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.

This... 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 - - 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 

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.