Island Creek Oyster Bar Review

First published in The New York Times on January 14, 2011. Read the original with comments here.

Island Creek Oyster Bar brings a special twist to the trend of farm-to-table restaurants: the small farms carefully listed next to each dish on Oyster Creek’s menu specialize in aquaculture, the raising of seafood and shellfish. But that’s not all: the restaurant itself is an extension of Island Creek Oysters, a farm founded in 1992 in nearby Duxbury, Mass. So it’s no surprise that though the menu is long and varied, at Island Creek, which opened in October, oysters take pride of place.

On a recent visit, 12 varieties were on offer, mostly from Massachusetts, but with a few from California, Washington and Canada. Our waitress recommended the Island Creek oysters themselves and the Dodge Coves, from Maine. Both are from the same batch of seed oysters, so tasting the two side by side emphasizes the importance of “merroir” — a term the oyster community uses in place of terroir. The Island Creek oysters were large and finished with a melonlike sweetness, while the Dodge Coves were more briny.

“Our nursery is in a saltwater river, where the water is warmer,” said Skip Bennett, the founder of Island Creek and a co-owner of the Oyster Bar. As the oysters mature, they are moved closer to the ocean. Their gentle upbringing produces large oysters with a sweet ocean taste. Shigoku oysters, from Bay Center, Wash., also stood out as particularly bright and flavorful.

Raw isn’t the only option, of course. More oysters, battered and fried, are served as sliders on sweet brioche buns. (The fried versions lack the seawater brininess of the fresh ones, making them a good dish for kids or squeamish novices, but disappointing for true aficionados.)

Island Creek’s seafood preparations extend beyond the oyster. An appetizer of steamed Duxbury littleneck clams, flavored with orange, basil and garlic, was delicious, with a pleasingly firm texture.

Jeremy Sewall, the executive chef and a co-owner, is equally adept at handling terrestrial ingredients, and there is a small section of the menu titled “From the Land.” The Vermont burger with Cheddar and house-cured bacon on a sweet caramelized onion roll is delicious. But it’s no competition for a neatly composed main dish of seared scallops with kuri squash, black trumpet mushrooms and kumquat. The acid in the kumquat brightens and brings together the deep umami flavors of the scallops and mushrooms. It is this attention to flavor composition and ingredient sourcing that elevates Island Creek above the recent spate of new oyster joints.

Island Creek Oyster Bar; 500 Commonwealth Avenue; (617) 532-5300; Meal for two, about $100 without drinks or tip.

NY Times Travel Q&A: Puerto Rico or Tortola for a 30th Anniversary

First published in The New York Times on January 11, 2011. Read the original with comments here.


My husband and I will be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary this February. Could you recommend a special resort setting in Puerto Rico or Tortola? Puerto Rico because it’s close and Tortola because that’s where we honeymooned. We are limited to the school break in February but do not want to stay at a resort overrun with children. Looking for a quiet beach/private pool, good food and wine. Any suggestions to help us mark this milestone?

M. Rossi, Merrick, N.Y.



What about celebrating your 30th anniversary in Vieques, the small island just off the east coast of mainland Puerto Rico? In his “36 Hours in Vieques” (Feb. 21, 2010), Hugh Ryan wrote that the island has evolved into an upscale resort and has seen a boom in restaurants, galleries and hotels, while also offering white-sand beaches, coral reefs and a bioluminescent bay. In an e-mail, he added that one of the best things about Vieques is that it is still relatively “quiet compared to most Caribbean islands” and is “a great locale for couples looking for some calm, beautiful beaches that aren’t overrun with tourists — but still have some great restaurant options.”

Mr. Ryan suggested short-term apartment rentals as an option and recommended the Bravos Boyz (, a real-estate company that has some particularly good properties. Another option is the Hix Island House(, situated amid 13 acres of Vieques wilderness. The 13 apartments are spread out over four elegant buildings, with terrific views, outdoor showers, kitchens supplied with breakfast makings and a large shared pool. Though the resort does not have a restaurant, it is about six miles from the main town of Esperanza (above), where dining options are plentiful. Rates start at $175 in February — and children under 16 are not allowed.

If you are willing to splurge, stay at the brand-new W Retreat & Spa ( Rates start at a steep $589, but the resort features a gym, spa, two private beaches and Mix on the Beach restaurant, from Alain Ducasse. Flights to Vieques require a connection in San Juan (or St. Croix or St. Thomas), and a rental car is a must.

Pinball Museums Light Up Around the Country

First published in The New York Times on December 17, 2010. Read the original with comments here.

STEP inside the Shops at Georgetown Park, a shopping mall in Washington, D.C., and you’ll find two nine-foot-tall flippers and a giant floating silver ball. It’s not a piece of public art — it’s the entrance to the new National Pinball Museum.

The museum (3222 M Street NW; 202-337-1100;, which opened on Dec. 4, is one of three shrines to the game that have lit up around the country over the last two years.

“I wanted people to get a real in-depth sense of what pinball was and is,” said David Silverman, executive director of the museum.

In depth indeed.

At the museum, no aspect of the game is left unexplored. The pièce de résistance, though, is a series of meticulously recreated rooms representing important moments in pinball’s development, from the French chateau where bagatelle, the game’s precursor, was invented in 1777, to the American workshop where the first game with flippers was made in 1947.

A brief history: Early versions of pinball first arrived in America with French soldiers fighting in the Revolution. It gained popularity as cheap entertainment during the Depression. When manufacturing exploded after World War II, flippers and lights were added. And as microchip technology developed, the games transitioned to solid-state computing.

“You’re seeing the development of an entire culture,” Mr. Silverman said.

The museum also features a small theater, a pinball parts and gift shop, and, of course, a game room with 40 rotating machines from Mr. Silverman’s private collection.

That might sound impressive, but it’s small compared with what awaits visitors at the Silver Ball Museum in Asbury Park, N.J. (1000 Ocean Avenue; 732-774-4994;, where over 200 playable games sit just off the boardwalk.

Each game has a placard illuminating a bit of its history, but none sit behind glass or in exhibitions. In this way, the Silver Ball is equal parts arcade and museum.

“You can’t separate the two if the games are working,” said Rob Ilvento, who founded the museum in 2009. It moved to its current boardwalk home in early 2010, and Mr. Ilvento hopes to expand to include vintage arcade and kiddie rides in the next few years, as well as a carousel and an even more expansive selection of games.

The science of the game is the focus at the Pacific Pinball Museum (formerly the Lucky JuJu Pinball Arcade), which opened at the end of 2008 in Alameda, Calif. (1510 Webster Street; 510-769-1349;

“There’s a wealth of scientific phenomenon inside pinball machines,” said Michael Schiess, the executive director. “There’s gravity, there’s obviously magnetic and electrical theory, there’s circuit design.” (To that end, Mr. Schiess rebuilt a regular machine into an exhibit he calls “Visible Pinball,” an entirely translucent game that shows how pinball works.) All three museums hope to keep pinball alive for collectors and aficionados, and to introduce the game to a generation of kids who may only know it from computer simulations.

“It gave me such a glimmer of hope to see these kids really getting into it,” said Mr. Silverman of the National Pinball Museum. “You can get it on a computer, but playing a physical game? That’s a whole different thing.”

4 Towns, 4 Tasty New Reasons to Visit

First published in The New York Times on November 17, 2010. Read the original with comments here.

Preston Hollow

Bees Knees Cafe

For nearly 200 years, the old farmhouse on Broome Center Road has been the heart of Heather Ridge, a working farm in the Catskills town of Preston Hollow. For the last year, it’s also been home to the Bees Knees Cafe. Open only for lunch on Saturdays, it is a culinary showcase for local farmers, beekeepers, cheese makers and butchers.


As you’d expect in a farmhouse, service is relaxed. On a visit in July, we placed our order in the kitchen, grabbed a pitcher of fresh black currant lemonade and staked out one of four picnic tables to await our food. Many of the preparations were simple and highlighted the freshness of the ingredients: a panini of thinly sliced, delicious beef, served rare, with a farmstead cheese and grilled onions; a hearty beef and pork chili over a fresh-baked corn muffin. But there was also complexity, as in the smooth summer squash and chèvre custard, which we paired with a refreshing cold cucumber, yogurt and dill soup.

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Carol Clement, a co-owner of Heather Ridge and Bees Knees, made an announcement: “We’ve got five new goat kids.” She invited us to see them after lunch.

When asked what on our plates wasn’t local, it took her a moment to respond. “The lemons,” she finally said with a laugh.

Between Memorial Day and Columbus Weekend, Bees Knees serves food on the front lawn, which overlooks the peaks and valleys of the Catskills. The menu changes weekly. During the winter (or inclement weather), the tables are moved inside, and a smaller menu features a selection of hearty soups, stews and breads. In warmer weather, a tour of the farm is offered one Saturday a month. In the winter, tours can be arranged on an informal basis.

Many of the dishes and their ingredients are available in bulk at the farm store in the same building. We took home a quart of chili, two pints of currants, a dozen eggs and a backpack full of meat. When we exclaimed over the honey-vanilla ice cream that topped a hot slice of blueberry cobbler, Ms. Clement said she could make us a pint if we gave her a day. (Customers can also order ahead via phone or e-mail.)

But one of the most welcome things at Bees Knees is not on the menu, and cannot be taken home with you: there is no cellphone reception. The only buzzing comes from the beehives on the back porch.

Bees Knees Cafe, 989 Broome Center Road; (518) 239-6234. Average meal for two, without drinks or tip, about $25.

New Orleans

Mike’s on the Avenue

Vicky Bayley, a co-owner of Mike’s on the Avenue, believes the New Orleans post-Katrina, post-spill restaurant scene is stronger and more innovative than ever.

“Sometimes when you lose everything, you take more chances, because you’re not afraid anymore,” she said.

If anyone can speak to the evolution of New Orleans restaurants, it’s Ms. Bayley. Together with Mike Fennelly, chef and co-owner, she opened the original Mike’s on the Avenue in 1991 and was credited by many with bringing Asian fusion to New Orleans. After a successful decade, they closed Mike’s to pursue other projects. Now, 10 years later, the two have reunited in the same location, right off the bustling French Quarter.

“It was like coming home,” Mr. Fennelly said. “I had done my wanderlust and ran all over the world — and I got sick of it.”

New Orleans has welcomed them back with open arms — and mouths. Memory, however, exerted a pull. During a visit earlier this year, two months after they opened, they said they still had patrons looking for favorite dishes from the old restaurant. “Where’s your oyster burrito? And where’s the brioche bread pudding?” were common questions, Ms. Bayley said. (They’ve adjusted the menu multiple times, and the bread pudding has mounted a successful comeback.)

But this Mike’s on the Avenue has also evolved. Mr. Fennelly cites his travels, including five years spent in Hawaii soaking up Polynesian culture, as his inspiration for the current menu. The rich sweetness of lilikoi, a Hawaiian variety of passion fruit, is infused in several dishes, including a dense and delicious cheesecake and a green-tea mint-rubbed double-cut pork chop with a lilikoi glaze. And contrary to what you might expect in New Orleans, all of the fish used for sushi is flown in daily from Honolulu.

But while the menu reflects Mr. Fennelly’s travels, it also melds them with the flavors of Louisiana. Mike’s crispy duck may feature shiitake mushrooms, but it’s served over brown rice with chunks of tasso, a Cajun ham, and andouille sausage. And the sushi box appetizer includes a Cajun crab roll.

Although the location is the same, the space, too, has changed. Half of what was once Mike’s is now Twist Cocktails, a bar and private event space. Serving half the number of patrons was a conscious choice, Mr. Fennelly said. “As a chef, doing 100 people at a time versus 200 is much better. We have so much more control.”

Like New Orleans itself, Mike’s is back — just a touch smaller and with a twist.

Mike’s on the Avenue, 628 St. Charles Avenue; (504) 523-7600; An average dinner for two, without drinks or tip, is about $70.

The Blind Pig

First published in The New York Times on August 8, 2010. Read the original here.

At the Blind Pig, Joseph Frase, the chef and an owner, smokes his own sausage in the backyard — appropriate for a restaurant in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood. His menu reflects the working-class history of the area, with upscale renditions of pan-European peasant fare like spaghetti alla putanesca and shepherd’s pie. Unlike their humble ancestors, however, the dishes at the Blind Pig use simple preparations to highlight the strong, natural flavors of the ingredients.

“We pay a little more attention to the more traditional qualities of food,” Mr. Frase said, “instead of trying to do something new or inventive.”

And, indeed, “housemade” and “fresh” are two of the restaurant’s primary bywords. “The only thing in our freezer is ice cream,” our waiter told us joyfully during a recent visit, before explaining how best to sample the housemade bitters (including flavors like celery and coffee). The drinks menu highlighted classic cocktails like a French 75, but also featured a strong list of beers whose regions of origin are listed as well.

Before opening in March, Mr. Frase and Michael Grider, a co-owner, gutted the space. The floor joists found new life as tables, while the building’s original facade was rescued from the basement and the reclaimed wood was transformed into a bar. The art on the walls is by the assistant manager. This sense of place and pride — of craftsmanship and quality — is at the heart of the Blind Pig’s deceptive simplicity.

The most prominent medium for the attention-to-tradition philosophy is meat — more specifically, pork. Indeed, the (literally) strong of heart can eat an entire meal of it. Start with a smooth, dense ramekin of pork rillettes topped with a thick layer of duck fat; follow that up with a heaping portion of sausage, duck and white bean cassoulet; finish with a dessert of vanilla ice cream fritters and pecan-bacon brittle; and wash it all down with a bacon-infused Manhattan. (Is it possible to have a pork hangover?)

For the less piggishly inclined, the lamb-and-bison shepherd’s pie is well spiced and topped with a crisp layer of creamy mashed potatoes. The chicken bouillabaisse fell a little flat, its light flavor too delicate to compete with the hearty savoriness of the other dishes. But, then again, who orders chicken at a place called the Blind Pig?

The Blind Pig, 1076 East Washington Street, Louisville, Ky.; (502) 618-0600; An average meal for two, without drinks or tip, is about $60.

In New Orleans, New Life By the River

First published in The New York Times on June 27, 2010. Read the original, with photos, here.

For residents of the blue-collar Bywater-Marigny area of New Orleans, access to the Mississippi River has been blocked for years by decaying industrial buildings. But it won't be much longer, thanks in part to R. Allen Eskew, an architect whose firm has been hired to turn a mile and a half of piers and wharves into a riverfront park to open in fall 2011, Step 1 in the nearly $300 million Reinventing the Crescent plan.

The park is one of many projects, small and large, growing in the fertile soil around the Mississippi. Amid colorful shotgun houses (left), tucked away on streets named Piety, Desire and Independence, a wealth of cafes, boutiques and bars offer a calmer alternative to the excesses of the French Quarter, just upriver.


Satsuma Cafe
3218 Dauphine Street
(504) 304-5962

Satsuma, which opened last year, takes its name from a popular local citrus fruit. The menu changes regularly, but you can't go wrong with their pancakes of the day ($5) and a cup of smooth chicory coffee ($2).

Cake Cafe & Bakery
2440 Chartres Street
(504) 943-0010

Nothing says New Orleans, city of excess, like a boozy cupcake. This cafe has multiple varieties - flavors include Champagne, mimosa and Sazerac - which can be ordered by the dozen ($25). Or drop in for a nonalcoholic version ($1.75), in flavors like wedding cake and red velvet.

The Lost Love Lounge
2529 Dauphine Street
(504) 949-2009

For some relaxed night life, head to this dim and sprawling dive bar, which opened in March. Lost Love features $2 High Life specials and a small Vietnamese snack menu. Five dollars will buy a sizable shrimp spring roll.

The Bargain Center
3200 Dauphine Street
(504) 948-0007

Down the street, a hodge-podge of antique furniture, paperbacks, and vintage costumes sprawls on the sidewalk like a life-size Joseph Cornell diorama. Welcome to the Bargain Center, a cavernous thrift shop that sells everything from Jadeite teacups ($10) to a handmade "Cajun camp style" dollhouse ($200).

Chemisière Louisiane
3811 Chartres Street
(504) 948-9989

In May, David Dartnell opened this 3,000-square-foot boutique and studio, which houses his new clothing line of the same name. Designed for "women of the South," the fashions feature loose, lightweight fabrics and bright colors. Most items range around the $200 mark.

36 Hours in Vieques

Originally published in The New York Times on 2/21/10. Read the full text here.

THE mascot of Vieques seems to be the coquí, a tiny frog whose image adorns everything from T-shirts to hot sauce bottles. Yet, given the island’s rapid metamorphosis from Navy testing ground to upscale beach resort, perhaps a tropical butterfly would be better suited. Since the United States Navy ceased military operations in 2003, this small island just off the east coast of mainland Puerto Rico has seen a boom in restaurants, galleries and hotels, including a new W resort expected next month. It’s a testament to the island’s natural beauty, with its white-sand beaches, coral reefs and bioluminescent bay.


4 p.m.

Vieques has spent the last year improving many of its beaches; access to some were in shambles when the Navy left. Red Beach, along a wide-mouthed cove on the island’s warmer Caribbean side, reopened last December, though it has since temporarily closed for road work, and features open-walled wooden cabanas and ample parking. The beach gets a little crowded in the afternoons but in the evenings the crowds are gone, and it has some of the clearest azure blue water on the island — and terrific snorkeling along the eastern end.

7 p.m.

Dinner in the Caribbean should be about three things: local seafood, fresh air and good drinks. The recently opened Cantina La Reina (351 Calle Antonio G. Mellado; 787-741-2700; in Isabel Segunda has all three. Decorated with Catholic iconography, posters of Mexican revolutionaries and old photos of banditos, La Reina may make you forget what country you’re in — until you take a bite of the fresh catch with mango salsa (market price) or the Baja-style shrimp tacos ($18). The rooftop patio also offers fantastic views. Dinner can be a little slow, like the general pace of life on the island. As the bumper stickers say, “What’s the hurry? You are in Vieques.”

10 p.m.

Another sign of how fast things have changed? A decade ago, the old naval base near Green Beach was home to military bunkers. One of those bunkers was recently transformed into the 10,000-square-foot Club Tumby (Antigua Base Naval, Barrio Mosquito; 787-399-7142; The mega-disco, which plays bachata, salsa, bomba, merengue and reggaetón, draws local 20-somethings and visitors almost literally to the middle of nowhere.