April 20, 2011

Brunch in Boston

Boston, skyline
Beacon st.

"Hey, do you have any tips on how to eat and drink in Boston?"
Luckily, everybody we asked had at least a couple. Many coincided, many others didn't. Again, as in Portland, we had less than three days and a limited amount of meals.

I wanted brunch. That was my first point on the list. I got a few recommendations for a place in Sommerville (where our host lives) that revealed pretty good indeed. The won various awards as best pancakes in Boston. But we ended up going just for breakfast on Monday morning. Of course, I tried their triple-berry pancakes --huge and fluffy as they should be. Plus a huge bowl of fresh fruit on the side and coffee free refill. "Really?", I said. Yes, really. I always sound so naive when it comes eating out in the US. I'm always so surprised by everything, so embarrassed at times, so shy when it comes ordering from a menu, or asking for something, or remembering to tip.

Brunch, we said. Sunday morning, late morning, to be honest. We woke up in a state of body heat and clumsiness. The night before had been happily filled with local microbreweries' excellence and multicultural conversation around food. Of course. Of course good beer, of course, food talk, of course multicultural. That's what I love, that's what is exciting about what I studied, what I am doing and will hopefully do after this crazy, inspiring and lucky year of eating, drinking and traveling. The morning after these moments of pure joy are always a bit tough, but c'est la vie.

nature in Beacon st.
shoes as vases on Beacon st.

Coffee, water. "Where shall we go for brunch?", I asked, interrupting J.'s daydreaming. "Dunnooo...Wherever, it doesn't matter to me" was likely to be the diplomatic answer. He is so diplomatic. The night before, I grabbed the name of a place that our host Fausto's girlfriend mentioned as being the best place in Boston for Sunday brunch at affordable prices. Sure enough, it is pretty popular and the wait line is always quite long, she said. But we HAD to go. The only thing I could remember was it started with a P. after a few research on google, we found it. Paramount.  OK, we are going. My first brunch ever was happening in a couple hours. I was excited, and hungry.

brick houses, Bacon Hill, Boston
brick houses, Bacon Hill, Boston

The Paramount is in the middle of fancy and elegant Charles Street in Beacon Hill. Walking through antique and vintage clothes shops, glancing at the red brick houses in the crossing alleys, we arrived at our destination and started to queue without saying a word --everything was exactly as we expected. We read the menu placed outside the door to torture and tempt customers and we started to compose the ideal meal in our mind. Omelet or sandwich? Or maybe a french toast? No, my first brunch had to have eggs. And not being a fan of mixing sweet and salty --my Italian origin prevent me from fully enjoying a feast of pancakes and breakfast burritos at the same time-- I gave up the "why not both?" option. No, omelet it is. With spinach, feta and basil, sided by cubic, soft and golden homemade potatoes. Plates fluctuating in the air to avoid heads gave  us a visual demonstration of what to expect. It was comforting --all looked so good. It was hard --I rethought my options multiple times by the time I ordered. In the end, I got back to my first instinct. It's always the best. 

We ordered. In two minutes, we received our food on the trays, we moved on, paid and sat down. No table service here. You wait, you order at the counter, see your food being cooked, get it, and then sit and eat it. They say it works for that tiny little place always packed with people. You don't wait for a table, you wait for food, and by the time you get it, there is surely be an empty table for you to eat it fresh and steamy.

I looked around and saw a perfect family with beautiful parents and consequently beautiful children, all casually dressed but with details revealing their wealth, sharing a plate of pancakes and confidentially stealing bits and bites from each others' plates. I saw a couple of Italian-American friends chatting in front of a huge waffle buried under a mountain of fresh fruit. I faced my omelet, contemplating it for a second then attacking it with enthusiasm. I felt foreign and local at the same time. That place, with its mix and match of people from different backgrounds, different social levels, different cultures, was giving food to everybody, making their Sunday morning a bit special every week.

Boston loves magnolias
magnolia at Boston Common

Everybody waits, on Sunday morning at Paramount, all eat the same good food at fair prices, everybody enjoys it. I love places where you get a sense of food as a shared experience. My first brunch was a shared experience. Here, for the first time out of Vermont and in this trip in the US, I felt the conviviality of home meals.

sakura @ Boston Common
Harvard yard, Saturday afternoon

We walked around all day in that beautiful neighborhood, enjoying shops, buildings, blooming magnolias and the park. Spring is coming. 

April 4, 2011

Portland, ME

Boat from Terrasse

For our first weekend away from our rustic Vermont life, we headed toward Portland, Maine –the mecca for lobster lovers and nostalgics of the old continent.

What I discovered, though, i
s that Portland is much more than this – it's a paradise for eco-foodies and a very charming place for spending a couple days. 

We stayed in a very low key, nice Inn in typical colonial style, out of the old town just enough to allow a good walk from and to the main attractions. Which are mainly art and food. Fair enough, can you imagine anything better? Neither do I. 

Colonial housePainted building
Local 188

On my way to the Old Port, an endless serie of small food places stroke my attention for their common, repetitive mantra: local, organic, good, clean, home-made, sustainable, from Maine, made here etc etc. Out of the frying-pan into the fire. I thought Vermont was already the best an eco-consumer, locavore could fancy (maybe after San Francisco). Well, Portland is more or less the same story--with the difference that it's a real city. Incredible. I don't know what to think about this trend that is conquiring the East Coast and the New England in particular --this food hipsterism,  or snobberism, this food for nostalgic hippies. 
I needed some time to think about it, to process it.
Farmer's TableLocal Food Advocacy
Fair Trade, organic, homemadeMade in Maine

There are so many places to eat a very, very good meal, that the choice is as hard as unavoidable. Especially if you have just a weekend or less.

Fore Street Restaurant

We had two days, indeed. So, we had to make a choice. Following the suggestion of food writer and UNISG journalism professor Corby Kummer from the Atlantic --an amazing man, fyi :D-- we went to Fore Street

This is the philosophy at the base of the restaurant: 
"We believe that good food travels the shortest possible distance between the farm and the table. Our menu is founded upon the very best raw materials from a community of Maine farmers, fishermen, foragers, and cheesemakers, who are also our friends and neighbors. Most of these Maine foods are organically grown or harvested wild, each brought to us at the peak of its season."

The place is spectacular. From the freshest bread baked at the bakery down the street, The Standard Baking Co. --they say they bake fresh pane francese for the restaurant every day at 4pm-- to the wine list, there is nothing, nothing wrong. 

People out of the bakery
Fore Street

The atmosphere of a wide room on many levels with an open kitchen and a wood-fire oven is striking. Sitting on a wood table, glancing from time to time to the suggestive fire that lightened the room of red nuaces, we scrolled the list of appetizers and decided to build our meal just on those--too much to try to even turn the page. The choice showed successful. The platter of mixed raw and chilled seafood featuring flounder tartare, Maine lobster, scallops and striped bass was to die for --all local, extremely fresh seafood as I have rarely tasted before. 

LobsterRaw fish: flauder, scallops, sea bass and lobster

Followed by a skillet of mussels cooked in the fire oven in garlic-almond butter --huge mussels, sweet and perfectly cooked, firm and tender at the same time. 

Mussels cooked in the fire ovenMussel, Fore Street

Not satisfied yet, or better, too curious about the rest of the tempting menu, we went for the fire-oven grilled squid with mustard greens cooked in duck fat, where the strong flavor of duck enhanced without covering the freshness and sweetness of the fish. 

SquidWood fire oven @ Fore Street

Having ordered from the list a glass of red wine we couldn't renounce, we were ready to pair it with some local charcuterie made in Quebec and New York: chicken liver paté, duck rillettes and duck terrine, all having anything to envy to their cousins on the other side of the ocean. I have never tried a chicken liver paté that tasted so much like chicken --good, juicy brown chicken. The others were pretty spectacular, too. 
To end with a sweet tooth, we agreed on a three desserts plate with bacon ice-cream, coffee-cardamom crème brulée and maple-sugar doughnut, where the first two towered upon the third in an apotheosis of flavor and genius. No pictures --too blurry, the wine was too good :)) Couldn't ask for more. Oh, yes, we could: kindness. And we actually got it: the service was perfect and friendly, prompt and more than easy-going. We asked for suggestions, information, a copy of the menu and the opening hours of the bakery and we had everything in less than 5 minutes. 

All this just to say: if you are in Portland, you must go. 

We had breakfast at the Inn, but if you want the best coffee go to Arabica coffee co., downtown Portland.
Hot SuppaColonial architecture, Portland

For a brunch everybody recommended Hot Suppa, and although we didn't tried it, it looked pretty cool.  We skipped/missed Duckfat --another hot spot, especially for fries, but as I said, you have to choose, helas!-- and we had a quick lunch at Flatbread and Co. Pizzas and salads are all home-made and they use as many local and/or organic and sustainable ingredients as they can. Of course! But it was really good --and the view of the port is great!

In between meals, there are plenty of things to do, like a bit of shopping in second-hand/vintage shops, clothes and design shops and nice art galeries. Or, in case you are a real, resilient gastrofan, a bit of food shopping. Portland is so foodie!!
Vervacious is amazing. Spices and herbs from all over the world processed in Maine and packaged in very neat-looking stacking jars.

Vervacious, Portland MEWarm spices
Black Mission Fig JamSpice shop

There are also many deli shops --with a bit of Italian homesickness, I went to Micucci and bought Garofalo pasta and Cantele wines. Plus, there's a book shop called Rabelais entirely dedicated to food and wine publications --seriously, it's a paradise, I would spend my whole day there.

my lobster rollLobster roll stop

The lady is very kind and gave us recommendations for the best lobster roll in town! 
Which, by the way, is after the main bridge, close to a gas station, and is an ice-cream stand. But it was very good, indeed.  

I can't help but to mention Whole Foods, the mecca of good food shopping. It was my first time in one of these supermarkets and I had the sensation of being in the Land of Toys, where everything is available and good. Amazing. At last but not at least, the Fish Market, is the must-stop for buying fresh lobster and crabs, which are daily fished and kept in huge vats.

Live lobsters
Market prices

We made a last stop to have a pint in the best pub in town, Novare Res

Novare Res, PortlandTap beers
GlassesAllagash Brewery, Maine

Hard to choose among the 20 rotating beers on tap or the endless bottle list. Let's go local, once again. If food is culture, local beer is part of it.

Tap selection at Novare Res

Walking around the Old Port, I thought one last time about this new wave of New England foods and about how reduntant it might sound after a while. But then I thought that it's too early to stop saying that the food you're eating is (willingly) good, clean and fair. It is still time for saying it. When I will stop seeing these words advertised everywhere, it will either mean that we are safe, or that we have to start worrying for real. 
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