Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Atlantic Ocean, Irene, and Stomping Grounds Revisited

I just got back from a great trip to New England, visiting some old haunts from my time living in Boston, Providence and Vermont, as well as getting to know Portland a bit. For some strange reason, during all of my time in New England, I never set foot in Maine, which has always been a regret of mine. And these days, it seems like everyone I know is moving to one of the Portlands; I can totally agree with the desire to move to Oregon, but since I didn't know anything about what it's like to be in Maine, I thought I'd better find out. It was touristy this late summer, but beautiful, and ocean-sea-coast-y, and Portland itself has some pretty great restaurants (and, of course, its share of downright terrible ones: $50 for a gloppy crab roll and some fried clams? Gulp.). Initially, the idea in my head was to go to Hugo's in Portland or Arrows in Ogunquit, since these seem to be the great restaurants of Maine, and many of my fellow NECI alumni work in these places. But as the reality of just wanting to take it easy, nice and slow, not having to worry about making reservations anywhere, and not wanting to break the bank on a meal or two set in, we decided to not do too much planning, and fall into wherever we might fall in to. One great, great success was a bistro called Petite Jacqueline, with a head spinning foie gras terrine and solid bistro food everywhere you looked. Complete with the zinc bar, I was in heaven: steak tartare, the ripest tomato salad, beautiful cheese, etc. I can't say too much was unique to Portland, but give me a good Bistro, and you have my heart. And the $1.95 "domestic" beer down the street wasn't bad, either. 'Cause you see, they consider Allegash and the like domestic.

Problem is, I don't think I got a great feel for the character of Portland in the short amount of time I was there. Hurricane Irene moved in and pushed the flight out of Boston back a couple of days, but we thankfully made it to Vermont a day ahead of the storm and were able to go to American Flatbread, site of so many great meals for me: a nice, long sit with a beer by the bonfires in the lush valley, then kiln-fired pizza of the tastiest variety. This is a place where every morsel of food need not be described--a place where the convergence of atmosphere and food, done properly or, more importantly, with oodles of heart, makes the entire experience memorable.

We stayed in Vermont a couple more days with the storm delay, and this allowed me time to see some people I needed to catch up with. As the storm hit I met a former chef of mine in a bakery run by an old classmate; we chatted and drank coffee as the rain built up. From there, I made a visit to a dear friend who introduced me to the world of wine while I was at school in Vermont. He made a lovely dish of rabbit braised in cream and mustard, porcini risotto and roasted eggplant to go along with a couple great bottles of wine from the Loire Valley. We ate and caught up, watching the storm develop in a rather picturesque setting. From there I made a move to Burlington to look at the stormy Lake Champlain, thinking Champ would be enjoying the storm. If he was, we weren't able to see him, so as the worst of the storm hit, we made it back to the hotel and waited it out. The next morning greeted us calm and clear, but unfortunately, much of the damage was to come to those in Vermont, and became evident as we made the move down to Boston for the flight out: flooding like I've never seen before in the many valleys of Vermont; rivers running high, dirty and angry; bridges taken out and entire sections of road missing; farms and crops buried under water. Some people have been stranded without running water or power, homes ruined, for the past few days. It's devastating for sure, but the people of Vermont and all over New England are resilient. The rebuilding will be expensive, and will take time, but Vermonters will (and already have) come together to pull themselves out of the disaster.

All the extra time afforded a trip down to Providence for the evening, and while there, I was able to visit some old places I used to frequent: a great bar named The Wild Colonial, where I used to go with friends to be demolished at trivia, Thayer Street, where all the kids from Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design hang out, and just a general walk about of the entire east side hill of the city. The enjoyment of the extra time turned into a killing of the extra time, as we decided to forgo the hotel room that night as the flight out would happen at 5am, making the room a bit moot. This meant a midnight visit to Fenway Park in Boston, then a reluctant return to Logan airport to wait it all out. And take it from me: food options aren't all that great in an airport in the midnight to 5am stretch. Thus, a return to the nostalgia of Dunkin' Donuts: terrible, terrible coffee, but made so, so good when ordered "regular" (read: reg-yuu-lah in Beantown), where they add about a cup each of cream and sugar to the coffee, making it more milkshake-like than anything else. I used to drink this all the time out there, and kind of separate it in my head from coffee--Dunkin' Donuts is something all to its own, special in its own way.

The return to Chicago has found a very relaxed and (now, after a good night's sleep after skipping one) well-rested me, and I'm ready to dig my feet back into the midwestern soil and continue on my quest to eat the best food of all levels, be it the solid patty melt at the diner down the street, or 3-star cuisine way beyond haute (incidentally, while driving through Massachussetts, I heard a captivating interview with Alinea's Grant Achatz that reminded me that on all levels, we (should) cook and eat because we love food at it's most basic, sensual level). And of course, to continue on with the beloved Salon. This month, I'm busy with a side project, but am offering two Salon dates as of yet. I still have a couple seats open for this Saturday's Vegetarian Salon, and I'd love to see those seats filled--tickets available here. Otherwise, here's to New England, and a speedy recovery to those affected by Irene, and to the good food that brings us all together!