threats of butterfat, and it’s impossible to tell just how heavy-handed a kitchen will be with the hollandaise, so I figure it’s best to just apply it, or dunk it, realistically, myself).  The fellas at Franklin Spa did not let me down.  My eggs were perfect – perfectly runny, not a hard bit of yolk to be found, with thoroughly cooked whites.  The hollandaise was lemony and bright, though a bit clunky.  A simple dish very well executed, and served with some well-spiced home fries.

Corned Beef Hash

Robbie opted for the corned beef hash with poached eggs and hollandaise.  What can I say, we were a little sodium-hungry, I suppose.  His plate came teeming with fatty corned beef and browned potatoes. A hangover helper if there ever were one.

Stuffed French Toast with Bananas and Pecans
CF went with the stuffed french toast, which was topped at her request with bananas and pecans.  A solid move.  The battered slices of bread were barely able to contain the mounds of maple-spiked cream cheese within.  This was unabashedly decadent; not as sweet as you'd expect but very difficult to tackle alone.  I was glad I wasn't the one faced with the task, but happy to be able to sneak a taste. 

I didn't photograph CH's dish, but it was a chili and cheese omelet.  CH is to chili as Rob is to hot wings.  If it's on a menu, it's tough for him to look past it and order something else. When he saw it combined with breakfast food, he knew immediately it'd be his.  Bad move.  Learn from his mistake.  Not only did he not enjoy it much, but it repeated on him all afternoon, as if to remind him of his failing.  

That one misstep aside (and I'll put that one on CH, as opposed to Franklin Spa), this was a very solid meal.  It was unpretentious, relaxed and really quite good.  Recommended.

229 Spring St.
Newport, RI
(401) 847-3540

Friday, April 6, 2012

Happy Passover!

Matzoh Ball Soup

Sundown this evening marks the beginning of the eight-day celebration of Passover, which celebrates the story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt.  It's a time to relax, to eat and drink, and to refrain from leavened goods, or chametz.  Chametz is anything that is made of grains (wheat, spelt, oats, barley, rye), that has been combined with water and left uncooked for more than 18 minutes.  In Ashkenazi tradition, kitniyot are also forbidden; these include items that can be ground into a coarse meal, such as corn, legumes (peanuts, peas, beans, soy) and rice.  

Mostly everyone is aware of matzoh, which I prefer in its brei'd form: soaked in egg and milk and pan-friend, which can be served savory or sweet.  It's none too appealing on its own, though I've found my goyim friends tend to like it far more than my fellow Jews; I suppose it's a different story when eaten out of necessity.  

Here are some recipes that are Passover-friendly.  While some (such as the charoset) are specific to the Seder meal, there's no reason why they should be relegated to such a setting, as they're delicious in their own right (and that charoset, in particular, would be amazing in yogurt or with oatmeal). 

Recipes for the Seder (and Beyond)

Matzoh Ball Soup. A classic.  Spiking the matzoh balls with seltzer results in some of the best matzoh balls I've had.

I should really start making this stuff year-round

Sephardic-Style Charoset.  Not your typical wine-sogged, apples and walnuts affair, this stuff is irresistible.  It's fiercely demanded at every Passover meal with my family.

Gefilte Fish with Horseradish Cream Sauce.  It might sound crazy to make your own gefilte fish, and I won't really try to argue with that, but the rewards you'll reap with this recipe are substantial.  It's supremely delicious, but if nothing else, give the horseradish cream sauce a try - it's a bit different than your standard Gold's straight from the bottle; which isn't to poo-poo the Gold's of course, I keep that stuff stocked year-round.

Brisket with Red Wine and Prunes: this recipe is awesome for any big gathering, as it benefits from a long, slow cook and can be prepared ahead of time.  It's particularly great for celebrations, since it feels a bit more special than your typical brisket. 

Random Passover-Friendly Recipes for the Remaining Eight Days

Beyond the Seders, there are eights days during which I'll need to feed myself.  As a devout oatmeal-for-breakfast type girl, this requires a bit more creativity on my part. While I will rely on yogurt a good amount for my morning repast, I will definitely be breaking out the quinoa more, as it's one of the few grain-type items that aren't considered chametz.  While these recipes aren't kosher-kosher, they don't contain chametz.  Now I don't keep kosher throughout the year, but I do try to keep chametz out of my diet during Passover.  Call me a hypocrite, that's fine, but I see these eight days more as a commemoration and acknowledgment of my ancestors' past and struggles than anything.  Where kosher variations are available, I've so noted.

Raw Beet Salad with Goat Cheese and Pistachios.  This salad is fucking ridiculous.  It's amazing how good a few simple, healthy ingredients can be.  Don't forget the pistachios, they're the ticket.

Brussels Sprouts with Poached Eggs.  Embarrassing to even include this is a recipe.  It's more of a technique than anything, and one that is absurdly simple.  Omit the bacon to make it kosher.  You can add some warm, roasted walnuts at the end to make it more substantial. 

Butter Poached Fish.  The flavors in this meal belie the ease with which its prepared.  Serve with potatoes instead of noodles. 

Kale Caesar Salad.  No croutons = Passover-friendly.   

Duck with Red Wine Sauce and Cauliflower Two Ways.  Omit the brandy in the sauce and use potato starch in lieu of corn starch to make the red wine sauce Passover-friendly.  Both cauliflower dishes are kosher for Passover and should be made stat in any event because they rock.

Lamb Sausage Patties with Feta, Garlic and Mint. Fast, easy, delicious.  Not kosher, though.

Beef Stew in Red Wine Sauce.  While more of a winter-weather type meal, it wouldn't be unwelcome these days given the slight chill in the air that doesn't seem to want to beat it.  Leave out the bacon to keep it kosher.


Sometimes it's better to avoid the Passover-friendly facsimile of chametz-laden desserts and opt for things that were never intended to contain grains, such as ice cream, panna cotta, or pavlovas.  But sometimes you just want something cakey; flourless cakes work great for these purposes; Passover-izing other desserts will have a less than ideal effect on the texture, but it can be overlooked most of the time given the circumstances. A note on vanilla: some extracts contain grain alcohol, which is technically not kosher for passover.  It can either be omitted, or replaced with vanilla sugar, which is artificially flavored, and which is obviously not a match for pure vanilla, but hey, it's only eight days a year.)

This stuff is dangerous, but you'll be sorry if you don't make it

Matzoh Crack.  Just make this.  You won't be sorry.  Your ass may be. 

Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream.  The natural mint flavor is remarkable; far less sharp and aggressive than in commercial mint ice creams.

Frozen Yogurt with Figs and Honey.  Just great.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta.  A blank, tart, delicious canvas for a myriad of toppings.  Fruit is always a good bet on Passover.

Cocoa Brownies.  Replace the flour with five  tablespoons of matzoh cake meal.  The texture will suffer slightly, but it's not too bad.

Tonight is the first of two Seders, the meal at which we tell the story of the Jews' escape from slavery. I will be joining my family in Brooklyn for both. We always attempt to follow the Haggadah and tell the entire story, but by the time all is said an done we've hit the big-ticket items and proceeded to dinner.  Regardless, it's a time to celebrate family, to relax and enjoy the moment, to take it easy and drink a lot of wine.  

I hope you all have wonderful celebrations, wherever and for whatever they may be.

How and what are, or just are, you celebrating this weekend? 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Newport, RI: Tallulah on Thames

For our next, and what we’d presumed to be our last, dinner in Newport, Robbie, C&C and I decided to class it up a little bit.  We secured a late reservation at Tallulah onThames, just a few blocks down from where we’d dined the nightbefore.  The space was small but welcoming; dim, but not dark. Dining out as frequently as I do in New York, I kind of forget what it’s like to have space between my table and others.  Like actual, I don’t even have to pretend I can’t hear those two girls talking about their relationships even though I can hear every awkward word, space.  Not only was the space plentiful, but it was airy, simply outfitted and quite lovely. 

Since all of the entrees hovered in the mid-thirties range, we opted for the prix fixe menu, which allowed us to select an appetizer, entrée and dessert from the menu for $50, with supplemental charges for certain dishes. 

Botanica, 2009 Chenin Blanc
 We selected a lovely, very interesting bottle of South African Chenin Blanc – the waitress was apparently a very big fan and doesn’t get asked about it frequently, so she insisted we give it a try.  She did not lead us astray; it was awesome.  I was at first thrown off by the minerality of it, but was hugely converted after a few sips, and we drank far too much of it. 

Tallulah espouses the same farm-to-table sentiment that’s popped up nearly everywhere these days.  Which is not to say I don’t appreciate the movement – I love sitting down with confidence that my meal did not originate in a factory. 

Butter.  Obvs.

I tend to place a disproportionate weight on bread and butter when deciding whether I like a restaurant.  I prefer butter to olive oil (that vegan thing never stood a chance), and I think you can tell a lot about how seriously a restaurant treats its food by the butter – it should be room temperature, maybe on the cool side of room temperature, but it should never be cold, since it should spread easily. And I could tell from this butter that we were in for a good meal.  Sprinkled with fleur de sel, micro greens, and edible flowers, it was just fabulous.  This butter was, ironically, my jam. 

But bread and butter alone do not, unfortunately, a proper meal make.  Since this meal happened over a month ago and I neglected to take a picture of the menu, I am very fuzzy on what was actually consumed, but suffice it to say that everything was quite delicious.  I have a general idea, though, and some pathetic pictures, so here goes anyway.

Baby greens with apples, cheese and other stuff

I started with a baby greens salad with Apples, shallots and blue cheese.  Despite all the distraction in the plating, at its essence this salad was simple, balanced, and fresh. All of the flavors played off of one another and the freshness of the mache really shone through.  

Endives, frisee and beets beets beets
CF started with the other salad option, endives and frisee with beets.  She seemed to enjoy it quite a bit.  
Appetizer win
Robbie and CH went for the broccoli and cheddar veloute.  I am not a fan of cream-based soups, and thinking the veloute would be, if not, cream-based, quite heavy, I opted for the salad, and the second Rob's soup was poured I had serious food envy.  It was awesome.  The cheddar somehow seemed to contribute only flavor, giving a little bit of an edge to what would be an otherwise run-of-the-mill broccoli soup, but did not weigh down the veloute at all.  Rob and CH won the appetizer course.

For the mains, I had been considering the fluke but was told they'd run out.  So I opted instead for the cod, which was a wonderful fallback.  Served with brandade, olives, and a piquillo pepper puree, the fish was cooked fantastically - crispy skin veiling perfectly moist flesh.  Say what you will, call me gross even, but I love crispy fish skin, and I don't give a fuck.  

Robbie also went with the cod.  Typically, I'd be secretly (and, yes, selfishly) resentful that he hadn't gone with something different so that I could pick from his plate, but since the four of us had been eating from each other's plates all weekend, I knew I'd have a chance to taste a few different things.  
Risotto avec l'arc de courge musquée
CF went with the seasonal squash risotto, which was good but not mind-blowing, and plated far too preciously for my taste.

CH went for something far heartier - steak (I believe it was flank steak, perhaps?) cooked into a rich sauce.  Piled atop some seriously delicious fresh egg pappardelle, it was the lovechild of italian ragu and beef bourguignon.  I actually really liked the plating of this dish, and the portion was definitely appreciated more by the stomach than the eyes.

Ganache et al
Onto dessert we went.  Since it was Robbie's birthday the following week, the staff graciously put a candle in his dessert.  I don't recall what this dessert was, but I think it was a chocolate ganache with some other business going on.  It was fine, but not remarkable. 

Panna cotta spiked with awesome
What was, remarkable, however, was my coffee caramel panna cotta, with hazlenut crunch and "sweet milk espuma." This was just solid all around.  The delicious little toffee pieces, the little crunchies, reminiscent of the middle layer of the Carvel cakes of my youth, the sweet milk espuma (just call it foam, dude) - all delicious, and the bitterness of the coffee prevented all the sweet from creeping too close to saccharine.

The prices at Tallulah seem rather out of line with the rest of Newport.  The meal was by far our most expensive of the weekend, and from what I understand, the $50 prix fixe jumps significantly during the busy summer months.  While I think the artiness of the plating could have been dialed back a few notches, it did not obscure the fact that the food we were eating was pretty damn great.  

464 Thames St
Newport, RI
(401) 849-2433