Mister Up’s, Middlebury VT

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, we’ll tell you about them.)

This is Marie, contributing a honeymoon flashback about a trip we took to Middlebury in Vermont. When we were planning the itinerary for this trip, it became fairly clear that a visit to Vermont and my old alma mater would be easy to work into the plan. Vermont, after all, could fit into Georgia several times over, and although in my memory of carless college days the state was inconveniently large, to my Georgia-trained eye now everything there is convenient to everywhere else.

The drive down from Montreal was a treat. The countryside in that area is beautiful. In an upcoming flashback, my husband will provide commentary on that topic, because he tells the Tale of The Spooky Hotel better than I do. We even got to stop at a little roadside fruit stand in southern Quebec (I do love those, sometimes to the apparent bafflement of my guy) and pick up some of the proprietor’s homemade jam and fruit syrup.

As we got closer to Middlebury I realized what a treasure box of memories the place is to me. Even the drive through the countryside made me happy, bringing up memories of the field I looked for on every trip where the farmer had buffalo, and the pick-your-own place where a friend of mine and I went together and I got my first chance to fill a bucket with blueberries.

Along the way from Burlington to Middlebury, we passed a little store that I’d always looked at while being driven in someone else’s car or the van pool to or from the airport, Dakin Farms. Man, I had been missing out all along, and so had the people whose cars I was using. When we left Middlebury and returned north, we stopped and had a great time shopping. Dakin Farms has some fabulous stuff, and whoever was driving me all those years ago would have done well to stop and get a jug of their syrup, or a bottle of their small label soft drinks, or a can of their baked beans which are unlike any others I’ve had. Seriously, they may be locally famous for their ham and smoked meats, but if you are any kind of BBQ fan you will want to try out those maple flavored beans. I could eat a can by themselves as a meal.

As we came into the town of Middlebury itself, I was planning on having us eat at the little sandwich place where I had spent the bulk of my college-constrained pittance of outside-the-meal-plan lunch dollars. It was sadly no longer around, although we had a fun time wandering around looking for it in case it had moved. The shopping area where it had lived was still quirky and had many local businesses, but nothing that had remained of the ones I remembered. The only place that would do for a second was Mr. Ups, of which more in a bit.

The second and third places where I spent my money (on food, that is – I did of course bring Grant to the used book stores which are delightful but there is no room for them here) were the Otter Creek Bakery and the Middlebury Market (which back then wasn’t also a cafe). The Market was just a place to pick up snacks and ice cream and black plums ripened in the sun in front of the store. To a Georgia-trained eye that seemed decadent; you could not possibly expect to keep fruit long enough to sell it if you did that down in these parts.

The bakery was a place to revel in the delights of all things sugary and yeasty. I loved that place as a college student –as I recall, they provided the bread for the sandwich place I loved– and should have bought up half the store when we stopped by. Regrettably I restrained myself to a few cookies and some moments lingering to admire the loaves stacked up on the shelves behind the counter and the cheeses they had added since my last visits. They, too, had added a cafe to their repertoire, though since the space was still very small it was a touch crowded. However, we had already decided on Mr. Ups for lunch, so I tore myself away. The raspberry jam cookies purchased on that visit would come in very handy the next day, when I would regret not having bought twice as many. Oh, I miss that place! If cheap teleportation is ever invented they will have me back as a loyal customer instantly. But on to our lunch.

It took me a moment and some directions from a local to find the restaurant, because although it was a highly memorable place it wasn’t one I actually had gone to very often. My budget was more of the $2.50 sandwich level than the (then) $7 or $10 meal variety. Still, it was the place to go for special occasions, and where I brought my folks when they came up for my graduation. Also, they had baked goods themselves, some wonderful zucchini bread available on the salad bar being a particular favorite of mine. Honestly, although I remember the food as being tasty, the memories of sitting on the deck with my guy and watching the river flow past are stronger for me from this visit – I think I was having memories for lunch instead of the sandwich that was actually on my plate.

It was deeply satisfactory to be able to provide Grant with an opportunity to have some gazpacho, since he’d had a number of disappointments in the cold tomato soup area for quite a few times that year. I can’t exactly claim credit for that since I’d no recollection at the time of any such item being on the menu, but seeing his eyes light up on noticing that was worth stopping all on its own, and luckily it was even quite good.

Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, Montreal QC

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, I’ll tell you about them.)

I mentioned a couple of months ago in an earlier flashback chapter that I had a lot of fun reading about the restaurants in Charleston, West Virginia as I made a decision where Marie and I would be having supper. With Montreal, this would be a no-brainer. The most popular, line-out-the-door place in the city is Schwartz’s, and that’s the way it has been for more than eighty years. Schwartz’s specializes in a smoked meat sandwich, the likes of which you can’t get anywhere close to around here. In Montreal, they cure beef brisket in a dry mix of spices, peppercorns and coriander for ten days before it’s hot-smoked and sliced to order. Then it’s served on rye bread with yellow mustard. It’s as simple a sandwich as one with a ten day prep time could possibly be, and it is definitely worth the wait in that line.

We had Schwartz’s for supper on the third day of our honeymoon. We stayed the second night in Toronto with Dave and Shaindle in their condo. They’re somewhat late risers, much later than me, anyway, and we had brunch at the George Street Diner, one of their favorite places, before packing the car and getting back out on the road. It’s an easy five-hour drive between Toronto and Montreal. Highway 401 leaves the city and keeps that name throughout Ontario before changing to Autoroute 20 as you cross into Quebec.

Montreal must have looked like the most modern city in the world in 1976, when it hosted the Summer Olympics. Today, much of the stark, white, concrete structures and overpasses that surround the city look like Logan’s Run. Once drivers get through these tunnels and mustard yellow lighting, at least on the side of town that we saw, the city is revealed to be a gorgeous, thriving and bustling metropolis, clean and full of pedestrian traffic. Our route took us north up Rue Berri past the Université du Québec à Montréal towards a bed and breakfast that I found for us. Called Bienvenue, I selected it because it was just five short blocks’ walk from Schwartz’s.

I had not stayed at a bed and breakfast in… well, hang on, no, actually, I had never stayed at one before. This actually proved to be one of the most sensible decisions that I made in planning our honeymoon. For the most part, we just aimed to pull into interstate-convenient motels whenever we got tired, but booking a place in a huge city like Montreal is a much better idea than just leaving things to chance, especially when you’re like me and don’t speak French particularly well. Bienvenue was a very nice place on a gorgeous, tree-lined avenue. Neighborhood kids had left more graffiti behind than I would prefer, but we didn’t even have to pay to park. The prices were very reasonable. We didn’t appear to be anywhere close to any comic book or record shops, although we did pass a place with the inviting sign for “bandes desinee” on our way out of town. There were several clothes boutiques along Sainte-Laurent Boulevard, and a spice shop which Marie and I visited before leaving Tuesday morning.

Monday night, though, it was time for a great big sandwich. We did not have a very long wait; arriving between waves with our often-excellent timing, we only had to stand outside for about seven or eight minutes. The restaurant has only a few long tables inside, and guests, who are called in based on how many are in their group, will usually be bumping elbows with others, with the expectation that they shouldn’t linger for very long. If you would like to have a large group at Schwartz’s, it is best for everyone concerned to plan ahead that you won’t all be sitting together, paying together, or leaving at the same time!

I was told later that we really missed a trick not ordering their slaw. Marie and I each had one of these amazing smoked meat sandwiches and a pickle, which was the most delicious pickle ever, along with a small plate of devilishly greasy fries and a nash. I didn’t know what the heck a nash was, so I ordered it. It’s a little pepperoni stick, about as big around as your pinky finger and maybe five inches long. It looks kind of naked and sad on a little plate by itself. Oh, and a glass of black cherry soda is de rigeur here.

The smoked meat is just amazingly tasty. It’s not too many miles removed from pastrami, although you usually find pastrami made from turkey and often cured with more sugar than pepper. You get a pile of it, and it is wonderful, and once we get that corporate sponsor and expense account that I daydream and fantasize about having, we’ll go to Montreal every dang summer for a vacation and return to this place every time. We had so many awesome meals a year and a half back, but this one honestly sticks out the most. Does anybody from Montreal want to start smoking meat this way down here?

Dutch Dreams, Toronto ON

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, I’ll tell you about them.)

So the second day of our road trip started out somewhere on the south side of Pittsburgh. I had hoped to actually make it into the city for the night, but we lingered too long down in Charleston and couldn’t quite stay awake long enough to get to our destination motel and so we stopped at a Super 8 somewhere south of town. For breakfast, we drove to an Eat n’ Park, possibly the one in the suburb of Bridgeville. This is a small chain based in the Ohio Valley with, according to Wikipedia, 75 stores in the area. While the restaurants started in 1949 as drive-ins with roller skating car hops, it is very similar to a Denny’s today.

The plan was to have lunch up the road in Buffalo with my friend Jennifer at the world-famous Anchor Bar, but we spent the whole day running earlier than planned and arrived in town about an hour and a half before they opened and opted against waiting. So we met up with Jennifer, whom I met a couple of years earlier when she lived in Savannah and would come up to Atlanta for concerts, instead at a coffee shop downtown and just had a small lunch with pastries. I briefly considered catching the Buffalo Bisons, who, as it turned out (I learned much later) were hosting my beloved Toledo Mud Hens, but instead we made our way over to Niagara Falls like six or seven million previous honeymooners. We spent a little while there and then drove over to Toronto to meet up with our good friends Dave and Shaindle. We did some shopping at some Toronto institutions like The Beguiling, Sonic Boom and the now sadly closed Pages, and had supper at Nataraj, an Indian place which has also since closed, and then made our way to the York neighborhood for dessert at Dutch Dreams.

Interestingly enough, throughout the trip, Marie and I ate at only one place where one of us had been previously. In Marie’s case, this would be a popular restaurant in her college town of Middlebury, and in mine, this completely wonderful ice cream parlor that Dave and Shaindle have taken me to visit on each of my three trips to Toronto. Dutch Dreams is a hugely popular place with a really long line almost all of the time, and that’s with only about half of its business wanting to stay and eat among the few, cramped tables in the back. The ice cream here is simply the definition of decadence. If I lived in York, I would weigh 400 pounds. They serve up giant scoops and somehow manage to put gigantic toppings in the cone with them, making it a challenge for anybody to chow one down before it melts all over the place.

Dutch Dreams is a family-owned business. Theo Aben’s father opened the place and put the young man to work serving customers at the age of 12. I don’t know whether Theo has been in the store on the occasions that I’ve visited, and so I did enjoy this interview with him over at Good Food Revolution. There, he describes his upbringing and the great difficulty in predicting what’s going to sell out before they place a reorder from the facility where they buy their ice cream. It’s also completely impossible to predict how the line for dessert is going to work. My personal take is that dozens of drivers who previously had no intention of stopping will pass through, occasionally see the line looking short, screech to a halt, desperately look around the side streets for someplace to park and rush in. The periodic absence of a long line artificially creates demand, but since they don’t close until one in the morning, there’s plenty of time to get your dessert.

I apologize for not having any photos of my own of Dutch Dreams, but it was dark when we went, and since we weren’t writing a food blog then anyway, it didn’t strike either of us as essential to try and shoot it. I also don’t feel right borrowing other folks’ photos for this blog. The store was probably much brighter when it was first cobbled together around 1980, and much of the paint is old and peeling now, but it is nevertheless a beautifully thrown-together collage of kitsch and color, with photos of Dutch royalty next to ancient statues of clowns. The shelves across from the ice cream counter are packed with imported candies and other foods, including homemade stroopwaffels, and there are cows on the ceiling. The whole thing is a feast for guests’ eyes, and you can see some examples of what it looks like with a quick Google search, or just visit Blog TO’s page on the place.

Toronto is really full of good restaurants. The next day, we had an early lunch at the George Street Diner, which was pretty good, before hitting the 401 and heading east. Some other places that I’ve enjoyed on previous visits are Shanghai Cowgirl, a rowdy and silly burger and sandwich place on Queen Street not too far from the Silver Snail comic shop, Fran’s, a classic-style diner right across the street from Massey Hall, and The Ben Wicks, a terrific pub in Cabbagetown opened by the late cartoonist. It’s a shame that baby expenses and other things will almost certainly keep us from Toronto this year, because we’d love to visit Shaindle and Dave again and enjoy all the good eating.

Blossom Deli, Charleston WV (CLOSED)

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, I’ll tell you about them.)

Well, here’s an interesting turn-up for our blog. This is the first time that I’ve written anything about a restaurant which has apparently changed dramatically since we actually visited it. In fact, when I decided back in October to do these honeymoon flashback chapters, I realized that I would unfortunately be writing a little obituary for Blossom Deli in Charleston, but that only lasted a couple of weeks before word got out that the place would be reopening under new ownership. In December, Blossom reopened to a lot of goodwill, best wishes and crossed fingers.

This is a restaurant with a very curious and fun history. Apparently, the original Blossom Dairy was started in the 1920s by one Samuel Sloman. He eventually branched out to old-fashioned lunch counters, and there were somewhere between six and ten of them in the region. It’s one of these stores, opened in 1938, that is still with us, although no longer in family hands and after several periods of closure and neglect. It’s in downtown Charleston on Quarrier Street, and the original version apparently stuck around for at least fifteen years – Mr. Sloman passed away in 1953 – but eventually shuttered and lay dormant for years. I’ve found conflicting reports as to exactly when the original Blossom Dairy closed, and for how long this period of closure lasted, so take what you hear with a grain of salt. I’ve even heard tell that at some point in the eighties, the building was an all-ages punk club.

I’ll tell you what’s really neat to think about. You know the Nero Wolfe adventure Too Many Cooks? Well, possibly not. Anyway, the action takes place at a fictionalized version of the exclusive West Virginia retreat Kanawha Spa. If we can imagine that Archie Goodwin would have been asked by the state’s attorney’s office to return to Charleston to give evidence in the capital murder case that would have followed the events of that story, then it stands to reason that Archie would have gone somewhere for a corned beef sandwich and two glasses of milk. I didn’t actually enjoy that particular novel, finding it dated and Wolfe’s views on race patronizing, but I liked it a lot more when I realized that, having never been to Manhattan, the Blossom Dairy is the first place I’ve visited that Archie Goodwin might have also been. And it looks much the same as it would have back then.

At any rate, after however long a period of closure, the Blossom reopened, now called Blossom Deli but retaining the original signage. Changing the sign would have been a crime against cuisine, fashion, design and history, anyway. Just look at that awesome art deco block lettering and all that red and the entryway’s beautiful curves. If that doesn’t make you want to put on a wartime-era suit and hat to go in for a milkshake, you probably need to put down the cell phone and quit texting teenagers, kid.

Under the more modern management, Blossom Deli turned into a restaurant so impressive that I described it as being what Marietta Diner wants to be when it grows up. It had evolved into what’s a said-to-be-awesome sandwich shop in the daytime, and then at night, they turn the lights down and pull out the tablecloths and have a very upscale supper menu in place. At all times, they serve fabulous desserts. Marie had a chocolate mousse that was so rich and amazing that even she couldn’t finish it, but she retired it with a big smile on her face. We stopped in about a half hour after finishing supper several blocks away at Bluegrass Kitchen. I don’t suppose there’s any tactful way to tell somebody that you’re going to pass on their dessert and go get a sweet treat someplace else, but when the goal is to visit several places in a community, that’s what you need to do.

Blossom is about a block-and-a-half from a really super independent bookstore called Taylor Books, which has been hanging on and serving its community during this tough recession and the general battering that indie sellers have taken over the last few years. We left town very impressed, and while our hearts would later be stolen by Asheville, we certainly saw downtown Charleston as a place where we could be very happy. When you add in the delightful conversation that we had at Bluegrass Kitchen, it looked like a really fantastic community, and that’s why I got genuinely upset, doing a little research into the restaurants that we visited, to find the team at Fork You writing, in September, about Blossom Deli’s impending demise.

Since then, I’ve been following the story as new links have emerged. Here are three news stories about Blossom – apparently, for legal reasons, no longer “Dairy” nor “Deli” – and its latest incarnation, which opened on December 2nd. (One, Two, and Three.) The new ownership team of Jay Cipoletti, Mark Hartling and James Nester, with chef Matthew Grover, have inherited a lot of goodwill and a lot of hope. They are presently open only for lunch, their upscale supper plans on hold until they find their feet a little better. We may be seven hours away and unlikely to return anytime soon, but I certainly wish them the best, and a long and successful career in that awesome building.

Bluegrass Kitchen, Charleston WV

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, I’ll tell you about them.)

One day, not immediately, but one day soon, Marie and I are going to move from Atlanta to some place a little north of here. We’ve since decided that it will be Asheville, fingers crossed, but when we started discussing the future in 2007, we assembled a short list of towns that we might find attractive, and which would not make my children’s distance from their mother in Louisville, Kentucky any longer than it presently is. Marie read up on some towns in that radius and suggested that we add Charleston, West Virginia to that short list. She’d never seen the place; I had passed through briefly one evening in 2006 on my way to Toronto and found the city very charming. As we began constructing our honeymoon road trip, I decided to retrace that two-day drive to Toronto and linger in Charleston for a longer stay to let us consider the town at length.

Naturally, one thing worth considering is whether there’s anything to eat in Charleston. I was helped a great deal by that city’s small foodie network, which seems to congregate around some really terrific blogs like the delightfully-named Fork You. At the time, I was working for a company up in Alpharetta. I would take lunch from eleven to noon (and at the time, I was earning enough to justify eating out every day, which was nice), and from noon to one, I would cover the receptionist desk while she ate. This gave me an hour to read about restaurants in other cities, sensibly after I’d finished a good meal already. I lurked on Fork You and other blogs and message boards for several days before narrowing the choices for supper in Charleston down to Tasty Fish and Bluegrass Kitchen, two restaurants owned by the same people. Marie picked the latter.

Well, we got to Charleston… eventually. We were shooting for arriving at a comic shop that I had read about online around 4.30 but the traffic delays on the interstates in North Carolina and Virginia – more than an hour – had us finding the city at 5.45, well after the shop had closed. On a Saturday. Anyway, the long-faded “Marvel Comics on sale here!” sign didn’t actually inspire me with confidence. It looks, from what I saw online and from the outside of the store like something pretty disappointing anyway, so never mind.

I have to say that Charleston’s southern areas are less than inspiring, although the McCorkle Avenue exit is pretty fantastic – it’s like exiting down a spiral slide. Charleston’s downtown is much easier on the eye. The state capitol building is really gorgeous and there’s a small, if active, urban community.

I recall that we had to drive around a bit to find parking for Bluegrass Kitchen, settling on a lot about a block away. There was already a wait despite the early hour, and we ended up, after about fifteen minutes, sitting at the bar, We had a very nice conversation with our server / bartender about the city and what she likes and doesn’t like about this little part of West Virginia, and it really does seem like a good place, with good people

I had some pretty good enchiladas and some downright fantastic fried green tomatoes. Marie had a knockdown amazing dish of “rags pasta” in piri-piri tomato sauce with shredded beef and smoked Gouda cheese. Everybody seems to like Bluegrass Kitchen, and with good reason. It’s a shame that the corner of the city they’ve found hasn’t reawakened yet. In a city like Atlanta, it’s the sort of neighborhood you’d think twice about walking around in, as many of their neighbors have closed up shop and it doesn’t give off a “returning to life” vibe so much as an “on life support” one. I hope a couple more businesses step in to that intersection soon.

We weren’t quite done with Charleston after supper, but more about that next month.

Bill Spoon’s Barbecue, Charlotte NC

(Honeymoon flashback: In July 2009, Marie and I took a road trip up to Montreal and back, enjoying some really terrific meals over our ten-day expedition. I’ve selected some of those great restaurants, and, once per month, I’ll tell you about them.)

We no sooner pulled into Charlotte, North Carolina than Marie and I concluded that there was no reason why we shouldn’t come back regularly. It’s a really nice looking town, and only about three and a half hours away. Nevertheless, despite all the great sounding restaurants and bookstores and things to do, the road hasn’t taken us back that way since our honeymoon road trip. We agree that we have so much in the Carolinas to do and see, but there never seems to be time or money. Continue reading “Bill Spoon’s Barbecue, Charlotte NC”