Saturday, August 29, 2009

Heavenly Day: Part II

Blueberry pancakes. Those two simple words conjure up a world of delight. Add two more words—Sweet Sue’s—and they instantly move into the “amaze” category.

Sweet Sue’s is an institution in the town of Phoenicia, NY. And not just because there is almost nothing else there (all apologies to Town Tinker Tube Rental and Tender Land Home.) The café has, by all accounts, a checkered past—one that prompts locals to talk and take sides. Since Jim and I have eaten there often enough to be considered regulars (at least in our minds), we have taken a position in the debate: we listen attentively to both sides of the discussion about who did what to whom—and then we chow down.

Breakfast is our meal of choice at Sue’s. From the inn in High Falls, Phoenicia was about half an hour’s drive—but most of the time we set out from northern New Jersey and travel close to two hours (each way) to indulge in what we consider the best breakfast on the planet. Maybe it’s because breakfast is the first meal we ever had there: it was a frigid Sunday morning in January and there was a line out the door. I convinced the impatient Jim that it must be worth it—but neither of us had a clue just how “worth it” it would turn out to be.

Then again, maybe it’s because breakfast is the ONLY meal we’ve eaten there. The owner may have expanded into the space next door (forcing out a beloved tenant and igniting a firestorm), and expanded the menu and the hours, but we haven’t expanded our horizons beyond the eggs and pancakes. And why should we? The pancakes have set a standard so high that I don’t even bother looking elsewhere—this from the woman who is shameless in her search for a better burger or the ultimate chocolate chip cookie. A cross between a crepe and—well—cake, they strike a magical balance between light and fluffy and moist and dense. Adding fruit isn’t necessary, but does enhance the experience. BTW, we’re talking actual berries and bananas here, not flavored syrup.

And then there is the size. On our first visit the waitress said, “You should probably start with just one. They’re really filling.” Ignoring her advice, I went for two: not only did I leave plenty on my plate—I was so full I didn’t eat a thing for the rest of the day. Picture a dinner plate about half an inch thick. Factor in the sides (a thick slab of the homemade turkey sausage is a must) and, well, you have the idea. In fact, serving sizes are generous—period. And prices are ridiculously reasonable.

So the truth is we stacked the "heavenly day" deck by starting at Sweet Sue’s. Everything that followed--gorgeous weather, a long trail walk in the Mohonk Preserve, and a beer and a Cuban sandwich in New Paltz afterwards, was just the proverbial icing on the—um—pancake.

Heavenly Day: Part I

Heavenly day
All the trouble gone away
For a while anyway, for a while anyway
Heavenly day, heavenly day, heavenly day...

Patty Griffin, Children Running Through
© 2007 ATO Records, LLC

Listening to Patty Griffin’s remarkable voice is definitely something I enjoy. I can’t say Heavenly Day ranks as one of my all-time favorites, but the song captures the essence of what a "heavenly day" feels like when you’re in the midst of one. And I've been blessed with them in abundance. Some have been planned in advance, but the majority have simply unfolded. The seeds are sewn in a suggestion or spontaneous idea—like “let’s drive to Belmar”—and then the day just blossoms into perfection.

Sometimes I hit the jackpot: heavenly days back-to-back! Last weekend, Jim and I decided to spend our last two vacation days of the summer bumming around in the Catskills. We do a lot of day trips in the area and last summer stayed at a friend's house in Woodstock and hiked for a week. But Jim had a sore Achilles, so anything more than an easy walk was out of the question. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to book a room in a small inn in High Falls, but other than that we had no plan in place when we woke up Sunday morning. We agreed to start out at our favorite local breakfast spot, the County Deli, were we fueled up on lobster eggs benedict (him) and a ham & cheese breakfast wrap (me), then set off for the sleepy little town of Catskill.

We had been there once before, enjoying the whimsical cat sculptures that line the streets and a nice al fresco lunch. But the return trip was a surprise--and not in a good way. Many of the shops were out of business and the bulk of the rest were closed. On a Sunday? We walked into a small antique store and the owner, a soft-spoken man who offered to negotiate the price of anything that struck our fancy, told us that most of the town was pretty much closed on Saturdays, too. This news, mixed with the pervasive aura of emptiness, made Jim so sad that even a Jane's cappuccino ice cream didn't cheer him up (I can't say the same for my yummy mango sherbet.) Then it started to rain, which forced us to head to one of my favorite places on earth: Lucky Chocolates.

Housed in a renovated garage on the outskirts of Saugerties,
it's an unlikely oasis of hedonism. The worst part about going is having to choose from the array of sinfully original organic chocolates. We're partial to the truffles: raspberry and Earl Grey for me, orange and the seldom-available gorgonzola for Jim. (And I rarely leave without a bag of their big, fat chocolate chip cookies.) We opened our box of treasures the minute we were back in the car and let loose a chorus of "mmmnnn's" and "oh, wow's" as we savored the dense, silky treats. Amazing.

The next stop was Woodstock, where I usually torture Jim by dragging him into every single shop that sells jewelry. But we decided to bypass town and head straight to The Bear Cafe for an early dinner of salad and cheeseburgers. The surprise was that we were there early enough (and the rain stopped long enough) to snag a table out on the deck. The rushing of the rain-swollen stream below us was a lovely backdrop and a cool breeze kept the bugs at bay. It was so idyllic I even indulged in a second Absolut and tonic before we headed down Rte. 209 to High Falls.

Neither of us had been there before and it's highly unlikely we'll go back anytime soon. Maybe it was the extreme humidity. Or the fact that we were tired from the day's adventures. Or it could have been the total confusion of the staff in the adjacent tavern where we'd been instructed to pick up our room key. Whatever the reasons, our night at the inn was not the cozy, romantic, or even quirky experience either of us had hoped for. But as I drifted off to sleep with the sound of the Yankees beating the Red Sox in the background, and visions of the next day's breakfast dancing in my head, there was no doubt that this had qualified as a heavenly day.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Will Work for Olives

I love my job. But like many places today, we’re long on stuff to do and short on people to do it. So while I’m never, ever bored, by Friday night I’m pretty much done in. Which is why the unspoken rule at my house is we don’t cook—and wherever we go to eat, there must be a bar.

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression: I’m not much of a drinker. This wasn’t always the case – I’ve got my repertoire of stories that begin with consuming more than my weight in alcoholic beverages. But the past is the past. And in the present, wine, beer and my body just don’t get along. A friend suggested trying hard liquor, but the only thing I can get past my nose is vodka. Bingo! I discovered that an Absolut and tonic is quite refreshing when it’s warm outside. But what’s a girl to do during New Jersey’s long, cold winters?

Enter the martini. An elegant solution: clear, clean, simple. Sophisticated and so grown-up in its retro, long-stemmed glass. A charming bartender in the Martini Bar at the Raleigh Hotel in South Beach spoiled me from the start. Seduced by his willingness to share his secret recipe, I ordered a second one—and barely made it back to my friend’s apartment (an adventure that prompted me to introduce the one-martini limit.) Years later I realized that he set the standard by which I’ve judged every martini since. The right balance of vodka and vermouth. Definitely shaken, not stirred. No slivers of ice in a glass that’s not too large, not too small. And—best of all—half a dozen big, fat olives.

That’s right: as my sweetheart Jim knows all too well, it’s all about the olives. No, I’m not talking “dirty” (who would ruin good vodka by mixing it with olive juice?) But I’m afraid the single-olive-on-the-end-of-a-skewer is just a tease. Serious drinkers should probably read no further—because I’m sure I’ve given new meaning to the word “extra”. If they’re large olives, five or so will do (a bartender at Café Luxembourg in Manhattan once told me more than four was excessive and I’ve never been back). But the small ones? Well, let’s just say I’m overjoyed when the waiter at Bottagra brings me a small dish full.

So here’s to my favorite drink for unwinding after a long week. One that's meant to be sipped, not gulped. And is best when accompanied by good conversation—and a limitless supply of olives.

Monday, August 17, 2009

If at First...

Last week I started a blog. Not this blog -- a different one. It had a cool name. And it was a big deal just to, well, do it. I'd been thinking about it for at least a year, but hadn't pulled the trigger. And then one night -- well, voila!

I didn't tell anyone about it at first. I just blithely wrote the first few entries, safe in my cocoon of total anonymity. Then I mentioned it to two or three friends, and they all asked the same question: "So what are you blogging about?" My lame answer: "Nothing in particular. Just stuff."

Seriously. It was just something I needed to do. Create a place to write out loud. Outside of my head. And my journal. And why not? There are a gazillion other writers out there right now, doing exactly the same thing, for exactly the same reason. And I'm not sitting here wondering what they're blogging about. Besides, right before I created my first blog I saw an adorably chic 11-year-old girl wearing a t-shirt that said, "No one really cares about your blog." Enough said.

But the question stayed with me. Nagging at that part of me that lives to create clever ideas. As I thought about the topics I was itching to write about,
I kept coming back to a book I'd read in June: Anne LeClaire's Listening Below the Noise. Among the countless things she said that resonated with me was that, at the end of each day, she jotted in her journal things that "amazed, surprised or delighted" her. Lately I keep hearing about the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal, but this sounded way different to me. So I tried it during a trip to Sanibel Island later that month. It was, as it turned out, an effortless endeavor. It grounded me in joyfulness each time I wrote. What better inspiration for a blog?

There is no shortage of things that amaze, surprise and/or delight me. Excursions I take, food I savor, stuff I read, conversations I have with friends. Phrases I hear, songs I sing along to, hikes I relish, beer my son insists I try. Color combinations, recipes, magazine clips, gallery shows, picnic spots, a rare snuggle with my psycho kitty--the list is endless, really. Each is an invitation to forget the day's aggravations and focus on it's pleasures. And that's a practice worth turning into a discipline. Looking forward to sharing...