Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Portland, Day 4 (The Great Portland Hike)

Wednesday mornings there is a big farmer's market in Monument Square in downtown Portland. Although we would be unable to buy a bunch of produce (one of our favorite things to do) we took the walk downtown to check it out.

We stopped by Arabica to get some toast that we'd spied on our first day in Portland. There was a regular variety and a rye cranberry orange variety that were both slathered with butter and excellent. After breakfast we ransacked the $1.00 book bin outside a bookstore leaving them with precious little remaining bad science fiction books and Arthurian texts. I'll leave it to you to decide which of us bought which genre.

Then we walked back through Monument Square where I took a picture of this statue. I wouldn't have bothered mentioning it but there was some guy who thought he was in the picture who kept lifting up his shirt because wouldn't it be hilarious if that was in my picture? Then as we passed he yelled, "Don't let it fool you, this city sucks!"

I see great things in this man's future.

After walking around a bit more we walked over to grab lunch at a place called The Front Room. This happened to be recommended by two of our Portland recommendation sources and just happened to be where we'd ended up, hungry and weary in the middle of our walk. Our recommendation givers are awesome. I hope they someday join forces to make an iPhone app to recommend Portland restaurants.

At The Front Room I got the salmon pastrami on black bread with capers, grain mustard, red onion and sour cream.

Jen ordered the fish chowder. Both were outstanding. I'm really glad we stumbled on this place and have moved over to my Portland recommendations. If you're at or around the East Promenade you should definitely check it out. Also they have a table and a chair in the bathroom so you can hang out in there and have a coffee after your meal if you so choose.

After lunch we headed down to check out the East Promenade with a little more attention before heading back through the city. We stopped off at the Shipyard Brewing Company to buy some beer and souvenirs before heading home. All told we walked about seven miles and were primed for what has become our regular mid afternoon vacation nap.

After our nap we headed out to The Great Lost Bear where we enjoyed a pair of Maine beers: the Sebago Runabout Red ale and the Sea Dog Blueberry Wheat Ale. Jen had the latter and I suspect that even with all the other merits of this stop Jen's father will be greatly disappointed in this choice.

Then, because we're losers, we followed the recommendation of someone on Foursquare who recommended we get the teriyaki mushrooms. This is something we would have never chosen otherwise but we followed the recommendation and they were great. Thanks, dude on Foursquare!

After drinks we headed to Bar Lola. Sadly we only realized how great the dinner options were after arriving or we would not have spoiled our appetite. They had a great prix fixe menu but we just ordered a few items off the regular menu and went with that.

We started with the applewood smoked duck breast with Morse's sauerkraut and mustard cream. These three tiny slices of meat were possibly the best duck I've ever had in my life.

Next we had the picked, fresh, and duckfat sauteed radishes with butter and sea salt. Jen, who thought I was crazy for wanting to order this, said that this was one of the best dishes she'd had all week. My mother, who is suspicious of radishes, would probably respectfully remain skeptical.

Later we shared Maine steamers with butter, bacon, and fresh oregano. Having grown up with steamers at every backyard cookout throughout my youth I think this was the first time I've ever had them where they weren't simply boiled and served with drawn butter. It was a novel experience and they were delicious but it seemed oddly foreign to me. Sort of like having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on artisanal caraway seed bread.

We also split the orecchiette with olive oil, pangritata and Portuguese sardines.

Our main course was the diver scallops with tarragon and lemon infused Israeli couscous. Everything about this was fantastic. We were drawn to this dish immediately even though we both have a mutually lukewarm feeling about tarragon. It paid off but by this time I could barely eat anything.

By this point I was done and Jen was on her own to enjoy the fresh cherry and rum clafoutis. She claims it was delicious even though she dislikes rum immensely.

Bar Lola is incredible. It's got a really nice menu, it's extremely inexpensive, and they have great prix fixe options that we did not partake in. My advice is this: do not eat a bunch of stuff before going there like we stupidly did. You'll be able to more fully enjoy their menu and you won't have to lie in your hotel room grabbing your belly and moaning like a dying banshee which has been stuck with a skewer.

That's all metaphorical, of course.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Portland, Day 3 (The Great Ferry Adventure)

Today we again had to cull through the hundreds of great recommendations and try to cram in as many as possible. That meant starting off with eating breakfast out, a meal we generally do not eat out. For me breakfast is usually a chore, a time in the morning to shovel some oatmeal down my gullet to get me enough energy to make it until lunch. I was willing to cast aside that strange belief and attempt to do the unthinkable: have breakfast at a restaurant.

The restaurant Hot Suppa! is located conveniently within just a few minutes walk from where we are staying. Contrary to what you would assume they only do two meals and one of them is not "suppa." Specializing in breakfast and lunch they offer a great menu of items for both meals.

Jen had the corned beef and hash with poached eggs and toast. It was delicious and the eggs may have been the most well-poached I've ever encountered. Bravo to whoever was responsible for them.

I had the seven grain porridge, the Fiddler's Green Farm Organic 7 Grain Porridge to be exact. In case you were confused. The seven grains in play were wheat, oats, corn, rice, millet, and barley. I don't think I've ever ordered porridge in a restaurant before. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've never had porridge in my life. I must say this was one of the tastiest bowls of anything I've ever eaten.

After breakfast we picked up some ingredients for a picnic lunch and took the ferry to Peaks Island.

On the island we rented some bicycles and then biked over to a nice area to have lunch. I didn't realize it until we were about to leave but Jen thoughtfully collected all of her trash in a convenient receptacle: my helmet! She did this without a thought or care in the world. It was very reminiscent of that time in Paris when she neatly disposed of the piece of paper containing a list of things I wanted to do.

While we bicycled along some people passed us going the other way. The woman stopped us and asked us if we knew of a cool place where there was a rocky beach and a cool view. We told her that we didn't know anything about the island and we were just visiting and she traveled on in the other direction. About ten feet later we stumbled upon a trail and explored it to find what she must have been looking for. We then began to creep around the beach hoping she wouldn't stumble upon us and think we were dirty liars.

After examining the cool stone sculptures we came across this sign hanging from the trees ahead. I find it shocking that anyone would invest the time in making such a sign rather than in cleaning up the mess. Needless to say we took the path to the left. Thanks, sign!

The tires of my bike screeched on the pavement as I passed this sign. I could have sworn it was pointing the way to an "Invisible Pie Shop" but I was very disappointed when I found out it said something all together different. An invisible pie shop would have been the best thing we have ever stumbled upon on vacation.

After getting off the ferry we passed this small building labeled as the Umbrella Cover Museum. Not the Umbrella Museum, mind you. The Umbrella Cover Museum, featuring umbrellas from 39 different countries. There aren't many times where I have trouble putting things into words but after taking a tour of this museum I'm really not sure what to say. I have no words. I can, however, list some facts about the museum:

1.) There is an R-Rated museum cover section.
2.) There is a game where you guess which umbrella cover is from Scotland.
3.) There is a part where the curator takes out an accordion, passes around lyrics and sings a song about how a smile can be your umbrella.
4.) The curator of the museum says that she put on a one-woman show of The Mikado.

The sign outside reads: You won't REALLY know unless you come in. No sign has ever been more accurate.

After taking the ferry back to the mainland we stopped in at Dry Dock Restaurant & Tavern to grab a drink and some food to tide us over until dinner. I ordered the clam cakes to see how they stacked up against the ones I'd grown up with in Rhode Island. They were good but, as you can see, they come out in cake form! In Rhode Island, for some unknown reason, it is typical to make a clam batter into a fried fritter and call that a "cake." I know this makes no sense but it is what I have grown accustomed to. So much so that I was surprised to see these things, which are clearly cakes, arrive. That being said they were good and similar in taste to the "cakes" I grew up with.

After that we went back to the Inn and slept for far longer than we'd planned. Maybe it was the sun on the island, Jen suspects they slipped something into our Allagash at the Dry Dock. At any rate we researched a few places for dinner until we found this cool place called Grace which was a restaurant built into an abandoned church. It looked too cool to pass up for dinner.

Here's a shot of the bar on the street-side wall against the stained glass windows. The food was great too. They started us off with some buttermilk bread (made like a quickbread, not a yeast-bread) and warned us that the butter contained chicken stock. I suspect it may have been chicken fact but either way it was delicious.

I had the seared lamb loin with roasted artichoke, hazelnuts, black olive oil, crispy ramps, spring garlic, maitake mushrooms and rosemary yogurt. Jen had the seared Atlantic cod with baby fennel, braised white beans, baby octopus, chorizo sausage, and roasted tomatoes.

For dessert Jen had the ice cream sandwiches which were a chef's selection of house-made ice cream and cookies. I had the rhubarb cheese cake which was a cheesecake mousse with rhubarb jam and cream cheese cake, poached rhubarb and rhubarb orange sorbet.

This is the view of the bar from the second floor where we were seated.

After dinner we had a twenty-five minute walk back to where we were staying which should be required when having such a meal. If we'd driven we would likely have gotten back to the Inn where we uncomfortably fell asleep. Instead we arrived back at the hotel and had worked off a tiny amount of the consumed calories, begun digesting our food, and were ready to sleep comfortably back at Fawlty Towers.

Perchance to dream . . . of Basil Fawlty.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Portland, Day 2 (Lobster Day)

Today we set out for a late breakfast before finding ourselves at the Old Port, again, in search of lunch. Today was going to be our opportunity to hit as many Maine classics as we could cram in. But first, Jen took the morning as an opportunity to open her birthday presents.

I got Jen a picture that I drew of an iPad. She got really excited when she saw this because I think she assumed that it is representative of an actual iPad that she will be receiving at a later date when they become available. That was awkward. I was just trying to give her that awesome picture I drew. I guess I'll have to see about reserving one for her now.

It's worth mentioning at this point that this is the lamp on my side of the bed. I'll leave it to your own imagination to figure out what's going on here. I have my own interpretation. I'll leave it at that.

We went to Gilbert's Chowder House for lunch and Jen had the fried clam strips.

I had the lobster roll. To me, foodwise, this isn't so much of a vacation as it is a return to what I grew up with. I ate lobster and fried clams almost exclusively through my youth and later cooked them at restaurants in Rhode Island as I began my career in the restaurant business. It is more comforting than anything else to have this food again. The lobster roll was very bare bones at Gilbert's. It was lobster on a roll. It didn't taste like there was any sort of mayonnaise or dressing at all. But it was lobster so it was still quite good.

The clam strips were also different than what I'm used to from growing up in Rhode Island. I prefer my native fried clam style a bit more than these actually. Now I just hope I can escape Maine before any locals find out that I said this because they will likely take offense.

Later we went to Two Lights State Park. Beforehand we went to the beach where Jen got to pose with an honest to goodness lighthouse!

Then we went into the park itself where I got to drink from a bubbler. That's right, a friggin' bubbler! One of the most stressful things about talking to people outside of New England is having to constantly check myself and make sure I call it a water fountain. Certainly this doesn't come up very often but the humiliation you feel from saying the word 'bubbler' to people not from New England as they stare at you, slack-jawed, as if you'd just announced your candidacy for President of Mars in 2025, is a humiliation strong enough to make sure you run the word 'bubbler' through your inner brain word filter before speaking. That's right, it's a bubbler, and I'm not afraid to say it any more!

Two Lights was pretty cool. The guy at the kiosk as we entered did not sell it very well though. He made sure to open up with the fact that there is no beach, no swimming, and no lighthouses. Then he complained about his manager that had not left him any maps to give us. He was very nice but he seemed to be giving us every opportunity to leave before being disappointed by any of this. In fact, he almost seemed to be pressuring us to leave. We ignored him and stayed. Even without all the things Two Lights did not have it was worth staying.

There was some debate about where to go to dinner but since we were there already we went to The Lobster Shack to keep with our theme of simple New England foods.

We got the lobster dinner with an extra lobster and grape nut pudding. We were going to go out for ice cream but how often do you see grape nut pudding on a menu?

I then gave Jen a lesson in how to crack open and eat a lobster. She was an excellent student and even got mad when I tried to help her out so I let her keep to it.

We got in pretty early. Earlier than dinner had begun the night before. With tomorrow's plan formulating, and nice weather on our side, it would be best for us to get a good night's sleep before heading out to tackle day three. Who knows what wondrous adventures await us?

Now, with the lobster-eating portion of the vacation behind us, we will be able to focus a little more on what remains in beautiful Portland.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Jen's Maine Birthday

Today was Jen's birthday so we set out from Rhode Island around 10:00 AM to head out on our great Maine adventure. It's a pretty short drive from my parents' house so we got to Maine around lunch time and drove straight to Duck Fat.

It was a rainy afternoon and we were ushered to the line ahead of several other grumpy line-waiters because there were only two of us. It was reminiscent of the time in Montreal where a similar thing happened.

And all because . . .

And not because . . .

We had a very french fry heavy lunch starting out with the simple duck fat french fries with aioli.

We teetered back and forth between the tuna melt and the BGT (Bacon, Goat Cheese, and Tomato) and opted for the latter. It was a fantastic choice but it wouldn't have been complete without . . .

. . . more french fries! In the form of duck fat poutine!

Before dinner we checked into the hotel and Jen marveled at the Fawlty Towers-esque passthroughs back at the Inn where we were staying.

Also we were greeted by a man whose name I forgot. Since I couldn't remember his name I dubbed him Henry David Thorough. Check in took about 45 minutes in which he gave us a huge list of parking rules, showed us maps, and gave us the names of everyone who had previously been, was currently on, and who would be on shift for the next week. This also included a vast treatise on how, when, and where to park in the area which may or may not have included the instruction: "If you see a little Asian lady, do not run her over." I'm glad he said something or else Jen and I would have likely made a heinous Maine faux pas. However, this did drastically change our vacation plans.

For dinner we went to Fore Street which, despite having a .BIZ domain name was an extraordinary restaurant. We had no reservations and despite the fact that we would have been able to walk right in to any other restaurant in town we ended up having to wait over an hour to get a seat. However, it was totally worth it.

Due to the low light conditions none of the pictures came out but we had the wood oven roasted Maine mussels, Atlantic sea scallops from Cape Cod, whole wild black sea bass from Rhode Island. For dessert Jen had the cheese plate with Blue Ledge Farm Riley's Coat from Vermont, Jasper Hill Farm Cloth Bound Aged Cheddar from Vermont, and the Berkshire Blue from Massachusetts.

Having eaten and drunk our way through four of the six New England states for Jen's birthday we returned to the Inn to pass out and let our bloat subside while we sort of watched Field of Dreams. Sort of.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grilling in the Rain

Yesterday I stopped by Home Depot and picked up a sweet butane torch. I've been tossing the idea around in my mind for some time now as an option to speed up the grill-starting process. Tonight I tested it for the first time and, I must say, it was a huge improvement. In the 90's when I worked the a hardwood fired grill at a restaurant I used to start the coals with our crème brulée torch and I remembered this being much easier than lighting tiny pieces of paper and starters with a small lighter. It turns out my memories were accurate.

The only downside is that the torch I bought is so powerful that it seems to send sparks flying all over my hands, arms, and chest as I try to light the hardwood. I think I may need to purchase a falconry glove before I start the grill the next time.

Jen had made a salad with the leftover grilled corn from the other night. I added some arugula to the salad. I think the ingredients are grilled corn, arugula, grape tomato, cilantro, avocado, lime juice, cayenne, paprika, olive oil, salt, pepper, and cilantro.

I had intended to grill some pork chops for dinner but given the fact that we're trying to clean out our fridge and pantry I elected to defrost some duck breast and grill that instead. I also cut up some mango slices and grilled them as an accompaniment.

For beer I had a Scarlet Lady Ale from Stoudt's Brewery in Adamstown, Pennsylvania. It was quite good. Her repute was not as ill as you would imagine.

The caramelized sugars in the grill marks of the mango reminded me of toasted marshmallow so we decided to make s'mores for dessert. There was still a little fire left on the coals so after a mere ten minutes we were able to achieve a light brown color on the marshmallows as seen above. Also we only had the tiniest skewers imaginable so my fingers were a similar hue after the toasting escapade.

It's also worth noting that it had started to rain between dinner and smores so we did all of this under and umbrella. Luckily the real downpour didn't start until we were safely back inside. The bad news is I lost a large chunk of my life to the loudest thunderclap I have ever heard.

So if this blog ends abruptly in the next few weeks you know what's to blame.