Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Eating Clams in Newport RI and the East End of Long Island

On my list of things-to-do, one of the oldest items is to write a post about a trip that my husband and I took to the north fork of Long Island and Newport, Rhode Island in early November. While I had the best of intentions of writing it while the trip was still fresh, you know what they say about those kinds of intentions. With the holidays, crunch time in the business and my husband’s surgery, this item kept falling to the bottom of the list. Having finally gotten my head above water again, I figured I could get this done and finally cross it off. (A to-do list is only as good as its cross-offs).

Last year I joined the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. Glad was I when I got the invitation to their annual meeting, which was held in Newport, Rhode Island. My parents live on Long Island, fairly close to McArthur Airport. So it was there that we made an exchange: our son, Thor, for their car. We then drove to Greenport, a small town on the north fork of Long Island to stay at a lovely B&B, Bartlett House Inn. That evening, my parents had made reservations for us at the North Fork Table. The name may sound familiar to those who follow the New York restaurant scene. I forget who the chef is, but the pastry chef is one of my personal heroes, Claudia Fleming, formerly of Gramercy Tavern. The restaurant sources locally from the farms and vineyards surrounding it. The meal was really lovely – I had the Block Island fluke crudo with Hawaiian sea salt and grapefruit – fresh and fantastic. Mike had the Hudson Valley Foie Gras terrine. Also wonderful and especially unctuous. I ordered the monkfish as an entrĂ©e and Mike a lobster pasta dish. The flavors were really deeply layered and vibrant. The only small disappointment came with dessert, though not its execution, but instead the menu. The only locally sourced dessert was the apple tart, which I then ordered. Unbelievably rich, yet light as a feather puff pastry topped with perfectly cooked caramelized apples. Mike had some sort of chocolate dessert as he is apt to do. As a mignardise, we were given the tiny spice dougnuts, which are featured in Fleming’s wonderful book, The Last Course.

Next day, we drove out to the very deserted Montauk point to see the lighthouse and had lunch at a hole in a wall with fantastic fried bay scallops and clam chowder. We made our way back to the North Fork to visit the vineyards. Long Island wines, while better then when I lived there, are still no match for other winemaking regions. We did find some good sparkling wines from Lenz, a really great (but expensive) red from Wolffer and a very interesting blueberry port from Duck Walk. The most interesting and entertaining part of the day was when we were asked to appear on a television segment that they were filming on red wines and headaches. Somewhere in NY, they were watching my profile for a split second. That evening, we had dinner at the Frisky Oyster, Two chefs who were catering in Manhattan decided to make their way out to Greenport to open a very funky, little restaurant. While I don’t remember that much of the meal, I do know that I liked it, particularly their take on a caprese salad, which included a very tasty gougere. What I do remember was our dessert, which we did not partake of at the Frisky Oyster, but instead at my favorite Greenport establishment, Claudio’s. Claudio’s is the “oldest, same family run restaurant in the United States.” I myself have been going there since I was 6 months old when my parents and I would sail there on our annual family cruise. Dessert was not chocolate, nor apple this evening, but clams – baked clams to be exact. I certainly could not have left Greenport without a batch of those.

The next morning we woke up to the first Nor’easter of 2007, not a welcome sight given that we were taking the ferry to Connecticut and then driving to Newport. We moved up our reservation, skipped the complementary breakfast and instead had the remaining freshly-made doughnuts from Wickham’s Fruit Farm on the ferry with a cup of coffee on the trip over. We made our way through the torrential rain and wind and arrived in Newport. Our first stop after being told that we had to check-in later was to Banister’s Wharf and the Black Pearl. We started with the clams casino (I do love my clams) and then I had the grey sole and Mike the scallops. Both were very New England in their preparation, old-fashioned, yes, but also excellent. That evening, there were no official events for the conference, so we had dinner again on Bannister’s Wharf at Fluke Wine Bar. Having already had clams, scallops, and even fluke, we decided it was time for a good old lobster. We shared this and the paella – a good rendition, but not mind-blowing.

The conference theme was sustainability and the keynote speaker was Joan Dye Gussow. Her speech led into a panel discussion with the founder of Red Tomato in Boston, a company that markets products from family farms throughout New England, and Nora Pouillon. The discussion centered on local foods and why it’s important to support our family farms, which began a lively debate on bananas in the Dominican Republic and the living conditions of the farm workers. The woman who began the discussion worked for a frozen food company and she was really asking how far does the idea of “local” go. Odessa Piper, formerly of L’Etoile and a real pioneer of the local foods movement, stood up and said something extraordinary. She explained her position simply as “the distance your heart can travel” implying that it is as far as you continue to care about and seek to improve (whether by buying or not buying) the conditions of the people raising/producing/growing the product and the earth upon which it is raised. It was a personal eureka moment for me.

The next memorable event and meal was the gala dinner the next evening to which Mike accompanied me. We had a wonderful table: a Providence radio host, Ginny Lambrix, the very young director of winegrowing of De Loach and fellow Colgate alum, Lee Jones of the Chef’s Garden and Karen Waltuck of Manhattan’s Chanterelle. All of the meals were prepared by conference participants, so the food was not like that of other conferences. The evening was lovely, but there were two highlights. The first was the comic relief. During the cocktail hour, Mike was watching the Patriots’ game in the hotel bar. He met a bunch of guys who were guests at a wedding in the hotel. After halfway through the awards presentation, one of the guys pulls up a chair next to Mike. He introduces himself to the ladies around him and feigns interest in the speeches. A few minutes later, the restaurateur of the year award is given to Karen Waltuck. She walks to the stage at the front of the ballroom and our friend moves to the side of the room picks up a potted plant and carries it to the stage and presents it like one would give roses to the leading lady. He gets escorted out. While we all know about wedding crashers after the perfectly awful Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn movie, one does not often see conference crashers. The second highlight was much more inspirational and that was meeting Leah Chase of Dooky Chase who received the President’s award for a lifetime achievement. Suffice to say, she was definitely a presence and it was a moment I won’t soon forget.

Our final meal, the next day, was an oyster feast with oysterman shucking on site followed by a clambake made in the hotel’s pit overlooking the sunset. It was quite an evening.

The next day we returned to Long Island again traveling in the rain. Our last meal was at the Seafood Barge in Southhold. I shared oysters with Mike and then had a green salad – clearly the indication that it was time to go home. I had eaten so much seafood for the past 5 days that I felt like I should be taking someone’s temperature. I definitely exceeded my Mercury allotment for the month.

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