A Tasty Trip Up North – Part II – Eventide Oyster, Portland, ME

Eventide Oysters
The next morning, after our free hotel-provided breakfast (not worth writing on the Internet about), Anastasia and I set out for Portland, Maine. Neither of us had ever been there, but I was armed with enough food recommendations for a week, kindly provided by some equally food-obsessed Cook’s Illustrated colleagues. We found this Portland to be a quintessential New England seaside town with a dash of that other Portland thrown in for some hippie/indie flavor. After another beach stroll, our seafood yearnings not yet satiated, we stopped for lunch at the Eventide Oyster Co.

Oysters at Eventide

As you enter Eventide, the first thing that catches your eye is a large concrete trough built into the counter, filled with ice and a tempting display of every type of oyster that they have available. (The second thing is the fact that nearly every male employee is sporting some ironic hipster facial hair.) The oyster menu is divided into two categories: “Maine” and “From Away.” We ordered a half dozen Mainers ($15): two Winter Point Selects from West Bath, two Bagaduces from Penobscot, and two North Havens. With each oyster order, you can select two items from the “Accoutrements” list; we chose simple lemon wedges and kim chee ice (which sounded fascinating, but when we asked about it, turned out to be nothing more complicated than frozen and shaved kim chee juice). Our order arrived with horseradish ice instead, but we didn’t bother correcting the mistake. Nastia and I both agreed that while all three oysters were wonderful, the small Winter Points were the best: perfectly swallow-sized, briny, and slightly sweet. We each had a glass of cool, crisp Muscadet with our oysters — a perfect accompaniment. (Eventide’s cocktail menu was very tempting, but it was a bit too early in the day for that.)

The Eventide menu and business cards feature a lovely quote from poet Léon-Paul Fargue: “I love oysters. It’s like kissing the sea on the lips.” And that is the most perfect way to describe the oyster experience: It’s like frenching the ocean.

Maine Oysters: West Point Selects, Bagaduces, North Havens

Maine Oysters: Winter Point Selects, Bagaduces, North Havens

I also tried the Yellowfin Tuna Crudo ($9), served with ginger, scallions, and radishes, and a side of roasted cauliflower with pine nuts and currants ($4). Both were served in charming glazed dishes reminiscent of oyster half-shells. The tuna was cool, fresh, and tasty; but the cauliflower was a bit limp and disappointing. Had it been a bit crisper and more caramelized, it would have been perfect.

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Roasted Cauliflower

Anastasia also ordered the Lobster Roll in Brown Butter Vinaigrette ($13), which was the smallest lobster roll specimen I’ve ever seen in my life; really “Lobster Bun,” may have been a more accurate name for it — it couldn’t have been more than three inches long. She said that it was tasty, but I’m not sure if it could have been tasty enough to deserve the title (by weight) of “Most Expensive Lobster Roll Ever.”

My favorite touch, though, was the giant oyster shell sink in the restroom.

Oyster Sink

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A Tasty Trip up North – Part I – New Hampshire

My friend Anastasia and I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip to New Hampshire and Maine last week, and fortune favored our trip with unseasonably warm weather: a cloudless, sunny sky and temperatures in the mid 60s. We started out the day with a leisurely hike through Bradley Palmer State Park in Topsfield, MA, and then continued with a walk along Plum Island Beach. On the way to Plum Island, we stopped in a small seaside town and I was fascinated by a sandwich board outside of a store advertising 25-cent hot dogs. Twenty-five cents?! Whoever heard of such a deal? Further investigation, however, revealed that the hot dogs in question were decidedly 7-11-ish in nature and probably not worth even 25 pennies. Disappointment. And apparently over half a million persons have so far been disappointed by these dogs.

Hot Dogs - 25 cents

Hot Dogs

By the time we reached our hotel in Seabrook, NH, we were famished and in the mood for some seafood (Nastia’s statement on the subject: “I love seafood: I see food, I eat it.”). We flipped through the binder of local restaurant menus at the hotel and decided on Master McGrath’s, a pub/restaurant that promised — besides “Dining & Spirits” — some local color.

Master McGrath's - Seabrook, NH

Master McGrath’s – Seabrook, NH

As soon as we stepped through the doors into the dimly lit interior, I was charmed. The dark wood paneling, heavy velvet drapery, and dusty, fringed lampshades brought to mind some sort of cross between a bordello and a medieval roadside tavern.

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I noticed that all of the other diners were elderly and whispered to Nastia that this, in my opinion, was definitely a good sign. An exceedingly friendly innkeeper with a Quasimodo-ish air showed us to our dark wood booth and handed us large menus in sticky vinyl folders. Since we were, according to our hotel’s description, “minutes from the beaches of New Hampshire,” we skipped right over the menu sections entitled “All Time Best Bets,” “Our Program,” and “Hot Box” (is this a menu section or a punishment reserved for unruly diners?) and went straight to “Seafood.” We ordered the Fresh Broiled Scallops ($15.99) and Baked Haddock ($14.99). Both included a trip to the salad bar and were served — coated in breadcrumbs and topped with lemon butter — in brown-and-white ceramic ramekins dating back to at least the 1950s. The fish was fantastic: light, flaky, and tender — not overcooked as fish served in 50s-era ramekins so often is. The scallops were large, sweet, and flavorful, but just the tiniest bit on the rubbery side. Both dishes were accompanied by a pile of flaccid, greyish-green beans that had, unfortunately, had the life cooked out of them. But that’s how they cooked green beans in medieval times, so what the heck did you expect? In any case, two thumbs up for Master McGrath’s — if I ever again find myself in Seabrook, New Hampshire with a  hankering for broiled fish, I know where to go.

scallops

We closed our New Hampshire evening with a bottle of red wine, some excellent blackcurrant dark chocolate, and a hot tub. If only every evening could end that way.

Afternoon Tea at the Wolseley

My list of “Things I Absolutely Have to Do in London” is not very long, but one of them is to have a proper afternoon tea, preferably somewhere really posh. It being my birthday, it seemed the perfect time to check this one off the list. After a little research, my friend Francesca and I decided to try The Wolseley on Piccadilly Street in the West End (can you get any posher?). As soon as we walked through the heavy glass doors, I knew we’d chosen well; we found ourselves in a gorgeous, cavernous Art Deco salon (once an automobile showroom) with soaring ceilings, gleaming black and gold geometric planes, and glittering mirrors. As I looked around, I half expected to see Jay Gatsby and Daisy whispering to each other over one of the black marble tables.

We shared the full Afternoon Tea (£22.50. A simpler option is the traditional “Cream Tea,” which includes tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam for £9.75), with Francesca choosing English breakfast while I opted for jasmine green tea. We each received a generously-sized antique pot with a well-worn wooden handle and a printed tea label. Charming!

Along with the tea pots, we each received a strange silver contraption with a swinging wire basket that was apparently intended for filtering the tea in some manner; we couldn’t figure out exactly which manner. I was about to just drop the thing into my giant tea cup when I spotted the nattily dressed British men at the next table using theirs correctly: Lift by the handle; turn your wrist 90 degrees so that the cup-shaped stand swings to the side; pour tea through the filter basket to catch the loose leaves; flick wrist again so that the cup swivels back into place (neatly catching any drips) and can be used to hold the strainer upright on the table. Got it. (This brilliant apparatus is available for purchase for the trifling sum of  £63.00 — http://www.thewolseley.com/tea-strainer.)

Shortly after, our three-tiered tea tower was placed on our table with a flourish. The dapper, freakishly tall waiter carefully explained each of the five finger sandwiches and the three tea cakes in an unidentified foreign accent so thick he might as well have been speaking another language. We managed to identify the sandwiches by color and taste: 1) smoked salmon and butter, 2) cucumber and butter, 3) celery and roasted toe-mah-toe, 4) cold chicken salad with tarragon, and 5) egg and cress. On the second level were the little cakes: a slice of mini Battenberg, a tiny round Victoria sponge, and a beautiful doll-sized raspberry tart. On the top level, nestled under a heavy, elaborate silver dome topped with a tiny pine cone-shaped knob, were two small currant scones.

I went for the scones first since they were still warm from the oven. They were, in a word, heavenly. Tender, moist, light, and buttery on the inside — crisp and browned on the outside. I slathered mine thickly with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam (both also handily labeled for the uninitiated). The clotted cream was fantastic — it didn’t have the unpleasant sticky consistency of others I’ve tried — instead it was light (If that word can be used to describe a substance that clogs your arteries with a single glance…that’s why it’s called “clotted” cream, right?), smooth, and fluffy. The jam was lovely, too: neither too sweet nor syrupy.

We attacked the sandwiches next. I enjoyed the chicken salad the most — the cool chicken was tender and shredded into generously sized chunks. The other sandwiches were perfectly acceptable, but nothing to write on the Internet about.

And finally: the tea cakes. Battenberg cake is a favorite of mine, so I tried that first. The checked pieces of sponge cake, though alarmingly artificial in color, were moist and pillowy, held together with a thin layer of apricot jam and wrapped in a sheet of dense marzipan that had the same satisfying, firm, fine-grit texture as a bite of Play-Doh. Not that I’ve ever eaten Play-Doh. Next? Victoria sponge. Another favorite! Or should I say, favourite. Although it’s called sponge, this cake does not have the same light, airy texture as a North American sponge cake. It’s sweeter, moister, and denser, a bit closer to what we know as pound cake. The whipped cream that billowed out from between the wee cake layers as we bit into them was absolutely perfect: again, extremely rich cream that somehow tasted ethereal. And all balanced out by a dollop of the homemade strawberry jam. We saved the raspberry tart for last and it turned out to be a wise decision, since it was the best of all — a crisp, buttery tart shell filled with a spoonful of smooth, creamy custard piled high with huge fresh raspberries, velvety-matte under a coating of tiny silvery hairs and bursting with bright red sweet-tartness. “Sono contentissima!” (I’m so happy!) Francesca murmured, and I concurred.

It might all sound too girly for words, but I noticed that the muscular British men seated to our left ordered the exact same thing (wearing pink shirts, no less) and it didn’t seem to threaten their masculinity in the slightest.

We ended with a visit to the ladies’ room, suspecting that it would be as elegant as all the rest, and we were not disappointed: more vast expanses of black marble and mirrors, accented with glimmering gold.

Forget breakfast at Tiffany’s. Tea at the Wolseley is a sure-fire cure for the mean reds, any day.

The Late-Night PFC Experience

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So I’ve been out with friends in Chelsea tonight. I take the night bus home and God bless the night bus. Even though it takes freaking forever, at least there’s a way to get home past midnight that doesn’t involve dropping a fortune on a cab ride (ahem…Boston, take notice). When I finally get back to Clerkenwell from Chelsea, it’s about 2:30 a.m., I am starving, and I am wondering: What on earth is open at this hour? Where can one get some soakage? Lo and behold, the N19 drops me off right in front of a PFC, and oh yes, I am gonna get myself some. What is PFC, you say? Allow me to explain. Although they do have KFC in England (though British KFC franchisees are apparently ignorant of the meaning of “crispy”), KFC is not generally open at this ungodly hour. They don’t eat this late in Kentucky. But they do wherever the people who run this Perfect Fried Chicken joint are from, and I am gonna have myself some perfect fried chicken. I march right into the harshly neon-lit place (I’ve always wondered about this. Nobody looks good after 1 a.m., much less in this kind of lighting. Is it a ploy to make you hurry up and go home faster, after you’ve caught a glimpse of your horrifying, melting face in the side-wall mirror?) and am immediately flummoxed by the backlit menu. Fries? Aren’t they called “chips” here? This must be some American-style joint. That makes me feel at home and gives me the confidence to order, very loudly, in my blatant American accent, four pieces of fried chicken and a regular fries. No, I’m not eating it here! I’ve seen that mirror, for God’s sake! Take away, please! I then march on home, clutching my warm cardboard box of deep-fried soakage.

When I open the box and sample the fries, my first thought is “Dirty, dirty oil!” That oil may very well be the same oil that fueled the miracle of Hanukkah. They’re still reusing it, up here in Islington. How thrifty. Then I try the chicken. Hm. Greasy, yes, but not so “perfect.” Apparently the PFC folks, just like British KFC owners, are unaware of the fact that the whole point of deep-frying chicken is to make it crispy. It’s sog city up in here, and the “just the way you like it!” slogan on the cardboard box is mocking me, because “cold and soggy” is NOT just the way I like my fried chicken. Oh well. Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. It was PFC or some mediocre kebab, and I was not feeling the kebab tonight. But probably the only cure for this bitter disappointment will be some Full English Brekkie tomorrow.

“Hot & Tasty” – maybe the ironic quotes should have been a tip-off, but legend has it that vodka makes it harder to see ironic quotes.