Sunday, May 25, 2008

Rhode Warrior

When you think of interesting places to go, Rhode Island probably doesn't immediately come to mind. It's super-small, wedged weirdly between Connecticut and Massachusetts, and takes like an hour to drive all the way across - the long way. And yet somehow Noe and I ended up spending the majority of our weekend in the "ocean state."

It all started on Saturday when we wanted to check out something new but still be outside (we had great weather here this weekend). We eventually decided to drive up toward Providence and check out the Roger Williams Park Zoo.

First of all, I know better than to go to the zoo on a Saturday afternoon. I may like zoos, but I don't particularly like children (especially large numbers of them at one time) and most zoos just happen to be crawling with kids on weekends. But I obviously wasn't thinking clearly and we spent a good portion of the afternoon dodging errant strollers.

(A quick note on strollers - what happened to the strollers that were around when I was a kid? The ones that were essentially one piece of cloth attached to some wheels and handles and folded up like an umbrella? They were also about the size of an umbrella. Strollers today are apparently gigantic hard plastic things with more storage space than my Ford Taurus. Seriously, these things wouldn't fit through your average grocery check-out lane. Are they really necessary?)

Anyway, aside from throngs of screaming children - one of which I'm pretty sure had chicken pox and should NOT have been out in public - the zoo was all right. Noe and I were a little disappointed - we both really like the Toledo Zoo in Ohio, and Noe is partial to the Indianapolis Zoo while I have a serious love affair with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Roger Williams Park Zoo felt tiny and cramped - the spaces to view the animals were small and somewhat enclosed, unlike the nice wide walking paths of the aforementioned zoos.

Also, the animal selection was a bit disappointing. There were three giraffes and a couple elephants, but no big cats (save one snow leopard) or polar bears, my two favorite zoo species. Noe felt there was a lack of monkeys, although the few we saw were pretty active. The most amusing part of the afternoon was a tree kangaroo - a smallish, sweet-faced animal - who climbed up in a tree and wouldn't come down and hissed violently at the handler that tried to coax her to the ground.

After the zoo, we decided to drive a little farther north and actually head into Providence itself. Providence is sort of weird - it feels kind of squished into it's parcel of land near the highway - but it's a pretty cool little city, Brown University has a beautiful campus, and the area around the capital building has been fixed up in a way that reminds me of the Canal Walk in Indianapolis. We also noticed a lot of good-looking restaurants we want to go back and try (although on this trip we had to satisfy Noe's sweet tooth so we just went to the Cheesecake Factory). I'm anxious to go back to Providence in the evening, grab a nice dinner and see the WaterFire exhibit all lit up.

On our way back to Connecticut, we pulled off 95 to fill up the gas tank and drove the back way home. When we drove through Westerly, RI - the town right next to the CT border - we noticed an art show in the town park. Since we had an even more gorgeous day on our hands today (definitely mid-70's) we went back to Westerly to check it out.

The Virtu Art festival in Wilcox Park was small (well, anything is small compared to the Ann Arbor Art Fairs, which are a total madhouse) but we saw some quality art. My personal favorites were a series of 8x8 photographic prints of strikingly-colored fruits and vegetables on black backgrounds. The artist, Charles E. Hull, was selling them for a very reasonable price. (View them here: I didn't purchase them today, but I may try to order them or catch him at another local art show - I want these for my kitchen!

After poking around the art show, we hit one of the local cafes for lunch. The Prime Time Cafe has a nice location overlooking the Pawcatuck River (it's actually in Pawcatuck, CT rather than Westerly, RI - the two towns run into each other).

Noe enjoyed his grilled "Luhan" sandwich - smoked turkey, bacon, mozerella, and tomatoes on the house-made bread - although he said they may have put too much butter on the bread before putting it on the grill. My pan-sauteed goat cheese salad was a little bit disappointing. The cheese was great - fried golden on the outside and warm and delicious on the inside - but the salad it came on could have been better. For one thing, I would have gone with thin slices of apples rather than huge cubes. Also, the apples were kind of grainy and the variety they chose was too mild - a more tart apple, such as a granny smith, would have worked better. The toasted walnuts were a little burned, and I was somewhat put off by the appearance of tomatoes in this salad - they didn't go well with the other flavors at all.

Service was slow - the restaurant should have staffed appropriately with an event in town - but our server was pleasant and helpful. I would be interested in giving this cafe another go, perhaps for breakfast or brunch, before I decide how I feel about it. And thus ended our second afternoon in Rhode Island, a place we never really thought about going but will certainly be heading back to in the future.

On a separate note: I hope everybody is having a good holiday weekend, and be on the lookout for some hockey blogging this week. Sorry to those of you who prefer my non-sports blogs - my team and my second-favorite team are facing off in the Stanley Cup finals, and I can't ignore it any longer. Go Wings!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

I'm NOT drinking any fucking merlot!

OK, so the title of this post is a lie. I will drink Merlot, though it's generally not the first wine varietal I would gravitate toward. The title comes from the fact that I watched Sideways the other night, because I have been on a vineyard kick lately. Unfortunately, since I don't see any trips to California (or France like Julie and Matt) in the near future, I've made do with Connecticut vineyards.

My interest in local wine is as equally rooted in my new-found interest in local farming as it is my interest in the beverage itself.

Since moving to Connecticut, I've found some great farmer's markets and even places like Meadow Stone Farm where I can buy my "luxury items" (i.e. artisan cheese) while supporting the local farmers/economy/etc. My interest in buying local started getting serious when I began reading Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, along with a number of recent news articles (no doubt influenced by the outlandish gas prices and Al Gore making environmental issues hip) concerning how far food travels and how much fuel it takes to ship it.

(FYI - while I am trying to buy local and am growing some vegetables and herbs, I haven't managed to hardcore convert like Barbara does in the book. Unfortunately, I eat a lot of fruit that is not native to Connecticut, amongst other things. But I have gotten pretty good about buying my in-season produce from the farmer's markets, along with things like eggs, the aforementioned artisan cheeses, and even the occasional pieces of meat. I am a work in progress.)

I digress.

So the combined curiosity about wine and local farming has inspired me to check out some of Connecticut's home-grown offerings. I started sort of by accident when we visited Sharpe Hill Vineyard the day we went to Meadow Stone. However, when Jessica was here I took the opportunity of having another non-local wine drinker to try out the vineyards closer to my house.

Unfortunately it was rainy and disgusting the day we went to Stonington Vineyards, so we didn't get to walk around the vineyard itself. We spent the majority of the time in the tasting room. The reds produced at this winery were not currently available, so we worked our way through the whites.

Josh, Jess and I taste at Stonington

We started with the 2006 Sheer Chardonnay, an un-oaked chardonnay aged in stainless steel rather than oak barrels. The result is a crisp, fruitier chard (definitely picked up on some apple flavors) not entirely unlike some American Sauvignon Blancs. This was an easy drinker I could pour for people who don't particularly like wine and that I could enjoy myself.

The 2006 Stonington Chardonnay was more what one would expect from the name - oaky and buttery, sort of heavy on the tongue. There was something at the very end of the taste that kind of put me off, but then again, I have never really loved oaky chardonnays so maybe it was just my own prejudices. The 2004 Vidal Blanc was almost harshly citrus-y on the first sip, but that could be because it followed such an oaky, buttery predecessor. The second sip was better, but this isn't one for people who don't do dry.

I didn't expect to like the Seaport White (Stonington Vineyard's proprietary blend) very much and really, I didn't - too sweet for my personal tastes. The Triad Rose (a blend of Cab Franc, Chard, and Vidal) was spicier than I anticipated but pleasant enough.

The next day - after the Jibboom Club Parade - we tried out Jonathan Edwards Winery. Now, to be fair, although JE does grow grapes and produce wines in Connecticut, they also have a vineyard in Napa and all the wines we were able to try were from the Napa line (the Connecticut wines were not yet available).

One good thing about Jonathan Edwards is they put a lot of thought into the experience of wine tasting. They've modeled their tasting room in the style of Napa Valley - unlike the generic, carpeted room at Stonington with a small counter, this room has gleaming wood floors and shelves, a stone fireplace, and a nice-sized standing bar which two staffers can comfortably stand behind to pour. They take visitors on an extensive and informative tour of the grounds and facilities, which are absolutely beautiful. You can also order a glass of any of their available wines and drink it on a deck overlooking the grounds.

Jess and I enjoy a glass of Chardonnay on the deck

I was disapointed that they were out of the Napa Valley Petite Syrah, as I've heard good things about it. However, we were able to try five wines ( one white, four red) and a Petite Sirah Port, which was a pleasant treat.

As for those wines (and remember, these are all Napa Valley - not Connecticut - wines) - the 2006 Chardonnay was oaky but not as heavy and buttery as the Stonington Chard. The 2005 Merlot was extremely dry with light fruit flavors - it smelled a little bigger than it tasted. The Zin was dry (all the JE wines were bone dry, actually) and spicy with some fruit on the finish. The Cabernet Sauvignon was not quite as dry as the other varietals and had a definite earthy flavor. The 2004 Syrah was my favorite - extremely peppery with yummy berry flavors. I took a bottle of this home and may let it age a bit.

The 2005 Petite Sirah Port was actually delicious, although I never have been much of a port drinker so I didn't have a lot to go on as far as comparison (note to Michiganders: as much as I make fun of St. Julian's, they make a pretty decent tawny port - pick it up if you can find it). You definitely got some of that caramely oaky taste at the end.

In front of the grapevines at Jonathan Edwards

So I have now tried out three Connecticut wineries (although I drank California wines at one of them) and have been in some cases pleasantly surprised. I am looking forward to summer when I can (hopefully) get out to Long Island and see what it has to offer in the wine tasting arena. Until then, CT will have to do.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

My World, His World, My Man, His Girl...

Maybe it's because "Midnight Train to Georgia" is one of my all-time favorite songs or maybe it's the aforementioned love of Robert Downey Jr., but I think this video is hilarious.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bicycle! Bicycle!

Today I joined the ranks of bike commuters and rode my Trek 2.5 miles from my house to work. I am sure the real bike commuters would scoff in disdain because I am sort of a poseur bike commuter - I am totally scared of the cars and therefore ride on the sidewalks. However, alternative transportation is alternative transportation in my book - and with gas over $4.00 a gallon, I'll gladly take the alternative.

I have to say, it was nice to get outside for a little while before starting my work day. It also helps that I live close enough to work that I don't have to ride particularly fast or get particularly sweaty (or wear awesome biking outfits, although I am sure my coworkers would find that amusing).

If you live close enough to your place of employment, I really encourage you to give bike commuting a try. You save money, get some exercise, and it's good for the environment. Are you seeing a downside to this picture?

Nobody's gonna rain on my (Jibboom Club) parade

One thing I have noticed about New London is that New London seems to love parades. Never mind that the parades tend to last about three blocks/twenty minutes, sometimes aren't advertised, and occasionally get delayed due to the fact that the parade planner didn't check the Amtrak schedule and has to wait to cross the train tracks. We still heart parades.

Yesterday (Saturday) was a prime example of a New London parade - the Jibboom Club Parade. What is the Jibboom Club, you ask? Allow me to enlighten you with a bit of background from the New London Main Street events page:

"Jibboom Club No. 1 was a social club made up mostly of retired whalers and other merchant seamen here in New London during the last quarter of the nineteenth-century and the first half of the twentieth. Once a year they would parade through the city, towing a retired whaleboat and dressed as King Neptune and his minions. They would march to City Hall where the mayor would distribute cigars, then proceed "around the horn" (around the Soldiers and Sailors monument) before returning to their club rooms on Bank Street for a party featuring chowder."

The Jibboom Club parade of today is not quite as spectacular as it was in the old days. However, certain dedicated townfolk including my good friend Kevin Doyle and local theater group Flock Theatre are trying to restore the parade to it's former glory. Apparently the parade used to end with the Jibboomers harpooning a papier-mâché whale, complete with buckets of fake blood. Hope is high that the 2009 parade will bring with it the return of the whale. Until then, I am fairly content to watch Doyle dress up and march down the street smoking a cigar.

Some pictures for your enjoyment:

Pipes and drums announce the arrival of the Jibboomers

Doyle looks pretty dapper, doesn't he?

The Jibboomers with their boat, receiving cigars from the mayor

Keeping the tradition alive with Dr. Mark and Doyle

Saturday, May 17, 2008

It was a little chili outside...

Last night I attended the celebration of excess known as "Springfest on the Beach" AKA Chilifest.

Put on by the New London Rotary Club, Springfest, held in the pavilion at Ocean Beach Park, consists of about 30 beer vendors/distributors handing out samples of their various wares along with about 15 local restaurants competing in a chili cook-off. And while the beer distribution is monitored by a ticket system, the chili is all-you-can-eat.

Chili in the spring may seem like an ill-fitting concept, but considering the fact that last night was about 45 degrees, raining, and windy, it worked. Since the fest was in the pavilion we didn't have to stand on the beach in the rain and kept reasonably warm.

Gourmet Galley Catering had an excellent cheesy chicken chili offering that tasted almost queso-esque. It was the group favorite until we found the Cuban chili (and I will post the vendor as soon as I remember who it was; I can't believe I forgot!) with the pickles on top.

Most of the chilis were very good (New London Fire Department Burn Unit - great job, very flavorful!) The only two of the whole bunch that we were not crazy about were Flanders Fish Market (sort of a half-chili, half-chowder) and - while we love the Broken Yolk for breakfast - we didn't care for the Yolk's chili (too much garlic - and this is coming from a group of garlic lovers).

As far as the beer selection goes, these Ocean Beach beer events don't hold a candle to the Michigan Brewer's Guild Summer Beer Festival (an event I really wish I could take my Connecticut friends to enjoy) but they are extremely enjoyable. While not limited to microbrews like the Michigan Fest, it's still a great opportunity to try out some regional beers that I wouldn't otherwise get to try.

On Amanda's recommendation I went to the Berkshire Brewing Co. first and tried several varieties, including the Hefeweizen Summer Wheat. It was lightly fruity with a smooth aftertaste. While I still haven't found my summer beer to replace Oberon, I feel like this could be a contender if available. The Long Trail Belgian White was almost floral in taste, wile the Thomas Hooker Blonde Ale was pleasant if not particularly memorable.

Jess and Josh are here from Michigan at the moment, so they too got to enjoy our first Springfest. I don't know to to better entertain guests than to take them to an all-you-can-eat beer and chili party on the beach. I'm pretty sure it doesn't get much better than that.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Interview with a vampire novel-reading maniac

I was sitting in bed on Sunday morning, drinking a cup of coffee and catching up on a stack of Time magazines when I came across an article about a young adult author named Stephenie Meyer.

Meyer, a Brigham Young graduate, mom of three young children and well-behaved Mormon, writes vampire novels - pretty sexy vampire novels, according to the article.

"Hmm," I thought. "Sexy young-adult vampire novels? I may have to check this out."

Later that day at Borders, I remembered the article and searched out Meyer's books. I didn't have to search far - they were displayed on their own table at the very front of the store, and I realized I had seen the striking covers (black backgrounds with one central contrasting image) before.

I picked up Twilight, the first book in the series (three have been published so far; the fourth and final is due in bookstores August 22) and the only one so far to have been released in paperback. It was $9.99 and I had a 30% off coupon (thanks, Borders rewards!) so I figured even if I didn't like it that much it wasn't too high a price to satisfy my curiosity.

What I was NOT expecting was to devour it much like I did volumes five, six and seven of Harry Potter (coincidentally, it was Eclipse - the third book in the series - that knocked the seventh Harry Potter out of the number-one spot on the best-seller list).

I haven't read something that I literally could not stop reading since I read Water for Elephants last August. I could not put it down. Noe had to tear it out of my hands and force me into the car to go to the driving range.

This book is insanely readable. Yes, it's about high school students, and yes, it is also about vampires, but shallow it's not. And it is sexy, but not in a gratuitous, Anne Rice-way (which is really more erotica than sexiness).

Basically, what you've got is Bella, a 17-year old outcast from Phoenix who moves to the tiny town of Forks, WA to live with her father. Forks is one of the rainiest, dreariest places in the United States. On her first day of school, she notices the Cullen family, a group of freakishly good-looking (if somewhat pale) siblings who seem to keep to themselves. When Edward Cullen is assigned as her lab partner in biology, things start to get a little weird. The first day they meet, he won't even look in her direction. He sits completely tense at the edge of his chair with his hands gripping the lab table. By the end of the week, he wants to know everything about her.

It is slowly revealed that Edward is a vampire. However, Edward and his family have made the (unusual) decision to go "vegetarian" - they live off animals rather than humans. Because of this, they are able to mingle somewhat normally with the townfolk. A few caveats, however: 1) They can't go in the sunlight without drawing immense amounts of attention to themselves (they sparkle), which is why they live in Forks; 2)They have to go "camping" every other weekend or so to hunt big game and quench their thirst; and 3) They are the sworn enemies of the local Indian tribe (for reasons revealed slowly over the first two books).

There's one other problem: although Edward is immensely attracted to Bella, the smell of her blood drives him insane. Like, wants-to-drink-it insane. It's really quite the paradox.

I realize how cheesy and stupid this sounds as I type it out, but I am telling you, these books are weirdly and incredibly readable. I blew through all three in a weekend, which now means I am stuck waiting until August 22 to find out how things turn out. I may even be a real geek and pre-order it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go read some Ayn Rand so I can feel like an intelligent and well-read 26 year old again.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Wine Safari

This past Saturday brought the return of Amanda Lester from South Africa and with her a variety of South African wines. We headed over there on Saturday night to welcome her back and have a mini-wine tasting.

I haven't had a lot of experience with South African wines - we didn't have very many on the Earle wine list, and other than a couple interesting and very cheaply priced Trader Joe's experimental purchases (none good or bad enough to stand out) I had never purchased any.

Amanda really enjoyed the Zevenwacht winery on the Stellenbosch Wine Route. We started with the Zevenwacht 2006 Chenin Blanc. This was light, citrusy, and refreshing with a hint of something more - maybe pineapple. (I'm sure that John, otherwise known as CTWineGuy, will review these wines and provide a much more thorough description - check him out.)

After we all agreed that the Chenin Blanc was indeed delicious, we moved on to the Zevenwacht 2004 Syrah. It smelled fruity and slightly smoky - and that smokiness multiplied by ten when I actually tasted it. It was a little spicy, too. I enjoyed it.

Properly impressed by the Zevenwacht wines (and Doyle's cocktail party attire, which included a skull and crossbones bow tie) we moved on to the 2005 Auret, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Pinotage blend from Clos Malverne, also on the Stellenbosch route.

Clos Malverne considers the Auret to be their flagship wine. It's worthy of the title - dry, spicy, and just kind of nice all around. It didn't stand out to me the way the Zevenwacht Syrah did (seriously, that smokiness has to be tasted to be believed) but I enjoyed it just the same. The winery recommends aging this wine 5-7 years, an experiment I'd like to try if given the chance.

Overall, a great evening - good wine and good company.

In other weekend news, Noe and I checked out Iron Man and both loved it. I have been a Robert Downey Jr. fan since seeing Heart and Souls in eighth grade (yes, Heart and Souls is a stupid movie, and yes, I still love it). I am glad to report that he is the perfect Tony Stark.

Sunday was mostly spent reading vampire novels (sigh - more about that later) and working in the garden. Although I've had herb gardens for a couple years now, this is my first attempt at actually growing vegetables (other than tomatoes). I picked up some bell pepper and cucumber plants and Amanda has some tomatoes started for me at her house. So far all I've really done is prepare the soil and get my herbs in pots (I like to be able to move them around), but (weather permitting) planting should commence this week. I'm a little bit obsessed with the idea of growing my own produce, so it will be interested in to see how this experiment turns out. I'll keep you posted!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Poster Kitty

Poor Stewart. At least the people who found him and the clinic were kind of enough to fix him up. Please consider donating to Stewart's fund or a similar fund in your area. Read Stewart's whole story in the New London Day: Cat Found Near Fire Scene Is Doing Well

Monday, May 5, 2008

Slow and Steady...

...does not win the race but it DOES finish the half-marathon. Because I am slightly insane, I decided the best way to make myself get back into shape was to sign up to run a half-marathon.

This was not my first half-marathon; it was actually my fourth. I ran the Detroit Free Press race in October 2006, the Country Music Half-Marathon (seriously) in Nashville last April, and the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon - the same one I decided would kick my ass back into gear - last May.

I have referenced the fact that I have let myself get out of shape in this blog before. This is not an exaggeration. While I may not have gained a zillion pounds or look that much bigger, I have lost all my muscle tone and most of my endurance - both things I had when I ran my previous half-marathons.

I started "training" for this race a little late - like a month ago. Two miles were kind of a stretch at that point. I expanded it into three, then four, but I did not log a single run over five miles while preparing for the mini - and those five miles were not the smoothest I'd ever run, either. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned. (Of even more concern was the fact that I spent about two hours downloading songs and arranging my "Amy's Running Mix" playlist on my iPod for ultimate motivational order only to find out that headphones and earbuds were banned from the mini.)

I lined up in my corral with a feeling of trepidation. 25 minutes later, when I finally crossed the starting line (35,000 people makes for a bit of a chaotic start) I wasn't feeling much better.

After a mile of dodging the walkers (START AT THE BACK - THAT IS WHAT YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO DO!!!) I was wondering exactly how the hell I was going to establish any kind of pace.

And then I got going.

I was feeling good when I got to the 5K mark, and I felt even better when I got to 10K. I thought maybe I would walk for a minute or two before I hit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (the highlight of the Mini's course) because I believe that one does not walk on the Speedway - but I felt good enough to keep running.

I ran my 2.5 miles around the oval and came out thinking maybe I'd walk a bit then, but I felt so good that I figured I'd at least run to the 9-mile mark. I hit nine thinking "Gee, maybe I should under-train for every race!" and continued running toward 10.

At 10.5 things started to go downhill.

Suddenly I felt like I was running in a pair of flip flops instead of sneakers. I was acutely aware of my feet hitting the pavement - hard- with every stride. My calves starting cramping up a little and my old ankle injury threatened to make an encore appearance. I wasn't exactly tired, but my body was shutting down.

I stopped and stretched out (and got annoyed as I watched people pass me) and then tried to continue. It wasn't much better. I re-laced and retied my shoes and started again - not much improvement. I sort of limped across the 11-mile mark, got my Gatorade, and then VERY slowly plugged away at the last two miles.

Of course, I sprinted the last quarter-mile (like that was going to make up for three miles of almost-walking) and almost plowed over the idiot with the microphone who happened to be standing in the middle of the street in front of the finish line. If he hadn't jumped out of the way, I would have just run in to him - I had too much momentum going to stop at that point.

Anyway, my finish time ended up not being incredibly horrible - about 2:40/2:45. Really, it wasn't much slower than anything else I've run. And although my knees were in agony for the remainder of the day (and well into the evening) I didn't seem to be much worse for wear.

The moral of the story? It felt GREAT to be back doing something athletic and mildly competitive. I want to be back in shape. Proving that I could still do this wasn't good enough because I know that if I can do it in this kind of shape that I can do it better.

It's time to hit the gym.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

April Showers...

...bring surprise May flowers. At least, they are surprises to us because we didn't plant them. When things started sprouting up in the flower bed, we had to wait a few weeks to figure out if they were flowers or weeds. Once we determined they were flowers, we had no idea what was going to actually blossom. (OK, I had no idea - Noe, Mr. "good at everything including identifying random green sprouts" knew what kind of plants they were, but he's not psychic so he had no way of knowing the colors.)

Luckily, Matt & Kendra (the former house owners) have as good taste in plants as they do interior paint colors. This is a sampling of what we ended up with: