Sunday, November 29, 2009

The End of the Beginning

Well, Thanksgiving has come to an end, ushering in the beginning of the rest of the holidays. Soon, the malls and shopping centers will be choked to overflowing with raging, zombie-like, consumer whores. Soon the television will be screaming desperate screams to come in and, for the love of Christ, shop. But before all of that, we have the simplicity of Thanksgiving. It's all about getting together for a big meal... and that's it. Nothing else. No gifts. No decorations. No maxed-out credit cards. Just food, family, and friends.

In all honestly, Thanksgiving is also one of those days where I would jump straight to the dessert if I could. Pies are usually had, and pies are one step below Ambrosia for me. Trust me, it is not possible to live on pie, because if it was, I'd be doing it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, The Village Hearth, likely my favorite bakery in Rhode Island, had pies available for order. My sister was making the apple pie, so I didn't get to try that one, but we ordered one of the other two: pecan maple brandy, and sweet potato pumpkin.

I'm not the biggest fan of pumpkin pie. Never have been. I don't really enjoy the flavor and the texture is just terrible. The weird, gelatinous body makes me feel like I'm eating a large, whipped booger. I'm also not the biggest fan of pecan pie. So of the two pies that I did purchase, I'm not a big fan of either.

That affords me an interesting perspective, though. Namely, I can say how someone who doesn't like the pies, likes the pies. And I say very well. The pecan pie is the best pecan pie I've ever had. It's sweet, earthy flavors and gritty, sugary texture paired well with the more savory, soft texture of the nuts. As I said, it's hard for me to say anything definitively since I've only ever eaten three slices of pecan pie in my life, but for my friends and family, all fans of pecan pie, it's easy to say. Universally, this was the best pecan pie that they've ever had.

The pumpkin pie was also a hit. The decorative leafs on top and deep color made the pie attractive, to say the least. It was palatable. That's saying a lot. The sweet potato, aside from adding some real depth to the flavor, also lended texture. The aforementioned gelatinous texture of pumpkin pie was kept at bay, and made the pie feel like something in my mouth. The best pumpkin pie I've ever had. And I've actually tried a lot. Everyone else seems to enjoy pumpkin pie so damned much, why can't I?! Ah well. Again, with others, the pie was a big success. Not orgasmic, like the pecan pie, but excellent nonetheless.

One thing I want to mention, though, is the crust. Oh how sweet it is. It was dense, DENSE, crispy, with great snap, and buttery beyond belief. This is where the real quality of the pies stood out for me. The crust alone distanced the pies from anything that is purchasable anywhere else. La Salle, Seven Stars, Emilio's, they all pale in comparison.

Simply because they had it, we also ordered a loaf of cranberry chocolate bread. I've never been the biggest fan of dessert breads. It just makes no sense to me. It's as though someone set out to make cake and somehow got lost along the way. Regardless, I liked the bread. We went digging around our fridge and found a variety of jams and jellies that went very well with the dark chocolate and tart cranberries inside the bread. We heated it up, which brought back the crisp to the outside, and piled high. One thing that blew our mind? This bread went really well with turkey. Turkey! With chocolate and cranberries! Who knew that poultry went well with cocoa?

Now, the pies are all gone, the stomachs are still distended, and the shopping season is beginning in earnest. Soon, people will be shooting each other for Zhu Zhu pets, flipping each other the bird in traffic, hollering and gesticulating in parking lots, and peace and goodwill will descend upon the sphere. Santa will complete his heathen trip across the sky. Jewish Santa will deliver crappy gifts to Jewish kids. And at the end of it all, I'll get another chance to eat pie. Happy holidays, indeed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Evolution of Fast Food

What started with girls on roller skates and has ended with organic beef burritos? That's right! Fast food.

Isn't it amazing how far fast food has come? In many ways, it could be argued that fast food started as high quality, simple recipes made by mom-'n-pop restaurants, mutated into high-speed, low-quality restaurants, and after many years is finally morphing back to a business model built upon quality instead of speed and price.

While I don't remember it all that well, I assume that this progression has been going on for some time, and was salient enough of a market movement for McDonalds to conceive the Arch Deluxe back in the mid nineties. I suspect that it was this market foresight is what has allowed McDonald's to strongly outperform pretty much every one of its competitors in recent years. This was long before Panera Bread, or Cosi, or Chipotle, and yet McDonald's was already aware of the market shifts that would give rise to those now-ubiquitous brands.

Today, we've got so many fast food options is actually a bit amazing. You can satisfy nearly any craving for any food type on the run. I'm sure that lots of people will decry this as further fuel to our expanding waistlines, but from a gourmet's perspective, I see it as the continued advancement of food in America. It's because of our culture that gives the US, bar none, the most diverse diet on Earth.

I'm sure that there are studies about this somewhere, but I don't think I need them. Use Google Earth to take a stroll down a street in London, then do the same thing in Boston or New York. The difference is stark. London has half the variety of foods that NY has, and that doesn't even include the limitless variety of ethnic foods available from street vendors.

But that's neither here nor there. Street vendors could be seen as the original fast food, but they were limited to high-density areas that could support a business based on walk-bys. No, American fast food exploded when the car culture reached from coast to coast, and decent roadways started extending out in more rural areas. It's actually stunning to think that way, but going back less than a human life presents a country that's startlingly different from today's. In a very, very short time we saw the mass acceptance of the car, car culture, highways, fast food, and urban sprawl. Go back just sixty years and these things didn't exist. Think about that. A sixty-year-old isn't even old, anymore, and yet when they were born, those things didn't exist.

Now, my lord, now we have so much freakin' fast food. We've got the big guys, McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and their ilk, but we also have countless smaller institutions such as In-N-Out. We've got alternatives to burgers that made their fortune as the "anti-burger" like Subway, and companies that made their fortune as the "anti-Subway," like Quiznos.

What's amazing is how much of a frontier this still is. It's tempting to almost think that we've gone as far as possible, that there is nowhere else to go in fast food. But finding how far efficiency can be pushed is an ongoing enterprise. Chiptole is only ten years old, and there are many small operations trying to figure out the sweet spot between efficiency, quality, and speed. Fresh City is basically fast food, but their Warwick location struggled for most of its life and finally succumbed early last year.

Moreover, I can only imagine the number of restaurants that are going under all across the country every year, all holding the possibility of becoming the next Chiptole. The next big hit might be Chinese fast food, or maybe falafel. All that might be needed is a good brand.

When I reviewed Chipotle, I called it the new fast food. I was wrong. The new fast food had been here for some time

Monday, November 16, 2009

QUICKVIEW: Providence Prime- +++ / $$$$

Having eaten at P-Prime on a few occasions, I was surprised to find it completely changed on my most recent visit. Granted, I hadn't been in nearly two years, but still, it was traumatizing.

The new layout is about six months old and does away with the space-consuming booths and replaces them with a large bench that runs the length of the dining area's eastern wall. The boooooOOOOOOOooooth closest to the window has been replaced with a cured meats counter that includes appetizers and bar foods that are fifty(!) percent off, 5-7pm daily. You have to sit at the bar for the bar foods, but still, great deal for those getting off of work, which is undoubtedly their intention.

The dining area is still very nice. Very well lit, with decent table dress. I love the wood tones and leather. It makes it very... metro/masculine, if that's possible. Service is friendly and knowledgeable about the meats. They still have a presentation of meats available for the discerning tongue.

The wine list is good and decently-priced. Not a drop of Opus One in sight, finally. They have a new Prix Fixe menu up for offer which, for $30, is a good deal. Not mind-blowing, but good. The salumi menu of cured meats is an interesting addition, and will likely dig into it on some later visit. The appetizer of warm artichoke and spinach fondue ($9.95) wasn't. By wasn't, I mean it wasn't a fondue. It was a dip. And a pricey one at that. It was good, and the spinach and artichokes went well, as they would be expected to, but the toasted flat bread was too soft. It was heated on a grill just long enough to get some sear marks on it. This added a nice, smokey grill flavor and smell, but they were too soft to add some contrast in texture. If they had just called it what it was, I think I would not have been as disappointed, but I expected fondue, not dip.

The entree of Steak and Crab ($33) was as I would expect from my previous visits; It's some of the best steak in Providence. Considering it was a filet, it was incredibly flavorful. The crab was perfectly-cooked, with just the right amount of salt. I got some bernaise sauce for the steak which was a relatively thin and very mild sauce. I generally like my bernaise to punch me in the face a bit with tarragon, but it was still well-prepared. If you like mild bernaise, you'll love it.

For a side, we were all about the sweet potato & pancetta hash ($5.50). The sweet potato was a bit crispy and still very firm. With oh-so-sweet caramelized sugars covering each delicious bit. The pancetta added a nice, salty undertone, and it went very well with the savory flavors of the steak, crab, and sauce.

After all that food, dessert wasn't much of an option, so we passed. I was as happy with Prime as I expected to be. The fondue was a letdown, but everything else more than measured up. I've been before, I went this time, and I will certainly be back. Providence Prime is my favorite steak house.

Providence Prime: +++
Price range: Appetizers- $4-$14 Entrees- $15-$41

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Monday through Thursday 5:00pm to 10:00pm Bar open to 1:00am
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to 11:00pm Bar open to 2:00am

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thanksgiving Pies at Village Hearth

The Village Hearth Bakery in Jamestown has three pies available for order for Thanksgiving. If you do not plan on making your own pies, or are completely aware that your own pies suck, look no further than The Village Hearth. I guarantee that you will not find better pies.

The pies available are apple (natch), sweet potato pumpkin, and pecan maple bourbon. They range from $22 to $24 and are your standard 10-inch pies. They will be open on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving AND ON Thanksgiving. Place your orders soon. You will not want to miss these pies.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On Restaurant Business.

As I discussed in this post, I have good reason to believe that restaurant business is slowing. Not only were there some persistent rumors that Providence Prime was, and a number of other restaurant were, closing, on a recent visit to Prime, their menu has taken a turn for the, dare I say it, cheaper.

I mentioned that absolute head-count is only part of the story, it's the quality and profits derived from those crowds that can make the difference between open and closed. And if Providence Prime's increase in seating, at the cost of ultra-cushy booths, offering of cheaper, cured meats, panini, bar food (which is 50% off from 5-7pm daily), and $30 pricks-ficks menu, is any indication, the high-end places in RI are doing all they can to weather the storm.

These are dangerous times for a gourmet. Not only are our own budgets strained, but many of our favorite eateries might not be able to make it. Hell, even fast food is having a hard time. The $1 double-cheeseburger is causing litigation between BK corporate and its franchises. For October, McDonald's is flat (and that's considered outperforming), BK fell 4.6%, and Arby's plummeted 9%.

About the only one doing well is Chipotle. I assume it's because people can now more freely eat it thanks to Chipotle Away.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Panera Bread Borks Their WiFi Even More.

Panera Bread has apparently starting blocking link-shortening services such as

They say it's to maintain a "family-friendly" atmosphere, since they actually filter all the traffic delivered on their connection, and as such they need to know where the links go.

I'd say it was horseshit, but it's not like it matters. P-Bread's WiFi is already terrible. They've just made it more terrible. I don't know about you, but all this just makes me yearn for Panera's pseudo-urban, synthajazz interior, shitty espresso, and bad fruit salad.

Seriously, the major guys are the last places I would go for my internet fix, and this just confirms that. Hit up a local shop, instead. They'll actually have a good, unfiltered connection.

Panera Bread Blocks Links (

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I Totally Forgot.

I completely forgot to mention in my workup of the New Hampshire Highland Games that a very good gourmet shop is nestled on the main drag, just waiting for tourists to wander in.

Make no mistake, it may be in a town heavily dependent on tourists and ski bums, but the Abbey Cellars is a legitimate gourmet store catering to gourmets, and not just tourists. The prices are competitive and the selection is good. They have a wide selection of cheeses and have a small tasting area. They've got chocolate from around the world on offer, and a good selection of fine wines and beers.

I didn't know this, but apparently New Hampshire has a weird set of liquor laws. Everyone knows about the duty-free shops just over the border, but apparently that's the only way New Hampshire gets liquor into the state, via the state. All private businesses have to buy their booze through the state supplier, and if the state supplier doesn't have what you want, well, you're shit out of luck, buddy.

The owner of the store said he's always trying to convince the state buyers to expand into more exotic offerings, and he appears to have at least made progress. Their selection of wine was impressive for any state, and they had a decent selection of beers, as well.

If you plan on being in Lincoln for more than a few days, make a trip to The Abbey Cellars to pick up some much needed snacks. They're the best game in town.

Tuesday through Saturday 11:00am to 8:00pm
Sunday & Monday 12:00pm to 6:00pm

Monday, November 2, 2009

It's Harvest Season! Bring Out the Pipes! (Part 5)

Kenyon's Grist Mill has, after a multi-year hiatus, returned with their festivals. Knowing this, I give them a lot of credit for what they've pulled together in less than a year.

As with the Middletown Harvest Fest, Kenyon's is a great place to check out since everyone there is local. Celestial Cafe, Updike's Newtowne, and Gerb's Pumpkin Seeds are some of the small companies that give Kenyon's festival a distinctly non-global feel.

It's much smaller than the Middletown festival, with maybe one-tenth the number of stands, tents, and crowd. This is certainly a good thing since they really don't have parking for large crowds. Even as the festival was beginning to wind down, the crowds were so dense cars had a hard time making it through. The poor sap walking in front of me got nailed by a passing car's side-mirror. Thankfully, the walk is very pretty, with a large pond and waterfall adding serious ambiance to the rural, farmy exterior.

It's a fun little distraction, but there's not much here to occupy your time for more than an hour. And perhaps that's just fine. Not every event need be a multi-hour endeavor.

This greeted people as they walked over a bridge to the festival grounds.

One of the best parts of the Kenyon's festival is that everyone who participates must give away something for free. As you would expect, some were better than others. Celestial Cafe brought home the bacon with some delicious cinnamon-rum apple pancakes. Since I hadn't had a chance to have breakfast, this was a godsend.

Mark from Updike's Newtowne was also there, supplementing the breakfasty nature of the tent with multiple types of free coffee to try. Combined with Celestial Cafe, this tent was definitely the star of the show. The biggest crowds, and the best free shit.

Kenyon's shop, which is a GIANT tourist trap. Fair dinkum, their corn meal is more expensive here than at actual stores.

All credit to Sophie's Coffee, which recently started making ice cream and brought along a number of varieties to try. They had run out of everything by the second day save for the pumpkin, which was surprisingly good. A very subtle pumpkin flavor with a little spice won me over.

Also as you would expect from a down-home, farmy sort of festival, there was LOTS of crap made from more crap. I'm sure that if you have one of those rooms no one lives in in your house, you'd be on this like white on rice. I don't. So I wasn't.

They had llamas! And the llamas had eyelashes! EYELASHES! And they made the weirdest whining noise. Almost like they were trying very hard to push out a fart.

And just in case you wanted to add them as a friend, their Facebook info.

I have no idea what this guy's deal was.

Just me, but I've never understood pumpkin seeds. My dad tried so hard to get me to eat them when I was younger. Every Halloween, "hey, kids, let's make our own roasted pumpkin seeds!" And we were all like "Uhhh, ye...ah. Yaaaa...aay?"

Oh right, that's where I've seen this guy before. At every other local festival. He's damned pricey for not-very-good kettle corn. Nine dollars for a large bag of barely-salted, barely-sweet kettle corn. I pretty much paid a Hamilton for a bag of plain popcorn. Score.

Hopkins Farm had a really exciting little tent with lots of fun, homemade goodies. Including these Halloween Oreos...

And these chocolate covered Pringles. I dunno', I've never been the biggest fan of the whole sweet/salty thing. Kettle corn is alright, but even there, when I make it, it's basically a fused ball of melted sugar and popcorn and 4-5 femtograms of salt.

This was the only real, purchasable food aside from the clam cakes and chowder. It was an alright burger, but cost me $5 with nothing on it.

And to close up, these little bastards were everywhere, enjoying the warm weather and harassing you for whatever you had. They didn't seem to care what. All they knew was that you had something and they fucking wanted it.