Representing the northeastern corner of the United States, New England is a region with character and identity. From Maine to Vermont and Vermont to Connecticut and Connecticut to Rhode Island and Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the region is diverse and beautiful. It also boasts some of the most emblamatic regional food of the entire country, especially along its coast. Thanks to soccer, my son and I got to visit all of the New England states recently save Connecticut. We saw a lot, did a lot and ate plenty and plenty well.
Our journey started with a ride from our upstate NY home across Vermont to eastern New Hampshire, where my son’s travel soccer league took us for a couple of games. We were situated on the coast, which gave us plenty of options. I know that the first thing I think of when I think of the New England coast is lobster. I know that I’m not alone with those thoughts. I kow that when I think of lobster, the first place I think of is Maine. Again, I suspect that I’m not alone in that thinking. We took advantage of the situation and our proximity to coastal Maine to zip across the state border for some “lobstah.” We ate very, very well and enjoyed some beautiful scenery as a fine bonus.
My son’s game was over early and with the food obsessed town of Portland, Maine (Flick’r set) a stone’s throw away, we paid a visit to try a few places for dinner. Portland is an impressive city with its fishing port, scenery and yes, some superb restaurants. We ate at two of them in the city. Eventide is a small, casual spot located next to the famous restaurant, Hugo. With atypical summer heat in the high 90’s, Eventide Oyster Co. , like everywhere else in the city, had trouble handling the heat to create a comfortable dining environment. Nevertheless, the food and drink we had were outstanding. A variety of Maine oysters were presented cleanly shucked and in pristine condition. We were given a variety of original house condiments including kim chee ice as well as several others. These worked very well with the oysters, but when oysters are as good as these were, I still prefer them with just a squeeze of lemon. A “Celery Mimosa” with Cava, celery juice and celery bitters was wonderfully tasty and refreshing. Another standout was the fluke tartare with cucumber, coriander and nuoc cham. Heat or no heat, Eventide is a restaurant that I would love to frequent.
We ambled across town passing scenic, nearly, but not quite deserted fishing piers and views of the harbor to reach Pai Men Miyake, the ramen, yakitori and izakaya restaurant related to Miyake, Portland’s premiere sushi restaurant. Still sultry, we sat outside and dined al fresco. My son had a vegetarian Kake Soba while I had the no broth Tokyo Abura Soba with chili oil, nori, egg yolk and sambal. We also shared a three piece order of yakitori chicken which included the oyster, thigh and wing meat. This was a perfect fit for us at the time. This was another restaurant to which I would be delighted to return. Unfortunately, this completed our sojourn of dining in Maine as we drove back to NH for the night to continue our journey the next day.
Once my son’s soccer game was over, we returned to the hotel to shower, pack and check out to make our way down to Boston for the night. Once in the city of the patriots, we grabbed an Italian sandwich, walked a bit of the Freedom Trail in stifling heat and eventually made our way to The Museum of Fine Arts, where amongst other wonderful works of art, we marveled at an exhibition of Japanese Samurai armor.
Our evening was reserved for Craigie on Main, a restaurant at which I had been waiting a long time to have a full meal at. Being a Sunday night, I was not surprised that chef Tony Maws was not in house, but we were well taken care of regardless. My favorite dish from the tasting menu was the most delicious and well prepared softshell crab that I have had in quite some time. In a tempura batter, the texture achieved perfection, while also still enabling the flavor of the crab to shine through. Other standouts included a perfectly tender and delicious grilled octopus arm prepared in a Spanish style and pickled pig’s tongue that was both flavorful and a textural delight.
We spent the bulk of the following day in Boston exploring the entertaining Museum of Science. There was plenty there to keep both my son and I fascinated.
By mid-afternoon, though, we needed to check out of our hotel and head to Providence, where we would dine at Ben and Heidi Sukle’s new restaurant, Birch. The restaurant is small, intimate and decidedly contemporary, while speaking in a strong, individual voice. Ben Sukle has grown as a chef. This meal requires a separate post to do it full justice.
Just around the corner from the wonderfully anachronistic hotel The Biltmore Providence is a fantastic little bakery called Ellie’s, where I procured a few delights and some fine cold-brewed coffee the next morning for breakfast. Both the peach-rhubarb galette and the macarons were expertly prepared and quite delicious. I would have loved to try more from this fine bakery as well as their sister restaurant, Gracie’s which abuts Birch.
We finished our Providence visit by getting together with an old friend of mine and his daughter at New Rivers, Beau Vestal’s dynamic New American restaurant located an easy walk from our hotel. It happened to be Restaurant week. I enjoyed the chilled fresh tomato soup with olive oil, basil and cracked pepper. It certainly wasn’t Campbell’s. If the heat outside wasn’t enough to insist that we were in the summer season, the soup did. As good as the soup was, the griddled duck breast sandwich with tomato and pesto on a baguette, was even better. Though pleasantly messy from dripping pesto, this was a truly delicious and satisfying sandwich. Served with house made chips and house made mixed berry sorbet for dessert, this was a great value prix fixe lunch at $15.
We returned home for a few days before we returned to New England the following weekend for more soccer games. This time, the games were located in Essex Junction, just outside of Burlington, Vermont, a city that I hadn’t visited in twenty two years. We managed to squeeze two superb meals into the weekend in between my son’s games and two visits to the outstanding Shelburne Museum, a museum with something for everyone.
The first restaurant was the well known, Hen of the Wood in nearby Waterbury, Vermont. Like, Birch, this meal will have its own post. It is perhaps the most well known restaurant in Vermont and a torch bearer for the farm-to-table movement.
Pistou, under Chef Max Mackinnon, is where we chose for our last dinner of this New England foray. It is a small restaurant that offers a two course prix fixe every day based upon what is available. My son and I had a special tasting that was impressive. Nothing was less than very good, but the dish that impressed me the most was their house made ricotta gnocchi served with cacio e pepe. This simple, relatively unadorned approach was perfect for highlighting the outstanding quality of these ethereally light pillows. The ricotta was featured in a couple of dishes and understandably so. Using fresh cow’s milk from a nearby farm, it had been made early that morning. The flavor and texture of the cheese were about as good as it gets for cow’s milk ricotta. I really liked the overall vibe of this restaurant. This is another place, like Portland’s Eventide, where I would be a regular if it were near to where I live.
Our sojourn finished with a a ferry ride across Lake Champlain on a hot, but beautiful summer afternoon. We arrived on the New York side of the lake and drove into and through the Adirondacks to make our way back home. We ate very, very well on these two short journeys. New England is full of very, very good food with its share of great food. From some of the finest seafood in the country along the coast to superlative farm to table dining in the country and even in the urban areas, New England’s culinary identity is as strong and identifiable as all but a few areas of the country. It has native ingredients and a variety of cultural influences on how they are used. Our visits just scraped the tip of the ice berg. I look forward to more.