Three times a year, my daughter Shannon, our friend Kate, and I get together in Portland to celebrate our birthdays. The “birthday girl” gets to choose the restaurant, and we give each other little presents. The meal is usually followed by gelato at Whole Foods, and it’s a great afternoon, something we all look forward.
This year, schedules did not allow us to get together in September—my birthday is mid-September—and the best time for everyone was late October. It didn’t matter one bit. As Shannon noted, “We’re not 6 years old.” No, we certainly are not.
Portland has such a wealth of restaurants that finding someplace good is not at all hard. In the past few years, we’ve only had 1 disappointment—The Merry Table—and our success rate is a testament to all the terrific places there are to eat in Portland. For this outing, I picked Sonny’s on Exchange Street, and we hit pay dirt yet again—the food and the prices were equally good. Once upon a time, the building was a bank, and the restaurant has high ceilings, wood, brick, large windows, and a wonderful view of a park, golden in late autumn.
Sonny’s feature’s Latin and Southwestern dishes, using as much fresh, local food as they can. According to their website, all their food is cooked from scratch, including their bread and desserts. And that’s exactly how it tastes. I had Johnny’s tri-pork Cuban sandwich, and as the name suggests, there were three kinds of pork on a handmade roll. Very tasty. As were the homemade chips that came with the sandwich. The chips were lightly spiced, lightly salted, and very crisp. I could have easily eaten another handful. Kate had roast beef, Shannon had a hamburger, and both were more than happy with their choices.
“We should come here again,” Kate said as we stared out the window at the glorious day.
We all agreed. However, when the next birthday rolls around—Shannon’s—it’s my guess that we’ll pick something different. After all, we’ll be in Portland. How can we resist the temptation to try someplace where we’ve never eaten?
Note: In my last post, I wrote about the importance of living in and loving place, and I promised to write about my hometown, Winthrop, in my next post. But then we went to visit our daughter in New York City, and I just had to write about that place, the city of cities. Soon, I will write about Winthrop and its various pleasures and discontents. After all, no place is perfect.
My husband, Clif, and I have been visiting our daughter Dee in New York City for 12 years, and even after all those years, the city, in my mind, is a patchwork of impressions—neighborhoods, food, people, the subway system—almost a character in itself—smells, sounds, and sights. When I try to hold an image of New York, it constantly shifts, partly because of my faulty memory and partly because of the protean nature of this big city, where things are added and subtracted on a regular basis.
Not surprisingly, food is a beacon for me, and in my mental map of New York City, the food zones light up in various parts of the city. First there is the Chinese takeout near Dee’s apartment in Brooklyn. By New York standards, it is nothing much—adequate food at good prices—but by central Maine standards, the food is pretty darned good, as Clif might say. The sauces have a subtly missing in every Chinese restaurant in our area, and the fried tofu in the vegetable stir-fry is brown and crunchy, just as it should be. In the other direction from Dee’s apartment is an Italian bakery with canolis, a crunchy shell filled with a sweet, creamy filling that just doesn’t taste like any canoli I’ve ever had in Maine. Then, turn the corner and there is the bagel shop, with large chewy bagels that have obviously been boiled as well as baked. These three shops make a ring around my daughter’s apartment, and I have no trouble placing them in the map in my mind.
We, of course, go farther afield than Dee’s immediate neighborhood, and every year we add something new. On our last visit, in April, it was the Doughnut Plant in Chelsea, with donuts so fresh and flavorful that Dee has become a convert, stopping by regularly to grab a donut during a recent film festival.
For our trip last weekend, it was Smorgasburg, an outdoor food market with over 70 vendors. Smorgasburg is an offshoot of the Brooklyn Flea, and it is in a large lot in Williamsburg near the East River. For a foodie like me, Smorgasburg is pretty much as good as it gets. While there were a few vendors selling records—that’s right, vinyl—mostly it was food, rows and rows of vendors selling enticing things to eat—sausage, porchetta, donuts, macarons, jelly, pickles, chocolate, fish tacos, falafel, and much, much more. Smorgasburg runs through November, and if I lived in the area, which looks a little like Sesame Street, then I would go regularly and try something new each time. Well, all right, maybe with every visit I’d make it a point to get a heartbreakingly soft donut from Dough and a macaron, two crunchy little meringues held together with a creamy filling, from Vendôme Pâtisserie. The donut would be the appetizer and the macaron would be dessert. Readers, I am making myself hungry as I write this.
Although it was hard to make a choice about what to eat between my donut appetizer and my macaron dessert, I did settle on porchetta served on a roll. The porchetta, from the aptly named Porchetta, was moist, crunchy in places, spicy, and utterly delicious. It would be hard to resist getting one each time, but I am reasonably sure I would be up for the challenge.
So now I have Smorgasburg to add to my patchwork map of New York City. And lest anyone think that all I do is eat when I go to New York, I would also add to my map the Strand Bookstore in Union Square. The Strand boasts of having “18 miles of new, used and rare books.” I believe this boast. At the Strand, the shelves of books go up so high that little magic ladders would be in order, ones that could whisk you up and down and sideways and every which way.
The Strand is so big and quirky that it deserves a post of its very own. Another time, perhaps, if I can pull myself away from finding more places to eat the next time I go to New York City.
Because I have been black-belt dieting for the past couple of months, I have not been going to the Flaky Tart, one of my favorite places to eat in Winthrop. No matter how good the food is at a restaurant, it is very difficult to control the amount of calories in any given meal. When fall comes, I told myself, I’ll stop by once a week or so to have a cup of the Tart’s delicious soup, which even a black-belt dieter can have without guilt. (Note: My black-belt dieting is working, and I have lost over 60 pounds.)
However, yesterday, even though the day was rainy, I walked into town to go to the library. By the time I came out, the rain was pelting down, and as I came to the Flaky Tart, I decided that a cup of tea and a small treat might be just the thing. I could sit at a table by the window, have my snack and tea, and hope that the rain would let up when it was time to walk home.
As it turned out, there were no small treats, but there were homemade granola bars, or breakfast bars, as they are billed at the Tart.
“Well,” I said to myself. “Why not have one of those? You have a granola bar for your snack everyday.”
But the ones I have at home are not as big as they are at the Tart, and I knew I’d have to break the bar in thirds. Not a problem at all. I took a third of the bar, wrapped up the rest, and put it in my pocketbook next to the ginger cookie I bought for my husband, Clif. The granola bar was out of sight, and therefore out of mind, as the saying goes. It’s a silly trick, but it works.
I ordered some iced tea to go with the granola bar and sat at my favorite spot, that table by the window. I watched as cars went up and down the street. For the most part, the sidewalks were empty, and there is something melancholy about empty sidewalks on a rainy day.
Across the street, in the window of Pete’s Roast Beef, the “open” sign flashed off and on. In a big SUV parked next to the Tart, a little dog with a white and brown head barked as he waited for his person to return. I could see the dog’s mouth open and close, but I couldn’t hear the bark.
Soon, the granola bar, one of the best I have ever had, was gone, as was the iced tea. The sky didn’t look as gray, and the rain appeared to have abated, at least a little.
Time to go home to my own dog and another walk, if the weather allowed.
Our vacation is over, and what a good one it was. We went to two movies—the excellent Beasts of the SouthernWild and the very good Safety Not Guaranteed. We went to the Theater at Monmouth and saw 4 plays in 3 days, and one of the plays—The Glass Menagerie—was so good that I think it’s safe to borrow a phrase—“alchemy in the theater”—from the late great Canadian writer Robertson Davies and apply that phrase to The Glass Menagerie. On the night we went, by the devastating yet poetic end, the audience was completely quiet. No coughing, no shifting, no unwrapping of paper. Just silence. As of today—August 14th—there are two more productions of The Glass Menagerie at the Theater at Monmouth. One is on Wednesday, August 15th at 1:00 P.M., and the other is on Saturday, August 18th at 7:30 P.M. I encourage readers who are within driving distance to come to Monmouth and see this terrific production.
Our daughter Dee, from New York, was here for the week, and what she wanted to eat were fresh vegetables, especially corn. In August, Maine gardens are pretty much at their zenith, and we had new little red potatoes, boiled; corn on the cob; grilled zucchini, summer squash, and broccoli; raw carrots and tomatoes; cantaloupe. All of this came from Maine, as well as the eggs we had for breakfast and the syrup we had on our waffles and French toast.
Midweek, our friends Judy and Paul Johnson invited us over for dinner, where there was more corn on the cob as well as grilled chicken with Moorish spices and a quinoa and kale salad. The evening was fine and we ate outdoors, and when the meal was over, Judy’s two young granddaughters ran and played in the fields surrounding the house.
Finally, we had a gathering of film buff friends over on Saturday for a pasta dinner with Clif’s famous grilled bread. For dessert there was homemade ice cream pie. I want to note that Shannon’s sauce with meat balls is well on its way to becoming famous and is certainly one of her specialties. She got the recipe from Cook’s, so I can’t share it, but it’s so good that Clif made sure we helped ourselves to some of the leftovers.
Dee left on Sunday, and after all the hubbub of the week, Clif and I felt letdown.
“Let’s go to the Red Barn,” I suggested, “for an end of vacation splurge.”
Clif didn’t argue, and although the day was overcast, we were able to eat outside. I had a lobster roll, Clif had fried chicken, and we both had a child-size soft-serve ice-cream cone for dessert. As we ate, we talked about our vacation—in reality a “staycation.”
“What did you enjoy the most?” I asked Clif.
“All of it,” he said. “I wish we could have had another week. One is not really enough.”
I couldn’t argue. And what better place to be in August than in Maine?
On Saturday, my husband, Clif, and I went to Skowhegan, Maine, to the Bread Fair, which is part of the Kneading Conference presented by the Maine Grain Alliance. The first Kneading Conference was held in 2007, and according to their website, the conference “began with a group of Skowhegan residents who were motivated by the need to address wheat production as an important cornerstone of a growing local food movement.” Right now, most of our wheat comes from places such as Kansas or North Dakota, but it wasn’t always this way. Until the mid-1800s, wheat production in Somerset County—Skowhegan is the county seat—fed over 100,000 people each year, and central Maine was known as one of New England’s breadbaskets. Now, “less than 1% of Maine’s wheat demand is actually grown in Maine.”
Those from away, who associate Maine with the rocky coastline, could be forgiven for wondering how in the world Maine could have produced so much wheat. While it’s true that our coastline, as a rule, has thin soil, this is not the case with central Maine, which is farming and dairy country, and it is especially not the case with Aroostook County, where so many potatoes are grown. In Maine, there is a huge swatch of land with deep, rich soil, and although our growing season is shorter than it is in other states, it is certainly long enough to grow an abundance of food, including various grains. And, we have a trump card that might be especially important as we deal with the ravages of climate change—abundant rainfall, at least for now. But more about that later.
A bit more history about the Kneading Conference, which again, was taken from their website: “2011 was a milestone year: we received nonprofit status as the Maine Grain Alliance; we helped organize the first Kneading Conference West in Mount Vernon, Washington; and we purchased a portable wood-fired oven to use for school and community educational workshops and for fundraising.”
For the past few years, I have wanted to go to the Bread Fair, but something always came up, and I wasn’t able to go. This year, however, the calendar was clear, and off Clif and I went, north to Skowhegan, which, as it happens, was where my mother and father grew up.
Any kind of event that features lots of food vendors in one place, an event where you can go from table to table, sampling their wares, is my kind of event, and I had a great time trying various bread and pastries. The Bread Fair was rather small, with about 50 vendors, and there were hundreds of people rather than thousands and thousands, the way there are at the Common Ground Country Fair. In truth, the smaller size of the Bread Fair was much more to my liking than the jammed Common Ground Fair. At the Bread Fair, it was easy to talk to the vendors, buy this and that, and find a place to sit down to enjoy what you just purchased. And while the Bread Fair was small, it was lively, with a nice mix of bakers, crafters, and informational tables along with some vendors offering professional products.
So what did Clif and I eat? I’m almost a little embarrassed to list how much we ate: Sour dough bread from Borealis Bread; a chocolate croissant from Snowy Hill Bakery; and from Good Bread a pretzel that tasted as though it had been boiled but wasn’t—I was told it was cooked “the way it’s done in Germany.” A cupcake and a cream horn from The Bankery as well as a slice of pizza baked in Maine Grain Alliance’s wood-fired oven. Another pretzel from another vendor, The Bread Shack. Not surprisingly, by afternoon Clif and I started to hit a bread wall after a morning of carbs, but readers, all of it was very, very good.
In my next post, I’ll focus on some of the people I met at the Bread Fair, but I’d like to conclude with an idea I touched on earlier in this piece. That is, with climate change, the resurgence of growing wheat in Maine can only be a good thing. The withering droughts in the United States spell nothing but bad news for food prices in the upcoming years. It makes sense to grow food in places such as central Maine where the soil is good and where there is abundant rainfall. The same is true for livestock and poultry, but this is a piece about wheat and bread, so I’ll leave that topic for another time.
No one, of course, knows what the future will bring. Maybe the drought will be a one-time event, and next year will be a better growing season for America’s bread basket. But maybe it won’t. According to climate scientists, droughts, in some parts of the world, are to become more and more common as the planet heats up. If those scientists are right, then in the upcoming years, Mainers, and perhaps even those in other New England states, will be very grateful that there was “a group of Skowhegan residents who were motivated by the need to address wheat production as an important cornerstone of a growing local food movement.”
Part Two: Sunday Brunch at Riverside Farm Market & Café
Central Maine, lovely though it might be with its lakes, woods, farms, and rolling hills, is not exactly a foodie paradise. Mostly there are chains, ranging from McDonald’s to Ruby Tuesday to Olive Garden. On the one hand, this means the area is not loaded with temptations the way places such as Brunswick and Portland are. On the other hand, when it comes to food, sometimes temptations are exactly what you want, and in central Maine, the pickings are slim.
However, there are a few notable exceptions, and Riverside Farm Market & Café in Oakland is one of them. What started out as a simple farm stand has expanded to become an elegant yet casual place with indoor seating, a specialty market, and a large deck that looks over a vineyard—that’s right, a vineyard—and a stream so large that you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a river. On a fine summer morning, sitting on that deck is akin to having a little slice of the Mediterranean in central Maine. More important, the service and the food are so good that Riverside Farm Market all by itself almost makes up for the plethora of chains in the area.
Last week happened to be the week of the Maine International Film Festival (MIFF), and one of our long-standing traditions has been to join our film-buff friends for a Sunday brunch on the last day of the film festival. We’ve gone to various places over the years, but our favorite has come to be Riverside Farm Market, and that’s where we go nowadays.
There are usually 14 or 15 of us, and we know to get there early so that we can grab the large table on the deck overlooking the aforementioned vineyard and stream. For some reason known only to the gods, the weather is usually perfect that last Sunday of the film festival, and so it was this year.
The servers, who are so friendly and accommodating, have come to expect us on that last Sunday, and as soon as we tell them we’re from MIFF, they start dragging tables to add to the large table. Also, there is not a peep of complaint when we ask for separate checks, and everyone gets exactly what he or she ordered.
For me, it is always the same thing—eggs Benedict served with fruit slices and baby baked potatoes. In general, I am crazy about all things made with eggs, and Riverside’s eggs Benedict are particularly delectable. (I could have some right now.) Unlike my poached eggs, their eggs are perfectly poached into puffy pillows of perfection, which are then topped with a rich, smooth hollandaise sauce and served over toasted English muffins. I usually gild the lily by adding Canadian bacon. And then, because more is always better, I order a bloody Mary to go with this brunch, and let’s just say that as I sip my drink, eat my eggs, take in the view, and talk with friends about various movies, I am one happy eater. Truly, life doesn’t get much better.
On Thursday, on a hot but splendid day, I headed to Portland to join my daughter Shannon and our friend Kate for one of our thrice yearly birthday luncheons. This time, Kate was the birthday girl, and as our tradition goes, she chose the restaurant—the Green Elephant, which none of us had ever been to.
Whenever I try a new restaurant, there is always a little hum of anticipation, much the way there is when I go to the theater and the house lights drop just before the play begins. I so want to like the food (in the case of the restaurant) or the play (in the case of the theater), but I know very well that not all restaurants serve good food, just as I realize that not all plays are done well.
Still, with both plays and restaurants I am always hopeful, and now that I have started my Good Eater Seal of Approval, I, of course, wondered if the Green Elephant was going to make the list. “Cool it,” I told myself as I approached Portland. “Don’t prejudge. Let the food speak for itself.”
I also had another worry, and that worry was my diet. Over the past year, as I have noted in this blog, I have lost 50 pounds. Very good. The problem is I have 30 more to go, and my weight loss has stalled. I know this is normal, but at the same time, I feel a little like Moses overlooking the Promised Land. I can see my goal shimmering on the horizon, but getting there has proved to be difficult.
This diet worry had a couple of different threads. First, it is difficult to keep the calories at reasonable level, say, 300 or 400 per meal, when you are eating out. Even good restaurants often serve too much food, and if food is on my plate, then I will eat it until it is gone. This led to worry number one: Would I eat too much?
A friend of mine has come up with a good way of dealing with this. She asks for a takeout container as soon as her meal is served, and she immediately divides it in half. If it’s not on her plate, then she’s not as tempted. I decided I would do the same thing and ask for a takeout container, but thus came worry number two: By yapping about my diet and asking for a takeout container as soon as the meal was served, would I be a wet blanket at Kate’s birthday?
“No,” Shannon said when I broached the subject to her as we walked to the restaurant. “You are doing what you need to do to lose weight, which isn’t easy.”
She got that right. Very good, I decided, I will ask for a takeout container when the meal is served, and then, I resolved, the subject of diets would not pass my lips for the rest of the meal. Well, I broke that resolution, but I don’t think either Kate or Shannon minded.
The Green Elephant is a charming little restaurant on Congress Street not far from the Portland Museum of Art. Apropos of the restaurant’s name, above the door there is a canopy with a green elephant. Inside, the restaurant is small but not cramped, and the decorating style is what might be called eclectic. One wall comprises yellow bricks, and chandeliers hang over the tables. Much of the art on the wall involves spoons and forks. It sounds like a strange mix, but it works.
The Green Elephant bills itself as a vegetarian restaurant featuring “Asian-influenced cuisine.” I ordered stir-fry vegetables and and tofu in a brown sauce; Kate ordered a tempura asparagus salad with coconut milk-peanut dressing; and Shannon ordered a vegetable noodle dish. For starters, we ordered Indian style flatbread with a curry dip.
Then came the dreaded question. “I am on a diet,” I told our server, an engaging young woman. “Would you bring me a takeout container when you serve the meal so I can divide the meal in half?”
“I sure will,” she replied cheerfully.
There! That was that. No more talk about diets at Kate’s birthday meal. Except that when our food was served, the server (or the kitchen) had done something so remarkable that it left the three of us amazed with admiration. My plate had half a serving of the meal.
“The other half is in a container in the kitchen, and I’ll bring it to you when the meal is done,” our server said.
“Wow!” I said when she left.
“That is so sweet,” Kate put in.
“Great service,” Shannon added. She’s worked in a restaurant and knows the ins and outs of good service.
After we enthused about the service and talked about diets for a few minutes, the time had come to taste the food. Would it live up to the service?
Readers, I am happy to report that it did. My stir-fry had crispy vegetables and tofu with a tangy sauce—ginger and garlic, I think—served in just the right amount. There were also a few pieces of tempeh, off to one side, and they provided a tart counterbalance.
Kate’s salad was both delicate yet substantial, and Shannon’s noodles and vegetables had a sauce that tasted as though it had fish sauce in it but probably didn’t, as this is a vegetarian restaurant. Whatever the case, the sauce was very tasty. (Shannon let me have a bite.)
And the bread? Well, that was delicious, too.
At this birthday meal, four things were ordered, and all four were very good.
“I love this place,” Kate said, and Shannon and I concurred.
The Green Elephant definitely gets the Good Eater Seal of Approval, for food, atmosphere, and service.
As for our server…well, you can bet that she got a generous tip.
Last weekend was filled with friends and family, and I’m going to start with Sunday first because it was Father’s Day. (In the next post I’ll write about our Saturday get together and describe a luscious but oh-so-simple drink concocted by our friend Chuck.)
When the weather is fine on Father’s Day, my husband, Clif, always wants to head to Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport for a hike and a picnic. Sunday’s weather couldn’t have been nicer, and so to Freeport we headed, where we met our daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike.
Wolfe’s Neck is a little gem of a park on the edge of a town that is dominated by a rather ugly cluster of chain stores. The park almost redeems this mess, and in Wolfe’s Neck there are trails that go by water and through woods. There is an osprey nest on a nearby island, and even without binoculars, the birds are visible. In late spring, the woods are abloom with lady slippers, and the smells of spicy evergreens and salt water are everywhere.
But before admiring the ospreys and walking the trials, we had to fortify ourselves with a little cheese and cracker snack that we had on one of the many picnic tables at the park. We also brought chocolate for dessert.
Thus fortified, off we went, and we got lucky with the ospreys. An enthusiastic young woman from one of the environmental agencies—can’t remember which one—was there with a high-powered telescope aimed right at the nest. Not only did we see the mother osprey, but we also saw her babies, their little heads just visible above the rim of the massive stick nest.
For two hours or so, we walked on the trails, and by then we were ready for the next part of Father’s Day, a meal of fried seafood at Day’s Take-Out on Route 1 in Yarmouth. Day’s Take-Out is small and white, the kind of nondescript place you would drive past if you didn’t know any better. In fact, not knowing any better, Clif and I have driven past it scores of time. But Shannon and Mike have been raving about the fried clams for quite a while, and Father’s Day seemed like the ideal day to check out those clams.
As the name suggests, Day’s is a take-out, and while there are a number of picnic tables on a grassy point overlooking a lovely marsh, there is no inside seating. Clif and I ordered a pint of clams and a large order of fries, and let’s just say that we will not be driving past Day’s Take-Out anymore. The fries were hand-cut, the lightly-breaded clams were fresh and just the right size, not too big and not too small. Both were fried to perfection, crispy but not overcooked. The prices were reasonable—under $30 for the clams and fries—and we’ll be heading back to Day’s sometime soon. In fact, the food is so good that it gets the “Good Eater Seal of Approval.” (Chuck, whom I mentioned above, has recommended that I start a Good Eater Seal of Approval list, and so I have, with the first being Day’s Take-Out.)
After those delectable clams and fries, we went to Mike and Shannon’s apartment in South Portland, where we gilded the lily and had strawberry shortcake made with fresh Maine strawberries from Cape Elizabeth.
All I can say is, what a day!
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