Finding Oysters and Seeking Water Views in Virginia’s Northern Neck
You don’t have to go far outside the DC area for an un-urban experience. But you will not escape the traffic trying to get there. So brace yourself until you’re past Fredericksburg and can break free of I-95. J and I, and our senior-dog-resigned-to-her-fate, spent a summer weekend in Virginia’s Northern Neck. It’s an area dotted with tiny towns; of low-lying farms and fields of corn and soybeans where the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay. J and I were there to kayak and eat what we could manage of Rappahannock oysters. We stayed in a small house in Irvington down the street from the Steamboat Era Museum and the grassy commons set up for the Irvington Crab Festival, at the town’s main commercial intersection. There was a Methodist church on one corner, Baptist on the other.
We passed by both on our unhurried morning walks to The Local, the local coffee shop, where we sat on the street-front patio behind the white picket fence and watched grandparents and grandkids leisurely cycle by on pastel bikes. A few doors down we ate dinner at The Dredge (named for the fishing dredge used to harvest oysters), which was nicely full of year-long residents and regular summer visitors. Lily Pulitzer was on full display. And then sipped port at the softly lit The Vine (wine shop and wine bar) comfortably situated next to the Baptist church.
Down the road in Weems we stopped by one of the best-preserved colonial era churches, set off in a tree-shaded grassy enclave. An Anglican parish church built in the 1730s and funded by wealthy landowner Robert “King” Carter, we read the inscriptions on the tombs outside Historic Christ Church of King Carter himself and his first and second wives. Both wives died in their 30s…after birthing a combined 15 children (Carter died in his 60s).
Although surrounded by water on the map, we had to deliberately seek it out. From Weems we followed a quiet road ending miles away at the beach and marina of Windmill Point, jutting out where the Rappahannock River falls into the Chesapeake Bay.
We rented kayaks and paddled out on a quiet creek at Menokin, the house and plantation of Francis Lightfoot Lee, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The house, now in ruins, is coming back under a preservation plan that will re-build the lost remains of the outer structure in glass. It’s set off in a field and had terraced gardens in the back that in its day preserved a view of the creek beyond.
Driving back to Irvington, we stopped for sandwiches at the civil war finds cum all-day-breakfast diner at the alliterative Callao Coffee Café in Callao, with signs for casino parking in back (although we didn’t see a casino). We browsed what was for sale while waiting for our paninis. Continuing east before turning south I found homemade ice cream (peanut butter Oreo) at T & Js Dairy Barn in Burgess.
Eventually we found a deck with water views by heading straight down historic Urbanna‘s Virginia Street and taking a gravel road to the seafood market and dockside restaurant of Urbanna Seafood and Raw Bar. At stools lining the small covered outdoor bar we looked out at Robinson Creek while diners ordered baskets of oysters and crabs and calamari at multi-colored benches and picnic tables on the shaded deck. Passing through White Stone on our way back from Urbanna (over the Norris Bridge across the Rappahannock) we stopped for dinner at the lovely unassuming Adrift, which shares the block with the town post office. Sitting at the small bar we hung out eating oysters delicately fried and flavorful over a spinach salad, and baked and ramp-buttered in a hot dish with toast.
Our last chance at oysters was back over the Norris Bridge and an immediate left (at Hummel Field airfield) to the shore of the Rappahannock for brunch at Merroir, the birthplace of the Rappahannock Oyster Company. We arrived not long after opening time, which got us an umbrella shaded table on the dog friendly patio of softly crushed bleached-white oyster shells. BBQ bourbon chipotle grilled oysters, accompanied by a jumbo lump crab cake and a glass of rosé, enhanced a sprawling river view. It felt quiet and there was a slight breeze. And we lingered.
The Sensibility of the Italian Aperitivo
I was wistfully reminded of northern Italy’s aperitivo one night in DC’s Maxwell Park. It was early evening on a Saturday and every bar seat was comfortably filled by people like me and J who were there for a pre-dinner drink. But as I glanced around, I noticed amongst the wine and water glasses that there wasn’t a small plate or bowl of snacks in front of anyone. In contrast, my pre-dinner experience in northern Italy was “aperitivo,” a civilized few hours around sunset enjoyed with a selection of meats and cheeses, crusty bread, olives or other bites, served alongside your cocktail or wine.
Aperitivo purportedly got its start in the capital of Italy’s Piedmont’s region, Turin, where Antonio Benedetto Carpano concocted vermouth. (And where J and I had two lovely pizzas sitting outdoors at a café, excited but fighting off the beginnings of jet lag – having just landed from the U.S. – and before catching our train to coastal Liguria.)
And there we were the next day, at an open-air seaside bar in Camogli, on the Ligurian coast, where aperitivo included an eclectic mix of potato chips, bite size sandwiches, pickled vegetables, and hummus. All of this came unbidden with a glass of sparkling wine and the server insisting, yes, snacks come with your drinks, and yes, they are included in the very reasonable price. How have I not known about this sensible tradition? Google translates “aperitivo” to “appetizer.” Which doesn’t do it justice. Italy’s aperitivo was a revelation; a truly smart way to enjoy your early evening.
A Little Limoncello is Good for the Memory
On an early summer evening we made dinner for friends, who brought dessert. They were flying in a few days to visit some of the very same parts of northern Italy J and I did a few years ago. Just hearing “Piemonte,” “Alba,” “Barolo,” “Liguria,” filled my heart. I started talking in that enthusiastic tone of someone who has just gotten back from a trip and still feels close enough to touch it. That experience was essentially the force behind this blog.
She’s Italian and grew up in Turin (widely-claimed home of aperitivo); keeps a place on the Ligurian coast in Sanremo (or San Remo). Fly into Nice and it’s a short drive across the French-Italian border, on the Riviera di Ponente, Coast of the Sunset. (I stayed on the other side of Genoa, the Riviera di Levante, Coast of the Sunrise.) We had homemade tiramisu for dessert and homemade limoncello for our digestivo. A drink of grain alcohol, lemon rinds, and sugar, it burned the back of my throat. The limoncello was poured mercifully into tiny shot glasses. The rest is now hanging out in our freezer. I admit to being a little afraid to bring it out.
So, I’m going back to Italy with maybe a few new posts and have split my very first post – written just over a year ago – into two. I’m finally heeding (somewhat) my teenage niece’s comment that my blog posts can be too long.
Finding Pimento Cheese and Presidents’ Faces in a Changing Union Market
I was drawn back to Washington DC’s Union Market by St. Anselm and its meat-focused menu and friends’ good reviews. That area has changed. It was dark and raining, but driving down 4thSt NE I was startled to see the old row of low-slung industrial buildings all of a sudden disappear, into a gaping I’m-going-to-be-a-high-rise-apartment-building hole, with the restaurant Masseria– its left side shorn off – the humble last stop at the edge of a cliff.
It was enough change to make J and I show up the next day to get our bearings in dry daylight. Wholesale produce markets and meat markets proclaiming fresh goat are disappearing. Near a halal butcher and restaurant supply store is a Politics & Prose bookstore.
A. Litteri Italian market is still there. Next to the wholesale Washington DC souvenir mart. A. Litteri is where I know we can get trophie pasta…better to reminisce with a lot of basil pesto, potatoes, and green beans, about our trip to Liguria, on Italy’s northern Mediterranean coast. And, to check out the selection of Piedmont and Ligurian wines. We left with a Pigato (a Ligurian white) and will be back, hopefully, for a Rossese (a Ligurian red).
We were happy to see a Ploussard (sometimes Poulsard) (from the Jura region of France) at St. Anselm. A light and bright red we’d first tried over Thanksgiving turkey; a nice alternative to a Pinot Noir. Contemplating the images of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy over the kitchen doorway and the Shriners’ fez hats above the bar, we also tried a Graciano from the Willamette Valley in Oregon and a Mondeuse, from the Savoie in France along with some smoky grilled oysters.
Underneath my hanger steak, my dinner plate presented the image of Dwight D. Eisenhower. J’s was a stag – really not as exciting as cutting meat on the etched face of Eisenhower. Our server was so engaging we were compelled to have a piece of rainbow sprinkled ice cream cake. I left happily with a doggie bag of the last of the four buttermilk biscuits, shimmering in delicate laminated layers, pale orange pimento cheese spread on the side.
Finding My Perfect Pre-Hockey Happy Hour in DC
Hockey and Modern Asian cuisine? ALL CAPS and Wasabi Guacamole? It doesn’t seem like a natural fit, but…
My pre-Washington Capitals dinner and drinks spot is the bar at SEI. Hands down. It’s open, with a lot of counter space, and there’s a small lounge area with low tables set-off in the back. Happy hour runs until 8 pm – every evening. It’s not wall-to-wall people, so you have space to linger and eat and hear your friends talk. I haven’t had a bad happy hour red by-the-glass (recently a merlot), and my sinuses are consistently cleared by the wasabi I apply liberally to my spicy shrimp or tuna sushi rolls. And then there’s the signature Wasabi Guacamole. Four of us scooped up two orders with crispy wonton chips. Then J and I usually take a break from sushi for two Kobe beef sliders on a plate. We don’t waver from these favorite happy hour menu choices and they never disappoint.
Post-hockey? Rarely. But when it’s happened, it’s been to Flight. Flight’s the warm blonde downstairs wine bar on “the other side” of Capital One Arena. By the end of a 7:00 pm game, closing time is coming, and so are the happy hour prices on wines opened, but bottles not emptied. When we arrived after one hockey night, stool space was available at the curved center bar, and we were immediately engaged by a bartender who was – well, engaging – and knew her wines. A perfect way to cap off a Capitals win.
Finding Oysters (and other good stuff) at the Beach on Hilton Head Island
Winter on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, is low key. Its wide-open beaches and fewer people. It means oysters are in season and we can still get fresh shrimp. Last year, J and I experimented with poached oysters dotted with caviar and wisps of pickled cucumber. It was decadent and delicious. This year, to save J’s hands and manage to eat before midnight AND be able to enjoy more oysters with family, we stuck to roasting them on the grill to dip in cocktail sauce, a gingery cilantro sauce, and melted butter. Sauces that also shared nicely with a large bowl of peel-and-eat shrimp.
And then there was that blind baguette taste-off, which completed the night’s vibrant meal. (Some of the family had pre-determined favorites, but it was a tie – really – because each chewy baguette had its own strength – from a hint of butter in one to a perfectly browned crust in the other. See the culpable bakeries below.)
Sharing table space with the shrimp and oysters were bottles (carted down I-95 in the car with Russ & Daughters‘ smoked salmon, pickled lox, and a chocolate babka for good measure), of sparkling smoky na Punta extra brut and an exceptionally dry Argyle Extended Tirage Brut sipped from unassuming (maybe mismatched and unbreakable?) house wine glasses. We could bring them down to the beach for a sunset in soft shades of pink, behind the oyster shell-decorated “tree” that shows up every year at Christmas. Or during a pitch-black night, to see the moon, like J, with his camera, tripod, and headlamp.
Besides the beach at sunset, get to these places on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, SC, to make the most out of Winter –
- Bluffton Oyster Company, for bushels of local oysters. Be sure to call and place an order ahead of time during the holidays.
- Benny Hudson Seafood, another favorite for shrimp and fish like grouper and black drum.
- The butcher at Scotts Market, for your meat needs. I’ve had a sirloin roast and bavette (one of my favorite cuts).
- Hilton Head Social Bakery, for the perfectly crusty and chewy baguette.
- Twisted European Bakery, for the perfectly golden and slightly buttery baguette.
- New York City Pizza, where the take-out veggie pizza is piled high with mushrooms, green peppers and onions, and they’re open late-ish if you hit traffic and arrive on the island after dark.
- Fish Camp on Broad Creek, to sit at the heated outside bar twinkling in strings of soft white lights, eating ahi tuna nachos and calamari with crunchy/spicy fried pickles, a Westover One-Claw and a glass of malbec, listening to the guy in the corner playing guitar.
Finding Unexpected Warmth in a Cellar
Yeah, there we were, hanging outside the basement steps leading down to The Dabney Cellar, a few minutes before opening time. Looking up at the sky, checking the time on our phones. (As if we were waiting for a secret code…or something.) We’d just walked over from Maydan, after a fruitless line standing experience (we’ll try again), ready to take our chances at The Dabney. The small subterranean The Dabney Cellar is the English basement outpost below The Dabney and faces 9thstreet with its own entrance. J had put in our names upstairs at The Dabney for a table and we took the recommendation to spend an hour and a half in the Cellar around the corner from The Dabney’s Blagden Alley entrance. (For customers, there’s no way into The Dabney directly from the Cellar.)
The Dabney was surprisingly unpretentious for being one of Washington DC’s best restaurants; the tables a happy distance apart and the kitchen low and open at the back, the food (smallish plates) consistently vibrant and green. The Dabney was excellent, but the Cellar was a find. Comfortably dark, warmly lit and nicely cozy. Fitted with an L-shaped bar and high tops, tables on an upper deck. J and I sat at the bar, checking out the wine list for interesting tastes, talking to the welcoming bartenders about the wines, snacking on melon salad and crostini, a cover of Steve Winwood’s Valerie in the background. Comfortable, friendly, and low key.
A Little Bit of Italy in Virginia
We went south to head north; to stop by a few wineries on a rainy Sunday, on our way back to the Washington, DC, area. J and I had been hiking in Shenandoah National Park and “camping” in a tiny house trailer at getaway. After a morning stop for cappuccino at the Mudhouse in Crozet, we turned left at the winery sign – hanging off a piece of construction equipment at the side of the road – and pulled in to Gabriele Rausse (just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia). Gabriele Rausse is the namesake winery of Gabriele Rausse who moved from Italy to Virginia in the late 1970s to help start Barboursville Vineyards.
The modern glass and wood framed tasting room was tucked into the trees at the end of a short gravel lane – windows facing out on at least two sides of the small open space. At mid-day, a couple was sitting in the back booth and several were standing at the tasting bar. The Beatles were playing; a wilted hardcover book about Italy’s big Barolo wines on the shelf. The winery’s lumberingly sweet yellow lab mix greeted everyone and then plopped down to rest against the window.
Gabriele Rausse’s son was pouring the wine, family was around, and fresh pasta was being rolled through a pasta maker. We tasted whites to reds accompanied by small bites of speck with arugula, soft and crunchy sourdough baguettes with pungent olive oil for dipping, fresh linguine with pesto, and a bite of warm baklava at the end.
Where the Malbec Meets the Mountains on a Ranch in Argentina
I’m in the foothills of the Andes mountains in Argentina – on a horse – gripping the reins with an intensity only a novice rider could know, while being jostled up the last few feet of uneven, gravelly terrain. At the top of the ridge, I willed myself to open my eyes and take in the stunning expanse of the wine-making Valle de Uco below. I had joined J, already at this precipice, and our guide, Dino – part-time trail rider, part-time goat farmer. Vineyards lay below us, barely visible in a pastel quilt. While over my shoulder were the Andes mountains, rising up behind shrub dotted hills.
An hour later I was lounging, legs stretched out, in a chair beside a shaded table on the clipped front lawn of the main house at the guest ranch, Estancia El Puesto. I was sipping chardonnay under a sharp blue sky, the late fall air warmed by the intense mountain sun. And so it began, three days of exhilarating riding across the hills of the Alto Valle de Uco matched only by superb local dishes and unexpected attention to detail back at the Estancia. We were greeted our first day with Argentine barbeque on the large outdoor grill. One night featured pollo al disco (a rich chicken, sauce, and vegetables cooked in a deep round pan, the “disco”). On another, a hearty stew – Locro – typically served on Revolucion de Mayo (Argentina’s Independence Day). Breakfast was always out by the time we got up and included a small pot of dulce de leche (yes, it does go with everything), and the necessary hot pot of café con leche.
Evenings were without the glowing distraction of devices, digital clocks, or TVs. With no ambient light – at all – the nights collapsed quickly into black. We ate dinner by candlelight and warmed ourselves by fireplaces against plummeting nighttime temperatures. Once we braved the cold outside to gaze at the blanket of stars sparkling overhead and were able to trace the Southern Cross.
J and I felt a peacefulness only achieved in a place where you are surrounded by sky and mountains, and where cattle, horses, and goats (and several friendly dogs) outnumber the humans. Where the only other person I saw outside the ranch was a lone gaucho riding slowly along the dusty path that ran in front. We were only two hours from Mendoza City and a half hour from the vineyard filled Valle de Uco. We were not roughing it. We were embraced by good food, good wine, crisp white sheets and whitewashed walls, and gentle horses (mui tranquillo, I was assured) at an unassuming ranch at the base of the Andes.