Saturday, June 27, 2009

Italian Lessons

Buongiorno Amichi.

There are a lot of Italians here in Portland. I know this because every convenience store advertises "3 Italians - $9.99". I'm not sure why we have so many Italian immigrants here, perhaps it is because the east coast is the first place they landed coming from Europe. In any case, I am happy to see their influence on the local cuisine. There is a plethora of Italian restaurants and even regular restaurants often serve Italian dishes. Micucci's grocery store on India Street sells everything eatable from Italy and once inside, you would really believe you had stepped into the little grocery store in Positano.

Even though everybody does speak English here, although with heavy New England accent, I thought it would be fun to take Italian lessons. The teacher, Michele (Mee Kel eh), is Italian born and has a moderate Italian accent and sometimes switches word-order in his sentences. He says English is a bit weird with the example of "How do you do?". This greeting has always confused him wondering why you would ask someone how to do something not specified when meeting for the first time? I would ask for the same explanation for the Italian "quattro gatti" ("four cats") which means "very few people" or "a quattro'occhi" ("with just 4 eyes") means "privately".

Every language has its inexplicable idioms and you just have to roll with it. In this picture Michele explains the difference between "all day" and "every day". He thinks I am taking pictures in class to study what he's written on the blackboard, but no, I just want to publish him on my blog.

Michele has 4 children ranging in age from 4 to 13 and says he speaks Italian to his wife and his kids listen to their conversations and can understand everything they say. If he speaks to them in Italian, they will answer in English. I guess that's good enough, and it's probably too hard to make them speak Italian.

The beginning class has just now ended and one of our classmates invited the whole class to come to his restaurant for the final class. It turns out that Johnny and his family own the famous floating restaurant in the Old Port called DiMillo's. It is a Portland landmark 200 foot car ferry turned into a restaurant 30 years ago.

The restaurant is a rather large and touristy place able to seat over 600 guests. It is a labyrinth of rooms and passageways and our final Italian class was in a private dining room on the top deck overlooking DiMillo's Marina. All around us were docked yachts and sailboats. During our class, a behemoth 200-foot yacht pulled up to dock... another indication that some seem unaffected by the economy.

The executive chef brought us an "off menu" buffet of antipasti, oxtail with polenta medallions, rustic bread, crackers with gorgonzola and figs, and cups of grilled fruit with marscapone and brown sugar.... elegant. Needless to tell you, our class suffered from all the distraction, but we nevertheless were able to review numbers, time, and relatives (sisters, brothers, uncles, cousins, aunts, nephews).

When you come to Portland I'll probably not take you to DiMillo's, but to Micucci's grocery instead!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Day Trip to Boston

Our trip started at 12:30 on Saturday afternoon. The Concord Trailways bus is intended to serve as a feeder to Logan International, but also stops at South Station Bus Terminal in downtown Boston. It was a comfortable ride with free pretzels, bottled water and earphones for the movie. The movie was awful so it was too easy to fall asleep on the road which made the ride seem much shorter than its 2 hours.

Since arrival in "Beantown" was early in the day, Samantha and I planned to do a little walking before our evening engagement. As the bus pulled into South Station, we spied a street with an archway that read "Welcome to Chinatown". Oh, this is going to be like San Francisco, I thought. As we walked through the gate it was obvious that Boston Chinatown does not have tourists in mind. The streets are narrow and businesses are not all painted-up, but rather dull looking, more like for local Chinese. Main street was mostly restaurants and shops with the ubiquitous golden brown ducks and chickens on display in the windows. Although the "town" extended for several blocks in each direction, the outlying business were for commerce other than eating, gathering, socializing, and shopping.

After getting good and lost we thought we might get back on track and head toward the South Piers, our original destination. We asked a colorful man on the sidewalk where the Saint Charles River and South Piers might be. He was wearing a colorful vest made from what looked like his mother's 1950's chintz bedspread.... it was gay pride day in Boston. His reply was, "You stupid bastards are going the wrong way!" If you can imagine this being said in a funny way, he went on to explain we had to backtrack to South Station and go behind the station to find what we were looking for.

Once back at the station it was easy to find our way. As I had discovered on the Internet, we entered an insurance building that no one would suspect you could just walk in to and asked if this is the building with the observation deck on the 14th floor. "Yes" was the answer and the lone desk attendant signed us in, looked at our driver's licenses and scanned her card for access to the elevator which whisked us up to the deck. These are views of the Saint Charles River,

and where the river meets Boston Harbor. Across the water is Logan International and we watched airliners come and go for awhile.

After an expensive drink at the nearby Continental Hotel, we sauntered across the river to the piers along the waterfront. Dinner was in a very nice restaurant called 606 Congress in the Boston Renaissance Waterfront Hotel. There are still lots of people spending sums of money on drinking and dining out. I figure my reason to be there was to report back to you that the recession has not affected everyone.

Next on the agenda was what we came to town for, an evening concert by Diana Krall, who sings standards, 60's & 70's tunes and plays a mean jazz style piano accompanied by her combo of bass, bass guitar, & drums. This evening she even had an orchestra backup to make the music that much richer. In case you didn't know, Diana's husband is Elvis Costello.

There are myriad things to do in Boston. Its our "big city". We counted 8 theaters in the theatre district near South Station. They have lots of live shows like in New York, so if you come to Portland, Boston would be a nice side-trip.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Babette's Feast Feast

I am beginning to think my blog is overly focused on food, but I can claim it is travel related because the food I am reporting on is available to travelers who come to Portland.

We have a nice little music venue in Portland in Longfellow Square, where an old, bearded bronze man sits atop a tall granite pedestal. I can only suppose it is a likeness of Longfellow since I don't recollect having seen pictures of the man. So at 6:00 pm on Sunday we gathered at One Longfellow Square, but not to hear music.

For this occasion instead of music the bill was a showing of the movie "Babette's Feast". The hall was fitted with white cloth-draped tables, some long, and some small and round and limited to just 50 people. Our little group of 5 (excuse the poor photo) sat at our own table on which we set our purchased bottles of red and white wine anticipating what was to come.

Before the movie, we were to be treated to food inspired by the movie. First course was Blinis Demidof au caviar which is a buckwheat pancake with sour cream and caviar. My photo was blurry, but the flavor was well defined.

Next was the Cailles en Sarcophages avec Sauce Perigourdine which translates as "quails in coffins". It is boned quail in a puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce. I have eaten a fair share of quail as a youngster growing up in rural California. The men of the family hunted and cleaned them, and our mother cooked them. I thought they were fabulous as a kid, but then, we didn't cook like this.

The salad course was a divergence from the movie version, but we think it was fennel, lightly blanched with glazed walnuts and a dressing described by the chef as mustard, olive oil, and vinegar. I know he's not giving details because this salad had layer after layer of flavor.

Our desert was Savarin au Rhum avec des figues et fruit glacee which is rum spongecake with rum and glaceed fruits. They left out the figues (figs).

Even though each serving was small, with special cuisine like this it's better to finish wanting just a little more.

We were not served the movie's turtle soup made with live turtle. I believe it's against the law to eat them now.

This is one I saw along road Sunday and apparently he knew the law because he was not afraid of the big, bad human.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Walking Tour Yealds Historic Gem

On a recent architectural walking tour of Portland's Old Port, our group came upon a huge edifice engulfed in building wrap. Our guide informed us that this would be Portland's newest restaurant and that it was being created from a pre-Civil War church. It was the Chestnut Street United Methodist Church built in 1856 and is a prime example of early Gothic Revival now rare in Portland. The building escaped the 1866 city fire which leveled a wide swath of Portland proper. It will now be named simply "Grace".

Slated to open the end of this month, our small group asked if we could take a sneak-peak at the inside construction. We played the "Portland Historical Society" card to gain entrance and the owner was pleased to show off his new creation. We were very privileged to get a glimpse inside because the building has been under tight wraps for nearly a year.

Started in September 2008, the restoration inside and out is a 2
million dollar project that will ultimately yield a stunning 175-seat
restaurant and 35-seat bar. The open kitchen is splayed across the former alter and set off by decorative organ pipes. The mid-20th-century pulpit is now a hostess stand. There are 27 stained-glass windows, including a 150-year-old rose window thought to originate from Florence. There are period fixtures, including immense chandeliers with oblong lights suspended from the ceiling and two brick-lined turrets that look as though Quasimodo could be hiding in them.

The church's original pews have been reupholstered, and will provide banquet seating downstairs. Upstairs on the mezzanine, there will be a lounge and more dining space with tables made of recycled cardboard. In the back, just below the rose window will be a service bar and the two turrets, once used as coal chutes, are being retrofitted for wine storage.

Although the owners say "It's going to be affordable food - a little higher-end experience, but really affordable", I suspect it will be a restaurant I could only afford a few times a year.

Come to Portland and we'll go in for a little "sacramental" wine!