Saturday, August 30, 2014

Boston Swan Boats and Sofa Cafe

Occasionally, and for no defensible reason, I will reject a touristy activity out of hand, look askance at it, and keep walking with a grinchy pucker on my face. This usually occurs when a long line and a phalanx of crying kids in strollers are staring me down. And I'm embarrassed to admit that is the reason I haven't been on the swan boats before this. But today being a sunny, beautiful day, one of the last of summer, I decided now was the time to investigate. Walking through the commons, I stopped at my favorite fountain.

And sure enough, waiting for me at the swan hut was the expected sea of tourists and baby strollers. But I decided to ignore the impulse to flee, on the off chance that I'd been missing something wonderful for all these years.

Mr. Bird

I waited in line for about twenty minutes, paid three dollars for my place on the swan boat, and found that as I sat on the old-fashioned wood bench, Mr. Swan peeking over my shoulder, a sense of peace and relaxation was imminent. Perhaps it is the fact that the swan boats do not have motors; they are powered by one person pedaling at the rear of the boat. The effect is quiet floating around a shallow pond that affords lovely views of water, trees, and the Boston skyline beyond that.

You will float by a myriad of ducks, including a little island where they roost. As I began to actually relax with the sparkly water and the blue sky and the sensation of having nothing much to do except watch the gardens go by, I wished that 1. I had an icy beverage in my hand. and 2. that I'd done this years ago. The swan boats really do have a unique feel of being longtime residents of the gardens, and having been there for 130 years, they count as tradition. As long as you are spry enough on your feet to walk from the pier onto the boat, and have three dollars to spare, I highly recommend the swan boats.

Having had my happy Boston sight-seeing moment, I headed down Newbury Street, stopping in oh-so-briefly for a mind-blowing banana split cupcake at Georgetown Cupcakes.

But I saved enough room for coffee. Because Sofa Cafe has opened on Newbury, and I'd heard that their coffee is a religious experience.

This little subterranean cafe is the flagship American version of a cafe that has done really well in Brazil. There is a sofa, pretty purple walls, and a retro spaceship of coffee making at the counter.

They have drinks like the Cult, comprised of espresso, milk, Nutella, and baileys creamer, or the Ventura, which is an iced coffee with a twist of lime. But I settled on the affogato, a scoop of ice cream (vanilla or chocolate) covered with a shot of espresso, topped with whipped cream.

It was made with care by the barista, accompanied by a little heart cookie and a small shot glass of bubbly water to wash it all down with. It was one of those embarrassing moments when I find myself making little lip-smacking noises in public. The ice cream melts into the strong espresso, creating a foamy cup of delish...and with the whipped cream and cookie, it felt like I'd ordered a gourmet dessert rather than a drink. I'll grant you, this could easily have gone wrong if it wasn't done with care and good ingredients. But trust me, you want one of these for your afternoon coffee break. The display case of edibles was modest, and is stocked by the Danish Pastry House. As far as I'm concerned, it's the beverages that should take center stage here.

Note: The swan boats are generally very stable, but I noticed that as we disembarked, it got a little wobbly from everyone standing up at once. If you're bringing small kids, make sure you hold hands for that part.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Huzzah! Abigail Adams Tea Room: Adventures at the Boston Tea Party Museum

It should be stated straight away that I am not adverse to tourist kitsch. But I will admit that as I took the T to South Station and made the short walk to the Boston Tea Party Museum, I knew I had 80 percent odds that the baked goods from the Abigail Adams Tea Room were going to be a disaster. It rarely occurs that touristy places offer up good eats. But believe it or not, when searching for tea rooms in Boston, this is the only one I could find. So in I went to the museum, which is located on the Congress Street bridge.

The first thing I noticed is that everyone who works here, even the people at the cash register, are obliged to go about their business in costumes, and say "HUZZAH!" after nearly every sentence. You can even buy glasses with "HUZZAH!" written on them. This is the moment where, as a former historian, I knew I could either start twitching or roll with it. I chose the latter. And guess what? I had a great time!

The tea room itself is quite large and pretty, with hardwood floors, chandeliers, and big windows that look out directly onto the ships that comprise the museum. The small selection of baked goods are presented cafeteria style. In looking over the prices ($3.50 for a cookie, $4 for a scone) I bumped up my odds to 95% that I was about to be disappointed in the taste department.

But fortune favors the bold, and I selected a cinnamon scone that came with little tinfoil packets of butter and strawberry jelly. There was to be no clotted cream, no china pots of homemade jam. Sigh. Well, I took my $4 scone, which they warmed up, and bought the $2 tea tasting. Essentially, for $2 you can have as much of the five selections of tea as you like. If you chip in $4 more, they give you a little souvenir tea mug in which to taste. Each of the tea blends are deliberately selected by the tea room as being relevant or reminiscent of tea at the time of the Boston Tea Party (they have their own Abigail blend). And yes, there were only little plastic pods of milk and packets of flowered bowls of sugar or silver cream servers. Ah, me. What has become of tea time, I ask you? But as I bit into a surprisingly tasty scone with little pockets of cinnamon, and had some very nice cups of tea, I watched the boats go by along the harbor walk and saw the actors on the tea ships entertaining the visitors (a reliable stream of Huzzah! was heard), and I realized that for $6 (the price of a venti this-and-that at Starbucks), I was sitting in a unique, interesting spot, having a nice treat, and enjoying a great view of the water. At 2 p.m. on a Saturday, I had the tea room to myself, and I have to suspect it's a bit of a hidden gem. There is even a little veranda where you can sit outside and inhale the scent of the sea, and peek down into the tea party ships (Huzzah!)

From what I could see of the antics down on the tea ship (actors give a speech and then visitors can toss "tea" over the side of the ship), this is the kind of "museum" where kids will have a blast. And the gift shop is actually the nicest souvenir shop I've seen in Boston. They have tea cozies, tea towels, little ships in bottles, reproductions of tea party newspapers, quill pens, colonial hats, and some very wry shirts.

If you want to shake up your coffee break, or bring visitors to a place that they can't see anywhere else, I definitely recommend Abigail Adams Tea Room. It's the right kind of kitsch.

Logistics: You don't need to pay museum admission if you're just going to have tea. The entrance to the museum is the gift shop. You walk through the shop, onto a walkway that goes up to the tea room. You may see old reviews online that show a set service of tea goodies, but these days, you buy things by the item at the tea room.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Crane Beach and Russell Orchard: Adventures on the Ipswich Essex Explorer

There are many things that I hope for when I first look over a beach. White sand, sunny skies, seagulls calling, waves gently crashing, blue water beckoning, a sense of calm and peace. Which is why, when I made it over the gentle sand slope up to Crane's beach and stood surveying the scene, I nearly had one of those cinematic moments where I drop to my knees, pull at my hair, and scream, "WHY, WHY,WHY?!!!!"

Yes, the sight of hundreds of people packed in front of me almost induced hysteria. But I kept what little dignity I had, largely because I'd already read about the crowd at Crane's beach, and also the remedy. The beach is huge, like a few miles long, and if you turn right at the entrance, and walk for twenty minutes or so, you get away from the circus crowds, and are left with this.

The downside is that there are no lifeguards once you get past the crowds, but I am not really an ocean swimmer. I like to sit on the sand and breathe in the calm, then dip my toes in the water, maybe go in as far as my knees, and then splash about like an elephant, pick up some pretty shells, and call it a day. And I have to say, under those criteria, Crane beach was a hit. Among its other virtues, the sand sparkles. That's right, it sparkles. Whatever bits of shell and mineral wash up here, I noted as the water bubbled over my toes that I could see little bits of glitter swirling about me.

Crane's beach alone would've been worth the time and effort to get there, but I had other fish to fry. So I hopped on the bus (which was on schedule), and took the ten minute ride to Russell Orchards, a place where a city girl can have a little bit of a farmyard holiday and still make it back to the city before dinner. You will find a barn filled with an ice cream stand, a produce store, nick-nacks, wine tasting, and most importantly, a fully functioning bakery.

apple rolls

These folks make their own cider donuts, fresh. And they are in such demand that it is probable they will be straight out of the fryer when you buy yours. The same is true of their full size pies (blueberry, strawberry-rhubarb, and apple on the day I visited). When I picked up my hefty blueberry pie, it wasn't just warm on the bottom, it was in, just came out of the oven, HOT. And that was in the afternoon. So as far as I can tell, the farm is basically cooking up a storm all day, and the goodies are flying out the barn just as rapidly. I'll grant you, it was summer and it was a weekend, but I have a feeling that apple-picking season is no less joyous and busy on the farm.

That said, let me point out that waiting for you outside the barn is...nature. I wandered off to the blueberry patch to pick my own carton of blueberries in my flip flops and was not only followed by a very strange looking pack of fowl (turkey?) but soon noted the preponderance of biting flies, wasps, ants, etc. It belatedly occurred to me that this is why they sell bug spray in the store.

Pretty pond with ducks and chickens.

Oh, hello.

Pretty apple tree. Picking season isn't until September for apples.

My haul.
It also occurred to me as I saw the body of a long-deceased birdy being eaten by wasps (stuck in the netting above the blueberries), that possibly there was a reason some people were just buying the cartons of blueberries in the barn store, rather than coming out to pick their own. After that, a stinging fly went for my foot, and I started to imagine that every little tickle on my legs were ticks and ants...and yes, I hot-footed it back to the store.

Cider donuts
Now, you are probably wondering, how does the barn bakery stack up on taste and value? Well, the cider donuts were hot, crispy, and mildly flavored. I inhaled one at the speed of light, and noted people walking out with ten and twelve at a time. Personally, I expected more of a cider flavor, but the aroma was heavenly and I certainly wouldn't say no to another helping. The scone was not too dense and had a nice flavor of rhubarb, the goat cheese and vegetable pocket was quite tasty, and the little peach-berry tartlet was a tender bite. But now to the hard part: the blueberry pie.

It looked as it ought to look when I cut into it, a flaky golden crust with a juicy interior of wild blueberries and jellied goo of the Gods (well, how else do you describe a good pie filling!) It had even bubbled up a little over the crust, which is always a good sign. My foodie buddy and I were alight with anticipation as we lifted our forks. And....well, what can I say, there was not a lot of flavor. It tasted like they forgot the salt, the berry flavor was extremely mild, and the crust was...not bad, but not wonderful either. It is the first and only time I've ever had to get up and fetch the salt shaker in order to feel that a pie tasted right...and we even snuck in a squirt of fresh lime juice to give it a little more flavor. It was not that the pie was an abomination...but it was not the level of excellence that I would expect from a farm bakery that specializes in pie. That said, I believe the visit to the orchard and the purchasing of goodies is, in and of itself, so unique and fulfilling an experience that you should absolutely go.

Inside of barn store

The mysterious octopus carrot. I dared not buy it!
For those on a budget, please note that the store is by no means inexpensive. Most of their pies are $20. And when I went up to the counter with this canvas tote bag, I nearly spittled up a lung when the lady informed me it was $40. So don't go expecting dirt-road apple-stand prices.

Logistics: It's $18.25 for a round trip from North Station to Ipswich (on the Newburyport/Rockport line). When you get off the train in Ipswich (a 40-minute train ride), the Ipswich Essex Explorer bus will be waiting right at the train station. For $5, you can hop on/off its route to Crane Beach, Russell Orchards, Wolf Hollow, and the Ipswich visitor center. Note: the Ipswich Explorer bus can't give change, so be sure you have exactly $5 on you. It's a ten minute ride to the orchard, and another ten after that to the beach. A very doable day trip from Boston for someone who doesn't have a car. IMPORTANT: The Ipswich Explorer only runs in the summer and only on weekends, so check their schedule before you go.

Info on the Ipswich Essex Explorer:
Crane Beach:
Russell Orchards:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wedding Cake is the Sweetest Cake I Know: Adventures in Toronto

On the occasion of a dear friend being married, I recently hopped on a Greyhound and made a break for the border. The Canadian border, that is. Fourteen hours later, I emerged in Toronto, a "hit list" in hand: 1.Poutine 2. Butter Tart 3. Wedding. After all, I could not visit a foodie town like Toronto without sampling some of the specialties.

First up was a quest for poutine. I've read about it on food blogs, seen it on the Food Channel, and always wondered what in the world a "squeaky cheese curd" would taste like. So within an hour of arrival, my foodie cohort and I were winging our way down Queen Street, in search of Poutini's House of Poutine, a shop that does only one thing: homemade fries, smothered in gravy (vegetarian gravy is top notch there), and topped with...yes, the squeaky cheese curd. 

Now, friends, it is perilous work to ferret out the food secrets of a city. And sometimes, national treasures are an acquired taste. And all told, being prepared to faint from the ecstasy of comfort food done to a high art, I was...a little underwhelmed by the poutine. And my cheese was squeaking when I chewed it. My foodie cohort pointed out that were I stuck in a Canadian winter, with my metabolism fighting to keep flesh on my bones against the perilous cold, I too might begin to worship the bucket-size vat of fries, gravy, and cheese. And perhaps she is right. But in August, being in no danger of frost bite, I decided to leave the poutine to the Canadians, and move on to the unofficial specialty of the city: the butter tart. And I had a hot tip on Andrea's Gerrard Street Bakery, hiding in the byways of Chinatown.

As we drove to Andrea's, I couldn't help but worry, how could something called a butter tart turn out to be a memorable eating experience? 

And it's true, given my choice of lemon curd, frangipane, and raspberry tarts, I probably would've passed over the plate of plain brown ones in the back. Luckily for all, I didn't. And oh, just for a moment, as I bit into the gooey, soft brown bliss, my tongue swirling in maple syrup, browned butter, and cream, I had one of those bakery babe moments where months of dry scones and soggy cake all dwindle away in the heaven of one perfect bite. One of those "I'd sell my soul for a six pack of these butter tarts" kind of moments. The crust was light and flaky on the outside, a little moist on the inside, and by the gods above, it is the sort of treasure that I live for in my food blogging adventures. Not kidding. Five stars on Andrea's butter tarts. My friend and I bought one of the sizable tarts to split. Five minutes later, we were back up at the counter to buy another. And oh, the four or so we got in the to-go box. Now, I will admit, Andrea uses maple syrup in her butter tarts, and that is what launches them into the stratosphere. But I submit that as you ditch modesty and lick the plate of the last crumb, arguments about what constitutes a "real" Toronto butter tart will not make it into the conversation. What you will be talking about is how soon you can get back to Andrea's for another!

But woman cannot live on butter tarts alone. And after a few more investigations, I can now tell you. 1. Do have a beer at the Duke of York Pub. 2. Do not order nachos in Canada...ever. 3. Don't fear the sushi. Toronto has some excellent Japanese restaurants!

And if you have the chance, make haste for St.Lawrence food market, an indoor stadium of food stalls the likes of which this bakery babe will not soon forget!

There are other places to see, of course, and I saw most of them at a flat out sprint. St. Jame's Cathedral, St. Michael's Church, the Royal Ontario Museum, etc. And many other bakeries that I did not have time to visit (Bakerbots, Prairie Girl, Tori's). But let's not forget, there was #3, the most important to consider on my list: the wedding. The weekend was filled with many sweet moments of visiting with old friends, and convening at the University of Toronto for a heartfelt wedding that reminded me that no matter how far we've traveled on our way, love will always call us back to what matters most: friendship, joined hands, and dare I add that sweetest of confections, wedding cake. Or, in this case, the plural, wedding cakes. Well, what can I say, those Canadians know how to throw a party!

And so, sugar blissed and fortunate in friendship, I must say, au revoir, Toronto. Let us meet again soon!