A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: TraceyG

Key West: Hotter Than a Summer Bride In a Feather Bed, Pt. 1

When our friends Donna and Greg announced that they would be getting married on a sailboat in Key West over Labor Day weekend, they didn't have to ask us twice (or really even once - we aren't too proud to beg). Angel and I immediately said yes, then set about making our travel plans. I mean, who wouldn't want to spend a long weekend in a town where you can get a drink before you even claim your luggage?


And when Angel told me that he wouldn't be able to depart until the day before the wedding due to some prior work commitments, I did what anyone living in a city of 8 million people in an apartment only slightly bigger than a tool shed would do: I planned to arrive early in order to spend 60 blissful hours . . . completely alone.

After careful consideration, I decided to stay at Simonton Court because 4 pools + 0 children = happiness x 1,000.







Shady nooks for reading or emailing gloating photos to Angel were tucked about the property.




Plus, they have cats. And because there were no children to follow me around, the cats picked up the slack.







I stayed in the Royal Palm townhouse, which was bright and spacious and had a lovely view from the balcony.






With its numerous pools and abundant shade, Simonton Court turned out to be the perfect choice because oh, it was hot. Scorchingly, searingly, eyeball-meltingly hot. It was so hot that I contemplated buying one of those Uzi-style squirt guns and shooting myself in the face whenever I felt that I might pass out. It was so hot that everywhere I went, I could feel the sweat pooling between my boobs . . . and I don't even have boobs.

Oh, you think I'm exaggerating? It was so hot that I could barely eat.


And it was most definitely too hot to go out alone for a meal - I couldn't risk that some friendly Key West local might try to chat me up, then recoil in horror when they noticed the rivulets of sweat sliding off my chin and plopping into my food. Which explains how I came to subsist on personal pan pizzas and fast-food cheeseburgers for two days, with a round of mimosas thrown in to prevent scurvy.



Not that I'm complaining.

Donna and I met up at Banana Cafe on Friday for a quick lunch in the midst of her final preparations for the wedding.



She arrived by car, looking cool and crisp, while I arrived by bicycle, looking on the verge of sunstroke. Is it an unwritten rule, I wondered, that when two friends in Key West meet up between the months of May and September, that each is to pretend that the other smells fine and doesn't look like she has just completed a marathon? If not, I'm going to start attaching a number to my back to discourage any untoward comments.


After the aforementioned round of mimosas, we both decided on the turkey and swiss salad, Donna because she was no doubt watching her weight for the wedding, and me because I knew I'd never have the energy to pedal that bike and a stomach full of food back to my hotel in that sweltering Easy Bake Oven known as Old Town.





That evening I met up with Donna again, along with Greg and a few of their local friends, at Grand Vin on Duval Street. As Donna reintroduced me to the group and we shook hands, each person greeted me warmly with nearly the same words: "So nice to see you again. WHERE'S ANGEL?" And you wonder why I spend all his money and eat all his food.

A large cloud had settled over the island by the time Angel made his apparently much-anticipated arrival the next day, bringing the temperature down to something less bubbling cauldron-y, and Angel was lulled into thinking that it might actually be safe to leave the house. Ignoring my warnings about the risk of immediate spontaneous combustion should the sun peek out from behind that cloud, he suggested that we bike the few blocks over to Amigos for some lunch.




Amigos makes its own corn tortillas, plus a killer salsa that comes in both hot and mild versions and is mashed up in a giant mortar called a molcajete.





As soon as the smells of carne asada and roast pork hit my nose, I suddenly realized that, thanks to the heat, I hadn't been eating nearly enough, and I decided to make up for lost time. So I ordered three tacos -- the pulled pork with adobo sauce, the shredded beef in traditional rojo marinade, and the beef short ribs with Mexican barbeque sauce -- plus an order of chips and salsa, a side of rice and beans, and a basket of tater tots -- and told Angel to stand back. And maybe don a beekeeper's suit, just to be safe.





The quality of the food at Amigos has gone downhill a bit since our last visit -- the amazing caramelized onion salsa that I raved about last time is now a mushy puree of barely-cooked onions, and the tacos were unfortunately quite soggy -- but they surely weren't the only things damp and soggy around these parts, so I will give them a pass for now.




The sun stayed thankfully hidden for the next hour or so, allowing us some time to take in the island's quirky charms.





Although I have my heart set on a VW Thing, any of these would work, too.




You gotta love a town that can support a business that sells nothing but pirate costumes . . . all year round.


Well, this can only mean one thing: The lawyers have discovered Key West.


As soon as we saw that, we beat feet outta there and headed for the more civilized part of town.








As soon as the sun returned, Angel basked at another of Simonton Court's pools while I slathered myself in sunscreen and tallied up all my new moles.




That evening we attended Donna and Greg's rehearsal party at Vino's on Duval, where Donna had arranged for Blackfin Bistro to provide a generous spread of hors d'oeuvres including fruit, cheese, pâté, and sliders. Everything was delicious, but it would have been impolite to eat every single slider on the table, so we spent a few hours chatting it up with new friends and old, then ducked out for some dinner at Seven Fish. We'd made reservations to sit at the bar despite the fact that, after sharing a bottle of wine at Vino's, we certainly didn't need anything more to drink.

Not that that ever stops us.


Would that all glasses of Champagne could actually be this big in relation to their bottles.

Now, I know that some folks find Seven Fish too loud, too crowded, and too rushed, but that is precisely why we like it: In the same warped way that New Yorkers have convinced themselves that unfinished brick walls are cool and bathrooms bigger than broom closets are for suckers, most of us wouldn't be caught dead in an empty restaurant where we're not sitting in our neighbor's lap and screaming ourselves hoarse over the din.


More importantly, in all the years we've been coming to Seven Fish, we've never had a single dish that was less than excellent. Indeed, there is only one dish on the entire menu that I haven't tried, and what with the heat sapping my will to live appetite, I finally decided to tackle what will henceforth be referred to as the Mother of All Meatloaves.


Yes, I know that ordering a meatloaf in a place called Seven Fish is akin to ordering the food at a Hard Rock Cafe, and I relayed my hesitation to our server, Fred. But when he asked pointedly, "Of everything you've ever had here, was there anything you didn't like?" I took that as a reminder that the food at Seven Fish is really, really good . . . and that I might have more in common than previously thought with that one species of shark that eats beer cans, old tires, and anvils.

For his part, Angel went with the snapper in a Thai curry and ginger sauce over rice, which was so good that it almost made me wish I'd ordered that instead. Just kidding!


It was difficult finishing that meatloaf, after what I had for lunch earlier that day. Gotcha again!

Naturally, the meatloaf could only be followed by one thing: the strawberry-whipped cream pie.


Consisting of a gigantic cloud of whipped cream studded with sliced strawberries sitting on a crust of graham crackers topped with a thin layer of chocolate sauce, this pie makes it socially acceptable to eat an entire tub of whipped cream with a spoon in public. Which Angel proceeded to do, with a little help from me. You know what a glutton he is.


The next day we decided to bike over to Santiago's Bodega for lunch. By this time the ungodly heat had returned, so I spent the bike ride over daydreaming of swimming pools and air conditioners and Siberian gulags in an effort to stay cool. But it didn't work: I still arrived looking like an escapee from a dunk tank.



Smile though your face is melting . . .


Well, at least this helped.


The Spanish-influenced decor at Santiago's leans toward colorful tile, ornate chandeliers, and inspiring artwork gracing the warm sage and ochre walls.





Normally I am not a big fan of tapas because (1) I hate sharing, and (2) I hate sharing. But everything at Santiago's is so delicious, and in such generous portions, that I agreed to split everything with Angel . . . at least while the waiter was watching.


We started with the shrimp bisque, which was fantastically rich and spicy, followed by the portobello soup, which had a surprising amount of flavor considering that, for some inexplicable reason, it hadn't been thickened with cream.



Next it was on to the patatas bravas, which I liked because they blended the sour cream into the tomato sauce instead of just throwing a dollop on top, and the saganaki, which I liked because it's broiled cheese floating in oil.




That was followed by the proscuitto- and provolone-stuffed croquettas, which reminded me of Angel's mother's rellenas de papas, the only thing she knew how to cook without burning it to the bottom of the pan. Ah, memories!



Finally, we shared the pork skewers with apple and mango chutney, which Angel liked because there were two of them, so he had a fighting chance.



After lunch we passed a few more hours at the pool before it was time to get ready for Donna and Greg's wedding.




While I am happy to report that nothing so dramatic as forced evacuations and almost setting my own head on fire occurred at this wedding, that doesn't mean it was without its, er, more interesting moments. Click here to read Part 2!


Posted by TraceyG 08:09 Archived in USA Tagged key_west western_union grand_vin Comments (2)

Key West: Hotter Than a Summer Bride In a Feather Bed, Pt. 2

Donna and Greg's wedding took place on the historic Schooner Western Union, which is appropriately moored right outside the Schooner Wharf Bar. We set sail on a perfect evening with just enough clouds to ensure a fantastic sunset.


Although I normally take all of the photos on this blog, once on board I asked Angel to share in the camera duties because there was both food and Champagne, and I have my priorities straight.






The beautiful bride wore a traditional gown that she'd had tailored into a high-low style in order to show off her gorgeous shoes . . .


. . . and her New York Yankees garter.


Donna's friend Robin, a Culinary Institute-trained chef, had prepared a delicious seven-course tasting menu, which included inventive appetizers like chilled melon soup with mint and the crowd favorite, deconstructed French onion soup on crostini.


And Robin's sister Kellee exhibited great restraint by not gobbling up every delicious morsel before serving the rest of us.



Soon we'd dropped anchor for the ceremony, as Donna's best friend Wayne walked her down the aisle and gave her away.





At the end, Donna and Greg released a pair of lovebirds, which went as well as can be expected when wild animals are involved.



But the highlight of the evening was the best man's toast. Greg's best man, Craig, also happens to be his partner in a sailfishing charter boat business, and over the years the two men have caught countless fish, many of which have served as trophies to be mounted on their walls. You know where this is going, don't you? That's right: The best man compared Donna to a trophy fish . . . that Greg can mount over and over.



Also in attendance was Mark Certonio, the liver-loathing genius behind the Key West Food and Wine Festival, where you might recall that Angel was crowned the winner of the prestigious Silver Platinum Coconut at Coconut Bowling, and I was crowned Most Likely to End Up at Betty Ford.


Mark graciously invited me back to blog about the upcoming festival, and piqued my curiosity by mentioning that one of the new events for 2013 is a masquerade Champagne-and-cake dance party called "Let Them Eat Cake." Can you imagine how many more trips I can make to the buffet if I'm wearing a mask? That sealed the deal.






The evening was so humid and still that Donna's idea to hand out fans, along with her foresight to keep the chilled Champagne flowing like water, were the only things keeping me from jumping overboard.


That, and I didn't want to ruin my dress.


I couldn't wait to wear this gown thanks to the delicious melon color and floaty layer of sheer chiffon, but I also knew that it was just a matter of time before somebody or something snagged it or stepped on it. Which doesn't explain why I was still surprised when I got in the taxi, only to find that my leather seat had been torn to shreds and haphazardly taped back together with duct tape, emperiling the back of my dress, and that the bows on my sandals threatened the hem with every step I took. Tipsy wedding guests holding glasses of red wine on an even tipsier boat spelled disaster at every turn.

But nothing could have prepared me for how my dress eventually met its doom.


It was the end of the evening, and the boat was on its way back to the marina. After spending the past few hours on my feet chatting with the various wedding guests, I decided to sit down for a few minutes with a chilled glass of Champagne, which was served in a plastic flute. I had just set the flute down beside me when, suddenly, a rather rotund wedding guest approached and, like a circus elephant lowering itself onto a little stool, began to sit down . . . right on top of the Champagne. "NOOOOOOO!!!!" I screamed. "Don't sit down!" When it became clear that he wasn't paying attention, I did the only thing I could: I yelled, "Fire in the hole!" and ducked for cover.

But not before he sat down squarely on top of that flute, crushing it under his rear end like a booze-filled water balloon, sending plastic shrapnel flying in all directions and drenching the entire side of my dress with Champagne. And you know what? Sure, my dress was ruined, but I'm not going to lie: That cold Champagne on my sweaty legs didn't feel half bad.

As soon as we disembarked from the sailboat, the open-air CityView Trolley was waiting to transport us to the reception. Naturally, after three hours on a boat with an open bar and nary a whisper of a breeze, we boarded the trolley looking like a pack of clammy, giggly, well-dressed hyenas. Much to the trolley driver's relief, just a short ride later we found ourselves at Grand Vin for the outdoor reception.





There we spent most of the evening catching up with our friends Claudia and Alden, who live up north, meaning Key Largo. Alden is in the liquor business and Claudia is a writer, so together they equal one Ernest Hemingway.


One of the best things about this reception, besides the fantastic company and excellent food and seemingly endless supply of wine, was the cake made of cupcakes.


There are worse ways to spend an evening than chatting and laughing and indulging in Champagne and a cupcake or three.





The next day Donna and Greg had arranged to take a group of about 25 of us out to Snipes Point, a short boat ride away from Big Coppitt Key, where the bride and groom live in this adorable little cottage. Or, as Donna put it, where two hillbillies live in a dilapidated mobile home. Either way, it beats the hell out of living in a shoebox in Manhattan.


Three boats were lined up and ready to go on the canal outside of Donna's neighbor's house, so off we went, 25 of us trudging through the neighbor's yard carrying enough beer for the entire British Navy and enough food for about ten people plus one Tracey.





Our little procession made its way through the canal, then fanned out into the open sea, which was like glass on this particularly calm day.



All boat captains should look so salty . . . and give such great best-man toasts.


This is our friend Paul. Originally from Ireland and now living in Bulgaria, Paul and his lovely wife Sinead are interesting, well-traveled, and lots of fun, but the last time we went out for drinks with them, we woke up the next day just in time for breakfast . . . at 4:30pm. That's what we get for trying to keep up with the Irish.


I didn't actually see a sandbar at the sandbar, but there was sand, and we treated it like a bar, so close enough.


At lunchtime we feasted on Dion's fried chicken (which in true Key West style can only be purchased at gas stations), as well as Cuban sliders, chips, salsa, potato chips, and every kind of beer, wine, and Champagne that could fit into the boats' massive, ice-filled coolers.



About an hour or so into our visit, it began to rain, just briefly at first, and then a full-on downpour that lasted more than an hour. Not that we weren't warned, as it got dark . . .


And darker . . .


And Apocalypse.


And during it all, nobody moved. Well, that's not true - almost everyone made a move to cover their drink. But planted in the water we remained, still wearing our straw hats and baseball caps and sunglasses, chatting it up while the rain pelted our heads and the booze and conversation continued to flow.

During this marathon bull session we met two friends of Donna's named Lisa and Pete. I once accidentally mistook Pete for a dog (I'm sorry, but in this age of interconnectedness, if you don't have a Facebook page and no one knows your last name, obviously I have no choice but to assume that you are someone's pet), so he probably wasn't too excited to meet me, but Lisa certainly was (wine will do that). Which is how we ended up at dinner at La Trattoria with two people we'd just met that afternoon, plus Pete's former military buddy Rich and his wife Elvie, whom Rich picked up in the Philippines at a shoe store, and both of whom are now living in the land that time forgot, otherwise known as Gulfport, Mississippi. Got all that?



Much laughing, teasing, and imbibing ensued, and Elvie didn't even blink when I finished off her leftover pasta, so all in all a lovely dinner was had by all.


Of course, this mile-long martini list probably helped.


I ordered the Pick-Up, which was appropriate considering how we'd come upon our dining companions.


For my entree, I went with the lasagna, while Angel had the seafood ravioli. Both were delicious, and the lasagna had the added advantage of being the only thing I'd consumed that day besides a half-bottle of Sancerre, some fried chicken skin, and an entire bag of potato chips. It's a good thing New York City just banned big-gulp sodas, or my diet might really be in trouble.



The next day we biked over to Salute on the Beach for lunch. By now I had grown so accustomed to feeling like I might die from heatstroke that I actually agreed to sit outside . . . on the ocean, under a fan.





Salute is known for its spaghetti and meatballs, but I didn't order it. Too hot to eat, I tell you!




Instead, we started off with some frozen drinks, and then I had the gazpacho, which was thick and spicy and delicious.





That was followed by the blackened mahi-mahi sandwich for Angel, and the caprese salad for me.




You might be wondering why I had nothing more than a bowl of gazpacho and a small salad for lunch, but that's because I wanted to be good and hungry for what was to come. And so, after picking up some souvenirs and spending some time at the pool, at precisely 4:30 we made a beeline for 2 Cents Gastropub on Applerouth Lane.




2 Cents offers a unique selection of cocktails and beer, including beer shakes, which should obviously be served with French fry-stuffed cheeseburgers.





Lots of places in Key West offer specials at Happy Hour, of course, but 2 Cents offers something so awesomely fantastic that I can only compare it to finding a magical land where unicorns fart rainbows and the sky rains $1,000 bills and meatballs grow on trees.

What could possibly be that amazing?


That, my friends, is free bacon. FREE. BACON. Holy crispy, greasy, porkaliciousness, but I love me some bacon.


Now, I admit that when I first heard about Bacon Happy Hour, I was picturing a long table laden with a bunch of those big silver chafing dishes you see at breakfast buffets, perhaps with some tongs to make it a bit more civilized, where I could load my plate with mounds and mounds of bacon and then go back for more, so these tiny bacon votives were something of a disappointment. Even more disappointing was the fact that once the bartender saw that I was an insatiable bacon-eating machine, she stopped refilling our little votives and forced us to actually order our own snacks.

I'd hate to be the menu item that has to follow the free bacon, but the cheesy, bubbly artichoke dip put on a fine show.


We also had a few cocktails and got to talking with the locals seated next to Angel, Michelle and Alan, whom you are allowed to hate because they were sitting at a bar eating free bacon on a random Tuesday afternoon instead of slogging away at work like normal people. In her spare time, Michelle runs the Crazy Shirts store, where you should definitely go because they dye the shirts with cool stuff like chocolate and wine, and Alan works at the Rum Barrel, where you should definitely go because there is rum there.


As soon as we told Alan how many times a year we visit Key West, he threw up his arms and said, exasperatedly, "For god's sake, just $#@%ing move here already!" Cheers to that, Alan.




Soon it was time to go, and as usual we skidded into the airport a little tipsy, drenched in sweat, and with approximately 10 seconds to spare. As the plane began its ascent and the Conch Republic grew smaller and smaller in the window, I reflected on what another fantastic trip it had been and how lucky we were to have been invited to share in Donna and Greg's special day.

But mostly I thought, Thank god it's air conditioned in here.


Can't get enough Key West? We're headed back in December with a bunch of friends, so click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know if we need you to post bail!

Can't wait that long? Check out our other Conch Republic adventures here and here!


Posted by TraceyG 08:08 Archived in USA Tagged key_west salute la_trattoria two_cents Comments (7)

Summer in the Hamptons: Stick a Fork In It

So, you've probably heard all about how the North Fork of Long Island is this picturesque vineyard- and farm-dotted peninsula, awash in quaint farm stands and vibrant sunflower fields and expansive bay views.


You may have even heard that the North Fork boasts several charming villages, over three dozen wineries, and a burgeoning Slow Food scene, and is home to celebrity chefs like Gerry Hayden, formerly of New York's famed Aureole, and Tom Colicchio, the Cueball-in-Chief on "Top Chef."





But what you may not know is that, beautiful as it may be, the North Fork of Long Island is also one of the most maddening places on Earth. Do you even know how annoying it is to be delayed on your way to a winery by some guy on a tractor? Have you any idea what it's like to listen to some chef brag about how the tomatoes and corn on your plate were picked just that morning from his own garden? Can you imagine the difficulty of deciding who's going to be the designated sucker driver for your day of wine tastings? I didn't think so.




Despite these annoyances, we love the North Fork precisely for what it doesn't have: Hamptons people.


That's why, at least a few times every summer and well into the fall, we make the 30-minute drive north from our cottage to Route 25, a two-lane country road that begins in Aquebogue and ends in our favorite village, Greenport, a former whaling and shipbuilding port that still retains its fishy, small-town charm.




Founded in 1640 as the town of Winter Harbor, Greenport was also a commercial fishing hub for the small, oily bunker fish prevalent in the surrounding waters, which were used to make fertilizer. Because regular fertilizer doesn't smell bad enough.



More recently, Greenport has welcomed a slew of new shops and restaurants, where you can slurp some oysters or buy a new pair of fancy shoes.





Or you could just stick with horse shoes.


Greenport is also a favorite of the boating set, given its proximity to both Sag Harbor and Shelter Island.



I've seen more sophisticated instrument panels on remote-controlled boats. "No promises" you'll actually be able to find your destination.


This little red schoolhouse was built in 1818 and once housed Greenport's kindergarteners.


You'd look grumpy, too, if your teacher made you dress up like The Flying Nun.


One of our favorite places to eat in Greenport is at Claudio's, which bills itself as the oldest, same-family run restaurant in the U.S.


Claudio's traces its history to 1854, when a Portuguese whaling ship called the Neva set sail from the Azores and docked in Greenport with a whaler on board named Manuel Claudio. For the next 16 years Manuel Claudio sailed the world on the Neva. Finally, in 1870, he'd saved up enough money to never have to sail again, and he did what any man who hadn't set foot on dry land in 16 years would do: He opened a brothel tavern.



Claudio's often adds an ethnic twist to its classic seafood, like this Cajun calamari with spicy banana peppers and chipotle aioli.


Or this, their flounder bruschetta.


I like to stick with a classic artery-clogger: Baked, stuffed jumbo shrimp with creamy lobster sauce.


No matter what you order, you'll be eating it off of a tiny pitchfork.


Although Claudio's clam chowder has had no fewer than 8 first-place finishes in the Maritime Festival Chowder Contest, it is still no match for the Louisiana corn-and-crab chowder that has inexplicably disappeared from the menu. See how this pales in comparison?


Because of its location at the very end of the North Fork, Greenport is a huge draw for bikers.



I imagine they start their day with spot of tea at the Greenport Tea Company, linger over oysters and Champagne at the Frisky Oyster, take a harbor tour on one of the town's tall ships, then lick the frosting off a few cupcakes from Butta Cakes before jumping on their hogs and riding off into the sunset.





After photographing the motorcycles, I asked one of the bikers if he'd be willing to pose for me. After he agreed, I teasingly warned him, "You know you're going to end up on the Internet, right?" "It wouldn't be the first time!" one of his buddies chortled. "Yeah, but at least this time, nobody will be looking for him," another chimed in.


I'm sure he was just referring to this guy's Facebook friends . . . right???

The North Fork's main road, Route 25, is dotted with farm stands large and small . . .








. . . and "Deliverance."


Route 25 and its northern parallel, Route 48, are also home to over 40 wineries. People often ask me which ones are my favorites, and the answer to that question is directly related to whether the winery's parking lot is filled with buses and limousines at the time I'd like to visit. No limos = great wine! Tour bus = probably swill.

There isn't actually a creek at Corey Creek, but there is good wine and a lovely, if creek-less, view.





As I always say, Why sip when you can chug?




Other wineries on Rt. 25 include Pellegrini, Peconic Bay, and Macari.










I guess this is one way to pay for college. If stripping isn't your thing, that is.



This bite-sized sandwich cost Angel $4, but it cost me twenty minutes of my life, spent listening to him rant about what a ripoff it was.


Yes, you.



Although the wineries may look fancy, ya'll can also just relax with some sparklin' wine and locally-made potato chips.



Or you can grab a pizza, but not just any pizza. One of the newest players on the North Fork's Slow Food scene is Grana, which is already being touted as some of the best pizza in New York City . . . even though it's 75 miles away. New Yorkers, we're all about understatement.


The owner, David Plath, a native of Hampton Bays, took no chances before opening Grana: He took pizza-baking classes in Italy, studied dough and yeast making at the French Culinary Institute, and attended bread making classes at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in Vermont before opening shop. You know how those Plaths love their ovens.


Grana uses only organic unbleached flour, house-made fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce, Duroc heritage breed pork sausage, and local North Fork vegetables in season.

But are the pies any good? Do I like meatballs?


Although the margherita pie was delicious, Angel and I are both still dreaming about the Rosa Bianca, a white pizza topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano, red onion, olive oil, rosemary, and a slew of skin-on Long Island potatoes, sliced paper-thin and left in the oven just long enough to take the bite out of them.


After devouring a few heavenly slices of the Rosa Bianca, one thing is for sure: Next time I find myself stuck behind a potato farmer on a tractor, I'll be sure to give a little wave . . . instead of that other hand gesture.


Feel free to stalk me -- online, that is! Click here to subscribe, and you'll be the first to know when a new trip report is posted.


Posted by TraceyG 16:04 Archived in USA Tagged grana hamptons north_fork claudios Comments (5)

Wherein I Crash Yet Another Highfalutin' Hamptons Event...

For a certain type of Hamptons resident, summer means a social calendar chock-full of elegant galas, balls, and soirees, all benefiting various local charities. With admission for some running into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, these events are wisely priced to take advantage of the influx of one-percenters during the summer season . . . and to ensure that the Forbes 400 don't have to rub elbows with the likes of me and Angel. But sometimes, the joke's on them: Perhaps you remember that time I crashed the $500-a-head Rock the Dock Bash in Sag Harbor? I'm sorry, but when the DJ plays "It's Raining Men," and 25 guys in pastel pants hit the dance floor simultaneously, I just can't help myself.

And so, when I found out that tickets to the Hamptons foodie event of the summer, Dan's Taste of Two Forks, were going for a hefty $225 per person, I immediately sent out some feelers (okay, begged) to see if I might be able to get in for free. Happily, a friend had some extra tickets, and she astutely surmised that if anybody was going to get their money's worth at an all-you-can-eat event featuring 40 restaurants and 20 wineries, it would be me.


We decided to dress up a bit on the theory that it's always better to be overdressed when (1) the event is co-hosted by famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and fashion designer Nicole Miller, and (2) you're planning to behave like a Tasmanian devil set loose at a BBQ. That theory turned out to be correct: You know it's a chi-chi event when the Porsche is the one slumming it between the convertible Maserati and the Bentley.


And both of those are slumming it next to this guy.


And you know it's exclusive when Dan Rattiner of Dan's Papers -- who is both the founder and namesake of the event -- still needs a wristband to get in.


Once we got inside, we realized that not only were we dressed appropriately, but potato sacks might have been preferable to some of the getups we encountered. It is a brave woman who dares sport long-sleeved gold lamé on a humid evening in July. At least burlap breathes.


The memo about the white dresses and checkered shirts must have gotten lost in the mail along with my media pass.



Once we entered the tent, it was exactly like those horrible dreams you have where there's a vast, limitless buffet of every single one of your favorite foods, only you wake up before you get to eat any of it. Oh, wait, you don't have those dreams? Anyhoo, I literally didn't know where to start. My head said to be orderly and work my way down one side of the aisle and up the other, but my heart suggested that I dive headfirst into the wine booths in the center aisle, Slip 'N Slide style, and start chugging. Decisions, decisions.



Reason won out and we started on the left, where the first booth we encountered was for the excellent Amarelle. Tucked away north and west of the Hamptons in the small enclave of Wading River, Amarelle first came to our attention at the Long Island Food & Wine Festival back in 2010. That's where Amarelle's chef, the lovely Lia Fallon, managed to outcook every single person at the festival by making . . . a salad.


Not just any salad, of course, but one made with butter lettuce, frisee, arugula, sun-dried cherries, toasted almonds, white balsamic with vanilla-bean essence . . . and cocoa-dusted goat cheese. The play of sweet and sour, bitter and tangy, chewy and crunchy made this salad a real knockout. And it was, until Lia somehow managed to outdo even herself by making this:


That is a savory goat cheese cheesecake made with local Catapano Dairy Farm goat cheese, lemon oil, sea salt, and presumably some crack. Lia mentioned how difficult it was to make 1,700(!) of these come out perfectly, but I don't believe her: This ingenious creation's creamy, lemony goodness bested virtually everything else we had that evening.

Next we made our way over to Rumba, which will come as no surprise since we spend a good part of every weekend making our way over to Rumba. For Taste of Two Forks, owner David Hersh brought out the big guns: His Dominican ribs. You know these are good when they are a huge hit at an event where almost everyone got the memo about wearing white.


Over at Sarabeth's, which is located in Manhattan but apparently summers in the Hamptons, I couldn't understand why these were labeled "Morning Cookies." Aren't all cookies morning cookies?




These are Grana's miniature wagyu beef meatballs with organic stone-ground wheat buns, imported 24-month Parmigiano-Reggiano, and local arugula. Also known as the Mini Meatball Slider That Was Almost Too Cute to Eat But You Already Know How This Ends.


Next up was Anke's Fit Bakery, which had the good sense to serve these gorgeous tomato and mozzarella toasts instead of something healthy.



I am ashamed to admit that I originally dismissed Banzai Burger in Amagansett as one of those fusion places that tries to do several cuisines at once (in this case, burgers and sushi) and ends up succeeding at none of them. And I was partially right: When your burger is this good, you don't need sushi. Or even plates. I will still show up, and I will still banzai the hell out of your amazing burger.


Next up was Plaza Cafe's seared local scallop over sweet corn polenta with organic shiitakes. The chef at Plaza Cafe, Doug Gulija, is one of those people that you want to hate because they're so insanely talented, but you can't because they're also so damn nice. As for that polenta, let's just say that I'm booked at Plaza Cafe next weekend and there's a plate full o' cornmeal there with my name on it.


At one point I realized that I only had about 2 hours left to stuff down 30-odd dishes, so we had to move quickly. And so we had, in no particular order, Georgica's excellent soy-ginger tuna tartare...


A refreshing chilled raw sweet corn and cashew bisque from Babette's in East Hampton...


The Riverhead Project's Polish Town lobster pierogies with red wine and onion marmalade and sea beans, which managed to erase decades of this Pittsburgher's sauerkraut pierogie aversion in one fell swoop...


Nobu's miso black cod on butter lettuce, which was so delicious that I might be willing to brave the 6-foot-tall models and the 5-foot-tall men who chase them at Nobu in order to get some more...


Southampton Social Club's sesame-crusted ahi tuna on a lotus chip with wasabi caviar sweet soy reduction...say that three times fast...


Navy Beach's delicious something-or-other, which I'm sure I'd remember if I hadn't been so busy plotting to steal admiring their beachy weathered "Montauk" sign...


And Lunch's lobster and shrimp salads.


Wait, there's a restaurant called, simply, "Lunch"? Sort of. It's actually called The Lobster Roll, but the huge blue "LUNCH" sign outside earned them the nickname, and it just stuck. I guess they should be glad no one ever noticed their "PARKING" sign.

And then there was the parade of ice cream cones. I'll let you guess which one contained Bay Burger's cool, creamy mint ice cream, and which ones contained fluke and steak tartares.




Eventually the heat became too much and the overflow crowd moved outside for a bit.



Back inside, we had so much wine that we were grateful for some help aiming the food at our mouths.





In a sea of wine, Tito's Vodka dared to be different with a deliciously refreshing drink of vodka, lime, and ginger beer called Tito's Kickin' Mule.


In case you're wondering if that name is hyperbolic, ask yourself this: When's the last time you had a drink that inspired you to stick out both your tongue and your leg (in a stumpy parody of Angelina Jolie) for all posterity?


After that, it was time for a palate cleanser: Strawberry-cucumber margaritas, of course.


It was also time for some sweets. We started off with these adorable Guinness stout cupcakes with Bailey's Irish Cream frosting.


That's where we ran into this woman cheekily trying to make off with the entire tray. She gamely posed by flashing that beautiful smile, while tanning bed manufacturers everywhere gave each other high-fives.


Another of our favorite stops of the evening was Love Lane Kitchen, which went in a completely different direction from every other booth and served up . . . breakfast! These are homemade griddle cakes with sausage.


Yes, I know what those little sausages look like, and no, it doesn't help that they're on a paper plate. But trust me: These pancakes were decadently moist and sticky, and I can now confirm that when you're trying to balance a wine glass, a cup full of Tito's Vodka, a camera, a strawberry-cucumber margarita, and two camera lenses, etiquette dictates that you may eat pancakes and syrup by picking them up and folding them in half like a burrito.



One of the few restaurants at Taste of Two Forks that we've never visited was Greek Bites, a new spot in Southampton that opened at the end of last year. I'm not a big fan of nuts and produce masquerading as dessert -- I'm talking to you, almond biscotti, carrot cake, and rhubarb pie -- but if Greek Bites' delicious baklava with rice pudding dipping sauce is any indication of the rest of their menu, I might be willing to overlook a rogue nut or two.



Speaking of rogue nuts, below is Chef Joe Isidori of Southfork Kitchen in Bridgehampton, whose boss is the indisputably nutty Bruce Buschel. That's because Mr. Buschel spent nearly three years chronicling, in a New York Times blog, his decision to open a restaurant in the Hamptons with absolutely no business or restaurant experience, and then submitted to weekly online floggings for not having enough money, having too much money, being too hands-on, being too hands-off, not knowing the first thing about lighting/seating/flooring, and (this is the part where the Internet exploded) deciding to hire Chef Isidori without ever tasting his food.


Luckily for Buschel o' Nuts, Chef Joe makes a mean smoked trout salad.


Another of our favorite dining spots is the North Fork Table and Inn in Southold. Chef Gerry Hayden's foodie credentials include being presented with the inaugural Two Forks Outstanding Achievement Award for his dedication to the local community and commitment to native Long Island produce and ingredients. Oh, and he ran the famed New York City restaurant Aureole before, er, buying the farm.

This is North Fork Table's summer vegetable-stuffed organic zucchini with tomato emulsion and goat cheese. Forget cotton candy: Next time I go to the circus, I want some tomato foam.



On our way out, Taste of Two Forks presented us with a small parting gift, a tiny corn muffin from the gourmet market Citarella.


Although the muffin was delicious, might I suggest a lightly chilled Pepto-Bismol digestif for next year?


Next up, the bucolic North Fork, where my potato sack will blend right in! Subscribe here to be notified by email when a new post is published.

Posted by TraceyG 06:36 Archived in USA Tagged hamptons bridgehampton taste_of_two_forks dans_papers Comments (5)

Summer in Southampton: Bluebloods & Greenbacks

There's no place quite like Southampton in the summertime. Sprawling green lawns are dotted with pink and blue hydrangea, tall privet hedges are trimmed to perfection, and the gabled rooflines of grand estates peek out from windswept dunes.





In town, chic new shops pop up for the season, flowers tumble out of window boxes, American flags wave in the breeze, and the smell of money fills the air.





Nowhere is that smell more overwhelming than in Southampton's estate section, home to the town's wealthy bluebloods. Whether it's tree-lined Halsey Neck Lane, oceanfront Gin Lane, or ultra-exclusive Meadow Lane, the estate section is where polite society reigns . . .



And where impolite society must resort to stalking in order to sneak some photographs, given that these folks have spent untold millions on their spectacular homes, only to obscure them from prying, ill-bred eyes like mine with all manner of hedges, gates, cameras, and intercoms.







Still, you didn't really think I was going to let a handful of trespassing citations and three nights in jail stop me, did you?






I'm kidding, of course. It was only one night in jail.

In all seriousness, though, you know you've abandoned all sense of dignity when you pull your leased Honda onto the shoulder on Gin Lane, jump out in your flip-flops, and start taking paparazzi shots of the Old Guard's houses while the drool runs down your chin.



The private estate at the end of this long driveway is called Fairlea. Fairlea Expensive, that is. Gravel ain't cheap, ya know.


I guess this is the high-class version of that old bumper sticker, "My Other Car is a Lamborghini."


There's one in every neighborhood: that guy who doesn't cut his grass, or leaves his Christmas lights up all year. In Southampton, it's the guy with the windmill in his yard.


Or the guy with the O.K. Corral security gate.


Or, worst of all, the poor sap who couldn't afford a separate entrance for the help. How gauche.


Behind this hedge is the venerable Meadow Club, which was established in the 1880s and is known for its meticulously maintained grass tennis courts. The Wasps, they'll use any excuse to hire a groundskeeper.



Like this poor guy, who was apparently hired to spend the day on his hands and knees in a mile-long gravel driveway, pulling the weeds out with a tweezer.


Or this one, who probably trained with Cirque du Soleil before pulling off this feat.


Despite being manicured to within an inch of its life, Southampton has a tiny bit of natural beauty, too.







Because it is a sin to have more money than God, Southampton also has its fair share of lovely churches.






The only thing a church needs more than an iron pot? A cannon.


I'd have taken some pictures of the church interiors, too, but I'm not a big fan of bursting into flames.

In town, Southampton is chock-full of tony shops where residents of the estate section can burn through some of the money that's falling out of their pockets.










It's a sad day when you discover that a town's library is way nicer than your house.


Even the old library.


I don't know what I'm pointing at here, but it's a pretty good bet that I can't afford whatever it is.


If a shopping spree hasn't relieved you of the burden of a full wallet, one of the best places to lighten the load is at Tutto Il Giorno, a restaurant whose name means "all day" in Italian, and also describes how long you'll want to spend in Tutto's gorgeous, Tuscan-style garden.







Angel and I started by sharing the burrata . . .



. . . and ended by thumb-wrestling over the last of the tomatoes.

Then it was on to the spaghetti for me, and the ravioli stuffed with bitter herbs, Parmigiano-Reggiano and sage sauce for Angel. It's a shame they both look so unappetizing.



Oh, you think I forgot something? Don't be silly.


The lovely decor was designed by fashion designer Donna Karan's equally-talented daughter, Gabby. My family is really talented, too, but there isn't much money in bickering.



Another spot we like in Southampton is Le Chef, a small bistro for the ladies-who-lunch crowd.




One of the things I love about Le Chef is that they give you a free bowl of soup with your lunch entree. Free! In Southampton! This day's soup was spring pea with basil. Did I mention it was free?


Angel ordered the local flounder, while I had one of my favorite sandwiches, the sundried tomato with goat cheese, cucumber, field greens, and basil-walnut dressing on 8-grain toast.



As I was photographing our entrees, one of the ladies a few tables over gasped loudly to her dining companions: "That young lady is taking a photograph . . . of her sandwich!!" Little did she know that the real shocker was how many vegetables I ate in one sitting. Between the soup and that sandwich, I might have actually eaten a day's worth of vegetables in a single day, instead of spreading it out over a month or two like I usually do.


Of course, not every place in Southampton caters to such highbrow tastes. This is the Golden Pear, a popular local mini-chain of cafes where you can grab a coffee, some breakfast, or a light lunch all year round.



The Golden Pear has the distinction of being one of the only restaurants within 100 miles of New York City where you can allow people to pour their own coffee without fear of someone getting trampled to death.


Of course, you might still be in danger of a stampede, given the lines that stretch out the door in the summer.


But at least you'll be trampled by the very well-heeled.


Can't get enough huge houses and tiny sports cars? There's more Hamptons here, here, and here!

Want to know where we're headed next? Subscribe here!

Posted by TraceyG 18:40 Archived in USA Tagged southampton hamptons the_hamptons Comments (8)

Atlantic City, NJ: Against All Odds

Last month, when my friend Frances invited us to spend a weekend with her and her husband Todd in Atlantic City, I was understandably a little apprehensive. First of all, Atlantic City is in New Jersey, a state where calling someone pale is an insult so grave that it might result in your body being stuffed into the trunk of their Camaro. Second, for many years, Atlantic City's reputation was that of a city where the real gambling involved walking down the wrong street after dark. And third, did I mention that we'd be making the 2.5 hour journey by boat? I mean, who isn't dying to star in their very own remake of Gilligan's Island?

Our plan was to drive down to Frances and Todd's house in Brick, NJ, on Friday night, then depart for Atlantic City on Saturday morning. Unfortunately I wasn't feeling well on the drive down, and so after a tour of every rest stop bathroom in New Jersey, I slept in on Saturday and missed the omelets that Todd had kindly prepared for breakfast. Instead, I had this.


That is a butter cake with orange filling and buttercream frosting that Frances made herself. It was supposed to be my dessert on Friday night, but it made a perfect breakfast instead . . . particularly when paired with bellinis.


I know this looks like a lot of luggage for just one night, but Frances and I really wanted to blend in in Atlantic City, so two of those bags were filled with bronzer, hair extensions, fake nails, and lip liner, and a third was stuffed full of padded bras.





Our journey was thankfully uneventful, and after a few hours Atlantic City came into view.



Soon we arrived at the state marina where we'd be docking the boat for the night.








We then made our way over to the Borgata, where the glass-fronted lobby has those triple-width revolving doors that move automatically as soon as you step in. Some idiot kept touching the glass, though, which causes the doors to stop dead and everyone inside to pile up . . . but I just couldn't help myself.


Although AC has dozens of hotels to choose from, Frances said she picked the Borgata because of the gorgeous Chihuly glass chandeliers and sculptures in the lobby and other public areas.




Despite the beauty of the Chihuly sculptures, Frances has lived in Jersey for quite a while now, so I wouldn't be surprised if she really wanted to stay at the Borgata because the building is plated in fake gold.


Our first stop was at Buddakan for lunch, where this gigantic golden Buddha would turn out to be the most tasteful thing we saw all weekend.


Since we'd arrived in AC later than anticipated, three of us were famished by the time we sat down for lunch, and Todd was downright delirious.


However, since our dinner reservations were just 4 hours away by the time we arrived at Buddakan, we decided that we'd better eat light. So we had some spare ribs, and one or two other things.







After lunch we spent a few minutes exploring the Pier Shops and the boardwalk.


I'm as lazy as the next guy, but cruising the boardwalk in one of these carts instead of on foot is really pushing it.


After lunch we walked over to Caesar's, the legendary Atlantic City hotel that began life as a Howard Johnson's. You might think that Caesar's is much classier than a HoJo, but that's like arguing about whether Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan is the better behaved inmate.





If you ever find yourself staring at a bunch of cement Caesars and a garish sign for Trump Plaza, do as this photo suggests and hire a moving van to get the hell out of there.


The highlight of our visit to Caesar's was this multi-piece sculpture outside the hotel.


Frances and Todd jokingly discussed getting a red-caped Caesar for their own front yard, but let's be realistic: One of their neighbors would steal it in a heartbeat.


Angel and Todd decided to return to the Borgata to catch the Yankees game on TV, which left me and Frances free to do a little shopping.




Oh my Gaudy.




One of the highlights of the Pier Shops is a fountain that changes colors.


Every so often the fountain is set to music, and since this is New Jersey, that music is either Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, or someone hollering, "Yo!"



Our plans for that evening included dinner, drinks, and a comedy show, so, this being AC, I of course dressed up like a streetwalker.


For her part, Frances wore a black dress covered in 3-foot-long fringe, which she inadvertently peed on every time she went to the ladies room. I'm kidding! That only happened once.


The four of us met up outside Frances' room at precisely 7:30, but Todd, who was fully dressed and ready to go, never even made it to the elevator before deciding that he was too exhausted to carry on . . . leaving Angel with a faux hooker on each arm and a dinner reservation at a place called Fornelletto, which sounds like something a real hooker might do for the right price.


We started off with the burrata . . .



then moved on to the spaghetti with lobster for Angel . . .


and the basil-crusted halibut with peas, favas, and asparagus for Frances . . .


and a veal parm, ironically shaped like a chicken, for me.



After dinner we headed over to the comedy club, but between the group of drunken hecklers near the stage, and the pack of drunken hyenas behind us, the only person laughing was probably Todd, who'd had the good sense to stay home.

Undeterred, the three of us wound up at one of the Borgata's many bars, this one called Long Bar, where we had a few cocktails and Frances unleashed her inner Tracey by ordering a plate full of soft pretzels less than an hour after we finished dinner.





Although I'd like to say that we stayed up and partied all night, Angel and I collapsed into bed by midnight.


The next morning Frances and Todd headed back to the marina to ready the boat for our trip back, while Angel checked us out of the hotel and I took some photos of the casino.






We ran out of time to grab breakfast, but luckily Frances had it covered: A danish for Angel, and for me . . . a tuna melt. That she knows that's my favorite breakfast and still hangs out with me just goes to show what a good friend she is.


We were maybe only 15 minutes outside of AC when we saw this.


Yup, that's the Coast Guard, who pulled up alongside us and boarded our boat for what was supposed to be a routine check of the boat's emergency equipment. I'm pretty sure, however, that this particular inspection was anything but routine, considering that the ensuing conversation went something like this:

Coast Guard: When is the last time you were boarded, ma'am?
Frances: Um, never? And who are you calling "ma'am"?
Tracey: Hey, would you guys like a tuna melt?!
Coast Guard [sternly]: No, thank you, ma'am. It's 10:00 in the morning.
Tracey: Well, how about some photos, then? You wanna be on a blog?
Angel buries his face in his hands.
Frances: Our friend Tracey here has this tapeworm, and lots of people like to read about it. You could be famous!
Todd [changing the subject]: Here, let me show you officers the life jackets and flares.
Tracey: Smile pretty, now!
Coast Guard [sternly]: Ma'am, please don't make us confiscate that camera.
Tracey: What did my friend just tell you about calling us "ma'am"?





Inspection completed, the Coast Guard departed and we continued on our merry way, bound for Baker's Water Street Bar & Grille in Tom's River. Tom's River is notable for having a completely normal name, which really means something in a state full of towns with names like Ho-Ho-Kus, Bivalve, Cheesequake, and Buttzville.


At Baker's, we ordered such a disgusting assortment of foods that you'd have thought we'd staggered into a 7-11 at 2 a.m. I went with a pina colada paired with the Asian salmon, which I don't really like but ordered for the basmati rice that came with it; Frances ordered a four-course lunch that included red pepper hummus, teriyaki steak, wasabi-crusted tuna, and a molten chocolate lava cake a la mode; Angel had the cashew-crusted tilapia with coconut rum sauce, which he ate with French fries and a side of BBQ sauce; and Todd nursed a coffee and ordered a lobster to go.








Amazingly, nobody threw up. Maybe because we had coated our stomachs with Baker's addictive corn fritters dusted with powdered sugar beforehand?


Exhausted from taking in more tacky in one weekend than most folks do in a lifetime, Angel and I departed Brick around 5pm and headed for home. We were almost at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel when it occurred to us that there was only one possible way to finish a weekend in Jersey, and that was with dinner at Leo's Grandevous in Hoboken.


I make it a policy to never use photos on this blog that I didn't take myself, but Leo's warrants a one-time exception. This is the photo that appears on their web site's home page, and it sums up Leo's better than any words I might write ever could.


Opened by Leo and Tessie DiTerlizzi in 1939, Leo's became a hangout for Frank Sinatra in his early days in Jersey, and today, all of the available space on Leo's walls, and a fair amount of the selections on the jukebox, are dedicated to Hoboken's favorite son.



In 2000, Men's Journal named Leo's one of the "50 Greatest Bars in the United States," probably because it's the perfect place for a "grandevous," which is a clever play on the restaurant's location on 2nd Street and Grand.



As "Don't Stop Believin'" blared from the jukebox, Angel and I settled in at a high-top near the bar and ordered two glasses of bad Chianti, which arrived filled to the brim old-school style. (White wines at Leo's are served with ice.)

Soon our spaghetti and meatballs arrived, along with a side of meatballs to share. This is Leo's: Leave the Chianti; take the meatballs.



Sure, Leo's is delightfully tacky and staunchly old-school, but it's also a helluva lot of fun.


Much like New Jersey itself.


Want more Jersey? Check out our adventures in beautiful Cape May here.

Want to swap fake tans and big hair for tiny dogs and huge egos? Then follow us to the Hamptons this summer! Click here to subscribe, and you'll be the first to know how many lobster rolls a person can really eat in three short months.

Posted by TraceyG 05:41 Archived in USA Tagged atlantic_city new_jersey hoboken borgata leos_grandevous Comments (2)

Longboat Key & Naples, FL: Everybody Must Get Stoned

So, what do you do when dear friends are getting married in the slow-drivin', blue-hair-havin', socks-with-shorts-wearin' capital of Florida's Gulf Coast, otherwise known as Naples?

You realize that just two short hours away on Longboat Key is Moore's Stone Crab, the best stone-crab-servin' spot around, and you arrive five days early just to stuff yourself full of Moore's before the wedding.

Or, at least that's what you'd do if you had a tapeworm.


We arrived at the Ft. Myers airport on a Tuesday morning with empty bellies, full wallets, and just 80 miles of Florida highway separating us from stone crab nirvana. We immediately set off for a tiny barrier island across the bay from Sarasota called Lido Key, which is connected to Moore's, er, Longboat by a short bridge.





The oldest seafood restaurant under the same ownership in Manatee County, Moore's opened in 1967 when Papa Jack Moore started walking the flats of the bays, catching stone crabs by hand. As his business grew, Papa Jack started rowing a boat up and down the coast, sleeping on the beach at night. (I know this makes Papa Jack sound like a homeless vagrant, but remember, this was the 60s.) He later bought an outboard motor to speed up the process.



Back then Papa Jack worked about 50 to 75 traps, whereas today, Moore's boats work as many as 140,000 traps, all of which are built by hand. You know it's time for a career change when you'd rather build 140,000 crab traps with your bare hands and sleep on a beach than review 140,000 legal documents and sleep in a real bed. I'm just sayin'.


For the uninitiated, stone crabs are similar in flavor (and, unfortunately, price) to very sweet Maine lobster, though the claw meat is actually more tender and less chewy than lobster. And, unlike lobster, stone crabs are an eco-friendly choice because, once removed, their claws will grow back in about a year, and each time the crab molts, the new claw grows larger.




Stone crabs can be served hot or cold, and are accompanied by a wedge of lemon and your choice of drawn butter or a pungent mustard sauce. At Moore's, however, the stone crab is so sweet that the butter is altogether unnecessary and the mustard just masks the crabs' incredible flavor, so Angel and I stick to a healthy squeeze of lemon and a lot of swooning.



After lunch we checked in at our hotel, the Lido Beach Resort. At many hotels I find myself wondering why they don't just save us both some time and give me the room I'm going to end up in anyway, after I complain about the first one. Luckily there was no such time-wasting at the Lido.




Later that afternoon we stopped by St. Armand's Circle, an open-air shopping and dining area located on its own oval-shaped island just a short walk from Lido Key. Whether you're after a beachy frock at Shore or Lilly Pulitzer, drinks at the Daiquiri Deck, or, say, an inside-out Boston cream cupcake from Sarasota Cupcake Co., St. Armand's is the place to get it.
















Since we weren't sure how tired we'd be at the end of a long travel day, we decided to wing it for dinner instead of making reservations. And so later in the evening we we set off for Euphemia Haye, which sounds like a particularly nasty pollen allergy, but is in fact a gourmet restaurant with an upstairs lounge called the Haye Loft.



The Haye Loft serves a small menu of appetizers, salads, entrees, thin-crust pizzas, and tapas, all of which fit the bill perfectly given the late hour. I decided to go for the pizza topped with grilled shrimp, pesto, pine nuts, and bell peppers, mainly because the menu read, and I quote, "Speaks for itself! (mmm)."


For his part, Angel went with the spicy BBQ duck and shiitake mushroom pizza, topped with caramelized onion and garlic. Although the menu did not say "mmm," or anything else with regards to the BBQ duck pizza, I'd like to recommend a reprint in which the menu writer might add, "Holy mother of god this is the most amazing @#$%& duck. Mmm."


You know what this is, right?


Yep, it's that little bubble that pops up sometimes near a pizza's crust, allowing the cheese there to become more browned and nutty and crunchy than on the rest of the pie, and yes, I saved it for last. I'd been hoping to use it as a bargaining chip for some more duck, but by the time I'd eaten my way around to the bubble, Angel had long finished scarfing down that duck.

Turnabout is fair play, however. And so, when we were informed that the Haye Loft has its own Dessert Rar featuring everything from peanut butter mousse pie to chocolate chip cheesecake to triple berry pie (you didn't really think I'd picked this place at random, did you?), I ordered my absolute favorite -- the lemon tart -- which also happens to be one of Angel's favorites . . . then extracted a promise involving unlimited access to all future pizza toppings in return for a few bites of my tart.






The next day we did a bit of exploring around Lido Key and Longboat Key, by which I mean we admired the lovely waterfront homes and wondered if two people who spend as much money on food as we do might ever be able to afford one.









For lunch, we decided on the Dry Dock Waterfront Grill on Longboat.




We started off with a frozen rum runner for me, a frozen margarita for Angel, and an order of the fried grouper bites for me to hoard for us to share. The grouper came with a unique Ranch-style Thai chili sauce that was hard to eat in moderation . . . so I didn't.




For our entrees, Angel went with the jerk shrimp tacos, while I went for the chopped chef's salad with . . . Ranch dressing. Like I said: Resistance is futile.


After an afternoon spent lounging at the adults-only pool with a good book and an incipient sun rash, we arrived early for our dinner reservation at an old favorite, the Chart House, which we love thanks to its "dynamite" fish.


The Chart House's dynamite preparation entails drizzling an addictive sauce made of cream cheese, mayonnaise, sweet Thai chili sauce, Sriracha, and rice wine over the fish; topping it with a healthy serving of lump crab meat, then broiling the whole thing until the cheese mixture is hot and bubbly and your dining companion is pounding her knife and fork on the table.


But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Our meal started off with a couple of cocktails, the pomegranate mojito for Angel and the pineapple-mint caipirinha for me, the latter of which was the runner-up in our "Best Drink of the Week" contest.





I couldn't decide between the clam chowder and the lobster bisque for my appetizer, so I went with the Best of Soup, which consists of small ramekins of both the chowder and bisque, plus the chunky gazpacho.


Angel went with an appetizer called Calamari & Friends, which sounds like one of those insufferable political roundtables on Fox, but was actually lightly fried calamari rings and some other stuff that you might never think to fry, such as carrots, along with jalapeno peppers and tiny rings of zucchini, all served with citrus chili and chunky marinara sauces for dipping.


Finally, the main event: Two orders of the dynamite grouper topped with a drizzle of basil oil and snipped chives and scallions, accompanied by an artsy pyramid of coconut-ginger rice.


We thought it was pretty good.


The next day we decided to stay put at the resort for lunch, thanks to the presence of the blackened grouper sandwich on the menu. Although this is the first time I'm writing about The Best Fish Sammie Ever, this sandwich is actually one of the reasons why we continue to return to the silicone-sportin', Botox-injectin', skimpy-outfit-wearin' capital of Florida, otherwise known as Delray Beach, where an identical one is served at the Cascades Poolside Bar at the beachside Marriott.

Why all the fuss over a grouper sandwich from a nondescript hotel restaurant, you ask? Because this grouper sandwich is sweet and succulent and lightly blackened, then topped with carmelized Bermuda onion, chopped romaine, ripe tomato, creamy key lime aioli, and nestled onto two buttery, coconutty slices of griddled -- griddled! -- luau bread, that's why. Griddled!


Also at this lunch, we crowned the winner of our "Best Drink of the Week" contest: A key lime pina colada that was so new it wasn't even on the menu yet. The bartender whipped up a batch of samples, then sent the waitress around with free tastes for all of the unsuspecting lunch patrons. If this sounds familiar, that's because it's the exact same method crack dealers use to reel in new customers.



Between the sweet, creamy coconut, the slight tang of the lime, and the fact that the pale green color was reminiscent of my beloved Shamrock Shakes circa 1985, you can probably understand why I'd mumble, "Just one more hit, man!" every time Angel tried to cut me off.

Later that evening we reluctantly tore ourselves away from the key lime pina coladas and drove over to a neighboring key, Anna Maria Island, to catch the sunset at an oceanfront spot in Bradenton Beach known simply as The Beachhouse. Crossing the bridge from Longboat into Bradenton Beach was like leaving an ultra-posh, perfectly manicured five-star resort for a tiny beachside cottage where the weathered pastel paint is peeling a bit, a slew of brightly-colored beach towels are slung over the Adirondack chairs, and dozens of pairs of flip flops are scattered around the sandy deck.

In other words, we loved it.














Nearby is the Bradenton Beach pier, where we caught the waning daylight just in time.




Finally we made our way over to The Beachhouse, where they usher in the sunset . . . by rounding up a random kid to bang a gong. Did I mention that we loved this place?








What could top that lovely sunset? I'll give you a hint: It starts with "m" and ends with "oore's."


We started off, naturally, with more stone crab, then moved on to Cajun shrimp and tenderloin tips for Angel, and a couple of crab cakes with an insanely spicy red pepper remoulade for me.



At one point during our meal, I picked up one of the rounded crab claw "knuckles" and applied a bit of pressure to extract the meat, at which point the slippery knuckle flew right out of my hand and landed under the empty table next to us, exactly like that scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts lets that snail fly. Proving that I have even less class than a movie prostitute, however, I immediately retrieved my crab knuckle, applied the Five Second Rule, and ate it anyway. Like I've said, stone crab is both expensive and delicious.

On Friday it was time to leave Moore's Lido Key and head down to Naples for the wedding of our friends Ellen and Brian at La Playa Beach & Golf Resort, where the average room rate of $700 per night was discounted for the wedding to something a little less second-mortgagey. We'd planned to make the drive and then have lunch in Naples, but two hours seemed like at least one hour too long to be on the road without eating, so we headed over to City Island, a Cape Cod-style "hook" at the end of Lido Key that is home to the Old Salty Dog.




The Old Salty Dog is a waterfront pub that I chose specifically for one particular menu item: Dog Bites. Dog Bites are beer-battered, deep-fried hot dogs that are just as salty, greasy, and delicious as you might imagine, though not quite as healthy as you might expect.




I got so excited by those Dog Bites that I wasn't thinking clearly when it came time to order entrees, so I ended up with Beer Battered & Deep Fried II, which occurs to me is the perfect name for the boat I plan to buy once I've eaten everything here in NYC and have to start over in Key West.






The drive down to Naples was an easy one, and soon we'd arrived at the lovely La Playa, where we were upgraded to a room that opened directly out to the beach and afforded a peek-a-boo view of the water.




Shortly after settling in, we wandered out to get the lay of the land.








At the rehearsal dinner that evening, our friend Frances got a bit tipsy and announced to the entire table that I had a tapeworm, which should have been obvious considering that I'd just gobbled up three cheeseburger sliders in quick succession and was trying to wheedle Angel into getting me another one. Eyeing my bony shoulders suspiciously, Ellen's aunt pooh-poohed the very thought. Oh, I eat like horse, I assured her, explaining that just earlier that day, in fact, I'd enjoyed a lunch of beer-battered, deep-fried hot dogs. At which point Ellen's white-haired uncle suddenly jolted awake from his reverie and sputtered, "Deep fried hot dogs?!? WHERE???" I knew I liked that guy.



The morning of the wedding dawned bright and sunny, so we headed over to the Turtle Club at Vanderbilt Beach for a light lunch of salads and iced tea.



We each started with a bowl of soup -- lobster bisque for me, seafood chowder for the Ange -- followed by a grilled shrimp salad with white balsamic vinaigrette for me, and the Mediterranean salad topped with grilled rosemary chicken for Angel. Both were delicious.




Our first inkling of trouble came as we were waiting for the valet to bring our car around after lunch: A few raindrops on my shoulder, followed by a full-on deluge just as the car arrived. By the time we returned to La Playa it had thankfully started to clear up, so we spent the afternoon lounging on the beach and dodging the intermittent thunderstorms before it was time to get ready for the wedding.





I'd just taken a shower and had begun drying my hair when my hair dryer suddenly died. I quickly unplugged it and tried a different outlet, then another, and still another, panic setting in as I realized that I had only a matter of minutes before my hair began to air-dry into its natural state, which looks for all the world like cotton candy.

Finally, success! One of the outlets appeared to be working and my hair dryer roared back to life. Ten seconds went by, then twenty. Having coaxed the hair on one side of my head into loose curls, I was just about to beat the cotton candy on the other side of my head into submission when I heard a strange sizzling noise like an electrical charge, and then a distinct crackle.

My hair dryer had caught on fire.

I let out a surprised yelp and flung the dryer to the floor, where it left a burn mark on the carpet and lay there like a useless severed hand. Immediately I began barking out orders to Angel, ranting about nozzles and diffusers and frizz and basically carrying on like a wild-haired John McEnroe on the receiving end of a bad call from the line ump.


It's true: I may look somewhat normal, but I have a temper like a sleep-deprived toddler in the candy aisle at a Wal-Mart. Which is why, when Angel failed to produce a brand-new working hair dryer in .02 seconds, I trashed that hotel room like a rock star who discovers one yellow M&M in the bowl of contractually-guaranteed brown ones.

What I didn't realize at the time, however, was that my problems were just the tip of the iceberg.

That's because, while I was busy wrangling a flaming hair dryer and a head full of cotton candy like some kind of deranged circus performer, the building next door, where the bride and groom, the entire wedding party, and all of their relatives were staying . . . had also caught on fire, causing the entire building to be evacuated.



Which meant that just an hour before the ceremony, our beautiful bride Ellen had to walk down 14 flights of stairs . . . in her wedding gown . . . and five-inch heels.

Which was also right around the time that this arrived.


All told, I'm happy to say that our girl kept it together pretty well. How many brides do you know who can evacuate a burning building, dodge her groom in the hotel lobby, make peace with a gigantic storm cloud, stop to pose for photos with some firemen, and still look this amazing???






For these two, though, looking completely adorable just comes naturally.


As for me, I decided that I'd earned a glass of Champagne or three after having successfully managed to not set my own head on fire.


The next day we attended the happy couple's farewell brunch, then headed off to Ft. Myers, where we arrived approximately 4 hours early for our flight home. While normally the only thing I'm ever early for is a restaurant reservation, given the events of the day before, I think Angel and I both half-expected the road to Ft. Myers to be closed by some only-in-Florida disaster, like an overturned truck full of alligators or a chain-reaction pileup of Cadillacs.

Luckily there were no such disasters, which left us free to make a pilgrimage to nearby Ft. Myers Beach, also known as Estero Island, for a much-anticipated stop at the Heavenly Biscuit.



We first discovered the Heavenly Biscuit in 2003, when we chose Ft. Myers Beach for a simple, stress-free beach vacation before I had to begin studying for the bar exam. The fact that I am still thinking about the Heavenly Biscuit nine years later should tell you everything you need to know, both about me and about those biscuits. If not, this might:


This is the Heavenly Biscuit's homemade cinnamon roll. But as good as it looks, there's a reason they didn't name this place the Heavenly Cinnamon Roll.



That's because the biscuits at Heavenly Biscuit are exactly that: heavenly. They are buttery, warm, flaky, and soft enough to stick to your teeth, and to them you may add a host of delicious fillings, including eggs, cheese, tomato, gravy, bacon, thick-cut ham, sausage (link or patty), fried chicken, chicken fried steak, salmon, or ahi tuna.





I went with the classic ham, egg, and cheese biscuit, while Angel, apparently feeling like he'd cheated death after escaping both a hotel fire and Hurricane Tracey, went straight for the fried chicken.




Back when we first visited the Biscuit in 2003, I'd quickly fallen in love with the spice mix they use to season their home fries, a peppery blend of garlic, salt, paprika, cayenne, red pepper, black pepper, mustard seed, and fennel that gives the mixture a unique taste that's hard to get enough of. And so I'd purchased a bag of it, intending to use it as soon as I got home. But every time I tried, I found myself hesitating: Once I used it all up, who knew when I'd be able to get more? And so that spice mix has sat in my kitchen cabinet for nine long years, waiting for the right moment to finally make its way into a skillet full of home fries.


That moment is likely to be this weekend. Of course, I'll use my new batch of spice mix and finally toss the old one, knowing that we'll make a return visit to southwest Florida some time soon, if only for more succulent stone crab, addictive key lime pina coladas, and heavenly biscuits.


I just hope the skillet doesn't catch on fire.


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Posted by TraceyG 16:23 Archived in USA Tagged naples longboat_key moores_stone_crab lido_beach euphemia_hay old_salty_dog chart_house Comments (12)

Key West Food & Wine Fest: Barefoot, Uncorked & Unhinged Pt1

I think my favorite sport in the Olympics is the one in which you make your way through the snow, you stop, you shoot a gun, and then you continue on. In most of the world, this is known as the biathlon, except in New York City, where it is known as winter. -- Michael Ventre, L.A. Daily News

What Mr. Ventre doesn't mention is that you might want to point that gun at yourself. Once the magical wonderland that is Christmas in New York has packed up and left town, reality slides an icy-cold finger down the back of your neck: It's bitterly cold, the trees are bare, and you know it's just a matter of time before the slush arrives and you have to step into one of those black puddles that could be three inches deep, or three feet. There aren't even any good holidays to look forward to: Celebrating groundhogs and Abe Lincoln isn't nearly as much fun as celebrating gluttony and greed like we do on proper holidays.

To escape these winter doldrums, Angel and I like to head south. As we did last year around this time, we booked a trip to Key West, this time to coincide with the Key West Food & Wine Festival. (This is a real event, not just how I refer to every visit to Key West.) We ended up with VIP tickets, which entitle you to attend all of the scheduled events during the four-day festival, but sadly do not entitle you to the new liver that you will require at the end.



The festivities began on Thursday night with the Barefoot Beach Party, a wine-soaked event at Key West's South Beach at which no one is actually barefoot. That suited me just fine, since I was already wondering how I was ever going to find my sandals again if I had to bury them in the sand to prevent someone from stealing them. (You can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the girl.) There we met up with some old friends, Donna and Greg, and some new friends, Claudia and Alden. Don't worry if you can't remember their names; by the end of the night, I couldn't either.



Angel gallantly volunteered to wear both VIP passes so that my necklace wouldn't get tangled up in the lanyard, and to carry the camera so my shoulder wouldn't get sore from the strap. Yes, he is a saint. Saint Sherpa.







Among the tasty nibbles at the Beach Party were carved roast beef, shrimp and fish tacos, assorted cheeses, and tropical fruit, all of which were very good considering that they weren't bacon double cheeseburgers.




Oh, and little rum cakes! Big rum cakes are good, too, but almost everything tastes better when it's miniaturized.


After the Not-So-Barefoot Beach Party, we all piled into one of the Old Town Trolleys that transported us to the next event, the Wine Around the Neighborhood Strolls. The word "stroll" implies nattily-dressed couples ambulating arm-in-arm, perhaps under a pointy ruffled umbrella, but trust me when I tell you: this was no stroll. This was a tipsy, giggly, Wine Around the Neighborhood Stumble.



Having chosen the Bight Stroll, which featured restaurants along Key West's historic seaport, we began at Conch Republic Seafood Company, where we were treated to bacon-wrapped scallops with pineapple chutney and Thai peanut sauce, which was paired with a Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc Viognier. (Kudos to anyone who can pronounce "Viognier" after two hours of wine tasting . . . or any time, really.)



Despite the presence of large barrels that would have made fine tables for balancing our wine glasses and the slippery scallops, in our clouded judgement we instead decided that we'd sit on some tree stumps and balance the tiny plates on our laps . . . which is how poor Donna ended up with a scallop-shaped bacon grease stain on her lovely white pants. As for me, I'd no sooner carefully balanced my plate on the tree strump stool when my scallop slid off and landed in a perfectly scallop-sized little cranny in the stump. Unable to decide whether I'd get more enjoyment out of digging the scallop out and eating it anyway, or waiting around to see if someone might sit on it, I did the only sensible thing I could: I wandered off in search of more wine.


Our next stop was the Commodore restaurant. I immediately tried to sober up a bit upon realizing that this was a classy joint, as was apparent from the fact that we could sit on bar stools instead of greasy tree stumps.



You see, while herds of wine-soused VIPs clambered off the trolley and into the various restaurants participating in the Stumble, the restaurants in question were actually open for business. And so, if you were in the midst of having an elegant meal at the Commodore or A&B Lobster House when we barged in and demanded, "More food! More wine! More Rolaids!" it's really your own fault. That's what you get for trying to have a fancy dinner in a town that boasts a shrunken torso at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium.

After settling into some seats at the bar to enjoy our lobster cakes with roasted red pepper sauce, I immediately felt something strange and reached under my rear end, only to come up with this:


That's right: After mercilessly teasing Donna about her stained pants, I accidentally sat on a piece of frisee. Karma. It really is a bitch.


Other stops included A&B Lobster House, where we enjoyed a delicious puff pastry topped with Maine lobster, escargot, and wild mushrooms in lemon butter sauce, paired with a Louis Martini cabernet . . .



. . . and White Tarpon Wine Bar, where I immediately flung that roast beast aside to get at the delicious potato gratin underneath.



The final stop along the Neighborhood Stumble was the Blue Mojito bar at the Hyatt, where we were to gather around a campfire and make our own S'mores.


That is when I realized that the folks who run the Key West Food and Wine Festival are bunch of sick $&#%s. Why else would they wait until the very end of the night, when most of us could barely see straight, to equip us with long, pointy metal sticks and encourage us to play with fire? The fact that I still have both of my eyes and both of my eyebrows after this event proves the mantra of drunkards everywhere: When faced with imminent danger, one really can sober up in a hurry.


You might think the fact that the six of us escaped without third-degree burns or puncture wounds would have sent us scurrying home to count our blessings, but no. After four-and-a-half hours of never actually seeing the bottom of my glass, it was off to Grand Vin for a bottle of Champagne. Here's to cirrhosis!

Oh, I almost forgot: Earlier that day, we'd decided to bike over to El Siboney for lunch. Why would I down a huge platter of Cuban food right before an all-night food and wine event? If you have to ask, you must be new to this blog. Welcome!


Anyway, do not be put off by the fact that this looks like a dry cleaners in a bad neighborhood (an oxymoron if ever there was one). El Siboney attracts an extremely brisk lunch crowd, all of whom come for the hearty portions of well-prepared Cuban classics, which I usually wash down with sangria, but on this day was washed down with a cocktail of diet Coke, Advil, and Pepcid AC.



I went with the Ropa Vieja, which means "old clothes," while Angel settled on the Chuletas a la Plancha, or grilled pork chops. Both dishes, accompanied by a mound of yellow rice, a cup of black beans, and some fried plantains, were delicious and filling, and the total tab was well under $50. The fact that the eyes of two dozen cigar-store Indians are boring into you while you eat is a small price to pay for greatness.



The Food & Wine Festival events continued on Friday with a seminar, Tasting Everything Italian, in the garden at Blackfin Bistro.


We started off with some Prosecco and an olive oil tasting, which sounds exciting until you examine this roulette tasting wheel and realize that some of the flavors you might encounter include moldy hay, fetid milk, and baby vomit. Or your own vomit, depending.







After the olive oil came mortadella, prosciutto, and speck. All of it was fantastic, as might be expected from meats with a 50% fat content.





Next we got to try some Roma and San Marzano tomatoes. Even though San Marzanos are more expensive, and purportedly higher quality, nearly everyone at the tasting found the Romas to be much sweeter and more delicious.




In between tastings, Key West chef Alice Weingarten and a rep from Gordon Food Service spoke about prosciutto, olive oil, tomatoes, and other Italian eats.




Lastly, we were served this incredible risotto made with porcini mushrooms and mounds of parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Chef Alice, I'm not sure if you made this outstanding risotto, but if you did, then I take back everything I said about those chef pants/PJs you were wearing.



Overall I enjoyed this event, despite the unfavorable lecturing-to-eating ratio. If people are going to flap their gums at a foodie event, I prefer them to be chewing, not talking.



Angel enjoyed it, too, despite the murderous stares of strangers.


Later that evening was the Grand Tasting at the Key West Aquarium. By this time I'd already started having nightmares about being chased by giant wine bottles with skinny little legs, but I needn't have worried: Considering that it was approximately 112 degrees in the aquarium, the never-ending flow of wine pulled triple duty as ice-breaker, thirst-quencher, and forehead-chiller.





One of the many highlights of this event were these little key lime tarts in a chocolate crust.



Since I'm not much of a chocolate fan, I stayed classy by sucking out the key lime guts instead.



Outside, cooler temperatures brought great joy to the sweaty masses.




Despite some truly fantastic wines at the Grand Tasting, one of my favorites wasn't wine at all, but the Kai coconut and lychee vodkas served at this booth. The reps were mixing the Coconut Pandan vodka with pineapple juice, and the vodka was so smooth that you'd have sworn you were drinking a virgin pina colada . . . until it was too late. Which explains why I think Donna and I might have mud-wrestled for the last serving, but I honestly can't be sure.


After two hours of wine and other tastings, our group of six piled into a taxi and headed off to Pisces, where we ordered a multi-course dinner . . . and two more bottles of wine. the excellent Cakebread Chardonnay, to be exact, which means we weren't wasting a drop, even if we had to waterboard someone to get it down their throat.

Our table at Pisces was perfect, right in the front near the window, which is one of the perks of getting engaged here (as Donna and Greg recently did - congrats!) and then come back with a bunch of friends who won't leave until they've tried everything on the menu or have to have their stomachs pumped, whichever comes first.


We started off with a fantastic salmon mousse delivered by our Southern-gentleman waiter, whose accent was thick as molasses and demeanor sweet as honey.



Post-mousse, we enjoyed a host of appetizers: the lobster bisque special for me, grilled shrimp with curry-mango ice cream for Angel, and the Pisces Aphrodite -- a sinful puff pastry filled with lobster, shrimp, and scallops and topped with lemon-tarragon butter -- for Donna and Greg. Unfortunately I've forgotten what Claudia and Alden had, but if it could beat a lobster, shrimp, and scallop pot pie, I'm sure I'd remember it.




Next up was a refreshing lime sorbet palate cleanser, which was no match for a table full of people whose palates had spent the last two hours being bombarded by wine, rum, coconut vodka, and key lime cannolis.


Shortly after, our entrees arrived. Angel went with the hogfish special, which was served with scallops and a creamy lobster sauce, while I couldn't resist a filet mignon with bordelaise sauce and shallot confit. I know, I know, Pisces is a seafood restaurant. But the heart wants what it wants, and mine apparently likes the challenge of continuing to tick in the face of repeated abuse.




It boggles the mind to think what Angel could have found so offensive as to lick his plate clean, yet refuse to touch these two. I guess he didn't want to look like a pig.


Surely we didn't order dessert after all this? Surely you jest.

Donna and Greg had raved about the prune-and-Armagnac ice cream, but just to hedge our bets in case we didn't like it, Angel and I shared that and the raspberry ice cream, while Claudia and Alden shared some chocolate thing that they wisely kept to themselves. I think after I ate every single part of Claudia's entree that she wasn't interested in -- including a zucchini gratin, fingerling potatoes, and a mushroom-stuffed tomato, plus Donna's basmati rice and her stuffed tomato -- she was starting to understand why Angel likes to build a little fort around his dinner plate.


In addition to giving me free food, I also liked Claudia because she was willing to pose contemplatively with this Warhol depicting Tony Soprano's shrink.


The prune-and-Armagnac ice cream was good, although the French brandy was a little overpowering for my taste. But the raspberry? How I do love thee, oh raspberry ice cream. You are almost as good as a seafood pot pie.


After dinner, Claudia and Alden decided to go back to their hotel to detox relax, but Donna, Greg, Angel, and I weren't finished yet. Back we went to Grand Vin, where we had yet another bottle of Champagne. At this point it occurred to me that trying to keep up with two Key West locals was a little like trying to go a few rounds with Mike Tyson: You might be able to fake it for a round or two, but eventually you're going to end up flat on your back, covered in bruises, and wondering who the hell bit off your ear.


Posted by TraceyG 16:36 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys key_west_food_and_wine_festival Comments (4)

Key West Food & Wine Fest: Barefoot, Uncorked & Unhinged Pt2

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, prompting us to make a valiant attempt to shake off the previous night's excesses. Of course, everyone knows that the best cure for overindulging is hurling a misshapen object at some plastic pineapples, so that morning we set off for Blue Heaven for some Coconut Bowling.





Visiting Blue Heaven is like being dropped into an episode of Hoarders, with the addition of live chickens. Along with others like Schooner Wharf Bar, Green Parrot, and B.O.'s, places like Blue Heaven do a brisk business in Key West, since you never know when you're going to need a rusty license plate, an old toilet seat, or an electric duck.



Blue Heaven might be the only one of these with its own Rooster Cemetary, though.



Soon the Coconut Bowling got under way.






Donna was up first. She made sure to bring her own bowling shoes.




I was up next. Unfortunately, despite my serious game face and careful choosing of both the perfect coconut and the perfect coconut-palm dress, I couldn't have knocked those pineapple pins down if they'd let me play with a wrecking ball.




Donna didn't fare much better, but she did win this coconut cup for "Most Pins Jumped," and the raffle . . . twice. Must have been her lucky shoes.



At first we were just playing for fun, until I spotted the grand prize . . . The Golden Coconut.


Oh, how I wanted that Golden Coconut. I wanted it more than I have ever wanted anything in my whole life, even more than I want to own a miniature piglet with a palm-tree collar who will ride around in the basket of my bike that will be decorated with turtles and cheeseburgers and aliens and who will live with me in my Conch house with the French pocket doors and the huge pool and the outdoor pizza oven and the fridge full of pepperoni, all of which will be right near Louie's so I don't have to walk too far.

You know what that means, right?

No pressure, Angel.

Apparently Angel realized that if he ever wanted to see me naked again, he had to win that coconut come hell or high water. Suddenly, the crowd grew quiet. Only the lonesome strains of a spaghetti Western shootout and the rustling of rattlesnakes hung in the humid air. A tumbleweed drifted by, but I think it was just part of Blue Heaven's decor. Angel wiped the sweat from his brow. He said a little prayer to the patron saint of marital relations. And then he drew his weapon: the largest, heaviest coconut he could find.

Appropriately armed, he settled into his stance. He raised up his coconut. With laserlike precision, he focused on those ten pineapples like Tracey focusing on a bowl of meatballs.



And then he did this:



That's nine pins! NINE!!! Enough to tie up the game and force a four-person Coconut Bowl-Off.


Up first, Angel did me proud by scoring . . . another nine! NINE!!! And on his second go-round, he took out the tenth pin. A perfect ten! Enough to win the Golden Coconut, right?

Wrong. This is Angela.


And that is The Golden Coconut. The Golden Coconut she won by bowling a strike on her first turn and knocking out two more pins on her second. Given that she probably has a coconut palm in her backyard and plays in a Coconut Bowling league in the off-season, Angel came in a very respectable second-place, bringing home the Silver Coconut or, as we like to call it, the Platinum Coconut.



And you know what? I love that Platinum Coconut just as much as the Golden Coconut. Perhaps even more, considering how hard-won it was -- and by a damned Yankee, no less. It now occupies a special place of honor in our apartment in New York, and soon we will be installing a special spotlight so that all who visit may admire the Platinum Coconut in all its shimmery, silvery splendor.

After a quick power nap it was time for our last food and wine event of the weekend, Duval Uncorked.



Duval Uncorked is essentially a bar crawl gone yuppie, which means that instead of chugging cheap beer at every stop, we chugged wine.


Over 40 businesses along Duval Street participated in this year's Uncorked, offering either food, wine, or both. That's 40 businesses in four hours, and time was therefore of the essence.


In order to ensure that we didn't waste any time standing around dithering over the map, our fearless leader, Greg, took charge and corralled me, Angel, and Donna like an epicurean drill sergeant: "Move, maggots, move: They've got Stag's Leap over here!" "Abort! Abort! They've run out of crab puffs!"



Thanks to Greg, Operation Blotto was Mission Accomplished.

One of our first stops was at Cork and Stogie, where we sampled riesling with spinach-artichoke dip, then it was on to lush bar at The Green Pineapple, where we sampled something called Orange Colombo, an orange liqueur from Provence.



Next it was on to Sweet Tea's, where you might recall that I once ate so much cheese that our waiter became concerned that I might suffer the same digestive fate as Jamie Lee Curtis. So it was a welcome surprise when Sweet Tea's served a luscious lobster mac & cheese . . . like they knew I was coming.




Next up was the Key West Key Lime Pie Co., which has at least two too many "keys" in the name. They redeemed themselves by serving us these:



Then we deployed to Grand Vin, where we sampled the Coppola wines, including a new favorite for me, the Sofia riesling.


That was followed by a quick stop at Flamingo Crossing for their malbec and riesling sorbets, which I would have loved even if they didn't taste so good, because look how purty!


Onward we marched to Orchid Bar, where the onslaught of wines continued.





At Nine One Five, this woman was flashing such a lovely grin because she represents Oregon's Cubanisimo Vineyards, whose estate Pinot Noir gave even the white wine drinkers among us a serious case of pinot envy.


Still more wine and nibbles at Blackfin Bistro and Croissants de France . . .


. . . and then it was time to hunker down at Tropical Inn for some wine-filled cheesecake pops. You heard that right: Wine-filled cheesecake pops.


While I photographed these orgasmic orbs of sinful delight, Angel waited in line to get us each one. Unfortunately, however, by this time all the wine was apparently starting to go to his head, because the fool came back with only . . . one. Worse, we were then forced to share it because the line had gotten too long for a second pass through without running the risk that Greg would make us drop and give him twenty for jeopardizing the mission. At least Angel got us a good one: the Zintuous Zinfandel, which was drizzled with white chocolate ganache. I don't know what "zintuous" means, but I'm pretty sure it's not a synonym for "virtuous."





Next up was the lovely Vino's on Duval for more wine and a gander at their funky chandeliers.





Then it was on to 801 Bourbon. Here we were served something called Dragon Juice, which was pretty tasty given that it looks suspiciously like stomach bile . . . and probably performs the same function.


It is bad enough when a drag queen is prettier than you, and even worse when she is handier with an eyeliner. But having bigger boobs is really crossing the line.


Next up, we sampled some pork osso buco at DeRubies Gallery, followed by wine wine wine more wine oh good god there is so. much. wine. Which is both a shameless boast and a cry for help.


Oh, what's that? You are exhausted just reading about all this? But we are only halfway through, soldier! Now do you understand why I've already placed myself on the liver transplant waiting list . . . and the gastric bypass "just-in-case" list?

Next up, we stopped into Evolution for miniature cupcakes which, as we have already established, are preferable to normal-sized ones because tinier is tastier. These adorable little minis, in yummy flavors like key lime and guava, were supplied by Key West Cakes and were so cute, and decorated in such gorgeous colors, that I almost couldn't bear to eat one. And so I ate two.




Next on our list was DJ's Clam Shack, one of those new-to-me places that I might never have tried were it not for Duval Uncorked. And that would have been a shame, since at DJ's we were treated to one of the best clam chowders I've ever had. Most clam chowders rely on vats of cream for their flavor, and this one was creamy, too, but with the unexpected addition of lots of black pepper, which gave the chowder a really nice bite that we all were raving about.



Before I went inside, someone on the porch mentioned that some girls seemed to be getting extra-large pours at DJ's when they flirted with the bartender. "But isn't that the case everywhere?" I asked. To which this guy pulled a face and responded wearily, "Blondes. It's always the blondes that kill ya." I think he took the words right out of Angel's mouth.


Only in Key West can a grown man make a living -- and likely a damn good one, too -- painting pictures of an ostrich popping up in unexpected places.


Next up, a quick stop at Fin, whose gorgeous interior was right up my alley. Anyplace that gives me a little pillow so I can take a quick nap after stuffing myself silly is A-OK in my book.



And then a painfully short visit here.





Then it was on to Fast Buck Freddie's for Ibis Bay's stone crab chowder . . .



And then Wet Paint Gallery and Montage for still more wine, and the Key West Olive Oil Co. for creamy, delicious polenta squares with corn puree and balsamic syrup.





After four hours of this . . . why, yes. We did go out to dinner, now that you mention it.

Unable to get reservations at Santiago's on such short notice, and not quite feeling up to the fancy-pants tapas at Fin, we ended up at Finnegan's Wake, which was new for us. Angel loved this place because they served Smithwick's on tap; I loved it because they served pretzel bites and other munchies with a bowl of spicy melted cheese.




Donna, a woman after my own heart, skipped the pretzel bites and went straight for the bowl of cheese.


She claimed that there was some sort of vegetable under there, but that's just what people who eat large bowls of cheese tell themselves in order to feel less heart attack-y.

The next day was a bit windy and overcast, which wouldn't normally be ideal weather, but in this case was actually perfect, since this was the day we planned to bike over to Stock Island to have lunch at Hogfish Bar & Grill. Angel had told me some lie about how it would only take half an hour and was downhill both ways, but after about 20 minutes of pedaling I was already trying to remember if that taxi company's number was all 6s or all 7s and whether it might arrive faster if I mentioned that I'm a good tipper . . . and blonde.


One thing we noticed on our ride was that someone has been plastering graffiti all over Key West. Normally this might not be welcome news, but when the graffiti looks like this, it's really hard to be angry.




Remember how I thought that guy in Charleston with the cheeseburger bike bell was my true soul mate? I might have to rethink that.


On we pedaled, all the way to Stock Island. Stock Island is one of those places that everyone likes to refer to as, "Key West the way it used to be." If that is true, then Key West back in the good old days used to have way more pawn shops and way fewer folks with all their teeth.



Hogfish is perched on a working fishing dock at the end of a sketchy road lined with even sketchier trailers, which serve as a pungent reminder as to why you should never, ever pee in your own yard. Despite this unappetizing lead-in, Hogfish itself is decorated in a funky hodgepodge of signage, sculptures, and used license plates, and the smells emanating from the kitchen set my mouth a-watering.








Best of all, they have an advertisement for El Shrimp Bucket, which is how I will henceforth be referring to anyone shorter than me.


Angel started off with the Bahamian conch chowder, which I skipped because I was planning to order a dinner entree for lunch. (All that pedaling!) That turned out to be Mistake #1. That chowder was fantastic: flavorful, spicy, and loaded with potatoes, red peppers, tomatoes, and of course chunks of tender conch.


My dinner-entree-for-lunch turned out to be Key West pink shrimp stuffed with crabcake stuffing and served over rice. Right off the bat I thought this would be a winner: double carbs! That was Mistake #2. While the shrimp were nicely cooked and the portion was quite generous, the entire dish suffered from an overall lack of seasoning. Which doesn't mean that I didn't finish it, just that somebody needs to turn it up to eleven.


All was not lost, however.



That's because Margaritaville? It's everywhere.


During lunch we met this little sweetheart, Zoe, whose owners declined to leave her with me while they went back to work.


I mean, it's not like I was going to stuff her in my bike basket and ride away or anything. Hell, I was so tired that I couldn't have pedaled across the street right then.

For his entree, Angel went with Hogfish's signature dish, the hogfish sandwich. So often a restaurant's signature dish is a letdown, but not at Hogfish. Their hogfish was sweet, tender, and perfectly seasoned. I might even say that it didn't even need that gooey layer of Swiss cheese on top, but that would just be crazy talk.



Which leads me to Mistake #3 - not getting my own side of French fries. See, Angel's sandwich came with a side of skinny, crispy fries lightly dusted with Old Bay seasoning, which of course went perfectly with the Ranch dressing that came with my side salad. The fries were so good, in fact, that after lunch I ordered my own batch . . . and some more Ranch. (Again, all that pedaling. Do you understand how far 3 miles really is? On a bike it's like they're measured in dog years.)




Just down the dock I saw this gorgeous silver bengal cat. Don't worry, Other Cat. You're pretty too.



Upon our return to Key West, we pedaled around deliriously in search of liquids to replenish ourselves after La Tour de Stock.









That evening we were set to meet up with two new friends, Ryan and Melissa, at the Gardens Hotel for jazz and (god help me) more wine. Ryan and Melissa knew me from this blog and, although I didn't know what they looked like, it wasn't really a problem: We just had to find the one couple who weren't card-carrying members of AARP and voila, there they were. The Gardens Hotel: It ain't for whippersnappers.


We enjoyed two bottles of rosé poolside before moving on to dinner at Grand Cafe, where our slick waiter explained that our "free bottle of wine" coupon was good for a free bottle of cheap house wine, or it could be used for 50% off one of the more expensive bottles on their menu. Being that the four of us have more taste buds than money, you can guess which one we chose.


And since none of us are mathematicians, we ordered two, because it was like getting one for free or half-off or two-for-one or whatever. I never was very good at trigonometry.


You know what I hate almost as much as when one of my favorite dishes gets taken off the menu? When they change said menu item but neglect to tell anyone. Did you really think, Grand Cafe, that I wasn't going to notice that you left that quart of heavy cream out of the Key West shrimp over penne pasta? And all of the truffle oil? This, after I talked nonstop about it for weeks and even convinced poor Melissa to order it, too? Granted, it was still very tasty, but a dish without cream is like a day without sunshine: Not so Grand.


Although Monday was our last day on the island, there was still one thing to look forward to: Meatloaf Monday! And so we headed off to Harpoon Harry's.




While I thought the meatloaf was pretty good, Angel decided that the meatloaf was too mushy for him and declined to finish it. Although I agree that a nice charred crust would have been nice, refusing to finish a meatloaf is like turning down a winning lottery ticket because you hit for $100 instead of $1,000. I guess it was my lucky day, though, since Angel then proceeded to cut off a large chunk of his meatloaf just for me.



You know what happens a few hours after mashed potatoes, gravy, and 1.5 meatloaves, don't you? No, not a trip to the emergency room. Pizza!


Although I'd already packed away the camera and had to rely on my iPhone, I think you can still tell that Bobalu's pizza is made exactly right: Greasy, saucy, not too much cheese, and tons of pepperoni. In other words, it is the perfect food after a long night of drinking.

Or a long week, as the case may be.

Can't get enough Key West? See more of our Conch Republic adventures here and here.

Want to check out the 2013 Key West Food & Wine Fest? Click here!

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Posted by TraceyG 16:35 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys key_west_food_and_wine_festival Comments (5)

Thanksgiving in Anguilla: How About a Quickie? (Part 1)

So, you know those "grocery grab" contests where contestants get, say, 3 minutes inside a grocery store to stuff as many items into their carts as they possibly can? They sprint through the store like maniacs, feverishly yanking items off the shelves and shoving them into their carts; when time's up, whatever they've managed to pile into their carts is theirs to keep, for free. Given the time constraints, the contestants usually come up with a pre-grab plan to maximize their time -- "Run straight for the Twinkies!" -- and then completely lose their minds the minute they're set loose in the store, never making it past the produce section. In the end, they're always amazed at how quickly the time flew by, and even though they ended up with nothing more than a cart full of green peppers and some turnips, they're just happy to have had the opportunity.

That was our Thanksgiving trip to Anguilla.


Given how short our visit was, I have decided against recounting it chronologically, as it would probably take you five minutes to read it and five days to berate me for being such a tease. Instead, I've structured this report as something of a "Best Of" list, the only contenders being the handful of people/places/nibbles we managed to squeeze in during this particular visit. And so, without further ado, I hereby present the Best Of Our "Blink-and-You'll-Miss-It" Trip to Anguilla. Read slooooooowly.


Best Way to Scare the Living Daylights Out of Me (Part 1)

On our first full day we decided to have lunch at Smokey's, not so much for the food as for the free lounge chairs.





Now, Angel and I have this thing where we will both look at a menu and, almost simultaneously, decide to have the exact same thing, from the appetizers down to what we'd like to drink. Often we will even order it prepared the exact same way, with the addition or omission of some ingredient, or sauteed instead of grilled, or with a different dressing than the one listed on the menu. (Yes, we are those people . . . which is why we tip well.) The server will take my order a la "When Harry Met Sally," then turn to Angel, who will simply hold up two fingers and say, "Two, please." As soon as the strangeness of this sinks in and becomes apparent on the server's face, we defuse the tension by joking, "See? That's why we got married." Like I said, we're those people.


Lately, however, in the interest of having more than just photos of identical entrees and look-alike cocktails on this blog, I've been encouraging Angel to get out of my brain and order something different. So you can imagine how annoying it was when, after studying Smokey's menu, I announced, "I'm having the chicken roti" . . . at the exact same moment that Angel made the very same announcement. When the winner could not be determined after a short bout of thumb-wrestling, I decided to be the bigger person and change my order to something that I knew he'd want a few bites of, thereby leveraging myself into half a roti. He may be the muscle, but I'm the brains.




We had just settled in with our matching set of rum punches when I saw this:


No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is a boat filled with tens, no, hundreds of kids. Or so it seemed in my ensuing panic. As soon as the boat dropped anchor, the children began to disembark one by one, like Popes tumbling out of a Volkswagen.

Don't get me wrong. I don't dislike kids. The problem is actually how much they like me. You know how cats will home in on the one person in the room who's allergic and then spend the entire afternoon sleeping on that person's head? That's me and kids. Recent case in point: In the airport on our way home from Anguilla, I was standing at the end of the security screening, waiting for Angel to put his shoes back on and load the $412 in quarters that he carries around back into his pockets, when a little girl I'd never seen before wandered up to me, gently tapped me on the arm, and, apropos of nothing, asked, "You wanna come to my house?" Oh, sure, sweetie, I laughed, my eyes darting around nervously for the nearest exit. She immediately ran back to her mother and yelled, "Mama! Her said YES! Her is coming to my HOUSE!" She proceeded to jump up and down with giddy delight, still yelling "But her's coming ooover!" as her mother dragged her away. This is the inexplicable effect I have on children. So you can surely understand that when that floating day care rolled up on the beach, I was immediately besieged by images of children tugging on my arms and nuzzling their heads under my armpits and yelling, "Tracey, look at meeeeee!!" . . . and before you know it my food is cold and my rum punch is watered down and, as Bill Cosby would say, it is time for the beatings to begin.


After lunch we used every trick we'd ever learned about how to escape a grizzly bear attack (don't look them in the eye, don't leave food lying around) in order to outwit the children and sneak away unnoticed. We moved quickly down the beach to set up camp.



We were minding our own business when it arrived. One minute St. Martin was there in the distance, and the next it was swallowed up in a cloud so large that you'd have thought the Rapture was finally here and they really did just get the date wrong.



We watched for a while, fascinated, as the mammoth cloud sucked up all of St. Martin, then slowly spread its evil tentacles toward Anguilla. Finally, with the rain imminent, we could wait no longer and decided to beat feet out of there.



Quite literally in my case.


Best Place to Beat the Stuffing Out of Someone

After weeks of perusing menus in an attempt to find the perfect place to celebrate Thanksgiving, we eventually settled on Koal Keel, which won our vote because they were serving both a three-course Thanksgiving dinner and their entire regular menu. (Not that I was planning to order both, but it certainly couldn't be ruled out.) We received a very warm welcome and were given the choice of a private corner table or a table right next to two large parties of 8 to 10 people each. What kind of people, I wonder, choose the latter? Presumably the same people who will plop down right next to you on an otherwise empty beach, or take the seat right next to you on a completely empty train car and start chatting you up. I think the word you're looking for is Midwesterners.


People love free stuff, especially when that free stuff is vodka, and Koal Keel therefore started off on the right foot by offering us these cute little shooters before we'd even placed our orders.


Just when I thought things couldn't get any better, out came this free meatball.


After this delightfully boozy, beefy beginning, we decided to try the scallops with leek fondue and truffle cream for me, and the spring roll with tamarind dipping sauce for Angel.


Everything was delicious, but the scallops were really the standout (though at $22 for 3 scallops, those suckers should have serenaded me before dinner, too). They were plump, perfectly seasoned, and beautifully cooked, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving I even let Angel have a bite.


Our entrees, however, were a somewhat different story. Angel ordered the blackened jumbo shrimp with mango-ginger sauce and rice n' peas, while I decided to try the crispy snapper with leek stuffing and caramelized shallot reduction -- an entree I ordered specifically for the leek stuffing, as everyone knows that you can't have Thanksgiving (or any holiday, really) without stuffing.

Our expectations had been raised thanks to those extraordinary scallops, and the fact that the entrees took an inordinately long time to arrive sent our hunger pangs expectations soaring even higher. And so, when our entrees finally arrived, I couldn't wait to pierce the crispy skin of my snapper and have a go at that leek stuffing. So imagine my surprise when I received this instead:


Do you see that green thing on the right? That is one of two matchbook-sized pieces of leek on the plate, which were supposed to have been chopped up and sauteed in butter and made completely irresistible and then stuffed inside my fish. Instead, the poor leeks just sat there limply, the way a lowly sprig of parsley might be thrown on the plate as an afterthought. Now, I will say that while this fish was clearly some sort of stuffingless imposter, and rather overpriced for what amounted to a piece of fried fish, it was quite tasty -- the breading was flavorful and crisp and the fish was moist and flaky. But in general, if you promise me stuffing and I don't get any, I'm going to be pretty disappointed. But if you promise me stuffing on Thanksgiving and I don't get any . . . somebody's not making it to Christmas.

Because the wait for our entrees had been about an hour, we were offered an after-dinner drink on the house. Considering that we’d already had two cocktails apiece, a third drink was the last thing either of us wanted, so Angel ordered a coffee.


So the coffee arrives, and it’s . . . not hot. Some time later the waiter returns with a hot one, and it’s been sloshed all over the saucer. Not a big deal, of course, but the server noticed it, too, because a few minutes later he returned with a clean saucer and attempted to transfer the coffee to that one . . . and then sloshed the coffee all over the clean saucer, too. We really felt for the poor guy. But if he thought he was having a bad night, he obviously has no idea what it's like to go home stuffingless on Thanksgiving.

Best Use of Ground Beef (Non-Meatball Division)

On this trip we decided to stay at the Ferryboat Inn.







Now, I know that FBI, what with its lack of Guerlain bath products and Frette linens and locking doors, may not be some folks' cup of tea. And to those people I might say that the inn's gentle prices mean more money for splurges at Pimm's and Spice, or that Marjorie's warm hospitality could never be replicated at a larger hotel like the Viceroy, or that Christian's addictive rum punches best even the much-touted frozen mojitos at CuisinArt.





But the truth is . . . I really just like being close to the cheeseburgers.



If (and I cannot understand this) cheeseburgers aren't your thing, perhaps Christian is.


FBI's resident bartender is tall, nice-looking, and has the straightest teeth you're likely to see outside of a toothpaste commercial. More importantly, he lives near the cheeseburgers, which means that if Angel ever croaks, you'll know where to find me.


In the four days for which we were on the island at lunchtime, we had the cheeseburgers at FBI twice. You might have already read my stirring, heartfelt Ode to the Ferryboat Cheeseburger, so I won't repeat myself here, except to say that I am certain that this time around, I invented a whole new lexicon of strung-together curse words, groans of pleasure, and takings of the Lord's name in vain while enjoying my cheeseburgers, which I repeated over and over while marveling at their juicy, cheesy stupendousness, thoroughly embarrassing Angel.




The poor guy. His wife is the Linda Lovelace of FBI cheeseburgers.


On our first visit we were feeling ambitious, so we decided to start with a few appetizers before the main event. Besides rum punch and cheeseburgers, FBI is also known for its thick, cheesy French onion soup.


They're less known for their garden salads, but there was no way I was going to waste precious stomach space on soup when I was this close to cheesy nirvana.


I don't mean to be impatient, but . . . maybe the dingo ate my burger?



Oh, you think I left a little piece of bun there, unable to finish it? Don't be silly - that's for the dog.


That's right: Just when you thought there was no better reason to stay at FBI than to be near the cheeseburgers, you discover the inn's resident dogs, Angie and Shadow. These dogs are almost sweet enough to make me want to share my burger. Almost.



Unfortunately I lost focus at our second Cheeseburger Chomp-Down, when I was suddenly struck by a craving for Marjorie's excellent chicken marsala. That was the very first dish I ever ate on Anguilla, lo those many years ago, and I can still taste it like it was yesterday.

And so, when Christian came to take our order, I asked, "You won't tell anyone if I order a cheeseburger and the chicken marsala, will you?" To which he replied without missing a beat, "No . . . but you might."


Indeed I might.


Best Place to Get Sloshed, Go Broke, Suffer a Food Coma, and Still Find Yourself Thanking Them at the End of the Night

One of the things we were most looking forward to on this trip was dinner at Veya, which bills itself as "Cuisine of the Sun." I love anything having to do with the sun (except for sunburn, sun spots, sun poisoning, sunstroke . . . perhaps this statement needs a bit of fine-tuning), and I was especially excited to try someplace that so many before me have raved about.


Given Veya's location in the woods and its proximity to the salt pond, we filled the bathtub with Mosquito Milk and let Angel, a shining beacon of hope for hungry mosquitos everywhere, have a good long soak before heading out. That he has gone 44 years without contracting malaria is a miracle that cannot be explained by modern medical science.


Although we originally planned to order a bottle of wine, the cocktail list, with its Anguilla-inspired drink names, beckoned. I decided to try the Sandy Ground, with Ruby Red vodka, raspberry liqueur, and lime, while Angel went with the Savannah, made with Mount Gay, Patron Citronage, lime, and guava.


While we were enjoying our cocktails, an amuse-bouche arrived: a tiny, deceptively spicy, altogether perfect conch fritter. I have to assume that these tasty little nuggets are not on the regular menu because they would sell out in the first 10 minutes every night, and the resulting riots wouldn't be good for anyone.


For my appetizer, I decided to try the yellow pea soup with Indian spices, while Angel went with the justly-famous Moroccan shrimp cigars with roasted tomato. The cigars disappeared so quickly that before I could even get a picture, Angel had already started licking his plate and asking me if I was going to finish my soup.

By this time everything we'd tried had been so delicious that Angel decided to try the tuna, a dish he rarely orders in Anguilla because there are so many other local fish to choose from. But at Veya, the tuna is grilled with jerk spices and a rum-coffee glaze and served with caramelized pineapples and fried plantains, which means that the only way Angel could have been any happier is if it came with a side of Deep Woods OFF!.


I went with the sweet corn hush puppies, which came with some grilled shrimp and snap peas and oh who the hell cares there were sweet corn hush puppies!!


Although the desserts sounded wonderful, particularly the chocolate hazelnut mousse bars with chocolate malt ice cream, sometimes you should quit while you are ahead.

But only sometimes.


Most Unlikely Celebrity Sighting

Anguilla has long been known as an under-the-radar haven for celebrities looking to get away from it all, and if you visit often enough, you'll certainly see your share: Brad Pitt, Beyonce & Jay-Z, Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Kevin Bacon, Liam Neeson, and Uma Thurman are all frequent visitors. But this celebrity is not your typical starlet. She's never had any plastic surgery, she's certainly not anorexic, and her hair stylist ought to be shot. She flies commercial -- in coach, no less -- and after this latest trip to Anguilla, it's rumored that she might be nearly broke. She's a terrible actress, and her singing voice has been compared, generously, to a cross between someone skinning a cat and a kid with his head caught between some banisters.

So, just who is this elusive celebrity who's been spotted all over Anguilla?


Apparently, it's me.


Thanks to the loyal readers of this blog, as well as my nonstop blathering about cheeseburgers and meatballs and compotes on Trip Advisor, I was recognized roughly once a day while on Anguilla (and, impressively, twice by name over the phone and email), resulting in a number of lovely introductions, enjoyable conversations, and a net haul of 4 free rum punches, 2 free after-dinner drinks, and a free bowl of duck pappardelle. Forget the usual trappings of celebrity, like couture gowns and diamond tiaras and bags full of swag: I'll take the booze and pasta any day of the week.

And I'm not even going to mention that nice couple from Las Vegas who recognized Angel first, seeing as how it went straight to his head. Next thing you know he'll be writing a tell-all book about how insufferable it was to be my camera caddy, and I really can't afford that. You know how hard it is to find good help these days.

Best Way to Scare the Living Daylights Out of Me (Part 2)

It is no secret that I am obsessed with a dish served at Oliver's Seaside Grill called Oliver's Seafood Compote. The restaurant's web site describes it as "a selection of fresh local seafood cooked in a lobster sauce, enhanced with fresh coconut milk and served with a spinach polenta pancake," but all I heard just now was, "Blah blah blah lobster sauce blah blah crack cocaine blah blah blah polenta pancake." We'd called ahead to make sure that Oliver's would be open and that they'd have the coveted Compote, and were assured that everything was a go.

We settled in with our menus, which did not need the usual studying since we knew exactly what we were getting, times two (insert eye roll here). But of course I had to look anyway, which is when I discovered OH GOOD GOD THE HORROR! It was a prix-fixe menu, and there was no Compote in sight! Trembling with fear at the thought of leaving Anguilla without his beloved Compote, Angel staggered to his feet to find the waitress and ask her what happened to it. Before he could reach her, however, Oliver quickly stepped in and told us that they'd just reopened for the season, hence the abbreviated prix-fixe menu. He explained that the regular menu would be available the next evening, but we could have anything we wanted from it tonight. He then proceeded to describe nearly the entire menu, making it clear that our wish was his command. Although I tried to listen to the descriptions of the other dishes, all I heard was, "Yadda yadda yadda fish yadda yadda steak yadda yadda COMPOTE," so two orders it was, with an order of the lobster cakes to start. We tried to order our usual bottle of Sancerre but it was unavailable, so we went with two glasses of rose Sancerre instead, which was icy and tart and perfect.



The lobster cakes were delicious, but I would be lying if I told you that either one of us could have given two cents about them when a Compote was so close at hand. Finally it arrived and OH GOOD GOD THE HORROR . . . again. It was not the Compote. It was the snapper with lime balsamic sauce and, I have to admit, it smelled heavenly. The vinegar had caramelized into a sticky-sweet sauce and the fish was charred a bit on the ends the way I like it and finally I had to sit on my hands to keep from digging into this plate of non-Compotey goodness. We quickly sent the fish back, begging them to make sure that someone would eat it since it looked and smelled so amazing (I of course volunteered to eat both the fish and the Compote, just to be sure). A few minutes later a waiter came by and explained that the waitress had made a mistake conveying our order to the chef. But the damage had already been done: Those few minutes of heart-pounding terror at seeing the wrong entree had already shaved at least 5 years off my expected life span.

Finally, the real Compote appeared, and it was divine.


Perhaps because the restaurant had just reopened, the Compote was a little different than usual -- two spinach-polenta cakes instead of one, with the addition of spinach and collard greens and the omission of scallops -- but it was still loaded with shrimp and fish and everything nice. The chef even came upstairs to personally ensure that we liked it, at which point I jumped out of my seat, hugged him tight, and offered to have his babies.


And I don't even like babies.

Best Hand-Me-Down Souvenir From a Stranger's Garage

One of our favorite shops on the island is Irie Life, where we buy all sorts of AXA-branded gear to take home, then refuse to tell anyone what "AXA" stands for. It's all part of our two-man plan called Operation Save Anguilla From "The Bachelor"-hood.




We decided on an assortment of t-shirts, beach coverups, stickers, and magnets, and as we were checking out I pointed out the display of Anguilla license plates to Angel. Of course, they are not real license plates, but souvenir ones that look similar to the "new" blue ones Anguilla issued in 2006. Angel started telling the cashier, Pamela, about how I'd once found one of the old black-and-white "A" license plates online and gave it to him as a gift, and that he keeps it on his desk at work. "How much you pay for that?" she demanded. I told her, and she clucked her tongue. "I think I have a few of those in my garage. I don' need 'em. Come back tomorrow - you can have 'em!"


And if you're still wondering why we love Anguilla, well . . . I guess you already have all the used license plates you need.


CLICK HERE to read Part 2 . . .


Posted by TraceyG 05:53 Archived in Anguilla Comments (4)

Thanksgiving in Anguilla: How About A Quickie? (Part 2)

Best Dessert That Isn't A Dessert, But Darn Well Should Be

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the Great Deluge of 2011 descended upon Anguilla, turning all that had been bright and sunny and delightful into a wet, grey, sopping pile of sludge. When faced with the prospect of no beach time, we did the next best thing: We planned for a three-course lunch with plenty of booze, with a quick stop beforehand to see if anything could be done about the ungodly weather.


Off we went to Jacala, which is pronounced "Jacques-a-LA," not "Ja-CALL-ah,"as I'd been calling it, because I am a hick. Je suis desolee. Et aussi une barbare.




What with the gale-force winds, pelting rain, and old ladies in pointy hats flying by on bicycles, we arrived pretty much soaked to the gills, and I excused myself to go to the ladies room to dry myself off with some paper towels. Before I could do so, however, the hostess brought me a large, fluffy beach towel to dry off with, at which point I decided that I loved this place almost as much as I love my bed.


We started off with two frozen mojitos, and then ordered the two dishes that everyone recommends at Jacques-a-la, the grilled watermelon and goat cheese salad, and the chilled cucumber soup with spicy tomato sorbet.





I am not going to lie: I did not like the tomato sorbet. I LOVED the tomato sorbet. I loved it so much that I cannot for the life of me understand why it is not sold by the half-gallon so that you can take it home and eat it right out of the container with a spoon and not have to share it with your dining companion, who will invariably want to taste it as soon as they see your eyes roll back in your head. At the very least, it should be offered in a large bowl for dessert alongside the chocolate cake and tiramisu and other stuff that normal people like to have after a meal.


For our entrees, Angel ordered the risotto special with mussels. Jacques explained that the mussels are prepared mariniere style with white wine, garlic, and tomatoes, and then the same flavorful cooking liquid is used to make the risotto. That was all Angel needed to hear. Well, that and the sound of me kicking him under the table as a signal to order it or else.


I went with the lobster club, which broke the cardinal rule of Italian cooking by adding cheese to seafood. I guess it's a good thing this place is French, then, because the sharp cheese took the sandwich from really good to ooh la la.


For dessert we decided to share something called the Coffee Gourmand, which consists of a miniature chocolat pot de creme, a tiny creme brulee, a scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream, and a shot of espresso. All of this was pretty good, considering that it was not the tomato sorbet.



Finally, Jacques arrived with two shots of liquor, one with lemon, chili pepper, and vanilla for Angel, and one with orange and lemon for me. Shots after lunch pretty much sealed the deal on a return trip to Jacques-a-la for me, but if the tomato sorbet comes off the menu, the deal is off.


After lunch we swam out to our car and headed back to Ferryboat. No way am I leaving the house again, I told Angel. I'm pretty sure there were some crumbs left in the bottom of those Pringles cans we threw out yesterday -- we can have those for dinner!

But what about Mango's? Angel asked. We have reservations, and they have that German potato salad with bacon that you like, he reminded me. BACON! Normally I wouldn't dream of leaving the house during a Category 12 monsoon, but for BACON? For that, I might even leave the house without makeup.

Best Reason to Always Carry Some Emergency Bacon In Your Purse

And so it came to pass that on the evening of the Great Deluge, we headed over to Mango's for some bacon dinner. This is one of our favorite spots on the island, location-wise, and I had fond memories of both the potato salad and the Cruzan Rum Barbequed Chicken that came with it. (By now you are probably noticing a pattern: I never order an entree based on what the protein is, unless we are talking beef. I order by how delicious the carb on the side sounds. Often I will eat my carb and Angel's, and in exchange I will give him the lion's share of whatever protein came with my dish. This kind of teamwork is how you stay married to a mirror image of yourself who has every annoying trait that you already possess.)


We started with a couple of cocktails, then sat back and watched the massive waves of Barnes Bay crash onto the shore. I decided to have the Painkiller, which was quite apt considering that I'd missed an entire day of sunning and swimming and was ready to beat the crap out of anyone who dared utter the words "Oh, the showers pass in ten minutes!" to me ever again.


I started with the lobster cake, while Angel had the thick, rich conch chowder with celery, leeks, onions, and potatoes. Here is yet another dish whose rightful place is on both the appetizer menu and the dessert menu. If bread can double as an opener (with butter) and a dessert (bread pudding), I ask you: Why not conch chowder?


For our entrees, I naturally went with the German potato salad with a side of barbequed chicken, while Angel decided on the fish special, a grilled snapper with sundried tomatoes, mushrooms, and artichokes.


The last time I had this potato salad, the potatoes were roasted and then tossed with some sort of balsamic vinegar and bacon concoction that was so delicious that all these years later, I still remember it. But this time around, the potatoes were somewhat bland and were covered with chewy pieces of tough, overcooked bacon jerky. You know the bacon is bad when someone leaves behind a whole plate of it, particularly when that someone is me. Bacon is just not one of those things that gets left lying around.

Luckily the chicken was fantastic, as was Angel's fish, and we decided to stick around for dessert, a tiny slice of airy key lime and lemon pie.


But don't think for a minute that I wouldn't have rather had some bacon and a tub of tomato sorbet.


Best House-Crashing Story . . . Since My Last House-Crashing Story

On Monday afternoon we decided to stop by Blue Waters Apartments on Shoal Bay West, in hopes that they might have a vacant apartment that we could take a look at. Since we like to change up our accommodations on each trip, we've been considering them for our next stay, having heard good things about how private and spacious the apartments are.

So we pull up in front of the office and Angel goes to knock on the door while I decide to take a look around. I wander up a lovely, shaded path and already I like the vibe of this place: I've entered a large patio area with a grill, table and chairs, and a large hot tub, all of which are shaded by a gorgeous pergola covered in flowers and vines. A friendly-looking man is grilling dinner while a dog stands by in case anything falls his way. I smile and begin petting the dog and ask if any of the units might be available for viewing, but the man indicates that he doesn't work here, though the office will reopen in the morning and he's sure they could show us around. I ask him if he likes it here, and he responds, "Well, sure -- I've lived here for 30 years!" I'm surprised to hear this -- I didn't know that Blue Waters apartments were available for private ownership -- but I don't want to get ahead of myself without even having seen one, so, gesturing to our surroundings, I instead say, "Well, this place is beautiful -- I'd really love to stay here!"

At which point the man points to the building next door and says, "Yes, Blue Waters is very nice. It's that building right down there."

Ohhhhh. Now I get it. Still, when a stranger wanders onto your property and interrupts your dinner and starts playing with your dog and asks if she can move in, shouldn't you at least offer her a little something . . . like a map?

Best Reason to Bring a Flea Collar to Anguilla (No, It Wasn't for Angel)

The next morning we decided to drive over to the Anguilla Animal Rescue Foundation, known by the acronym AARF, to drop off some flea collars and leashes that I'd brought from the States. Well, at least that was our stated purpose. My real purpose was to spend the morning snuggling puppies and kittens and lamenting the fact that 10 puppies in a NYC apartment is probably the code-violation equivalent of one alligator.






Elsewhere around the island, there are plenty of other animals for your snuggling, and possible kid-napping, pleasure.



They're not baring their teeth at me, they're smiling.



This guy is cute, too, but it would be too tempting to take him home and make hamburgers out of him, so in Anguilla he stays.


Just when you thought puppies and baby goats were the cutest thing around, along came this adorable little thing:


Little girls with big brown eyes and caramel skin always make us think, Wow, maybe we should have had a kid -- look how gorgeous she'd be! But who are we kidding? Our kids would have hair like Diana Ross circa 1975 and teeth the size of tombstones, and we both know it.

After our visit to AARF, it was off to Rendezvous Bay for some soak time.




When most people go to the beach, they stretch out on a lounge chair under an umbrella, crack open a good book, sip a few cocktails, and occasionally take a dip in the water to cool off. And if I'm anywhere besides Anguilla, I do the same. But in Anguilla, the water is so blue, so warm, so clear that we dispense with all that and simply . . . soak.


We pick a spot where we can both touch bottom, then submerge ourselves up to our necks and stand around, marveling at the umpteen shades of blue, occasionally spotting jumping fish or a stingray, and chatting about everything and nothing. We swim a little, we float a little, and of course we each serve as both judge and participant in the E.C. Handstand Championships. But for the most part we just soak ourselves in the clear, warm water until pruney, towel off, reapply sunscreen, and repeat.






Afterwards, we drove around a bit to take in the sights. You know, like Squawk's Peep in Bar.










Best Way to Finish Our Visit, But Not Our Plates (Or, How I Finally Admitted Defeat)

About five years ago, Angel and I took a long-overdue trip to Paris. We devoured everything the city had to offer, trying everything and refusing nothing, dining at Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine and neighborhood bistros with equal abandon. One afternoon we decided to have lunch at Le Pamphlet in the Marais, a sophisticated spot that specializes in dishes from the Basque region of France. I remember this because the waitresses there were so impressed with Angel for ordering, and actually finishing, the blood pudding -- along with virtually everything else on the menu -- that they teasingly referred to him as a gourmand. Angel mistook the word to mean that he had a gourmet palate, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that they'd actually called him a glutton.


Later, we learned that while the word gourmand has traditionally meant glutton, increasingly it is used to refer to a connoisseur of good food, to someone who takes great pleasure in their food. Unlike self-proclaimed foodies, who eschew foods they deem beneath them and seemingly eat only to impress others with their oh-so-discerning palates, gourmands are different. They don't just like food, they love food, and they want you to love it, too. Indeed, some gourmands go so far as to take pictures of their food and write elaborate blog posts about it and prattle on endlessly about it on travel forums. Or so I hear.

One of the most hospitable, passionate, and knowledgable gourmands you will ever meet is the charming Abbi at Dolce Vita. Dolce Vita means "the sweet life," and nowhere is that more true than at this new beachside standout on Sandy Ground.


This was our favorite meal of this trip, thanks in no small part to Abbi. Abbi is so proud of how fantastic Dolce Vita's food is, so passionate about where the ingredients come from and how they are prepared, so eager to make your meal perfect, that he cannot help but describe, say, the restaurant's stellar veal chop or fresh fish, then disappear into the kitchen, only to return with the raw chop or just-caught fish on a plate so you, too, can take a moment to admire it.



At first, every dish sounded so labor-intensive and over-the-top fantastic that I wasn't sure that anything could live up to Abbi's descriptions. In addition, he'd told us that one of the dishes was finished with a 25-year-old balsamic, a bottle of which, he said, was also sitting right on our table. Given that most Italian restaurants won't even trust you with a mere thimble full of their precious Parmigiano-Reggiano, the idea of someone leaving a $35 bottle of vinegar on the table seemed dubious at best.

And then we poured it. And it was thick, sweet, syrupy, and most definitely not your run-of-the-mill balsamic vinegar. We knew then, the way you know when you taste those johnny cakes at Veya, that we were in for something special.


Soon the bottle of wine that we'd ordered arrived, and even though it was just a mid-priced bottle of Nero d'Avola, you'd have thought we ordered the 1961 Chateau Petrus, given the care and attention Abbi took in opening and pouring it. He even brought out a couple of enormous balloon glasses that were literally bigger than my head. With a soft rain drumming on the roof, a warm, candle-lit table inside, and the lights from a handful of sailboats twinkling in the background, I wasn't even too worried about that enormous wine glass getting suctioned to my face.



We decided to begin with the pumpkin tortelli, a special that Abbi described in exquisite detail. Although I was listening intently, all I can tell you now is that it involved something like a team of Oompah-Loompahs toiling in shifts to ensure that every last pumpkin seed was extracted by hand, 12 hours spent wringing out the pumpkin pulp drop-by-drop into a miniature beaker, two certified mustardologists candying apples and other fruits for the mostarda, and hours of painstaking work hand-stretching the pasta and cutting it into perfect little triangles using a protractor. You need only look at it, drenched as it is in an insanely rich butter and sage sauce, to know that no matter how many people slipped on the pumpkin seeds that surely littered the kitchen floor before all was said and done, it was still worth it.


For my entree, I desperately wanted to order the lasagna, but since I'd already had, um, quite a bit to eat for lunch that day at Ferryboat, I figured I'd better take it easy, so I went with the gnocchi. Angel decided on the veal chop, having already seen it in all its naked glory.


As soon as our entrees arrived, Abbi immediately came over to check on us, heaping mounds of real Parmigiano-Reggiano onto my gnocchi, happily reminding me of the time at Luna Rosa when I was served more Parmigiano than I could actually finish. Trust me, when you find someone who isn't stingy with the cheese, you'll follow them anywhere.


We had no sooner gotten started on the gnocchi, the veal chop, and the sinfully rich, creamy mashed potatoes that accompanied the veal, when Abbi came by and, in a near-perfect imitation of me at every almost every restaurant I've ever been in, said, "You know, you really have to try this!". . . and placed a large bowl of duck pappardelle on the table alongside our entrees.


The duck, as best I can remember, is flown in from France thrice weekly and cooked for 10 hours with a bottle of red wine until it falls off the bone. Chocolate, nutmeg, cloves, and some other spices are added, then the sauce is simmered for 2 more hours. Then it is tossed with freshly hand-stretched pappardelle and brought to your table and then you die of happiness, The End.


It is no accident that the word "pappardelle" comes from the Italian word pappare, which means "to gobble up." And gobble we did: Angel and I ate almost every bite of that duck, and of everything else, too. But everything was so delicious that we just couldn't help ourselves. And good thing, too, because Abbi personally checked our plates when our waitress brought them back into the kitchen, to make sure we'd finished everything. Doesn't he know that I'm not only a member of the Clean Plate Club, I'm also the President?

You'd think that I might finally be stuffed by now, and for once, you'd be right. Unable to eat another bite, I had reluctantly passed on dessert when Abbi showed up with this.


Assuring us that the Grand Marnier would help with digestion, he first rolled each tumbler over the open flame to heat it, then transferred the Grand Marnier back and forth between the glasses to slowly warm it up.



When it reached the desired temperature, he gently poured it over the juicy orange wedges waiting in the bottom of our snifters, careful not to extinguish the glowing flame.


The heated liqueur was strong, warm, and the perfect ending to a perfect meal.

And you know what? After a cheeseburger, half an order of chicken marsala, pumpkin tortelli in a butter and sage sauce, a bowl of gnocchi, half a wheel of parmigiano, as many forks full of mashed potatoes as I could steal when Angel wasn't looking, and a bonus bowl of duck pappardelle . . . somehow, inexplicably, I actually did feel a little less full.

Anguilla. It really is a magical place.

Want more Anguilla? Click here for my 6-part trip report!

Posted by TraceyG 05:51 Archived in Anguilla Comments (6)

Charleston Part 1: The Yankees Invade (Again)

Historic Charleston, South Carolina fairly oozes the genteel manner of a bygone era. Flickering gas lamps illuminate the city's gracious homes, while horse-drawn carriages roam her cobblestone streets. "Sir" or "ma'am" is the proper way to address someone, and even insults are softened with a gentle "bless her heart" at the end.







Indeed, cultured Charleston has been named the "Best-Mannered City in America," a designation bestowed by etiquette expert Marjabelle Young Stewart, herself better known as the Queen of Couth.


Yes, I know: The irony is killing you. But everyone knows that a trip report written by an ill-mannered barbarian is way more fun than a regular report, so stop your snickering.



Most historians agree that Charleston was originally part of the Carolina territory that was granted to eight Lord Proprietors by Charles II in 1663. The Lords arranged for the first settlement, Charles Towne, as it was originally called, to be established by English settlers from Bermuda under William Sayle in 1670.



There is, however, a little-known alternate theory, which is that Charleston was founded by a group of greedy orthopedists who conspired to create the most treacherous, uneven sidewalks in the entire 13 colonies.


They fiendishly arranged the craggy flagstones in a haphazard jumble, then sat back and reaped the windfall that resulted from the never-ending parade of twisted ankles and busted kneecaps. While their fellow settlers delighted in the peal of the town's many church bells, these bastards delighted in the unmistakable thud of yet another unsuspecting pedestrian taking a header.


We arrived on Friday morning to bright blue skies and warm southern breezes so, after dropping our luggage at the hotel, we decided to take a leisurely (read: painstakingly slow and wobbly) walk up to Hominy Grill in Charleston's Elliotborough neighborhood. Housed in a former barber shop, Hominy Grill is rumored to have some of the best Southern food in Charleston, so I prepared by donning my best elastic-waist expandable dress, and off we went.






There was a bit of a wait when we arrived, so we sat on the patio with a few drinks to, er, grease the skids for the abomination of fat and cholesterol to come.


I decided to try a John Daly, which is a boozy version of an Arnold Palmer made with local Firefly Sweet Tea vodka and lemonade. You can almost picture the advertising exec who thought that naming a mixed-up drink like iced tea and lemonade after famous golfers would make the game seem less boring. Nice try, but you could post strippers at all the odd-numbered holes and golf would still bore most people, um . . . stiff. Heh-heh.


Our meal began with a complimentary basket of boiled peanuts. Boiling the nuts renders them delicious, salty, and addictive, made all the more so by the fact that the softened peanuts are almost impossible to remove from their shells in one piece. So you could end up eating an entire basket just for the challenge of finding the one or two peanuts that come out completely whole. Hypothetically, of course.


Before I could get that far, our fried green tomatoes thankfully arrived. Although there is probably no one on the planet who loves tomatoes more than I do, fried green tomatoes are not for me -- the texture is just too off-putting. Luckily these came with a serving of homemade Ranch dressing, so I ate the fried breading dipped in Ranch (which is surely the official dish of at least one Southern state), while Angel ate the denuded tomatoes. Teamwork!


Next up was Hominy Grill's famous shrimp 'n' grits. Although I thought grits might be related to crowder peas or okra or some other little-known confederate vegetable, grits are actually made from a familiar ingredient: ground corn. Which are then prepared with butter and cheese and topped with bacon, which means they could be made out of sawdust and I'd still eat them. I may be a Yankee, but I'm a Southern girl at heart, y'all!


Angel went with the creole shrimp, which was a little bit spicy and a whole lot delicious.


I'd heard that Hominy Grill's vegetables were worth a try, so I went with the (mouthwateringly vinegary and salty) cucumber and onion salad . . .


. . . and the macaroni & cheese, which is vegetarian, so close enough.


After lunch we picked up a couple of those walkers with the tennis balls for feet so that we could safely navigate around town, then shuffled over to East Bay Street to look around and grab an afternoon cocktail.










We decided on drinks at Squeeze Bar, which bills itself as the "tightest bar in Charleston." Obviously the owner of this place has never seen a NYC closet.





Like almost every place we visited in Charleston, Squeeze Bar is a model of cool interior design, with repurposed egg-basket light fixtures fitted with bare Edison bulbs; rough exposed brick; a chocolate brown and pale blue color scheme; nubby ostrich upholstery; and a bartender who looks like he was born to serve up small-batch whiskey.


thumb_2011_CHS_033.jpg thumb_2011_CHS_034.jpg



After successfully not dropping dead after that lunch at Hominy Grill, later that evening I decided to double-down . . . with some fried chicken skins at Husk. I know what you're thinking: Is it actually possible to improve upon chicken skin? In fact it is, if you deep-fry it, then serve it with a sticky-sweet dip made of honey and hot sauce.



Also amazing was the bread at Husk, which is so soft as to be almost ephemeral, and topped with a thin, buttery crust dotted with pretzel salt. The result is a bread so good that it doesn't even need butter but, this being the South, you can bet your bippy there is butter aplenty. But not just any butter: pork fat butter. I can practically hear Paula Deen cackling maniacally in the background as I type this.


The other dishes we ordered -- pimento cheese with country ham as a second shared appetizer, and the cornmeal-crusted catfish for Angel's entree -- were good, but the pork chop I ordered as my entree was, unfortunately, the fattiest, most gristle-and-bone filled piece of meat I've ever had the displeasure of leaving, almost entirely uneaten, on my plate (and which the waiter astonishingly failed to notice when he came to clear them). And so, if you are contemplating a meal at Husk, I'd recommend sticking to the bread and the fried chicken skin, and perhaps a nice after-dinner angioplasty.




Saturday's weather was just as glorious as Friday's had been, so we planned a walk from Meeting Street west to Colonial Lake, then south to the Battery, finishing up at East Bay Street. Not wanting to undertake such a long journey without proper provisions, we stopped at 82 Queen for brunch, which we chose just as much for the food as for their lovely courtyard.




Having decided that if the combination of fried chicken skins and Charleston's sidewalks hadn't killed us, nothing would, we each started with a bowl of 82 Queen's award-winning she-crab soup, which is made by combining a 55-gallon drum of heavy cream with 1 cup of crabmeat (measurements are approximate).



I decided to stick with sweet tea, while Angel tried the Raspberry Spritzer. Secure in his masculinity, that one.



I tried to go a little lighter for my entree by ordering the Oven Roasted Creamy Chicken Salad. Now, you might think the word "creamy" would be a dead giveaway that there was nothing healthy about this salad, but this is the South. The fact that they added a few pieces of lettuce to the plate automatically qualifies it for the spa menu.


My plan to eat lighter was foiled in part by the industrial-sized jar of mayonnaise that was surely used to prepare that delicious chicken salad, and in part by Angel ordering this:


That's right: Just when Hominy Grill had convinced me that adding butter, parmesan, and bacon was the ideal way to prepare grits, the evil genius behind the stove at 82 Queen goes and dumps a whole fistful of cheddar cheese on them instead. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!

After lunch we waddled over to Colonial Lake, which was notable for the fact that even though it was a gorgeous day, and a Saturday to boot, the lakefront wasn't completely overrun with people. Put a lake like that in the middle of NYC, and on a sunny Saturday you're liable to be trampled to death by an army of women pushing $1,000 strollers.



Later we made our way down to the Battery, where we took in the massive oak trees at White Point Gardens.







Oh, and the massive piles of bricks on Murray Boulevard, East Battery, and elsewhere.






Why be repetitive when you could also be redundant in addition?










CLICK HERE for Part 2!


Posted by TraceyG 17:30 Archived in USA Tagged south_carolina charleston fig 82_queen hominy_grill low_country husk Comments (5)

Charleston Part 2: Breakfast of Champions

Some of Charleston's most exclusive addresses are found along its waterfront, where the homes are priced out of reach for all but the wealthiest scions of polite society. These upper-crust folks are distinguishable from us commoners by their penchant for wearing tennis outfits even when it's raining, hiring midgets to entertain their party guests, and guarding their homes with stately fake animals.



Of course, the homeowner with the concrete animals AND the marble entryway automatically wins. You just know he's got a gold-plated toilet seat in there somewhere.


Well-off Charlestonians have also opted for a less manicured, more kudzued look than is prevalent in the northeast.



Of course, no walk around the Battery would be complete without an afternoon pit stop for refreshments.




Sure, Angel is cute, but the person who owns this bike bell is my true soul mate.


That evening was dinner at FIG, which stands for "food is good," and is also the understatement of the year. This is particularly true at FIG, which was our favorite meal in Charleston, hands-down. From the autumn-inspired allspice martinis we started with, to the salad of baby lettuces with ricotta salata, buttermilk-herb dressing, and the most succulent heirloom tomatoes I've ever tasted, to the Carolina white shrimp escabeche marinated in fall vegetables, ginger, and fresh herbs, everything was fantastic, and that was just for starters.




For my entree, I went with the snapper barigoule, prepared with artichokes and white wine sauce, along with those same sweet tomatoes, plus turnips, carrots, and a giant blue-crab-filled raviolo. Angel decided to try the grilled triggerfish with Capers Inlet clams, sweet potato, butternut squash, fennel, and lipstick peppers, which was also delicious. A spirited fork duel then ensued, with each of us trying to defend our own dish while simultaneously stealing bites of the other's. I think you can guess who won.




As if there weren't enough reasons to love FIG, they were burning the most deliciously fragrant Milkhouse Creamery candle in the ladies' room, which was Ginger and . . . Fig. When they care enough to match the candle to the restaurant, and I care enough to notice, you know you've got a match made in OCD heaven.

After that, we certainly didn't have any room for dessert . . . so we stopped by O'Hara and Flynn wine bar across the street for a glass of red wine. To aid with digestion, of course.






On Sunday morning we made our way over to East Bay Street for brunch at High Cotton.


Spending time in the South took some getting used to, what with people looking us in the eye and holding doors open for us and such, but perhaps the hardest thing to get used to was the fact that people get dressed up to go out to eat. I actually saw a man in a suit! At brunch! Show up for brunch in NYC wearing anything fancier than your pajamas or last night's clothes, and you'll get the stink eye from every hung-over slob in the place.



After a round of regular mimosas, I decided to try a pomegranate one, while Angel went with the Huck Finn, which is made with huckleberry-infused vodka, fresh lemonade, and a splash of soda. I hereby nominate this incredibly tasty concoction as the Official Drink of Brunch, Lunch, Dinner, Supper, Breakfast, 4pm Snacks, and Midnight Snacks.




I decided on the banana nut bread French toast with berry butter, Blis bourbon maple syrup, and applewood smoked bacon. After everything I've eaten thusfar on this trip, would it be wrong to complain that my dish didn't contain enough bacon? Two skinny slices just ain't gonna cut it, especially in a town where lard is its own food group.


The bourbon in the syrup was a bit overpowering for my taste, and the nut bread was rich and dense, and so between the two I only ate about half of my French toast. A-ha! That explains why I needed more bacon.

Angel went with the buttermilk pancakes with spiced apple whipped cream, and managed to eat all his bacon before I could even figure out that I only had two measly slices. Hog.


In addition to being unaccustomed to Charlestonians' charming manners, we sometimes found it difficult to remember that it was 2011, not 1954.



After brunch we stopped by the Powder Magazine, which was originally a military storage area for loose gun powder. The Powder Magazine's walls are three feet thick, and are supported by four enormous arches designed to implode on themselves in the case of an explosion.



A group of schoolchildren were there on a field trip when we arrived, and the guy in the skirt was telling them all about how the roof was cleverly built with sand stored in it, which would drop down and smother any fire in the event of an explosion. Sure, that was interesting, but all I could think about was how lucky I was to have grown up in Pennsylvania, where our field trips included a visit to the kitchen at a Wendy's and a trip to the Meadows Racetrack and Casino. Good ol' Pennsyltucky!


Later that afternoon we decided to join one of the Preservation Society of Charleston's house and garden tours. Now, you may remember that we did a similar tour in Key West back in February, which ended in tears and thoughts of suicide. Charleston's tour wisely heads off such unseemliness by granting participants a mere peek into the homes on the tour: At some houses only the gardens were open to visitors; at others, only certain rooms were available for viewing. And unlike the tour in Key West, there was certainly no poking around in Kenny Chesney's closet . . . no pun intended.







After the house tour we decided to make our way back to the hotel via King Street, which happily coincided with "Second Sunday": On the second Sunday of every month, the street is closed to vehicular traffic and becomes pedestrian-only for the afternoon. This gives residents the rare opportunity to walk on smooth, flat pavement and provides a much-needed respite from worrying about face-planting on one of the misaligned tectonic plates that pass for sidewalks around these parts.


Tonight was the night we'd designated for tackling the Peninsula Grill's famous 12-layer coconut cake. In order to make sure we'd have room for the cake after dinner, we decided to eat at Magnolias, where they offer "small plates" in addition to their regular entrees.


Thus, in keeping with Operation Save Room For Cake, I dutifully ordered from the small plates menu.

So I had the grilled meatloaf with butter-whipped potatoes and mushroom-sage gravy.


And a side of macaroni and cheese.


And a cup of tomato bisque.


And a complete lack of willpower.

Angel had the parmesan-crusted flounder with jasmine rice and creek shrimp pirloo with sweet corn, tomato, and asparagus salad; lump crab; and a sherry beurre blanc. No, we don't know what pirloo is; it's just another of those southern words that sounds vaguely dirty to northern ears, like cattywampus or hoecake.

I could tell that our waiter, though unfailingly polite, was disappointed that we didn't order one of Magnolias' classic southern specialties, like the fried chicken or the shrimp and grits. But I didn't want to explain that I was currently engaged in Operation Coconut Cake (which would have been perceived as a direct assault on Magnolias' pecan pie), nor did I have a plausible explanation as to why eating an entire meatloaf was actually in furtherance of said operation, so I said nothing, even though I felt bad that he was left with the mistaken impression that I hadn't eaten everything in Charleston that wasn't nailed down.

And so it was on to the Peninsula Grill. I'd worn a dress and heels for the occasion, to go along with Angel's blazer, as we understood that jackets were recommended for men. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at the Champagne Bar, only to see at least two patrons in jeans, one of whom was also wearing a jean jacket. I'm sorry, but jeans + a jean jacket = a crime not only against fashion, but against all people with eyes.



The Ultimate Coconut Cake, as it is called, should probably be the Penultimate thing you eat before you die. (The Ultimate being a feast of lasagna, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, potatoes au gratin, fried pork chops, meatloaf, and macaroni & cheese . . . but I digress). It is a whopping 5" tall and extremely dense, so much so that it looks like it might be dry as dust -- but is actually so moist that the cake sticks to your fork.


The layers of super-moist cake are alternated with layers of a decadent coconut cream that's been infused with fresh vanilla. And just when your eyes have rolled almost completely back in your head, you discover that the outside of the cake is completely covered in a butter-and-cream-cheese frosting, and that is covered with freshly toasted coconut.


Angel and I shared one slice but still could not finish it, and so we did the next best thing: We ate half at Peninsula Grill, and the other half for breakfast the next morning. Wheaties, Schmeaties.


CLICK HERE for Part 3!


Posted by TraceyG 17:29 Archived in USA Tagged charleston low_country high_cotton peninsula_grill coconut_cake magnolia's Comments (2)

Charleston Part 3: Fit to be Fried

Monday morning started off cloudy with threatening skies, so it wasn't the best day for the lunch we had planned, which was to enjoy the view of the water from Fleet Landing. However, Monday also happens to be Fried Pork Chop Day at Fleet Landing, which means we were going there regardless of whether we received 3 inches of rain or 3 feet.

Housed in a 1940s structure built by the U.S. Navy as a debarkation point for sailors, Fleet Landing's interior design is what the restaurant refers to as "maritime chic," and what others might call, "Where the hell are all the cute Navy officers I was expecting to see?"





Angel said he'd just have a few bites of whatever appetizer I chose, so I seized the opportunity to order one of the world's great artery-cloggers: spinach and artichoke dip. The northern version of this dip is made with, in order of appearance, spinach, artichokes, and a bit of cheese to bind it all together. In Charleston, however, this dip consists of an entire bowl of cheese and cream bound together with a single spinach leaf and a pea-sized piece of artichoke. In other words, it was divine.



But the real star of this lunch was the fried pork chops. I mean, knock me down and steal my teeth! Butter my butt and call me a biscuit! Lordy be, but these were some dang good pork chops!



Oh, and Angel had some food, too.


These interesting light fixtures are made from blocks of syrofoam. Our waiter said they were to help with the acoustics of the large space, but I think it's to muffle the sound of people yelling "HOLY #$%^!" when they finally get a taste of those pork chops.





After lunch the rain really picked up, so we instituted our rainy-day contingency plan, which was to walk up to the South Carolina Aquarium. But we'd only gone about two blocks before my shoes started squishing like a soaked sponge, so we called a cab and headed on up.






This is an albino alligator. I can't remember his name, but judging from his skin, I'm guessing it's not Marshmallow.


Call me paranoid, but the large seam running down the middle of this aquarium is less than reassuring.


By the time we were ready to leave the aquarium, it was a full-blown monsoon outside, complete with pouring rain and whipping wind.


Indeed, the weather was so horrible that by the time we got back to the hotel, I did what any reasonable person who'd been caught in a semi-tropical storm would do: I peeled off all my wet clothes, then took to my bed with a martini.


For dinner on our last night, we decided to save the best for last. Cypress, you ask, or S.N.O.B.? McCrady's, perhaps? Well . . . not exactly.


That's right: Where there's a 'Shroom, there's a Tracey.


In the grand tradition of wanting whatever I can't have, Mellow Mushroom ranks near the top of my list, given that the closest one to my house is in Washington, D.C. As soon as I discovered that there was a Shroom right in downtown Charleston, visions of pepperonis began dancing in my head.


Having decided that free-flowing arteries are completely overrated, Angel ordered the aptly-named Holy Shiitake pizza, which consists of grilled shiitake, button, and Portobello mushrooms and caramelized onions on an olive oil- and garlic-slathered crust. This fungilicious delight is then topped with mozzarella and Montamore cheese (a sort of parmesan-cheddar hybrid, the inventor of which should win the Nobel Peace Prize), drizzled with garlic aioli, and spritzed (yes, spritzed) with black truffle oil, then garnished with shaved parmesan. One slice is estimated to be 17,000 calories, or 2 additional belt notches.


Mellow Mushroom's pizza has a unique taste, probably because the crust is made using spring water instead of tap water, and the crust does not contain any refined white sugar. That sounds suspiciously like some sort of health food, which is why I wasn't foolish enough to actually finish mine. Well, at least not all of it.


Our last day began with Angel and I dragging ourselves to the gym in a futile attempt to undo the damage inflicted by a thousand mushrooms the night before. As Angel leisurely pedaled away on his exercise bike, I decided to spring on him the surprise I'd been harboring for weeks: I was taking him to Chick-fil-A for lunch. So I leaned over and, as casually as possible, said, "You know, you're gonna have to pedal alot faster than that if you want to go to Chick-fil-A for lunch today!" At which point, after the shock wore off, Angel pedaled so fast that the fake wheels fell off his exercise bike and the electronic speedometer went up in smoke.


Now, if you've never been to a Chick-fil-A before, you're probably wondering why all the fuss over a simple fast-food chicken sandwich. All I can tell you is that Chick-fil-A serves the most tender, juicy, almost sweet piece of all-white-meat fried chicken ever to be placed on a soft, pillowy, perfectly buttered bun. Each sandwich is served completely plain so as to not distract from its fowly fabulousness, save for 2 or 3 small bread-and-butter pickles tucked underneath the filet. Although I don't actually eat those, the remaining pickle juice adds just the right je ne sais quoi to the sandwich, resulting in pure poultry perfection.


Sadly, we were forced to enjoy our meal in full view of a bunch of students from the College of Charleston, all of whom can down twice the amount of Chick-fil-A that we can, because they have twice the metabolic speed. As if that weren't reason enough to hate them, they also get to spend their days wandering around what has to be one of the world's most gorgeous college campuses, burning off all that Chick-fil-A and Mellow Mushroom.








After lunch we took another walk down King Street to do a little shopping.



The patrons and owners of this adorable Italian place off King Street have taken a blood oath of secrecy, which is the only possible explanation for me not finding out about it and then proceeding to eat them out of house and home.


The pull of the mother ship. Strong, it is.



This adorable little store is the Savannah Bee Company.







All of the honeys sold here are produced for a different purpose, such as sweetening your tea, drizzling over cheese, or adding to a marinade for grilling, and are available to try at their tasting bar.


Although I didn't taste any discernible difference among them, I am a sucker for both cute stores and cool packaging and therefore purchased one of each.


We were strolling along when we noticed this interesting gate:


We followed the shady path to the cemetery at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, which is hauntingly beautiful during the day with its weathered headstones and overgrown foliage, but would surely scare the bejeezus out of you after dusk.













This has to be the saddest little headstone I've ever seen. You spend, 50, 70, maybe even 90 years on this planet, and all you end up with is a headstone the size of a potholder? What a ripoff.


As is liable to happen in the Holy City, we came across more churches than you could shake a stick at during our walk. To avoid mixing up their names and exposing myself for the heathen that I am, let's just call them all St. Elmo's in honor of the best movie of 1985.





Inside one of the churches, Angel knelt in one of the pews and said a short prayer of thanks for our lovely trip to Charleston, while I took some pictures and concentrated on not bursting into flames.



Soon it was time to return to the hotel and prepare for departure, so we decided to take the scenic route back. Not that there's any other kind of route in Charleston.












Along the way we spotted these two adorable wine bars, which immediately made me curse the fact that I'd wasted time walking around and taking pictures when I could have been doing something worthwhile, like drinking.



Although we didn't have any more wine, we did stop by the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse so Angel could sample their beer, which is brewed on the premises.


Unfortunately none of them could live up to the Palmetto Espresso Porter he'd had at Hominy Grill earlier in our trip. The way Angel was stalking that beer all over town, you'd think it was a hard-to-find chicken sandwich or something.



Do you know what lots of beer plus Charleston sidewalks equals?


Top billing in the next Jackass movie, that's what. They can just pay me in pork chops.


Next up, we're headed back to Anguilla, where the beaches will be beautiful, the rum punches will be potent, and the cheeseburgers will be plentiful . . . and then to Key West, where the beaches will be rocky, the drinks will be free-flowing, and the amount of weird will be off the charts. Hit the "Subscribe" button located in the box on the right-hand side of the page and you'll receive an e-mail alert when a new report is posted!

Posted by TraceyG 17:28 Archived in USA Tagged south_carolina charleston mellow_mushroom low_country fleet_landing Comments (5)

Victorian Cape May, Part 1: A Tale of Two Doilies

At first blush, the Victorian-era town of Cape May, New Jersey might not seem like the kind of place that Angel and I would normally enjoy. First off, it's "family friendly," which is travel industry-speak for a town full of little people whose faces are perpetually covered in a mixture of ice cream and dried tears.


Second, although it's not technically a dry town, you still might find yourself debating which is more difficult, finding a decent martini or remaining sober through yet another haunted mansion tour.


Finally, Cape May is located in a state that is home to both Snooki and to more toxic waste dumps than any other state in the union, which can't possibly be a coincidence. (I'm kidding, New Jerseyans. Please don't arrange a mob hit on me.)


And did I mention the doilies? Good god, the doilies.

Yet despite these obvious drawbacks, Angel and I have been returning to this beautiful seaside resort town for over ten years now. With its Norman Rockwell charm, wide sandy beaches, and pointy Victorian architecture, Cape May provides the perfect place for us to slow down, take it easy, and eat our faces off.









One of the best places to do that is at Freda's, an unassuming storefront that gives no indication of the 18 patterns of floral wallpaper hidden inside . . .



. . . or of the outstanding cooking by chef Steve Howard, whose wife is the namesake Freda.


We've enjoyed many delicious meals at Freda's, and this night was no exception. I decided to try one of the night's many specials, the beef Wellington with mushrooms and crabmeat. Much like nobody actually orders a pot pie for the chicken, I ordered the Wellington just for the buttery, flaky, mushroomy pastry puff. That thing could have been stuffed with lint and I'd still have eaten every bite.


Yes, every bite.



Angel went with the snapper with Jersey tomato creole sauce, which was tangy with tomatoes and red peppers, and just spicy enough to complement but not overwhelm the fish.


The ambiance was warm and comfortable, the caring service could not have been better, and we love trying the chef's fresh, inventive take on familiar dishes.

Also, Freda's serves the most decadent, dessert-y version of mashed sweet potatoes I've ever tasted, and if I have to stuff down a beef Wellington just to get to those potatoes, so be it.



Earlier that day, we'd stopped by the Lobster House for a quick lunch before checking in at our hotel.


The decor here runs toward wooden ship's wheels and brass lanterns.


In keeping with the decor's nautical theme, all of the female wait staff are forced to dress like patriotic versions of Shirley Temple on the Good Ship Lollipop. Faces have been obscured to protect the innocent.


Entrees at the Lobster House come with a small salad and the usual assortment of dressings, plus a sundried tomato vinaigrette with oregano, which sounded more interesting than the others. When I asked our waitress what she thought of it, she replied cheerily, "Well, I've never actually tried it, but I don't think anyone's ever, like, complained about it!" And with that ringing endorsement, I went ahead and ordered my salad with the sundried tomato vinaigrette.

As our waitress astutely predicted, I did not complain.


It's just a shame they're so stingy with the bread.


Angel ordered the fish special, almond-encrusted flounder with curry cream sauce. Although the sauce lacked curry's usual heat, it was creamy and tasty, and the fish was flaky and moist with a pleasant crunch from the almonds. I was feeling generous, so I even let Angel have a few bites.


I went with the baked shrimp stuffed with crabmeat. At first I thought they brought me an appetizer portion by mistake, but then I realized, not everyone out there is lucky enough to be a human trash compactor like myself.


Anchored alongside the Lobster House is the schooner American, which also serves as an outdoor cocktail lounge. This place could provide hours of entertainment if you're the designated driver: Nope, I didn't feel anything. Wait, you think the bar is actually bobbing? Geez, you must be really . . . tipsy.




In addition, there's a takeout window, which I do not recommend since, without a sailor-suit-clad waitress, you'll never know it if they get together for a rousing rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" at break time.



I like lobster as much as the next guy, but seeing one the size of a small child is quite disconcerting.


After lunch we checked in at our hotel, the Star Inn. Located directly across the street from its sister property, Congress Hall, guests of the Star enjoy all the amenities of Congress Hall at a fraction of the price, plus an adorable coffee shop, vouchers for coffee and pastries, and a charming front porch on which to enjoy it.







Unfortunately, that bargain came at a price, namely, our room's location directly across from Congress Hall's nightclub, the Boiler Room, which made it impossible to sleep once the club got going at night. I know you're thinking, if you can't beat 'em, why not join 'em? And we would have, if I only I hadn't left my leopard print micro-dress, platform stilettos, and 38 double-Ds at home.

Although all of the Congress Hall properties were fully booked this Labor Day weekend, they miraculously had one early check-out, which just happened to be the one room at Congress Hall that was the absolute furthest from the nightclub. Thank you, early-checker-outer!





First opened in 1816 as a simple boarding house for summer visitors, Congress Hall was originally called "The Big House" by its owner, Thomas H. Hughes. Convinced the building was far too large to ever be a success, however, Cape May locals nicknamed it "Tommy's Folly." Those Victorians sure knew how to hurl an insult.




Did I also mention that the room they gave us was an oceanfront penthouse suite, and that they knocked $400 off the rate? At the hotels we usually stay at, knocking that much off the room rate would mean they'd owe us money.



One of the things we loved about the room were the old-school tiles and fixtures.



Even the room keys were designed to look like the old paper tickets the hotel's early guests would use to travel to Cape May by train. You might think those large brass rectangles would make the keys harder to lose, but you would be wrong.


As much as we liked our room, we could have lived without the Overlook Hotel-style hallways. REDRUM!



However, all was forgiven as soon as I saw this. Sure, there might be murderous twins roaming the halls, but at least they're quiet twins.


Right around the corner from Congress Hall is the heart of Cape May, a quaint outdoor shopping district called the Washington Mall. The Washington Mall is chock-full of shops and restaurants like a regular mall, minus the big hair and people who don't know how to park.








One of our favorite shops is Love the Cook. No, we don't cook; their wares are what we like to call aspirational.


But we do take showers, and you can find every possible scent and form of shower gel, bath gel, shower cream, bubble bath, and plain old soap at Bath Time.



While I spent an hour or so in Bath Time sampling every product in the store, Angel spent an hour at Jackson Mountain sampling a draft beer and a Yankees game.


A little off the beaten path is another great shop, Wanderlust, where you can find everything from fish rugs to pineapple tables to seahorse bags. Couldn't everyone use a flip-flop chip-and-dip set?



Cape May is also home to one of the largest collections of Victorian homes in the country, second only to San Francisco. Which is of course the first place that comes to mind when you think about Victorian prudes.









On Saturday we decided to ride our bikes over to the West Cape May Tomato Festival.


Naturally, I came prepared.


I was not, however, prepared for tomato hats, tomato earrings, and such saucy t-shirts.



Or so many adorably apple-cheeked kids.




The festival was, unfortunately, a bit short on its namesake tomatoes. I'd been expecting plates of tomatoes, bowls of tomatoes, tomato soup, tomato tarts, tomato everything. But there weren't too many choices, unless you count this yummy tomato bread . . .


Or the "tomato chocolate cake," which I will try right after the garlic brownie and the pork chop a la mode.


Luckily there were a few other choices to be had, like the incredibly meaty crab cakes from the Cape May Crab Cake Factory, and the fantastic raspberry and strawberry lemonades from Sweet Roses Twisted Lemonade.



Having stuffed ourselves full of tomato bread, crab cakes, and lemonade, we decided to go with a light lunch of salads at Aleathea's restaurant, located at the Inn of Cape May.



Of course, the real reason I wanted a salad was so I could drown it in Aleathea's homemade Champagne-basil vinaigrette, which is scandalously thick and rich and tastes like freshly-picked basil.


A chef's salad sounded perfect . . . and . . . you already know where this is going, don't you? A quick scan of the menu revealed that they had taken the chef's salad off the menu! Either chef's salads are now passe, relegated to the Great Culinary Trashheap along with aspic and steak Diane or, more likely, there really is a worldwide shortage of ham and turkey. Forget grain futures, people: The smart money's on cold cuts.

And so I did what anyone whose plans for a light lunch were foiled would do: I ordered a double-wide cheesesteak.



Before dinner that evening we decided to have drinks at Congress Hall's elegant Brown Room bar.





The Brown Room draws the fashionable crowd in Cape May, like this guy, who seems to have been going for Prep School Headmaster, but took a wrong turn at Secret Service Agent.


My drink was made with vodka, fresh strawberries, lemon, club soda, and muddled fresh basil from nearby Beach Plum Farm. For those with any qualms or misgivings about drinking a cocktail with so much basil in it, rest assured: that's what the vodka is for.


Dinner that night was at the Black Duck on Sunset, located in an old clapboard house that still retains its choppy layout. This makes the Black Duck a great place to eat if you enjoy being seated in the foyer on top of your hostess. That, of course, depends on what she looks like, and how many vodka-and-basil drinks you had beforehand.


I started with the lobster bisque, while Angel had the lobster dumplings.



For entrees we both had the Szechwan spiced beef and peanut stir fry, which was delicious.


This gorgeous building is the Peter Shields Inn.


The Peter Shields is one of the classiest places in all of Cape May, mostly by virtue of the fact that they managed to stick to just one floral pattern for the wallpaper.



Also, this is one swanky bar, particularly for a place that doesn't have a liquor license.


The menu at PSI looked fantastic, with summery dishes like lobster and corn chowder and garden risotto. This place is definitely on the list for our next trip, partly because the food sounds amazing, and partly because eating dinner in a room that doesn't clash with my dress will be a first for me in Cape May.


CLICK HERE to read Part 2!


Posted by TraceyG 05:28 Archived in USA Tagged new_jersey cape_may jersey_shore freda's lobster_house congress_hall star_inn Comments (1)

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