Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Down The Cape

We had a run of bad weather. The summer has been hot and sticky and dry, but we picked the week on the Cape when the weather changed and brought in torrential downpours and a night chill. For most of the week, the beach was out, which meant we had to spend our time doing other things (like eating).

On our drive to the Cape, we stopped at Sea Swirl in Mystic, Connecticut for fried food and ice-cream. I shared a scallop roll and a clam roll with my sister. Fried seafood doesn't really do it for me, but the scallops were sweet and delicious. The clams were mostly strips, not at all my bag. Onion rings were the frozen variety. Oh well. I should have stuck with my original philosophy: eat as much lobster as possible. But there was time for that.

Our second night in Harwich, we ate at Twenty-Eight Atlantic. We would eat there twice over the course of the week. The dining room is pretty if a notch too formal, with straight backed upholstered chairs and plush carpeting, but the view makes up for the stodgy appointments. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows face the Nantucket Sound, with its bobbing sailboats and sunfish. A foie gras appetizer--piped pate over duck bacon--was delicious if ordinary. On our second meal, I had the tartare trio (tuna, hamachi, salmon), tasty if non-experimental. The accoutrement was what you would expect with tartare: quail egg, tobiko. What was extraordinary was a fried rice cake (risotto-style) with a creamy interior, possessed of all the right flavors and textures. One night, I had seared scallops over mushroom ravioli. The ravioli was creamy and tasty, but the whole dish was a little too rich and I left it unfinished. My second evening's entree was shelled king crab legs, poached in butter and served with a corn and pea risotto. It was a harmony of salty and sweet but once again I felt assaulted by all the cream and butter and left some uneaten. Desserts were a disappointment and the only element that registered as worth discussing was a basil sorbet, as clean and fresh as August basil itself.

My first gray day found me in downtown Chatham, where I fought my way in to the Chatham Squire, a place I last visited in 1998. I have no recollection of my earlier visit but this time around, I found the place charming enough. I shared a solid lobster roll with my sister (just enough lobster, just enough mayonnaise) and ate my way through a half a dozen raw oysters (salty, briny, perfect) and a crock of onion soup. The Chatham Squire provides fish and comfort and I wasn't looking for much else.

That night, we drove to Orleans to a place called the Lobster Claw, where I enjoyed my first--and only--bona fide clam bake: 1.25 lb. lobster, steamer clams in broth and drawn butter, corn on the cob, and French fries. The ambiance, full of fish netting and decaying buoys, was nothing to marvel at, but the lobster sang. And I had forgotten, in the offseason, how much I love those slimy steamer clams, with their grit and their goo. My father deemed his full-bellied fried clams the best of the trip (he had four separate incarnations), a triumph in itself.

It rained buckets on Monday and it was difficult to get through the wet weather, but we went to Orleans for dinner at Joe's Beach Road Bar & Grille. The best thing about Joe's is their stellar wine list, which is aggressively underpriced and surprisingly comprehensive (for the Cape, I mean). We drank a bottle of Kistler 'Les Noisetiers' for under a hundred clams, but that didn't make up for my undersalted frog's legs or my overcooked seafood pasta (lobster, shrimp, and scallops, but who wants to eat chewy lobster, anyway?). Rumor has it that Joe's slashes their prices on all bottles by fifty percent in the month of October, so maybe the place is better for a bar bottle and a side salad.

On another rainy afternoon, we drove to Wellfleet and ate lunch at Bookstore & Restaurant, a fitting name that describes exactly what this establishment is. As for the restaurant part, it was decidedly New England, with wooden tables and nondescript brown carpeting and valances above the windows that looked out onto Wellfleet Harbor. When in Wellfleet, one must eat local oysters and so I did, another half dozen. But the true star of lunch was local littleneck clams steamed in wine, garlic, and butter, and served with a half loaf of crunchy white bread. We asked for two extra servings of bread and still made no dent on the pool of butter and broth at our bowl's bottom. Alas. Bookstore & Restaurant has a bookstore, too, filled with ancient copies of books you've never heard of, as well as some you have. I stumbled upon a second edition of Emily Post's Etiquette and brought it back to Harwich.

The next day, I drove all the way to the end of the Cape, to Provincetown, a good hour from where we were staying. We wandered into Pepe's Wharf Restaurant and I found myself a perfect plate of linguine with littleneck clams. The sauce, though buttery and full of garlic, wasn't quite as spectacular as my lunch broth at Bookstore & Restaurant. My clams were still delicious, and anyway, the whole meal was redeemed by my sisters' joint order, two giant pork meatballs sitting in a sea of fresh tomato sauce and cheese. We needed extra bread for that, too.

That evening, we tried to get into the Brewster Fish House, which doesn't accept reservations, but a rude hostess sent me away. Next door, at the Brewster Chowder House, I found solace over bacony stuffed littlenecks and a plate of shrimp scampi that exceeded my mediocre expectations. There's nothing fancy about the Chowder House, which is part of its charm. The menu prices are written in by hand and the focus is on simple meat and fish. The restaurant looked like an old Victorian home that had been haphazardly redone. Old flowered wallpaper still clung to the walls, as did antique mirrors. It bore an unsettling resemblance to the house in Psycho, but we managed to leave the property unscathed.

By Thursday, we could see the sun again, so we went to Nauset Beach, where there had been warnings of Great White sightings. Nauset has its own clam shack, Liam's, and we spent the better part of our afternoon waiting in the Liam's line. I was rewarded with a monstrous lobster roll (1/2 lb. of meat, the sign said) and delicate, beer-battered onion rings. My watermelon freeze, one of my favorites up in northern Massachusetts, was too sweet and I drank only a few sips. Now, about that lobster roll: It was too big. I know some people would argue that more lobster is better lobster, but this sandwich was hard to eat and the pieces of claw were completely intact. I felt guilty tossing some of it away, but I had no choice. As far as clam shacks go, Liam's was fine, if a little too expensive. We should have done what neighboring beachgoers were doing. They had set up two grills and coleman stoves with boiling water and were making their own lobster lunch.

For our last Cape dinner, we went to the Academy Ocean Grille in Orleans, where I had my final clams for the week. These ones were littlenecks stuffed with breadcrumbs and served in a thick, bready broth. In clam world, it was the best of both. My pork loin was impossibly tender and matched with fresh, sweet corn, cut off the cob. I skipped the wan and overcooked green beans, but I did order dessert, a sticky toffee pudding that demanded my full attention. It was a fitting farewell.

Sea Swirl Seafood Restaurant
30 Williams Avenue
Mystic, CT 06355

Twenty-Eight Atlantic
2173 Massachusetts 28
Harwich, MA 02645

Chatham Squire
487 Main Street
Chatham, MA 02633

The Lobster Claw
52 Cranberry Highway
Orleans, MA 02653

Joe's Beach Road Bar & Grille
5 Beach Road
Orleans, MA 02643

Bookstore & Restaurant
50 Kendrick Avenue
Wellfleet, MA 02667

Pepe's Wharf Restaurant
371 Commercial Street
Provincetown, MA 02657

Brewster Inn & Chowder House
1993 Main Street
Brewster, MA 02631

Liam's At Nauset Beach
4 Nauset Beach
Orleans, MA 02653

Academy Ocean Grille
2 Academy Place
Orleans, MA 02653

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Chicken Little

Somehow, my friends and I miraculously missed the line at Pies 'N Thighs last night. It helps to know the people who make the chicken. As it was my first time at this famed establishment, the group suggested I order the Fried Chicken Box, a three-piece fried set (what pieces you get seem dictated by chance), which comes with a buttery biscuit and choice of one side. Chance fell in my favor: I ended up with two thighs and a bone-in breast. The exterior of PNT chicken is pretty much crispy chicken heaven. New York is no groundbreaker when it comes to the stuff, but no matter. Any southern food worshipper can get a fix in Billyburg.

The sides? The sides were fine. Macaroni and cheese was a slight disappointment, with a grainy and broken cream sauce. My watermelon and cucumber salad was assaulted with a little too much mint, an assertive flavor that tends towards the vegetal in excess. Deep-fried zucchini was the perfect mix of savory and sweet, enclosed in a thin and delicate batter and dressed with honey. Biscuits, if you like that sort of thing, were a standout, too. "These are the real thing," a co-eater exclaimed. It's all about the butter. The other ladies ordered the chicken on a biscuit, one white breast with a hit of spice served in the middle of one of those buttery biscuits and topped with honey or maple syrup (it was hard to tell which). The biscuit meal is less food than the three piece and less money, too, and if it hadn't been my maiden voyage, I may have gone down that road, too.

My watermelon agua fresca proved the perfect respite from the spicy Frank's Red Hot that came drizzled atop my thighs. But what rounded out my meal completely was that final piece, a sour cherry hand pie, which is a polite way of saying that it was deep-fried. Call it a turnover, call it a slice, call it whatever you like. What it was, in its simplicity and brilliance, was a sour cherry pocket doused in hot oil and topped with powdered sugar. What better way to bid adieu to cherry season and to summer?

Pies 'N Thighs
166 South 4th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Second City

I took my first trip to Chicago to accompany my sisters to Lollapalooza, a three-day festival held this past weekend in Grant Park. The food at this year's Lolla deserves a nod; local restaurants were asked to set up shop in the festival's two giant food courts, which made eating at the show less disgusting than usual. Graham Elliot served lobster corn dogs and truffled popcorn, but we skipped those decadences in favor of watermelon gazpacho, as good as you would expect from the tatted, roly-poly chef. At Blue 13, we grabbed perfectly decent pork belly sliders, which we followed with Mexican corn and a pork belly tostada from Big Star. There were plenty of choices, but nothing came cheap; a modest lunch for three rang in at over fifty bucks.

But nevermind. The weekend's most successful culinary adventures didn't begin or end on the concert grounds. Our first night, we trekked across the Chicago River to Blackbird, Paul Kahan's minimalist spot. An amuse bouche of smoked sturgeon left me breathless, as did my appetizer of pitch-perfect sweetbreads. They were at once crunchy and soft, salty and sweet, paired with an unexpectedly delicious (and not at all weird) combination of pickled lime and flash-fried chocolate. The suckling pig worked, too, as did the duck liver pate, smoky like good southern barbecue. Even an endive salad, presented with a runny egg in a potato gaufrette and then dissembled table side, showed the majesty of simple things done well.

We waited over an hour for our entrees, a misstep the kitchen acknowledged with a midcourse of seared halibut, a fine example of the fish in all its glory. When my entree finally did arrive, it was a tad disappointing; my quail was unexceptional and the duck my sister ordered was by the book. We all agreed that entrees had been the weakest aspect of the night. We ordered two desserts and received four for our trouble and these were savory, sweet, crunchy, soft, and everything in between. The best, a coconut cake with passion fruit, disappeared from my sister's plate before the rest of us had time to dig more than one spoon in.

The next afternoon, I convinced our group to take a cab to the outer reaches of Roscoe Village, where there's this hot dog joint that everyone agrees is a must-see: Hot Doug's. Must-wait is more like it; the line progressed at a snail's pace and we waited two hours for our dogs, Chicago-style. But it was worth the wait. Chicago-style means a poppy seed bun, celery salt, green relish, onion, a pickle spear, mustard, and probably other elements that I'm forgetting. The vienna standard was fine on its own, but we got fancy and ordered a bratwurst and some other types of sausage, which came grilled and split with all the same accoutrement. The sausages' flavor was top-notch and even the corn dog--never my favorite--was the best of its breed. Duck fat French fries are only served Fridays and Saturdays, so keep this in mind if you're thinking of doing the dog-waiting thing. It's worth the extra calories.

Saturday night found us in Chinatown at Lao Beijing. Chicago's Chinatown is tiny by comparison to other metropolitan enclaves, but it still boasts great eats. The back alley that is Archer Street is basically a Chinese mall, studded with bubble tea joints, dim sum restaurants, and novelty stores. Lao Beijing is the third in a restaurant trilogy owned and run by Chef Tony Hu, this one serving food from the Beijing province. We started with chewy homemade noodles and pork. The texture won me over, even if the notably bland sauce didn't. It was no match, however, for our beef in garlic sauce, which came next, covered in a spicy sauce and adorned with wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and peppers. Tony's special dumplings look more like giant pigs in blanket (and taste like them, too). The cylindrical tubes of pork came sheathed in delicious and addictive dough. And while we're on the topic of dough, there was fried dough, simply called, "Fried Dough, Northern Style." It was sheets upon sheets of crispy fried dough, savory and served with two different chili sauces. It put every American incarnation of the stuff to shame.

We had pork and cabbage dumplings, too, as well as a chive cake that failed to resonate. The Chinese couple sharing our table laughed at our gluttony, but we had enough food for another meal. We did, however, regret not ordering the gorgeous bok choy and mushrooms enjoyed by our tablemates. Alas. Next time.

Caught in the rain on Sunday afternoon, we braved the half-hour wait at Mindy's Hot Chocolate in Wicker Park (Chicago's version of Park Slope) and allowed our cheery server to upsell us donuts with raspberry compote while we awaited our meals. But wait--before the food came the hot chocolate. Hot Chocolate serves four varieties: milk, dark, Mexican, and Chai. I opted for dark, the closest to straight melted chocolate. My sisters ordered milk, which came with a heavy hand of caramel and was a notch too sweet for my palate. J's Mexican was spicy and sweet and gone before we looked twice. Each mug came with a homemade marshmallow on the side. By the time my open-faced BLT arrived, I could have called it a day, but I soldiered on, eating my way through heirloom tomatoes, market arugula, local bacon, two sunny-side-up eggs, homemade focaccia (Hot Chocolate makes all of their own breads) and aioli. Brunch isn't my thing, but this version won me over, albeit temporarily.

Our final culinary adventure was a trip to Pilsen, Chicago's Mexican neighborhood. In Pilsen, we stopped off at Nuevo Leon, an institution since 1962. Women in traditional costume brought pickled carrots and jalapenos, fresh chips and salsa, and tiny bowls of chicken soup with stewed drumsticks. An appetizer of taquitos proved heartier than advertised, five open-faced tacos topped with marinated skirt steak, onions, and cilantro. I didn't really need the chorizo tacos afterwards, but food isn't always about need. Those tacos--fatty and served with the traditional American set of tomato, iceberg lettuce, and onion--were equally tasty, though I couldn't finish my plate. Neither could my sister, who had opted for the chorizo tostadas, crispy corn shells with refried beans, meat, and the same set of veggies. We drank our Jarritos (lime, pineapple, and grapefruit) and then decamped for the El. I was impressed by the city's culinary breadth and depth. It's no wonder they call it the Second City.

Graham Elliot
217 West Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60654

Blue 13 Restaurant
416 West Ontario Street
Chicago, IL 60654

Big Star
1531 North Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622

619 West Randolph
Chicago, IL 60661

Hot Doug's
3324 North California Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618

Lao Beijing
2138 South Archer Avenue
Chicago, IL 60616

Mindy's Hot Chocolate
1747 North Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647

Nuevo Leon
1515 West 18th Street
Chicago, IL 60616

Monday, August 2, 2010

Northern Exposure

I home for the weekend, up to the northern reaches of Massachusetts, where the ocean water still isn't warm enough to swim in, even in August. The food in my hometown is generally unimpressive, ranging from greasy pub fare to overpriced seafood. What the locals call fine dining I call Sysco-supported agriculture. You heard it here first.

But my best friend is dating a chef now, and even though said chef works at an equally ennui-inspiring Italian joint, he seems to know a thing or two about food. That means that my best friend, who really has no interest in food beyond her corporeal need for it, has suddenly found herself itching for haute cuisine. "I want to eat something that doesn't disappoint me," she said, so I searched the internet for something--anything--that would fit the wide criteria.

I stumbled upon Mombo in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which opened two months ago and is still showing some signs of growing pains. The restaurant itself is a sight to behold, a Colonial building tucked into Portsmouth's prestigious Strawberry Banke. The front porch resembles that of an actual home and the wood has been painted a quaint cream. The dining chairs are antique replicas made from dark wood and the room is raftered and equipped with a functional fireplace. I imagine it's lovely in winter, but even in summer, my view from a corner table faced a shingled home and leaning wildflowers and a triangle of blue Atlantic. The bar is minimalist, boasting only a handful of spirits, and the outdoor space in back, covered by a white tent, is a brick patio with cast iron furniture and one small fountain. The cozy atmosphere can't really be matched in even the oldest and coolest New York haunt. I was hoping the food would match.

First, the wine list: underwhelming, but given my surroundings, I was happy to find a perfectly drinkable Saint Emilion on the list. The chef's tasting menu was a mere $55 for five courses, a New York steal. We bought in. Our first course came in white porcelain mugs, chilled melon and heirloom tomato soup with a fiery finish of ground cumin. Our second courses were both different. L. had duck breast carpaccio topped with a poached egg and accented with arugula and green zebra tomatoes; I had seared yellowfin tuna with fresh peaches and black truffles. The tuna took the prize. Next came country pate with spicy yellow mustard, toast, and cornichon. It was L.'s first pate and she ate the whole thing. I felt like a proud parent, having opened the doors to offal. Cod came next, a fat fillet (clearly over five ounces and topped with a crispy sheath of skin) over black trumpet mushrooms and overcooked potato spaetzle, a rare misstep. The fillet came with fatty cod cheeks over black olives, cubed apples, and Marcona almonds. I had been hoping for a proper meat course, or at least a one-and-one, and I must admit I was a little disappointed. But even as dessert arrived, I knew I was very full.

Dessert was the same for both of us and I felt a little cheated with the lack of variety, but for $55, who could complain? We each received pre-dessert ice-cream sodas spiked with bourbon in tiny glasses with cocktail straws, a precursor to our blueberry cakes, cinnamon ice-cream, and grilled peaches. We left and unbuttoned our pants in the parking lot. It is refreshing to see seasonal cuisine arriving in New England, even if they are a few years behind. I wonder what fall will bring.

Today, I crossed back into the city and hit up another local Bosnian restaurant, Ukus, for cabbage pie and cevapi. Cabbage pie is basically cooked cabbage in delicious puff pastry. One piece could feed five. Why we thought we needed a 12-sausage order of cevapi remains a mystery. Our salad came with bright red tomatoes ('tis the season) and a salty, crumbly cheese that tasted like ricotta salata. Cevapi came with a large, puffy, and warm pita on the side, along with the traditional condiments of chopped onion, red pepper paste, and some kind of thick cream cheese. I might have dreams about that cabbage pie. Luckily, Ukus is right across the street.

66 Marcy Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801

42-08 30th Avenue
Astoria, NY 11103