Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quick Note

Just a quick post to let everyone know I have not disappeared. I am here in Michigan/Indiana, and have enough material and photos for several blog posts - but no way to upload my photos. Therefore, I am holding off on the posting until I am back in Connecticut on January 3. Please be patient and check back in January for new posts.

Thanks, and happy holidays to all!


PS - I am the process of editing some of my restaurant postings for Yelp.com - and also adding some more brief restaurant thoughts that I have not shared on this blog. Check them out here: Amy's Yelp Reviews

Friday, December 18, 2009

Champagne wishes and oyster dreams

I've always liked shellfish. Even when I was younger and a fairly picky eater, I still ate shrimp (they were fried, but hey, it counts). Since moving to New England, I have become completely enamored with almost anything in a shell. You can get shellfish of amazing quality out here. Local lobsters and scallops pepper the menus at fine-dining restaurants and roadside shacks alike.

Yet as I devoured any shrimp, scallop, lobster, or clam put in my path, I neglected one shellfish completely for two whole years: the oyster.

I get why some people think eating oysters is a little weird, or even gross. If you have problems with texture, oysters may not be for you - at least, not in their raw form. Oysters are versatile enough to show up in a variety of cooked dishes, adding a little briny shellfish-sweetness to almost anything they touch.

I was lucky enough to attend (another) local dinner at the River Tavern in Chester last Tuesday night, this one focusing heavily on local oysters farmed in Noank, a small village near Mystic. Steve Plant from the Noank Oyster Co-op not only provided the oysters, but also provided lively commentary about oyster farming, sustainable aquaculture, and a slew of other topics.

As usual, I attended with my fabulous Foodie Friend Loree, who once again took pictures for this post.

You might think that a four-course dinner designed around oysters would be a one-note affair - but not with James Wayman (left, standing) in the kitchen. Using other locally farmed meats and produce, James crafted a meal that highlighted the subtle flavor characteristics of the oysters to their best advantages.

Cooked oysters were served in a warm salad of sorts comprised of onions, celery, and that glorious thick-cut bacon I've had in other River tavern dishes. The second course consisted of (very) lightly smoked oysters, still in the shell, lightly sauced with something lemony (I always wish I had a printed menu from these dinners) and served with a brown butter crouton. The little bit of smoke gave a little "oomph" to the oyster's natural saltiness. It didn't taste smoky - it just seemed like the natural flavors had more depth.

These appetizers of sorts were follwed up with two meat-centric blockbusters: smoked duck from Soeltl Farm, served with carrots and brussels sprouts with a mustard-y sauce; and James' version of Korean barbecued pork and cucumber kimchee. (Cucumber kimchee is a genuis idea. The cool, crisp cucumbers are the perfect foil for the heat.) Two gigantic fresh oysters were served in shells alongside the pork, providing a refreshing finish to the dish (well, they provided me with a refreshing finish - I am sure other people may have started with them).

Duck from Soeltl Farm

Pork, kimchee, oysters

The conclusion to this meal was a savory dessert: a poached pear served over a bed of creamy ricotta cheese and topped with a crunchy chocolate biscotti. The poached pear brought to mind mulled or spiced wine - perfect flavors for a cold night.

Poached pear with ricotta

I would have been happy to simply drink water alongside this meal. After all, what beverage can compete with oysters, smoked duck, barbecued pork, and kimchee?

As it turns out, there's only one: Champagne. I'm not talking about the $4.99 stuff you buy to serve to 27 people on New Year's Eve (yes, I buy it, too) - I'm talking about real Champagne, grower Champagne from smaller French vineyards that shows amazing character (not just bubbles) in a glass.

I'm only just beginning to explore Champagne, and this dinner was a delightful introduction. You can really pick up the flavors of the grapes used in these smaller-produced varities. A Chardonnay-based Champagne has a heady, almost yeasty smell and taste. A rose Champagne made with Pinot Nior grapes tasted heavily of strawberries - but was not the least bit sweet. In fact, it was bone-dry - a perfect example that "fruity" and "sweet" are not synonyms.

Going to this dinner was sort of a Christmas gift to myself - and if that weren't enough, I recevied an actual Christmas gift when Donna Lesczczynski of Soeltl Farm presented all of us that attended with golden goose egg ornaments. Mine is hanging on my tree, and every time I look at it, I will think of this wonderful night of great food and amazing company.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Touring the Towers

Last week, Noe, Liz, Dr. Scott, and I called on our friend Tammy. Tammy works for New London Harbour Towers, a high-end condominium building going up on Bank Street in downtown New London. The project has been under intense scrutiny - it was started before Noe and I moved to Connecticut (over two years ago) but building was halted shortly after we got here and only resumed...well, I can't even tell you exactly when. All I know is that some steel beams jutted into our New London skyline for what seemed like a very long time.

At the beginning

Rumors abounded. Negativity flourished. The naysayers came out in droves. People who had put deposits down got them back and moved into other luxury condos across the street. It seemed like New London would be stuck with that skeleton forever...until one day...

Construction miraculously began again.

 Progress being made

Not that the resumed construction silenced the naysayers. People commented that the development would halt again, that no one would go for luxury pricing in New London, and countless other things.

Still, the building commenced.

When I heard that people - any people - could take tours of the building-in-progress, I had to ask Tammy if this was true. First of all, I do not have the income to buy a luxury condo - I think this is a known fact - so there was never any question of me purchasing a unit. Second, I had four curious people - also not in the market for luxury housing - that wanted to tag along.

"No problem," Tammy said.

See, the people behind New London Harbour Towers want anyone who is curious to come take a tour. They want to dispels the myths and rumors and start positive conversations about the project. So, up we went.

The virtual tour of Harbour Towers

We started in the office, where we watched a short movie (above) that took us on a virtual tour of the finished building. Then Tammy took us through a model unit, where we all drooled over the beautiful appliances and countertops and Tammy sold us on the virtues of radiant heat. We then went up in the unfinished condos and poked around on the fourth, seventh, and ninth floors, stopping the longest at the top to admire the view from the penthouses.

Obviously, I am not in the market for a high-end condo (these things start at prices higher than my house) but I appreciated the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about the mysterious building on Bank Street. If you're curious - or if you happen to be in the market for a downtown home - give Tammy and her coworkers a call at 860-444-6969 and ask to set up your own tour.

Photos from jbsurvey.com and chvogt.com/photographs.html

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Simple Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving for just two people may sound kind of lame, but for me and Noe this year, it was PERFECT. I would have been perfectly happy with just the two days off work, no feast required, but since I like to prepare food, we made our own mini-feast.

I roasted a chicken rather than a turkey. I thought of doing something more interesting, like lamb, but Noe is not crazy about lamb and I kind of figured "what the heck" - it's a comfort food kind of day. I suppose I could have found a small turkey, but - wait for it - I don't really like turkey. There, I said it. It's out in the open. I mean, turkey is okay - I just don't get what the big deal is. I've never loved it. I'll gladly eat it if it is put on a table, but do I want to make one and eat the leftovers for the next week and a half? Nope.

For side dishes we had a variation on Julia Child's braised brussels sprouts, roasted in the oven with tons of butter (and a little bacon - my personal addition); stuffing (Noe will only eat stuffing out of a box, but I cooked it in homemade chicken stock instead of water and added some onions and spices); carrots, potatoes, and onions (slow-roasted in the pan with the chicken); rolls; and perhaps my least favorite dish in the universe, green bean casserole. I fought Noe violently over this one. I see nothing good coming from a can of green beans mixed with a can of mushroom soup (for the record, I don't like mushroom soup in any form - nothing personal Campbell's) but because I am a good girlfriend and want to call in favors in the future, I made it.

Brussels sprouts braised with butter and bacon


For the chicken itself, I mixed some butter with a ton of herbs de provence and rubbed it under and over the skin. I stuffed the cavity with an onion and a few whole cloves of garlic, then trussed it up and stuck it in the oven for awhile. Heavenly.


...plus this...

...equals THIS.

We topped off the meal with some apple pie from a local apple orchard served with French vanilla ice cream. Yum.

Even though it was just the two of us, I am glad we still decided to celebrate. We compromised on some dishes and ended up with a delicious meal that didn't take me all day to prepare (although it was nice to be able to go about preparing it at my leisure). I hope everyone else had as great a day as we did.

Noe laughed at me for putting up the tree already,
but I didn't care. 

Monday, November 23, 2009

Arts and Crafts

I've recently come across a couple new shops/boutiques downtown. They may not be "new" - to be honest, I have no idea how long either one has been open - but they are new to me. The offerings in these boutiques are truly unique works by local artists - the kind of stuff that makes me wish I had even the tiniest bit of artistic talent.

Aticc is a combination gallery and boutique tucked away on Green Street (although the address is technically State Street) across from my favorite under-the-radar watering hole, the Dutch Tavern. I noticed the shop one night when Tracy and I were having a post-committee meeting drink at the Dutch. Since Tracy is in the know with everything New London, I asked her for the story. She filled me in on the basics: recently opened, collaboration between a couple local artists, funky clothes and accessories. Tracy highly recommended visiting.

I meant to go in sooner, but didn't get in until food stroll. The first thing I saw was a rack of vintage coats and dresses, which the girl behind the counter informed us belonged to a friend of hers that didn't know what to do with them. She volunteered to sell them in the shop, figuring they were unique and people might be looking for halloween costumes. It speaks to the eclectic nature of the boutique that had she not told us this, I would assume they were part of the regular rotation of merchandise. Here you can find screen-printed t-shirts with likenesses of Woody Allen or throw pillows screened with images of Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, or even Alfred Hitchcock. You can also find checkered skirts, ruffled and apron-style tops, and brands such as Kill City Denim. 

Some of the merchandise is available on the website, but the store has an ever-rotating selection, plus the art displays - if you're a local reader of this blog, try to check it out in person. Check the Aticc Blog - http://aticc.blogspot.com/ - for updates on featured artists and designers.

My second recent discovery is Arciolinda, the "custom interior design center and drapery workroom" at 52 State Street. Arciolinda came onto my radar the same way Aticc did - through Tracy. We were having a post-meeting drink at Hot Rod's (are you noticing a pattern here?) when we ran into Nichole Arciolinda Bonanno (Nicki), the owner. Tracy introduced us and told me about her work. A few weeks later, I was able to see samples when Nicki donated four chairs to the Flock Theatre fundraiser.

Nicki finds her chairs at places like the New London Antique Center. She then refinishes them, reupholsters them, and basically breathes beautiful new life into them. She showed me one that she had painted a minty, antique-y green and covered the cushion with a vintage fabric that had swirls of the same green as the paint.  Nicki had even gone through with a small brush or toothpick and detailed the swirls in the wood with a darker shade of paint to match her fabric exactly. While I was falling in love with the green chair, Tracy was falling in love with a "tuffet" (think Little Miss Muffet) that had been finished in gold and cushioned in powder blue and gold fabric. Imagine our surprise to find out these two items had been made from an identical set of chairs - Nicki had sawed off the top portion of one chair to form the tuffet's low back before painting it.

The green chair and the tuffet - 
these are made from two identical chairs 
Nicki bought at the New London Antiques Center. 

While I may not have any immediate need for custom drapery or reupholstered furniture, I really admire Nicki's work and hope to someday purchase one of her benches or chairs. 

If you are in the New London area, I highly encourage you to take a look at these two unique businesses. We can't all be incredibly creative and artistically talented - but I think it is somewhat of a responsibility to keep encouraging those who are.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Best Mex

I have to admit, I was hesitant at first to go to Milagro. For one thing, Milagro is in Stonington, and I just didn't find myself out that way very often (although a trip to Water Street Cafe with Liz and her dad convinced me it was probably worth going to Stonington more often). But the main reason that I didn't want to take the trouble to visit Milagro is because I'm not a fan of Zavala, New London's Mexican restaurant, owned by the same family.

Zavala was the first restaurant I went to downtown. I wanted to like it. At the time, I was trying desperately to like New London in general. And I loved the atmosphere when we walked into the restaurant that night - but that was the last thing I loved. The food was bland and the service was poor. On return visits, the service got even worse - waiting upwards of 20 minutes during a slow mid-day meal to place a drink order - and the quality wildly inconsistent. Despite a delicious hibiscus margarita, I finally gave up on Zavala.

Yet I kept hearing great things about Milagro. Curiosity got the best of me when a new foodie friend, Amanda B., recommended it. So last weekend, Tracy, Amanda and I headed out for a Saturday night girls' dinner.

Milagro is much smaller than Zavala - only about ten tables and a small bar. It's also darker and a good portion of the soft lighting comes from Christmas-type lights. We took a table by the window and ordered house margaritas (on the rocks with salt).

Our waitress brought over a tray laden with three different shaped (but roughly the same size) glasses, all rimmed with salt. She set one in front of each of us and poured our drinks from individual shakers, which she left at the table. The margaritas were citrus-y and sharp - in other words, NOT made with sour mix. You could taste the bite of tequila, but it was not overpowering. (At the end of the night, Martin - the owner - showed us his homemade margarita mix, all made with fresh ingredients, and told us that you could use the crappiest tequila in the world and no one would know as long as you had developed a good recipe for mix. I was inclined to agree.)

We started with chips and guacamole. The chips were house-made - they were warm and crispy. They were salted for flavor but didn't taste salty. The guacamole had the consistency of sour cream (I was expecting chunkier) and tasted of ripe avocado, a little bit of lemon or lime juice, and a little kick, perhaps from some pepper or onion.

Entrees were harder to choose - everything on the menu sounded delicious. I eventually went with the tuna ceviche and fish tacos.

Ceviche, for those not familiar, is cut-up raw seafood tossed with citrus juices and herbs, vegetables, or spices. The raw seafood "cooks" in the acid from the citrus juices. The tuna ceviche at Milagro is among the best ceviche I've had. everything was cubed into small enough pieces to be scooped up with more of Milagro's warm, crispy chips, almost like a chunky salsa. The tuna flavors shone through the citrus. Some cilantro added a bright, fresh taste to the whole mix. Best of all, it came topped with a little squiggle of the creamy guacamole.

The fish tacos were excellent as well; however, the ceviche was such a standout that I barely remember the tacos. They were fresh and expertly cooked - not too dry and not drowning in condiments.

We were really too full for dessert, but the waitress tempted us with a margarita sorbet concoction that was on special that night. It was the perfect finish for the meal - the citrus flavors and icy sorbet (complete with a tequila glaze and some shortbread cookies) cleansed our palettes and left us feeling refreshed rather than laden down by a heavy finish.

The food and atmosphere at Milagro were both spectacular. I wish they could find a way to duplicate this experience at Zavala in New London. It could be that Zavala is too large for such an intimate dining experience. It could be that New Londoners aren't interested in Martin's authentic Mexican menu. I'm not going to ponder the why too much - for now, if I want quality Mexican, good service, and cozy atmosphere, I'll be driving to Stonington to dine at Milagro.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's All Greek To Me

I devote a lot of my blog space to food. A decent amount of that space is given over to food or wine-related events - food strolls, wine festivals at Jonathan Edwards, chili/chowder fests at Ocean Beach, etc. I love these events (obviously - I work at JE and have been found on the recent stroll committees) but I truly believe that THE best eating event in New London is the St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church Greek Food Festival.

The early dinner crowd at the St. Sophia Greek Food Festival

I mentioned the festival in the blog last year - but my brief post didn't do it justice. What I didn't mention was that I ate lunch there every day and dinner two of the four days. I'm already on track to meet or beat that record this year - it's day one and I had lunch and dinner there today.

For one week every November, St. Sophia operates essentially as a full-service restaurant, dishing up dish after dish of authentic Greek fare from 11:00 AM - 9:00 PM. No matter what time of day I've shown up, I've been greeted at the door by a (youngish-looking) priest that I assume (from reading the menu) is Fr. Dean Panagos. Fr. Dean is always cheerful (even when you see him at noon and again at 6:00 on the same day). He asks whether you'll be eating in or taking out, hands you your menu - with handy descriptions and pronunciations of the Greek dishes - and points you in the correct direction.

The festival is held in the big church hall. Large round tables fill the space. The hall has beautiful chandeliers and a mural along the back wall, where there is also a stage set up for the traditional Greek dancers. The food and bar are set up in an recessed area off to the side.

St. Sophia chandeliers


St. Sophia mural

St. Sophia runs an efficient operation - take-out orders are kept separate from dine-in orders. Take-out is ordered in one place and picked up in another. Dine-in customers go through a line where Greek women wait behind chafing dishes of green beans, potatoes, and dishes such as moussaka.

I have two methods of operation at the Greek festival: Lunch Mode and Dinner Mode. Lunch Mode is all gyro, all the time. I can not resist that combination of spicy meat, lettuce, tomato, and tzatziki sauce all wrapped up in a fresh pita. I don't even like thick salad dressings/mayonnaise/goopy sauces, but there is something about tzatziki that calls to me. It helps that it is not gooped on - just enough to add some flavor. (Of course, the base of good tzatziki is Greek yogurt, which I love for the thick texture and slightly sour taste, and I don't really like "other" yogurt.)

Dinner Mode is a little different. At dinner, I like to try the other specialties, such as the moussaka, the chicken oregano, and the pastitso. These entrees come in large portions, and often with a side of Greek-style green beans or potatoes, so it's best to come hungry.

Today, to inaugurate this year's festivities, I had my gyro for lunch with my work friends, then went back for dinner with Noe and Scott (AKA Dr. Chattybox). For my first dinner, I went with one of my personal favorites, the pastitso (otherwise known as Greek lasagana).

Side salad with pita

Pastitso with Greek-style green beans

Pastitso is a heavenly combination of layered ziti, beef, cheese, and Bechamel sauce. You can always taste the meat and cheese. Unlike lasagna, you run no risk of getting overpowered tomato sauce (which means your meat and cheese have to be extra-good). The St. Sophia pastitso has creamy cheese and fresh-tasting meat, and comes in a portion big enough to guarantee (for me, at least) that I'll have leftovers the next day.

Noe - normally a chicken oregano fan - went a different route tonight, choosing the stifatho (cubed beef with onions and seasonings, served over rice). Scott chose this as well. The onions looked like the little pearl cocktail onions. The dish was not entirely unlike adobo, but didn't have the pickly flavor of vinegar. I could not pick out the individual seasonings, but then again, I only got one bite - Noe and Scott inhaled this dish.


We were really too full for dessert, but that rarely stops anyone. The desserts, like all the food, are homemade by the ladies of St. Sophia. At lunch, my coworker Rosanne sprang for a box of assorted pastries that included baklava and my personal favorite, flogeres. Flogeres are pastry rolls filled with a chopped nut mixture and topped with honey, syrup, and spices. I taste what I think might be cinnamon and perhaps nutmeg (the bite is sharp enough). I'd take flogeres over baklava any day.

Noe and his ever-present love of rice of course chooses rice pudding over the pastries. Although rice pudding is not my favorite dessert, I do like it occasionally and in small doses. (This may sound weird, but I think of it kind of like oatmeal - it's cinnamon-y and kind of breakfast-like.) The St. Sophia rice pudding has a creamy texture and is served cold, which almost reminds me of cinnamon ice cream - not bad!

Noe and Scott enjoy their dinners

I'll be eating at St. Sophia's at least three more times this week, but I wanted to get this post out early so that hopefully anyone who may be on the fence about seeking out the Greek festival will do it. Have your big, fat Greek lunch or dinner - you won't be sorry!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blowing Smoke

I realize I'm a little late with this post, as it was promised several days ago. I can only blame computer fatigue (as in, I look at a computer so much every day at work that I couldn't stand to look at one at home).

Last week, I recounted our tradition of carving pumpkins and getting takeout from Chester's. Noe and I discovered Chester's shortly after moving here. Located past the "downtown" part of downtown, the tiny storefront that you could smell almost a block away called to Noe. Every time we drove past, he would say, "Maybe we should go to Chester's." One night, I finally gave in.

Chester's Barbecue in New London
(photo from chestersbbq.com) 

As I mentioned, the New London location is tiny. It has a few seats but the main business is takeout. (Chester's now also operates a sit-down location in Groton, but I have not been there - mostly because the New London location is convenient to our house, and also because I have heard that if you eat in at the Groton Chester's, you leave smelling like smoke.) According to the menu, Chester's philosophy is that "“Barbecue is not the sauce, It’s what the sauce goes on.” Therefore, Noe and I were expecting some high-quality smoked meats.

Noe and I looked over a menu and decided the best bet would be the Chester's Sampler - "A little bit of every meat we smoke, your choice of three sides, cornbread and two drinks." All this for $26.00.

We weren't sure how little a little bit was. Turns out it isn't "little" at all. Our sampler included brisket, pulled pork, red hots, baby back ribs, beef ribs - and possibly more (believe it or not, it seems to get bigger every time). For sides, we had a choice of baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, corn nibblets, mac & cheese, green beans, collard greens, and cinnamon apples. This was all accompanied by Chester's cake-like cornbread and two cans of soda.

Piles of smoked meats


Sides, drinks, cornbread

I am by no means a barbecue expert. I really am not qualified to "review" Chester's. I do, however, believe myself qualified to tell people what I like about Chester's.

I know that when I eat Chester's I taste more meat than smoke - although the smokers give everything a rich and smoky flavor, the true flavor of the meat shines through. Sauces come on the side for the sampler, and while I use some of them, I'm not much of a sauce person - I enjoy the smoky meat more on its own. I like the texture of the brisket - it's not stringy. The pulled pork is shredded to a consistency that makes it good eaten with a fork or on a sandwich. Ribs have never been my favorite meat, but I enjoy Chester's, drizzled with a bit of sauce (although Noe and I agree that beef ribs in general are too much bone and not enough meat, no matter where they come from).

Bag o' pork ribs

I enjoy most of Chester's side dishes, although the two times we have asked for green beans they have been out. The mac & cheese can be a little on the bland side. The baked beans, however, are fantastic (I love the smoky-sweet flavor of good baked beans) and the coleslaw is not goopy (always a plus in my book). Noe loves the cornbread, which is moist and has a cake-like texture. I tend to prefer a little more crumbly cornbread, buts till enjoy Chester's.

A movable feast

Chester's also offers a good deal if you are trying to feed a group. On several occasions we have ordered the Big Family Special: 2 racks of ribs, 2 chickens, 2 lbs. of brisket, 2 lbs. of pork (Carolina or Memphis style), 2 pounds of red hots, 2 quarts of coleslaw, 2 quarts of baked beans, and 12 pieces of cornbread. The price tag for this feast? $120.00 - a bargain if you are feeding 12 or more people (we've served it to 14 and had leftovers for lunch the next day).

So...while I admit that my barbecue education is lacking, I do not hesitate to recommend Chester's to anyone who wants a hearty (read: meat-centric) meal for a good price. I've never been disappointed - they are a welcome part of the New London dining scene.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Recipe for a good night

1. Get takeout from Chester's BBQ - preferably the sampler so you get a little bit of every meat they serve (FYI - Chester's is getting their own post on this blog tomorrow).

Chester's box-o-meat

2. After consuming a borderline disgusting amount of Chester's, make a pot of hot spiced cider, preferably using some of the fresh cider you bought at Holmberg Orchards over the weekend. (My way of doing spiced cider - put the cider in the pot with some sliced lemons, a few cloves, and some cinnamon sticks and let it simmer for awhile. Pour a nice slug of Captain Morgan in your glass prior to serving.)

Cider simmering on the stove
 3. Let your cat inspect your pumpkin (also purchased from Holmberg's). This process could take awhile depending on the picky-ness of your cat. 

Buns gets final say on anything brought into our house

4. Carve pumpkins. Swear a little bit because your pumpkins are over an inch thick, making them rather difficult to carve with intricate patterns. Abandon finer points of your chosen pattern in favor of getting done sooner.
Are we done yet?
5. Light up the pumpkins (in the sun room because it is pouring rain outside) and admire your hard work. Drink more cider (with more rum). 

We both chose cat patterns. Is that cute or lame?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A River Runs Through It

On Friday night, Noe and I made plans with my favorite "foodie friend", Loree. Loree introduced me to what has become my favorite restaurant in Connecticut, the River Tavern. We've been on a mission to get Noe out there for awhile, but it hadn't worked so far. However, all the cards lined up on Friday night, and we met Loree in Chester (about half an hour from New London) at 5:45. 

The River Tavern door - all photos by Loree Borgoin

The River Tavern is a very small restaurant with a warm decor (a lot of yellow and red). When you reserve a table for dinner (and because it is so small, I would recommend doing so if you plan to go there on a weekend) they block that table off for two hours - they believe in enjoying your food at a relaxed pace rather than rushing through your dinner. The restaurant was opened in 2001 by Jonathan Rapp. The kitchen is currently presided over by co-executive chefs Chris Flahaven and James Wayman (Jim Morrison, formerly of Thames River Wine and Spirits, put me on to James). The kitchen's focus is "simple, delicious cooking" always using fresh ingredients (local ingredients whenever possible).

We decided to start our meal with cocktails. The River Tavern has a unique, wide-ranging wine list, and I knew I would want a glass with dinner. For an apertif, however, we selected drinks from the innovative cocktail menu (River Tavern cocktails are delicious - not only are they well-crafted but they are made with quality liquors and fresh-squeezed juices. I chose the Ginger Blossom, a delightful concoction of white rum, fresh ginger juice, and honey, shaken with ice and strained into a martini glass. The bite of the ginger was tempered slightly but not totally mellowed by the honey - spectacular.

We decided to order an appetizer while we sipped our cocktails. Loree pointed out a squid dish, sauteed with green chiles. That sounded fine to me and Noe. We weren't disappointed. Sauteed squid can be rubbery if overcooked, but this was nice and tender. The chiles gave the slightly sweet squid a hint of heat. This dish was a great alternative to the usual fried calamari you see on so many menus. 

It was a bit harder to decide on our entrees - all three of us were debating between two or three different dishes. Ultimately, Loree chose some Sicilian-inspired scallops, sauteed with squid and tomatoes and served over polenta. Noe gave in to his first impulse, the Tavern Burger -  a patty of local Four Mile River Farm beef served up with onions, bacon (thick-cut, delicious bacon), aged cheddar, and house-made ketchup. I went for pan-fried skate with warm lentils, bacon, and arugula.

Loree's scallops with polenta

The skate was amazing - lightly fried so the outside was browned, it flaked immediately when grazed with a fork. (For those who have never had skate, the texture and the flavor remind me of a firmer white fish.) The warm lentils gave it a little bit of heartiness. The whole thing was infused with flavor from the tick-cut chunks of bacon (this bacon was glorious) and topped with arugula, finishing off the dish with an interesting hint of bitterness.

I loved every bite.

Pan-fried skate with lentils, bacon, and arugula

I managed to snag a bite of Loree's scallops, which were also perfectly cooked and delicious, but Noe's burger disappeared so fast I barely saw it, let alone got to try it. He gave it a rave review, noting that the meat was moist but the burger was not overflowing with juices and soaking the bun like some burgers he has eaten. (He also put in a request that I start seeking out Four Mile River Farm beef from the local farmers markets.)

The Tavern Burger

We were all pretty full, but we couldn't resist the idea of dessert. We settled on vanilla bean creme brulee. It came to the table ungarnished. This creme brulee needed no additional presentation. The caramelized top was nice and crisp and cracked when tapped sharply with a spoon. Underneath, the warm custard tasted of real vanilla. It was decadent without being heavy - the perfect ending to our meal.

Creme Brulee

Noe and I crack the crust

Noe agreed with me and Loree - the River Tavern is more than worth the drive to Chester. The food is uncomplicated, but sophisticated. It's simple and fresh, well thought out and carefully prepared. I'm glad we managed to convert Noe - maybe now that he is a fan, I will get to eat there more often!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sword play

The broiler is my new favorite thing. I hadn't really done much broiling up to this point - just the occasional browning of something or the other. Yet ever since buying Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which has a number of broiled dishes) and discovering that Noe had a broiler pan (where did this come from?!) I have been on a broiling kick.

My latest broiled dinner - this is super easy:

I got my hands on a couple big, fresh swordfish steaks from a local fish market. I threw them in a marinade of olive oil, herbs, a little white vinegar, and a little fresh lemon juice. I marinated them for about 30 minutes (they were big, thick steaks - about an inch thick).

Swordfish steaks after marinating

Then...I stuck them under the broiler for about six minutes, turned them over, and stuck them back in for another five or six. They were done when they were an opaque white all the way through and flaked fairly easily with a fork.

After broiling...they don't look that different than the raw ones in the photo

We ate these with simple sides of rice and steamed veggies. As for wine, I tried an inexpensive ($10) Riesling from my local wine store, Thames River Wine and Spirits:

The Clean Slate was just a tad sweeter than I normally enjoy, but still had a nice, minerally quality and a bit of crsipness. It actuallt paired pretty well with the herby, slightly acidic marinade.

This is a very simple dinner - but it is dependent on a quality piece of fish. If you can get your hands on a nice piece of swordfish, I highly recommend the marinating/broiling method if it is too cold or rainy to grill. These turned out great.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Picking and Choosing

I've had an urge to visit an apple orchard for a couple weeks now. Back in Michigan, Kristen (my sister) and I would occasionally find ourselves both home and bored on a Saturday or Sunday morning in the fall. When this happened, we would get in Kristen's truck and drive over to Plymouth Orchard for fresh cider and homemade cinnamon-sugar doughnuts.

Fall recently hit New England with a vengeance, and with cool weather and colorful leaves comes a craving for crisp apples, fresh cider, and of course, the ubiquitous cinnamon-sugar doughnut. The problem? I had no idea where any apple orchards were located around here. So I turned to Google and quickly located Holmberg Orchards in nearby Ledyard. This morning, Noe and I bundled up in our sweaters and jackets and headed out.

We pulled up first to the market in front of the orchard and went in to poke around. I was immediately disappointed to find out they did NOT have my doughnuts. However, we saw plenty of apple crisp, pies, and other assorted pastries, and the whole thing smelled overwhelmingly of fresh apples. We decided to drive up to the orchard itself and hit the market on the way out.

When we got to the top of the winding drive, we discovered some pleasant surprises. In addition to apples, you could pick and buy pears (yum!) and pumpkins as well.

Noe searches for the perfect pumpkin

I found mine!

There was also what appeared to be a small barn with a sign reading "Tasting Room". We entered, thinking maybe we would be tasting cider. We quickly found that Holmberg Orchards produces several fruit wines and hard ciders and all were available for tasting.

I don't normally go for fruit wines, but Holmberg's seemed to be at the high end of this genre. While their peach wine was too sweet for my liking, I was very impressed by the Pearfection, a light, dry pear wine that I thought would be perfect to sip by itself or perhaps while nibbling a milder cheese. The Three Sheets apple wine, aged in oak barrels, had an almost Chardonnay-like quality with a bit of apple-y crispness. Both of the hard sparkling ciders had a crisp, fresh quality that I appreciated.

When we wandered back into the market on our way out, we were immediately greeted by the smell of fresh-baked bread. A woman was stacking a shelf with baguettes that were still warm. Even Noe, who is NOT a baguette fan (he calls it "bad-gette") was somewhat intoxicated by the yummy, yeasty smell.

In addition to produce from the orchards, the market carried a nice selection of local and specialty products. We saw wines from many Connecticut wineries (including Jonathan Edwards, where I can occasionally be found moonlighting in the tasting room), cheeses, fresh meats stuffed, marinated, or otherwise prepared for cooking, and a good selection of oils, vinegars, and condiments.

By the time we left, we had loaded up the car with two giant pumpkins, a whole bunch of apples and pears, a jug of cider, a bottle of the pear wine, some steaks stuffed with Gorgonzola and mushrooms, two bags of Deep River Snacks potato chips (these are seriously the best chips in the world!), one of the fresh baguettes, and a few more items I can't recall at the moment. Overall, a successful trip.

However, if someone can point me in the direction of an apple orchard where I can get that cinnamon-sugar (or apple cider) doughnut, I'd be very grateful.