Jules eats world.

Monday, August 28, 2006

New England Tour

I love me some lobstah

Well, kids, I am waayyy behind on catching you up on my eating adventures. It may take me a few days to relate all of my lobster tales, not to mention a couple of meals at home in the Big Apple. Bear with me...

We set off from NYC in a rented car on a Friday afternoon, winding through hours of traffic -- the FDR, the Merritt Parkway, the wilds of Massachussetts. Finally we arrived at our first stop, Keene, NH, chez our friend the rabbi, his wife, and their two tots. Of food note -- Rachel's homemade challah (and challah French toast the following morning, appropriately heavenly) and their beautiful garden. The latter was stocked with horseradish and tomatoes and dill, oh my! And made me remember wistfully the gardens of my childhood in the suburbs. Three-and-a-half-year-old Reuben presided, telling me authoritatively, "it's not ready yet," when I checked on the ripeness of a tomatillo.

After a stop at a picnic-style bat mitzvah reception alongside a lake (mmm cupcakes), we headed eastward to Portland, ME. Our friends had made reservations at Street & Co. in the quaint downtown area, all cobblestone streets and people spilling out of bars. The place is so popular we couldn't get a seating until 9:45. The room is rustic, with exposed beams, but with an ambiance problem in the form of glaring spotlights, which they turned down on request. The meal started out promisingly: I had a "taste:" a slice of seared tuna with a mint rub in harissa sauce. And Mr. H chose the seasonal salad, a tasty and somewhat unusual composition including fennel. But the menu has multiple personalities: while the tastes, first courses and salads provide a more adventurous Mediterranean mix, the right side of the menu, with grilled courses and pastas, cleaves closely to the traditional New England formula. All of the main seafood dishes came with unexciting sides -- sauteed zucchini and summer squash and rice. My grilled sea scallops were well-prepared, but I was hoping for a little more zing after the tease of the first course.

That was about all we saw of Portland. The next morning we set out for Lebanon, ME, down winding country roads that led us to a charming little house alongside a lake -- the summer home of Mr. H's cousins. Our food experience there deserves mention because it's a great idea for any group summer lunch: a platter of veggies like cucumber, steamed asparagus, green beans, and potatoes; boiled shrimp; and hard-boiled eggs. Cousin Elaine made a delicious noodle kugel, a dish that always brings back great memories, and an eggplant caponata. Good conversation and company, a beautiful view of the lake, delicious food -- this was shaping up to be a great trip.

And finally, our last stop: York Harbor, ME, on the southern coast. The rocky coastline and grand homes overlooking the ocean were wild and charming all at the same time. And here, my friends, comes the lobster. Here are the spots we hit, in summary:

Fox's Seafood next to the Nubble Lighthouse: fresh, fresh lobster and friendly service. It was here that we were introduced to new shell lobster (which has just molted), which I found to be very sweet and tender. Mr. H and I devoured our lobsters and still felt compelled to try dessert. In my case, the homemade blueberry pie, with homemade ice cream was decadent, but Mr. H's brownie sundae beat my dessert in that department. (There are many homemade ice cream shops in the area, and Fox's owns Brown's ice cream close by.)

Chauncey Creek lobster pier: the best location of the trip, on a pier overlooking a river. We watched a fishing boat unload, and then watched one of the fishermen catch not one, but two striped bass that must have been 3 feet long. We ordered lunch in a shack on the pier, and the guy helping us plucked Mr. H's live lobster from a tank and put it in a bucket. We said goodbye before he headed to the pot. This hard shell lobster wasn't quite as good as at Fox's, but we loved the setting and I enjoyed my lobster roll.

The Oar House: just across the line in Portsmouth, NH, and about a 20-minute drive away from York. Portsmouth is an interesting little city, with what looks to be a recently-redone downtown with lots of pedestrians. It's also a working port, and the restaurant had both an indoor area and an outdoor patio overlooking the water. The view -- of bridges over the river, of moored ships -- was great. The food wasn't not quite as great, though the service was very friendly. Mr. H's grouper was pretty tasty; the seafood in my scampi was either not as fresh as it should have been, or more likely, a bit overcooked.

Food & Co.: a gourmet food shop and cafe in York, we had a very pleasant brunch outside here. Quite a tranquil spot.

Barnicle Billy's etc.: a popular spot in the Perkins Cove area of Ogunquit, this is the offshoot of the original Barnicle Billy's next door. The former is a more casual lobster shack; the latter, a sit-down place. Once again, I opted for the boiled lobster, and it was again a sweet new-shell. Most of the restaurants we'd been to had haddock on the menu, so Mr. H finally ordered it, and liked it -- a firm and meaty white fish. Afterwards we stopped at a soft-service ice cream place along Long Beach so I could satisfy my sweet tooth.

Stonewall Kitchen: the headquarters of the jams and sauces maker is headquarted in York, so deserves a mention as well. You've probably seen their products in gourmet grocery stores, and if you've been to the company stores, you know it's a taster's paradise. Pretzels and crackers are set out to sample the merchandise. The HQ store was large, and also housed a cafe, though we didn't eat there.

Norma's: a decent diner on Rt. 1 on the way back to 95, the principle merit for our purposes was that this place served an all-day breakfast.

Whew, a lot of eating over a relatively brief period of time (4 1/2 days). More on recent NYC restos soon....

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


(Note: I'm abandoning my cutesy-creative titles so posts on specific restaurants are easier to find.)

I walked into Falai on a beautiful Saturday night around 8pm, never expecting to actually score a table in the back garden, yet alone anywhere in the restaurant. The host/sommelier, an Italian guy wearing (surprise!) hip glasses with heavy black frames, was standing behind the counter. He eyed me. "How many will you be?" he asked. "Two," I said. "Two girls...?" he asked hopefully. Alas for him, no. Fortunately, he found it in his heart to offer us a table in the back garden, until a 9:15 reservation came in. It was a perfect arrangement, since my friend Hong Kong Hefner (it's his DJ name, no kidding) had to leave at that time to catch a movie.

Falai is a striking restaurant, design-wise, and its most prominent feature is the lack of color. The walls are white, the chairs are white, the floors are white -- you get the idea. In another restaurant, the sterility would be oppressive, but here, since the tables are close together and the service is warm, the feeling of intimacy survives. The back garden is lovely, though it's easy to forget you're actually outside; large, white umbrellas block all but a glimpse of the tenements above.

The look of the place is a clue that you're not in for a rustic Italian experience -- or even a now-typical, more refined New York Italian experience. Falai, in other words, is a less challenging companion to the adventurous cuisine of wd-50, less than a block away. My perfectly tender-chewy-crisp octopus starter was accompanied by candied celery and fried sage. Hong Kong Hef had a delicious pasta starter whose details I can't exactly remember, since I can't find a menu posted online anywhere. His main course was more memorable -- a special of seared tuna with walnut-citrus paste and fennel cream. The walnut paste reminded me, strangely enough, of a more delicious version of the Sabra-brand vegetarian "chopped liver" I buy at the supermarket. My branzino was good, but not quite to the level of the tuna. It was served atop a fava bean puree.

The meal wasn't cheap, about $65 pp with two glasses of wine and after tax and tip. But it seems to me that next time, when giving up the table isn't necessary, when I can linger over my a bottle of vino instead of a glass, on another cool evening in the garden -- it'll be even more worth it. Even if the Italiano didn't so much as wink at me on my way out.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Pure Food and Wine

It's hot outside. What better time to eat food that hasn't been heated over 118 degrees? That's right kids, it's time for a trip to the magical world of raw food, where nuts masquerade as cheese and "ice cream" is a figurative term. Restauranteurs Matthew Kenney and Sarma Malngailis opened Pure two years ago to try to elevate their chosen cuisine to a haute-r level.

The restaurant's design was a good place for them to start: it's a low-ceilinged, zen-lounge kind of space with red walls. The ambiance is soothing yet elegant, as if it's been vetted by a feng shui master. There's a large, attractive patio space in the back, but only a few brave souls sweated through their meals the day I visited. Pure has an extensive list of organic and biodynamic wines, and we ordered a decent bottle of rose followed by a very nice Riesling. The service was friendly and relaxed, and the staff didn't seem to mind that part of our group arrived late.

After surveying the tempting-looking plates arriving at neighboring tables, we made our selections: a chanterelle "ceviche" for me, which arrived in a martini glass, and Thai lettuce wraps for Mr. H -- the better choice of the two. For main courses, I chose the lasagna, much-touted in other reviews and on message boards. The still-crisp zucchini and thickly sliced tomatoes were layered with sweet sundried tomato sauce; pesto; and pine-nut "ricotta." Mr. H had the chili-lime tortilla wraps, which were simple yet tasty, with an avocado and tomato filling. He loved them.

He also looked forward to dessert. My Mr. H, very unlike myself, has an aversion to dairy for various reasons, and a vegan dessert is a special treat for him. Of course we had to order the dark chocolate layer cake, which arrived with chocolate "ice cream" and was as decadent as we could have hoped.

A tasty meal? Yes. A completely satisfying one? I'd have to say no, and I can't put my finger on exactly why. I ate at another of Matthew Kenney's ventures, a short-lived vegan place called Heirloom, maybe 6 months ago. There, I found the food bland, unable to stir excitement in my palate. It's not the idea of vegan; I've been to other vegan spots, like Gobo or Counter, that I found more satisfying, the flavors more full somehow. Pure was several steps above Heirloom, definitely. And I would go back. But who knows, maybe I just prefer 119 and up.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Hipsters Love 'Em Some Deer Heads


The hipsters were thick along the alley that day, slouched in expressive poses against the exposed brick. It was just another Sunday brunch rush at Freemans, a recently uber-trendy, now merely fashionable restaurant tucked away on the Lower East Side. Our group of four was greeted pleasantly enough by the tattooed host with requisite mussed hair, and we took up a post just outside the window to wait and wilt in the heat. Luckily we didn't wait long.

I've been to Freemans before, but I doubt I'll ever get used to its rustic decor. By "rustic," I mean dead animals -- lots of 'em. A deer head here, some antlers there, a goose frozen in flight. It's meant to be kitschy, presumably, and it is. Thankfully Freemans doesn't rely on decor and trendiness alone: the food, which could be described as rustic American, is solid.

Case in point: the white Cheddar cheese grits that accompanied my poached eggs, creamy and decadent, with grilled tomato on the side to cut the richness. Mr. H's smoked trout (with hardboiled eggs) was very tasty, especially with the accompanying spark of horseradish cream.

I'm not sure how willing I'd be to brave the hipster scrum on a typical weekend night, but on a weeknight, or a lazy weekend midday, I'll muss my hair, arch my eyebrow ironically, and try to blend in.