A Travellerspoint blog

Key West: Walking in a Wiener Wonderland, Part 1

Christmas with my family in snowy Pittsburgh, PA, can be a bitter, cold affair . . . and the weather usually stinks, too. So this year, we rounded up a bunch of friends, jumped on a plane, and headed to the Conch Republic, where we were all but assured of a warm, if weird, welcome.

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Not too warm, though.

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For the first eight days of our trip, we were joined by our friends Frances and Todd, who live in New Jersey. Aside from that they are very nice people and, unlike the last time we spent a weekend with them, this time they mostly behaved themselves and nobody had to call out the Coast Guard.

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The four of us decided to rent a house instead of staying at a hotel, which especially suited Frances and Todd, seeing as how, "Welcome to Disney World!" are the only four words they might dread hearing more than, "Where are y'all from?"

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The house, Pineapple Cottage, was very large, extremely private, and around the corner from Walgreen's, which was perfect considering that I'd spent $150 to haul 6 pieces of luggage to Key West, only to forget basics like mascara and hair gel.

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Mid-week we were joined by two more friends, Ellen and Brian, who were more than ready for a re-do after their last trip to Key West involved weather so unusual that folks went kayaking . . . down Duval Street. Throw in the fact that Ellen had just quit her job, Brian works enough hours for two jobs, and both of them treat Happy Hour like it's a competitive hot-dog eating contest, and you can see why I put some bail money aside just in case.

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After running a few errands on arrival day (picking up our bikes, making a Fausto's run, and buying a 22-gallon drum to hold the rum punch we planned to make for our last night in the house), our first order of business was to jump on the Conch Train Holiday Lights tour that was departing from N. Roosevelt Blvd. The tour consists of the train's driver cruising up and down the streets of Midtown and Old Town looking for the most ostentatious Christmas lights, blaring Christmas carols from a set of immense speakers, and encouraging his passengers to scream "WOOOO!!!" as the train lingers in front of the most impressive displays.

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After we'd stopped and screamed in front of the third or fourth house, I figured the beleaguered homeowners inside were doing exactly what I'd be doing if I lived there: Flipping that train the bird with one hand while loading my BB gun with the other. But this is Key West, which means that not only did these homeowners not call the cops on us -- they actually welcomed us. At least once on every block the proud occupants came outside to greet us, dressed in festive Santa hats and waving like they were on a float at the Macy's Thankgiving Day Parade. By the end of the night I was half-expecting them to throw candy at us. Or, you know, Mardi Gras beads and beer cans.

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After the tour we met up with Frances and Todd for a late dinner at Cafe Sole.

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Angel and I like this place for their out-of-this-world mushroom soup and free bottles of wine, while Frances and Todd like it for the hogfish, a local fish that feeds on shrimp and other shellfish and therefore comes, as Todd put it, "pre-stuffed."

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And everyone loves the bananas Foster.

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The next day we decided to revisit the home of the fabled Free Bacon Happy Hour, 2 Cents Gastropub, for brunch. If we could get a couple of slices of bacon for free at happy hour, I figured, just imagine how much could we get our hands on if we actually paid up!

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Much like the little brother that I never had (unless you count Trina), Frances delights in grossing me out with tales of things like having the cyst/devil horn sprouting from her head surgically removed (that really happened), knocking her front teeth out on a jet-ski (that really happened), and ingesting drinks like the Herbal High, a concoction of fresh sage, grapefruit juice, and Miller High Life that could give Syrup of Ipecac a run for its money (that really happened).

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Although there were lots of tempting choices, I settled on the Eggs Sardou, which was basically eggs Benedict topped with creamed spinach and with mini artichokes standing in for the English muffins. Normally vegetables should never be permitted to muscle out stuff like bread, but those little artichokes were pretty good, not to mention cute. I also had the Sauvignon Blanc with lemonade, which only sounds white trash-y.

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In addition to the egg dishes that Frances, Todd, and Angel selected, the four of us also shared two sides of bacon and two orders of silver-dollar pancakes with raspberries and, yes, more bacon.

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That afternoon we biked around a bit and took in some holiday cheer.

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Oh, and looked at decorations, too.

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That evening we headed over to Colombian Grace, a spot I'd been wanting to try ever since I heard about a dish there called the Cartagena, which immediately makes me go, "Joan Wiiilder? Zee Joan Wiiilder???" in my head.

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Made with shrimp and calamari sautéed in basil, garlic, and fresh tomato broth, the Cartagena is offered only as an appetizer, which was surprisingly large enough even for me.

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Just to be safe, though, I "shared" the arepas -- grilled white corn cakes with melted cheese -- with Angel, and had a side of empanadas, too, just in case he was serious about that whole sharing thing.

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Angel had the shrimp with white wine, butter, lime juice, garlic, mushrooms and tomato, while Todd had the Bandeja Paisa (red beans, rice, chorizo, skirt steak, bacon, sweet plantain, green plantain, and two fried eggs), which I believe roughly translates as the "Paul Bunyan Special." For her part, Frances went with the Petronia Chicken glazed in orange juice, rosemary, brandy, and a little spicy sugarcane sauce. If your mouth is not watering by now, you need to stop looking at this on your iPhone and get to a real monitor.

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On Christmas Eve we headed over to Louie's to catch up with Donna and Greg, two local friends whom you might remember recently threw a fabulous, Champagne-and-sweat-soaked wedding on a sailboat, and who are to be commended for guiding us through last year's Key West Food and Wine Festival without once passing out (that we know of).

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This time around, though, Donna and Greg were knee-deep in moving boxes, as their cottage on Big Coppitt Key was set to be demolished so that a roomy new two-story house can be built in its place, which will have sweeping water views and a bedroom just for me (I guess Angel can sleep there, too). While the new house is being built, however, they will be living in a camper on a friend's property, which Donna has eloquently named the Redneck Ranch. The idea of the lovely, perfectly polished Donna -- she of the little black dresses and sky-high stilettos and perfect manicures -- ruling the roost at the Redneck Ranch is so ridiculous that I can't believe people spend their time watching Honey Boo-Boo when this kind of entertainment is available in person for the price of a plane ticket.

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After lunch, Donna and Greg met us back at the house with a few bottles of wine. Soon we were joined by Frances and Todd and, as is usually the case, where Frances goes, trouble follows. This time, the trouble started with Donna needing to make a Christmas ornament for a friend's Naughty Ornament Party that evening; Frances making like a pervy MacGyver and dropping fifty bucks at Walgreen's to buy supplies that included condoms, an assortment of rubber balls, and some paper clips; the three of us sending Todd out on an emergency vodka run while Angel and Greg pretended not to know us; Frances concentrating like she was making the next atom bomb in order to send Donna off with the perfect dirty ornament . . . and Tracey and Angel deciding to crash said house party.

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It ended with Angel having to drag me out of the party (it is apparently bad form to refuse to leave if you were never invited to begin with) and me being angry because (1) Did I mention they had a buffet? and (2) I was right in the middle of a conversation with the deputy at the jail about that giant pig who died at the petting zoo there. Yes, a petting zoo. At the jail. Where else would you expect kids in Key West to have their field trips?

It really didn't feel like Christmas when we woke up the next morning: The sky was bright blue, the sun was hot, and nobody had spent the night on a guest futon covered in cat hair. And somehow we'd managed to rent the only house in Key West without a single Champagne glass, so our traditional Christmas morning mimosas were sipped from mismatched martini glasses.

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Nor was there a towering Christmas tree surrounded by presents, but both Frances and Angel came through nonetheless, the former getting me a flip-flop bottle opener and matching coasters and wrapping it all up in the world's cutest gift bag, and the latter finally admitting that he married a 13-year-old boy and getting me a "best of" DVD of Beavis & Butthead.

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Even Ellen, who arrived later that day, brought me a fabulous gift: A huge, round, hot-tub-sized raft that looks like a lime and that I cannot wait to hog the whole pool in the Hamptons with. That I repay all of these people by picking off their plates at dinner just goes to show you what good friends they really are.

On top of all that, Frances and Todd had breakfast at their usual spot, Pepe's, and kindly brought me back a to-go order of their fantastic grilled mashed potatoes.

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I turned my back on those potatoes for one second to grab a fork, only to see this when I returned:

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Like he ever had a chance.

Later that morning we biked over to the elegant Casa Marina for their Christmas Day brunch buffet.

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Tapeworms and buffets go together like Frances and raunchy ornaments, so I was obviously in my milieu, and I didn't waste any time. After an eggnog shooter and my second mimosa of the day, it was time to dig in.

That is au gratin potatoes, rice pilaf, a block of chestnut stuffing with cream sauce (why hasn't anyone thought of that sooner?), and, off to the left there, a mound of pepperoni and hard salami. The Caesar salad is there in order to create a well-balanced meal with vegetables.

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Next up, more potatoes, more stuffing, and some pizza. You've heard of the Atkins diet? I'm on the Fatkins.

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Ellen and Brian arrived that afternoon, and we'd chosen A&B Lobster House as the perfect spot for a celebratory Christmas dinner.

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From the outstanding lobster bisque to the moist, meaty crab cake, to the sweet-and-tart Tropical Martini, everything I tasted was delicious . . . and my own meal wasn't bad either. And because it was Christmas, I only got stabbed in the hand with a fork once.

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The next day, Frances and Todd went on a fishing charter, leaving me, Angel, Ellen, and Brian to fend for ourselves for lunch. We decided to try Caroline's Cafe since none of us had ever been there.

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There, we started with an assortment of rum drinks and the kind of salads that allow you to tell people you had a salad for lunch, when in fact you had a plate of fried chicken garnished with some lettuce.

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And oh, what fantastic fried chicken it was. They really ought to sell these tasty little nuggets in go-bags so you can walk around and snack on them without getting the insides of your pockets all greasy.

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As we were finishing lunch, I noticed a small white chicken under our table, so naturally I wanted a picture of it.

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Our waitress then helpfully informed us that there was a much larger, friendlier rooster around named Abby . . . and that we could pick him up. Never being ones to turn down a dare, Ellen and I immediately shot out of our seats and began searching the restaurant for Abby. Finally, another waitress tipped us off to his location: They'd chased him out back because the health inspector had shown up. (Note to potential restaurateurs: Numerous small chickens on the premises are acceptable, but one large rooster is a no-go.) Round the back we went, where we were greeted by a small turtle named Shelby, a Yoda-topped Christmas tree, and a little Asian man who realized he'd hit the photography jackpot when Ellen burst onto the scene chasing a giant rooster. Weird, it was.

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We had to approach Abby carefully, of course, since everyone knows what happens when a chicken in this neighborhood gets angry.

Plus, there's always the danger that if you can't fool the chicken, it will gleefully peck your eyes out at the first opportunity. Luckily Ellen was more than up to the task.

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Finally: success! Ellen grabbed hold of Abby, hoisted him up light as a feather, and even gave him a peck on the head for good measure. All puns intended, of course.

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That evening the six of us headed over to Rooftop Cafe to celebrate Todd's birthday (and Ellen's brave handling of Abby).

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Several of us were excited to try Rooftop's version of one of my favorite frozen concoctions, the key lime pina colada, but the frozen drink machine was down . . . which is the Key West equivalent of McDonald's running out of buns. No matter. Brian went with the second runner-up, the key lime pie martini, while Angel, Todd, and I used a few of those ubiquitous "free glass of wine" coupons to score some free hooch. There was also a pineapple-y rum punch for Ellen, and a ginger-pear martini for Frances that can best be described as having your mouth washed out with soap. (We know this because the first thing one says after tasting something awful is, "Ewww, gross. You have to try this!").

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An assortment of crab cakes, fish, pasta, and risotto later . . .

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And it was time for dessert, delivered by the mischievous Christopher, whose hilarious sendup of Frances politely ordering a cup of coffee sent booze flying out of noses all around the table. Only in Key West does use of the word "Sir" sound so formal that you might as well take up residence at Downton Abbey.

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The next morning Frances and Todd had another fishing trip scheduled, so Angel and I took advantage of having the house to ourselves and ordered lunch in. I'd heard good things about a new sandwich shop, Paseo, and the crowds gathered outside every time we rode by seemed to confirm the good reviews, so Paseo it was. In particular, I'd heard about their fantastic grilled corn on the cob, and today was the perfect day to order it, since, like Oreos, corn on the cob is one of those things best eaten at home with your toothbrush at the ready.

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The food from Paseo -- the Caribbean roast pork sandwich for Angel, and the marinated pork loin for me -- was delicious, even though that pork loin did look suspiciously like the cube steaks my mom used to beat into chewy submission when I was growing up.

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But the grilled corn on the cob? Let's just say that while I generally don't make a habit of licking aluminum foil, sometimes exceptions must be made.

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Half an hour after demolishing a pork loin, a plate full of rice and beans, and the best grilled corn this side of Mexico, it was time for a little palate cleanser. So off we went to our appointment at Lush bar for a wine and chocolate tasting.

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When he isn't busy dreaming up new ways to give folks the gout, our friend Mark, the cirrhosis-courting mastermind behind the Key West Food & Wine Festival, also runs the adorable Lush bar inside the Green Pineapple store on Duval Street.

Yes, those dimples are real, and, no, you can't stick your fingers in them. That's my domain.

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After I took this photo, I teased Mark about being just like Angel, whose random limbs are always showing up in my photos.

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"Can't you get your damn elbow out of my picture?" I asked. Sure, he responded.

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No wonder those two get along.

At Lush, Mark specializes in wine pairings with chocolate, honey, and, if you tell him ahead of time that you don't much care for chocolate, generous cheese plates with this cool goat cheese/brain.

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The pairing began with some historical background on chocolate, which is made from the fermented, roasted, and ground beans of the cocoa tree. The raw beans are crunchy and somewhat bitter, and therefore more to my liking than actual chocolate.

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And what better place to store them than in a redneck wine glass? I bet Donna has a whole cabinet full of these over at the Ranch.

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Each of the subsequent pairings was designed to match the wine to the chocolate both in terms of geographic origin and flavor notes -- in other words, if it grows together, it goes together. Our first pairing was a glass of sparkling wine from Washington's Willamette Valley, which was paired with a dark salted-almond chocolate from Seattle.

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A succession of red wines followed: An Argentinian Malbec paired with an Ecuadorean chocolate; a French blend paired with a Trinitario chocolate, which is one of only three types of cacao trees in the world; a South African Cabernet paired with a spicy cinnamon-and-Sakay- pepper chocolate from Madagascar that almost melted my face off (in a good way); and a Portuguese porto with an Askinosie "El Rustico," which was my favorite of the chocolates I tried because it was laced with vanilla bean and had an appealingly gritty texture.

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For each pairing, the idea was to sip the wine, taste the chocolate, and then sip the wine again to note the differences between the first sip and the second. For me, however, it went something like, sip the wine, take another sip, harass Mark a little bit, eat a hunk of cheese, take another sip of wine, nibble on the chocolate, take another sip of wine, harass Mark some more, and then eat another hunk of cheese.

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We were joined during our tasting by this woman, Megan, who left her kid back at the hotel with her husband so she could hang out and drink wine and eat chocolate undisturbed . . . and who should never, ever get divorced.

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Also during our tasting, we were approached by a lovely woman named Donna from West Palm Beach, who recognized me from this blog. I am always amazed when people recognize me, but I guess I shouldn't be. A few weeks ago I walked into the H20+ store on Madison & 53rd, a shop I usually visit every six weeks or so but hadn't been to in a while, as they'd been closed for several months due to a fire. As soon as I walked in, the saleswoman greeted me in very heavy Russian accent, "Oh, you are back! I remember you. Your face, it is not so popular." Indeed.

Our tasting wrapped up with a glass of Mt. Difficulty's "Roaring Meg" riesling, served with milk chocolate drizzled with honey and dusted with sea salt. Which I'd think is what heaven tastes like . . . if I didn't already know that it tastes like bacon double cheeseburgers.

Also, did you notice how Mark ended the tasting with a wine from Mt. Difficulty? Obviously it would be paranoia to take that as some kind of hint. Right? Right?

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Afterwards I decided to do a little shopping at the Green Pineapple, which sells everything from jewelry to tunics to chocolates to stemware.

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That night Mark was stuck with me again, as was his partner Steven, plus Donna and Greg and two friends from Key Largo, Claudia and Alden.

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I'd reserved a table for 8 at Santiago's Bodega and made sure to let them know ahead of time that we expected flaming cheese, and lots of it, and they'd better not run out. That's because Donna, Claudia, and I might flame you on our blogs if the food isn't good . . . and at least one of us might have a meltdown if there isn't enough of it. (As it was, there was so much flaming cheese that we set off the smoke alarms.) Luckily the army of servers assigned to our table, including this cutie named Ivan (who is, by coincidence, our Key West tenant), came through with nary a singed eyebrow.

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Before the saganaki, however, our evening started with a gratis pitcher of sangria (thanks, Ivan!), a bottle of white wine (thanks, Alden!), a bottle of red wine (thanks, Mark!), then devolved into a melee of saganaki and meatballs and more sangria, and ended, finally, with Steven and I mock-heckling a lounge singer at La Te Da while plotting to pick up frat boys together at Irish Kevin's and, once again, Angel dragging me away before things could get interesting.

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The next day we met up with Ellen and Brian for lunch at Southernmost Beach Cafe.

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I decided to eat light in preparation for the pizza party we planned for that night, which was our last night in the house, and for which Angel and I had whipped up the aforementioned batch of rum punch. So I had a turkey burger, some pasta salad, and one of my beloved key lime pina coladas, which is like a boozy Shamrock Shake with a better straw.

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Our go-to rum punch recipe calls for orange juice, pineapple juice, guava nectar, grenadine, amaretto, nutmeg, a whopping 64 ounces of rum, and Angostura bitters, this last of which actually took some effort to find. The kids these days must be huffing them, seeing as how they are stashed away behind the counter like they're the good Sudafed.

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Little did we know that by the end of the night, we'd be wishing we'd kept that rum punch hidden away, too.

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CLICK HERE to read Part 2!

Posted by TraceyG 16:00 Archived in USA Comments (3)

Key West: Walking in a Wiener Wonderland, Part 2

That evening, while I made the final preparations for the pizza party, Angel went to the turtle races with the rest of the gang to try to redeem us after that time I was thisclose to winning the entire jackpot, but got distracted by what was behind door #3 (a bottle of Heinz ketchup) and blew my chance.

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As Angel well knows, you can take the girl out of Pittsburgh, but you can never destroy her abiding love for ketchup. So if we were ever going to win some Turtle Bucks, it was all on him. Luckily he's pretty good under pressure.

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Back at the house, we killed the rum punch, made a sizable dent in the vodka that we'd goaded Todd into buying on Raunchy Ornament Night, devoured three large pizzas, and participated in a rousing game of "Guess The Definition" of a number of unmentionable slang terms on Urban Dictionary, which is how people used to entertain themselves in the olden days before TV.

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Ellen had been plotting for months to bring one of those "Adults Only" cakes from Croissants de France to the party for dessert, but as soon as arguments broke out as to how each of us would be depicted, anatomically speaking, she went with the world's prettiest edible Yule log instead.

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After all this, there was only one place left to go: The Green Parrot.

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Now, sometimes I'm in the mood for a nice glass of Cabernet and quiet conversation. Sometimes I'd like a frosty pina colada and a water view. And sometimes, I can even be dragged out to Sloppy Ho's or one of the other bars on lower Duval for free music and cheap beer. But when I'm in the mood to act like a dancin' fool, only one place will do: The Green Parrot. That night the band was bringing Friends, Funk & Fortitude from New Orleans, and we were more than ready to laissez les bons temps rouler. And unlike most nights when I just stumble on in to the Parrot, this time I was prepared. See, back in early December, Angel, Brian, and I had celebrated Ellen's birthday at NYC's Hurricane Club, a so-tacky-it's-chic tiki spot that specializes in group drinks that are consumed with absurdly long red straws.

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Those straws allow you to suck up much more than you normally might drink in one sitting, which prompted Ellen to remark to me, in complete and utter seriousness, "Your eyes look beautiful in those glasses." Yes. Like space crystals.

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Sensing an opportunity, I gathered up as many of those straws as I could that night, smuggled them home, cleaned them up, and promptly stowed them away in my luggage for this trip. (I can't remember to pack things like toothpaste, but I can remember to pack a slew of two-foot-long straws.)

Thus armed with my super-straws, it was time to head over to the Green Parrot. Fragile Frances had been felled by a bad case of too much rum punch (or, more likely, the volcano-sized pile of nachos she'd inhaled at the turtle races), so only six of us made the pilgrimage. While the guys staked out a good spot near the popcorn machine, kept an eye on our purses, and wisely kept the cameras hidden away, I busted out my mega-straw and began to make my rounds of likely marks. "Helllllloooooooooo!!!" I trilled in my best Mrs. Doubtfire voice, aiming my straw at whatever libation my next victim happened to be holding. "And what have we heeeere???" I am happy to report that my super-straw and I sampled everything from Jack & Gingers (eh) to a few warm Coronas (ick) to a diet Coke (quel disappointment!), all without a single refusal or communicable disease (so far). The night ended with Donna getting down like one of the Solid Gold Dancers up on stage with the band; me twirling a stranger's handlebar mustache (with permission) the wrong way (by mistake); Ellen slipping on the stairs and landing on said stranger; and Angel once again dragging me away just when things were getting good. And I know exactly what you're thinking: What a shame that Frances couldn't be there, what with us behaving like the cast from her beloved stomping grounds, Jersey Shore.

The next day we dropped off the keys to the house and checked in at the Chelsea House, an historic inn where we would spend our last three nights.

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Although the Chelsea House and its sister properties, including the adorable Key Lime Inn cottages, are all perfectly nice (and the staff extremely accommodating), poor Chelsea House, having followed seven days at the most private house we've ever rented, suffered the same fate as whatever you happen to order after the free bacon at 2 Cents: It's nice, but it just can't compare.

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Which is not to say that it was boring, by any stretch.

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After dropping off our bags, we made like a couple of sailors on payday and headed down to the Bight to spend Angel's hard-won Turtle Bucks.

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One of the newest and most beautiful sailboats at the Bight is the Hindu, which was built in 1925 in Maine and has been lovingly restored by the Rowan family.

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Me, I'd be happy with this little boat, so long as the puppy came with it.

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By the time we reached Turtle Kraals, it was 11:45, and therefore almost noon, and therefore time for cocktails.

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Then it was on to the crab and spinach dip with Townhouse crackers, followed by the shrimp Po Boy for Angel and the fried shrimp and a pathetic, naked, boiled corn cob for me . That cheesy grilled corn at Paseo has ruined me, I tell you.

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Frances and Todd showed up just as we were digging in, ostensibly so they could eat lunch, but really so Frances could force me to look at her new Velcro sandals. Yes, Velcro. You know how people always say they'd rather be comfortable than fashionable? God help her, but Frances actually means it.

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If you don't have anything nice to say . . . turn your head and try not to laugh.

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That evening Ellen and Brian treated us to the Commotion on the Ocean sunset cruise on the Fury boat.

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As if that wasn't nice enough, Ellen picked this cruise specifically because they serve meatballs at the small buffet and unlimited margaritas during the cruise, and that is why we are convinced that she and I would clean up at that Friday afternoon Newlywed Game at Southernmost on the Beach.

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The next day we met up with Ellen and Brian at Le Bistro, since Brian wanted a crepe. (Frances and Todd ended up back at their usual spot, Pepe's, due to her powerful addiction to their strawberry eggnog.)

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The food was great: A turkey croissant for Ellen, a chicken pesto panini and some spicy gazpacho for me, and the lobster-and-chorizo Benedict for Angel.

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Oh, and Brian had the scrambled eggs. I guess he pulled a crepe-and-switch.

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Later that evening we decided to revisit some of the inns and houses we'd seen on earlier bike rides to get some photos of their Christmas lights.

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We also came upon the horror of this terrible massacre. God only knows what kind of animal would slaughter Santa, and Tigger, too.

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After spying one particularly decked-out house, we pulled our bikes over and I walked across the street to get my shot. Or, rather, I walked across the street and, distracted by all the sparkly tinsel, didn't notice that big ditch in the street and promptly fell headfirst into it. As I lay on the ground wondering what the hell had just happened, my first thoughts were, in this order: (1) Thank god this fall didn't chip my pedicure; (2) Thank god this fall didn't rip my favorite jeans; (3) Thank god I brought my cute ambulance band-aids; and (4) Did I just break my kneecap . . . AGAIN? Priorities, people.

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The fall left part of my big toe a bloody mess with a sizable flap of skin hanging off of it, and my knee looking like a grapefruit covered in angry red brush burns. (I blew out my flip-flop, too, and I wasn't even wasted away again.) I patched my toe up with a band-aid -- being distracted by sparkly stuff is reason #1 why I carry band-aids on my person at all times -- and tried to get back to taking photos, but soon I could feel my knee stiffening up and, worried that pedaling my bike might soon become impossible, we headed back to the suite to clean my wounds and ice my knee.

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As Angel set me up with a chair to elevate my leg and fashioned an ice pack out of some ice cubes and a washcloth and forced me into a series of excruciating knee stretches every ten minutes, I realized that we were probably going to have to order in for dinner, because both walking and pedaling seemed out of the question.

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But tonight we had plans. Big plans. Plans that were so important that I somehow managed to pedal my bike with one leg and brake Fred Flintstone-style in order to get there.

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One gigantic veal parm, a glass of Pinot Noir, two meatballs, and a handful of Advil later, all was right with the world.

On New Year's Eve we decided to check out the Key West Dachshund Walk, otherwise known as the Wiener Dog Parade.

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I'd been expecting maybe a dozen or so weenies and their owners and a smattering of gawkers, so I was completely unprepared for the throngs that greeted us (along with a blaring loudspeaker playing "Who Let the Dogs Out?").

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I immediately realized that, like a politician with a camera phone, if I wanted to get some good wiener shots, I was going to have to get closer to the action. Still pretty banged up from my unfortunate meeting with that roadside ditch, I limped my way through the crowd, carefully sidestepping holes and uneven pavement and, you know, air, until I found a small opening in the crowd and weasled my way in. At first I tried shooting the weenies from on high because squatting was difficult with my knee, but I soon realized that if you really want to capture the beauty of a wiener, you've got to get up close and personal with it.

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So I sat down on the pavement, with my good leg tucked under me and the bad one sticking out since it wasn't willing to bend. Which wouldn't have been so bad, except that I was wearing a dress. Once you've flashed your undies to the spectators at a wiener dog parade, you know you're close to hitting rock bottom.

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Of course, the parade mostly featured wiener dogs, though I did spot a few impostors.

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See that lady in the red shirt?

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That wiener-dog-hog brought a container full of bacon in order to lure the dogs over to her side of the street, so that folks on my side couldn't get any pictures. Why didn't I do the same, you ask? Because no matter how badly I want to get the perfect shot, no way am I wasting good bacon on a wiener dog. I mean, I might let him sniff it, but I'm the one who does the eating around here.

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Thankfully, the guy next to me was a talented Weenie Whisperer, enabling me to get some decent shots as well as keep those pesky zombies at bay.

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Obviously this dog can't tell us how he feels about that Hawaiian shirt, but that look, and his extended middle paw, really say it all.

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After the parade it was time for some lunch. With no set plans, I suddenly remembered that the Westin's Bistro 245 serves its own version of that fabulous blackened grouper sandwich on griddled luau bread that we first discovered in Delray Beach and most recently devoured on Lido Key. We arrived and were greeted by this:

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That marvelous feat of engineering is a Disney cruise ship, which presumably holds something on the order of 45,000 children. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I would rather spend eternity tied to a stake while the devil gleefully dangles pizzas and cheeseburgers just out of my reach than spend 10 minutes on that ship. Though the all-meals-included thing is appealing.

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Just looking it started giving us the shakes, so we immediately ordered some drinks (a lemon-lime daiquiri for me; Planter's punch for Angel), followed by the gazpacho, which came topped with crispy toast and tangy cream cheese.

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Although the blackened grouper was tempting, I decided to go with the salad with feta, hearts of palm, pine nuts, and red and yellow tomatoes.

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The afternoon was a flurry of activity -- a quick stop at Kermit's for some key lime cookies; a little pool time; and happy hour with Ellen at Southernmost Beach Cafe, where we enjoyed yet another round of key lime pina coladas -- and soon it was time for New Year's Eve to begin in earnest. We'd originally planned to have dinner at Latitudes at Sunset Key, and called in early October to make sure we'd be among the lucky few to get a reservation. Despite my repeated calls, however, Attitudes at Suckit Key refused to confirm our reservation until the day before New Year's Eve, since they'd been waiting to see if any of their owners or guests wanted our table instead. We turned them down, of course (Donna had already pulled some strings and landed us the best seats in the house over at Hot Tin Roof), making sure to let them know that we'd have been a party of five plus one tapeworm, which was clearly their loss.

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Over at the lovely Hot Tin Roof, we started with some mango martinis, then moved on to a luxurious four-course dinner that included oysters with caviar, foie gras, crab cakes, lobster, and filet mignon.

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Adjacent to Hot Tin Roof, Sunset Pier was trying out a new countdown-to-midnight "drop" this year, a lime wedge in a margarita glass.

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And although Donna and Greg planned to be home by midnight for their puppies (who are frightened by the fireworks) and Angel, Ellen, Brian, and I planned to spend midnight watching the pirate wench drop at Schooner Wharf Bar, Hot Tin Roof had other plans: We hadn't even had dessert yet when the countdown to midnight began. "You're gonna watch our lime wedge, dammit, even if we have to hold your cheesecake hostage to make it happen!"

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But considering that the food was fantastic, and the generous manager gave us a locals' discount on the bill and bought our first round of drinks, we really had no cause for complaint. Plus, we'd spent the evening with great friends, and there was a burlesque show, and I think I might have even seen some boobs, and isn't that what New Year's Eve is really all about?

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After saying our thanks and good-byes to Donna and Greg, and with the crowds thinning out, we figured it was safe to brave Duval Street on our walk home.

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We even stopped at Angel's beloved Willie T's for our first drinks of the New Year.

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Finally, we stopped at Bourbon Street to see the aftermath of Sushi's midnight shoe drop.

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Was it the most debauched New Year's Eve on record? No, but when you have to check out of your hotel by 11:00am on New Year's Day and your friends are scheduled for an early morning jet-ski tour, it's probably best not to wake up with your pants on backwards . . . or missing altogether.

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As is always the case, our last day on the island was a beauty: Vibrant blue skies, plentiful sunshine, just a whisper of a breeze, and my knee had returned to close to its normal size.

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With Ellen and Brian on their jet-skis and Donna and Greg busy back at the Ranch, Angel and I decided to enjoy a leisurely lunch on the water and then spend the day at the pool at our condo soaking up some final rays of sunshine. We made a beeline for Louie's, where we luxuriated in the hot sun and sipped our fruity cocktails and had an excellent burger topped with melty Provolone and roasted tomato chutney.

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Over at the condo, we spent three blissful hours lounging, reading, swimming, and asking ourselves for the hundredth time why we don't just move here already.

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Sure, it sounds like a great idea, but we'd better stay put for now.

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I hear that too many key lime pina coladas can kill yer brane cellz.

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Up next, more liver damage at the 2013 Key West Food & Wine Festival, a Cheesesteak Throwdown in Philly, and a boating trip around the Abacos. Did I mention that we're operating the boat ourselves? Subscribe here and you'll be the first to know how many docks we end up having to rebuild.

Posted by TraceyG 06:24 Archived in USA Tagged key_west florida_keys louie's_backyard hot_tin_roof turtle_kraals green_parrot chelsea_house Comments (2)

A Blaze of Glory in the Hudson Valley

What's not to love about fall? Autumn is the season of crisp apples and warm cider; of roasted chestnuts and glowing jack o'lanterns; of the incomparable smells of evening hayrides and fallen leaves.

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And so, when I came across an article in Food & Wine magazine announcing that a number New York City's best chefs had decamped to Hudson, New York, a quaint little town 2.5 hours north of Manhattan, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday weekend: Taking in the fall foliage, picking apples and pumpkins, and eating everything these chefs could, er, dish out.

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The Hudson River runs more or less north to south down the eastern edge of New York state, beginning at the confluence of Indian Pass Brook and Calamity Brook (yee-haw!) and flowing south to New York City, where it serves the vital function of protecting separating New York from New Jersey. The Hudson River Valley, nestled between the Catskills and the Berkshires, is renowned for its rolling hills, breathtaking vistas, and grand riverfront estates built by early industrialists like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.

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Our first stop on the drive up to Hudson was in Hyde Park, home to the famed Culinary Institute of America. Getting into one of the restaurants at the CIA is only somewhat easier than getting into the building at that other CIA, in that they required my birth certificate, first pet's name, and a promise written in blood that I would dress appropriately, all before I was instructed to turn over my credit card, which was then charged ahead of time just in case I didn't show up. Like I would ever skip a meal.

Of the CIA's four restaurants, we chose American Bounty for its dedication to traditional American ingredients. Well, that and I saw Minnesota wild rice soup on the menu.

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Years ago the federal judge I was interning for in Manhattan brought me along to a circuit sitting in St. Paul, MN. I couldn't tell you what the cases were about, or where we stayed, or whether the temperature ever got above freezing . . . but I can tell you anything you care to know about the pride of Minnesota, wild rice soup.

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The recipe for wild rice soup is deceptively simple: Start with diced onions sauteed in butter and flour, then add cooked wild rice, carrots, almonds, ham, and chicken stock.

Oh, and as much heavy cream as you can fit into the pot without overflowing it.

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Although ham (or sometimes chicken) is the traditional protein in wild rice soup, American Bounty did that one better by using bacon instead. You know how bacon is always upstaging all the other meats.

Angel went with the mussels in a creamy coconut-curry broth, which was so good that I slurped up the leftovers with a spoon. You can dress me up, but you can't take me out.

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All of the food is prepared by CIA students, who spend 3 weeks in the kitchen and 3 weeks in the front-of-house right before graduation. But if any of these students had Senioritis, you'd never know it: This was high-end gourmet cuisine that left us wishing these kids would hurry up and open their own restaurants already. Preferably in our neighborhood.

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In an odd turn of events, Angel ordered one of my go-to dishes, short ribs braised in red wine sauce. I'd just had short ribs the previous Saturday, though, so I decided to go with the seared scallops with peas, artichokes, mushrooms, and baby arugula in a citrus vinaigrette instead.

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I'm so glad Angel ordered those short ribs, because they turned out to be not only the best thing we ate during our lunch (which is saying a lot when there's wild rice soup to be had), but they were also better than the version I'd had at the trendy downtown restaurant the week before.

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We'd originally planned to have dessert at the Apple Pie Bakery Cafe at the CIA, but it happened to be graduation day (which occurs every 3 weeks), so the halls were crowded with graduates and their families. The line at the bakery was out the door as a result, so we stayed put at American Bounty, where we had the passionfruit, raspberry, and coconut sorbets in an almond-brittle basket.

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I love a dessert where I can eat the bowl when I'm done, instead of just licking it.

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It had rained most of the way up to Hyde Park, and the rain hadn't let up by the time we finished lunch, so I snapped a few quick photos, then cleaned out the campus bookstore of all its CIA gear and admired the world's fanciest student dining hall.

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Back on the road, we soon found ourselves in downtown Hudson, whose main drag, Warren Street, is lined with home design stores, antique shops, restaurants, and still more home design stores. If we ever manage to own more than 650 square feet of real estate in this lifetime, I'll know just where to go for my decorating needs.

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We decided to stay at the Country Squire Bed and Breakfast, which was built in 1900 as a rectory and later served as a convent for the sisters of nearby St. Mary's Academy. Despite the risk that the spirits of these prior residents might not appreciate a heathen like me bedding down under their roof, the Country Squire sold me with a line from their web site, which stated that the inn was designed to "eliminate the clutter and visual excessiveness expected of museum-like Victorian interiors." In other words, we might have ghosts, but we most definitely do not have doilies . . . and the latter is way scarier.

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In addition, nearly all of the original detail that had been removed from the home over the years had been stored away in the basement, including the doors, woodwork, moldings, and leaded glass panels, allowing the current innkeeper to restore the house, piece-by-piece, to its original tchotchke-free grandeur.

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Our room was done up in black and white toile and featured this fantastic cowhide rug, which had no business being anywhere near a toile pattern, yet still somehow worked. And that is why we should leave the interior design to fabulous gay men people with taste.

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Eventually the weather cleared up and we had a couple of hours to kill before dinner, so we decided to walk over to Warren Street to do some exploring, which is code for "Angel needs a beer." American Glory BBQ looked like just the place to find a seasonal brew on tap, so we settled in at the bar.

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Tempting as it was, we decided to pass on the pickle-flavored tequila. I suspect that ironically, the only people who might appreciate this aren't supposed to drink for nine months.

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While I figured that a BBQ joint would have a decent beer selection, I did not expect that they'd have over a dozen autumn-inspired cocktails, too, including a S'mores martini, Pumpkin Pie martini, Spiced Cinnamon Cider, a Maple-tini, and a Candy Corn-tini. I decided on an off-the-menu special, the Angry Caramel Apple, which is carefully constructed by drizzling American Glory's homemade caramel sauce inside the glass, adding butterscotch schnapps, Angry Orchard hard cider, and apple vodka that's been steeped with that same house caramel sauce, then topping the whole thing with a generous dusting of cinnamon.

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Despite the name, however, the only thing angry about it was me . . . because something that good should be served in a much larger glass.

Later that evening, we walked the short distance over to Swoon Kitchenbar, a hip new Warren Street spot where the chef cooked in Newport, RI; the South of France; and Nantucket before setting up shop in Hudson. Poor guy's really been roughing it.

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The menu at Swoon changes daily, and they must have known I was coming, because not only was there bacon . . . there was house-made bacon. I went with the creamy leek tart with goat cheese and the aforementioned bacon, while Angel tried to compete with a fig & herb salad with pickled fennel, candied pecans, and the close runner-up for Best Food Ever, crispy speck.

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I'd call it a draw.

Next up, Point Judith weakfish with new potatoes, green beans, and a balsamic glaze for Angel, and dayboat blackfish with spiced carrot puree, local chard, and citrus vinaigrette for me.

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I'm picky about fish and don't often order it, but the blackfish, with its crackly skin and moist flesh, was terrific, and it allowed me to save some room for dessert: Crispy shoestring fries with spicy dijon aoili.

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The next day we decided to make the scenic drive over to Copake Lake to have lunch at Greens, the restaurant at the Copake Country Club.

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Although a country club probably isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think of great food, we chose Greens because their menu lists more than a dozen local farms where they source their ingredients, and why not? They're surrounded by 'em.

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The country club sits on Copake Lake, which is surrounded by expensive weekend homes, each with its own small dock.

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Inside, Greens restaurant is a model of good interior design: Evocative of a chic mountain lodge, the warms space is done up in crisp whites and luscious chocolate shades, with nary a stuffed jackalope or mounted deer head in sight.

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The outside ain't bad, either.

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The waitress told us they had cream of mushroom soup on special, which sounded perfect on a fall day, so Angel and I both ordered a bowl. When it came, however, the mushrooms seemed oddly chewy, so I decided to take a closer look.

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That is a mussel. Which sounds a little like mushroom, and looks somewhat like a mushroom, and can also kill you like a mushroom if you happen to be allergic. Thankfully neither of us is, but we quietly alerted the waitress to the mix-up to avoid marring Greens' stylish decor with an incident of anaphylactic shock.

Next up, we decided to share two entrees, the pesto pizza with shrimp and asiago, and the slow-braised pulled pork sandwich with Chef Glenn's homemade BBQ sauce.

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The pizza was good, but that BBQ sauce was such a perfect combination of sticky, sweet, and heat that I am hereby appealing to Chef Glenn to start bottling it . . . and shipping it directly to my house.

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After lunch we made the short drive over to Taconic State Park in order to check out the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, a 15-mile-long walking and biking trail on an abandoned portion of the New York and Harlem Railroad. The railroad opened for business in 1832, making it one of the oldest railroads in the country. Or at least it was, until they paved over it.

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The section of the trail that we had access to was 8 miles roundtrip, so we decided to bike it rather than walk. Bash Bish Bikes is the only game in town, and they call the shots . . .

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. . . which includes forcing all of their renters to wear helmets. Oh, how I hated that helmet. It squashed my ears. It was too tight under my chin. It looked ridiculous. And it was completely unnecessary.

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You see, over the years, Angel and I have spent many a long weekend biking the crowded streets of Cape May. We have spent countless days biking the narrow streets of Key West. And not once have we ever worn helmets, or seen anyone who wasn't on training wheels wearing one.

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On the Rail Trail, however -- where cars are not permitted, and we saw maybe a dozen other people over the 8-mile stretch -- we had to wear helmets. The end result? My head was still intact, but my hair looked like a mushroom cloud. Mushroom.

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Just past the Depot Deli was the entrance to the trail.

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The deeper in we rode, the more postcard-y the scenery became.

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Every so often the trail opened up and was surrounded by local farmland. The farms were beautiful but miles from civilization, and all I could think was, Good thing they can grow their own food. Priorities!

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At the end of the trail we were high-fiving each other for successfully biking 4 miles without collapsing when we saw these people, who were following state route 22 . . . which is 340 miles long.

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Like I always say: Nobody likes a show-off.

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On our way up to Hudson the previous day, we'd passed through the tiny town of Red Hook (population: 1,964), where we had dinner reservations at Mercato Osteria & Enoteca for the following evening. We drove through the town, such as it was, passing a dozen or so Colonial homes in various states of haunting/hoarding, before coming upon Mercato.

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"Whoa," said citified Tracey.

"Whoa," echoed urban Angel.

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And we might not have returned, except for the fact that the chef at Mercato is Francesco Buitoni, a seventh-generation member of the Buitoni pasta-making (and Perugina Chocolate) family. Francesco learned to cook from his grandmother in Italy, and was a sommelier for Mario Batali for a number of years, all of which means exactly one thing: I married the wrong guy.

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The best way to sum up the food at Mercato is with the exchange we had with the folks seated behind us. I'd spent a good part of our meal photographing the food, and in the small dining room that didn't go unnoticed. Finally, the woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked hopefully, "Are you taking photos so you can try and recreate the recipes?" As soon as I stopped laughing, I explained that I was actually taking the photos for a travel blog, at which point she leaned in and confided, "Well, we're from Manhattan, and I have to tell you: This is Manhattan-quality food!"

"Manhattan quality," agreed her city-slicker husband. "In this tiny little town!" he marveled.

But was this just a bunch of NYC food snobs amazed that someone outside of the city could actually cook, or was the food really that good? Judge for yourself. We had . . .

Coach Farm goat cheese gnudi with a vibrant green lacinata kale pesto . . .

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Crispy prosciutto-wrapped figs and arugula dressed with a five-year-old balsamic and topped with a fist-sized hunk of fresh mozzarella . . .

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Homemade tagliatelle with authentic Bolognese sauce, meaning heavy on the veal, pork, and beef, and light on the tomatoes . . .

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And the homemake squid-ink pasta fra diavolo with fresh mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops.

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Oh, and the apple crisp made with local apples.

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And photos don't lie, particularly this one: That's the near-empty bowl my gnudi came in. Which I refused to give up until I got some bread to mop up that remaining blob of pesto.

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On our last morning we took one final walk over to Warren Street, where the gorgeous architecture and unique doors almost distracted me from my main goal: More food.

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We decided on brunch at the Crimson Sparrow, where the chefs hail from New York's temple of molecular gastronomy, WD-50, which is known for such far-out menu items as deep-fried Hollandaise sauce, onion "soil," and bagel-flavored ice cream.

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At brunch, however, the only nod to the offbeat is the menu organization, which allows you to choose four small brunch components for a set price.

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Cutting-edge or no, mimosas at brunch are mandatory.

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Outside, Crimson Sparrow has a gorgeous garden. Unfortunately it was too chilly to sit outside on this morning, though unlimited mimosas might have helped with that.

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For my four brunch items, I settled on (creamy, just-loose-enough) scrambled eggs; (cheesy, just-thick-enough) polenta with oregano and asiago cheese; (adorable) mini-biscuits with (thick, rich, over-the-top delicious) sausage, sage, and pepper gravy; and the (tangy, thick) Greek yogurt with granola and fresh berries.

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Angel ordered much the same, swapping (crisp, salty) potatoes for polenta and French toast with a (foamy, tart) apple cider dipping sauce.

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Everything was delicious, but next time I'd just ask for 4 orders of those biscuits with the sausage gravy, and then I'd make Angel do the same, and then I'd eat all of mine . . . and half of his, too.

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After brunch, a little more exploring on Warren Street was in order to loosen up the ol' arteries.

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Next time, we'll work in visits to Hudson's taco trucks and pizza joints. I mean, we'll have to eat breakfast somewhere on the days we're not scarfing down biscuits and gravy.

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We'll also spend more time in Hudson's unique shops. I hear that they've got the goods.

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Later that afternoon we paid a visit to Golden Harvest Farms in Valatie, NY (population: 1,805), a short drive from Hudson.

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I chose Golden Harvest because they make their own apple cider, fruit pies, cider donuts, and packaged goods such as honey and maple syrup.

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And they have their own distillery. That's moonshine, y'all!

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That Pillsbury Doughboy is there as a reminder of owner Derek Grout's former life as a designer, whose claim to fame was the viral Internet game in which poking the Doughboy's belly resulted not in his signature giggle . . . but in a fart. Hey, we can't all be Rhodes scholars.

Using fruit from the orchards that Derek's grandfather bought from a descendant of Martin Van Buren, Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery makes regular and black raspberry Core vodkas, along with several interesting brandies (Applejack, Peach, Rare Pear) and flavored grappa, all of which are available for tasting.

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Derek experiments with all sorts of flavors and spirits, including apple bitters, green herbs, and fennel seed.

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Oh, and eye of newt and wing of bat.

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We happened to arrive right as the tasting-room crowd thinned out and Derek was working on his latest batch o' bootleg.

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We got to talking, and Derek kindly offered us a taste of his latest concoction: Pear brandy mixed with a not-yet-on-the-market rosemary hooch, which resulted in a subtly fruity, herbaceous gin-like flavor.

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After stocking up on Northern Spy and Honeycrisp apples, a few big carving pumpkins, and a box of pumpkin spice pancake mix, we headed back to Hudson and the punctuation-happy (p.m.) Wine Bar for a glass of wine and some snacks before heading back to the city.

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It wasn't quite 5:00, but it was p.m., so we figured it was o.k.

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Soon it was time to leave, and we departed Hudson with fond memories, but also with hopes of ending our Hudson Valley weekend in a blaze of glory. The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze, that is.

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The Great Jack O' Lantern Blaze is a pyromaniacal spectacle of over 5,000 jack o’lanterns hand-carved by staff, volunteers, and local artisans — everything from your standard triangle-eyed, gap-toothed pumpkins to elaborate Spirograph-worthy designs — lit up throughout the nine acres of Van Cortlandt Manor in the village of Croton-on-Hudson. We'd purchased tickets ahead of time and arrived right on time for our 7pm pumpkin promenade.

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Blaze uses a combination of real and "art" pumpkins, which are said to be harder to carve than the real thing because they are less pliable. Carving begins in June and real pumpkins -- 100,000 pounds' worth -- continue to be carved throughout the event's run into early November.

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Blaze also features theme areas, which this year included Jurassic Park, Undersea Aquarium, and Buzzing Beehive.

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Scarier motifs include witches, scarecrows, skulls, and Angel's personal nightmare . . . sunflowers. You know how terrifying they can be.

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Each area is set to an eerie soundtrack, the best being the plaintive cries of "MEOW! MEOOOOW!" punctuating the spooky Halloween music at the cat-themed area.

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Near the end of the Blaze, people-sized jack-in-the-boxes made of pumpkins scared the living crap out of surprised visitors when an extra-large jack o'lantern unexpectedly popped out of the top.

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Every time we thought we'd reached the end, there were more pumpkins just around the bend, each display more creative and whimsical than the next. Yet somehow Blaze still managed to save the best for last: A display of intricately carved, impossibly beautiful pumpkins whose gorgeous patterns cast glowing light and soft shadows in all directions.

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By the end of the Blaze, the air had grown chilly and our feet weary, and our weekend masquerading as country mice had finally come to an end.

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As the Manhattan skyline came into view and rolling fields and quaint villages gave way to blaring horns and snarled traffic, our nerves began to fray, and suddenly I realized: We city dwellers need Angry Caramel Apples and vodka distilleries way more than those country folk do.

Some biscuits 'n' gravy wouldn't hurt, either.
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Next up, we're off to Key West for turtle races, drag queen bingo, six-toed cats, and all the beer, bacon, burgers, and bourbon we can consume in ten days. Click here to subscribe and you'll be the first to know if we end up exiled to Cuba!

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Posted by TraceyG 06:18 Archived in USA Comments (11)

A Girls Weekend In The City of Magnificent Intentions

My younger sister Trina is a 4-foot, 11-inch wedge of spite with spiky platinum hair, a killer wardrobe, and a tiny body sporting numerous tattoos depicting everything from a pin-up girl wielding a hair dryer to a slyly grinning cat sporting a ladylike set of pearls. The owner of a retro-style salon in Pittsburgh called Pompadour (hence the hair dryer), she is short-tempered, quick-witted, foul-mouthed . . . and hands-down the funniest person I've ever met.

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And for that reason alone, there's no one I'd rather spend a Girls Weekend with.

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We decided to meet up in Washington, D.C., partly because it's roughly equidistant to both our homes, and partly because when I discovered that there's a Mellow Mushroom there, I would brook no argument (a risky move, given that ticking Trina off is akin to repeatedly poking a hornet's nest with your face). Having made this same trip a few years back, this time around we decided to try a variety of new spots . . . which turned out to be exactly the wrong thing to do.

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You see, thanks to the disconnect between the city's grand aspirations and its swampy reality, Washington, D.C. is sometimes referred to as the City of Magnificent Intentions, which also happens to accurately describe a weekend in which all of my carefully laid plans went to hell before my very eyes. Notwithstanding my magnificent intentions, we still had a great time, even though traffic, the weather, and my own stupidity all attempted to conspire against us.

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I decided to take the train to D.C. since the times were more convenient than flying, and in doing so I was reminded of the first time my mother ever came to NYC to visit me. An infrequent traveller, she'd insisted on taking Amtrak, even though it entailed a grueling 10-hour train ride as opposed to a short 50-minute flight. I therefore expected her to arrive exhausted, irritable, and ready to die of boredom, but she'd actually had a great time: She became friendly with some of the other passengers on the train, and they'd passed the time playing cards. Eventually, however, as passengers disembarked, she found herself playing one-on-one with a young man in his late 20s. "Hey Mel," he'd whispered conspiratorially, "Now that it's just you and me, you wanna play for clothes?" Confused, my mother looked him up and down and finally responded, "But I don't even like your clothes!"

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After I successfully wrangled enough luggage for a 3-month stay off the train, Trina picked me up at Union Station and we made a quick stop at the hotel to drop off said luggage before the weight of it caused her car to suffer a flat tire. Our next stop was at La Tasca, a sprawling Spanish spot in D.C.'s Chinatown neighborhood that we like because they offer 10 different sangrias plus a virgin one ("What the hell?" Trina asked, offended at the very thought), as well as an enormous selection of cured meats and cheeses, paellas, and meat, seafood, and vegetarian tapas.

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La Tasca was also offering a $20 all-you-can-eat tapas menu when we arrived, which was right around the time that they began to lose money on this deal.

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The word tapa means "lid" in Spanish, and it's believed that centuries ago laborers and farmers would visit their local tasca, or pub, for a well-earned glass of sherry, on top of which they'd place a slice of bread to protect it from pesky fruit flies. Over time the barkeeps gradually began placing small snacks, such as cured meat or sausage, on top of the bread, and these edible lids evolved into the tapas of today.

This sangria was well-earned, too, but if you think I'm putting some snacks on top of my glass instead of in my mouth, you're loco.

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After much haggling and a little hair-pulling, Trina and I started off with two red and green tomato salads with honey-herb dressing and goat cheese (in order to keep the peace, goat cheese cannot be shared), bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese, patatas bravas (fried potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce), wild mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and garlic, and a mini seafood paella.

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Next up, grilled steak in a sherry-mushroom sauce with roasted potatoes, and two orders of chicken and beef empanadas.

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Still stubbornly sober, we also decided to order more sangria. This time we went straight for the "Cadillac" version, which is La Tasca's traditional sangria with the addition of a bottle or two of brandy. That'll do it.

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The day was warm and sunny, so after lunch we decided to take a walk, heading for the general direction of the Tidal Basin but having no real route or destination in mind, which worked out nicely since neither of us was capable of reading a map after that sangria . . . or at any time, really.

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Another day in D.C., another politician with a big head.

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We found ourselves first at the neck-craning Washington Monument, then later at the tear-jerking World War II memorial.

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After a few hours our ballet-flat-clad feet began to ache, a signal that the sangria had worn off and it was time to head back to the hotel.

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That evening we had reservations at Barcode, a nightspot that's about as hip as it gets in a political town where old white men outnumber people with sense by about 20 to 1. We were completely exhausted from a long day of traveling, walking, and stuffing ourselves silly, so we called to see if we could push our reservation back by an hour or so to allow time for a nap, but were told that they were fully booked and could not accommodate any time changes. So we got ready in record time and cabbed it over, only to see this.

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That's right: All of their patrons were invisible.

Partly irritated that we'd raced around and gotten all dressed up for nothing, and partly relieved that we were now free to eat as much as we wanted without the disapproving stares of skinny strangers (or anyone else, for that matter), we started off with a couple of cocktails . . . and some gazpacho . . . and the tuna ceviche . . . and a trio of meatball sliders.

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And a side of fries with "assorted dipping sauces." When I saw that on the menu, naturally my imagination went wild. What kind of dipping sauces could oh-so-trendy Barcode possibly come up with? Creamy Parmesan and truffle? Garlic and rosemary aioli? The hipster irony of a vat of melted Velveeta?

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Nope. The "assorted dipping sauces" turned out to be . . . ketchup and mayo. Which might explain why this place was empty on a Saturday night.

On Sunday we realized that, despite our walk around the Washington Monument and the World War II memorial, we hadn't really scratched the surface of Washington, D.C.'s incomparable cultural and historical offerings, and not to do so would be almost un-American. And so we made the short drive over to Alexandria, VA, in search of a dessert called "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because." Because, really, what could be more American than devouring an entire birthday cake when it's not even your birthday?

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We'd decided to eat a light lunch so that we'd be good and hungry for the Birthday Cakes, plural, and Columbia Firehouse's menu of soups, salads, and other light brunch fare was just the ticket.

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As were the classic Cuban daiquiris (circa 1898) with crushed ice.

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The wait for brunch in the soaring atrium was about an hour, so we happily snagged two seats at the old-fashioned bar instead.

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We both decided on the butter lettuce wedge salad with dried cranberries, toasted almonds, and buttermilk goat cheese dressing, an ingenious concoction that looked like sour cream and tasted like heaven.

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The day was cool and overcast but the rain held off, so after lunch we decided to do a little exploring, completely taken with the colonial charm of Alexandria's main drag, King Street.

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This is the Alexandria Cupcake shop. Although I love cupcakes, no way was I going to eat one when I was just minutes from devouring an entire birthday cake by myself. That would be gluttonous.

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Plus, a vegan cupcake made without eggs, butter, and milk would be like making a cheeseburger without the cheese . . . and the burger.

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Up and down King Street we walked, browsing in the stores, stopping to take photos, and biding our time until Birthday Cake bliss.

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It's not every day that you see a dog that's as big as your sister. Well, unless your sister is Trina.

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Later on our stroll we came across a another dog, Bella, a pit bull whose sweet demeanor and wagging tail were clearly intended to distract from her real agenda of ripping us apart with her killer jaws.

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Onward we walked, our cakey cravings growing stronger with each passing step.

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Finally we reached the gorgeous Restaurant Eve, home of the hallowed "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because."

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After a quick glance at the menu posted outside, we passed under the brick archway and found the door.

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Trina pushed, and . . . nothing. Then she pulled it. Still nothing. Growing panicky, I shouted, "For god's sake, man, turn the #$%@ knob!" She turned it, and still . . . nothing.

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THEY WERE CLOSED.

The home of the "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because" was closed . . . just because. Because it was Sunday? Because the tapas place had called ahead and warned them about us? We may never know.

Dejected, we headed off into the gloom in search of someplace to drown our sorrows. On the way we passed Captain's Row, a cobblestone street closed to through traffic and lined with the kind of houses that make you wish it could be October all year round . . . and that you could be a gazillionaire.

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Our salvation turned out to be the Union Street Public House, which, true to its name, takes all comers, including those yearning to be free from the tyranny of Birthday Cake(s) Bait-and-Switch.

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By then it had started to drizzle, and the Union Street Public House, with its flickering gas lamps, well-worn booths, and menu of comfort food classics, enveloped us like a warm blanket.

And the lobster-and-crab bisque, creamy grits, macaroni and cheese, and individual buckets of tater tots served with two, er, dipping sauces --ketchup and Ranch dressing -- lulled us into a sweet stupor.

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Or maybe that was the wine.

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By the time we returned to the hotel, it had begun to rain in earnest, and neither of us was feeling particularly energetic. We also couldn't bear to eat another bite of anything covered in cheese, and so we decided to get into our jammies and then order some fruit from room service.

With whipped cream.

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Oh, and two bottles of the Rodney Dangerfield of booze, Smirnoff Ice. Because they were out of Zima, obviously.

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We immediately noticed that the blackberries in our fruit bowls were roughly the size of golf balls, which made us wonder what kind of hormones they're putting in our food . . . and why they couldn't have done that back in the 70s to save Trina from a lifetime of shopping in the kids' department.

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Later that evening I took shameless advantage of the fact that Trina is a hair stylist and asked her to help me add some loose curls to my straightened hair. We set the hot curling iron on the nightstand and Trina went to work. Afterwards, she reminded me to move the curling iron away from the assorted odds and ends on the nightstand to prevent the hot iron from damaging them. As I approached the curling iron, I had a temporary brain freeze and, for some inexplicable reason, could not determine which end was the handle and which was the hot barrel -- they looked so very much alike. So I reached for the handle, hesitated, reached for the barrel, hesitated again, and then repeated the same sequence in a bizarre, split-second dance of indecision: Heat-handle; handle-heat. Finally, I made my decision . . . and idiotically grabbed the hot end of the curling iron.

Yelping in pain, I dropped the hot iron and bolted for the bathroom to run my burned hand under some cool water, leaving Trina utterly speechless for the first time in her entire life. When I emerged from the bathroom, her face was a mix of curiosity, concern, and that tight-lipped face she makes when she's trying desperately not to laugh.

"Um . . . so . . . what the hell just happened?" she asked, lips pressed together to force down a giggle.
"I don't know," I responded sheepishly. "I got confused."
"But I saw you deciding which end to grab," she answered. "How on earth could you have picked the wrong end?"
"Like I said, I was confused."

"Oh, confused. Of course." Unable to contain herself any longer, Trina finally doubled over laughing. "Confused!" she hooted. Tears of laughter streamed down her face. "Well, I sure hope nobody ever drops a flaming torch in front of you!"

Ha, ha. Didn't mom ever teach you not to make fun of the mentally challenged?

Monday dawned chilly but sunny, and our options were almost limitless: Should we visit the National Gallery of Art? Spend the day at the National Archives? Tour one of D.C.'s more than 30 museums? Nah. We headed over to Georgetown to drool over the houses and drink some mimosas.

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But first, some lunch was in order, which meant a trip to the aforementioned Mellow Mushroom in Adams Morgan, an eclectic neighborhood of funky boutiques and restaurants.

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The building that houses the Mellow Mushroom appears to have once been part of a theater, as the entrance is outfitted with a now-defunct ticket booth. As a result, instead of usual hippie-dippy 1960s decor that prevails at most Mellow Mushrooms, this 'Shroom is decked out like a circus. And, like most circuses, the sheer creepiness of the thing is outweighed only by the presence of your favorite fattening foods.

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The silent film star Lon Chaney once said, "There is nothing laughable about a clown in the moonlight," and I am here to tell you that there's nothing all that funny about one in the daylight, either.

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Hell, even I wouldn't be able to eat with that thing staring down at me.

Trina couldn't decide on a single pie, so she ordered half of a Thai Dye (curry chicken with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, basil, and sweet Thai chili sauce) and half of a Redskin Potato pie (potatoes, applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions, sour cream, and spicy Ranch), while I went with my usual, a classic pepperoni with extra sauce.

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Oh, and two glasses of sangria. Tapeworms, they must be genetic.

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When our waiter came to clear the table, he let out a low whistle. "You chicks really cleaned up!" he exclaimed. Then, nodding knowingly, he leaned in and asked sympathetically, "So, are you really tired now?"

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Indeed we were, but Georgetown awaited, and soon we were strolling the tree-lined streets and ogling the picture-perfect row houses with their picture-perfect pumpkins.

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It soothes my OCD soul when things match so nicely. Ahhh.

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One of the things I love about Georgetown are the unique doors, everything from gleaming old carriage-house "garage" doors to those with transoms sporting their original moldings and stained glass.

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Further north, the houses grow larger; the ivy, more insistent.

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I'd spied tiny Cafe Bonaparte online before our visit and decided that an elegant French bistro would be the ideal spot for a final cocktail before our departure.

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We arrived, however, to discover that the location was on a less-than-charming block, and the restaurant itself was cramped and crowded.

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Luckily they had an assortment of Champagne cocktails, including a Pom-Grand with pomegranate juice for Trina, and a Penchant de Mango with mango, lime, and a sugared rim pour moi.

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The drinks were just okay and our seats at the bar were treated to occasional blasts of cold air from the front door, and as we sipped I lamented that once again on this trip, my magnificent intentions had not turned out as planned.

No matter. It was wonderful to spend time with my sister, and the weekend certainly could have been worse.

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I mean, somebody could have dropped a flaming torch in my vicinity.

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UPDATE: Two weeks later, Angel surprised me by baking a replica of the "Birthday Cake . . . Just Because" for my actual birthday. Sure, he used a plastic CD holder to cut the sheet cake into rounds, and he discovered that sprinkles actually bounce back when you try to fling them at the sides of a cake, but all in all, I think he nailed it. We both wished Trina could have been there to have some, too, but let's be honest: This cake ain't big enough for the both of us.

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Posted by TraceyG 16:45 Archived in USA Tagged washington_dc la_tasca columbia_firehouse barcode union_street_public_house mellow_mushroom Comments (5)

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?

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Smile though your face is melting . . .

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Well, at least this helped.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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. . . and her New York Yankees garter.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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 . . .

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And darker . . .

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And Apocalypse.

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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?

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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."

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Or you could just stick with horse shoes.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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Or this, their flounder bruschetta.

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

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

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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. . . and "Deliverance."

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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Yes, you.

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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...

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

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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...

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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...

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

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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...

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And Lunch's lobster and shrimp salads.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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?

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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Even the old library.

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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.

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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.

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Angel and I started by sharing the burrata . . .

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. . . 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.

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

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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.

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Oh my Gaudy.

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

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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!"

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

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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.

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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.

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We started off with the burrata . . .

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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"?

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Much like New Jersey itself.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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'.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)."

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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."

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You know what this is, right?

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We thought it was pretty good.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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???

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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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 . . .

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART 2!
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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.

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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.

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

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Soon the Coconut Bowling got under way.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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And then he did this:

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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!"

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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!

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

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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.

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

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. . . 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.

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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."

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And then a painfully short visit here.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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All was not lost, however.

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That's because Margaritaville? It's everywhere.

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

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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.

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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.)

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Quite literally in my case.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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."

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Indeed I might.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!.

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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!!

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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.

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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?

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Apparently, it's me.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!"

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

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CLICK HERE to read Part 2 . . .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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