Saturday, May 31, 2008

Keegans Ale and Le Canard in Kingston

Gout is a helpful companion. Earlier this month, we celebrated my brother's birthday at the Crab Claw in Saint Michaels, Maryland. I tucked into more blue crab than prudent and Gout came around the next day to remind me to behave. Several years ago in Venice, zuppa di fagioli prompted Gout to persuade me to remain within gimping distance of the Hotel Ala and not ramble off cross country. Thanks to the extra week, I fell in love with a city I might otherwise have dismissed as an interesting museum. Today Gout has focused my attention on the fine ale and rack of lamb I enjoyed yesterday in Kingston, New York.

The evening started around six at the small bar inside Keegans Brewery. A pint of Old Capital (Kingston was the first capital of New York) followed by a pint of Belgian style white beer. The Old Capital was refreshing (and glasses around the bar were refreshed regularly); the white beer was an eminently acceptable local beer but lacked the depth of Blanche de Chambly from Quebec. The vibe at Tom Keegan's place was one which craft brew joints everywhere would do well to follow: super casual and genuinely warm with a nice mix of music set low enough for normal conversation. Everyone seemed to know each other. No one objected to the peanut shells covering the floor.

Dinner at Le Canard Enchaine proved to be an ideal place to finish the day and conclude the week. Chef/owner Jean-Jacques Carquillat met us at the door and led us to a table in the bar. The mood was unabashedly happy. The rack of lamb was one of the night's specials and tasted great. It was served medium rare with a thick red wine sauce and accompanied by sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes. Now that I know where to find Le Canard, I plan to waddle back often.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Olivia's Overlook on Memorial Day

"Hanging on by your teeth" has new meaning. The view of the Stockbridge Bowl from Olivia's Overlook was superb. Marketers everywhere were trumpeting the first weekend of the summer and the elements agreed: it was sunny, cool and still. A perfect afternoon for a walk in the woods. Or so I imagined.

The Berkshire Natural Resource Council has done an excellent job marking and maintaining the trails. Mike and I set off to the south on the Michael H. Walsh trail. After crossing a footbrige at the edge of the meadow, a large sign provided a map described the Walsh, Charcoal and Ridge trails in detail. It warned of "tricky footing" in some sections.

The Charcoal Trail was named for the pits used to make the charcoal used as fuel early in the industrial revolution. By the middle of the nineteenth century, most of Massachusetts had been deforested, and these hills were no exception. Now they have largely reverted to mature forest with tall oaks, maples, white pines and hemlocks forming a thick canopy.

Native azaleas and evergreens formed heavy undergrowth. The "swamp pink" was already in bloom and the mountain laurel was on the cusp.

Mike and I continued further into the woods on the downhill slope with ease. The ascent was where the footing got tricky. For Mike. Under most circumstances, Mike is game for any hike. He will gladly march through heavy snow in sub zero temperatures; he is fearless in front of black bears. But the carpet of dry oak leaves on a narrow, steeply inclined trail bested him. Even with his claws fully extended, he was unable to obtain any purchase. He slipped off the trail and began sliding down the slope on his back. He accepted my hand with the only tool he had left: his teeth. And he hung on as tightly as he could without causing me harm. I slid down beside him, picked him up and carried him back to the trail. Nothing doing. He aimed straight down hill and walked away, completely off the trail. I followed, eventually putting him back on the leash. We made our way back up the hill on an ancient diagonal track which I suspect was originally used to drag logs up to the charcoal pits.

I was not able to figure out the purpose of the rock columns. Druids maybe? Mike was totally disinterested.

He was, however, thrilled to be back on the ridge and in the sun. Haze obscured our westward views but not joy of sitting and enjoying them.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Once Every Other Year

The Japanese passion for cherry blossoms is strongest when the petals are released from the tree and drift to the ground. Gardens are landscaped around capturing that moment. The crab apple trees in my yard were not placed with such care. In fact, one of them blocks a fine view of October Mountain. But for one week every other year I am treated to such a riotous display that I am persuaded not to improve the view for the other hundred and one.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Berkshire Mass Transit Busses

The mass transit system in Hong Kong is among the most colorful and efficient in the world. In addition to the world class rail systems, both above and below ground, it has London style double deck busses, mini busses, ferries, and trams. The Star Ferry and Peak Tram have never ceased to excite me, even after three decades. Everyone in Hong Kong is familiar with the system and almost everyone uses it regularly. It is so good I could not imagine a resident not using it. I was dumbfounded several years ago when I met a not-so-recently arrived British expatriate who had never ventured below ground on the MTR. Perhaps I should have been more understanding.

I returned to the Berkshires about six years ago. Over that time I have seen the shiny blue BRTA busses crisscrossing the county. Until this morning, I had never boarded one. I needed to drop off a car at Hertz in Pittsfield and then return to Lee. Hertz was located near the Allendale shopping center and BRTA route 2/16 began there and terminated in Lee. Perfect. I would take the bus.

No one at Hertz knew where the bus stop was; I asked at least five people. Directly behind Hertz in the shopping center, a clerk at Big Lots advised the bus stop was along side the Big Lots building. At 10:40, right on time, the bus pulled up to the building. Before I could get on, however, I was advised to allow passengers to disembark first. A frail looking old dear, with dark glasses and black gloves, declined my offer of assistance. A couple of big dudes wearing shorts and sporting dreadlocks followed. When I stepped on I was the only rider. The bus was spotless. The only advertising posters inside were public service announcements.

The fare from Allendale to Lee was $3.30, or $1.10 per zone with each town representing a zone. The driver would not make change, but he would make conversation. He suggested that at the “intermodal center” on North Street in Pittsfield, I buy a pack of gum at the coffee shop to break my twenty and then pay the fare. Fine. Contrary to an NPR report earlier this week about increased mass transit ridership in Boston, LA and Miami: “No. More people are not riding the bus around here,” the driver explained. “Only the poor and unfortunate ride the bus; the rest just complain about gas prices but keep driving their cars.”

The NPR story emphasized how the economy in general and fuel prices in particular were compelling the new straphangers to use mass transit. A sad story made only more so by the observation that those still driving were benefitting from less traffic. No doubt unintentionally, this month’s Berkshire Living magazine validated the notion that riding the bus is for the “poor and unfortunate.” Nowhere in an issue dedicated to “green” living was there a mention of the excellent BRTA busses or routes throughout the county.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tony Luke's

Once upon a time, the Eagle Café at the corner of Fenn and Fourth in Pittsfield, Massachusetts served a great sandwich. The aroma of grilled onions greeted you at the door. We always sat at the bar and watched Nick, the proprietor, slow cook sliced onions on one side of the griddle and fry up Italian sausage patties on the other side. The two were married on a warm bun and crowned with a slice of provolone. It’s been at least twenty five years since I last entered the Eagle Café. Now I do my best duplicate Nick’s sandwich with fresh Mazzeo’s sausage patties, sometimes using the sweet other times the hot.

Today at Tony Luke’s in Philadelphia, I encountered a worthy companion to Nick’s sandwich: Italian link sausage (sliced into strips the long way), sautéed peppers and provolone on a hoagy bun. Outstanding.

Tony’s is definitely a guy place. At noon, I reckoned males outnumbered females ten to one. I’m told there are more women at night but I suspect they are humoring their dates after the game or a night on the town. The menu tells story: all manner of cheese steaks. Try the roast pork and broccoli rabe with sharp provolone. Perhaps as a sign of the times, the prices on the wall menu were covered. Everything is going up. Judging from the billboard riding on top of the restaurant, the owners still have an excellent sense of humor.