Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ocean Springs, MS

As I write this, it is the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and therefore I believe it is fitting to wax poetic about the little coastal town of Ocean Springs. But before I do, I want to share some of the stops along our five hour journey through Mississippi, to the shore. I am still not used to living in such a big and rural state and find it fascinating that in all my years in New England, I rarely traveled more than 2 hours from home, yet here, I think nothing of picking-up and driving five hours to the coast for the weekend. What I also find interesting is the varied personality of the regions across the state, which is certainly not novel to Mississippi, but intriguing all the same.

Our first stop, was a large
farm stand just south of Jackson on route 49, called Wright's. The produce was beautifully displayed in baskets and in keeping with the southern hospitality, adorable teenagers follow you, taking whatever you select and bagging it for you, while offering tips and advice. On the way down we bought peaches, which turned out to be the most juicy, sweet, drip down your chin and arms, deliciousness. On the return trip, we made sure to stop for more peaches, and lady peas, which are a very small green pea, similar to a black eyed pea or purple hulled pea, but seemingly more tender. Cooked up with chicken stock, shallot, bacon and butter, they were a real treat.

Upon reaching Hattiesburg at dinner time, we followed a recommendation from Miss Lila and detoured into town to patronize the Walnut Circle Grill, described as "New York style Italian and Continental cuisine." Sadly, Hatties
burg seems to be one of those towns where the "strip" is happening, but the historic downtown, undergoing a gentrification, is empty, making our choice all the more meaningful. The ivy covered entrance into the glass roofed bar was beautiful and from there we entered a classic, yet modern dining room.

I ordered a glass of red zinfandel and for the first time in my life, I had to s
end the glass back as it had oxidized. Thankfully our server was most gracious. With our drinks, we were served fresh baked bread with homemade nutty, robust, roasted garlic, smothered in olive oil for spreading. Hailing from the northeast, I didn't realized until now, how much I missed Italian food and this very simple accoutrement, brought that home poignantly.

Our m
eals arrived piping hot, a real bonus and one for which I am a stickler. Mark was served the Sweet potato crusted snapper, pan seared, topped with crab meat and lemon butter. The fish was sweet and incredibly light. I received the Red Fish pan seared and covered in crawfish, tasso, and mushroom Cajun cream sauce with fried eggplant. Both were served with haricot vert. I asked for double instead of a starch. My red fish was rich and spicy with a full bodied tasso cream flavor, that made the choice of ordering fish seem like a carnivore's dream. The haricot vert may have been the best I have ever tasted, crispy and garlicky, perfectly salted and tossed with a few pine nuts for good measure. Equally amazing were the fried, sweet eggplant. Try as I might, I cannot replicate Mark's Mom's Italian eggplant mastery, but these would surely pass the test. On our way out, we took in a few songs in the glass roofed bar by John Wooten and his band. The steel drum, a favorite of mine since I saw it on a Sesame Street episode, made it hard to leave for our final stretch to the coast.

There is something vacation-esque about arriving at night to your destination and upon awaking, almost like looking for Santa, heading out to explore what the town held in store for us. My first trip to the coast occurred right after the oil spill in May and on that trip we stayed in Biloxi and explored Gulfport and other towns to the west on our way to New Orleans, the final destination. Little did we know that just five miles east of Biloxi sat this town, oozing charm; the village of Ocean Springs, known for its beauty, resilience and artistic culture, immediately felt right to us. On this morning we traveled to the scenic, downtown, which was just hip enough, yet small and quaint making me feel immediately at home. The streets were shaded by trees, inviting you to walk the streets lined with boutiques and a plethora of restaurants. Breakfast is a favorite of ours and while it is typically not as diverse as other meals, I still love seeking out a special place.

At Paige's recommendation, we dropped into Phoenicia Gourmet Cuisine, a Greek restaurant right downtown. Already feeling comfortable Zen in this town, we were greeted by our very Italian waiter, named Rocky, who it turns out grew up a mile from Mark in Providence, RI. While he and Mark proceeded to banter back and forth in heavy Rhode
Island Italian accents, we were treated to two different eggs Benedict, one with artichoke bottoms and spinach and one with filet mignon and hollandaise sauce. Both amazing we agreed that the artichoke spinach won the prize. The artichoke and spinach sauce reminded me of that classic dip, so often served in my house in a pumpernickel bread bowl. The eggs were each nestled atop an artichoke bottom instead of the classic tomato. Almost showing up the main entrees, however were the asiago cheese grits. I should preface this by saying that while I appreciate grits, I really have only considered them a vehicle for other flavor like syrup or jam, until now. These grits had a creamy texture and tangy cheese flavor that elevated them to the top of my breakfast list.

After breakfast, with our friends Slade and Amy, we visited the Walter Anderson museum, a must see. In my two years in Mississippi, I had heard about this famous artist from the coast, but was
unfamiliar with his work or story. Upon entering the museum we were reluctantly encouraged to watch a movie about Anderson in a small, somewhat uncomfortable room and I am thrilled I did not balk. Anderson's story is beautifully heart-wrenching and poetic. His water colors, wood sculpture, oils and even crayons, depicted coastal scenes so beautiful, you felt a part of his world for a brief few hours and even after, as we explored his town.

Our trip was wrapped around Mark playing a Thacker Mountain Radio show in the historic downtown Mary C. O’Keefe cultural center. The show was outstanding, featuring such Mississippi talent as, the Yalobushwackers with guest Carl Massengale, Caroline Herring, Homemade Jamz and New Orleans author/writer for Treme, Tom Piazza. Following the show, we joined our friend Candice for a cocktail with none other than Walter Anderson's grandson, Chris Stebly a local artist. This is where the Ocean Springs vibe really began to show for me, as it is not until you begin to really meet the locals do I feel that you understand a town. Chris and Candice were interesting, funny and immediately warm.

We took leave of this great gathering in order to make it to the Thacker Mountain party at the nationally renowned BBQ dive called the Shed. We were told it was a little ways outside of town and that we will know we have arrived when we see a building made of junk. They were not kidding. I had my first and likely only "red carpet" experience at the shed, which says an awful lot about my life. Thacker Mountain artists were directed to a private "room" (seeing as most of the restaurant is outdoors, it was really more of a partitioned area) where we could serve ourselves every kind of BBQ imagina
ble from the baby back ribs to brisket and beans. While not the Memphis dry rub I have been accustomed to, it was all sweet and tender. New to me was the dessert, "Nanner Puddin'". The waiter bragged on it as it was made by his wife and apparently the best around. For those of you unfamiliar, as I, it is a delicious banana pudding, chock full of banana chunks, topped with Nilla wafers, resplendent in a Styrofoam cup. Did I mention this was served with keg beer, all on the house? I don't know about you, but it has been a while since I have had keg beer and surprisingly it goes down just fine with nanner puddin'.

Later that night, although this story does not involve food, it must be told as it really sealed the deal for my love affair with Ocean Springs. We returned from the Shed to town to meet up with friends at a hole-in-the-wall bar, lacking a name, but situated directly next to the Phoenicia. This bar possessed all that a good dive should. It had flashback in-time decor, including a cushioned bar, the kind with a bumper around the edge that is reminiscent of its cousin, the cushioned toilet seat. Mr. Mack, a complete sweetheart, was behind the bar, watching his big screen TV and taking care of the customers. The music was loud and jazzy, the beers were two dollars, we had the pool tables all to ourselves, and most importantly, we had great laughs with new found friends. In a town full of beautiful restaurants, this establishment had the perfect grit to end the night.

We fit in one more breakfast with our friend Candice, who after taking us on a quick tour of a few Carroll B. Ishee crafts-style houses, brought us to Bayview Gourmet Restaurant. A quick review the menu, made it clear that it would be insensitive of me to travel all the way to the c
oast without ordering oysters and thus I did my share to support the local gulf fisherman by shamelessly ordering the fried oyster, eggs benedict, served with tomato, spinach and grits. While the oysters were not as juicy as I normally like them, they made for a decadent meal, but for a second time this weekend the grits stole the show. These were just plain grits, but they were silky and creamy and altogether memorable. I should mention that you know you ordered well when another customer approaches the table to find out what it was that I was eating, so he could order the same thing!

Since arriving back home I have found myself daydreaming about a vacation home in Ocean Springs. Having grown up in a small town a few miles from the coast, I do find myself missing the water on occasion, and therefore the idea of all the attributes I love about Oxford, the great food, the warm p
eople, the artistic culture, combined with a coastline - it all just felt right!

Phoenicia Gourmet Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Shed Barbeque on Urbanspoon

Walnut Circle Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 7, 2010

New England Visit - Provincetown, Massachusetts

I adore Mississippi and I find it hard to leave, unless it is for my annual summer vacation with my family on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Returning home is always a treat, to the land where my partner's name is pronounced "Mahk", where one risks hypothermia by venturing deeper than your toes in the water (I am not being facetious, I had hypothermia as a kid), but where coast lines are stunningly crisp and lobster reigns as the quintessential dish alongside other delicacies like steamers and little necks. Each year I return to the same cottage that our family has visited as far back as my Mom's childhood. The memories run deep for all of us, yet each year we manage to make new ones. It is at this cottage that I fondly remember digging quahogs, a large chowder clam about the size of fist, which we later ate on the half-shell on the porch with a little cocktail sauce. The adults washed them down with with beer while I was content to enjoy the salty, chewy clam straight-up. Most would think we were crazy as these are known as large, tough clams, not your typical raw fair, but it is here that I fell in love with shellfish on the half-shell and for that matter, pretty much anything raw. I don't know whether it was the thrill of illegally clamming (shhhhh), the end of day bonding on the porch with the whole family, or my discovered love of shellfish, but this is an amazingly fond and poignant memory that I cherish.

While this blog is actually about my recent trip, now that I am on a roll, I feel that I need to give homage to the clam. I feel comfortable saying that it is my favorite seafood and
one that you usually do not find on menus in Mississippi. Growing up, when asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner, it was either steamers or fried clams. For those who have not enjoyed a good steamer, humor me as I describe this unusual crustacean. Steamers or steamed clams are narrow, thin shelled clams served steamed in a big bowl alongside a cup of broth and a ramekin of drawn butter. To eat, you open the shell, remove the clam, and using your finger nails, remove the ugly black thing that covers the neck before bathing the clam in the broth. I enjoy amassing a few before enjoying the final step of dipping them in drawn butter. Admittedly in writing this, I realize this will sound revolting to most people, but to me, this is pure heaven. In addition to steamers, high on my list are fried clams. Never, never, never would I consider eating a fried clam strip, but instead, the big, juicy bellied clams, typically served in a red and white cardboard box/bowl with a side of tartar sauce. The juicy to chewy ratio is incredibly important here; the more succulent the better. My mom and I are the fried clam aficionados of the family and despite the fact that you never feel well after all that fried, incredibly rich, goodness, we continue to seek out the "best".

Now that I have taken you down my New England clam memory lane, I return to the present. Our vacation spot is in Provincetown, MA, which is at the extreme far end of Cape Cod. Known for its liberal culture and scenic beaches, I was excited to try a few seafood restaurants while in town. My sister Meredith, her husband Morgan and I set out one night to see what the town had to offer. After scrutinizing many typical New England menus, we decided on Lorraine's, a Mexican restaurant with an abundance of seafood on the menu, a long walk down Commerce Street, well into local territory. I liked that it was not your typical tourist seafood fare. Having done no research, I was thrilled to be seated with what I initially thought was an extensive wine list, but I soondiscovered was a tequila-by-the-glass, list. I have often heard of good sipping tequilas, but I have never explored. Our waiter explained that most tequilas on the menu had 3 categories, blanco, reposata and añejo which as listed ranged from from young and bright to smokey and aged, often in whiskey barrels. Meredith and I chose the Sauza Hornitos Añejo and Morgan went with the Campo Azul Añejo. Served neat, the Sauza was indeed smoky with a hint of chocolate and surprisingly smooth. Our server smirkingly delivered us each a small glass, alongside our tequila, and when asked what was in it, he refused to tell us until we had tasted it, simply explaining that it was a palate cleanser. After we obligingly tasted, he divulged the delicious concoction and get this- it was tomato juice infused with orange and shallot! Can we say, unusual bloody mary? I am in love and I am now on a mission to find more places with a sipping tequila list.

The menu ranged from duckling to paella and seeing as I wanted seafood, I opted for the crab enchiladas. I was served an incredibly healthy portion of "flour tortillas filled with fresh crab, cheese, green peppers, tomatoes, capers, green olives, & sauce picante" along side refried beans and rice. My dish was a divine balance of mellow cheese and sweet large lump crab, finished with briny capers. Morgan went with the Red fish, which was served alongside fresh grilled vegetables. Meredith ordered the scallops and mushroom risotto, served with grilled vegetables. Her scallops were cooked perfectly and complemented by the risotto which was rich and deeply flavored with the mushrooms. The grilled carrots were noteworthy, in that they were naturally candied when grilled, yet a little smoky and crisp. While the portions were incredibly generous, they were not making up for flavor with more food.

Following dinner, instead of dessert we opted for cordials. At my waiter's suggestion, I tried the Belle de Brillet, a sweet, pear flavored cognac and found a new use for dessert calories. Morgan tried a more traditional cognac and Meredith enjoyed a glass of port. We all loved the Belle de Brillet so much that we bought a bottle the next day.

The following night my parents and I went to our more traditional haunt in P-town, call Napi's, which is fairly classic seafood restaurant with a bit of a Portuguese bent. I was craving the baked stuffed lobster I had las
t year, but as it was not offered, I opted for the special lobster bouillabaisse; a half lobster, served in a spicy broth with little neck clams, mussels, cod, onions and chorisco. My dad ordered the pound-and-a-half steamed lobster and my mom selected a scallop penne. What I love about lobster, and correct me if I am wrong, I believe it is the only meal traditionally served with a bib. I love seeing my nearly octogenarian, career-military, six-foot-two father, all decked out in a lobster bib! Heaven forbid you order lobster and don't put on the bib - it is part of the ritual - love it and embrace it and don't be ashamed! My dish was light, yet spicy and good to the last slurped-up drop of broth. The little neck clams, which are like the aforementioned steamers, only smaller, and in a much thicker shell, were sweet and rich. The mussels were full of flavor, the cod was infused by the spicy broth and the lobster was tender and sweet. I am usually a purist and I like my lobster in drawn butter or served cold, dressed lightly in mayonnaise in a roll. There are a few exceptions, including a lobster dish Mark cooked once, served with a vanilla sauce, which was absolutely divine. This night was also a departure from my norm; I thoroughly enjoyed the meat, dipped in that spicy bouillabaisse broth.

Our weather was delightful, in the mid 80s with a great sea breeze. We only had one morning of rain and that enabled us to enjoy a guilt-free trip to the Atlantic Spice Company, where I stocked up on smoked salt and Bolivian rose salt along with other unusual items, which worth every hassle, inevitably makes me susceptible to a search at the airport (I swear it is oregano from Madagascar!).

While I would not trade my life in Mississippi for anything, it is incredibly hard to live far from those you love. I am tearing up just thinking of all the laughs and new memories, how fast my nieces will grow before I see them next, and how much I cherish my parents as together we grow old. When I look back on this vacation, years from now, I will likely remember these meals, not only because of the fine food, but mostly because of the stories we created and will tell for years to come.

Lorraine's Cafe on Urbanspoon