Monday, June 23, 2008

Off the Beaten Path

Ed. note: This post originally appeared in my 2008 food blog Fork It Over on the website of the Rochester Insider magazine, which is now Metromix Rochester. Since the old blog is no longer available online, I'm re-posting some of those posts here and backdating them to their original posting dates. Although in most cases they are specific to Rochester, hopefully you'll still find them somewhat interesting!  ~Rachel, 6/28/10

Sometimes a little bit of research pays off, and other times a spontaneous choice will yield great results when looking for a place to eat. I spent the weekend in New York City and had time for one good dinner, so I did a little research ahead of time to find somewhere relatively inexpensive but still nice. It can be hard to find those mid-range restaurants in NYC; it seems like the majority of places are either super-cheap (pizza, subs, etc.) or extremely expensive, but not too many are casual and reasonably priced. When it comes to the city, I'm less than a native but more than a tourist. I've gone there at least a couple times a year but usually more throughout my life, so I'm pretty familiar with the layout and try to avoid the extremely touristy areas. My boyfriend, who is a Manhattan native, wanted to bring me to some areas I hadn't really explored before, so we planned on walking around the Lower East Side and Little Italy, and then we planned on having Italian food for dinner. A quick bit of research online reminded us that Little Italy is really aimed at feeding tourists overpriced poor excuses for Italian meals, so I checked out the lively Chowhound forums for advice on good Italian near, but not within, Little Italy.

A restaurant named Bianca kept popping up in the discussions, and it was just a short walk from Little Italy. Perfect! I glanced at some reviews and found the menu on Menu Pages, and everything looked promising. Nestled on a quiet bit of Bleecker St. between Bowery and Elizabeth, Bianca serves simple, inexpensive Italian in a comfortable, nicer-than-casual setting. We arrived at around 5:30 on Saturday night and had no trouble getting in. In fact, the place was almost empty. I was shocked to find that everything on the menu was $15 or less. I settled on the traditional spaghettini al pomodoro with a mesclun salad; my friend Kim got a spinach salad with apples, walnuts, and pecorino cheese; and Ben got the special, a Mediterranean fish similar to sea bass that came with spinach and fried potatoes. We also got a bottle of champagne to celebrate my impending birthday. The food was simple but delicious, and the place has a lot of charm. It's definitely a hidden gem. The bill came to less than $80 for the three of us, including the $30 bottle of champagne. Not bad for NYC!

We left the city around 5pm on Sunday night for the drive back to Rochester and got hungry for dinner around 8:30 as we passed through a small town named Hancock, located on the Delaware River. A restaurant search on the GPS led us to what appeared to be the center of Hancock, home to a couple Chinese take-out places and a diner. Not in the mood for either, we took a couple random turns. Suddenly, I spotted a brightly painted house with a sign out front that said, "Bluestone Grill: Eat, Drink, Laugh." Well, that sounds fun, doesn't it? Best of all, it was open late on a Sunday night, eventhough the rest of the town seemed pretty dead at the time. We stepped inside, weary from the first part of the drive, and we were greeted cheerfully as we walked in. We wound through a series of rooms and were seated by a window in a pleasant, dimly lit dining room. You can get an idea of the ambiance by checking out the photo gallery on the restaurant's website. (Warning: Music autoplays when you open the gallery.) It really felt like an unexpected oasis in the middle of the small, quiet town.

The menu had everything from a "five buck chuck" (a simple hamburger with a choice of sides) to fancier entrees in the $15-$25 range. I opted for a house salad and the five buck chuck with shoestring fries, and Ben chose a pan-fried skate wing with a side of cornbread. The cornbread was described as "insanely good" on the menu, and it lived up to its description. The presentation was lively and appetizing, and everything tasted excellent. The service was very friendly. If you're ever passing through Hancock for whatever reason, definitely check this place out. It was really a lucky find, and it energized us for the rest of the drive home.

Spontaneity can definitely be rewarding while restaurant-hunting. Not only do you get a great meal, but you also get a little jolt of excitement that you took a chance on a random place and everything worked out. If you prefer to do research ahead of time, some helpful sites are Chowhound, Yelp, and RocWiki (for Rochester). We used both methods this weekend and ended up with two really great meals.

Bianca: Bianca on Urbanspoon

Bluestone Grill: Bluestone Grill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Spicy Orange Garlic Shrimp and Cold Melon Soup

Ed. note: This post originally appeared in my 2008 food blog Fork It Over on the website of the Rochester Insider magazine, which is now Metromix Rochester. Since the old blog is no longer available online, I'm re-posting some of those posts here and backdating them to their original posting dates. Although in most cases they are specific to Rochester, hopefully you'll still find them somewhat interesting!  ~Rachel, 6/28/10

My dining companion was on a business trip last week, leaving the kitchen in my incapable hands once again. In honor of the sweltering heat (and the miserable cold that had been keeping me sneezing all week), I decided to go with a light and healthy fruit theme for dinner one night. I've always been intrigued by the idea of cold soup, and I've had a few that were pretty good. One that stands out in my memory is a cold watermelon soup from Veselka, a popular Ukrainian restaurant in NYC's East Village. A quick search for "cold melon soup" recipes turned up a bunch of results. I ended up settling for Cool Melon Swirl Soup, curious to see if I could actually accomplish the "swirl" part of the recipe. (Keep reading to find out if I succeeded!)

I didn't really measure out the amounts of the ingredients as listed in the recipe; I haphazardly threw melon chunks in the blender and liberally added the honey and lime juice. This may have contributed to the unfortunate thinness of the finished soup. I expected something a little dense, but my soup was rather, well, soupy. As you can see below, the swirl didn't really work. Big surprise, right? Maybe if I had used the correct amounts of everything, the densities would have been different and the orange part would have stayed separate from the green part. Anyone out there know how to make something like this work? Anyway, here's the finished product, garnished with whipped cream and berries. A mint leaf would have been a nice embellishment too, but the store was out of fresh mint. As you can see, I had some trouble forming a perfect dollop of cream, and the berries quickly began to topple into the soup. The presentation didn't work out so well for this meal.
Cold Melon Soup with Berries

Man overboard...

In addition to the soup, I made shrimp and rice. I decided to be daring (generally a bad idea) and improvised a shrimp marinade. I plucked some random things from the cupboard and ended up with a marinade consisting of the following:
  • 1/4 cup orange marmalade
  • 1 tsp lime juice
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • dash of chili oil
  • dash of chopped garlic (the kind that comes pre-chopped in a little jar full of liquid)
This was enough for about 8 small to medium shrimp. For once, something worked out for me in the kitchen. This marinade was actually really tasty. The chili oil added just a bit of heat, the soy sauce and garlic gave it an Asian flavor, and the orange marmalade added some sweetness, but not too much. I let the shrimp marinate for about 30 minutes, grilled them, and served them over white rice, which I managed to burn slightly. Well, I guess it's just not possible for everything to work out perfectly in one meal.
Spicy Orange Garlic Shrimp

This meal was less of a disaster than some other things I've made in the kitchen, but there's definitely room for improvement. The thin texture of the soup wasn't wonderful, although the whipped cream helped a lot. There are a lot of other recipes out there for cold fruit soups, so I might try a few others this summer. The shrimp was the best part of the meal, and I'll definitely be making the marinade again, maybe with a little bit more chili oil next time. The spicier, the better!

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Taste of New England

Ed. note: This post originally appeared in my 2008 food blog Fork It Over on the website of the Rochester Insider magazine, which is now Metromix Rochester. Since the old blog is no longer available online,  I'm re-posting some of those posts here and backdating them to their original posting dates. Although in most cases they are specific to Rochester, hopefully you'll still find them somewhat interesting!   ~Rachel, 6/28/10

Last week I spent some time eating my way through Massachusetts and hitting up some of the major tourist attractions. I grew up in a small Massachusetts town called Sharon, located about 25 miles south of Boston and home to one of the ten best ice cream places in the world, Crescent Ridge. Due to the short and relatively easy commute to Boston, I used to go into town often, but this was the first time I really got a chance to walk around on my own. I walked pretty much the entirety of Boston, took a painful amount of photos, and of course, ate some tasty food.

One of the most touristy places in Boston (but still worth a visit even if you're trying to avoid the typical tourist attractions) is the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. (The most common pronunciation of "Faneuil" rhymes with "manual.") The marketplace consists of Faneuil Hall itself, which is a historic building known for a whole bunch of things you can read about on Wikipedia; Quincy Market, which is the main food section; North and South Markets, which both house a lot of fun stores; and the outdoor areas between all the buildings, where you can find tons of carts selling a variety of crafts, t-shirts, and other items.
Quincy Market

Quincy Market (that's pronounced quin-zee, not quin-see) is where you'll find most of the restaurants. The indoor area consists of a long hallway of to-go food counters featuring every type of food imaginable (see a full list here.)
Quincy Market

In the middle of the hall of food, there's a large rotunda where you can battle other eaters for a seat at the long wooden tables on two floors.
Quincy Market

There are also some large sit-down restaurants scattered around the marketplace, but the cheaper (and more fun!) option is to pick up food at one of these counters and go find a seat in the rotunda or outside. The empty space on either end of Quincy Market is usually taken up by performance artists, so there's always plenty of entertainment.
Fife Player

You can usually find people in interesting costumes.
Quincy Market

No matter what you eat, make sure you leave some room for cookies. The Boston Chipyard, located along one of the outer hallways of Quincy Market, has the best cookies in the world. They typically have about ten flavors available on any given day, and you can order them in half-dozen increments. Last time I was there, I bought a half dozen chocolate chip cookies and a half dozen oatmeal raisin cookies.
Chipyard Cookies!

Excuse me a moment while I wipe the drool off of my keyboard.

Of course, Quincy Market isn't the only place to eat in Boston. For authentic, delicious Italian food, be sure to stop by the North End. (Surprise! The North End isn't the northernmost area of Boston. East Boston and Charlestown are actually further north. Yes, East Boston is north of the North End. The West End is also in the northern part of town. Confused yet? One more interesting point: South Boston and the South End are two entirely different areas. Southie refers to South Boston, and the South End isn't the southernmost part of the city.) Anyway, back to the food. While you're in the North End, be sure to try a cannoli at Mike's Pastry, which has existed forever. The history part of the website is under construction so I'm not sure exactly how long it's really been there, but Mike's is definitely a North End landmark, so no matter how much you eat for dinner, save room for dessert and head to Mike's. Many North End restaurants are pricey, so be on the look-out for early bird specials. Recently, I ate at G'Vanni's Ristorante, which has an excellent early bird deal where you can get two large dinners AND a bottle of wine for $30, with various upgrades available for a little bit more money.

New England is known for seafood, so if you're anywhere in the region, be sure to eat some fish. Sadly, one of Boston's seafood landmarks, a store called James Hook and Co. that has been open since 1925, burned down several weeks ago (full story here, so cross that one off your list for now, although the owners do plan to rebuild.) Legal Seafoods, although a fairly large chain now, is still a great place to have a wonderful seafood dinner. You should venture outside of Boston as well, if you get a chance. Last week I spent a day on the North Shore of Massachusetts, which includes towns and cities such as Ipswich, Salem, Essex, Gloucester, and Rockport. I started out the day in Gloucester (pronounced Gloss-tah, not Glow-chester). First, I went to the Hammond Castle, a medieval-style castle built by inventor John Hays Hammond, Jr. in the 1920s that now serves as a museum.

Next, I stopped for lunch at The Gloucester House, a fifty year old restaurant responsible for popularizing fried calamari (thank you Gloucester House!!!) and specializing in North Atlantic seafood.

My mom ordered a lobster roll (pronounce it "lobstah" if you want to sound like a local), and it was enormous and delicious.
Lobstah Roll

My dad got some tasty fried clams.
Fried Clams

I had the baked haddock, lightly breaded to perfection.
Baked Haddock

After Gloucester, we headed to nearby Rockport, a coastal town full of little shops and art galleries. Once we were tired of shopping, we stopped by The Ice Cream Store for a little afternoon treat.
The Ice Cream Place

I got peppermint ice cream with jimmies. See the glossary if you're confused.
Peppermint Ice Cream with Jimmies

Eating in Massachusetts requires some specific food vocabulary, so here's a little glossary to help you out.

  • Frappes vs. Milkshakes: Frappes are what the rest of the country thinks of as milkshakes--milk, flavored syrup, and ice cream--while milkshakes in New England are made with just milk and syrup but no ice cream. So if you're from out of state and looking for a milkshake, you probably want to order a frappe. By the way, that rhymes with "rap." Don't pronounce it "frapp-ay."
  • Jimmies vs. Sprinkles: You've probably had sprinkles before--the little candy pieces that you can get on your ice cream--in either the rainbow or chocolate variety. In most parts of New England, rainbow sprinkles are known simply as sprinkles, while the chocolate ones are called jimmies.
  • Scrod: You will see "scrod" or "schrod" on the menu at almost any seafood restaurant. It's not a real fish. Scrod does not actually exist. The word "scrod" is a generic term used to refer to whatever whitefish is the catch of the day, most frequently cod or haddock. For more information about scrod, including a grammatical joke that will make you laugh if you're a grammar dork like me, check out the Wikipedia page.
  • Tonic vs. Soda vs. Pop: Soft drinks are referred to as "soda" in Massachusetts. Never, ever "pop." If you call it "pop," you will probably be laughed at. Some Bostonians call soft drinks "tonic," but this isn't as common. "Tonic" isn't the same as what you might call "tonic water" (a carbonated beverage with quinine.)

I took way too many photos on this trip, and all the time spent sorting through and editing and uploading them is what held this blog post up for so long, so do me a favor and go take a look at them :)
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