August 16th, 2015
I’ll be doing a full review of Savannah’s hot-as-a-biscuit new restaurant, The Grey, in Savannah’s old Greyhound Bus Terminal, later on. In short, I’m as excited about it as the rest of the national press, with the New York Times and Washington Post, among many others, bestowing glowing praise on both the food and creative rescue of the 1938 structure. Chef Mashama Bailey (formerly of New York’s Prune) has already helped earn The Grey a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant — an extraordinary feat considering the place has only been open since December. But as wonderfully retro-cool as the dining room is, many writers haven’t mentioned the charming “diner bar” space attached to what was once the terminal’s waiting room, where passengers ordered soft drinks and sandwiches while waiting for their buses. It’s now a dark, inviting, slightly Edward Hopper-ish space, with the same swoopy Deco curves as the rest of the building. There are a few sandwiches, cheeses and charcuterie, cocktails and raw bar items (including oysters and Sapelo Island clams), along with desserts and ice cream from the venerable Leopold’s. If you’re not able to squeeze into the main dining room, consider dropping into this happening space to get a feel for what the fuss is all about.
August 16th, 2015
A few months ago, my Georgia Trend editor and I were talking about grilled octopus, and how it seemed to be having a moment. I noticed it often came in a restaurant that featured a bocce court (such as Atlanta’s Leon’s and No. 246, or, in the case of the Optimist, a small putting green). Not long after that came oysters on the half-shell, often served at a place that also offers absinthe, the once-(U.S.)-outlawed, now safer French spirit known for inspiring green-fairied visions for artists like Picasso, Van Gogh and Lautrec in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. (To try oysters and absinthe the way crazy Parisian artists did, but without the fairies, go to Decatur’s Kimball House, downtown Atlanta’s Publik House or Athens’ Seabear.) The most recent pairing? Cocktails on tap in low-fi diners and/or leatherette booths. Apparently it’s a kind of new take on the soda fountain, except with alcohol. Check them out at Atlanta’s Victory Sandwich Bar, which offers a Jack and Coke Slushie, and Decatur’s Pinewood, which boasts of serving its on-tap Old-Fashioned in “three seconds.” On Whitaker Street, near the river, the speakeasy-style Savannah Cocktail Co. offers a whole menu of “draft” drinks, available during happy hour on weekdays, including a Moscow Mule, Vieux Carre and Blanca Negroni.
August 13th, 2015
We’ve all been there: Family or friends are coming in from out of town and the only meal you can meet for is brunch. And since they’re likely headed on the road not long after, it can’t be as leisurely (or boozy) as you might like. Bonus demerits: It’s going to have to be somewhere these newbies can drive to — and park — easily. (“Can we park on the street?” No. Not ever.) Add my own iron law: I refuse to stand in line to wait for a table, so if our party needs to eat at crush time, we want a reservation.
No need to cave and commit to one of those heinous hotel buffet steam-table free-for-alls where a dispirited cook with a hotplate custom-oversalts your omelet to order, where no one is sitting down at the same time but constantly popping up for a little more of this or that, where the mimosas are refilled so often you worry about Aunt Geraldine. No, not even because, after you consider your vegan niece and carnivorous husband and gluten-free brother, there is “something for everyone” at aforementioned heinous buffet. No: Don’t give in. Go for a place where you can all actually sit down and have a nice conversation over good food. Isn’t that the purpose of this, after all? Do the homework — it’s out there, man.
Brunch is not usually my thing, so I when I started looking around, I was surprised at how few really good Atlanta restaurants serve it. It’s not surprising — surely this is the most labor-intensive, slimmest-margin mealtime for restaurateurs. No wonder many just want to put out piles of overcooked pasta and heavily ribbed “caesar salad” under sneeze guards. But with my sister and niece staying in Buckhead, I looked found what turned out to be the perfect spot for their sophisticated Southern palates, who nevertheless craved something a little more familiar (and slightly healthier) after ambitious dining all weekend. Still, I know these two tiny workout fiends can put away some biscuits and eggs.
Which immediately made me think of Empire State South. I hadn’t been there in a few years, but it sure fit the bill, down to easy-find/easy-park details. (Just be sure to tell first-timers to pull up the Hyatt’s driveway at the corner of 10th and Peachtree — Empire State South’s sign can be hard to see. If they pull past the valet stand, self-parking is free in the garage for a couple of hours.)
The bocce courts are still out front, with some little kids pretending they know how to play, the verdant lawn a welcome respite from the heat. Inside, sunshine streamed through the large windows and over our table, soon crowded with dishes like pimento cheese with bacon jam, cold pickled pole beans with tomato and watermelon, a griddled biscuit with bacon, cheddar and a little bowl of the most perfectly crisp hash browns you’ve ever seen, a chanterelle mushroom omelette under fresh curly pea shoot tendrils, Eggs Benedict with candied bacon, a farm egg with fried Carolina Gold rice, mushrooms, sausage, beet greens and corn puree. Excellent with the Corpse Reviver No. 2 (gin, triple sec, cocchi americano) if you have a driver. This wine list — especially by the glass — is one of the best I’ve seen in town. A glass of Aubry premier cru champagne is lovely with dessert — and why wouldn’t you want some? You’ve finally settled into some good conversation, and no one has to get
August 24th, 2014
As much as I’d like to pretend time hasn’t marched on (by, say, neglecting to post anything recently), in fact, it only makes the changes seem more acute, the time more compressed once you finally take stock.
Just one measurement: Restaurants.
In two favorite cities — so different, yet so alike — the food scenes are exploding, nearly as much as the dear old ATL. In Asheville, NC, and Portland, Maine, Bill and I can barely keep up with the onerous tasks of seeking out the best and the newest. Let’s start with Portland:
So many old favorites are still on point, and still serving up some of the best food anywhere. Fore Street (still our top pick), Miyake, Street & Co., Becky’s Diner and Eventide Oyster Co. (we had to try to stop ourselves from eating lunch there every day) are as awe-inspiring as the first time we tried them. New discoveries included nearby Cape Elizabeth’s Inn by the Sea, Central Provisions (just after our return, Bon Appetit named it as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country) and an epic meal at Hugo’s — our first since our first trip six years ago. From the swordfish with shishitos and lobster toast to the mad-chemist coffeemaker, it was a refined and joyous experience, thanks in part to the staff. Now part owners, they clearly love their work, and they love showing you how it’s done as you sit at the counter. I’m not usually a fan of counter- or family-style service, which seem to be the rage these days, but here it works — the chairs are comfortable, the space your own, except when you choose to interact with others. For cocktails, we also liked the Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, LFK at Longfellow Square and the North Point, near the old Port. Harraseeket’s Lunch & Lobster, in Freeport, filled our eyes, ears, nose and throats with everything you might expect of a dockside lobster shack on a gorgeous Maine August day. In Freeport, I also dropped in one of my favorite shops, Maine native’s Jill McGowan, specialist in great white shirts and well-fitting jeans (and what else do you want to wear, ever?). The shirts (this is the one I bought this time) and dresses are her own designs; the jeans and some other garments are US made and carefully curated by others, including my new favorite Levis and Raleigh Denim (the label reads “Made by Non-Automated Jeansmiths”). I also found this great handmade, hair-on calf leather purse at the small shop Kurier, by a former McGowan employee, now making her own charming leather goods. A bit further north, in Kennebunkport, the Cape Arundel Inn helped remind us that even in late summer, a real “bold coast” night can include flooded streets, flickering electricity and a glowing fireplace — all fine as long as you’re the one enjoying dinner overlooking the crashing waves, and not the desperate driver begging for a room after abandoning her stalled car. Yikes.
In Asheville, the scene is getting so crazily good so fast it’s hard for us to keep up. We’ve just heard that both Uber, and a local version of the car service, called CabHound, have just started up here — good news for those of us who love both downtown and West Asheville restaurants, and want to have cocktails at both. First, however, the bad news: Our once-beloved home base bar, Sazerac, has changed name and management, now called the Social Lounge. Gone are the careful, thoughtful craft cocktails, the TV tuned to TCM, the interesting bartenders, the delicious bar bites (so long, duck gumbo!). It’s the first casualty we’ve noticed to the tourist trade, now merely handy and open late (though not our first bad experience at a dining establishment — I’m looking at you and your desperately sad and overcooked pasta, Vincente’s.) The good news: There are so many good spots to replace it, starting with Nightbell downtown, and the “members-only” (it costs $1) Double Crown in West Asheville. John Fleer’s Rhubarb, also on Bon Appetit‘s Best 10 New Restaurants list, is fun, and the new Korea House is a welcome bit of diversity in this roots-centric village. Wicked Weed is hard to beat for lunch, and while Table is still a sentimental favorite, West Asheville’s the Admiral now wears the feathery plume in its cap of our top choice. (Vinyl fans: Lots of good stuff all over town, but Harvest Records, across the street, may have the deepest bins). Like Portland, Asheville also has a small, well-curated women’s shop I always visit: Maison Mary, on Broadway. Mary isn’t a designer, but several friends are, and she commissions a few pieces from them, all made in town. She also features vintage designer clothes and shoes (including Prada, Versace, Diane von Furstenburg, Ferragamo and many others) and costume jewelry. It’s a small shop, so you have to visit often, and it will pay if you listen to her suggestions to try some pieces on before dismissing them. This trip, I scored a graphic black-and-white print dress with a collar that also works as a hoodie, or simply loops down the front or back of the neckline.
Good lord. It’s fall already, isn’t it?
July 18th, 2013
Another year, another trip to Maine. I never would have thought it possible, but this time… we were bored. Maybe not bored exactly… just over it. You know the old saying, How do you know what’s enough unless you have too much? We discovered its meaning. We will always love Maine, and I will always love Bill if for nothing else than taking to this gorgeous part of the world that is no way, no how like anywhere else. We will return one day, but not for a while.
It did not help that the trip was plagued from start to finish, beginning with the unfortunate passing of an elderly Maine relative (see previous post), forcing us to make an extremely long two-day drive from Tennessee to Maine for the service, than doubling back to NYC to continue our trip. A vague little back pain that nagged at me before we left worsened, until sitting or lying down became excruciating. In New York, a heat wave overpowered our charming boutique hotel’s air conditioning, and after trying to power through the back pain with long walks, throttling subway rides and huge museums, I finally found myself in agony, taking to the bed for three days, forfeiting a Broadway show, a jazz concert and dinner with our friends. So much for all my careful planning. Bill seemed to be vying for Husband Hall of Fame as he brought me three meals a day, sometimes even tying my shoes when I couldn’t.
I kept thinking that if I could only make it to our peaceful summer rental on the water in Maine, I would be all right. God found this too extremely humorous, and we arrived at last in Bar Harbor to find … construction next door. All-day, heavy machinery construction, starting around 8 AM and grinding all day long. The house’s owner claimed she knew nothing about the plans, and after making inquiries, told us the neighbors were “nearly done,” with only “minor landscaping” left to do. The heavy machinery continued to beep its way down the driveway every morning for nearly another week, grinding away all day in all for a week and a half of our two-week stay. In the final insult, the wifi went out for five days. Despite the six years we’d spent as summer regulars at this lovely house, the homeowner’s lack of honesty and consideration for us was the final straw that broke my aching back. When we come back to Maine, it won’t be here.
So: What have we learned?
1. Obsessive planning does not trump happenstance.
2. Bill and I not only dodged every wild pitch, but managed to get a few base hits. (Despite everything, we had fun.)
3. Thankfully, our car, with its heated, reclining seats, was one of the few places I could get comfortable. We spend so much time in it, we’ve often joked it’s our living room, the windshield our picture window. Because we still maintain separate households, it’s where we spend most of our married life together.
4. Back pain sucks, but maybe worse is being sick on the road, and not being able to see your own doctor.
5. As urgent care clinics go, Beth Israel’s on 34th St. in NYC is pretty darned good. (Not least because it’s very near the excellent 2nd Ave. Deli.) However, if you’re in need of pain meds and you’re seeing a doc for the first time… forget it. (As a friend said, “Thanks, Florida.”)
6. Acupuncture: Helped a little, but also hurt. Massage: Helped more, and hurt not at all. (Shout out to Jing Jing at Chan Long, at 127 Madison Ave., right next door to our hotel.)
7. The best restaurant we tried this year: NYC’s NoMad, the new venture by the chef/owner at the excellent Eleven Madison Park (our favorite restaurant last year). We loved the house specialty, a $79 roast chicken for two, stuffed with brioche, truffles and foie gras. They bring out the cooked bird to show you, its crisp skin glowing like shellacked oak, then take it back to carve, returning with plates of beautiful breast meat, and dark meat in a cream sauce. With that stuffing.
8. As we walked home with our leftovers around midnight, we passed a doorway where a young couple had bedded down for the night, fast asleep in blankets. Bill quietly walked the bag over to the couple and set it beside them.
9. Let’s hope they’re not vegans.
10. Did I mention I have a Hall of Fame Husband?
11. As Bill had always wanted, we finally made it to ‘21’ for dinner. It was fun, especially when one of the old waiters told us lots of stories about the old days, with Frank Sinatra, Jackie O and more recent events with George Clooney and the like. They make the hell out of a Manhattan. However, while we might be back for a drink, now that we’ve checked that off our list, we don’t feel the need to return — unlike other NYC old-school favorites like La Grenouille or Keen’s.
12. Best exhibit: John Singer Sargent watercolors, Brooklyn Museum. (For Bill: Winslow Homer’s studio at Prout’s Neck, in a tour arranged by the Portland Museum of Art. Still hurting, I declined the 45-minute van ride each way — then found out the museum’s “vans” were ultra-comfortable Mercedes.)
13. Best surprise: Ma Peche, the midtown location of star chef David Chang’s Momofoku empire. Fantastic.
14. Swell lunch in Brooklyn: The Peruvian outpost Surfish, with a pretty shaded patio. Delicious Peruvian ceviches.
15. Worthwhile spur-of-the moment detour: Antietam. Ghostly, awe-inspiring, sobering.
16. What we missed: Walking the High Line. Going to Top of the Rock. Getting craft cocktails at Apotheke in Chinatown. Picnic in Central Park. The Met punk exhibit. Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, with Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce in a Christopher Durang comedy (that one still hurts, and I couldn’t even get Bill to go and tell me about it). Frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity. Eliane Elias at Birdland. Dinner at a Hugh Acheson favorite, Il Buco Alimentari, with our friends Patrick and Janice Shay. (Patrick is the architect for Acheson’s new restaurant in Savannah, and Acheson told him he liked the design.) And in Portland, we missed exploring new restaurants that were just too far for me to walk to.
17. What we got instead (in addition to the above): Large segments of dialogue learned by heart from the HBO Liberace movie, Behind the Candelabra. (Squinting stonily, like Rob Lowe’s Dr. Jack Startz: “You look fantastic, by the way.”) A certifiable swinging late night — with barbecue — at Jazz Standard, with the great James Carter Organ Trio wailing. Fantastic takeout from nearby Koreatown, such as the excellent Miss Korea. A bunch of great clothes at my favorite shop, Jill McGowan, in Freeport, Maine, after I told Bill I thought another blouse might make my back feel better. A beautiful off-white Prada bag (Bill did this on his own — it’s my sympathy purse) from the equally beautiful NYC Madison Avenue store. Dim sum at Nom Wah Tea Parlor (Chinatown tearoom, circa 1920s). Long, leisurely lunches at familiar favorites John Dory Oyster Bar, the Chart Room, Becky’s Diner, DeMillo’s and the Jordan Pond House. In Portland, we ended up at our favorite restaurant — Fore Street — every day for drinks, dinner or a nightcap, in part because it was just a couple of blocks away from our hotel (we like this waterfront Hampton for its cleanliness and location). And at long last, we had dinner with friends on Mount Desert Island. Judy and Peter Aylen pulled out all the stops for the repast, starting with Aviation cocktails, through proscuitto-wrapped scallops, lobster risotto and lacy oatmeal cookies with sorbet. They made my wedding ring, and it’s saying quite a lot that their cooking is as good as their jewelry making (check out their store, Aylen & Son, in Southwest Harbor).
18. Ramps are not just a Southern passion. Apparently the springtime delicacy, a cross between garlic and leeks, climbs the Appalachian trial all the way to Maine, where we found them pickled in martinis, sauteed in side dishes and featured in omelets.
19. Three days with Patrick and Janice, when they joined us in Bar Harbor.
20. Three days at the Cape Arundel Inn, in Kennebunkport, for our anniversary. Despite the surprise of new owners, we were just as enamored of this beautiful spot as last year, and to our relief, the food and service (with lots of familiar faces) were even better. Thanks, Cape Arundel, for restoring our love for Maine. Lots of rest, quiet and another long leisurely afternoon on the porch with snacks and sips.
21. One bit of planning that worked out very well: We took the long way home, staying at inns no more than two or three hours apart. The stops included an emotional visit for Bill to Buck Hills Falls, Pennsylvania, the Poconos summer camp where he and his mother found work and solace in the years just after his father died. The old inn is in a shocking state of disarray, in a tumbledown state that reminds you of Chernobyl. I can’t find out for sure what happened, although rumors about murders, insanity and the Mob abound. The summer camp and “cottages” (i.e., summer mansions), however, are still beautiful, down to the manicured bowling lawn and pristine Olympic-size swimming pool.
22. After so many familiar places, it was good to discover a few new ones. Some of our favorites: Mount Merino Manor, near the weirdly groovy old downtown of Hudson, NY. Mount Merino is the former home of the best friend (and physician) of Bill’s favorite painter, Frederick Church (of the Hudson River School), whose Moroccan-inspired mansion (now a museum) is on adjoining grounds. It was a comfortable inn, made even more so to think of the times Church likely walked these very floors and staircases. Hudson is a funky town that lives for the weekends and closes Mondays-Wednesdays, but its main street stretches for 20 or more blocks to the river, with one amazingly fine antiques store next to another hyper-modern Italian-inspired graphic design shop. Bill was in heaven finding this stuck-in-amber hardware store, full of dusty, still-wrapped in brown paper ’60s tools; I found vinyl LP goodies at John Doe. For lunch, we recommend Mexican Radio.
23. We loved the French Manor Inn, not far from Buck Hills Falls — another original home, this one of mining magnate and art collector Joseph Hirshhorn. A young couple has taken it on, hiring a cutting-edge chef, and following some classic Poconos-resort rules, such as dressing for dinner. (Her father managed and booked talent for the legendary Mount Airy Lodge. She and Bill sang the old jingle together.)
24. On our final night on the road, at the Oaks Victorian Inn in Christiansburg, VA, the ceiling lights kept mysteriously coming on. The next morning, I mentioned that to the innkeeper, who proceeded to enthrall us with the inn’s ghost stories. He told us the lights turning off and on are a favorite trick of the former mistress of the house, who died in that room. (He says if a couple has been arguing, she will turn on the fan.) He has seen her, heard her call his name, and other guests have asked about the black cat that slept on their beds. The cat is her long-deceased pet. Who cares if it’s true or not — we loved all that!
25. I’d made one final plan, which was to begin the evening of our return — to join a screenwriting workshop at the Highlander Center, near our house in New Market. I wasn’t sure I’d feel well enough to sit through three all-day sessions, but I’d long been curious about this legendary civil rights center, where MLK Jr. and Rosa Parks went to explore their options before the Montgomery bus strikes. When Night at the Museum’s screenwriter (and Reno 911 co-creator and star) Robert Ben Garant offered the workshop to benefit the center (founder Myles Horton was his great-uncle), I had to go. It was by far the highlight of my summer. The people — so many of them who live nearby — were wonderful; the workshop exciting, fun and full of helpful information; and the center itself beautiful, and steeped in little-known history — and so rural that despite its being practically in our backyard, we nearly had to resort to plumb reckoning to find it, far beyond the reach of our GPS’s signal.
26. Home: What a relief. We stayed at the party a little too long, but we’ll be back for more trips — just more new places, and shorter journeys. Bill is back at home, preparing for a faculty fall exhibit; I’m back in Atlanta, getting back in the swing of things and getting ready for my UGA class. So now we’re looking forward to other destinations (besides, of course, the orthopedics doc and physical therapy): Like making the New Market house a little more couple-oriented, and guest-friendly. Like getting to some of those other places that have long been on our lists: Key West. Napa Valley. Santa Fe. Birmingham. New Orleans. Mobile. Back to Miami (before it’s submerged). Chattanooga. Like getting ourselves into a life together all the time, complete with aches and pains.
May 26th, 2013
When we make our annual journey to Maine, I do a lot of planning. We think and talk about it all year, and I start making reservations around the holidays (or even before) for the six-week trip that starts sometime after Bill’s birthday, around the end of May. Bill and I are well-suited that way — he’s the big-picture, “concept” guy (“…. and let’s stop at Fallingwater on the way back!”), and I’m the hypernerdy detail person. This suits me fine, because Bill would settle for anything halfway decent, but I’m particular: The hotel doesn’t have to be fancy, but it’s nice if it’s at least interesting. Once we get there, I want to park the car and have dinner and a cocktail there. Good food required. Room service for morning coffee is a big plus, and wifi a prerequisite. I have a running list of B&Bs, inns and boutique/historic hotels I keep track of year-round, and when it’s time to make an itinerary, I link as many of them together as possible to make a little jeweled necklace of a journey — and we always like to try a slightly different route, especially on the way home, to ease the pain of vacation’s end.
We were almost ready to leave when Bill’s Uncle Ralph passed away, meaning we’d have to depart a little early and get to Maine for the funeral. Then we’d double back to NYC, and take up our trip from there, returning to Maine again afterwards. Ralph had lived a long, full life, and his health had not been good of late. Of course, the trip would be full of the usual funeral rites — catching up with family & friends not seen in years (and in my case, meeting them for the first time), reminiscences, hard church pews, rain, a hymn you haven’t heard in years, but realize you remember word for word.
It also meant long, hard driving to get to Maine from Tennessee in two days. The first was 11 hours, the second would be about 9. We made it all the way to Wilkes-Barre on Day 1 to a well-run Hampton Inn (our emergency brand of choice when we’re road warriors) with a sushi place nearby. Day 2 brought us to Harpswell, ME, where Bill’s cousins Bert & Cilla teach us amateurs how to host guests with style and panache. Plus their house on Casco Bay, is quiet, secluded and beautiful. “Our” room and bath overlook the water, and the light starts coming in around 4 AM. As soon as we arrive, we always get out of the car and just inhale deeply — the entire state smells like balsam.
After a sweet service for Ralph, we gathered with his family and neighbors, and later, Bert, Cilla and her sister Polly and husband Jerry all gathered for hot crab dip, steak, fingerling potatoes and grilled fiddleheads (they were at their season’s height, and the best I’ve ever had) at the house. Cilla and Polly, daughters of Bill’s Uncle Bob (his mother’s brother) are Bill’s closest family, and it meant so much to see them all together that he quietly wiped away tears after Polly and Jerry left. Jerry and Bert had been combinations big brothers/surrogate dads after Bill’s father passed away suddenly when he was 12.
We decided we’d had enough long drives for a while, so picked a halfway point to New York City from Harpswell. Worcester worked fine. I didn’t find anything in Select Registry or Historic Inns of America (my first go-tos), so checked out Trip Advisor. You’ve got to be careful there — Trip Advisor is skewed to families and sometimes penny-pinchers who go crazy over cheap hotels with little value, and/or golf or sports-oriented venues we don’t care anything about. Also, just as on Yelp or Urbanspoon, anyone, including hotel managers, can post glowing reviews. But if you read carefully, you can usually tell when the praise is coming from real travelers who know what they’re talking about. So I booked us into the Beechwood Hotel — a slightly quirky place with a big round section, a restaurant, Ceres Bistro, and 24-hour room service. The price was certainly reasonable — $160 for a king room at the last minute on Memorial Day weekend.
Next door to UMass’ medical school, the Beechwood is set back from the main road with an ambiguously marked drive, so we ended up taking a circuitous route around the hospital, where the very old, original buildings still stand. But once we stepped in from the still-unseasonably cold weather (low 40s, with rain), the Beechwood reminded me of those lively stagecoach stops you see in old westerns, down to the fireplace in the lobby. It was friendly, comfortable and exceeded our expectations at every turn. The young people who make up the staff were sweet, smart and chatty. Our room was upgraded to a larger mini-suite, and when we walked downstairs for dinner, we were well-tended by the staff. The wine list was terrific — we’d never seen half bottles of our favorite rose champagne, Nicholas Feuillette, and the cognac included another favorite, Pierre Ferand, by the glass. And the food was far better than we’d hoped for. My gigantic bowl of Portuguese fish soup boasted fat scallops, shrimp, cod, and linguica (Portuguese sausage) in a light tomato broth. Bill had swordfish with mango salsa. The manager who’d chatted with us later sent over a complimentary dessert — outfitted with a lid, in case we wanted to take it up to our room. The warm toffee pudding didn’t make it that far.
It’s the next morning, and I’m tapping this out with the room service breakfast dishes nearby. We’re packed & ready, but watching the tail end of a John Wayne movie on TCM before we hit the road for NYC. But the Beechwood is a reminder that unexpected journeys can still offer up treasures, that surprise and improvisation can be welcome turns in a carefully plotted schedule. I hope some of the painstakingly selected, much more expensive inns I have lined up later in the trip will treat us as warmly as this one. Thanks, Uncle Ralph, for one last reminder to enjoy the journey.
January 24th, 2013
Last weekend marked the sixth January pilgrimage by our Sunday Night Supper Club (henceforth: SNSC) to Asheville, N.C.
Bill and I first discovered Asheville’s great food, art and genial wackiness not long after we started dating. It’s only a little farther than Knoxville for us from New Market (about an hour and a half — when the I-40 mountain pass isn’t closed under a rock fall), so we’d go often for day trips, or a weekend, usually three or four times a year. It combines some of the best attributes of our favorite cities — the farm-to-table sourcing and hipster chefs of Portland, Maine; the pedestrian-friendly, artsy eccentricity of Savannah, Georgia; the beautiful mountain scenery of western climes like Denver, Colorado (with the bonus of snow and greenery!); the natural air-conditioning, resort-town atmosphere and handmade furniture you find in the Adirondacks. There’s even a touch of Austin’s young street-begging freegans and street musicians, always with their dogs.
We’re history nerds too, so we’re all about Asheville’s gothic ghosts, many of them literary — hard-drinking F. Scott Fitzgerald once attempted suicide at the still-beautiful, still-luxurious Grove Park Inn as he stayed here when in town to visit his doomed wife, Zelda, who was committed to an Asheville mental hospital. She would later die in a nearby asylum’s fire. Thomas Wolfe likely caught the tuberculosis that would kill him at 38 while growing up in his crazy mother’s boardinghouse, in a town that was outraged by his writing. (Sometimes you just shouldn’t go home again.) O. Henry scribbled here, after marrying a local woman, but later scurried back to scruffy New York after failing to find inspiration in the bucolic environment. Nearby, the legendary artists, poets and writers at Black Mountain College and Carl Sandburg’s Flat Rock home also breathed life into Asheville’s potent creative landscape.
Though you can still feel their ghostly influence, that era was long ago. Like so many Southern cities, Asheville suffered during the 50s, 60s and 70s. However, the mountains that enclose Asheville’s downtown (we call one street Treadmill Hill) may have saved it from their fates. Despite its elevation, Asheville was flat broke — but unlike Atlanta, Knoxville, Charlotte, Birmingham, et. al, Asheville didn’t have the resources, or the suburban sprawl, to expand or replace its mom-and-pop storefront core. So Asheville suffered even more for a while — but today, its thriving, pedestrian-friendly downtown has helped spur a renaissance that’s only grown more vibrant each year we visit. Bill and I have stayed at the Grove Park Inn, and the spa is divine, but we prefer the street life and funky charm (cue Cindy Wilson) downtown.
When our favorite Asheville gallery, the Blue Spiral, had the good sense to bring Bill into their roster of fine regional artists, the January 2008 opening of their annual show welcoming their new artists seemed a great excuse for the SNSC’s first road trip. We invited everyone to make the three-hour drive from Atlanta, and to stay the weekend to explore the town. To our surprise, everyone came. Despite the frigid temperatures and bust-your-ass ice on the hilly streets, the weekend was a smash success, far beyond our expectations. Our crowd loved everything we liked about Asheville and more — as Atlantans, it seemed so exotic to park our cars for the weekend and walk everywhere. Even the wicked cold seemed fun. We bumbled from restaurant to bar to gallery to boutique to brewery to hotel to shoe store to coffee shop to vinyl store to wig shop and back again.
About the wig shop: Back in the antique journalism days, food critics would often wear disguises if they were going to be seen in public, to maintain their anonymity. With a cookbook coming out and signings scheduled, I decided a wig was in order. OK, really, I had always been dying for an excuse to buy something from Asheville’s Kim’s Wigs, and now… here was my chance. I settled on a modest turquoise bob, and to my delight, my pals (and very serious journo/authors) Maryn McKenna and Susan Puckett decided they needed wigs too, trying on and buying them on the spot. Even better, we elected to wear them out to dinner that night, and to our annual visit to Smokey’s, a friendly dive bar where we always go to dance after dinner.
That first year was memorable for a lot of reasons: It was the only time our good friend and SNSC literary lion, the late Paul Hemphill, was able to join us. His wife, Susan Percy, however, still motors on up. It wasn’t long before another SNSC regular, Mae Gentry, would leave us for Los Angeles. (She too flew in for last weekend’s jaunt.) One of our newer members, Dean Boswell, remembers now that on that first trip he was so intimidated by the menu at our favorite restaurant, Table, that he surreptitiously ordered only salad. (He’s come a long way since then, though he still draws a hard line at mushrooms.) On a later trip, another food-phobic pal, Mark Scott, tried — and actually enjoyed! — sweetbreads.
In the years since, our antics are a little more sedate. We sleep in a little later, and have settled on a long weekend to fit in all our frenetic doings. Oh, we’ve still braved black ice to get there, and two years ago, we had to flee early or be trapped there in a blizzard that would shut down Atlanta for days. But we’ve never talked seriously about moving our Asheville trip — after the holiday exhaustion subsides, it’s nice to have something to look forward to in January. We have talked about adding on another trip in summer, but by now the January trip seems hard-wired. It can take an unnerving number of emails to arrange a casual dinner, but for the Asheville trip, I usually make the dinner reservations, send everybody hotel links and remind them to reserve if they’re coming. That’s it. Often, the gang will start asking me to to send them the links long before I think they’d want to hear about it. This year was the first time we made it a three-day weekend, although we convinced only SNSC co-founder Rich Eldredge to stay the extra day to explore the delights of West Asheville’s Harvest Records and the Admiral. For us three, anyway, that’s likely to become a tradition too.
The day we left happened to be the date of Obama’s second inauguration. Driving home across the mountains, I listened intently to every word of Obama’s speech, deeply moved by his powerful defense of progressive goals. When I got home, I finally got to see what everyone else had been watching, the images and emotion sweeping over me. On a summer 2008 trip to Asheville, Bill and I learned Obama would be speaking at a nearby high school. We raced around town to find a bar that would be tuning it in on TV, encountering only apathy. We finally ended up back at our hotel, watching it at the bar with a bellman. A bystander sidled over to whisper snide remarks about Obama to us — as if we surely couldn’t be watching, and agreeing, with a bellman. We had to tell him to leave. Meanwhile, a crowd of many more thousands than expected had turned up at the high school. It was the first time I thought he might actually win. (This year, Asheville fan and Warren Wilson student, actor James Franco, was commissioned to write an inaugural poem that was widely mocked. It’s titled “Obama in Asheville.” So sue me, I kind of like its all-over-the-map peregrinations — although I think it actually says more about Asheville and Franco than Obama.)
Every year, I wonder whether we’ll have a full group back next January, or just a few will show. A number of our regulars are poised on the brink of major life changes. Next year a smaller group may be more likely. Bill and I decided that we’ll always be going to Asheville, and every January, we’ll invite the gang. Whoever shows will be fine with us — even if it’s just us.
If you go: My Asheville must-visit list.
Table: Our favorite for dinner.
Curate: The young chef (in her 20s) worked with Ferran Adria in Spain. It shows.
Limones: Nouveau Mexican, with a wonderful brunch. Have a blood orange margarita.
The Admiral: Former dive bar, now run by young hipster chefs, in West Asheville.
Posana: Great for drinks, or especially — the hot chocolate.
Sky Bar: Open in summer only, essentially on the fire escapes along the back of World Coffee. Great mountain view.
Mela: We’re not usually into buffets, but this Indian restaurant’s lunch is incredibly good, and an incredibly good value.
Zambra: The first big tapas restaurant here still has great food, and often very good live music.
Laughing Seed: Best vegetarian food around, and terrific creative cocktails with organic spirits.
Wicked Weed Brewing: This was so crowded when we visited, the fire marshall wouldn’t allow anyone else in the building! However, Bon Appetit has already praised the food, not to mention the house-made brews.
French Broad Chocolates: Another shop that’s earned praise from the national press (Food & Wine, Martha Stewart Living).
Tops for Shoes: The. Best. Anywhere. A whole city block. Go.
Maison Mary: My favorite tiny, well-curated boutique, with just a few wonderful things, and run by the inimitable Mary.
Hip Replacements: One of several great vintage clothing stores along this street.
Gentleman’s Gallery: High-end, carefully selected clothing, run by the great Alan Levine.
Malaprop’s Bookstore: Old-fashioned coffee shop/bookstore, run by people who love books.
Harvest Records: Big selection of vinyl, in West Asheville, near the Admiral.
Karmasonic Records: No website, but a good selection of music and some vinyl. Downtown across from the Blue Spiral.
Susan Marie Jewelry: Beautifully handmade designer jewelry, with a great mascot — Charlie the cat, who loves to be dressed up.
Renaissance Asheville: Bill and I like this hotel, which recently renovated its lobby, restaurant and bar. Nice big flatscreen TVs, and good views available. Free parking in huge lots.
Aloft Asheville: Some of our group have recently opted for this new hotel, by the W Hotel group. Modern, European design, with bar, pool, pool table and adjacent restaurant. Small parking fee; slightly more expensive. Both within walking distance of everything.
The Blue Spiral, of course. Ask for the William Houston wing.
American Folk Art: Don’t miss this great little gallery just down the street from the Blue Spiral, specializing in self-taught folk artists.
Lots more places to explore here, on my own custom map.
June 22nd, 2012
It’s our last full day in Bar Harbor, and the air smells like a clean white shirt. Frenchman’s Bay is still slate, the way it is every morning before it gives way to the deep blue matching our rented house’s trying-too-hard indigo theme.
Incredibly, we’ve been coming to Maine for seven summers. We look forward to it all year — the balsam fragrance of the piney woods, the rose-scented primula blooming on the edge of rocky ocean cliffs, and of course the steamy kettles of saltwater and seaweed boiling lobstah. It’s a culture so foreign to the South it could easily be another country — the spare New England decor and masterful carpentry in everyday things like floors, molding and kitchen cabinets. The people are long and lean — in body and face — with a stubborn self-sufficience and individuality that is, sadly, disappearing as fast as the gray-haired, solo lobstermen in their tiny wooden skiffs.
We’re setting off tomorrow morning, starting our slow descent through the Northeastern coast, and down into more familiar territory starting around Virginia. But here, at the apex of our annual tour — sort of like looking down from Cadillac Mountain — it’s a good perspective for big-picture assessments, such as: This has been our best trip here. Why? In part because after saying we ought to many times, we finally actually spent more time at this comfortable, well-situated house watching the ever-changing seascape from the patio. Some days we took towels and sprawled out on the lawn, so well-tended it looks like a $50 haircut. We cooked and read and watched the seals, the loons, and yesterday saw the first goldfinch — they usually arrive when it’s time for us to go.
And though we missed some of our favorite places — Stonington, Blue Hill and Deer Isle especially — we found some new ones, and one of our favorite discoveries was Capt. Winston Shaw and his little boat. After many years of wishing we could find someone who could take just us two around the island and show us some of the stunning estates, tell us history and point out wildlife, we found him. Perhaps next year we’ll spring for the longer tour, showing the fancy digs around Somes Sound, but this year’s jaunt was fabulous, including sights of a bald eagle, harbor porpoises and of course big-ass estates — some with the bonus of tragic storylines!
We always enjoy having houseguests, and this year Susan and David Underwood came out for a great three days of laughing, talking, eating and driving around to look at stuff. Because they came so early in our stay, it seemed we showed them our favorites right away, allowing us to immediately touch base at places we long for when we’re away — the Jordan Pond House in Acadia State Park, Sawyer’s Grocery, Sargent Drive. And of course the vista from the top of Cadillac Mountain.
After they left, it seemed our stay stretched out before us like a freshly made bed. We alternated between exploring the island and cocooning at “home.” Even our morning walks were eventful — in one we saw both a bald eagle, and a herd of deer — close enough to see their velvety antlers.
This little place appeals to us so much because it’s a concentrated version of what we love — city and country. Fantastic restaurants, and a drive home that requires tapping on your brights. Stunning, pristine scenery out the window, with the benefit of wifi and premium cable.
That’s enough for now — Bill is waiting for me on the porch. I could be out there drinking coffee with him, scanning for seals. We already know what we’ll do differently next year — spend more time right there. It will probably be the best year ever.
April 6th, 2012
Maybe I’m an old dog, but at least I’m teachable.
A few new tricks I’ve learned recently, after spending a little time in Tennessee, where our kitchen is …um, basic:
— You don’t need a giant pot of boiling water for pasta. A frying pan works just fine — put the pasta in cold water (yes, cold — so it won’t stick), just to cover, and boil for the normal amount of time. The pasta comes out perfectly, and you’re left with some very starchy water that is great for thickening sauce. Saves time, energy, water. (Love Chow’s tips. Can’t wait to try the corn “broth” from husks and silks!)
–Incredibly, Knoxville is developing a cool downtown scene, complete with speakeasy-type bar. Walk through the lobby of the retro-hip Oliver Hotel to the giant sliding door and peer into the dark room, presided over by fedora-wearing barkeep/DJ/food maven Jessica. The Peter Kern Library (named for the Kern Bakery founder) has a big fake fireplace, glowing like mad even in 80 degree weather, a stuffed fox, weird portrait of an eerie child, and terrific potent potables (the cocktail menu is secreted away in volumes of an old World Book Encylopedia, the one we decided was for people who didn’t like to read). The Siren ($9) is like a combination fresh fruit margarita and sangria, with Espolon Blanco tequila, pinot noir, fresh lime juice, blueberries, blackberries, mint, egg white and blackberry liqueur. On the quiet early side of Sunday night, we asked Jessica if there might be a bite to eat about. She eventually returned with a beautiful plate of Benton’s prosciutto, a friend’s walnut pesto, mustard-seed cheese (o ye of little faith!), rustic bread, a smear of jam. She doesn’t usually have time — or the storehouse — to put that together, so we suggested perhaps gourmet popcorn, and our friends thought she ought to get in touch with this Maryville popcorn emporium. Loved the Outkast/Cee-Lo groove on the speakers, loved the place, love Jessica. We’ll be back. Especially since the new Gay Street Nama sushi bar has opened, just a couple of blocks away. Our friends also turned us on to Coolato, just down Gay, with amazing house-made gelato. We also want to come back and visit Bistro at the Bijou, just to show our support for the owner’s unwillingness to suffer hating fools.
–Wild asparagus is still out there for the sharp-eyed stalker (so to speak), like our New Market neighbor Mike Dockery. Wonderfully nutty. (The asparagus, that is — although Mike is pretty nutty too.)
–If you have a lot of asparagus, you might need more than one recipe. I love it tossed in olive oil and salt, roasted (400 degrees, 10 minutes), with just a little lemon juice. If you have a little more time, holla for hollandaise: This easy method works better than the more complicated recipes I’ve tried. For a small order, just whisk one egg yolk with the juice of a half-lemon in a metal bowl. Melt a couple of tablespoons of butter. Boil some water in a sauce pan, and with the bowl over the boiling water, add the butter in a thin stream, whisking. Take the bowl off the water if the egg starts to scramble. Add a few drops of water if the sauce is too thick. With a fresh, sunny-side up egg, the first Florida field tomatoes of the season and some toasted challah, you’ve got a fabulous supper.
–The other asparagus recipe should use up the egg white you have leftover, so here’s this one: Crispy parmesan asparagus. Roll the stalks in the lightly beaten egg white, then in flour, breadcrumbs and parmesan, then roast on a wire rack. (I didn’t have panko breadcrumbs, and it still worked fine.)
–One more: I really want to try this (from a Pinterest post by friend Kathy Trocheck, aka best-selling author Mary Kay Andrews, who exhausts me with her cooking, blogging, decorating, junking and all-around fabulous life). Looking forward to having the gang over for Feaster Sunday, as usual, and somehow it usually feels like we don’t have enough springy green vegetables. This sounds perfect: The Barefoot Contessa’s light mix of snap peas, haricots verts and asparagus.
–We love the old-school service and great food at the Orangery in Knoxville. Atlanta no longer has these classic Continental restaurants with beautiful decor (like the old Hedgerose Heights or Pano’s and Paul’s), where it’s fun to dress up. We also love to see the Orangery busy as a result of their clever marketing–even when Tuesday’s $5 kobe beef burger night means the giant, genial dude next to us was wearing overalls. And then had his Discover Card declined.
–Ants can bite the devil out of your wrists if you try to remove their home — like, say, a dead plant — from your garden.
–Apparently you don’t have to be bitten by a zombie to become one, if you’re infected by the zombie virus. (From last week’s Walking Dead.) I hope there are no zombie ants, because I could have a very ugly wakeup call.
September 21st, 2011
Today I’m asking my University of Georgia magazine writing class to write an in-class review, using all five senses. The review will be very short — 140 characters (not words, but letters, counting spaces), to be precise, or the maximum length of a tweet or text message, or the average Facebook post. Fortunately, the subject matter is also small: A single Jelly Belly gourmet jelly bean, in all its exotica.
They are allowed to use any abbreviations or slang commonly used on Twitter, Facebook, IMs or other social media/online chat rooms. However, they need to get their points across so that these users can easily understand them. And: They need to craft interesting, accurate descriptions. Creativity counts. I wanted them to post here so they could all read one another’s reviews. They will have a few minutes at the end of class to complete the assignment, so it’s a tight deadline too.
On your mark, get set… tweet!