About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Dog Days of Connecticut - Hot-Doggin' it, day 2 (part 1)

The wake-up call came WAY too early, despite the clock saying it was 7am, exactly the correct time.  That might have something to do with the fact that I stayed up until almost 4am local time (just not sleepy, writing yesterday's blog entry) or, perhaps that my Arizona-tuned body still thought it was 3-hours earlier than the clocks here think it is.  Regardless, I groggily got up but was soon ready for Day Two of the "The Great 2011 CT Hot Dog Tour".

Before I get to that, a couple of words about our motel.  The Red Carpet Inn in Cheshire is a gem.
I mean look at their sign...
Look CLOSER...

Now that's not something you see everyday on a motel sign in Connecticut, or most other places in the USA either.  The owners of this crisp, clean and freshly-renovated motel are a couple from India.  We met the wife when we checked in late last night.  This morning I was hanging around outside waiting for Cynthia and Jim to emerge when a dark-skinned man came out from the office.  He, very politely (and with a lovely lilted eastern accent) asked if there was anything he could help me with.  

Despite his cordiality, I could tell he was a little suspicious of me.  He said that a guest had called him to report a man in the parking lot taking pictures (Huh?  Me? Ummm,  I'm a tourist - so sue me!).  I told him I was a guest and that I was just appreciating the Inn's beautiful landscaping (good GRIEF it's green here!).  I also commented on the unusual signage and asked about it.  He explained that it was their way of showing respect.  Respect to their neighbors, respect to their guests, respect to people just passing by. "In my country we say Namaste.", he said, putting his hands together just like on the sign, and bowing ever so slightly.

Namaste indeed, my friend.

C&J soon popped out of their room, looking ready to take on the day and we hit the road.  First stop today: O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown CT for breakfast.

Cynthia and Jim are kind of diner groupies and have been trying to get to O'Rourke's for about 100 years (or so it sounds listening to them).  It's a tale of woe.  A true saga.  An epic story of near misses, ships passing in the night, love lost, tragic circumstances and seemingly insurmountable challenges of Olympic proportion.  But today, the Gods were smiling.

We easily navigated to Middletown and quickly found a parking spot just a few feet from O'Rourke's front door.  O'Rourke's, according to Jim, was once a classic Mountain View Diner based on the 1920-30's art deco designs of actual railroad dining cars but it had suffered a tragic fire at some point and was no longer authentic. 

 I don't know.  To a completely untrained eye, it still looked pretty much like a diner to me (very cool stainless steel and aluminum everywhere, big sections of glass block, lots of tile and funky period lighting etc).  

Besides, WHO CARES when there are such great smells coming out the door.  Let's eat!

The inside of the small space was crowded and lively.  All of the counter stools and most of the other seating was occupied but we were immediately directed to a window booth where a sample plate of assorted Irish breads and three large menus instantly appeared.

I used the word "eclectic" to describe the menu at the Olympic Diner where we had dinner last night and it was tempting to repeat that description again here.  I mean the O'Rourke's menu features a huge selection of a wide range of types of foods spanning the three typical meals a day, plus plenty of entries and offerings not quite so easily pigeon-holed or categorized (and a bunch of borderline- avant garde off-menu specials too).  That's eclectic  right?  Well... Sort-of.

The thing about O'Rourke's is that there is a solid under-pinning knitting all these wildly diverse menu parts together and keeping them from being that jumbled, playfully dysfunctional disarray that the term "eclectic" implies.  At first I thought that the undercurrent was the Irish theme which certainly runs strongly throughout but while the theme is strong, it is not universal. The one thing that is universal at O'Rourke's is "The Brian Factor".

Brian O'Rourke is the chef at O'Rourke's.  "Chef" is not a term that I throw around carelessly or casually and I can say, for a fact, that I have never used it to describe another cook at a diner, irrespective of their training or talents.  Chef Brian is the heart of O'Rourke's and his presence  permeates every crack and crevice of the operation, like a real heart supplying oxygen to every cell in a body. He is also the soul of O'Rourke's, the canvass on which it is painted and the nurturing protective blanket that keeps it thriving even on the most wicked New England winter night.

That's enough about Brian,  for now.  

This is our waitress Tina.
Tina was in all ways pleasant, efficient, accurate and easygoing despite being obviously busy.  In short, she was a perfect server.  It is the bane of all restaurants that there is such a high turnover in the ranks of the service staff and even more acutely so at the diner/family restaurant level where seldom are the servers career professionals but usually college kids, wannbe actors etc, biding their time until something better comes along.  Whenever I get a great server like Tina I can't help but lament the fact that she will probably not be there for very long.

The good news for O'Rourke's (and especially for O'Rourke's customers) is that Tina is not "just" a server.  Later in the meal, after we'd chatted for a bit and I'd explained that I was taking all the pictures for my food blog, she gave me her business card.  Tina is also O'Rourke's "Marketing Coordinator" - and I bet she's great at that too!

After a few minutes with the menus, Tina stopped by to present the morning's specials.  I wish I could remember them all and do justice to their collective inspired creativity, but I think my brain cells were only half firing from near-starvation.  It had been almost 10 hours since I'd eaten!  I do recall her describing a number of fritata's, including one with duck and  and then what she called   a "Soft Shell Crab and poached egg" special.  Well, my mind latched onto that one and wouldn't let it go. The rest of her spiel was background noise as, fully on alert now, my head and my stomach discussed back-and-forth this unexpected breakfast pairing. 

Maybe it's because I'm an old New England boy too long in the desert but I have a very hard time passing up the prospect of good seafood, shellfish in particular, whenever it is offered to me.  I love soft shelled crabs and felt incredibly lucky to be near water again during it's short season.  I've had, and enjoyed, soft shelled crab Benedict, to which this sounded similar. It should have been a no-brainer to order this special but something was holding me back.  I was hesitant.  In  thinking back about it I'm pretty sure my head was asking my stomach "Are you seriously thinking about ordering soft shelled crab, at a DINER"?

Stomach won out and the whole of me, in unison, took a leap of faith and ordered it. Cynthia ordered Irish Soda bread and bangers with home fries, Jim ordered a single buckwheat pancake and we got an order of lamb sausage for the table.

C and I worked on our pot of coffee and Jim on his hot tea as we discussed our rather ambitious plan for the day and waited for our food, but the chat soon dissolved into silence as we began to more fully appreciate what a great people-watching opportunity O'Rourke's presented.  Lots of colorful characters from all walks of life, elbow-to-elbow.  Overlapping snippets of conversation on every possible subject competed with the hum of big fans and the chatter of plates, glasses and silverware.  The amazing thing was that, despite its immediacy and disparity, the noise level wasn't really very high overall.

My breakfast was the first to arrive, followed quickly by the rest of the food.  Calling it "Soft Shell Crab with Poached Egg" was like calling Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignonne "beef stew" or saying that traditional Pollo Mole Poblano is "Mexican Chicken Sauce".  Masters of the understatement, the crew at O'Rourke's had caught me completely off guard.  My plate consisted of... a large soft shelled crab that had been pan fried in a coarse breading until crisp and perfect.  Distributed around three side of the crab were a set of five or six small fritters or croquettes. Towering above the crab, in a margarita-style footed glass, 2 poached eggs, and a little Hollandaise sauce rested on top of another croquet or  fish-cake . Sprinkled and arranged elsewhere on the plated was a baby beet, a baby carrot, a couple of green beans, and a confetti of other vegetables and a couple of kiwi fruit slices..

Holy smokes!  What a fabulous treat!  For my initial taste I went right for the soft-shell crab and it was sublime.  Within a few moments of my first bite a big man in a black chef's toque approached the table.  This was Brian. Hovering just a bit, and working to subdue a bit of well-deserved pride, he asked what I thought of my breakfast."That's a crab cake there under those eggs, you know", he said, "and those are scallop fritters".
Chef Brian describes the food
At this point I made a grievous tactical error.  Being severely allergic to many white fishes and having had more then my share of close calls with things like crab cakes made or extended with "surimi" (fake crab meat), I asked him, "Is there any fish or fake crab in these"?

After a brief pause he replied "Is there what?".  I repeated the question.  Brian, bending down now: "Is-there-what??" So I, being somewhat extra-dense at this hour of the day, repeated it one more time.  Brian (this time leaning very close to my face, and raising his voice a bit more): "Is there WHAT????" At which point I finalized realized that he was not hard of hearing , but toying with me, insulted that I might think he would have used such a lame culinary short-cut in such a beautiful dish.

I apologized quickly and briefly explained my allergy.  This seemed to mollify his concerns and he relaxed a bit quipping, as he rushed of to his next task, "Well I may have an epi-pen somewhere in the back, and it's better if you don't die in my dining room".  And he was gone.

At  last alone again with my meal I was able to further explore it's intricacies and play in the playground of its many flavors.  The crab cake initially seemed a little dense but deliciously "crabby" util I broke the poached egg onto it at which point it melted together into a perfect new taste and ideal consistency.  The little scallop fritters were amazing.  Popping on into my mouth produced a mini explosion of sweet scallop flavor. Everything worked together perfectly but was also excellent as stand-alone items.  I grudgingly shared small amounts with Cynthia and Jim, but I'm afraid I was not as generous as politeness might have dictated.  Tough luck!

Both Cynthia's and Jim's meals were also quite good but how much can one write about a buckwheat pancake?
"Lamb Sausage"

Cynthia's breakfast at O'Rourke's
After a leisurely finish to our meal, we purchased an O'Rourke's coffee mug souvenir and headed off to our next destination.

Rating: 10 out of 10 points.  The few minor disappointments (the lamb "sausage" patty, for example, was way under-seasoned to our palates and tasted like plain ground lamb) and little foibles during the meal were so over-shadowed by excellent service, overall creativity of the menu and superb execution by the kitchen that I was temped to give it 11 out of 10 possible points  Great work guys!.

(Continued Here)

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