Before a recent trip to St. Louis, all that I knew about the “gateway to the West” was just that — the St. Louis a/k/a “Gateway” Arch. Au contraire! There is far more to this city of 354,000 than the iconic 630-foot high and 630-foot wide monument. Lush parks, vibrant festivals, beautiful museums and unique, local foods rank high among the many offerings.
As luck would have it, my visit coincided with the 36th annual Great Forest Park Balloon Race. The colorful, two-day event kicked off on Friday evening with the traditional “balloon glow;” roughly 39 inflated hot air balloons, illuminated by their burners, stood in Forest Park’s Central Field where spectators strolled, snapped photos and partook of food and drink. The next day’s race filled the sky with these plump, cheerful balloons. Both on land and in the air they were a breathtaking sight.
The 1,293-acre Forest Park is a site in its own right. Home to the 1904 World’s Fair, it now contains the city’s art and history museums, zoo, science center, tennis center and opera house. An art addict, I spent an afternoon admiring the works of such diverse artists as Chuck Close, Alexander Calder, Vincent van Gogh and Francisco Zurbaran as well as pre-Columbian and Oceanic art at the free St. Louis Art Museum. I didn’t make it to the 3-story International Bowling Museum where I would have learned about the sport’s 5,000-year history and even bowled a free frame. Maybe next time.
I didn’t miss out, though, on the brass star-lined St. Louis Walk of Fame or the fantastic independent shops lining Euclid, Delmar Boulevard and the Delmar Loop. New/used record stores such as Euclid Records and Vintage Vinyl, bookstores such as Left Bank Books and Big Sleep Books, the home furnishings shop Rothschild’s Antiques, home and kitchenware store Winslow’s Home and the quirky Star Clipper were among the great local spots.
Nor did I overlook all the wonderful foods. St. Louis is renowned for its sweet, dense gooey butter cakes, toasted ravioli, thin pizzas topped with “Provel” cheese and Ted Drewe’s candy, nut and fruit-filled frozen custards. It also possesses a thriving local-seasonal movement and a bounty of farmer’s markets, including Soulard Farmer’s Market, which has been in operation since 1779.
Craving less casual fare, my friend Nickie and I dined at one of her favorite restaurants, Pomme. A fast favorite for me, Pomme serves up French-American cuisine in a sophisticated yet congenial atmosphere. Smoked salmon and trout with apple-celeric salad and slices of toasted baguette, pan-seared tuna, two rainbow trout filets draped over shitakes, hazelnuts and chives, a trio of housemade ice creams – vanilla, banana chocolate chip and rum raisin – with three crisp sugar cookies, and an exceptional wine list were just a few of the high points.
Another culinary high point? Thanks to liberal open container laws, I gulped down local, $2 beer – Bud, Busch and the like - at Soulard Farmer’s Market while shopping for pasta, preserves and produce. Needless to say, after all this drinking and noshing I could have used another St. Louis creation, the antacid TUMS.
The beer kept flowing at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery tour. After an hour of exploring the Clydesdales’ stables, brewhouse and packaging plant, we were treated to two glasses of an Anheuser-Busch beer of our choice. Not bad for free!
Tell people that you’re headed to Maine and more than likely you’ll hear “Oh, you going up there for the lobster? ” Repeated trips to the easternmost state have taught me that there is more to Maine than cold water crustaceans. Spend a few days in Portland, the largest city in the state, and you’ll soon see what I mean.
With a population of 64,000 Portland’s size pales in comparison to most urban centers. What it lacks in numbers, it compensates in character, history, charm and cuisine. Such is the case at Becky’s Diner. Located at the end of Hobson’s Wharf, Becky’s has been sustaining local fishermen, townspeople and tourists for close to 20 years. Its wholesome food and friendly service pack the red vinyl booths and counter stools “362 1/2 days.” Don’t miss the perfectly cooked home fries, generous amounts of fresh fruit and scrumptious grilled muffins at breakfast, my favorite meal there.
Nestled in a low brick building one block from the water in the Old Port District, Fore Street and its culinary feats have been recognized by the James Beard Foundation as well as Gourmet magazine. No wonder. Featuring fresh, local ingredients in such satisfying dishes as wood roasted red hake filet with wild mushrooms, butter poached lobster BLT, organic green beans in a sherry almond vinaigrette and blueberry cobbler topped with blueberry ice cream, Fore’s fare has dazzled the crowds since 1996. And crowds there are. Just try snagging a last-minute reservation on a weekend or, during the warmer months, weeknight. Not a chance!
On the corner of Middle Street and Franklin Arterial, Hugo’s tells a slightly different tale. Like Fore Street, Hugo’s has been praised for its innovative, seasonal food. However, unlike at Fore Street, both the crowds, portions and pleasures were miniscule on the night that my husband and I dined there.
As serving sizes were small, our menus and server suggested ordering three items. Nonetheless, I requested two dishes: organic tomato salad with olive oil panna cotta and aged asiago cheese; pan-seared arctic char with organic new potatoes on a bed of seaweed slaw. In turn I received 5, skinned, yellow cherry tomatoes tumbled onto a paper-thin layer of panna cotta with several centimeter-sized cubes of cheese, a small square of arctic char, one thumb-sized potato and two forkfuls of slaw. Good thing that I hadn’t been famished.
Also good that I brought along my debit card. The portions may have been petite but the price wasn’t. My lackluster meal — sans drinks – cost $30. My husband’s, which consisted of the recommended three but also without drinks, ran $50.
A far better value and meal came, surprisingly, at the Portland Museum of Art’s Museum Cafe. There we split a flavorful lentil salad studded with slivers of red peppers, diced carrots, onion and feta, a bowl of creamy yet light corn chowder and crisp, homemade ginger snaps. The cafe likewise offered several other salads, soups, sandwiches, dinner and vegetarian entrees as well as an assortment of baked goods, all served in a spacious, art-filled dining area.
Three and a half days in Portland. Loads of good food but only one lobster-based dish.
Maine Lobster Roll
Note: Either buy cooked lobster meat or steam two 1 1/2-pound lobsters and remove the meat.
2 cups cooked lobster meat, cut into small chunks
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 scallions, minced
¼ cup celery, minced
½ – ¾ cup mayonnaise
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 hot dog rolls
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Toss the lobster with the lemon juice in a bowl. Add ½ cup of mayonnaise, scallions and celery and stir to combine, adding the remaining mayonnaise if necessary. The salad should be moist but the flavor should not be overwhelmed by mayo. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Heat a large frying pan over medium heat. Spread the softened butter on the rolls and place the rolls, butter-side down, in the pan. Cook, turning once, until the rolls are golden brown. Remove from the pan, open the rolls and spoon in the lobster salad. Serve immediately.