Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Perfect Piece of Salmon

country living
It's easy to forget that the San Juan Islands are so close, so beautiful, and that every minute of every sunny weekend should be spent on one of them, if at all possible. Being able to get to a place as magical as Orcas Island with just a 90 minute drive and an hour on the ferry makes me feel sorry for people who live in less scenic parts of the country -- Alabama, for instance. But being one of the fortunate ones, and taking one of those less fortunate than I with me, I drove to the ferry in Ancortes on Friday and had a fantastic weekend.

Gary and I discussed whether living on Orcas full-time would be fun, or would the small-town life feel cloying and the island feel remote. It's a tough call. It is so freakin' beautiful out there, it's had to imagine being bored or feeling closed off, especially when Seattle is just two-and-a-half hours away. If one were of independent means or say, worked from home (hey... wait a minute!!) what would be the problem? For now I think the proximity is good enough, and I'm looking forward to hitting some of the other islands soon. This was my third trip to Orcas in 18 months, but Lopez and San Juan are beckoning too.

It was back to Doe Bay on this trip and while it was a little chillier than last time with Cheryl, we still had gorgeous weather and plenty of sun. We roamed around the island on Friday, poking into the shops, driving down roads that just ended at the water, and driving up to the Mt. Constitution lookout point which didn't offer quite the same clear views as last time but was spectacular even so. We drove back into Eastsound at dinner time for wood-fired pizza and then checked into our yurt at the Doe Bay Resort. Cheryl and I stayed in one of the little cabins last time but the yurts are situated closer to the water and I liked the idea of being in a fully made bed while essentially being in a tent. The yurt was definitely comfy-cozy if a little cold at night, but soaking in the hot tubs before going to bed definitely helped.
our little yurt in the woods - far right
if you had to camp, this is where you'd want your tent to be
french toast
On Saturday we had a big breakfast at the Doe Bay Café (including, but not limited to, goat cheese-stuffed French toast with strawberry-rhubarb compote) and then drove around the island some more; we hiked to Cascade Falls which is a series of three gorgeous waterfalls, went into a few shops back in town, and checked out another resort on a different part of the island that might be nice for next time. We sat outside at that place, sipping a mocha, watching a bald eagle in a tree, and just looking out at the water. That night we went back to the Doe Bay Café for dinner and it was amazing. We had
at Doe Bay Garden
walked around the Doe Bay Garden in the morning and chit-chatted with two of the gardeners, they told us that the garden, in season, provides all the produce for the Café and that level of freshness was very apparent on our plates. We started with rock shrimp on a bed of spinach, layered on a piece of rye toast with a very delicate sauce poured over, and it was as pretty as it was delicious. But the show-stopper was our wild salmon entreé which came with Yukon gold potatoes, garlic shoots, shiitake mushrooms, wild leeks, and was topped with hollandaise. We are two people who have eaten a lot of salmon...
rock shrimp with spinach
Copper River salmon, king salmon right off fishing boats -- there is simply no shortage of fresh salmon in these parts, but this plate of salmon was special. First of all, it was cooked to absolute perfection, being very slightly raw in the middle and very slightly charred on the edges; and the plate was beautifully arranged, with one yellow blossom on top and tiny purple petals strewn about. Add to that some amazing additions to the dish which weren't listed on the menu: a few sea beans (salty, crisp, delicious) and some fava beans (mild in flavor, hearty, legume-y-goodness) and it was kind of a symphony on a plate. I would not have picked
a perfect plate of salmon
hollandaise to go with a beautifully clean piece of grilled fish but this addition was genius. A little bit of everything on the fork and the taste sensations would pile on as we chewed. There was the fantastic flavor of the fish, then the vegetables would add their earthiness including a hint of garlic, and finally the lemon from the hollandaise would kick in. We were astounded by how delicious is was, and how subtly all the flavors worked together.

On Sunday we got up early and went to the Brown Bear Bakery for quiche and a chocolate muffin ("muffin" being a term used loosely, this was a giant piece of chocolate cake shaped like a muffin) and then on to our last excursion which was a 3-hour sea kayaking tour. The sun had come out in earnest by this point, and the weather was perfect for a paddle along the shore, looking out at the islands, and enjoying being nearly eye level with the fat harbor seals frolicking on some rocks.

Another fantastic weekend in the Pacific Northwest.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Nashville - the Athens of the South

Seriously? Yep, that's what they call it. I've never been to Greece so who am I to argue, AND, the Parthanon is there. It may not be THE Parthanon, but it's damn close. It's a scale replica built for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition and resides in the middle of what is now Centennial Park in Nashville, and in keeping with the original which was a temple to the goddess Athena, there is a 42-foot statue of one scary looking broad inside.

The main reason for the trip North from Birmingham was two-fold with one of the folds being coincidentally Greek-related. It was to visit the bookstore opened a few years ago by Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers. She first made an impression on me with Bel Canto in the early 2000s and I've read most of her other books ince then; State of Wonder blew me away and Run is a page-turner, The Magician's Assistant is filled with sadness and kindness and sweetness and hope. The name of Ann's shop is Parnassus Books, named after Mt. Parnassus in Greece, home of the muses and thus a place for poetry, music, and learning. Ann has said in interviews that she wanted the store to be the the bookstore of her childhood, small, personal, a place where the booksellers knew you and knew what you read. She wanted it to be a place to hang out, to read, and to escape. The bookstore of my childhood wasn't a small independent shop like Ann had during her childhood in Nashville, it was the Walden Books in the mall in Sacramento - but I know exactly what she means. It was standard procedure when going to the mall as a child with my parents that I would make my way to the Walden Books and they would pick me up there when they were done shopping. I loved that store. It was small and people left you alone. I have nothing against the Barnes & Nobles of the world, it's wonderful to have so much variety on hand, but it's not the same. Ann's store is delightful, warm, and inviting. As I was wandering around, someone smiled and asked if I needed help finding anything, and when purchases were made (I bought a memoir by Ann's late friend, the writer Lucy Grealy, and the book Ann wrote about their friendship after Lucy died), the lovely lady behind the counter gave me some backstory about the books and the order in which Ann recommends they be read. We weren't there long, and I was a tiny bit disappointed that I didn't get to meet Ann (she was either in the back or out at that moment, the lady who checked us out said she was in that day) but it definitely felt like a special experience to be in the Parnassus of the South.

The second of the two-fold itinerary for Nashville was to go to Prince's Hot Chicken Shack. I saw it listed on some random list of the best fried chicken places in the country, and that struck me as a good enough reason to try it. We were still a little high on the fried chicken we had a the fancy gastropub in Charlotte, and Prince's was a 180-degree turn in terms of ambiance (think gas station back room meets diner) but the chicken was great, and the the experience seemed very "down home."
There was a lady selling home-baked slices of cake out of the shop; it was unclear in what way she was associated with Prince's other than the fact that she was inside it, but one of her offerings was caramel cake and we are suckers for anything caramel around here. The cake was ridiculously sugary and good and the chicken was delicious. We weren't looking for super-spicy, just flavorful and crispy, and I had read on-line that if you don't like it HOT (as in spicy), don't even order the medium, so we went with the mild, which was plenty hot, and the plain which was basic fried chicken. I'd give the mild at least three stars on any Thai food scale, but it was very tasty and the plain was just great. Both were served on slices of white bread and topped with pickle slices. The Kentucky Derby started about 10 minutes after we sat down so we watched the race while waiting for our meal. Some guy wandering around the place was packing a huge sidearm in the elastic waistband of his size-enormous jean-shorts. He seemed to know everyone and I saw him go into the kitchen although it didn't appear that he worked there. I guess he needed the gun since he clearly wouldn't be out-running anyone. This is the South.