Thursday, March 26, 2009

A week or so in review

As you may or may not know, I recently accepted a new job. The good news is I am loving it so far. It feels great to be creative again, and to be appreciated by my coworkers - who seem to be a great group of people. The bad news is that I don't get as many blog posts up because I am not on the internet during work hours! However, I'm starting to adjust to the new routine, so maybe I'll be better about it from here on out (the laptop and/or iPhone I plan to buy with my tax refund may help the situation as well..)

Anyway, here's what I've been up to this week:


The seedlings have sprouted, and the cucumber half of the greenhouse is out of control! The pepper half was slow to sprout, but now everything is pretty much ready to be transplanted. Now I just have to talk Noe into going to Home Depot or Lowe's and buying some of those little pots and some soil...

Whale-Watching (well, playing)

I just had my second session on the Whale Enrichment Team at the aquarium. I think if I were retired or unemployed I would be at the aquarium every day. I still can't believe that I get to be this close to beluga whales and sea lions.

Hangin' Out at the Coffee House

Up until now I've been more partial to Muddy Waters than I have to the Bean & Leaf here in New London, but I haven't been frequenting coffee houses like I used to in Michigan, either. And while I still prefer Muddy's for a cup of morning joe, the Bean is a fantastic evening spot. For one thing, they're open (Muddy closes in the afternoon); two, they have an amazing selection of loose-leaf tea (I don't like coffee after 11:30 AM) and three, they have a jazz quintet on Wednesday nights. It's like the best elements of the Food Co-op and the Firefly Club in Ann Arbor combined - you can even BYOB to jazz night at the Bean. There aren't many places where you can enjoy a cup of tangerine-ginger followed by a finger of Lagavulin. (The crowd reminds me of Ann Arbor, too - thanks, Loree!)


You may remember a November post about a snake in my house. Well, we had another. Only this time we didn't find it in the house; Noe found it outside and chose to bring it in. I let the Bun chronicle this one on her blog, The Buns-Eye View.

Being a Local Celebrity

Just kidding. Sort of. Read the New London Main Street newsletter if you want more details about that.

In addition to all this, I've been working on my mysterious writing project, which I hope to make some real progress on in the near future (once again, the laptop/iPhone will probably help). There's some good stuff going on over the next few weeks, though, and we're supposed to be getting a new bar and a new restaurant here in New London pretty soon, so check back - I promise I'll post more regularly!

Bookmark and Share

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Animal Planet

Volunteering at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration definitely has its perks. Yes, I have to do some sort of disgusting stuff, like clean the skimmers and handle raw fish (really, the fish part is not that gross - at least, not to me). However, when I am not prepping their food, I get to hang out with these guys:

Coco, our biggest and oldest California sea lion. He weighs about 800 pounds right now and he is over 20 years old;

Surfer, our teenage sea lion. I secretly think Surfer is our best-looking boy in the marine theater;

Hut/Boomerang,our youngest and most playful. Hut is about two and a half and he is a handful sometimes. He loves to play with the toys we make him out of old kitty litter bins, PVC, etc.

The sea lions have always been my favorites, and I knew when I started volunteering as a docent that I eventually wanted to volunteer on a sea lion exhibit. And I have no intention of ever giving up my post unless I absolutely have to.

But recently, I have been introduced to a new experience at the aquarium: beluga whales.

Belugas are new to me - the volunteer spots on that exhibit are extremely hard to get, and I didn't think I was particularly interested. But the more time I spent watching the belugas, the more I knew I wanted to see them up close. Luckily for me, I got my chance when the aquarium let the volunteers do a beluga contact session in preparation for the program they open to the public.

In the water with the trainer and our beluga

Noe and I got to put on waders and get in the water with a beluga and a trainer. The trainer showed us different behaviors they train with the whales and gave us the opportunity to do some hand signals with them. We got to touch the whales as well. We were literally less than a foot away from our whale the whole time.

Noe and I in our waders

Asking the beluga for a "high target"

As an added bonus, we were with one of the trainers from Shedd aquarium in Chicago (Shedd has their belugas and dolphins in Mystic while the renovate their exhibit) and our whale is the mother of a calf, who kept poking his little head out of the water to see what was going on. Baby belugas are probably one of the cutest sights on the planet:

Miki, our baby beluga:
the babies are born gray and lighten up as they get older

I liked the belugas so much that when a spot recently opened on our whale enrichment team at the aquarium, I interviewed for it. The whale enrichment team is a team of volunteers who essentially play with the whales every day for an hour. We take different shifts one day a week. So once a week, I will be going to the aquarium before work and making sure our whales get their intellectual stimulation for the day in the form of PVC toys, bubbles, feeder balls, musical instruments, etc. I went for the first time this week and I loved it. It is definitely worth getting up that extra hour early.

The aquarium has a new docent class starting up soon; you can fill out an application at the volunteer section of their website. If you're in the area, I urge you to check it out!

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Last Thursday my former co-workers Jeanette and Dena invited me out to celebrate (almost) completing my first week at the new job (which is going great, by the way). Our destination? Apizzo, a new brick-oven pizzeria recently opened by Jeanette's friend, Stefan, in Pawcatuck, CT.

True brick-oven pizza has a thin crust and is cooked at an extremely high temperature for about two minutes in - you guessed it - a wood-fired brick oven. The thin crust and high temperatures allow the pizza to cook thoroughly but quickly, and the wood-firing gives it a great flavor. Stefan actually had his oven built in Italy and shipped over here for assembly - the guy is serious about his pizza.

I immediately liked the look of Apizzo - deep red walls, sleek dark-wood furniture, and next to no clutter (I hate those restaurants that feel like they have to cover their walls in various forms of generic "memorabilia" that doesn't even relate to the restaurant or anyone in it. The kitchen is open and all customers have an excellent view of the roaring fire inside the aforementioned brick oven.

We started with drinks - wine, naturally - Stefan keeps a decent selection of mid-priced Italian vino on hand. However, what was truly impressive as far as size and variety are concerned is Apizzo's beer list. A cursory glance showed about 50 different beers - many imports or microbrews - available for selection.

Dena with our first wine selection

We ordered appetizers about halfway through our first bottle of wine. We ordered two salads - the Caesar and the pear, walnut, and arugula - plus an antipasto plate with a selection of meats, cheeses and olives for the table.

The salads were truly fantastic - the Caesar dressing struck just the right flavor balance and wasn't too thick. And anytime you put pears, walnuts, and gorgonzola together you pretty much have a dream combination (honestly, I could probably eat a whole bowl of just toasted walnuts and bleu cheese crumbles and be happy). The antipasto plate featured two cheeses - Parmesan and maybe fontina? - salami, prosciutto (the magic word!) olives, and roasted red peppers. YUM.


We had a hard time settling on what kind of pizza to get, as everything that went by our table looked so delectable. We finally settled on a prosciutto and arugula combination along with a classic Margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella, basil).

The arugula/prosciutto was out of this world. It's a sauceless pizza - the crust is instead drizzled with olive oil and covered with garlic and fresh mozzarella - topped with salty slices of prosciutto and spicy, peppery arugula. The arugula was extremely green and fresh and the prosciutto must have been of fairly high quality because it definitely tasted like prosciutto rather than salty ham (there is a difference!)

The Margherita could have been boring. However, Stefan's commitment to high-quality ingredients took it to the next level. His imported tomatoes and incredibly fresh mozzarella tasted exactly right - not the too-strong flavor of cheap canned tomatoes or the rubbery texture of low-quality mozz. The basil, like the arugula on the pizza before it, was green and fresh. Both pizzas sat atop a thin, perfectly crisped crust.

Prosciutto and arugula pizza

As if this meal needed to be any better, Apizzo carries an assortment of gelatos. Gelato is essentially ice cream with less air - it has a more dense and creamy texture and holds flavor better. A fruit-flavored gelato is almost as strong as a sorbet. We all selected sweet and savory, however: ducle de leche and espresso.

Because the flavor is so strong and the texture so dense, you don't need as much gelato as you would ice cream. A small portion is perfectly satisfactory. Let me tell you, heaven may just be a cup of dulce de leche gelato.

Overall, I liked everything about Apizzo. We also had good service, something many restaurants in this area seem to be lacking. This is definitely the best pizza - gourmet or otherwise - I have had since I have been in CT. I'll be going back soon - and this time bringing Noe with me, because apparently the cold leftovers I brought him weren't quite enough.

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Old MacDonald Had an Organic Farm...

A few months ago, I asked my friend Jim (the mastermind of Thames River Wine and Spirits) if he would recommend some good restaurants in our general area of Connecticut. I'd tried pretty much everything in New London and Groton, and while I found a few I definitely liked, I was still waiting for a real stand-out. Jim has never steered me down the wrong path when it comes to wine, so I trusted his opinion when it came to dining.

Jim's immediate recommendation was the River Tavern in Chester. I was fortunate enough to attend a wine dinner prepared by one of River Tavern's two executive chefs, James Wayman, and thought the food was out of this world. I decided it was definitely time to try the restaurant itself. Luckily, I made a new "food friend" at the wine dinner, and Loree (a friend of Jim and James) was more than willing to indulge my desire to eat at the River Tavern (FYI - Loree gets photo credit for every picture used in this post).

When Loree called to make a reservation, however, we found out that the River Tavern wasn't open for their regular dinner menu last night. Instead, they were doing a special prix fixe farm dinner to promote their "Dinners at the Farm" series. Loree and I had heard great things about this series from Sarah and Meredith, two of the River Tavern staff who happened to attend the wine dinner with us.

Dinners at the Farm is a project started by chef/owner Jonathan Rapp (from River Tavern) and Drew McLachlan (chef/owner of Feast Market). The dinners are cooked on-site at local farms (they are cooked on the back of a truck, actually) and use all locally farmed ingredients - including local meats and local wines. The whole idea is to connect fresh, delicious food with the people and the environment it comes from, plus it supports the local farming community. In addition, the Dinners at the Farm are benefit dinners for several causes, including City Seed, Connecticut Farmland Trust, Shoreline Soup Kitchen, and more.

The truck that hauls and cooks the food.

The dinner Loree and I attended last night was at the River Tavern, not on a farm, but all the food was still provided by local farmers - many of whom will host one of their series this summer - and most of it was prepared outside the restaurant by Jonathan, standing in his truck bed.

Jonathan Rapp grilling on his truck bed.

We were greeted with complimentary cocktails and pass-around appetizers when we walked in the door. Should you find yourself at the River Tavern for drinks, do yourself a favor and order a Ginger Blossom. A simultaneously soothing (from the warmth of the white rum, fresh ginger juice, and honey) and refreshing (shaken in a cocktail shaker with ice and strained into a martini glass) beverage, it will awaken your tastebuds with the bite of the ginger and the zing of the rum (the honey tempers it a little rather than really sweetening it).

The pass around appetizers included (and remember, these are all locally farmed ingredients) crostini topped with turkey, pickled cucumbers and grainy mustard; crostini topped with creamy fresh goat cheese and herbs; samosas with hunks of steamy, soft potato and green, green spinach; and - my personal favorite - a "crispy egg" - half of a farm-fresh egg (we literally saw a farmer carry these in) with a warm, runny yolk encased in a cooked white shell in a crispy coating, drizzled with warm Parmesan vinaigrette and house-made prosciutto. I do not know how they managed the logistics of this appetizer, but I am not exaggerating when I say this is the best
hors d'eouvre I have ever eaten in my life. The warm, eggy yolk with the creamy vinaigrette married perfectly with the crispy coating, and the saltiness of the prosciutto enhanced all the flavors.

Eventually it was indicated that we should sit down. We took our seats at the front of the restaurant and listened as Jonathan introduced the farmers that provided the ingredients for the meal. Our local farmers had provided everything from several kinds of meat to hydroponic greens. All the seafood had come fresh off the Stonington docks. The wines being poured were all selections from local wineries.

Jonathan introducing the farmers before the meal.
Unfortunately, not all the farmers fit in the frame.

The menu was five courses, not counting the appetizers and desserts. We would start with scrambled eggs with lobster, topped with an aoli made from lobster roe. Second course was monkfish, third course was a crispy bass in a green curry sauce, fourth course was a sausage made with fresh ground turkey with apples and potatoes, and the fifth course was lamb with greens. I am sorry I don't have a more detailed menu - I should have taken notes (it was not written down anywhere).

Second course: Monkfish

The fresh eggs with the lobster were more rich than you would think eggs possible to be. They were almost creamy in texture - not runny, just silky, smooth, and not at all overdone. The lobster had the borderline-sweet flavor that only extremely fresh shellfish can claim. The monkfish was served in a deliciously fishy broth ("fishy" being a compliment - I for one love the taste of fresh seafood.) The bass was a stunning standout - cripsy on the outside, flaky white on the inside, served with a amazingly flavorful (spicy but not hot) green curry and topped with a thin slice of grapefruit, providing an unexpected burst of bright citrus that added to (rather than distracted from) the savory curry spices.

James Wayman's "mushroom guru" Harry
(or it could be Gary or Carey - Loree and I are not entirely sure)
discussing the bass (foreground)
with Pauline Lord of White Gate Farm.

The turkey sausage of the fourth course was as flavorful as any pork sausage I've ever had. It was plump. juicy, and perfectly seasoned. The apples and potatoes were cooked to a great soft - but not mushy - consistency that seemed perfect with the texture of the ground turkey in the sausage. I would eat that sausage every day if I could.

The lamb we had last was cooked to perfection - slightly brown near the edges and very pink in the middle. It was served with fresh greens. Unfortunately, I was still in a daze of happiness from the turkey sausage and did not pay as much attention to the lamb course as I should have.

The lamb dissapeared so fast
that Loree did not even get a photo!

Dessert was a true treat. I have never had a taste for overly sweet things, and so far the River Tavern has not disappointed me in that aspect. We were served an absolutely amazing cornmeal cake - the cornmeal is from a special type of Indian corn that can only grow near the coast. The cake did not have the dry texture of cornbread but did have a similar density. However, it was very moist. The cornmeal cake was served with a house-made honey and calvados ice cream and drizzled with honey - a slight sweetness that set off the amazing flavors of this more savory-minded dessert.

Possibly even better than the food was the company. Lorre and I ended up at a table that included several farmers and local-food enthusiasts. We had Harry/Carey/Gary, who teaches James Wayman about foraging for mushrooms, and his companion Chris (who used to live in Detroit!) We also had Pauline Lord from White Gate Farm - a very classy-looking lady that you would never believe raises chickens (among other things) until you hear her talk about going to buy some Rhode Island Reds. Rounding out our table were Nunzio and Irene Corsino from Four Mile River Farm. The Corsinos raise beef and sell it at many local markets as well as supply the River Tavern. They were amazingly nice and interesting people.

Harry (we think!), Chris, Me, Loree, and Irene

All in all, this was an evening not just of amazing food and company, but an evening that really put into perspective where your food comes from. I'll be honest - it is more convenient to go buy a steak at Stop & Shop than to seek out an open farm market. However, after tasting these truly fresh ingredients and talking to the people who cultivate them, I can't imagine doing that right now (maybe next week, but not right now). And while the chefs and guests are reverent of the farmers, the farmers are equally appreciative of the chefs: as Nunzio said, you can know you're raising a good product, but it's not until you put it in the hands of a someone who knows and appreciates what they are working with that it realizes its full potential.

I can not wait until summer when I can attend these dinners on the farms themselves. My mouth is watering already.

Bookmark and Share

Monday, March 9, 2009

Planting the Seed(s)

After reading the This Young House post on seed-starting, I decided to be brave this year and try it myself. Last year was the first year I had a real garden (growing more than just container herbs) but I started with plants - well, except for the out-of-control tomatoes - those technically started with seeds of tomatoes I had let rot there the previous summer.

The seed starter greenhouse kit

Watering the starter and sowing the seeds

Anyway, I figure if the seed thing doesn't work out I can just buy some plants later. For $10 ($6.99 for the greenhouse; $1.50 per packet for the seeds) I don't think it is too painful an experiment. And hopefully this will be the result:

Last year's cucs and peppers;
started from plants.

Bookmark and Share

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Turning Japanese

In an act of charity on Thursday night, Noe invited me to dinner with him and his former lab mates from Pfizer. It turns out his friend Ryan had won a ton of money (over $1000) in a Super Bowl Squares pool and had finally received the cash and wanted to go out and celebrate. Being boys that like to eat a LOT, they picked Koto in Groton as the spot for their celebratory dinner.

Koto is a hibachi-style Japanese steakhouse in the vein of Bennihana (only less cheesy). While not quite as good as my personal favorite hibachi restaurant, Champion House (in Ann Arbor), Koto is a fine place to spend an evening.

The thing about hibachi dining is you are at the mercy of your tablemates and your chef. A hibachi table fits about ten people around one grill, so unless you are with a large party you are most likely going to end up sitting with strangers. Luckily, our tablemates were great - a nice and friendly but not overly chatty family with two well-behaved children. The chef is also a factor - hibachi restaurants are partially about entertainment, after all, and a boring chef can take something away from the experience since the chef is the one serving you, practically speaking (there is a waitress, but she's really only there to bring drinks and take the initial order so the chef knows what kind of meat to bring to the table).

We got a very outgoing and entertaining chef who was more than happy to oblige our wishes to see him throw knives, juggle eggs, and toss bits of food into our mouths (note: hibachi dining may not be for you if you are shy or self-conscious). The chefs at Koto are also fond of offering "tastes" of sake - and by "taste" I mean they squirt sake into your mouth until you can't swallow anymore. Strangely enough, boys seem to love this (go figure.)

Ryan drinking sake as Marc-Andre looks on in awe.

Although I am a wine drinker 70% of the time and a gin and tonic drinker the other 30% of the time, there is something about a Japanese steakhouse that compels me to order colorful drinks in frou-frou glasses with multiple fruit garnishes. My current favorite at Koto is the Mt. Fuji, a pleasant blend of rum and several fruit juices topped with club soda - fruity, but not cloyingly sweet. (Koto also has a selection of Japanese beers, hot and cold sake, as well as a traditional cocktail menu.)

Marc-Andre and Noe with fruity drinks; Ryan with a Japanese beer.

All hibachi meals start with soup and salad. I know this soup is probably loaded with MSG and I jsut don't care. I could drink that clear, onion-y broth with the scallions floating on top and the shaved mushrooms suspended in the liquid all day. But my real love at any Japanese restaurant is the ginger dressing they put on salads. While I tend to favor the chunky rather than creamy dressings, Koto's is the exception to the rule. It looks like Thousand Island, but it tastes like pure ginger.

Salad with ginger dressing;
soup with scallions and mushrooms.

As the soup and salad bowls are cleared, the fun begins. The chef rolls out his cart of meat and cooking implements and begins his show. Most chefs start by getting the vegetables - zucchini, squash, mushrooms, and onions - going first. While the veggies are grilling, he fries an egg and prepares the fried rice or noodles. Then comes the good part: the meat.

Noe can't resist sneaking a few bites of rice
while the rest of his meal is cooking.

Most Japanese steakhouses have combination meals (choices of various types of meat, seafood, and chicken) on their menu as well as straight steak, chicken, or seafood options. While I have a hard time resisting hibachi shrimp (the shrimp they use at Koto are large and extra-sweet), I went with steak and chicken (Marc-Andre promised me his two appetizer shrimp that come with every meal, so I was able to eat four shrimp anyway). Noe chose the same as me, while Marc-Andre chose steak and salmon and Ryan chose steak and lobster tail.

Our chef hard at work.

Another note: if the site of fairly large quantities of butter disturbs you, you may also want to steer clear of hibachi dining - butter is used liberally, as is salt, pepper, soy sauce, and sesame seeds.

I asked my steak to be cooked medium rare and it came out perfect. It was red in the very center, pink throughout, and had that nice sear that only a really hot grill or pan can give. The chicken, flavored with teriyaki sauce and sesame seeds, was moist and delicious. Koto gives you two sauces with your meal: a ginger sauce intended for seafood and a mustard sauce for chicken and steak. I ended up eating most of the steak sans sauce, and in all honesty, eating about half of the sauced portion with the ginger sauce (I think I am addicted to ginger).

A full plate: veggies, chicken, steak, rice.
My shrimp had already been consumed.
The brown sauce is ginger (seafood);
the yellow is mustard (steak/chicken).

We were much, much too full by the end of the meal to even consider dessert (although not too full for beers at Hanafin's at the St. Patrick's Day Parade fundraiser). Granted, if I had won a thousand dollars and wanted to go out to dinner, I probably would have chosen some place like Craftsteak in the casino...but if three boys want to take me out for hibachi, I'm game any day.

Full and happy!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Groton "Townies"

I love "fancy" food. I also love breakfast. Sometimes I like to combine the two, but sometimes I really just want a plain old cheap diner-style breakfast. As much as I love classy brunches and and a bloody Mary, there are other times when cheap coffee and value combos really hit the spot.

Noe and I normally hit the Broken Yolk when we're looking for eggs and toast or an omelet. We can easily walk to the Yolk, since it is less than a mile from our house, and the food is really good. But we're always up for trying something new, and today we decided to actually cross the bridge (gasp!) and meet some of our Groton friends at the Groton Townhouse.

Crossing the bridge!
I hardly ever go over to Groton.

Appearance and atmosphere-wise, the Townhouse is pretty much the opposite of the Broken Yolk. The Yolk is in the middle of our neighborhood, looks like an old house, and is extremely small with only several booths and a counter wrapped around a giant grill/kitchen area.

Groton Townhouse, by comparison, is located on a major road, is rather generic-looking newer-building, and I couldn't see the kitchen from any vantage point in the huge dining room. This is not to say there was anything unwelcoming about the Townhouse's appearance - there wasn't. It just has a kind of generic Denny's look, that's all. The upside to the generic diner decor is that they A) actually have booths bog enough to fit six people ( the size of our group) and B) those booths are comfortable (Sorry, Broken Yolk, but your narrow, straight-back booths are NOT one of your high points).

We settled into our big round booth (if you go as early as we did - 9:30 - it seems you can get a pretty good table, even with a large group...probably because the Sunday church crowd hasn't drifted in). We were immediately given waters and a waitress came right over to get a drink order, which already meant the service factor surpassed several "nicer" restaurants I've been to in the area.

The coffee was drinkable - not "cooked down" or bitter-tasting - and the large juices and milk ordered by our party came in actual large glasses, a pleasant surprise (we all know the normal "large" for a glass of juice is actual pretty small in most restaurants).

The menu looked was pretty extensive, with several pages of breakfast options. We all ordered standard diner staples - combos of eggs, pancakes, and meat for three of our party; a Belgian-style waffle for one; eggs, toast, meat, and home fries for another; and for me, eggs Benedict (I couldn't resist - I had to compare).

Our waitress - who was in a very good mood despite the fact she probably got to work around 7:00 AM - kept our coffee warm while we waited for our food. It wasn't a very long wait at all. A food runner brought our plates to us, another sign that Groton Townhouse knows what kind of crowd to expect for Sunday morning breakfast and staffs appropriately.

Everyone who had ordered eggs received them exactly the way they had ordered them (scrambled, over hard, over medium, etc). A bite of Noe's pancakes proved them to be nice and fluffy. I did not try Brandon's waffle (I don't know him THAT well!) but it looked thick, with deep wells to soak up the syrup. When I asked him how it tasted, he said "fantastic" so I assume it was slightly crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, like all good Belgian waffles.

My eggs Benedict passed inspection as well - perfectly cooked eggs and just the right amount of Hollandaise sauce. The only thing I would have done differently is toast or grill the English muffin just a bit more - I like them a little crispier to hold up to the egg yolk and sauce. However, this is a minor criticism.

The home fries were delicious - they had a sprinkling of scallions on the top and I definitely picked up a slight onion-y flavor and some light seasonings. The potatoes themselves were the perfect consistency for mashing with a fork - firm enough to hold shape, but not mushy to the point of dissolving in your mouth. In short, delicious. I wish I had been hungry enough after the eggs Benedict to eat more of them.

Perhaps the best part of the meal was the bill. For six of us, all with full meals and beverages, we came in around $55 - less than $10 per person. That's definitely Denny's-type prices with better service and quality.

I do feel compelled to give our server one more compliment - even after she brought the check and we paid it, she kept coming around with the coffee pot and clearing our dirty dishes. We were lingerers this morning - people who sit at a table chatting long after they finish eating - and our server never once gave us the impression that she'd like us to leave and free up the table. In fact, it was the opposite. We may have left earlier if she hadn't kept coming over with fresh coffee.

Gourmet it isn't, but if you are looking for an inexpensive place to have a good-quality diner-style breakfast with a group of friends, Groton Townhouse is a good bet. I'm sure we'll be back.