A rooster struts across the road and crows to stake his territory; he’s clearly not happy that we’ve just driven up in our rental car and invaded his turf. Hens and baby chickens peck at the ground around a haphazard group of tables and umbrellas, and the sound of food on a fryer crackles from inside the red shack we’ve just found, miraculously, after a long stretch of steep hills and screwdriver turns.
Vie’s Snack Shack lies on the North East end of St. John, on the other end of the island from Cruz Bay, where all the cruise ships dock and the tourists arrive from St. Thomas. It’s an untouched, quiet corner of an already untouched and quiet island. St. John, the smallest island in the US Virgin Islands, is about two-thirds national park: unspoiled hilly woodland and white sand beaches, surrounded by pristine coral reefs and clear, Caribbean water. The north east corner is home to Brown Bay, a beach about a mile off the road where we spent a day of complete solitude, our only company diving pelicans and a mongoose we heard rustling through the woods at the beach’s edge.
Even further East is Haulover Bay, a rocky beach with some of the best snorkeling on the island, and still further east is Vie’s Snack Shack – the best place for conch fritters and real West Indian flavor on St John. Vie, whose family owns a private beach across the street that visitors can enjoy for a small fee, runs the snack shack with her daughter, making food to order.
In addition to conch fritters, the snack shop offers garlic chicken, johnny cakes (pastry made with fried dough), and coconut and pineapple tarts. The conch fritters are doughy and spicy with a thick, crispy shell, and are served with a red hot sauce that might just be watered-down ketchup and spices, but whatever it is, it’s addictive and delicious smothered all over the fritters.
Sitting at the picnic table with a beer and a basket of conch fritters, the late afternoon sun shining through the cover of a boxwood tree, waves crashing a few yards away on the other side of the road, and the rooster parading around the table — eating at Vie’s was one of the most perfect moments of our trip.
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It’s really a toss-up this week among a few, incredible dishes. I don’t typically eat out as as much as I did last week, but with a few friends in town and my birthday this past Saturday, Indulgence with a capital I became the word of the week. I took the opportunity of a friend in from L.A. to try Rosemary’s for a leisurely lunch. The Foccacia di Recca filled with Straccino cheese is one of the runners up for the best thing I ate last week. The sharp, melted Straccino is sandwiched between two, fluffy squares of salty foccacia for a decadently delicious starter. The chopped salad at Rosemary’s is perfect, as is the olive oil cake.
I took the opportunity of another friend in town and my encroaching birthday to grab a glass of wine and crostini at what is perhaps my favorite wine bar in the city: Gottino, where the food and ambiance are impeccable. The crostinis — from Acciughe E Burro salted anchovies and homemade butter, to Pesto Di Noci walnut pesto with parmesan and thyme, to my favorite, Carciofi E Mentuccia slow cooked artichokes, mint and pecorino – make the perfect appetizer or after-work small plate.
This photo of Neta is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Alex and I took a wonderful trip to Vermont, full of foliage, crisp air, vistas of rolling hills spotted with red barns and farm silos, and of course, a lot of food and wine. We stayed at the North Hero House for two nights, a beyond charming bed and breakfast on North Hero island on Lake Champlain. The kitchen at North Hero House sources almost all of its ingredients from local farms and purveyors, listing the sources on the menu so that you know where most, if not all, of your dish came from. The almost startlingly tender Free-Range Misty Knoll Chicken cooked two ways: slow-roasted breast and crispy leg confit, served with summer vegetable succotash and roasted chicken jus is another runner-up for the best thing I ate last week. We also spent a night in Middlebury, where we ate at the classic favorite of my college friends: American Flatbread, which was doing the farm to table thing before it was a thing. The pizza is cooked in a big, earthen oven in the middle of the restaurant and sliced into sticks as opposed to pie slices. And I couldn’t leave Middlebury without a sandwich from another old favorite: Otter Creek Bakery. It was a perfect, Fall weekend, mixed with new sights (Mount Mansfield, the North East Kingdom, the Champlain islands) and nostalgia (long drives, slow walks, and my college town).
But the meal that takes the birthday cake for this week comes from Neta, a new, upscale sushi restaurant in Greenwich Village. Where do I begin? Elegant, sophisticated, fresh. The words don’t do the food or the restaurant itself justice. Alex and I tried King Mushrooms with spicy pomme frites and serrano peppers; sushi so fresh it not only lives up to but essentially epitomizes the restaurant’s name (Neta means “the fresh ingredients of sushi”); and a few “omakase” or “chef’s choice,” including lobster and fluke wrapped in cucumber. Delicate touches to each dish elevate but never upstage the freshness and quality of the ingredients. From small plates to sushi, our whole meal at Neta was the best thing I ate last week.
Dessert might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about South Asian food, but sweets are an integral part of South Asian cuisine and culture. Often overlooked, forgotten or even unknown outside of South Asia, sweets seem to have gotten lost in translation on many of the Westernized menus that we find in the United States. Where thousands of stand-alone shops sell nothing but sweets in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, in the United States shops that offer any kind South Asian sweet, let alone ones singularly dedicated to sweets, are few and far between.
From deep-fried pancakes soaked in sugary syrup, to fudge-like squares garnished with edible, silver foil, South Asian sweets come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. With such great and delicious variety, it’s too bad these confections seem to have such a low profile outside of South Asia.
Having not been exposed to the wonderful world of South Asian sweets before I studied in India, I was relieved and excited to discover that my sweet tooth would not be neglected during my stay. I quickly fell for mithai: a broad category of milk-based sweets. Burfi, one of the most popular types of mithai, became one of my favorites. Burfi itself can come in many flavors — like kaaju burfi, made with cashews; pista burfi, made with pistachios; or badam burfi, made with almonds. Gulab jamuns — deep-fried dough made of milk-solids, soaked in sweet syrup — became a decadent vice for me, and I couldn’t escape jalebi — a circular or pretzel-shaped, deep-fried, orange treat, sold on so many street corners. Justifying my indulgent exploration into the world of South Asian sweets were the encouraging words of nearly everyone I shared a meal with. A little milk- and sugar-based dessert was good for my digestion, I was told, and would help settle the acidity of a spicy meal. I was in heaven.
Not only are sweets an important part of a complete, South Asian meal, but they are also an essential part of daily culture. Upon my arrival in India, I learned that giving and receiving sweets is a habitual way both to show hospitality and to thank someone for hosting you. Even as clueless as I was when I first arrived at my new home, I knew that I shouldn’t decline the rasgulla — a cottage-cheese-like dumpling, boiled in sugar syrup — I was offered. If you are visiting someone’s home, you should never show up empty-handed, even, as my Bangladeshi friend Shanaz Chowdhury says, if you’re a frequent visitor. While the tradition sometimes strays in the United States to bringing beer, wine or alcohol, it is still very common, Shanaz explains, to bring a mixed box of sweets when you go to someone’s house.
Exchanging sweets is also a central part of festivals like Diwali, one of the most important festivals for Hindus, and personal celebrations, like weddings, having a baby or getting a new job. If a new baby is born into your family, you buy sweets for your friends — not the other way around. Likewise, if you get hired, you share your accomplishment by offering treats, not by accepting them. My nephew was born when I was living in a small town outside the city of Jaipur, and following the advice of a friend, I bought ladoos and burfi to deliver my good news properly. I love this tradition of giving, instead of receiving, when you have good news to share.
Unfortunately, finding good sweets outside of the South Asian subcontinent proves to be quite the task. Despite the abundance of Indian restaurants and food stores in New York City, for example, you will be hard pressed to find many specialty sweet shops. In Manhattan, Spice Corner in Curry Hill offers the best and largest selection you can find. If you want to find alternatives to this Curry Hill market in the city, you’ll have to sit down at a restaurant. But even at restaurants, dessert, if offered, is often an afterthought. The Masala Wala in the Lower East Side makes an excellent gulab jamun, but this seems to be the exception, not the rule.
In New York, the sweets really worth eating, and in shops of their own, are in Jackson Heights, Queens. At Rajbhog, you can find up to 10 kinds of burfi, up to five varieties of ladoos and outstanding gulab jamuns. A block away, Maharaja Sweets offers an excellent array of almond and cashew rolls decorated with with Varakh — a thin layer of silver foil — alongside more burfi, rasgulla and jalebi.
With so many varieties, there really is a mithai for everyone. The trick may be finding them, but once you do, you’ll definitely be going back for more!
Few cities can compete with New York when it comes to dining, but LA is definitely a worthy contender. Last weekend I spent three nights in the City of Angels with three of my favorite ladies, my favorite faux-cousin and my favorite former boss. Spending time with my friends made the two red-eyes in four nights well worth it — and so did all the food we ate! In three nights, I tried 24 dishes. (And that was just dinner — there was also brunch, ice cream, poolside cocktails, lunch salads and many glasses of wine.)
On night number one I ate at Red Medecine, night number two at Ink and night number three at Son of a Gun. Each restaurant’s menu consisted of seasonal dishes for sharing, and share we did. From Sweatbreads to Lobster Rolls to getting some of the last legal Foie Gras in CA (I don’t even like Foie Gras but we couldn’t resist ordering it while we still had the chance, a mere week before it was illegal to buy), we really had it all. The precise intention, superior caliber and distinct rarity of each ingredient made every single dish nothing short of an artistic masterpiece. Every course was spectacular in its own right, but my standouts include the Akaushi Beef from Red Medecine; the Sugar Snap Peas, Octopus and Poutine from Ink; and the Linguine and Clams from Son of a Gun.
Here’s the list of 24, from three of the best restaurants in Los Angeles:
SNAP PEAS / soymilk custard, verbena,
mint coconut water
AMBERJACK / red seaweed, buttermilk, lotus root,
DUNGENESS CRAB / passion fruit, brown butter,
black garlic, vietnamese crepe, hearts of palm
SWEETBREADS / prune, leeks, mustard, chicory,
smoked bone marrow
AKAUSHI BEEF / pistachio, lettuce stems, celery,
BRUSSELS SPROUTS / caramelized shallots, fish sauce,
beau soleil oysters, oyster leaf, mignonette ice
burrata, trout roe, apricot, persian saffron
sugar snap peas, a mojo of itself, coffee, cardamom, coconut
shishito peppers, almond-bonito sand, tofu mustard
hamachi, dashi sponge, soy-yuzu, radish, rice cracker
foie gras, waffle, smoked maple, hot sauce
brussels sprouts, pig ears, lardo, apple
soft shell crab, tarragon mayo, caper, potato
octopus, ink. shells, young fennel, pimenton
halibut, embers of zucchini and potato, tomato dashi
poutine, chickpea fries, yogurt curds, lamb neck gravy
wagyu beef, carrots, tendon, horseradish tofu
apple, caramel, walnut,burnt wood ice cream
lobster roll, celery, lemon aioli
puntarelle, fava, artichoke, pecorino, lemon
kennebec french fries, malt vinegar aioli
linguine and clams, uni aglio-olio, chili, breadcrumbs
frozen lime yogurt, graham crumble, toasted meringue
I do have to admit that after so many small plates, meant to share, that came out as they were ready; after too many upgrades on street food and too many deconstructed desserts, I was really ready for a slice of pizza. For my next trip to LA, I’m going to skip the multi-mini-course feasts and keep it simple. I’m going to look for some of the other food the city does best, like tacos, sushi and frozen yogurt — each meal on its own, one at a time, and preferably not to share. That said, there’s little better, in my opinion, than sharing food with friends, no matter how precious or plebeian. So would I do it all again? Yes!
Frankies 457 is pretty close to perfection as far as restaurants go. The food tastes like it was made for you alone, and the atmosphere is elegant but cozy, inside surrounded by exposed brick and outside in their wonderful garden. I haven’t been to the west village outpost, Frankies 570, but a few nights ago I visited what used to be Frankies 17 on Clinton Street, and what is now Francesca, the new venture from the same Frankies Sputino team (who also own Cafe Pedlar in Cobble Hill and the amazing Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens).
The Frankies Sputino Italian is so exceptional that I could only have had sky-high expectations for Francesca, which serves Basque cuisine. I liked Francesca; I didn’t love it. But it’s hard to love anything that you compare with an original that you simply adore. An enchanting nook in what has turned into one fratty neighborhood, Francesca — and much of Clinton Street — is like a little oasis. The menu, like so many new menus today, is designed for sharing. Small Pintxos, Jamones, Para Picar, Salads and Small Plates offer a myriad of ways to start your meal, and if you make it that far and still have room for more, you have another round of choices with Raciones, followed by Cheese and Dessert.
I loved the White and Green Asparagus with Ali Oli and Migas, but could have skipped the Cream Fideua with Idiazabel, which was nothing more than a glorified Craft Macaroni and Cheese (and I specify Craft, because the noodles were identical to those short, skinny cylinders. Following what seems to be the trend of this post, I’ll take the original, please). The rest of the menu was intriguing — I am hardly familiar with Basque cuisine — and the setting so inviting that I would definitely go back (even if I wished I was going back in time to when Frankies 17 occupied the space).
My one Basque experience was a surreal one, a few years ago when a friend and I had stopped in Biarritz on a road trip from Bordeaux to Madrid, and eventually to the Naussannes, a tiny village near Bergerac in the South of France by way of seaside Cadaques. Biarritz lies in a Basque region, and on our night’s stay in the town, we decided to drive to nearby Bayonne, a Basque town across the border in Spain. We weren’t quite sure what we happened upon, but the entire town was celebrating in city center — parades, music and fireworks abounded. We had no choice but to join in the fete, although we had no idea what we were celebrating!
Francesca may not have quite lived up to this surreal Basque festival — or its sister restaurants — but it’s definitely worth a trip, if for nothing else than respite from the circus the Lower East Side becomes every night.
Tulum is about an hour south of Cancun, and feels a world away. Far from the mega-resorts and spring break madness, Tulum is a tiny town where beach-goers stay in electricity-free, boutique eco-hotels and can practice Yoga, visit Mayan ruins, and explore a nature preserve when they’re not basking in the sun on the pristine Tulum Playa. The budget-minded traveler can stay in Tulum Pueblo, which is filled with a ton of great restaurants and shops, and is only a short ride to the beach.
Most days started with a quick breakfast at The Secret Garden- coffee and bananas courtesy of the hotel, and instant oatmeal that we bought at Chedraui, the Wallmartesque everything store that was new in town and our one-stop-shop for essentials: water, sunblock and lunch supplies. We wasted no time in getting to the beach bright and early. Tulum Playa stretches for miles, an idyllic expanse of soft, white sand and warm, turquoise water. On the Yucatan Peninsula, Tulum sits on the Caribbean Sea, which means the water is absolutely heavenly.
A thirty minute drive West brings you to Coba, where the tallest Mayan pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula can be found. Coba was a Mayan city where more than 50,000 people lived during the peak of the Mayan civilization, and the ruins contain several large pyramids, temples, and steles- large, stone slabs with carvings of gods. Coba made another great afternoon trip.
Our party of eight stayed in the Lower Garden District, a short walk from the mansions of the Garden District and the antique shops of Magazine Street. Mojo Coffee House was the first stop every day, and some of us hit Lucky Ladle for our second cup of caffeine. I have to admit, I was a big fan of that chicory coffee.
The food lives up to the hype, but the Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé with Warm Whiskey Cream really took the cake.
Before martinis and soufflé, we took our own walking tour through the Garden District, admiring all of the historic homes and Victorian mansions. We also strolled through the Lafayette Cemetery, which is right across the street from Commander’s Palace.
It’s campy and amazing. After belting out Billy Joel and letting it rip for Tina Turner, we ended the evening with jazz and a nightcap at Three Muses on Frenchmen Street in the Marigny.
After lazing around the beautiful French Quarter and finding the Ursuline Convent, the oldest surviving example of the French colonial period in the United States, we had a drink and heard some afternoon jazz back on Frenchmen Street, this time at The Spotted Cat.
Next, we took an epic walk from the Marigny to the Bywater. On the way, we met a local, walking his dogs, who talked to us about the city’s history, the jazz scene, and Hurricane Katrina.
We landed at Bacchanal, a wine shop with a large garden out back, where we sat and enjoyed a few bottles of wine after having a tasting inside. Night fell and it was time to eat, again.
For coffee and dessert, there was only one choice: the legendary Cafe Du Monde. The chicory coffee is mixed with half and half and hot milk for the most delicious cup-full ever. And the beignets. Oh the beignets. Fried, doughy excellence, coated in powdered sugar. We saved the best New Orleans treat for last.
We danced the night away at Mimi’s, a fun, double-decker bar filled with no one over 23 (except for all of us), and we returned home to the Lower Garden overly-satiated and exhausted, but wishing we had one more day to eat and one more night to party.
A food lover’s picnic in paradise, a booze hound’s open bar, The Big Easy is a town where gluttony is not a sin; it is a way of life.
(Thank you to Justine for the great pics!!)
Leaving New York always brings with it a restored sense of space, one that is hard to imagine when you’re in the thick of the concrete jungle. Leaving New York for Nova Scotia punches you in the gut with that sense of space, almost choking you with the immensity of your newfound breathing room. Miraculously, Nova Scotia has escaped the fate of so many beautiful places that get overrun with tourists. It remains pristinely intact and scarcely occupied, its natural beauty echoing loudly in the dearth of human visitors. Or so it seemed to Alex – my lovely boyfriend – and I when we spent a week there at the end of July.
Even in the height of Nova Scotia’s tourist season, Alex and I encountered only a handful of people on our various excursions around the south part of the peninsula. Struck by this apparent isolation, we had to wonder: was it us, or was Nova Scotia really this unpopulated? Had we become true New Yorkers, wary of anywhere remotely dissimilar to our burgeoning sidewalks and subway cars? Were we overreacting to what was nothing more than rural normality?
With a little investigating, it seems that Nova Scotia’s relative quiet is, indeed, real, and we weren’t the paranoid New Yorkers I thought we were. While much of Nova Scotia’s economy relies on tourism, only two million tourists visit the providence each year. New York, to put it in perspective, received 48.8 million tourists in 2010 (not that any of us missed that). With a little more time spent in Nova Scotia, this lack of visitors and residents became one of its most alluring qualities. In the week of backpacking, camping, kayaking, canoeing, and cooking over the open flame that was to follow our arrival in Nova Scotia, the remote, sparsely populated and under-traveled peninsula didn’t feel like it was missing a thing, or anybody at all. It was perfect the way it was.
Alex and I started our trip with the long drive from Brooklyn, New York to St. John, New Brunswick, from where we took a ferry to Digby, Nova Scotia on Saturday night. Having driven eleven hours to the sea, to then board a ferry at sunset that would carry us three hours into the night, it seemed like we were embarking into oblivion. Oblivion turned out to be a quaint fishing down called Digby, where we sleepily stumbled into a bed and breakfast and awoke in the morning to find ourselves very far from home. After breakfast and a stroll around town, we stopped at a farmer’s market to pick up a Nova Scotian delicacy: dulse, or a native kind of red seaweed. Dried and salted, dulse is a common Nova Scotian snack.Unfortunately, our dulse collected moisture sitting in our hot car for two days, and by the time we tried it, this Nova Scotian snack was nothing short of inedible. Luckily, later on in our trip we had the good fortune to sample properly preserved dulse, and it tasted a little better, in that dried seaweed sort of way.
That afternoon we drove an hour to the opposite coast of the peninsula, known as the South Shore, and set up camp at Thomas Radall Park, a park situated right on the beach. We explored white sand and rock beaches, where coves of icy, sapphire-blue water cast a majestic spell over me. Again, the feeling of isolation, the sensation of feeling very far away and utterly alone, was both engulfing and liberating. The battle of cooking quesadillas over an open fire brought me back down to earth, and the s’mores to follow put me in a serious food coma. Again, we slept soundly in our tent.
Although it rained lightly the following morning, we hiked along the shore in Seaside Kejimkujik, a satellite of the inland park, well worth the journey for more majestic seascapes and seal sightings.
The afternoon took us to La Have islands, a tiny archipelago of fishing cottages inhabited by, our guidebook explained, “those who have escaped the rat race.” As if they hadn’t already escaped it by living in Nova Scotia.
The next morning we drove to Lunenburg, a fishing village an hour south of Halifax whose Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Colorful homes and storefronts lie stacked on a hilly downtown, leading to a picturesque waterfront, replete with board-walked piers, fishing boats and seafood restaurants. The harbor, speckled with sailboats and lobster traps, is timeless, showing not a wrinkle of age.
After a trip back in time along the waterfront and a stroll around the town, we were back in the car again and off to Halifax, Nova Scotia’s capital. A bit like a Canadian (read: grungier, not- quite American but not-yet European) Boston, Halifax is an old, harbor city of brick buildings, and is home to four universities. Alex and I had our first meal in a restaurant all week – a relative feat for us New Yorkers – at the Henry House, a three-story pub built in 1834, offering regional cuisine and a host of English-style ales brewed in Halifax’s own Granite Brewery. A lobster roll, grilled salmon, and couple beers later, we lazily wandered around the city, and were back in the car in time to make it to our next destination before nightfall.
We headed to our inn for the night: the Lighthouse on Cape d’Or. Once parked in the inn’s lot, we loaded our packs and hiked down a steep, dirt road to the edge of the cliff, the only way to
get to the lighthouse inn, which consists of an operating lighthouse and two, matching white houses – one a four-bedroom guesthouse, the other a charming restaurant and the inn-keeper’s quarters. Sitting on the point of Cape d’Or, the Inn’s views were spectacular. Taking a hot shower and sleeping in a bed felt very luxurious, but nothing could compete with the stunning, dramatic scenery right off the cliff we were perched on. Listening to Frank Sinatra and taking-in the views over a breakfast of French Toast at the inn’s restaurant the following morning was the perfect way to begin the final leg of our journey: a morning of sea-kayaking followed by a three- day, two-night backpacking loop in nearby Cape Chignecto Park.
The Bay of Fundy is home to the largest tidal range on the planet, the water rising and falling
twice a day anywhere from 40-50 feet. Alex and I kayaked with a tour group around the bay, witnessing the extraordinary difference in sea level as we paddled out alongside red, rock cliffs and returned to find beaches where coves where there had only been water.
At about 3 p.m. we embarked on a thirty-one mile loop that would snake us along the coastline
of Cape Chignecto Park. With three days worth of food, cooking supplies, clothes and our tent on our back, as we set off along a black sand beach, I felt like we were forging into the unknown, leaving behind a post-apocalypse society and looking for hopes of survival. Survive we did, enduring taxing up-hill and far distances. The striking views of crystal, blue water meeting rocky, red coastline coated with emerald evergreens eased our burning leg muscles as we pushed our bodies to the limit each day. By night, dinner was the best thing we had ever eaten and our sleeping bags felt like clouds. Difficult as it was, testing our mental and physical strength and endurance over those three days in Cape Chignacto was exhilarating and rewarding.
By the time we left Nova Scotia, we were stronger, happier and ready to do it all over again. We couldn’t wait to tell everyone about our epic adventure, and then plead them to keep it to themselves, in hopes of protecting the best-kept secret that is Nova Scotia.