Tag Archives: restaurants

Affordable Manhattan – an oxymoron? (Part 1)

fireworks, Central Park, 6 November 2010

The unexpected fireworks were free, in celebration of the 2010 New York Marathon that would be run the following day. We had just stepped out of Pasha Restaurant on West 71st Street, when the booming commenced. It was an unexpected end to a pleasant Turkish dinner, one of the great cuisines. The interior of Pasha is comfortable with soft lighting and well modulated background music. From 5:00 to 7:00 PM the $23.95, 3-course, prix fixe menu is well thought out attracting repeat customers with five choices from the main menu (not the boredom of so many prix fixe selections.) My wife had the prix fixe with a salad, Piya (Cannellini beans tossed with sweet onions, scallions, parsley, tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil) with warm flaky rolls to absorb the herbs. Alabalik Tava followed (Boneless brook trout dusted with cornmeal and pan seared). Dessert was a wedge of perfect baklava – (non-syrupy) –  spice, nut and honey infused pyhllo pastry. For $24.95, I had the fish entrée of the day: a whole, wood-grilled Chilean Sea Bass.  Its moist white meat was encased by its crispy, herbed skin. Side dishes were crisp, steamed vegetables and an herb-infused rice pilaf. It was not wise to arrive on a Saturday night without a reservation – even if it was only 5:30 PM. Yet Pasha was gracious and had a table that was not booked until 7:30 PM, but I would recommend reservations since the dinning room was full by 6:30.

At West 78th’s  Drilling Company Theater, we attended a moving and jarring new play, superbly acted and produced by this award-winning 11-year old company. Eric Sanders’ Reservoir is a heart wrenching look at the psychological detritus of war – the “survivors”. At $18/ticket, the Drilling Company proves that top theater is found everywhere in New York before it moves on to $200/ticket on Broadway. Saturday evening’s dinner, theater (and fireworks) cost less than $130/couple.

(Bottom left): beer flights w/schnapps, (center & right): "boots" of beer at Lederhosen

Actually, Lederhosen Bierhaus is not nearly as kitsch as their home web site suggests. On Grove Street, off Christopher Street in the trendy East Village, Lederhosen has the atmosphere of a neighborhood bierhaus. In my two visits, over a six month period, I’ve yet to see any staff wear either lederhosen or  rhinestone decorated milk-maid dresses. Of course, I’ve yet to order the decidedly college-fraternity sized boot of beer. In smaller, more manageable quantities, their superb selections on-tap, and in bottles, set the stage for equally authentic Bavarian bierhaus food. Main courses ranged from the classic Schnitzel to sautéed herring fillets with mushroom sauce (I had that).  Each generous portion comes with a variety of sides, minimum four  – green and red cabbage slaw, potato salads, sautéed potatoes, bean salads, spatzzle. (average entrée $10 – 19)  Soft, aromatic, in-house pretzels are served with german mustards ($3.00)  along with a variety of wurst on crispy rolls with toppings ($5.00), appetizers for pickle and herring lovers ($5.00) and generous soups and sandwiches ($5.00- $10.00) round out a menu to be enjoyed in a convivial atmosphere that’s hard to top – unless you just really don’t like German food, but then…you can always try their flights of beer (8, I believe) with shots of schnapps.

On our first visit to Lederhosen we were with an Austrian friend who was impressed with the quality of this everyday German pub faire. In the picture above the three dishes are from left: Boneless Herring Fillets with a choice of sauces ($10), Currywurst grilled beef sausage ($5.00) and  Wiener Schnitzel ($17) Ah yes, those are lederhosen hanging from the ceiling (top left). The restaurant has three small rooms that fill quickly for lunch and dinner. Reservations are not accepted except for special occasions, but waiting times are typically not long, and you can always have a beer while you stand in the social bar entrance area.

a rare 1930's WPA reverse painted glass mural (protected with a plexiglass cover)

Marie’s Crisis Cafe, 59 Grove Street, is oddly unique in bridging a number of Lower Manhattan social stages. The below street level bar is dark as should be expected when in an 18th century building  – once home to Tom Paine, where he penned his famous revolutionary essays The Crisis Papers.  It went down-hill after that going from bar/brothel to worse until Prohibition (by the 1920’s it was known as Marie’s). After Prohibition’s 1930’s end, Marie’s somehow qualified for a stunning WPA funded reverse painted glass wall mural depicting both the French and American Revolutions, launching a new era.

On Grove Street just off Christopher and 7th Ave, (and only 4 or 5 blocks from the Lederhosen) this area of the Village was always known for being largely gay, hip and culturally cutting edge. For over 35 years the latest reincarnation of Marie’s Crises Cafe has witnessed the neighborhood’s transformation from grunge to designer chic. Yet Marie’s Crises Cafe has remained a relaxing, straight-friendly,  singing piano bar and neighborhood hangout. My wife, friends and I have spent several evenings enjoying the ongoing concert with professional theater pianist playing at the separate piano bar. The pianists of the evening have terrific voices and encyclopedic musical theater repertoire, but its the participation of patrons that take Marie’s to a different level. We’re not talking karaoke here. Regular patrons at Marie’s are often the seasoned professional as well as the young aspiring male or female stage singers.  There is more standing room than sitting room and the bar is basic but inexpensive ($6 – $7/beer and $8 – $10/shots and drinks). Yet there’s no cover for this top-notch entertainment.

Between Lederhosen Bierhaus and Marie’s Crisis piano bar, a Friday evening in Manhattan’s Village for two, with dinner, entertainment and drinks cost us  less than $100.00

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry

We were staying with a friend on Staten Island, a pleasant, free, 20 minute ferry ride that passes  Governor’s Island, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but it’s viewing Manhattan at night that’s magical. Staten Island’s an article in itself, but one restaurant stands out, amidst a sea of mediocrity.

(Top) Oysters Rockefeller, Rack of Lamb, Seafood Stew, (Bottom) Seafood bake, antique Italian glass chandelier, and Gumbo

We had Sunday dinner at Bayou Restaurant, 1072 Bay Street, in the middle of a nondescript commercial strip. Yet there’s nothing nondescript about the execution of its Louisiana inspired menu. My wife, a New Orleans native was impressed with the Cajun Seafood stew, our friend’s Seafood bake and my rack of lamb –  all with Cajun spices and Louisiana’s French/Spanish inspired sauces. Dinner per person, with wine and tip, for 3 was $136.00 ($46/per person). Everything else we did that day of the Marathon was free(no, we didn’t run…now if it was a hike…).

True, we spent the weekend at a friend’s apartment, but before the invitation, I had planned to use some rewards points for two-nights at a first class Manhattan hotel that, without points, would have cost $600 for the weekend. Responsible use of travel reward  credit cards can result in significant savings on future trips.

For a bit over $350/couple we had dinner and entertainment for three weekend days, two nights, plus subway fares on the city’s efficient, renovated system. Manhattan on a budget? Actually, no – Manhattan on the smarts. With a little reading/skimming – New York Times  (paper or on-line), New Yorker magazine and blogs – it’s easy to create a list of favorites.

window poster on office building on Madison Ave.

There’s nothing like New York…at least to visit for a weekend.

4 Cities 5 Restaurants

Houston, Seattle, New York and Philadelphia
TOP: Houston and Seattle BOTTOM: New York and Philadelphia

I have two reasons to travel: explore and eat.  I can accomplish this goal in my own hometown or 14,000’ in the Andes. Add an interesting dish or a great market, an elegant restaurant or a hot plate in a hostel and I’m the proverbial happy traveler.

Pappadeaux at Houston Intercontinental Airport

I’ve had the opportunity to explore Houston airport (George Bush Intercontinental) over a dozen times in the past couple of years making flight connections. Airport food, in general, is barely a cut above airline food and it’s over-priced. Yet occasionally there is a surprise.  Pappadeaux, on concourse E, although part of a corporate chain, does manage to present Cajun/Louisiana style food that even my New Orleans born wife thinks is pretty good. In the past I’ve sampled lots on their menu including good Asian sushi type rolls, burgers and imaginative entrée salads. Portions are generous, the atmosphere is congenial – you forget you’re in an airport – and it has a lively bar scene. On my last visit just a few weeks ago, I had three sautéed soft shell crabs on a large bed of dirty rice. I’d never had dirty rice before and it was a nice combination of nutty/spicy, although my wife said it could have been more seasoned,  but this is Cajun/Louisiana for the general public. My wife’s crab cakes were all crab held together with a crisp coating that had been lightly sautéed. The crab flavor was fresh, but we both agreed they lacked any distinctive seasoning (and she makes excellent Cajun crab cakes). It was served on top of an odd lemon white wine sauce with small crawfish that did not add to the dish, especially since it was served with shoestring potatoes –  an odd choice. Dirty Rice would have been a more appropriate accompaniment, with or without the sauce, and it would have been interesting if the crawfish had been in the crab cakes. We shared Pappadeaux’s excellent version of a lettuce wedge salad with blue cheese and it definitely was a major improvement for this ubiquitous American favorite. A generous wedge of iceberg was smothered with sliced yellow and orange sweet peppers, scallions, crisp smoky bacon, chopped tomatoes and crumbled blue cheese. The entrees were in the $18.00 range and the salad was $9.00. I’ll be back in Houston airport in the near future and will return to Pappadeaux.

Pike Street Public Market

Seattle has no shortage of fresh ingredients, from its fruits and produce to the incomparable oysters of the Northwest Pacific Coast. Pike Place Market is a symbol of the region’s bounty and its dependence on the Japanese Americans who have grown its products and sell at the market. A sobering experience is both seeing the mural painted in their honor and the plaque that restates the infamous, and racist,  Federal order of 1942 stripping all Japanese Americans of their civil rights, property and herding them into concentration camps for the next four years – a disaster for both the nation and the Market. Rapidly recovering after the war, Pike Place Market thrives on both abundant tourism and copious patronage by Seattle natives. (See my blog Seattle: Just a Tease).

Pear

Pear Delicatessen & Shoppe, 1926 Pike Place, is just opposite the Market. It’s a combination deli and gourmet shop. Every day it prepares superb, imaginative hot and cold sandwiches and salads for take-out and eat-in. Both sandwiches (click to enlarge collage and read the menu description) were excellent, and I’d return to have them again. Sitting at the counter looking out onto the constantly changing tableau on the street was great entertainment.

view of Puget Sound from Elliott's Oyster House Pier 56

At first when I heard of Elliott’s Oyster House Pier 56 I thought “tourist trap” because despite my weakness for dining with a water view, I’m frequently disappointed with both the quality and prices of such establishments. Yet Seattle seems to be an anomaly. Not only is the waterfront a major tourist attraction, but like Pike Place Market, the waterfront and Elliott’s are a beloved gathering place for all Seattle age groups. Elliott’s not only has stunning views of Puget Sound but moderate prices and excellent fish and seafood. We ate twice and would come back for more, especially for the incomparable Monday through Friday Oyster Happy Hours (hours is correct: 3:00 – 6:00 PM). I am an oyster freak – raw, steamed, and baked – and Elliott’s features over one dozen varieties of Pacific Coast oysters each day depending on the catch.  Beginning at 3:00 PM, the Chef chooses the variety of the day. Each person may order one dozen – or a maximum of three dozen per table – each half hour. The oysters come beautifully displayed on mounds of shaved ice with lemons and cocktail sauce. From 3:00 to 3:30 the price is $.50 per oyster! Each half hour until 5:30 the price increases only $.25/per to a maximum of $1.75 an oyster – still on an average $.25 less than normal Seattle restaurant cost.

Elliott's Oyster House Happy Hour

 When I heard of Elliott’s system, I devised a strategy that proved successful. I figured any deal like this at a very popular restaurant had to be sought after. We decided to arrive around 2:00 to have a late but light lunch. At that time, the dining area was two-thirds full. For $7.00 per person, I had a generous bowl of New England clam chowder, full of clams, thick with cream and the aroma of good smoky bacon. My wife had an equally flavorful bowl of seafood chowder.  Both chowders came with Caesar salads. By 3:00 PM there was a waiting line outside the restaurant with all the outside/dockside tables full plus the bar. We remained until 5:00 enjoying a dinner of three dozen briny, ice cold raw oysters – all for a total price for the oysters of $21.00. A Happy Hour drink menu did have reduced price mixed drinks, beer and wines from their extensive bar, but the star drink was their signature, the Oyster Shooter. It’s an inspired variation on the Bloody Mary. In a double shot glass is peppered vodka, their fresh tomato Bloody Mary mix and one raw oyster – at $3.00 it’s so good, it’s dangerous.

New York City is considered to be the “capital” of many things in America including the food industry, and like most superlatives, it simply is not true. Having lived less than 90 miles from Manhattan most of my life, I have had just as many disappointing and over-priced restaurant meals in New York as I’ve had at interstate rest stops. There are always those finds when one explores. In the past few years I have discovered the neighborhood of Little Brazil in Mid-town Manhattan next to the Diamond District. After three dinners, where I’ve never been disappointed with either the atmosphere, quality of food or the price, Ipanema Restaurant is a true find. Brazilian cuisine, like Argentine, is heavy on beef – lean, tender aged cuts – grilled to perfection and seasoned with the classic Chimichurri Sauce. River and ocean fish – trout, monk and cod – along with chicken are well featured. My wife had a tender breast of chicken smothered in stewed tropical fruits with creamy whipped potates. Side dishes include superb steamed collard greens, rice and beans and home-made lightly fried potato rounds. Prices are moderate – entrees in the $18.00 range – service friendly and professional and you will hear more Portuguese and Spanish spoken than English – always a good sign that the restaurant cooks authentic cuisine.

some of the dishes from a Han Dynasty "tasting" banquet

Philadelphia, my home city, was a culinary desert when I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s. Known for “rolling up the sidewalks” at 7:00 PM, Blue Laws that closed most restaurants on Sundays and overcooked vegetables, meat and potatoes. Everything changed in the mid-1970’s. A new generation of trained chefs tapped into a new generation of worldy clientele and the Philadelphia Restaurant Rennaisance was underway. Today it is difficult to get a bad meal – cheesesteaks are upscaled. Even ethnic restaurants delve deeper into their native cuisines to present the diner with authentic dishes. Rarely though does a dinner have the opportunity to participate in a 20 course Chinese banquet. Every first Monday of the month, the Philadelpia location at 108 Chestnut Street of Han Dynsty Restaurant does exactly that – and for $25.00 per person!

Before you reach for the phone, as of last week they had a few seats, of the 70 reservation maximum for each banquet, available for February 2011. It is worth the wait.

Han Dynasty Restaurant presents a Chinese “tasting menu” for 70 people (one sitting at 7:00 PM) but after 20 satisfying (aka: filling) courses I call this a banquet. The 20 Dishes span Chinese cuisine with nearly half containing an amount of hot peppers many Americans may not prefer. Yet keep two points in mind: (1) many of the tiny red peppers are whole and can be removed – some dishes are in sauces and you cannot, (2) the bowl or platter of food is served communally, the 70 diners are seated at group tables, so each diner controls their own portion size, (3) There are an equal number of soothing, non-pepper dishes. The structure of the 20 courses involves meat, poultry, fish, noodles, rice, spices, hot, cold, and vegetable – in small portions. That is the cultural ideal of a Chinese Banquet – the four elements (earth, fire, wind, water) and Han Dynasty achieves this goal. There is no set menu for the dinner, it changes each month and you’re going to know when it’s placed in front of you – be open to an adventure, and some noise since the downstairs room gets crowded.

I do have three recommendations for the excellent chef  to take the expertise to a vaulted level: (1) each hot pepper dish should be followed by one without hot peppers, (2) even though it may raise the cost, the diners’ plates should be refreshed a few times during the dinner to exclude blending of previous flavors onto the next superb dish; and instead of fish for a final course  (3) there should have been some dessert (sweet element) preferably chilled.

Han’s regular dining room menu is just as imaginative having eaten there previously, but the “tasting menu” is a true experience well worth the wait for a reservation. (BYOB, $25/person not including tip).

 

20th century design at New York's Museum of Modern Art, (upper far left: Nixon/ Khrushchev Kitchen Debate and bottom far right: Andy Worhol boxes

The Idyllic Life of a Sandwich – Jamon y Queso in Argentina

The inventor himself (1718-1792)

If John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, had been an Argentine he would have enjoyed slices of ham tucked between bread, not beef. The pig had been domesticated since 4900 BCE. The Romans had hams since at least 400 BCE. Backpacking in England (1971 ACE)  every British pub had ham and cheese sandwich – two paper-thin ham slices, one of cheese on white bread (no butter… well sometimes, rarely mustard…) I’d say it’s a good bet Montagu had ham tucked into that first sandwich.

Iberian hams were already famous when the Romans arrived on the peninsula.  Wild pigs lived an idyllic life roaming free in the woods  eating a natural diet of acorns, herbs, roots and legumes. Cured, air-dried and aged using centuries old methods, the paper-thin reddish slice’s intense flavors are released slowly as your mouth moistens the ham. This is not Oscar Mayer lunch meat, and I’m going to assume the Spanish slapped some Jamon Iberico between pan eons ago.

Hams for sale in Madrid, Spain

In Argentina the vast array of ham and cheese sandwiches seem odd only to tourists. In their local areas, these café standards reflect a cultural fusion that is the hallmark of the national cuisine. Spanish (Andalucía and Basque), French, Italian, and English hams all took their place in new Argentine settlements. Along with these cuisines’ love of cheeses and breads, the recipe for a ubiquitous national dish  arose  – tostado de jamon y queso. Yet as in any fusion, not all jamon y queso look-alike: grilled open-faced with blue cheese sauce, or with hard-boiled egg and anchovies, as a pizza topping, or a delectable gourmet creation on homemade bread are a few variations I’ve munched.

Cafe Hotel Touring Club, Trelew, Argentina

At Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s favorite  haunt in northeast Patagonia, the Café Hotel Touring Club, (Fontana 240, Trelew) they’ve been serving the granddaddy of all since the 1890’s: tostado de jamon y queso – toasted, buttered, thin sliced bread with a couple of slices of ham and cheese. It’s not quite an American grilled ham and cheese but more than just cold ingredients on dry toast. A tostado de jamon y queso is best if the buttered sandwich is grilled on a ridged pan, to create grill marks, while gently pressing. The cheese should be wilting, not melting and the ham warm. It is simplicity  itself and only as delicious as the quality of the ingredients. The Touring Club could use a better ham, but relaxing in its faded early 1900’s interior with a cold cerveca, or café, and a tostado, you know why Butch and the Kid felt safe here.

tostado de jamon & queso

For breakfast at Café Flora (Avenida Illia 1690, Rosario)  the carlitos de jamon is a popular item in the northeast Rio Parana  port city of Rosario. Two rectangles of crustless white bread with ham, fried egg, cheese and olives is grilled to a golden brown. That might not be a typical American breakfast, but it certainly satisfies a person who seeks out cuisine that is not ordinary. With espresso it was a very satisfying start to the day. (AR$13 – US$3.50)

ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, hard boiled egg & anchovies

In Argentina’s dry, sparsely populated northwest, on San Juan City’s leafy, lively pedestrian mall,  Café Capalino, (Avenida Tucuman, San Juan) specializes in another classic: a double-decker made with 8”x 8” crustless sliced bread. The sandwich is cut into four equal squares and easily can serve two people, but it’s meant for one. Many fillings are used on the upper level, but the bottom half has ham and cheese and my upper layer was lettuce, tomato, chopped hard-boiled egg and anchovies. I know what you’re thinking, but I love anchovies on anything, and so do many Argentines. This huge sandwich and an espresso, set me back AR$22 (US$6.00)

Lomitos Martinica, Ushuaia, AR

Variations on the theme of the ham and cheese sandwich abound. In Ushuaia, 600 miles north of Antarctica, popular hole-in-the-wall café Lomitos Martinica  (San Martin 68, Ushuaia) makes a thin egg omelet, topped with a slice of ham & cheese and placed on a huge beef burger, or on a long roll filled with  skirt steak, grilled sausage or tender fried chicken fillets, along with lettuce, tomato and mayo.  I had both the skirt steak and the chicken. The combo was flavorful, satisfying and filling.  (AR$21 = US$5.75) A similar variation was had at Hostel Rancho Grande Restaurant (Avenida San Martin 493, El Chalten).  Their Rancho Grande Burger  is a large, hand-made wood grilled beef burger with ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato accompanied by French fries topped by two perfectly made sunny-side eggs. Satisfying and fresh makes good comfort food. (AR$28 = US$7.75)

Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires’ Microcentro, elegant, 150-year old Café Tortoni (Ave. de Mayo 825, Buenos Aires) enwraps its clients in gleaming dark wood, stained glass, good china and silver. Famous for its coffee service, the café offers a menu of light fare, including, naturally, the  ubiquitous ham and cheese sandwich. Except this is Café Tortoni  which has served presidents, celebrities and royalty for a century and a half. A simple tostado de jamon y queso can be had, but arriving on a beautiful white china plate is an open-faced grilled ham sandwich smothered in a creamy blue cheese sauce. (AR$20 = US$5.25)

The oddest variations were on a pizza and the varieties served on Argentina’s long distance, inter-city busses. The central Andean city of Mendoza may be world-famous for its wine, but to Argentines, the city’s culinary fame is its thick, southern Italian style pizzas. Capri (Ave. San Lorenzo y San Juan) is a Mendoza institution that I was told I had to try. I did, twice, but I must admit I was not impressed with their “special” pizza –  a  thick layer of mozzarella cheese was covered by slices of boiled ham with sweet marinated red peppers and olives. I’m not quite sure what that has to do with southern Italy, especially since it lacked seasoning of any kind. But lots of Mendozans were ordering.

Left: ham & cheese pizza, Tight: ham & cheese stuffed bun

Argentina’s private, long distance, inter-city busses are spacious, comfortable, modern, inexpensive and efficient. Meals appropriate to the time of day are always included in the fare. Whereas the quality of the buses is high, the food looks like its been catered by a convenience store. The entrée at dinner might be some sort of chicken or pasta, at lunchtime it’s frequently variations on ham and cheese. Besides a cold jamon y queso on buttered white bread, appetizers and extras at any meal may include: a semi-sweet “cake roll” with ham, a packaged square of a sweet shortbread with ham and cheese and/or a warm bun with ham topped by melted mozzarella, an olive and oregano.

Modern life is replacing the jamon in sandwiches with unremarkable boiled commercial ham that lacks the rich flavor of a good baked, smoked or cured ham. But a variety of local smoked hams are available from any market in the country. Argentina’s Spanish-style cured hams, the best being the jamones serranos  from the Sierras de Córdoba in central Argentina, are not used in sandwiches but rather served thinly sliced accompanied by an assortment of  sausages, salami, cheeses and breads. Likewise, processed cheese has invaded the nation, but regional cheeses are abundant. For sandwiches, Argentine’s prefer mild cow’s milk varieties such as Patagonia’s Queso Chubut. When quality ingredients are utilized, this lowly sandwich reaches for the culinary stars.

 The modest La Cerveceria Brew Pub and Restaurant (Avenida San Martin 320, El Chalten) in an isolated Andean village in south-western Patagonia, can, in my opinion, justly claim Argentina’s Finest Sándwich de Jamón y Queso. La Cerveceria is an attractive timber and glass chalet in this enclave within the vast Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Owned and operated by three personable 60-something women (one is the brew master), they serve a stunning round, 8” grilled sandwich. The bread is a seeded homemade flat bread, like a panni but more tender (proprietary recipe). Inside are thick slices of smoked ham, ripe tomatoes and a local artisan white cheese with a grainy Dijon mustard. The yeasty bread’s texture, the smokiness of the hand-cut ham slices, the deep flavor of fresh Andean tomatoes, the rich creamy cheese and earthy mustard….. La Cerveceria  raised the lowly ham and cheese to the stars. (AR$20 = US$5.50)

La Cerveceria's incomparable Jamon y Queso

Colonia: Uruguay’s many reasons why

“Better to marry a neighbor than a stranger.”
Uruguayan proverb

Perhaps that is why Buenos Aires (Argentina) is fond of calling this Uruguayan city their “48th barrio.” It’s not imperialism or condescension, it’s 300 years of history. Founded in 1680 by Portugal, Colonia del Sacramento is a mere 50 minute high-speed ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. Colonia suffered a violent history for over a 140 years as it ping ponged between Portugal’s Brazil and Spain. Finally, with significant Argentine assistance, the former Brazilian province, known today as Uruguay, achieved it’s independence in 1828.

old town Colonia with lighthouse
oldest house in Colonia 1690

Colonia’s renowned historic quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the finest districts of 17th and 18th century South American colonial architecture. It is a popular tourist attraction for visitors from Buenos Aires especially during the summer as its position on the northeastern side of the Rio de la Plata provides a cooling breeze. The Barrio Historico de Colonia, within walking distance of the ferry terminal, contains portions of its fortified wall and the City Gate with its  still functioning wooden drawbridge. Original cobblestone streets radiate from the tree-lined Plaza Mayor. Shops, restaurants and intimate inns are interspersed among residential 18th century houses.

original city gate, drawbridge and fortified walls
“300 years of struggle and love”

I was visiting in late June which is the beginning of winter in Uruguay. Because of the country’s long Atlantic and Rio de la Plata coast line, Colonia was pleasant in the breezy 60’s (F.) The entire historic core is closed to traffic except for business owners and residents. Many visitors rent bicycles and scooters – many residents use similar vehicles – but it is an easy town for walking. In the summer season Colonia is as crowded as any popular historic waterfront town, especially with Argentines.

Casa del Almirante Brown

Among notable attractions are the Lighthouse and convent ruins of the 17th century Convent of San Francisco. The Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento was  constructed in 1808. The 18th century Portuguese Museum has Portuguese furnishings, jewelry, uniforms and old maps of Portuguese naval expeditions. The Casa de Nacarello, is an 18th century upperclass house museum. The Casa del Almirante Brown houses artifacts and documents of the city’s different periods and cultures. Of note is that the Irish-born Admiral William Brown was instrumental in gaining Uruguay’s independence, is regarded as the “father of the Argentine navy” and a national hero in both Uruguay and Argentina! The oldest church in Uruguay, Iglesia Matriz, dating from 1695, is found in Colonia as well.

Basilica del Sanctísimo Sacramento, Plaza Major

There is a new town to Colonia that is commercial and conveniently seperated from the historic zone. It continues the city’s traditional base as a trading hub between Argentina and Uruguay.

Top: new maritime terminal, historic train station Bottom: Buquebus ferry

Buquebus ferries make 5 to 6 round trips between Buenos Aires and Colonia daily from its new modern and efficient terminal at the Northern Dock in Puerto Madero (Buenos Aires). The trip takes less than one hour. Same day excursion specials are also available. From both Colonia and Buenos Aires, Buquebus ferries sail to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital.

Cafes in Colonia (yes… that is a former windmill & a dining table in an antique car)

There are dozens of restaurants in the Barrio Historico de Colonia. It has always been my experience to avoid any restaurant that has waiters outside overly eager to “capture” a tourist – of any nationality – and explain their menu. I’ll make a generalization based on hundreds of restaurant meals in dozens of countries – this tactic sends up the proverbial “red flag” that the food is mediocre and overpriced. Colonia, especially around the Plaza Major, has many such establishments. On the other hand, I am partial to restaurants that have water views, even if the menu is not extraordinary. Simple food, well cooked and presented, acquires a special aura when accompanied by a beautiful setting. Uruguay, like Argentina, is known for the excellent quality of its grass-fed cattle and natural farming methods.  In recent years there has been an increase in vineyards devoted to organic grapes and wine production.

a profusion of flowering plants even in winter

Restaurant Dos Puertos filled that criteria. Set one block from the waterfront, the outdoor seating had a clear view of the sun dappled Rio de la Plata. Even though it was winter, the temperatures in the 60’s were fine for an outdoor lunch. My first course was their interpretation of what the menu clearly said was Caprese Salad – thick slices of tomato, fresh basil with slabs of Gruyère cheese. If you are very fond of Gruyère you would be in heaven – personally, I would have liked the fresh mozzarella a Caprese Salad requires. My entrée was grilled fresh Sea Bass, simply seasoned, accompanied by a vegetable medley that had obviously come from a freezer bag, but at least they were not over cooked. It was not a memorable meal, but the service was friendly and the view relaxing.

Restaurant dos Puertos

Like most restaurants, Dos Puertos is primarily a parilla, and stacks of aromatic wood were piled on the side of the building. Pleasant folk music was piped outside. Restaurant prices are slightly higher in Uruguay than in Argentina.  If you are just making a day trip to Colonia, use a credit card rather than exchange money for Uruguayan currency. You can use Argentine pesos in Colonia, but you’ll get a better exchange rate on the dollar with your credit card, even with the bank fee. (Note: Uruguayan currency is not accepted in Argentina.)

at rest in Colonia’s harbor

With the pleasant waterfront surrounding three sides of the Barrio Historico, Colonia is well worth at least a day trip from Buenos Aires with its history, charm, cafes, sailing, shops and galleries. For a longer visit, it makes a good base to explore the beautiful countryside of southwestern Uruguay.

(Note: All photos and collages will enlarge when clicked and very large when double clicked)

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God buys a beach house – Ocean Grove, NJ

The beach at Ocean Grove, NJ

The great organ surges with power. The behemoth American-made 1908  Robert Hope-Jones pipe organ easily fills the 100-year-old, 6,000 seat Great Auditorium with body vibrating sound waves. The National  Anthem plays and at the last chorus, the large wooden American flag over the broad stage lights up in a carnival display of patriotism. The show commences: Michael Feinstein and Linda Eder enter the stage and enthrall the audience of the sold-out concert for the next 2 1/2 hours.

The Reverend William B. Osborn may not have approved even this mainstream entertainment when he founded the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting of the United Methodist Church in 1867. The Rev. Osborn was following a well established tradition along the Jersey Shore, starting in the late 18th century, of creating havens of calm in the barrens along the ocean, far from the bustle and temptations of urban life in Camden and Philadelphia. Although Cape May, Ocean City, Vineland and many other shore towns that started as Protestant camp meetings morphed into resorts, Ocean Grove remained true to its original mission. That mission in the 1860’s included open support for racial and women’s civil rights, education reform and prohibition. Ocean Grove is still a dry town (Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are right next door) but its relaxed fundamentalism encouraged non-camp followers to settle. Today the Rainbow Flag flies from nearly as many houses as the United Methodist Church banner.

Ocean Grove: America’s largest concentration of 19th century Victorian architecture

The houses of Ocean Grove are stunning. The one square mile has national historic designation with the largest concentration of original late 19th and early 20th century architecture in the country. Rarely will anyone find real estate that exemplifies the ultimate in wood craftsmanship, and this exuberance for decoration keeps many 21st century craftsmen employed by the demands of constant maintenance.

Victorian Gingerbread

Ocean Grove, a mere 90 minute drive from Philadelphia, is still a glimpse of what the Jersey Shore used to be like. The boardwalk is a walkway – no food vendors, no video arcades. Pedestrians rule and with most streets narrow, driving faster than 25 mph is difficult. On summer weekends parking is impossible. Most people arriving Thursday or Friday for a weekend never move their cars until leaving. Ocean Grove is a perfect walking town where Main Avenue is never farther than a five-minute walk from your B & B, and kids are safe riding bikes and skateboards. An evening’s biggest treat is catching a concert in either the Great auditorium,  Wednesdays and Saturdays, or the boardwalk’s pavilion and always having ice cream at  Nagles or Day’s  – very partisan as to which one is the best!

The Great Auditorium, Ocean Grove, NJ

The center of Ocean Grove is the Great Auditorium with its magnificent pipe organ. This all wood, barrel-vaulted 6,000 seat structure is an engineering marvel with acclaimed acoustics making it a sought after summer concert venue by A-list performers. Besides concerts, the auditorium is the focal point for the Camp Meeting’s summer religious activities including an active youth program. Anyone’s invited to participate in Camp Meeting activities. Surrounding the Great Auditorium is an oddity to all new visitors. Dozens of white tented structures in close formation are what remain of the original tent city that was the camp meeting. As affluence allowed for the building of the Victorian houses, the number of tents diminished. The remaining 142 half tent/half wood cottages are on long-term lease to Camp members and frequently passed down to the generations.  Spreading majestically for at least a 1/4 mile from the Great Auditorium  to the beach is the wide, landscaped Great Lawn. Closer to the building itself, numerous antique and craft markets are held from July through October.

Tents in summer season, off season: tents removed and stored in bath/kitchen hut
Main Street, Ocean Grove, NJ

The commercial district is small, occupying the better part of six blocks along Main Avenue and a few blocks off Main. Being northern New Jersey, Ocean Grove is not a winter ghost town. With direct train links to New York, half the population is permanent,  providing a base for shops and restaurants that are not all post cards and cotton candy.

Cheese on Main, 53 Main Avenue, offers more varieties from more countries and animals than you imagined. The Emporium At Ocean Grove, 63 Main Avenue, and Ocean Grove Trading Company, 74 Main Avenue, have imaginative, and well made, women’s fashions. Just off Main, the Beach House, 52 Pitman, is the place for souvenirs and gifts with class, and Tumblety Howell Art, 45 Pilgrim Pathway, highlights top works by area artists.

Top: Shawmont Hotel, Bath Ave B & B interior, Bottom: Bath Ave. bedroom, porch Shawmont Hotel

Dozens of bed & breakfast and hotels, all historic structures, are either on the beach or within three blocks. Some of the best, such as the Laingdon Hotel, 8 Ocean Ave, remain open year-round with a glassed-in porch. The Shawmont Hotel, 17 Ocean Ave, provides well-appointed rooms with private bath, a continental breakfast,  a beautiful porch with rocking chairs and a full view of the ocean. Bath Avenue House, 37 Bath Ave, a beautifully restored 80-year-old prior rooming house. The 30 rooms are on the small side but individually decorated, air-conditioned and with a sink. All rooms but one (on the first floor) share  bathrooms located on each of the three floors. There are so many repeat guests, that sharing a bath seems no more odd than having house guests for the weekend. A full breakfast is included, and filling. The Carriage House B & B, 18 Heck Avenue, an elegant eight room inn, provides an equally elegant breakfast making it an excellent choice for food lovers.

Ocean Grove is a dry town, but Asbury Park and Bradley Beach are within walking distance along the boardwalk. Many Ocean Grove restaurants are discretely byob, but inquire first. I would not say that the restaurants are outstanding but neither will a customer feel they have had a bad meal in any establishment. In summer, all seem to take advantage of New Jersey’s abundant summer produce.

Among my recommendations are: Bia at the Majestic Hotel, 19 Main Ave., for imaginative presentations and an eating porch with an ocean view.  Sea Grass, 68 Main Ave, serves generous salads and sandwiches including a killer BLT – but this is bacon, lobster and tomato – on a large toasted soft bun with sweet potato fries.  Nagles Apothecary Cafe, 43 Main Ave, complete with soda fountain, has been an Ocean Grove institution for over a century – first as an apothecary and now a popular restaurant serving generous portions of classics for breakfast,  lunch and dinner. The outside walk-up ice cream window dishes up dozens of rich creations and along with Day’s Ice Cream, 48 Pittman Ave, have  loyal partisans who line up every day. On weekend evenings, the lines at both places can be blocks long. The Starving Artist at Day’s tries to focus on healthier ingredients and serves a good breakfast with interesting omelet fillings and pancakes.

The charm of Ocean Grove, it’s a place where all you want to do is wait patiently and let the calm take over.

Welcome to the ends of the Earth

Welcome to the ends of the Earth… 

 

 …and to your own backyard. Travel with Pen and Palate Blog will soon post on organic food in Pennsylvania, an ode to the ham and cheese sandwich and an essay on Jewish gauchos in Argentina.  

 

Many childhood weeks visiting grandparents in Florida and wandering the South of the 1950’s excited a life-long desire to travel. Summers spent in our ancestral village in Canada stirred a love of discovery. A year of university in Ireland, nine years working in Puerto Rico, travels throughout Europe, the Caribbean Islands, Central and South America, southern Africa and South East Asia has infected me with the incurable desire to have fun learning about other cultures.
Six months exploring over 15,000 miles of Argentina while creating the web site www.travel-with-pen-and-palate-argentina.com cemented the fun of sharing experiences through vivid personal essays.   

Thirty-five years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality world, and as a Chef/Educator, coupled with a diverse educational background, helps me focus on the kaleidoscope of images a traveler experiences every day.

As a chef, the question’s not only “what’s to eat?,” but rather “is the food grown/raised local?,” “who makes the best comfort food,?” and “most adventurous dishes?”

What makes the local area unique – what culture/diverse backgrounds did the residents come from? What traditions did they bring to a new land?” The more I travel the longer the list of questions, which makes the journey more exciting.   

Travel with Pen and Palate will apply the same sense of wonder whether writing on a great craft market in New Jersey or catering a Good Friday meatless buffet in Tierra del Fuego.

Travel with Pen and Palate  is a magazine without borders.

 

Chef Marc d’Entremont

Member: American Culinary Federation

 

Header photo by Marc d’Entremont : Alaska dawn, September 2010