Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More Promises ;-)

Certain people have expressed an interest in the completion of my tales in Bennington, Vermont, and Williamstown, Massachusetts. Fear not! They're coming, since good things come to those who wait. But what with harassing my evil underwriter (... still don't understand why she's holding my house and life hostage ...), writing content for the gourmet market in White Plains, The Iron Tomato, beginning a new article for St. Charles Avenue magazine (yay!), and in-office work, my metaphorical plate has been rather full. Actually, my physical plates have been pretty full, too, now that I think about it, considering I went on an Applebees boneless buffalo wing kick ... and two weeks in and five pounds later, found out to my utter horror that each serving was 1764 calories!

More on this and other things later!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gratuitous Sexiness: That Which Restores the Good Benedict Name

Benedict Arnold may have been the most notorious traitor in American history, but his given name restores its honor in a heavenly mess of Hollandaise sauce, smoked, grilled, and charred fine Canadian bacon, split English muffin, and slick poached eggs. Blue Benn, you fabulous railcar diner, you were definitely worth the trip from Massachusetts into the "wilds" of Vermont.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Indian in the Mountains

In a small college town like Williamstown, whose hub is centered around two short but picturesque streets, you expect the food to be either rapturously amazing due to the rolling acres of farmland at the restaurants' disposal, or mediocre because they can be, since they'll still survive because people will eat there out of necessity. In my humble opinion, there's not too much in between.

Upon arrival in Williamstown, Massachusetts on Saturday, Boy and I were STARVING from our 4.5 hour drive, and ready to get down to business. Naturally, we headed to Spring Street. This was our destination of choice for two reasons - a) we'd passed it on our way to the hotel, so we knew where it was, and b) my little sister talked about eating on this street all the time.

With that in mind, we just drove down the street until we found parking (before our discovery that there was a big FREE parking lot at the end of the block ... more downtown areas should incorporate this!) and found ourselves in front of Spice Root, and Indian restaurant. The hilariously named Sushi Thai restaurant was right next store, and pad thai for $6.50 had its draws, but it'd been a while since I've had Indian and Boy loves the stuff ... so for once, I let him have his way.

We were catching the tail end of the lunch hours, and were excited to find that we made it for the weekend lunch buffet. $10.95 for all you can eat! And believe you me -- we can eat.

However, before we move forward, I have to issue a disclaimer here, lest you think me a total fool or bad at my job: I know literally NOTHING about Indian food. Zilch, zero, zip, nada. I don't know what anything is called, I barely know what it's supposed to taste like (except that when it's cooked by the mother of the author of BeerNOLA.com, it's one of the most amazing things EVER), and have no familiarity with the spices, flavors, or anything whatsoever to do with this particular type of ethnic cuisine. Anything I say after this is pretty much a guess, so I do apologize for my ignorance. But on this blog, I like to tell stories, so this is my (less descriptive than usual) story of my experience.

So, the place was small and cute, walls painted a slight variation of the Williams colors (apparently gold and purple; the restaurant's interior was a golden orange and deep violet), and cheerful lights strung up all over. A nice little bar stood in the far right corner, and a pint-size L-shaped buffet station was set up in the far left. There was a regular table up against the wall with desserts and cold items, a metal buffet station-type table with a hot water pool keeping the dishes heated, and another small table with a separated metal chafing dish.

I was happy to find that everything was clearly labeled, but disappointed that many items had run out. The selection was largely chicken in many different forms, one dish of lentils in some kind of sauce, and other vegetable dishes. There were no other types of meat, though. I waited for over an hour for the fabled Eggplant Fritters, but they were clearly not to be. Tandoori chicken didn't come out until halfway through the meal (I got up to pounce), and the nan was gone by the time my first plate was half empty.

Service was obviously not the best, and I found out from Williams College students that Spice Root actually has a reputation for really apathetic service. They were busy and understaffed, and I sat at the table with an empty goblet for about 10 minutes before getting up, walking to the bar, and getting my own water.

However, although service wasn't the greatest, after one plate, you could easily see that this wasn't a local favorite simply for lack of better options. The food was delicious! The chicken tikka masala, cut in generous chunks of juicy white meat, in a beautiful bright orange sauce, was addicting and fabulously good. Often, this dish is too spicy or too creamy, but the balance here was just great -- slightly creamy but not too rich, thick but not gloopy, and SO good. I couldn't get enough of this.

Rather than pairing this with nan and the regular, standard Basmati rice, they offered a garlic Basmati rice, chockful of peas, seasonings, some sort of fragrant bud (I didn't like these, though - it tasted like I was eating a candle), and of course, roasted garlic. This was the best rice I've ever had the pleasure of eating in an Indian restaurant.

The tandoori chicken was pretty standard, cut up in smaller more manageable chunks, sweet and slightly smoky, and the wings were nice and spicy, but the other two metal chafing dish things never materialized, so I can't say how good those other chicken dishes were.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the yellowy spinach dish with the mixed vegetables in it, a rich, earthy flavor to mix into my garlic rice. The texture of this was also really great in comparison to what I've had, like a thick but not chunky creamed dish that was subtly grainy. In fact, it was really similar to an awesome dish of creamed spinach, just flavored more exotically.

The mixed veggies in the reddish-orange sauce, I was less a fan of. The unidentified veggies in it were tangy and acidic, and the cauliflower was kind of squeaky, if that makes sense. Like hard, but in a shiny way. Also, if that makes any sense at all, either ... which I'm starting to question as I stare at those words.

The chicken in another form of masala sauce (or was it just tikka?) was also delicious, more tender, less creamy-tasting, and slightly spicier than the tikka masala, and that was also faboosh, but not as delightfully addicting as the tikka masala.

I was finishing up my third helping of garlic rice and chicken tikka masala when one of the servers came and plopped down two long, tall glasses of something orange. She let us know they were mango smoothies and on the house (probably because of the service earlier), which is normally really awesome news, except that at this point, we were super full! The mango "smoothie" seemed to be nothing but pureed perfectly ripe mango, which is tasty ... but very filling. Mango has a substantial heaviness and deep flavor to it, and so it was quite a shame that we were barely able to make a dent to the "smoothie."

Spice Root, poor service notwithstanding, was an excellent start to our time in Williamstown in the Berkshires, and we left there feeling fat and happy. For $11, you really can't get a better deal and *ahem* bigger portions. Who doesn't love a tasty lunch buffet? You don't feel half as bad as if you go to a dinner one (at least you can tell yourself you'll go for a walk after lunch and it may actually happen), and you eat a smaller dinner if you're a normal person and not me.

And now I'm going to conclude with something that may anger some people, but it must be said: Spice Root kicks the ass of Nirvana on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Their service may not have been as good, their selection not as wide, and they may not have the fried onion and pepper thingamabobs, but damn that chicken and garlic rice was amazing. I've never left a clean plate of Indian food before, where all the sauce was greedily sopped up, except at Spice Root. I may have to go back to visit my sister again soon.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Williamstown, Massachussets - a.k.a. Stars Hollow, Connecticut


Small-town life can either be considered depressing or idyllic. It used to have a kind of more negative connotation until the ever popular (and one of my favorite shows) Gilmore Girls showed how much character, individuality, and just how FUN living in a tiny town could be. I wondered to myself all those years watching that show where on earth such a cute, quirky town could be found in real life. Could something so utterly adorable simply be a figment of imagination?

Seems that it's not.

My baby sister has been attending a tiny college in the Berkshires of Massachusetts for the past couple of years called Williams. It's a little-known school to the masses, but among the elite of high education, it's a prestigious institution (ranked #1 consistently for liberal arts colleges in the U.S.) well known for its fun quirkiness, innate preppiness, and complete and total disregard for giving a damn that anyone that can't get in has no idea what a purple cow is.

But back to the point -- like I said, baby sis has been a student of this school nestled hidden in the hills for the past two years. However, for those two years, I've been living in New Orleans, and thus, heading to the obscure foothills on the corner of Mass and Vermont was never part of how I thought of spending my vacation days. Well, no longer! This Labor Day weekend past, I packed a tiny bag, Boy, and little Baxterbear and drove up to visit the mountain village of Williamstown, Massachusetts. Little did I know, I was about to find out that Stars Hollow DOES exist.

Beautiful mountainscapes met beautiful mountainscapes in gorgeous panorama, as puffy clouds in pure blue skies -- the brightest blue I've seen in a long while -- cast shadows over the leafy green valleys. Clean, pure air, local spring water that tasted crisp and fresh, and great farmhouses on rolling fields that were peppered with horses and cows all made me feel invigorated at the total purity of the land. This was Very Cool.

I know that latter statement may cause some confusion, as I'm always raving on and on about cities. Here's the thing -- I proclaim myself a city girl, and I have a deep affection for them, but I also do love the rural landscape in all its rustic simplicity and erstwhile unspoken glory. There's something just wonderful about the novelty of cleanliness, organic, natural smells, and colors more vivid than can be found in any man-made landscape. It makes you feel good and brings you back to a more domestic frame of reference, where husbandry is actually a career path, and time slows down. In short, I am both a country girl as well as a city girl, but despise the urban sprawl, generic commercialism, and depressing facades and Stepford architecture of suburbs. I am anything but a suburban queen.

Anyway, I just wanted to devote a post to the charming, idyllic village in the mountains of Massachusetts and its picturesque -- albeit also tiny -- downtown Main Street, USA, Spring Street.

This town is Williams College central, where all the students get their grub on in little boutique restaurants, the one bar, the beloved and cute Lickety Split ice cream shop, and the somehow funnily named Sushi Thai. Little coffee shops, a Williams College clothing and memorabilia shop, colonial New England style post office, and et cetera fill the picturesque storefronts, and a public parking lot at the end of the one-way street made going "downtown" stressless. There's also a Water Street that's similar as well, but as of this writing, I hadn't been there yet (I'm time-delaying this post since no one'll be reading this Labor Day weekend! And my lengthy Nautical Mile post is a good read ;).

Another cool thing about getting away to the rural small towns of New England, other than its obvious charm and novelty, is the presence of B&Bs. I always feel better about giving my money to the Mom & Pops of the world, since my stay makes a difference. I mean, yes, they're probably making good money as a successful bed and breakfast, but I can pretend to myself, at least, that I'm contributing to a family's welfare in return for a personal service well-rendered.

I got a great rate at the Clover Hill Farm, a beautiful horse boarding facility and farm at the top of a hill with 360 degree views of an absolutely stunning vista. Steep drops into lush fields with lustrous animals switching shining tails can be seen through every paddock rail surrounding the farm, and the village of mismatched ducks and geese is just adorable. There are also a few beagles in residence (they're a pet-friendly inn), but since we're not staying in the main house, I didn't get to meet them.

Anyway, they have a cash-only policy on their obviously prosperous farm (the main house is absolutely beautiful) and so I secured the apartment over the garage/wood-working shop for a night. It looks like a dormered cape, and has a wonderfully open floorplan from an open kitchen with breakfast bar into a large dining area and a living room that opens up off onto a raised deck. With a twin bed, a queen bed, and a sleeper in the living room, it sleeps five comfortably, and I just love the high ceilings. It's really a surprisingly considerable amount of space -- if I were single and living out here, I'd rent it out as an apartment!

No breakfast, like some of the other charming and also pet-friendly establishments in the area, and I opted for this farm since they said I could leave Baxter unattended in the room while we went out. Unfortunately, this made no difference since within half an hour of being there, in his panic at being left behind, he broke a vase and we were obliged to take him with us for the rest of the day -- thank God it was cool out today!

I'm not too concerned about not having a home-cooked breakfast; plans for our second and last day include a visit to someplace named the Apple Shack or something, where apple cider doughnuts are the specialty. Who needs eggs when you can have something that seasonal and novel? I mean, why not? Hiking up these hills are burning more calories than I've even attempted since moving back to the Northeast, and so I can justify further fattening my fat ass that way. And finally, I can exert my energies in scenery worth exerting it for.

Wholesome weekends, I've decided, are restorative and cute. Next time, though, doggy's staying home unless we bring the crate for Mr. Abandonment Issues!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: And We Venture West, or Seafood and Mosquitoes on the Water

One thing I have to concede is that hopping from neighborhood to neighborhood in search of the ideal abode really helps to open your eyes about a place. You see the good (houses you can't afford), the bad (houses you can afford), and the ugly (houses you can afford with gang symbols graffiti-ed onto your potential neighbor's house). But along with all the residential findings, the commercial findings can be rewarding in itself. By exhausting yourself during the househunt by not imposing too many geographic restrictions on desired properties, you really learn a lot about the hidden nooks and crannies in a place.

It was in such a manner that I learned of Freeport's Nautical Mile. Boy and I actually almost bought a gorgeous industrial style loft condo in the SpaHa-type downtown neighborhood in Freeport until we found out that the taxes would fuck us. I wasn't too put off by the demographics of the neighborhood, considering that we'd just moved from a place that was self-styled as the "Chocolate City" and held one of the highest murder rates in the country. I always felt safe there and think that these titles are all hooey.

But anyway, Boy had been working really hard over the past month or so in making sure we got the dream house we'd had our hearts set on. This place is seriously just perfect -- a contemporary loft master suite, soaring ceilings, recessed property, 8 skylights, patios galore, and a fully updated kitchen with custom oak cabinets. *Swoon.* And the icing on the cake? It's two blocks off the mouth of the Connetquot River in Idle Hour in Oakdale, Suffolk County, Long Island, the prestigious and exclusive area that used to be part of the Vanderbilt estate. So, umm, yeah, Boy's been stressed with pushing this deal through, since it's the opportunity of a lifetime.

But I digress, as I tend to do.

Point is, I decided that enough sulking was enough! We were getting our frickin house come hell or high water (which, judging by the flood insurance rates, is more likely than the former), and I was going to enjoy living on Long Island, damnit! Or at least give it a more fair go.

So as a reward for Boy's perseverence and to help bring down his stress levels, I decided to show my appreciation by way of a nice night out. I thought it'd be more adventuresome to venture away from home grounds, and it struck me that maybe instead of considering the jam-packed East End for entertainment and dining options, I should mayhaps head WEST.

As a native Suffolk County-er, this is revolutionary thinking.

I asked around my office, my creative director actually being a resident of the waterfront community of Freeport, and received some good recommendations. After Googling and searching the sites of said recommendations, I settled on J.C. Cove for dinner. The prices seemed reasonable, the food tasty, and where else better to get seafood than by the sea? After an hour mulling about waiting for our *ahem* "punctual" Dupree, Jared (yes, Jared was invited to date night. He is a vital part of our relationship; as my little sister says, he's "the fun part" lol), we set off for destinations unknown (... to Boy. I was keeping this a secret date.).

J.C. Cove is a bit far down the strip, almost to the end by the sightseeing piers -- which is a gorgeous sight all lit up in night-tinged cerulean blue in the evening. The restaurant was distinctive in that there was a totally popping bar with a big-screen TV outside playing some kind of sports game (I'm not activities-inclined, so I wouldn't know what was on ...), and hordes of people just swelling throughout the place. I valet-parked my car, a service the restaurant is so kind to offer, given the masses that were convening on the Nautical Mile, making parking sparse, and we hopped on out.

At first glance, the restaurant seemed awfully promising. The interior was clean, modern, with beautiful wide-planked walnut-stained floors, and plenty of candles. The breeze blew through the open doors that led to open-air dining on the waterfront deck that overlooked the inlet, and the docked boats were pristine and picturesque.

Naturally, we asked about sitting outdoors. I mean, why not? It was a beautiful day, this last weekend of summer, and the temperature was temperate and the humidity level very comfortable. Our hostess was obliged to inform us that it was "very buggy" out, which promptly made me agree to sit indoors. The boys went to hang out on the deck for a hot minute first, but ultimately decided that a table inside would probably be a good call.

Umm ... it wasn't.

We sat down at a nice table towards the front window of the restaurant, and Boy, on his big fancy date night, was promptly bitten all about the ankles and feet by what I'm convinced was an orderly flank of mosquitoes. They hovered, attacked, and retreated like militants at battle, swarming about our heads in a buzzing cloud of voracious demonspawn, divvying up me and Jared when taking breaks from poor Boy.

At first, I tried to ignore it. I really did. But after being bit on the arch of my foot, and my underarm, with the bumps swelling into big, hard nasties, I was seriously considering running back into the car and continuing my nice dinner in a sweatshirt. Instead, I decided I would chill out and eat some mini baguettes, which were dusted with flour, a little hard but not crunchy, but on the whole, somewhat nondescript. But I never turn down bread, and so I enjoyed.

That enjoyment wasn't long to last. Reaching up to move my hair out of my face, I pulled my hand back with a gruesome discovery. The tips of my fingers glistened a bright ruby red in the candlelight with blood. My blood. From my head. Possibly also from the bloated belly of a mosquito.

Now I've eaten at Jacques-imo's and thought it was worth the stray palmetto bug crawling up the walls. I've dined at places where a horsefly has bitten me on the nose mid-meal. I've also had meals at restaurants with the filthiest floors and gnats circled above your head like vultures. But never once, until last night, was I forced to flee to the bathroom in a panic because my forehead was covered in blood.

Now I'm not a one to try to run around and get as much free shit as possible, but when your customer asks for bug spray, you say no, and they let you know they are BLEEDING FROM THE HEAD due to pests in the restaurant, you comp them something. Just sayin'. But no. Our extremely rushed and unfriendly server offered no such thing, complained that he was itchy, too, and ran off yet again, eyes darting back and forth like someone on some kind of speed. Yeahhh, not exactly the type of service you'd expect at a nice seafood restaurant.

I was tempted to leave, but we were awfully hungry and the menu DID sound good, so we stayed, mosquitoes notwithstanding. I did end up eating my meal with my Tulane hoodie wrapped firmly around me, and this all would have been alright if the food made up for it. But it definitely fell short of my expectations, considering my standards for seafood were set in New Orleans. That's really all I need to say about that.

It's not to say that the food wasn't GOOD. It was. It just wasn't spectacular. In New Orleans, it would have been considered fair, whereas here on Long Island, it was considered excellent.

We started off with two appetizers, the fried scallop croquettes and the baked clams J.C. My first disappointment was that the baked clams were tiiiiiny. From seafood stores with prepared chopped baked clams, nice family Italian meals, and other lower-end restaurants I've been to on Long Island, I expected baked clams to be at least the size of a small oyster. These were, out of the shell, little bigger than a quarter each. Granted, there were about 10 of them, but I'd rather have 4 giant, juicy ones than 10 tiny, shrunken ones.

The flavor was good -- a white wine formed the base of the liquid steaming off the bottom of the plate, lemon already flavored the clams, and outside had a nice baked layer, and whole clams are always a pleasant surprise. But again, nothing to write home about.

Fried scallop croquettes were the next up. On a zigzag pattern of some type of remoulade-reminiscent sauce their panko-crusted crisp was delightful. The potatoey goodness was also all kinds of good. But the scallop part? I could barely detect it. So great -- there goes $12 for 3 crunchy potato sausages. I mean, they were tasty, but not very complex, imaginative, and certainly not worth what we paid for them.

I still had high hopes for my entree. I'd ordered what they called the Lump Crab Crusted Tilapia, which was served on a bed of saffron rice and topped with a creamy citrus buerre blanc. Sounds awesome, right?

Well, actually, it WAS pretty damn good! The fish was very, very fresh, which you can always taste, firm, perfectly cooked, beautifully mild, and the fillet was a generous, thick piece. The citrus beurre blanc was only slightly tinged with an orange zest-y flavor, but it was overall really nice, especially when accompanied by a forkful of fluffy yellow rice.

However, it wasn't perfect, nor as good as I'd imagined it. Like I said, the food didn't 100% redeem the uncomfortable service (by "rushed," I mean he asked us if we were ready to order 3 times within 7 minutes of sitting down) and the mosquitoes. The downsides to my meal were that
  1. the corn in the saffron rice was oddly off-putting, and, more importantly,
  2. that the tilapia was in fact, NOT encrusted with lump crab meat, thus making the naming of the dish a big fat FAIL.
Yes, there was a layer of crabmeat on top, but it was on top of HALF of the fish; not the entire fillet. This would have been forgivable, were it not for the fact that the layer was made of either completely shredded-beyond-recognition lump crab or, more plausibly, claw meat. It was presented as a soft rendition of your standard Red Lobster crabmeat stuffing, minus the insane amount of breadcrumbs that biscuit-totin' chain adds to their stuffed anything. What a shame.

Boy got the lobster ravioli, which was generously covered in large chunks of lobster in addition to the filled pasta, and in an orangey sauce that looked and -- surprise, surprise! -- tasted like lobster bisque. Creative, eh? Again, they took liberties with naming the dish; it was called a "roasted toamto fennel cream sauce."

That's all fine and everything, too, but Boy was disappointed in a few things:
  1. the pasta was obviously not house-made, which means ...
  2. the ravioli is obviously not as fresh as we're accustomed to.
  3. The loose lobster meat was chunks of claw meat, and
  4. this lobster meat was rather chewier than it should have been.
*Sigh.* This ain't no lobster ravioli topped with red and black caviar, Brennan's Bacco-style.

However, the big winner of the day was Jared's entree, the salmon. This was actually named accurately, going by "Hickory Roasted Wild Salmon." Delightfully charred with a subtly smoky salt edge to the char, and moist but firm, this was actually really delicious. The salmon was mild as salmon goes, and obviously fresh. The pureed sweet pea sauce was more asparagus-y than sweet peas-y, but it provided a nice shock of color against the peachy, rust-browned flesh of the fish. The vegetable base of the dish, consisting of mushrooms, corn, chopped asparagus, fingerling potatoes, and tomatoes, was superb as well, and the entire dish was well put-together from bite to bite.

We didn't stay for dessert or drinks, but instead made our way down to the end of the Nautical Mile, grabbing a very strong drink from extremely amply bosomed bartenders at some trendy spot on the water. This was really nice up until the time a mosquito got caught and squished by my watchband as it was siphoning blood out of my wrist. Ew.

Anyway, although dinner was not as good as I'd hoped, I feel more optimistic about life on the shore, since in reality, I now will be living on the shore. I'm not a middle-of-Long Islander -- I'll be making my home on the water, making a weekend mission out of exploring the haunts of other water-dwellers and making them my own. I'll find new spots with less outrageously priced drinks (seriously -- $24 for 3 mostly-ice drinks??), deeper flavored food, and maybe, just maybe, places that make their own pasta.

And why not? Life's different on the shore. And if all else fails, I'll be back in New Orleans for my wedding anniversary in May.