Colossal bagels, thin-crusted pizza and Italian restaurants are, of course, ubiquitous. Real New York-style cheesecake, minus the syrupy-sweet berry toppings, can be had in most eateries, even if they're snack bars. And pretty much the sole source for Northwest-type coffee drinks is Starbucks; in some locations, the "menus" include explanations for the various libations.
Sure the climate, geography and the daily grind are way different Back East, but so is the food and drink.
Beginning in the New York metropolitan area, my traveling companion Christiana Haldane and I dined our way around the Northeast from rural New Jersey to history-rich Boston. All the while, we were wowed not just by the cultural diversity, but also by the constant contrasts to life back home - whether it be in urban Seattle (where Chris creates cakes and specialty desserts at Dessert Works), or small-town Astoria.
Grazing Lower Manhattan
More than three inches of rain, courtesy of hurricane Frances, falls between 10 a.m. and noon Wednesday, Sept. 8, our first day in New Jersey, spent in Paramus at the home of my sister, Pat Dunn, and her husband, Larry. Thursday morning we hop a bus to midtown Manhattan, then board the subway for downtown Chambers Street. But the best way to see Manhattan is on foot, and Chris has selected a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) Volksmarch course that begins in Tribeca, continues along the west side Hudson River waterfront to Battery Park and South Street Seaport, then through the Financial District and the site of the former World Trade Center, followed by tours of Chinatown and adjacent Little Italy.
Almost from the start, we're hungry and thirsty. Tribeca's Pan Latin offers broccoli, spinach and cream cheese empanadas ($5.50) and, amazingly, Oregon Chai. New Yorkers have taken the Northwest's espresso bar concept and turned it into something else. In view of the four-masted bark Peking, the lightship Ambrose and other refurbished vessels at South Street Seaport, the Cyber Cigar Coffee Bar serves five ales on tap, plus smoothies, hot pretzels, franks and cigars. Seattle's Best Coffee is featured, but espresso and coffee drinks appear pretty much an afterthought.
Savory pastries (bean paste cake, egg yolk coconut cake) are the house specialties at Golden Fung Wong Bakery in Chinatown, but I opt for a slice of sweet and crunchy (but overly dry) walnut cake ($.80). A few blocks away at a Malaysian restaurant named Jaya, Chris and I share a mango smoothie ($3.95) and chat with proprietor David Ping, a slight animated fellow who squeezes us a complementary glass of sugar cane juice when I inquire about the stalks leaning against his eatery. Reduces body heat and eliminates toxins, he assures us. Prior to walking back and forth across the Brooklyn Bridge on an elevated concrete and wooden walkway, we repair to Ferrara Bakery & Cafe for straiccella ($3) - vanilla gelato spiked with bits of chocolate that tastes like a fudgesicle.
A wallet-breaking dinner at Remi
The next day, Chris and I spend a couple hours wandering the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York City; (212) 879-5500), but forego the museum's five dining options, as well as the $28 prix fixe lunch at Central Park's Tavern On The Green. We're meeting my brother, Dave Fencsak, and his wife, Kathy, for a repast at Remi (145 W. 53rd St., New York City; (212) 581-4242), an elongated dinner house with a hip vibe that's said to purvey the city's finest Italian fare by at least one New York food critic.
Everything's a la carte, of course, so we're prepared to spend big bucks. A roasted sea scallop starter comes wrapped in prosciutto, and arugula salad arrives tossed with parmesan and a walnut-calamata olive dressing. Exemplary risotto is infused with lobster sauce or squid ink, while smoked eggplant accompanies the seared Alaskan halibut. The wine list is superior and (surprise!) fairly priced. Still, our repast sets us back almost $300, and Dave and Kathy insist on paying. Afterward, we mingle with the mob roaming Times Square, then take the George Washington Bridge to Interstate 80 and Dave and Kathy's home in bucolic Blairstown, near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.
Rhode Island's capital city, Providence, is a smallish metropolis 25 miles up Narragansett Sound and a work in progress. Our host is former Seattle resident Lesley Blair, a cancer researcher at Brown University who lives in a fifth-floor loft apartment in the Downcity District, a slice of inner Providence that showcases vestiges of Victorian grandeur and harbors aspirations of becoming a hip Northeast neighborhood. Warehouses have been converted into offices and condos, while coffeehouses, cafes and clubs occupy street level spaces. Theaters dot the district and a few blocks away, the Rhode Island School of Design scrunches up against the banks of the Providence River. All of the eye-catching merchandise at nearby risd/works (10 Westminster St., Providence; (401) 277-4949) is designed by School of Design alumni and faculty.
First morning I head to Starbucks for chai tea and the New York Times (the only place I can find either). There's no line; most folks in the Northeast quaff insipid but less-expensive Dunkin' Doughnuts coffee. Providence boasts an array of well-regarded Italian eateries, but Lesley's cooking is extraordinary - baguette French toast, blue crab and prawns sauteed Thai-style with garlic and ginger, chocolate-amaretto gelato and strawberry sorbet. But she doesn't brew beer, so on consecutive evenings we purchase gallon jugs of Point Break and Octoberfest ales ($9.50 each) at Trinity Brewhouse (188 fountain St., Providence; (401) 453-2337) to wash down Lesley's luscious vittles.
Newport's Cliff Walk
A good part of Rhode Island is water. After crossing two bridges that span azure Narragansett Bay, Chris and I park our rental car next to a whitewashed brick tavern in tony Newport, a city settled in 1639, a scant 19 years after Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts was established. Chi-chi shops and spendy bistros with names such as La Petite Auberge and The Red Parrot are situated throughout downtown. Interspersed among the businesses are restored churches, some dating to the 17th century. We investigate an Italian bakery and sandwich spot called Portabella and buy a loaf of honey-wheat bread ($4.50).
A bustling cross-Newport thoroughfare leads to the ocean and the beginning of the Cliff Walk. This 3.5-mile pathway hugs a rugged shoreline that resembles sections of Oregon's central coast, except the ocean front is lined with palatial stone and brick mansions. Many of them once belonged to Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and other wealthy families. Upon our return to Providence, we feast on Lesley's hand-crafted three-cheese ravioli garnished with roasted hazelnuts and basil, perhaps the finest meal of our entire 10-day trip.
Following the Freedom Trail
Chris and I make Amtrak reservations to Boston, but learn the train is an hour late when we arrive at the Providence train station. Instead of waiting, we board a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Train for half the price ($6 per person each way). During the hour-long, eight-stop ride north - the train crosses into Massachusetts almost immediately - we peruse copies of the Boston Globe left by earlier commuters.
The 2.5-mile Freedom Trail is marked by a red, usually brick, line that courses from Boston Common to Faneuil Hall Marketplace, through the cobbled streets of the North End past Old North Church (where Paul Revere's two lanterns were hung in 1775 to announce the arrival of British troops) and Coop's Hill Burying Ground, then across the Charles River and up to Bunker Hill.
At Quincy Market (part of the Faneuil Hall complex), row after row of vendors hawk everything from sausage and pepper sandwiches to chocolate-slathered pound-and-a-half cream puffs. I feel compelled to sample the local fare at Pizzeria Regina, said to be Boston's original pizza joint. A slice of vegetarian ($4.19) comes top-heavy with onions, green peppers, mushrooms and then some. Chris and I next share an oven-warmed "pressed" sandwich from the North End Bakery booth - sort of a cross between calzone and panini stuffed with ham, pepperoni and provolone ($5).
Farther along the trail, we divert to a pint-sized Italian bakery for sfogliatfilla ($2.50), a phyllo-like pastry filled with ricotta, cinnamon and bits of candy that was recommended by a construction worker. Soon we're at the base of Bunker Hill, where we trudge up the Bunker Hill Monument's 294-step spiral staircase to work off our gluttonous afternoon.
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