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.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Dog Days of Connecticut - Hot-Doggin' it, day 3 (part 6)

 July 30 2011, Day three of  "The Great 2011 CT Hot Dog Tour"  continued... (back to part 5)
Athenian II Diner
No need to get up at the crack of dawn this morning as our first scheduled stop (a sheep's milk cheese dairy) doesn't open until 10am, so we get up when we feel like it and head to North Haven to the Athenian II Diner for a leisurely breakfast.
I'm kind of a stodgy traditionalist as far as "diners" are concerned, I guess.  To me diners  are basically supposed to look like old art deco railroad dining cars.  The Athenian II looked to me pretty much like your ordinary, every-day run of the mill, site-built, brick-and-mortar modern family restaurant - outside and in.
I said as much to Jim and he immediately told me I was a complete idiot.  Of course he didn't come right out and say it - he is WAY too nice a guy to be so brutally honest (besides, I was doing the driving and had the rental car keys in my pocket and he probably didn't want to get left there).
What he actually did was educate me, reading from a guide book all about the company who manufactured it, how the modular pieces were constructed, transported and assembled, concluding with a full architectural review of the style in which it was built. OK, OK!  I give up! It's a real DINER!
Having settled the building's pedigree, we moved on to the business at hand: breakfast. The menu offered pretty standard faire with a bit of eclectic ethnicity here and there but (for a place called the "Athenian") no real Greek influence I could discern.  I ordered Challa Bread French Toast, Cynthia had a griddled cheese Danish with a side of sausage, and Jim asked for 2 eggs scrambled, toast and home fries.
The food came out fast and looked good, if a bit sanitized.  I don't know what I was expecting but it all seemed very plain and boring. 

Perhaps the problem stemmed from the inevitable comparisons to yesterday's outstanding breakfast at O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown. Definitely no soft-shelled crab on this breakfast menu!
Regardless, we tucked into it hoping for the best.  Cynthia was the first to comment.  She said that her Danish was "weird".  It looked pretty good - nicely browned but she was right, it tasted flat.  We came to the conclusion that we had expected it to be sweet and it wasn't.  Not even a little bit.  How very strange.  Her sausages were the skinless type.  OK flavor but they had been cooked a while ago and I thought held too long.
I was also disappointed with my French toast.  I found it undercooked.  Here my dining companions again disagreed with me completely.  Both C&J thought it was very good French toast and, in fact, ended up eating most of it off my plate.  I don't like well-done, dry French toast either but this was just plain snotty to me.  What I called "snotty" they called "custardy".  Different strokes for different folks. 
I was also seriously off-put by the fake butter that accompanied my breakfast (GROSS!!) and the little packets of Smucker's "breakfast syrup" on the plate.  I admit that I am a total Maple syrup snob.  I grew up watching my grandfather make the real stuff and nothing else ever appeared on our tables at home.  While I can fully appreciate that most restaurants can't just put jugs of real maple syrup on their tables without going out of business within a week, there is no reason why it can not be offered as a paid upgrade option for those of us who care.  This affront seems more egregious when one has traveled thousands of miles to a region that makes some of the best maple syrup in the world.
Jim said his breakfast was "fine" but most of the pasty home fries were still on his plate when we left.
My Score: 5 out of 10.  I would (kind of ) like to go back and give them another shot, but not enough to do anything about it.  Too many other fish in the ocean.
Sankow's Beaver Brook Farm
Mark, the cheese maker at Cato Farm where we had visited yesterday, suggested that we try and make it to Sankow's farm in Lyme if at all possible.  Officially known as Beaver Brook Farm, the Sankows,  who have kept the 175 acres in the family since 1917, have developed it into a multi-faceted agricultural enterprise.  Largely a sheep operation now, they are known for their sheep and cow's milk cheeses as well as wool products and meat.
It was a gorgeous back-road drive to the farm through cute hamlets and breath-taking New England scenery.  The amount of greenery and vegetation was all but overwhelming to this desert rat and I admit to making some uncalled-for comments about deer ticks and Lyme disease.  Give rattlesnakes, tarantulas and scorpions any day! 
Upon our arrival at the farm we were greeted by a classic Connecticut farmstead scene: White clapboard house, red barns, big trees, rolling grass lands etc. 

And sheep.  We were greeted by two very curious young sheep.

Knowing it was a long shot (it was Saturday morning after all and we didn't have an appointment) I proceeded to the cheese shop in hopes of meeting one of the owners or cheese makers.  Unfortunately I was out of luck.  Everybody was at the various farmers markets they work and the only one left on the farm was a very nice, if somewhat clueless, intern who had been working there just 2 weeks.
She said for us to feel free to wander around but could not give me permission to go into the cheese-making rooms (completely understandable).  I did get a couple of photos of the cheese room through a window.

We also checked out the milking parlor and the wool store.
With nothing much more for us to do there, I bought some cheese from the store and we headed to our next destination.
Bobby's Place
We were running a little ahead of schedule (not that we actually had a firm schedule) and got to Bobby's Place in Niantic about 30 minutes before it opened at 11am.  Cynthia immediately spotted some "shopportunities" and ducked into one of the nearby gee-gaw shops while Jim and I parked ourselves at the sidewalk umbrella table of a little café-bakery.  It was already getting quite warm and soon Jim went in and bought a donut from the bakery. I'm not sure if he did this to get cool, because he felt guilty about taking up their table space (not that it was needed) or if he was still needing more breakfast.
With a good view of Bobbies, we waited and watched a woman working inside and then come out to open the umbrellas on their picnic tables.  Eventually we saw a couple approach the order window and leave with some food so we headed on over.
Bobby's Place is a real hot dog STAND in the truest sense.  This is because the single, solitary person squeezed into the tiny kitchen has to STAND all the time.  There is barely room to turn around, let alone sit down.  Bobby's is located in a converted drive-through Photo Mat kiosk.
Cute as a button, Bobby's is a testament to Yankee ingenuity and logistical planning.  I've worked in some small kitchens before but this is amazing.  This is obviously not a place were a lot of from-scratch cooking is done but it looks like a perfect adaptation for a hot dog joint.
The menu is pretty standard for the area but we don't really need to look any way.
Cynthia and Jim split a plain dog, I order a kraut one and we settled in at one of the tables provided.  It's a lovely morning and we're less than a block from Long Island Sound, with a good view of the water.  Most excellent ambiance!
The dogs came up and we head around to the side of the little building to the condiment bar (mustard, relish,ketchup and paper napkins) to load up.
C&J's dog looks good but mine is scary.  The dog itself looks alright but the sauerkraut is nasty looking.  It's kind of a dark grey color and very unappetizing.
It almost looks like it was made from purple cabbage - but it wasn't.  I take a sniff... nothing.  No characteristic sour/salty/fermented aroma.  I'm not sure if this is bad or good.  At least it didn't smell rotted.  I go to take a small taste.  Cynthia: "Are you NUTS?" Me: "I just want to try it".  Cynthia: "It looks gross!"  Me: "I don't want to waste it".  Cynthia: "Its a $3 hot dog...THROW IT AWAY!"
Well, she was right and I did chuck it but not before eating most of the meat(which was pretty good) and taking another small sample of the kraut.  It was as tasteless as it was scent-less. I'm not even sure how one could get sauerkraut to taste like shredded paper, let alone achieve such an unnatural color. My best guess was that kraut dogs must not be very popular here and this kraut had been around a very, very long time.
Just couldn't eat it.  Yuck.
My score: 4 out of 10.  Cute only gets you so far.  Despite the outstanding ambiance, it was only an  OK bun, OK dog.  The disgusting kraut was a deal killer.
Our next scheduled stop was at Beltane Farm, a goat cheese dairy in Lebanon CT at 1pm.  With an hour and a half left to make the 45 minute drive, we selected a scenic route  that would take us a ways along the coast and then up along the west side of the Connecticut River.
Ahh, the best laid plans...  We left Bobby's, drove a block down to the water, made a left turn and there, staring us in the faces, was our first official clam shack of the trip.  I immediately pulled in without asking the others, feeling the need to put something in my mouth to make up for that kraut.
We'd arrived at Skippers.
Skippers was right across the street from the water with plentiful seating, about half outside and half in.  Brightly lit and sparkling clean it sported an extensive and colorful menu board featuring primarily fried seafood.
Without hesitation I ordered the Fresh Whole Clam Roll.  Cynthia and Jim got drinks only.
I took my number and we went outside to enjoy the view. Traffic along the coastal road was picking up steadily, sometimes moving at only a crawl.  Not unexpected for a mid-summer  Saturday morning. Soon my number was called and I picked up my plate at the window.
Now THAT'S what I'm talking about!  The over-abundance of calms spilling out of the bun were accompanied by a little cup of tartar sauce and some potato chips.  Grabbing a clam off the plate, a quick pass at the sauce and into my mouth. Mmmmm ouch, Ouch, OUCH!  OK, I maybe should have waited for it to cool a little but oh my, what a delicious clam.  By the time I had gotten to the third or fourth one they stopped burning my mouth but it was hard to slow down.  Sweet, salty with a perfect breading crunch. All-around excellent. Even Cynthia, who has never been a big whole-clam eater, tried a few and thought them very good.
I always think of the bun on a clam roll as being superfluous. Ordering a roll is an easy way of getting a small order of clams, but I had to laugh outloud in this case.  The bun was the flat-sided, New England-style kind and it had been perfectly griddled in a little butter.  At last, I'd found the exact hot dog bun I'd been looking for and there wasn't a hotdog in sight!
The tartar sauce was tasty and it was a relief not to have been given those awful little portion packets that so many places have taken to using.  Even the chips were good - thick waffle cut and crispy.
My Score: 9 out of 10.  Skippers put on no airs of pretension and did exactly what a clam shack was supposed to do.  Provide great food at reasonable prices with a casual shore line atmosphere.
(To be continued)

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