The Sauce of Life is on hiatus

TSOL has taken a break to explore other ventures….I hope to return to food reviewing one day soon. Until then, eat up!

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Starting the day in Newport: Franklin Spa

Boston-bound for the summer, Dan, Rudy and I headed east in our loaded up truck, every cranny strategically stuffed with belongings. Before reaching the big smoke, we decided to linger a little in holiday mode and stop in Newport for the night. We woke to a long day ahead and breakfast on our minds. Nestled amidst the quaint, labyrinthine streets of Newport town, the Franklin Spa is an unassuming corner store, whose name seems more like a local aesthetician than diner. “I used to come here and buy candies as a kid,” says owner, Rocky. “It was a little pharmacy and variety store.” Since he left the liquor business 14 years ago (he headed up The Pelham bar, amongst others in Newport), he’s been running this happening little hole-in-the-wall breakfast joint, keeping locals and tourists alike well fed.

It’s a simple spot – diner counter from which you can watch the eggs flip and homefries sizzle, and little booths and tables perched under hanging plants and specials boards. The staff is a friendly and straightforward local bunch, who chatted with us about the French Open tennis finals on which our eyes were glued most of the time while keeping the coffees filled. In typical diner fashion, the countertops sport collections of condiments, which include Franklin Spa’s house-made hot sauces.

The menu is a generous selection of the usual diner breakfast fare, but direct your attention to the specials page and you’ll be satisfied. Rocky tells me the menu has evolved over the past 14 years, adding specials and gauging the response from customers. But, he assures, “I don’t cook anything I wouldn’t eat myself.” We order the lobster omelet, a hearty roll stuffed with spinach and flowing brie cheese. The lobster found its way onto the menu a couple of years back and Rocky gets it all from the local fishermen down at the Long Wharf. We had heard much about their blueberry-stuffed French toast, and gawked as it arrived, busting at the seams with fluffy, cream-cheesy blueberry. The stuffing had the devilish hint of impending guilt but its dreamy taste was enough to mask it as we munched. Other popular items include the Maryland crabcake and Brenton Reef benedicts, a pile of lobster meat, poached eggs, grilled tomatoes and steamed spinach slathered in hollandaise sauce. Everything’s fresh and arrives on your table in a handful of minutes.

The Franklin Spa as an air of familiarity that makes you feel like you are at your own neighborhood joint. Regulars slap shoulders with the waitresses as they stroll in for a feed, smiling heads nodding hello. Customers are fed speedily, ready for a day of shore-side fun. Rocky seems to have a good thing going on. And for him, it’s just as peachy. “Six until two every day, then I can head out fishing for the afternoon.” Ah, Newport, must the holiday ever end?

Franklin Spa

229 Spring Street
Newport RI 02840

(401) 847 3540

Open 6am-2pm Monday through Sunday

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The Place for Summer

Biting into fresh corn off The Place’s house barbeque is an experience reminiscent of childhood summer days. Slathered in butter, paper plates buckling with grease, the corn arrives stripped naked, husks hanging like a ragged handle, which, on grabbing, cover your fingertips with char. And then comes the first bite…at first, you try to remain civilized – a dainty nibble, neck stretched out away from your clean clothes, cob balanced between timid fingers. But the juicy kernels begin to burst under pressure, sending hot spray across the table. Another bite sees you raining butter onto your dining companion. At that point you release all inhibition, biting in with vigor, oil smearing the corners of your mouth, kernels stuck between teeth. Each bite around the table elicits grins of pleasure, glistening with grease. It’s a juicy, buttery, crunchy mess and it doesn’t matter a bit that you are surrounded by tens of other diners, you are all doing the same – tucking in with childish glee to a good ole cookout by the flames of the barbeque.

As a youngster, Vaughn and Gary Knowles worked at The Place, which was then known as Whitey’s, but once the owner decided to give the place up in 1971, Vaughn and his wife, Judy, thought they would give it a go themselves. Forty-one years on, Vaughn and Gary are still running the place and most remains the same, including the tree stump chairs and the barbeque menu. On a clear summer evening you can find Judy arranging fresh picked flowers in old sherry bottles for the tables, Vaughn stoking the fire and juggling the foil parcels sizzling on racks and diners getting their hands dirty sharing a meal and a few laughs.

The beauty of The Place’s menu is in its simplicity. Pick your choice of seafood – locally caught lobster, bluefish or clams, along with shrimp, mussels or salmon – or land food like rib-eye steak or corn, then bring the extras along. One can spot the locals and regulars by their BYO tablecloths, bottles of wine, and Tupperware filled with sides. While barbequing is far removed from his previous career as a math teacher, Vaughn tells me that as simple as the food is, there is a science to it all. “See the bars in the fire?” he asks. “They help tilt the wood in just the right direction.” Just one bite of his freshly barbequed fare is proof of that.

The Place is as much about good simple food as it is about creating a space for people to get together and make the most of the warm weather. The restaurant, which is all outdoors (although has a retractable marquee overhead), feels as though you are in the Knowles’ backyard enjoying a communal barbeque. While the northeast sports dozens of clam and lobster shacks, The Place is certainly distinct in its homeliness and relaxed ambience. In some ways it’s less a restaurant and more a place – The Place – get a little messy, feast with your friends and savor summer.

The Place Restaurant

901 Boston Post Road
Guilford CT 06437

(203) 453 9276

Open from the end of April until the end of October, Monday to Friday from 5pm and Saturday and Sunday from midday and 1pm respectively.

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A Rhode Island Retrospective

I often find myself mindlessly wandering through old folders of photos on my laptop, perhaps fuelled by some nostalgic yearning to relive the stories captured through my lens. Yesterday I stumbled upon some images I took late last September on a brief day trip to Newport to surf before the weather became too cold.

With the weather now on the precipice of warmth, teasing us with momentary whisps of spring, many may have coastal day trips on the mind again. As Dan’s mother grew up in Newport, we often visit the eclectic beach town where WASPs and beach bums walk side by side. Many visit to wander amongst the magnificent Breakers and stand diminutive beneath their grandiose arches. On spring or fall days when the weather is a little brisk, we love to sit out on our boards at Eastons Beach and watch the tourists move like ants along the Cliffside Walk while we lazily tour our own breakers of sorts in the water.

On this particular fall day, we surfed until even our wetsuits couldn’t keep us warm, then dried off and headed over to Bannister’s Wharf at the Newport waterfront where most of the tourists hoard for lunch. Our stop was The Black Pearl, a Newport institution where, on a sunny day, the outdoor eating areas are perfect for dining – as long as you are willing to tolerate the crowds. Dan has fond memories of family dinners at the Pearl – as I’m sure many locals do – for their chowder is arguably the northeast’s best. It’s heavy on the dill and thinner than most chowders, but is perfectly balanced in richness and flavor. We grabbed a quart to go and found a sunny spot warm our bones.

Post-chowder, we decided to stop in at our favorite Newport ice cream spot before it closed up for the season. Back up on the main road, under a dilapidated old sign, sits Frosty Freez, a family ice cream shack heading into its 50th year. Don’t let first impressions deceive you, this is serious soft serve. Having sampled many a soft serve in my short time in the US, I can confirm that Frosty Freez makes the best coffee soft serve around. Despite neither Dan nor I being coffee drinkers, the creamy sweetness of coffee in frozen form is something else altogether (although of course they have every flavor and form of frozen sweet on offer). Expect American portions – small enough for a grown adult, large the length of your forearm – and lines in the summer months. I took great pleasure in watching a minibus full of oldies parked out front joyously licking their soft serves, thinking that they probably enjoyed Frosty Freez at my age as well.

The whole of Aquidneck Island is a bounty of foodie pleasures and I expect to share more with you as summer approaches. In the meantime, if you get the urge to head out and explore Newport yourself, the man to rent boards from is Sid Abruzzi at The Original Waterbrothers. Sid brought the first surfboards to Newport in the 60s and under the patchworks of tattoos, wears the lines of a life well lived. Catch some waves, collect shells on the beach, wander the Breakers and enjoy the food that New England does best.

The Black Pearl

Bannister’s Wharf
Newport RI 02840

(401) 846 5264

Open year round except January, seven days a week for lunch and dinner

Frosty Freez

496 East Main Rd
Middletown RI 02842

(401) 846 1697

Open daily from April to September 30th from 11:30am

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A preview of summer: Jenelle’s Waterfront Cafe

There’s a warmth in the air that carries the undeniable scent of spring and it has locals ready to shake off the last of winter. One such group of New Haveners – my Sunday brunch companions and I – thought we would try a different brunch haunt this week where we could pretend it was summer already. A fly on the wall of our car as we drove down Front Street, Fair Haven, to Jenelle’s Waterfront Café would have heard whispers of “where are we?” and “I didn’t know this place existed”. Sometimes that Yale bubble is hard to burst.

Perched over the water at the Fair Haven Yacht Club, Jenelle’s provides a momentary escape from New Haven and a taste of tranquility by the water – unfortunately what is usually a rare opportunity despite New Haven’s coastal location. The restaurant has been open for near on three years, since Jenelle gave up a burgeoning career in broadbasting to follow her true passion: food. Originally from British Columbia, she found love in New Haven and has been an East Rock local since. Catering is her primary business, so the restaurant is an added extra – lucky for us brunch goers. While the sun may have had us blinded – it was still not quite warm enough to sit outside – I made mental notes of the restaurant’s east-facing deck, which will be beautiful on sunny summer mornings.

Our brunch was a feast that competes with any of New Haven bruncheries. The benedicts come in six carnations or meat, seafood or vegetable. My whipped cream-loaded Belgian waffles arrived a mountain of decadent food. Along with omelet specials and homemade corn beef hash, Jenelle has some lunch-style options for brunch, including her signature lobster rolls and vegetarian quiche.

Her dinner menu is a touch American with a generous dash of New England – including lots of seafood to complement her waterfront location. In the warmer months you can enjoy a meal to the sound of lapping water and glint of starlight on the bay. Her catering selection is an exhaustive list of gastronomic pleasures, from wild mushroom parpadella to tuna tartar in wonton cups or dates stuffed with goats cheese and maple sauce. A self-taught chef, Jenelle seems willing to try whatever culinary creation to please her client and she’s done everything from 100th birthday parties to baby showers.

Yet despite her evident passion for cooking, Jenelle is quick to refute me when I ask about her home cooking. “I don’t cook at home!” She quips. “No, I love to go out so I’ll try new restaurants in town but I don’t cook at home that often.” She may not enjoy her own cooking, but we certainly did and we will be back again – when the sun shining and summer truly is in the air.

Jenelle’s Waterfront Cafe

307 Front Street
New Haven CT 06511

(203) 624 2233

Open for dinner until 9:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and brunch on weekends until 2pm

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Home cooking goes south: Cast Iron Soul

For a humble city, New Haven offers a surprising variety of cuisines for the average gastronomic explorer. But a foreigner to southern cooking myself, the prevalence of mutations like Popeye’s and KFC, or even Stop ‘N Shop’s ‘fried chix’ that allegedly ‘can’t be beat’, has long tickled my intrigue and provoked me to ponder, “where can I get some good soul food?”

Tucked away on College Street, where the blocky hospital buildings give way to ramshackle neighborhood homes, a young couple have turned their love of their hometown food into a full time job. Locals Steve Ross and Shayla Crawford opened Cast Iron Soul after Steve grew tired of working for other restaurants and Shayla sought more from her career than law school could provide. The couple first cooked for friends and family until Steve’s mother helped them open the restaurant. Now they are two successful years in with a baby on the way and with plans to open in another New Haven location. While many of the recipes built upon those Steve learnt over the years in hospitality, his mother and grandfather, both skilled cooks from the south, have injected their influence on the soul/‘nu soul’ menu.

A simple setup, we are immediately seated with syrup-sweet tea and made to feel at home – which is ideal, because it is all about homey comfort food here. You’ll find both Cajun and Creole influences – think loaded Po’ Boys, fish fry dinners and wings marinated every way. We decide to try the plates to sample a bit of everything. Pick from mains like Cajun fried chicken, blackened salmon or seafood jambalaya, and don’t forget the sides. I partner the BBQ pulled pork with the five cheese mac-‘n’chz and candied sweet potatoes, while my dining companion goes for the Creole roasted chicken with ‘the best damn red beans’. Everything slides down your throat with the comfort of slow, soulful cooking. The tender flecks of pork, the creaminess of beans. It’s the food you never have time to cook yourself and appreciate all the more for it. A tip for your plate: order complementary flavors so you don’t overload your sweet or salt.

Despite our heaving bellies, we manage to make room for a towering slice of butter pecan cake. “It’s Steve’s favorite ice cream flavor,” Shayla says. “So I thought I would trying making it into a cake.” As pastry chef, Shayla is always experimenting with new recipes: “I’m always playing with them until I make them my own.” Likewise, Steve loves the potential in food to create more than simply its elemental ingredients. “Food is definite,” Steve says. “You put beans and water in a pot, they’re going to cook. But I like seeing how I can make it different, something more.”

Cast Iron Soul is a satisfyingly excessive experience, one to be enjoyed wholeheartedly, on occasion. And it’s a step outside the East Rock/Downtown food bubble from which many never stray, but surely should. Why? Because it’s good for the soul.

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A winter warmer

“We’d never made soup before in our lives,” said Gary Caulfield, co-owner of Milford soup shack Bobette’s. When Gary and long-time partner, Bobette Moore, acquired the hut on Boston Post Road in the late eighties, they let their imaginations run wild with little concern to the rules of soup-making. The resulting creations – lasagna soup for one – drew an intrigued band of customers at a time when soup stores had yet to become commonplace. At first, the combinations were strange, as Bobette played and fiddled, experimenting with flavors until she got that just-right taste. But 23 successful years and several regional awards are proof the tinkering has worked.

The rain drenches the sky in grey on the dreary Friday we stop in to Bobette’s, the weather unfit for much but hugging a steaming bowl of broth. The cosy shack allows just enough space to wriggle in between other waiting customers and yell out your order to the staff. Out back, Bobette mans the stove, stirring arm whirring at speed. Out front, gregarious and chatty Gary darts around taking orders and greeting customers. Their menu board lists the soup flavors, including their popular drunk tomato tortellini, Chicken Parmigiana and jambalaya, which change daily. We give in to the hype and go for their classic butternut squash bisque and mussel chowder – which took creative runner up at the Newport Great Chowder Cook-Off (the International Olympics of chowder).

The bisque is buttery smooth and thick with wholesome squash flavor. A handful of mussels are added to the creamy chowder when you order, heartier than the usual chopped clam version and altogether creamier. Even a regular cup is enough to induce a warm soup belly. You can also grab sandwiches and salads, including their tasty chicken salad, whose fine paste-like texture may put off the unacquainted. Unfortunately there’s no seating, but for less than $12 we enjoyed a cosy meal over the car hand rest, warmed by the heat of our soups, as we watched the rain run in rivulets down the windscreen.

Beyond being perfect soup weather, February is a perfect month to drop into Bobette’s as they feature their butternut squash bisque daily, donating a portion of the proceeds to the local soup kitchen. Gary even wrote a song about the event and had a local band put it to music. “I’m not a songwriter,” he assures me with a self-deprecating laugh. But when I ask he what he enjoys most about the work?
“Oh, I wrote a song about that too! It’s all about the customer and liking what we do. If you love what you do, you’ll never work again.”

 

Bobette’s

93 Boston Post Road
Milford CT 06460

(203) 874 9414

Open Monday – Friday until 6pm and Saturday until 4pm

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A meal between friends

As the sun retires early over the wintry horizon, weary skiers and snowboarders limp off the Jay Peak slopes, taking pleasure in the exhaustion of a long day’s riding. While the resort itself offers its own après-ski options, locals and Jay Peak regulars know where best to satiate their post-piste grumblings. Half way down the hill to Montgomery you will spot The Belfry’s namesake bell tower perched above a stout wooden chalet, windows aglow from the merriment teeming within.

Orleans and Franklin counties, in the northern reaches of Vermont, epitomise the quaint beauty for which the state is known. Storybook rolling hills, blanketed with rows of corn, catch the lengthy shadows of evening light. Silos and barns stand in silent pairs, dotted across the landscape. Every passing vehicle – usually a Ford truck – passes with a friendly wave. And in the winter, the everstrong flow of glacial creeks wind through the building snow base as the sun peers through ghostly whisps of cloud.

The Belfry, like many small town establishments, is the area’s beating heart, a nourishing centre to which locals gather to share their day’s events over a cold one. On many an afternoon after one of Jay’s classic powder days, we have been welcomed in by the owner’s daughter, Journey, and shared the bar with farmers, lumberjacks and sugarers, all linked by the commonality of a special, shared place, its stories told in walls adorned with nostalgic mementos. Each weekend night, you will find the tables packed as hungry guests mingle over a spiked cider or local brew at the bar, waiting to share not only in the fabled atmosphere but also in the restaurant’s famed fare. For the Belfry’s cuisine is unlike most in the region.

Look beyond the à la carte menu of pasta and burgers (all tasty, I’m sure), stick to the specials board and you will come out a happy customer. To begin with? Perhaps the smoked trout bruschetta – cool tomato freshness plays off the distinct smokiness of fish. Or the escargot, rich and garlicky. Pert steamed mussels are accompanied with a subtle creamy broth, which can be mopped up with their piping hot, Cabot-buttered bread.

Dining high in the Green Mountains, you might think to steer clear of the seafood options, but fight those urges, for they are certainly the restaurant’s strong suite. Salmon, trout almondine or their baked scallops, crowned with a garlicky crumb, are all perfectly cooked and wholeheartedly satisfying. Those seeking more traditional pub far can also grab a steak or pork chop. If at all possible, save room for their warm brownie sundae, adorned with creams.

It’s rare to find an establishment like The Belfry that goes beyond simple eatery to a place where memories are made and shared over a warm meal. I often catch myself smiling when I’m there, at a family photo of an employee on the wall, in learning how to sugar from local sugarer Marty, whose maple syrup is for sale at the restaurant or when I read another quirky message on the specials board. It is a place that epitomises the Vermont affability and certainly, as the sign over the door says, one where you will enter as strangers and leave as friends.

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The cool kid on the block

Read Bun Lai’s sprawling list of achievements on the Miya’s Sushi website and you’ll get a fairly good sense of what he’s all about. Eco-chef, seafood ambassador, award winner, renowned speaker, diver, sustainable farmer. But it really comes down to one thing…he’s just a cool dude. Amidst a pumping room of Restaurant Week feasters, Bun flits from table to table, sharing a tale or two as each guest hangs on his every word. He probably knows a handful or two of his guests, but they all appear old friends as he jokes and laughs his way around the room. His little boy effervescence is out of place with someone with a resume as lengthy as his, but it’s clearly a winning attitude.

I ended up in Miya’s on the tail end of countless stories told of the restaurant’s ‘awesome’ chef and intrigued by the temptation of fish-friendly sushi. First established in the early 1980’s by Bun’s mother, Miya’s has come to glory with Bun at the helm as the world’s first sustainable sushi restaurant. Don’t expect to find the old tuna and avocado rolls here… Most of the marine ingredients come from Bun’s 100-acre shell-fishing plot in the nearby Thimble Islands or from local sustainable fisheries. The vegetable matter is sourced from local farms – including the Yale Sustainable Food Project and Common Ground High School. As a leader in the sustainable seafood industry, Bun has moved and shaken the way people think – not only about food and flavour, but about what we do, and should, eat.

Beyond environmental sustainability, Bun sees his food as a tool of expression and unity. Just taste one of his exotic creations and you’ll see he takes the word ‘fusion’ to a whole other level. As we sample the restaurant week smorgasbord, I notice Bun swagger by and shout, “hey!” to catch his attention.
“Hi!” He chirps like an old friend with his big boyish grin.
“You don’t know me, but my name’s Tahria.”
“Oh, sorry, you had that familiar sound, I thought we knew each other!”
We’re off to a good start! Within minutes, he’s invited Dan and I diving at his shell-fishing grounds and is getting into the nitty gritty about the soul of his cuisine.
“Cuisine and cultures today are very segregated,” he says. “Sushi is a great medium to break those barriers down.” The way he sees it, sushi allows him to express the beauty and difference in the human race creatively. Consider it a platform to amalgamate all the world’s quirks into edible little package. After some lengthy chatting, he jokes, “Now can you speak American to me, please? How do you understand what she’s saying, man?!” Perhaps we’d be better off communicating through sushi.

The Restaurant Week menu actually afforded us the opportunity to try a bit of this, a bit of that, starting with a locally grown salad and Tokyo Fro – a twist on French fries that appears like a mound of sauce-splashed fried potato shavings. Both delicious, but altogether amusing to consume using only metal chopsticks. The sushi sampler that arrived next prompted much eye-raising and guffawing at our table. Here’s just a preview of some of the creations you can expect to enjoy.
Tilapia sashimi, farmed by Bridgeport Regional Vocational Aquaculture School, sets fire to your mouth with Chinese firecracker sake, citrus juice and spices.
The Italian Stallion roll, contrary to its name, is a delicate yet decadent mix of fried calamari, mascarpone cheese, pistachios and orange marmalade.
The distinct flavour of shiitake mushroom enlivens the tempura udon noodles, hot peppers and black beans in the Killer Squid roll.
Rough flecks of coconut makes the Hot-Headed Cowgirl – cucumber, avocado, cream cheese, papaya, burdock and hot peppers – a visual and sensual feast.
Top everything off with the Seven Deadly Sushi, which teases your senses with its warm banana-hazelnut butter-strawberry-chocolate-homemade mochi-filled, deep fried roll topped with hand-churned rose petal ice cream.
Oh, and the sake. Some amazing, house-made sake, infused with delicate flavours – honey, lemongrass, wild sumac, hibiscus or white pine needles – or more “woah”-inducing chili and citrus (think his famous Chinese firecracker sake, complete with whole chili pepper garnish).

Whether in drinks or food, Bun introduces your palette to the most unlikely of flavours and convinces you that they work together. He also proves that you don’t have to rip up the earth to have a decadent meal. It’s a dining experience that makes you come out feeling as though, with people like him at the helm, there’s hope for the world yet. If you haven’t yet, drop into Miya’s and let Bun take you momentarily into his imaginary universe where world peace can be found wrapped up neatly in nori.

Miya’s Sushi
68 Howe Street
New Haven, CT 06511

(203) 777 9760

If you’re intrigued by Bun and what he’s up to, check out his personal blog here.

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Nature, a perfect model

Today’s is a visual story, so I won’t sully it with words. Sometimes nature’s beauty can be so mesmerisingly enigmatic, it speaks for itself. Enjoy these beans.

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