Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Weekend in New England (not by Barry Manilow)

It began like any other week here in Rhode Island. I worked during the day and communed with friends and colleagues in the evening. About Tuesday, I realized that I would be needed back here the following week (this week) so on a whim, I suggested to my foodie mother that she come spend the weekend with me here in Providence. After a bit of logistics we worked it out and her Friday to Monday plans were set. Clearing all of this on my home front was a touch uncomfortable but Lisa was ultimately OK with it. For the record, I miss Olivia terribly when we’re apart.

Now to the good stuff. Mom’s plane arrived uneventfully late Friday evening and we turned in rather quickly. Saturday morning we sprung up and we began our loosely sketched tour. Mom had heard from someone about the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Mass and she was intrigued so that was our first destination. New Bedford is like many little nooks along the New England coast; a seaside community with a rich history. At the museum visitor’s center we are greeted by an older woman in National Park Service attire. She is enthusiastic to talk about this place. She points out that she is descended from generations of whaling. We learn that in the mid 1800’s New Bedford was the richest city per capita in the world. Apparently, in the pre-petroleum era, whale oil was used in every part of society. From gear lube to tonics and elixirs, this coveted prize cost the world whale populations to be decimated. Over 300,000 whales were killed at the hands of the New Bedford crews who at the time had little appreciation of their worldly impact. Fortunately, the whaling eventually stopped leaving New Bedford etched in history as a pivotal role player in the emerging modern world.

Today a walk down the cobblestone streets is reminiscent of an earlier time. The waterfront district has undergone a major renovation and people are milling about. The Cobblestone Restaurant is the perfect place to start the day for breakfast. Their Portuguese heritage is reflected in the Linguica and Chorizo offerings on the menu. We each enjoyed a variation of Eggs Benedict with these two sausages as well as perfectly sautéed onions and peppers. The Hollandaise dripped lazily over the poached egg and onto another delicious surprise. The Portuguese bread was a sweet and tasty treat that perfectly balanced its sugary pleasure with a savory tone. I liked this place a lot because my mother and I were not the only ones enjoying the made to order Bloody Mary’s.

With full bellies we meandered about the shops and galleries for a short time and on into the museum. They’ve done a nice job with this. Maintained by the National Park Service since 1996, there is a great movie detailing the history of New Bedford whaling at the entrance. There are also several full whale skeletons on display to help illustrate their massive size including the 2 that are suspended in the main chamber as you enter. Impressive. After leaving we checked out the Seaman’s Bethel on the next block. Apparently the seamen of the time were often an unsavory lot who were known to spend their entire paycheck (after up to 5 years at sea) in just a few days. While the Quakers that founded New Bedford accepted this, they could not stand idly by and watch this debauchery without doing something. So in the true spirit of “If we build it, they will come”, they built the bethel as a place of worship for the sailors. It was a hit and often filled with those looking for salvation. Moby Dick author Herman Melville who spent some time in New Bedford has his pew marked with his name.

With New Bedford in our rear view mirror, we realize that lunch is on the horizon. Even though breakfast had been substantial, several hours of walking had consumed those calories and we were hankering for more. We pulled into Federal Hill around 2 PM. Federal Hill is a nationally recognized Providence destination known for its nearly 40 restaurants and family friendly environment. Chronicled in every major food publication and acclaimed by the New York Times and Washington Post, the restaurants that line each side of the street on “The Hill” must be explored by any foodie dropping in to Providence.

Constantino's is really two places. On one side of the courtyard is their wildly upscale deli. It would be quite impossible from me to describe the immensity of the selections available but suffice to say that it would rival any deli I’ve seen in any major city. I especially enjoyed watching the guy feeding meats into the grinder in the unending production of their different sausages. Lining the periphery of this bustling establishment are tables. Diners can sit and enjoy the musings of the kitchen that is nestled in the rear of the building. My mother and I enjoyed several small plates from their antipasto menu. The flavors of the cheeses and sausages could not have felt fresher or more welcome. Our scallops were perfectly seared and if I had closed my eyes, I could have imagined grilling these little buttery delights right on the back of the fishing boat from whence they were caught. Peppers stuffed with meats and cheeses and a prosciutto that was so buttery, it practically melted as it passed my lips. Eating at a place like this makes you never want to enter a conventional grocer again.

Grinding their own sausage behind the deli counter

On the other side of the courtyard, I later learned, is a more traditional restaurant belonging to Constantino’s. I must remember to explore that next time. Moving on, we’re headed back to our hotel. I’m feeling a nap coming on and I enjoy answering that call. So far our plan is working out nicely but we’re really just getting started.

Nap behind me, it’s now about 5 PM and Mom has yet to see a beach in “The Ocean State”. Off to Narragansett. I wrote about Narragansett a couple of weeks ago and our experience at “The Coast Guard House”. About a 20 minute drive from the hotel we find ourselves perched up on the rooftop deck enjoying a beverage with an amazing view of the beach activity below. Directly beneath the restaurant, waves can be heard crashing on the rocks and the songs of the seagulls add punctuation to the wave’s crescendo. The sun is still high enough to feel warmth yet low enough for the reds and yellows to be glowing on the faces in the crowd. Tipping back my light and crisp Narragansett Lager, it is the perfect summer afternoon. Mom seems thrilled too. We discussed the rest of our weekend and looked forward to the dinner ahead.

Ending the afternoon in Narragansett

Mention Al Forno Restaurant to any New Englander and their eyes widen. This place is well known. Much like “The Hill”, Al Forno has been written up by every prominent food author and critic from coast to coast. They have been talked about on the Food Network and the owners have been guest chefs on Emeril Live. How exciting that a town the size of Providence can have more than one well known food destination. We purposely arrived late (about 8:45). Since they do not take reservations, wait times are often an hour and a half. The restaurant is unmarked and will elude the casual passerby. So we give the young doorman our name and head to the bar. We peruse the menu and enjoy some wine. 30 minutes later we were seated in a lovely courtyard next to a relaxing fountain bubbling away. The style in Al Forno is difficult to describe. The bar has an elegant design yet the wait staff is young and casually dressed. The décor is somewhat formal, as though it could easily be a “men must wear a dinner jacket” kind of establishment but it is far from that. Our server was wearing black shorts and a T-shirt and I was the only man in sight in a coat. Perfectly unpretentious.

The menu is a true tribute to simple Italian cooking. As I heard the owners explaining to Emeril on TV, it is the pairing of the best and freshest ingredients with simple but perfected techniques that make their restaurant so special. That could not be more true. All of their pastas are made in house daily. I have said before in other posts, fresh pasta wins me over every time. While there were fantastic menu offerings such as rabbit, scallops and veal, I wanted a simple pasta dish. Worth noting by the way that while there are certainly some pricy things on the menus, all of the pasta dishes are priced at about 20 bucks. Not bad.

For an appetizer, I enjoyed a Roasted Beet and Avocado salad. If this salad was trying to be subtle, it failed miserably. The rich creaminess of the avocado was so perfect with the earthy and sweet beet that it bordered on decadent. I could have eaten this as an entrée. But fortunately I did not. Next came my Potato Gnocchi in a Sausage Ragu. The Gnocchi were like little pillows of freshness. Like the prosciutto from earlier, they practically melted in mouth. The ragu had the flavor of sausage and tomato but little else was necessary. Perhaps a slight herb undertone but no heavy or complex flavors often found in Italian fare. The liquid was almost a tomato broth with the sausage being harmoniously surrounded, suspended even. This was perfection. It is one of their award winning dishes and is also featured in their new cookbook, “On Top of Spaghetti”. My mom ordered a Cavatelli with Prosciutto and Yellow Peppers in a Cream Sauce. Of course I had to taste. Another amazing dish. Interesting that the flavors mentioned in both titles on the menu were pretty much the only predominant tastes found. Homogenous, not muddy. In my opinion, this may be one of the best Italian restaurants I’ve ever been in. Sure there’s always a place for a hot Italian sausage smothered in peppers and onions atop a bun and served in waxed paper but this day pays homage to elegant simplicity.

Well, that was our Saturday. From whaling to fine dining, we stayed busy. Sunday morning we toured the mansions of Newport and had a sidewalk café lunch as the sky opened up and sheets of rain began to fall. Still recovering from the previous day’s meals, I spent the afternoon feeling like a fat cat on the porch after consuming a tad too much milk. We certainly drank in what Providence and its surrounding communities had to offer in the limited amount of time we had. As I dropped my mother at the airport on Monday morning, she tells me what a wonderful time she had. Reluctantly, she will be back at her desk filling prescriptions in Baltimore in just a few hours.

Exploring the cliffs of Newport

I am excited to preview the next post by saying last night was another colleague’s house and a 5 course meal prepared in about and hour. I tried some new things that again panned out and I can’t wait to share my new Creamed Pepper Sauce as well as my rendition of the aforementioned Beet and Avocado Salad.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your writing style reminds me of Lawrence Sanders in the Archie McNally series- written in the first person with heavy emphasis on "la joie de vivre". Please make a point to stop by my office and grab a couple of them for upcoming planes and hotel rooms prior to your departure, even if you have not yet finished "River of Doubt". RFS