Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Eating my way through New England

Last night, when I couldn't sleep, my mind happily occupied itself with the business of remembrance: the remembrance of things repast.

As I have put myself on a strict diet, (and if you continue reading this, you will certainly understand why), my stomach was grumbling a bit. Since a late-night snack was out of the question, I decided to distract myself with the pleasurable task of remembering and ranking some of the many delicious meals I enjoyed on my recent vacation.

Although I am perfectly content to eat a bowl of left-over chicken soup for dinner when I am home, I want something a little more special -- a little more memorable -- when I am in holiday-mode. I tend to think of food more as "fun" than just "fuel," and I don't like to waste even one eating opportunity. Frankly, there is nothing I hate more wandering around a new place looking for a restaurant, reading menu after menu, getting hungrier and tetchier by the minute, and then ending up with a disappointing meal. In that spirit, and should you be travelling to New England, I offer up the following public service: five fabulous eating spots, tried and tested by Bee truly.

Red Arrow Diner
Manchester, New Hampshire
Number one in my top five was the first restaurant we actually ate at during our trip.

We had flown into Manchester, New Hampshire at around 9 pm, after approximately 19 hours of travel. At that point, we didn't want anything but a soft pillow, but when we woke up the next morning we were plenty ready to break our long fast. As we were leaving the hotel, I hit upon the brilliant idea of asking one of the desk clerks if she could recommend a place. Let's just say that she had the look of someone who appreciated a good meal . . . and my goodness, she really steered us to a winner.

Just to put this place into context, I need to mention that one of the main foodie things that I really miss about America is the kind of 24 hour place where you can get breakfast any time you want it -- not to mention a bottomless cup of coffee. I've waitressed at several of these kinds of places during the years, and I've always thought becoming "Flo" was a viable career option for me. Whether on or off the time clock, I've enjoyed wiling away the hours in the following diners: Earl Abel's, Jim's, Kerbey Lane Cafe, 59 Diner and the House of Pies .

If you, too, are a fan of the diner genre you MUST visit this fantastic spot. It looks just like a diner should, and if you check out the website, you can imagine me and my five-girl crew sitting on those round, red bar seats and stuffing ourselves with eggs, bacon, hash browns and pancakes. Although any moderate person would have been satisfied by a full American breakfast, I'm afraid that a terrible greed descended upon me and I kept ordering wildly. Despite the fact that it wasn't quite noon, I didn't want to be done out of the dessert course -- always my favorite. I just had to try a whoopie pie, a dinah finger (homemade "twinkie"), and an eclair . . . and I still regret not ordering any coconut cream pie. (In case my Mom is reading this, in horrified dismay, I will confess that I didn't actually eat all of these things -- but I did taste two of them!) Then, in true American style, I was able to complete the dining experience by ordering merchandise. We left the diner full and happy, with a to-go box, two frisbees and two "Moe" mugs.

Hattie's Restaurant
Saratoga Springs, New York
My friend Laurita and I have a long history of eating fried chicken together, and at Hattie's, I think we may have reached the pinnacle of fried chicken achievement. Blog evidence to the contrary, it's not something I eat very often . . . but it's something I love. Plain ole chicken is an everyday thing, a cooking standby -- but fried chicken is something else! It is a holiday food, a celebratory food. For me, it is also a deeply nostalgic food. When I lived in Houston, Laurita and I had a tradition of eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes, black eyed peas and spiced pecans at the Daily Review Cafe during our mutual birthday week in January. While I still consider the Daily Review version to be the height of comfort food, I was deeply impressed by Hattie's chicken. It was golden brown and juicy, with a delicate, crispy skin. It is deeply flavorful, without any particular flavor (pepper, for instance) calling attention to itself. You can choose your side dishes, and we felt that "sugar corn" (the sweetest I've ever tasted; it didn't need butter or salt) and cucumber salad was just right for summer eating. Here's a tip: Being a Hattie's veteran, Laurita suggested that we share a chicken plate -- which comes with four pieces of chicken! Believe me, two pieces are plenty . . . and we still couldn't even look at the dessert menu.

Hattie's is steeped in Saratoga history. The Hattie, a Southern cook who worked for a wealthy horse-racing family, opened the place in 1938, and from what I gather, it's being going strong ever since. The website gives you a great sense of what it looks and feels like. It is as homespun and authentic as your grandmother's best quilt -- the very antithesis of "chain" food. You also might get a kick out of knowing that the current chef, Jasper Alexander, beat Bobby Flay in the fried chicken throw-down. I didn't get to taste Flay's version, but it's difficult to imagine anyone bettering the chicken that I ate that warm July night.

PJ's Bar-B-Q
Saratoga Springs, New York
I know that I've already waxed lyrical about PJ's, but I just can't leave it off this list. It is pure American nostalgia -- and it is also great food. They have a large menu of typically American fare: burgers, milkshakes, sloppy joes, hot dogs, and various kinds of barbequed meat, but I'm really not tempted to try any of that. Do yourself a favor and stick with the ribs. Ribs, corn, and fried green beans: messy, but perfect. If you are lucky enough to eat this food on a warm junebug night, with some great Stax classics playing in the background, you will have a deep and true sense of some of the best of what America brings to the cultural table.

The Red Lion Inn
Stockbridge, Massachusetts
One of the little things that makes me forever Texan is my internal map. Texas is so big, that if you look at a map and measure off a couple of visual inches, you know that you will be involving yourself in several hours of driving. Conversely, the same distance on an English map takes about 20 minutes! I've just never been able to get used to that. Driving around New England fills me with a even greater sense of wonder because you can get from one state to the next so quickly! The same hour and a half that will take you from one end of Houston to the next, (if you are lucky with the traffic), can take you from Saratoga Springs, NY to Stockbridge, MA.

Laurita suggested this little side trip, and I was so grateful that she did. Without a doubt, there is an America littered with strip shopping centers, fast food outlets and billboards . . . but you won't see any of that America in Stockbridge. Instead, you will find the Norman Rockwell Museum, Tanglewood, green hills, white picket fences, well-tended gardens and this historic tavern. The Red Lion Inn has a deep, shaded front porch crowded with wicker furniture, and you can sip your iced tea (or other, stronger libation) and watch the world go down Main Street. Both of the Roosevelts have stayed there, Teddy and FDR, and such literary giants as Hawthorne, Longfellow and Thornton Wilder. It truly has the sedate, gracious pace of a bygone era.

Because we had an early dinner reservation, we were fortunate enough to catch the 5 pm sideboard of nibbles that the Inn puts out for its guests. The famous "cheese log," accompanied by fat berries, carmelized walnuts, and buttery crackers, was so delicious that I could barely restrain myself from making that my meal. Indeed, it was so scrumptious that I ended up ordering a "Flight of Cheese" for my dinner. All of the cheeses were local, and they had poetic names like Twig Farm Tomme (a goat's cheese) and Bayley Hazen Blue. With a glass of red wine, it was a deeply satisfying meal.

Friendly Toast
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
I couldn't find an official website for Friendly Toast, surprisingly enough, but the linked food guide of is entertaining . . . and it gives a whole list of great food finds in New England, thus continuing what I've started here.

Friendly Toast is exactly the kind of place that makes me want to be a college student again. If I were a college student in Portsmouth, I would hang out there all of the time. It has deep, inviting booths and an eccentric, witty decor. It is the sort of place that you can happily visit on your own, and there is so much memorabilia dotted all over the place that you can easily amuse yourself for hours -- just by looking. (The waiters and clientele are pretty interesting, too.) Friendly Toast has an extensive, quirky menu which ranges from vegan options to Almond Joy pancakes (I really wanted to try those) to cheese fries served with a strawberry habanero sauce. My friend Monique ordered the cheese fries, and that sauce -- which sounds really strange -- actually did "work." I had a bizarre, but tasty, grilled cheese sandwich on oatmeal bread, with a side of Guinness battered onion rings. Again, we were too full to sample the dessert offerings -- a great pity, and an oversight which will be corrected as soon as I can get myself back to Portsmouth.

I got a great t-shirt at Friendly Toast which has a Humpty Dumpty looking egg character on both the front and the back. The front says, with accompanying sad egg expression, "We make a lot of eggs cry . . .," while the back says, "to make you happy."

When I was packing to go home, I realized that I had also bought a Hattie's t-shirt with a line drawing of a chicken on the front. Not only does this confirm that chickens seem to be an ongoing theme in my life, but it also answers that age-old question: What came first? The chicken or the egg? At least in my case, it's the chicken.


Anne said...

Oh, Bee.... can you hear my stomach grumbling? What a marvelous collection of foodie experiences, and what wonderful descriptions of all of them! Thank you (and your insomnia) for taking the time to share them with us. The fried chicken and ribs sound all too delicious. And Guinness-battered onion rings? One of these days I MUST try them. I am such a sucker for rib-sticking, hearty, calorie-dense food!

In keeping with my being a sucker for such food, I just adore diners. If you are ever in Connecticut and have a hankering for a good diner meal, make a stop at O'Rourke's. My dear friend Katie took me there for breakfast one morning when I visited her, and it is heavenly.

What you say about driving in Texas rings true for me as a native Californian. From my area of the state it takes a minimum of 3.5 driving--and speeding with some abandon--to reach the nearest state line. Driving from Boston to Maine in the summer when I was growing up, and being in not two, but three states in the course of a few hours was always a little surreal.

Cindy said...

All I can say is yum, that makes me want to plan a trip to New England just for the food. It's hard to pick which would be my first choice, you make them all sound so good.

I had read about The Red Lion Inn before and I'm glad to hear it has lived up to what I've read. That cheese log recipe sounds delicious and I may have to make that this year at the holidays.

Alyson said...

I really appreciate this post, as all of these places are within a couple hours drive!

How funny - we were in Stockbridge last weekend!! It's only 35 miles from us. You were so dang close to me! We did a hike on the Appalachian after Stockbridge. Anyway, I really wanted to eat at the Red Lion, but my kids hijacked us and forced us to Friendly's (boo) in Lee just down the road. I did, however, take lots of pictures of the people eating under the covered porch. I'll be blogging about that trip, full of pictures, soon.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Oooo. I really shouldn't have read this post. Really. My mind has done the leap from 24 hour breakfast diner (59 Diner, IHOP!!!) to huevos con chorizo. I guess that means I'll be making flour tortillas today!

Brave Sir Robin said...

remembrance of things repast.
My dear, you are clever!

I must echo Anne and say WOW did you make me hungry!

You are also a kindred spirit. Although I am perfectly content to eat a bowl of left-over chicken soup for dinner when I am home, I want something a little more special -- a little more memorable -- when I am in holiday-mode. I tend to think of food more as "fun" than just "fuel," and I don't like to waste even one eating opportunity. Frankly, there is nothing I hate more wandering around a new place looking for a restaurant, reading menu after menu, getting hungrier and tetchier by the minute, and then ending up with a disappointing meal. YES, EXACTLY!!

Some of my very favorite meals have been on vacation, and those meals are as much a part of the trips memory as anything else.

Next time you must try Dynamite Sushi in Hudson, NH. I've had Sushi all over the country, but this place is my favorite hands down.

I just might take the boys to House Of Pies tomorrow, as I will be in Houston, shopping.

Debski Beat said...

Paragraph of interest at a time Bee.

Lets not discuss diet, the first time I put on weight was on a business trip with my husband to Houston, such hospitality, such good food.

The week days are when food is fuel to me but come the weekend I go into fun mode.

My only experience of a U.S diner was in NY, I really did not know that eggs could be ordered so many ways and that was just the fried eggs.

Recipes, certainly one of the best websites for American food is Epicurious but it can never beat someone describing so well as you have the total enjoyment of it all. Have you read Nigel Slater's book Toast ? Anyone born between 1948-1970 will love it.

The size of Texas ... our 'children' now 25 and 23, went to an International School governed by the U.S education system, it worked well for them, one of the things they were told by a wonderful teacher called Jocelyn was that the UK will fit 8 times into the State of Texas, that I thought was a good way of setting the scene well. Also makes a good pub quiz question :)

Our local farmer has taken to selling us his eggs, what a difference that makes so I know how addicted one could become to chickens, eggs etc. A great book on eggs is by Michel Roux and called simply ... Eggs.

Bee said...

You always seem to be eating such healthy food! I'm glad that you can "get down" with some ribs and onion rings if the right occasion presents itself. The funny thing is that I rarely ate these kinds of foods when I DID live in America, but now that they aren't available to me I really appreciate them.

Do you remember where O'Rourke's is in Connecticut?

About the size of TX and CA: Sigmund used to moan (quite bitterly) that it would take literally HOURS of driving to get anywere else in Texas . . . and then it would still be "ugly." (His description, not mine.)

The cheese log would be PERFECT for a holiday buffet or party appetizer. It was "moreish" as the English say.

I had no idea you were so close! Next time I come to New England we have to meet up -- toss-up between Mystic and Stockbridge. I can't wait to hear about your trip.

I really crave migas . . . but no one else in my family likes them. We need to have Tex Mex brunch sometime.

I would love to try Dynamite Sushi, and in return, promise me that you will visit Red Arrow Diner next time you are in Manchester with your NH friends. We signed the guest book . . . maybe you can find our comments!
Have the boys ever been to House of Pies? It is such good, retro fun. I nursed many memorable hangovers there during my Rice U days. If you do go, please let me know what kind of pies you order.

D beat,
I have read Toast, and second your recommendation. I really enjoy reading about other people's food memories and meals, as you know.

As for the size of Texas vs UK: I think nothing of driving from Houston to Salado (3 1/2 hours going full-throttle), and yet it wouldn't even cross my mind to drive from Berkshire to Yorkshire -- which is probably a similar distance. Why? (Answering my own question, I would have to say the narrower roads, the density of traffic, and the absence of Sonic lime slushes.)

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I'm getting hungry just reading this. It sounds like a great vacation. I agree that the definition involves good eating. There are few things more disappointing than a poor meal after a long search.

Alyson said...

Bee - Seeing as how you just got back from the U.S. it probably will be awhile until you're back, but when you are we should meet up!

su said...

So glad you were able to get to Hatties and enjoyed it. And thanks for letting me know. Do they still have the Tuxedoed door man? I too love the Red Lion Inn. Living in Maine I may have to try your NH favorites.

Lucy said...

I'm drooling with envy!

We were talking the other day about where we'd like to visit in the states; Tom favoured New England, I was quite interested in Oregon, but I think you've talked me round!

Eating in Pennsylvania, when I visited as a teenager, was my first experience of really generous, good-food-time, both in eateries and at my aunt's home. They didn't have much money, but grew and raised a lot, and she really knew how to put on a spread. We ate well enough at home, but there's something about the New World, and I found it visiting New Zealand and Australia too, that always makes Europe feel a bit pinched.

I was interested about the choice of local cheeses in the one place, which isn't something I associate with that part of the world. And I've always liked the American readiness to mix salt and sweet.

Fantasising about food whilst denying oneself is a curious pleasure, it takes some working on, I find!

Kate said...

Oh, dearest Bee, I read this posting with mouth agape and forehead furrowed. Such. Deliciousness.
Will read over and over. Your writing is sublime.
I cannot begin to tell you how much I want to experience that cheese log. Berries and cheese and buttery crackers, oh my! Heaven on Earth.
I, too, love all-night diners, where one can order a cheese and mushroom omelette at 2 a.m. if one so chooses. And diner pancakes are always extra-fluffy and golden brown around the buttery edges. The syrup trio is an exciting little invention; the blueberry syrup, warmed, is my favorite.
Barbecue? Well, I do live in Kansas City, a locale that claims to be barbecue capital of the world. Barbecue is my all-time favorite meal. Lots of sauce and pickles, cheesy corn, old-fashioned white bread to sop up the drippings. Pork or beef or chicken? If it can be barbecued then I'll eat it hungrily.
I believe I am overweight on account of cheese ... and barbecue!
There are so many barbecue "joints" here in K.C. that one could go to a different restaurant every day of the week for a month and still have choices.
After reading your post, I am even more determined to visit New England!

Bee said...

At least you know that you can satisfy your lobster roll and ice cream cravings whenever you want now! Is there any food that you actually miss from England?

You never know! I may be coming to NY in February.

I didn't see a tuxedoed door man! It was pretty casual the night that we went.
Do you get to NH much?

I first typed your name as "Lucky," which is also a nice thing to be!
Yes, the "New World" certainly has a sense of largesse when it comes to a "spread" (or portion sizes, for that matter). A "kiddie cone" (the smallest size you can order) is usually more ice cream than I can eat. Just to provide one example.
I hope you do go to New England! I would recommend a trip that combines Maine with Portsmouth, NY and maybe Boston. (Do you like cities?) When might you go?

Kate, you are most generous!
KC barbeque obviously needs to go on my list of things that I want to experience. When you say barbeque, what are you thinking? Ribs, brisket, chicken? And what is cheesy corn, pray tell?

Beth said...

You've made me very hungry. I'm craving a lovely big breakfast - made and served by someone other than myself!

Brave Sir Robin said...

Bee -

I am a fan of the strawberry-rhubarb pie because it's about the only place I can get it.

btw - I was going to mention to you - The cheese flight is exactly what "You know who" would have ordered. Many a bottle of wine and platters of cheese met their demise on the lawn at the Miller Outdoor Theatre. Reading about your meal reminded me of that.

chris said...

Mmmm. I'll be thinking of those homemade twinkies for a while. I remain suspicious of northern BBQ, though. I don't think it's actually possible.

Barrie said...

Fun post! And...butter tarts are so delicious. (to answer your question:

Kate said...

Let's say it's my lucky day and someone has taken me out for barbecue. Here's what I would order: "The Sampler": one beef rib, one pork rib, barbecue chicken and polish sausage. Side order of cheesy corn. (This Midwestern delicacy is simply kernel corn mixed with butter and loads of cheddar cheese and some kind of thickening agent ... frequently a cornbread-type mix ... and then baked.) If I am ever on death row I am ordering a tub of cheesy corn as my last meal!)
However, supposing I weren't ravished enough to experience The Sampler and a side of corn, I might opt instead for "The Poor Russ," which is comprised of chopped burnt ends sandwiched on a squishy sesame seed roll. With French fries, extra sauce, and, of course, lots of sliced dill pickles.
In terms of sauce, there's one I adore (Gates); my husband despises it. His favorite is kitchened and served up at a place called "Smokestack." That establishment has awesome cheesy corn, too.
Incidentally, when I visited Memphis, Tennessee, several summers back (had to see Graceland!), my hubby and I frequented numerous barbecue joints. Good stuff there, just let me say.
How's the barbecue in Texas?

Nimble said...

Hi Bee,
Welcome back to the intertubes and thanks for the gustatory review. I'm trying to get back on the blogging routine too but it looks like work is having the affrontery to intrude. But I'll be reading for sure.

maurinsky said...

I'll be in Portsmouth, NH next week, so I will definitely be looking for Friendly Toast!

Bee said...

Beth, being the chief breakfast maker around here, I know exactly what you mean! No doubt that's why I like to eat out when given the chance!

BSR, Strawberry rhubarb pie sounds like a good late summer dessert to me. Since I don't have a "House of Guys" nearby, I will have to see if I can rustle one up myself.

As for bittersweet memories, "sorry."

Chris, Maybe PJ was a Southerner by birth? All I can tell you is that these were some good ribs.

Barrie, Thanks! I will look into that. Let no tart go unturned.

Kate, I didn't realize that there were so many regional differences when it comes to BBQ. Again, I'm thinking that I need a KC sample. Are you kidding me? Texas and BBQ are inseparable concepts!

Nimble, I've been missing you. The "Crooked Timber" post has been up way too long. How was NM?

Maurinsky, I'm looking forward to your report on "Friendly Toast!" Lucky you, going to Portsmouth. I know you are in Mass; how far is that from you?

Amrita Alam Sandhy said...

Hello I'm Your new follower.From my child hood I want to go England,It's my dream,a sweet dream but I'm too poor to go england thats why I love to follow Your blog.I wish I could go England