Road food

When we're really doing a road trip, as in travelling by car, road food tends to be more like a quick stop at Subway or Quiznos. Better than Mickey D's or Burger Barf, yes? And since we did drive between Philadelphia and New Hampshire and back, we had some food adventures like the truck stop in northeastern Connecticut and a lovely indulgence at Pizzeria Uno in Framingham, Massachusetts, as well as a great breakfast across the street from our motel. But overall, we did some pretty serious nomming on this trip.

Taste of Italy

We had some excellent food in Philadelphia, including a wicked truffle pizza, the best canoli ever, and some classic Italian red gravy dishes from a family-owned restaurant (I went for eggplant parmigiana, which I enjoyed greatly). But the most amazing food was actually at a 50th birthday party for the music editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who is a friend of our friends. The music editor's partner is an amazing cook. She made more dishes than I can remember, all fantastic. Her French sister-in-law was in charge of dessert, and it just so happened that that woman's mother owns a chocolate factory in France. Dessert was mind-boggling—chocolate birthday cake, cupcakes, and mousse, as well as a raspberry mousse cake and more sweet things scattered around. I was pretty restrained until dessert. It was also a wonderful social event at a lovely house just outside the city, with guests ranging from kids (having a great time lighting sparklers) to elders.

The Sunday before we left, before that red sauce dinner, we stopped for a cheesesteak "appetizer"—one cheesesteak shared among our friend and ourselves. It's Philly. I had to have a genuine Philly cheesesteak, complete with "wiz" (yes, Cheese Wiz).

New York love

New York gets lots of points, as might be expected. The first night we were there, we ate at a fantastic place in Nolita called Balaboosta, which is Yiddish for someone who is the perfect housewife, host, and cook. The theme was Mediterranean, with emphasis on North Africa and the Middle East. We were usually pretty good about not overeating, but not that night. We blame the Aunt and Uncle! They were going wild on the small plates: burrata, crispy cauliflower (similar to what Nuba serves and, dare I say, even better), two orders of shrimp in crispy phyllo (which brought to mind Chef Chris's "shrimp in a grass skirt"), Israeli Street Fair (chicken and merguez in pita), Dr. Dave's Grilled Pizza. I think we might have ordered more dishes, but I lost track. This was accompanied by two different Spanish whites, both excellent with the food. Our waitress was originally from Burlington, Washington, so we had a nice conversation with her. She was also very knowledgeable about the food and about wine pairings.

The second day, we took the Uncle and Aunt to Red Rooster Harlem, which is owned by Chef Marcus Samuelson. I had made the reservation for noon, but we had to bump that a bit due to excessive shopping at Lord & Taylor (guilty). No problem, they said. When we arrived at our new reservation time, however, they did not have a table ready for us. I figure that was really our fault. It gave us a chance to get out of the sirocco-like conditions outside (upper 30s C with a stiff breeze), sit at the round bar, ogle the cute bartender, and sip expensive but tasty cocktails. I had one called The Savoy that consisted of wodka [sic], lemon, muddled grapes, and agave. Yum! Eventually we were seated in the small, busy dining room. Service was excellent. And it turned out that we had decided to try Red Rooster Harlem during New York Restaurant Week! There was a prix fixe menu for US$24.70 that contained some very tasty options. I went with a delicious if slightly sweet corn chowder with crawfish bits, an excellent signature salmon (smoked but also grilled), and a peach something-or-other for dessert. The Uncle also ordered starters of corn bread, which I loved, and mac & cheese, which I could have eaten two plates of. Thankfully, we were sharing that!

I hate to say this about one of the restaurants of one of the best chefs in the world, but while I was very impressed all around, it didn't turn me on the way Balaboosta had. Or the way Chef Chris's food did. It was right up there with the best food I've eaten, but I didn't quite see the originality of other chefs. Still, I would go back to sample more of the menu.

It was interesting that Red Rooster Harlem is right next door to Sylvia's, a famous soul food restaurant. We might try that next time! And it was even more curious when I got home and read the obituaries from the weekend just after we were in New York and saw that Sylvia herself had died.

That evening, after our afternoon at the Met, Sweetie and I were headed to a play in a West Village theatre while the Aunt and Uncle went home. Having had such a late lunch, we weren't hungry enough for a real dinner. But a slice of New York pizza was just the ticket. We got that at Joe's Pizza on Carmine Street, a tiny place with lots of recommendations from famous people on the walls. I do love New York pizza, which has a thin, crispy crust, but not quite as thin as the current rage, Neapolitan. Sweetie and I did a bit of people watching whilst sitting at the front window savouring our slices. A few blocks away, near the theatre, there was another joint that also claimed to have the best pizza in town, completely with competing celebrity recommentations. If I'd been hungry, I would have done a comparison.

Expect the unexpected

The New Hampshire seacoast is not the land of adventurous cuisine. It's a great place for seafood—broiled, fried, baked, steamed. On our coast, the seafood treat is crab. In New England, it's lobster. For me, the lobster roll we had for lunch with my mom did the job, but Sweetie went for a bit more—a salad with lobster at my mom's birthday lunch, and lobster cakes when we were out with my sister and brother-in-law. I wasn't done with seafood myself. I enjoyed a haddock sandwich at the birthday lunch. You don't get haddock on the west coast either.

We figured we knew pretty much what was available on the seacoast, even in Portsmouth, which is a somewhat more sophisticated small city (and a great downtown for walking around). So when we decided we would try Bai Cha, a Thai restaurant in downtown Hampton, we kept our expectations in check. Hampton is famous for its beach, not its cuisine. But man, were we pleasantly surprised! We ordered a salad with shrimp, the name of which I forget. It's a typical cold Thai dish. This version was full of flavour! Several flavours, really, in a really nice balance—lemongrass, galangal, lime, and just enough chili. The grilled shrimp were wonderfully fresh. And then came the Wild Boar Basil. That's a dish we used to have at only one restaurant many years ago. It consists of pork, basil, and green peppercorns in a thin curry. This version was outstanding! The pork was very flavourful. The curry, again, was very well balanced, with more heat than the salad. And the real surprise were the green peppercorns, which were still attached to the stem in the middle of the dish. So that meant they flavoured the dish mildly, and then you could scrape off however many peppercorns you wanted to give the dish some added floral heat. I have no idea how well that restaurant is doing, but I certainly hope it's managing to thrive. I want it to be there next time I visit! Heck, I want someone here, on the Asian west coast, to make Wild Boar Basil like that!

The morning we headed back to Philadelphia, my mom took us out to her favourite breakfast place, the Copper Lantern, "the home of home cooking." Great breakfast fare enhanced by the fact that all the bread and muffins were baked on site. It was a wonderful way to end that part of the trip. Sometimes you just want good, tasty food! Served by nice people, of course.

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