Long Island Road Trip

 

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I’ve been a road tripper for literally as long as I can remember. Literally, because the first memories that I can specifically tie to a date and time are from a road trip my parents took me on from Atlanta to LA and back about a month after I turned 3. The colors of the Painted Desert, the scenery, prairie dogs outside the tent one morning,  big horn sheep crossing the highway at dusk, wet-suited surfers and the cold of the Pacific (one foot in and I ran screaming- some things never change). My first conception of scale that was much bigger than I had known before- my mom saying “see the big hole, Christine?” from the windy observation deck at the meteor crater in New Mexico, my scanning the landscape for a hole such that you might plant a tomato in and then realizing that the landscape dipping vastly in front of me was “the big hole.” Road tripping the US from end to end and top to bottom and zig-zagging in between has continued to open my eyes to new things.

We celebrated out wedding anniversary this weekend. My ankle and my continuing inability to walk very far or very well caused a last-minute change of plans. We rented a car and drove out to the east end of Long Island for a couple of days. At its eastern end, the island forks around a wide bay and several islands. The South Fork, home to The Hamptons and Montauk, is the better known of the two, while the North Fork has been an agricultural area with a growing wine industry. Quieter, less glitzy, the North Fork reminded me of the more laid back Sonoma County wine country in California where you were less likely to find yourself in a limo traffic jam than in neighboring Napa Valley.

Silver Sands Motel, Greenport, NY

Silver Sands Motel, Greenport, NY

We stayed at The Silver Sands just outside Greenport, NY,  a retro shabby (but very comfortable) U-shaped motel and a sprinkling of cottages beside a curl of gold beach. When we checked in, Elle magazine was doing a photo shoot in front of our cottage, a model in a glittery dress on a spit of rocks that reached into the clear, smooth bay. Oysters washed up into the shallows from the oyster farm next door, “so you know the water is perfect, because they have to test every week,” said the hotel manager. It felt incredible that we had driven through midtown Manhattan on our way here just an hour or two before.

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Our plan was to relax, try to eat as much seafood as we could, do some unhurried driving through the scenery, and taste some locally brewed beer and wine.

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After driving up to the tip of the North Fork where Orient Point slices the Atlantic from Long Island Sound and watching the Cross Sound car ferry dock, we had dinner at a nice restaurant in Greenport, known for its locally sourced seafood and produce. I’ll confess, the downside to being me is that I not infrequently have the frustration of being underwhelemed by the food that restaurants serve me. I dislike paying a lot for food that I have made (better) at home. This was my experience: nothing I disliked or found objectionable, but I wished the food had been a little more memorable. The highlight of the meal was a pair of locally brewed beers that the restaurant had on draught: Greenport Harbor Brewing Company’s Harbor Ale and Montauk Brewing’s Driftwood Ale. We noticed something that we had been discussing-the distinct regionality of beer.

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I really started learning and appreciating beer on the west coast. The dry climate, cool nights, the hops with their intense resinous flavor, the grapefruit and apricot and  pine, all worked for me. I loved hoppy intense beers. After moving to Hoboken, I continued to look for similar styles but found that even the hoppier beer brewed around here (like Ithaca Flower Power for example) had a subtle shift in accent from what I was accustomed to in California. And when I started paying attention to the subtle variations, I began to appreciate and even look for beer that was a good east coast version of those types. I like the subtle hints of English hops that tended to be overwhelmed by the boldness of California styles, the subtle uptick in the flavor of malts; the flavor and body of the good beer I was finding here was working for me in the climate in a new way. Beer that I had not enjoyed as much when I tasted it in other parts of the world was becoming more what I craved.

I started thinking about beer in terms of accents (as in “how y’all dewin’?” and “fuhgeddaboudit” accents). The subtle shifts in accent from city to city, region to region, the shift in vernacular and colloquialism is one of the things I love about travel and living all over the country. It adds a richness to discourse, the subtle hints and clues to be gathered about where someone (and their ancestors) came from. And I am beginning to find the same to be true in food and drink. The whole accent of the beer changes (as it should) based on the region in which it is made and drunk. Maybe less specifically about the earth or terrior than wine, the flavor “accent” of the brewer should come through, even if it is as subtle as my accent usually is.

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So back to the North Fork and our beer: we tasted two beers at dinner that night, same type of ale, different brewers. They were both hoppy, but with different hops emphasized. The Montauk had a little more of a caramel flavor to balance the hops. But the interesting thing to us was that they tasted like beer that belonged here. The briny air, the humidity, the hint of the winter cold to come, the beer had a far eastern Long Island accent.

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With this on our minds, we visited a biodynamic winery that a friend in the wine business had recommended. I was curious about Long Island wine, especially one with a reputation for being very carefully crafted like that at Shinn Estate Vineyard. Again, my familiarity with wine was cultivated in Northern California but working with wine in the New york area with a heavy emphasis on wine from Europe as well as its own reemerging wine culture has tremendously broadened my palate.

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We visited Shinn Estate Vineyard on a quiet afternoon during the beginning of their harvest. A tractor towing loaded bins of Sauvignon Blanc grapes shuttled back and forth from the crusher beside the tasting room to the south block of grapes that were being picked. We split a 6 wine tasting: a steel aged chardonnay and an oak-aged white blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Chardonnay, then a Merlot blended and a 100% Merlot, then and a Cabernet Sauvignon  and an unusual 100% Petit Verdot (usually used to add structure to a blend). Tasting the succession of wines gave me the spectrum of the aesthetic of the winemaker; interesting, restrained, sophisticated.

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Again, the thing that struck me, especially with the Merlot, was the dramatic difference between the grapes grown and wine made in California and what we were tasting. Wine has more of a reputation for reflecting its terroir, so while the differences between grapes were less of a revelation that my observations about beer, the difference between the Merlot we tasted and many of the Merlot we had in California was incredible. I have tended to avoid Merlot, often finding it very flabby and dense, like a down comforter for your tongue. This Merlot, while still lush with the fragrance of fruit, had a little crackle of herbs and structure and a burr of tannin that lifted the wine from stodgy to vibrant and thought-provoking. My take away: don’t dismiss a grape varietal because the way it is grown and treated in one region displeases you; give it a second and third chance from other regions. You may be as pleasantly surprised as I was. I bought two bottles to take home!

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Back to the beer. We were able to visit the tasting rooms for both of the local breweries over the next two days. Tasting a flight of beer by a brewery is a great way to get the same sense of the brewer we got from our wine tasting. One of Greenport’s brewers just happens to be a local hops farmer, so their beer was more aggressively hopped than many I’ve tasted in the north-east but still with a distinctive bass note of toastier malts that I think of as having English beer roots than a comparably hopped west coast beer. They don’t bottle their beer yet, so we had to forgo bringing any home with us but Montauk Driftwood Ale was for sale in the  7-11 so we got a six-pack to bring home.

The thing about road tripping is all the stuff in-between where you start and where you end up the add the tones and highlights and shading to the big picture. Flying from one big city in America to another is great but I’ve picked up so much of those little bits of accents, the subtle variations that tell you you’ve entered a new place. I remember my last cross-country drive, getting out of the car to switch drivers, taking a breath, and realizing I wasn’t in the West anymore. I love when I run across a favorite beer or bottle of wine from back in California, but I’m also loving that I’m starting to pick up on the accent of the things I’m tasting here too.

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Long Weekend- Charleston SC

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We had the serendipitous combination of a friend’s wedding in Hilton Head, South Carolina and a business trip to Charleston last week which we combined for a very long weekend trip to warmer climes. I hadn’t been to Charleston in such a long time, and having read so much over the last few years about the tremendous resurgence of its food culture, with chefs, food writers, and restaurants getting awards and rave reviews, I was really excited to visit again.

After a beautiful beach wedding weekend, time with my family (especially my fabulous 1-year-old niece!!!) we drove Hwy 17 through the Low country from Hilton Head to Charleston. I think I’ve mentioned before, there are few things as compelling to me as a hand painted roadside sign advertising “Boiled P-nuts” and after a crushing disappointment on the way from the airport (“Closed”) at the roadside stand we passed, salty peanut satisfaction was finally mine! A plastic baggy full of hot drippy boiled peanuts is the ultimate road trip food (possibly only improved upon by the addition of a bag of chicharrone).

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 The bad news is that there is no way you can physically eat everywhere you want to during a weekend in Charleston. In order not to waste time, we stopped for brunch on our way into town at Hominy Grill. Hominy Grill is in an old house, its high ceilings and light interiors evoking the house my mother and grandmother grew up in Alabama. The food is Southern, but the type that I know, garden fresh vegetables, meat accented by tangy pickles and slaws, prepared flavorfully and simply, deep-fried being an anomaly rather than a staple. We had a fried green tomato BLT with vinegar slaw and a pickled okra, and a pork belly sandwich with pickled cabbage and a side of grits. They did a Tequila Sundrop and a Cheerwine Negroni that were killer!
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Fried green tomato BLT with vinegar slaw, pickled okra, Tequila Sundrop, Fried pork belly sandwich with pickled cabbage, egg and cheese, grits, pickled okra, and Cheerwine Negroni

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After checking in at The  Indigo Inn we went for a walk through the historic downtown to the waterfront. The weather in late April was cool enough to be pleasant and warm enough for the fragrance of the jasmine and tea olives to perfume the air. I prefer a sort of “self-guided” approach to wandering through historic districts and Charleston lends itself to the leisurely amble, but there are lots of tours available. The economy of the area is very tourist driven, but unless you are in the old market area, you don’t feel crowded and jostled.

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With this trip being last-minute, I wasn’t able to get a reservation at Husk, one of the better known newer restaurants in the area but our hotel told us that the restaurant’s porch was first come so we went and got a locally brewed beer at the bar and waited for a porch table.  We went with the local Westbrook White Thai witbier with our Kentuckyaki pig ear lettuce wrap, fried chicken skin with pimento cheese and pickled green tomato, and cornmeal dusted catfish with tiny brussel sprouts and tomato gravy. My favorite was the lettuce wrap, S’s was the catfish.

Coffee break : City Lights Coffee 141 Market St, Charleston, SC 29401

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On my own the next day, I wanted to go back to Hominy Grill for their lunch specials. Besides being a very comfortable, quiet, pretty hotel, The Indigo Inn is the kind of place that when the front desk couldn’t get a cab to the restaurant for me within about 5 minutes of my request, one of them offered to drive me to the restaurant and gave me a guided tour of the area on the way.

I got the 4 Vegetables and cornbread lunch plate, an amuse bouche of boiled peanuts and the restaurant’s cookbook.

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tomato pudding cornbread, mustard greens, squash casserole, and fried eggplant

Walking back to the hotel, I walked through the Westside, Cannonborough, and Radcliffborough neighborhoods which provides and much more diverse and varied perspective of the city after the grandeur of the historic downtown. Students and professionals are eating and drinking coffee in the restaurants and cafes, a little trendier and hipper than the statelier downtown. It was a nice walk in cool weather but if you visit when it’s hot, cabs are flat rate $6 on the peninsula and restaurants and hotels will happily call a car for you.

Coffee break: Coffee: Black Tap Coffee

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Back in the French Quarter that afternoon were two of my favorite spots on the trip: Goat. Sheep. Cow.  a gem of an artisan cheese, wine, charcuterie shop with local baguettes, goat milk caramels and chocolates. Its owners Trudi and Patty love Charleston and are happy to talk cheese, restaurants, food, bakeries. This cheesemonger spent a very happy hour or so there, talking shop and getting the local lowdown and where to eat and drink. It’s the perfect place to put together a picnic to enjoy in one of the waterfront parks.

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They told me about the very newly opened  Craftsmen Kitchen & Tap House, and since it was close by and raining, we ducked in for some local craft beer and very well made bar meal: catfish fingers and chips and a really great burger.

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The next day, I headed back north to the Cannonborough to a filling station converted into Xiao Bao Biscuit, an Asian restaurant with a local vibe.

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I had the Som Tum with chicken, a black bean paste encrusted chicken with rice and spicy papaya salad and a Howling Wolf Hefeweizen

Coffee break: Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer

Another little gem in the French Quarter was Charleston Beer Exchange, one of the best little beer shops I’ve ever visited, educated and  happy to share their love for great craft beer with customers. They are friends with the ladies at goat. sheep.cow and do beer and cheese events with them as well. I talked to Brandon, their Cicerone certified manager about the little beer department I’m trying to build here and he gave me some good beer and cheese pairing ideas.

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For our last night, we drove out to Bowens Island Restaurant, a fish camp on the tip of Bowens Island overlooking the beautiful low country marshes.

It’s basically a big screened porch on stilts that serves big plastic trays of oysters with a knife and a towel (shuck your own!) fried seafood on paper plates, hushpuppies and slaw and cold beer. the plywood walls are covered with the graffiti of visitors, the kind of place that you bring your kids or a group of friends and stay for a while. I love these undesigned places, ate my first oyster at just such a raw bar in the Florida panhandle and was sorry to see that it had gotten decorated and remade after  hurricane George. Something in the organic rough and ready personality of these places appeals to me.  It was recommended to me by Amy Evans, Oral Historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It was the perfect place to fulfill our yearly deep-fried fresh seafood and shuck your own oysters craving. It was also the perfect place to watch the sunset from the porch and then make a running leap into the car as soon as the sun went down- next time, bring bug spray!

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Tray of oysters

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Big ol’ fried shrimp

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Fried fish and Westbrook White Thai

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SFA did a great little short documentary film on Bowens Island Restaurant: http://southernfoodways.org/documentary/film/bowens-island.html

Places I want to go next time-

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SNOB

Carolinas

27 State Street B&B

Martha Lou’s Kitchen

Closed For Business

Tips:

Taxis are $6 flat rate on the Peninsula

There is a free shuttle bus marked “King/ Meeting” the 2 main shopping streets that I didn’t use, but would next time.

Bring bug spray to Bowens Island

Porch seating at Husk is first come if you don’t have a reservation.

I made a map of the places I mentioned in the post:

http://goo.gl/maps/6b1qe