Monday, August 9, 2010

On the Road: Baltimore and Beyond!

Sometimes, if you're lucky, life gets peppered with accidental traditions. One such example in this life of mine is making periodic trips to the Baltimore/Washington DC area to pay a visit on my very dear friends, Liz and R.M. Kelley - otherwise known in my household as "The Fabulous Kelley Sisters." For 15 years now I have been making my way by land or sky to visit them, and without exception, each trip brings memorable adventures in good eating! (R.M., Liz and me in front of Cafe Hon in Baltimore)

Ralph and I set out by plane this time (got a great deal from Southwest) and was greeted by Liz at BWI. It was an evening flight, so after arriving back at her house, some quick catching up and a couple glasses of wine, we were off to bed. The weather was INCREDIBLY HOT (record-breaking temps - 100+ degrees). Our first junket was out to explore Baltimore, particularly it's "Little Italy" neighborhood downtown near the inner-harbor and the Fells Point neighborhood. We stopped and picked up R.M., and had the chance to meet the beautiful and delightful Terry and see their charming house. Upon our arrival they made us tomato sandwiches with these incredible fresh summer tomatoes on top of a thin layer of mayonnaise on toasted bread. Dee-lish! It was the perfect summer appetizer.

When we got to the Italian section of Baltimore, we ventured into a new place called "Vino Rosina." The decor was ultra contemporary, and I was worried that it would be one of those places that try very hard to be trendy and cool, which generally means small portions and mediocre food! Not the case here. We were seated right away - the place was fairly busy and it felt good to get out of the oppressive heat and into the air conditioning. One of the things they specialize in is panini sandwiches, and each of the four of us ordered a different one. They were all delicious, but the most memorable part of the meal was our appetizer: Olive Hummus. Was it wonderful! Served with warm crusty Italian bread and olive oil/balsamic vinegar, I could have just eaten all this and been satisfied. It had a good olive flavor, slightly garlic, and it spread nicely on the bread. (Olive Hummus - our appetizer at Vino Rosina in Baltimore)

After lunch, we proceeded into the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore. I've been here before and love to walk around to the many quirky unique shops and take in the great variety of architecture and history. I'm amazed at the the small narrow townhouses people live in here - one right after the other, block after block. Detroit never had housing like this, so compact. After walking around for a while and shopping, we headed back to where we were parked. As we walked, the air was full of the wonderful aroma of baking bread. Sure enough, there is a large commercial bakery in Fells Point, H&S Bakery. They make lots of local bread sold in area supermarkets and wouldn't you know we walked right past the H&S Bakery Thrift Store on our way to the car? How could I pass up this chance? I could have bought a dozen loaves of bread and other baked goodies, but something that caught my eye was a box of heavily frosted cookies called "Bergers Chocolate Cremes." Liz and R.M. explained that Bergers Cookies are a local icon, and that if I wanted to experience a real part of Baltimore life, then I should get a box. Say no more! I could hardly wait to get back to R.M. and Terry's house to try these cookies. The cookie itself is a white cakey wafer - not much to it. But the cookie really serves as a frosting delivery device, as it holds a thick layer of rich, creamy chocolate fudge frosting. Out of this world!

After the Bergers Cookie coma wore off, we were ready to venture out into the furnace and head to another Baltimore neighborhood called Hampden. I had never been to this part of the city before, but we were set on going to Cafe Hon for dinner. "Hon," short for "honey," is a local expression that people call each other. The epicenter of hon-ness is the Cafe Hon, which is adorned by a three-story pink flamingo in the front. More than just fun and kitschy, the food at Cafe Hon is original and terrific. Everything is homemade and you can tell. There are a lot of choices on the menu, but it's foundation is good comfort-food, including some regional dishes like crab everything. (I wanted to get a t-shirt that said, "I got crabs in Baltimore" but Ralph wouldn't let me!) As we like to do, everyone ordered something different. Ralph started with Maryland Crab Soup - a house specialty, and I had the Cream of Crab soup. (Liz and Ralph standing outside of Cafe Hon and wondering when am I going to finally snap the picture!)

For dinner I ordered one of the daily specials, the coconut crusted tilapia. Ralph ordered another special, crab cake sliders! R.M. ordered the black bean burger and Liz ordered the crab cake. (The Maryland Crab soup at Cafe Hon)

Here's a photo of my dish - the coconut tilapia. It was a little adventurous to put coconut and fish together, but this delicate piece of fish along with a salsa of tomato and pineapple worked beautifully. And as a side, I sampled their homemade macaroni and cheese. The plate was very large, and you can see that the fish took up half the plate, so no one was going home hungry tonight!

Here's the crab cake sliders that Ralph ordered. These mini crab cakes on soft hamburger buns served with a sour dill pickle on top and lots of fries. He's holding the side of spinach he ordered, which was steamed with garlic. It was comfort food redesigned in a fun and delicious way.

My feeling is, if you're on vacation and don't order dessert when you're out then you might as well stay home! The Cafe Hon offered a long list of desserts, including lots of homemade cakes and pies. When we walked in, we happened to pass the counter where the desserts were on display, and since I'm a sucker for anything coconut, I couldn't help but notice this giant coconut cake sitting on a pedestal. I knew it would be mine!
Our waitress also told us that their bread pudding had just won an award as "Baltimore's Best." Since bread pudding lists as one of Ralph's favorites, it seemed clear that we were going to be ordering a couple of desserts. Common sense got the better of me and we only ordered those two, but I could have kept ordering! (R.M. samples the luscious coconut cake)

Here is Cafe Hon's award-winning bread putting in the process of being eaten by four forks.

Our last full day took us to our nation's capital to check out an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and get a bite to eat. It was 104 degrees outside. Needless to say, we kept the walking outside to a minimum. We went into the DuPont Circle neighborhood and had lunch there at Pizzeria Paradiso. In addition to offering really unique artisan pizzas, they also offered an incredible selection of beers from both local breweries and around the world. Two people in my party ordered a beer called "Raging Bitch" - I won't say who ordered it but they found the name fitting!
So, on this blazing hot day with humidity almost in the triple digits, we got some cold drinks, salads and ordered up a couple of pizza pies. (Veggie pizza from Pizza Paradiso)

One of the pizzas was the veggie - very yummy. I ordered one of the pizza specials, which was a peach/cheese pizza that had feta, fresh peaches and prosciutto on top. It was a salt/sweet combination, very light. It was interesting, not something I would eat all the time, but it was fun to try something different. We hated to leave the cool of the restaurant, but we managed to not totally wither and walked ourselves around DuPont Circle for a little while.

As I've said on this blog many times before, part of the fun of any trip is to sample the local specialties - things you can't find at home. Such is the case with Utz potato chips. They are actually made in Pennsylvania, but they are a staple in Baltimore area snacking. What's more, they actually make a "crab chip," which is a chip lightly coated with Old Bay seasoning. Talk about awesome! I love my made-in-Detroit Better Made chips, but these Utz chips were a quality product. Light, crispy, not greasy and a good potato flavor. The crab chips were over the top - as you can see, I had no problem putting away this small bag in mere minutes.

Our last official function before getting on the plane and heading back to Detroit was, of course, food related. I couldn't get my mind off of those Bergers Cookies, and wanted to take some home for my dad and friends. Liz got online and I started calling around, and we found that we could buy them at a grocery store called "Giant." What's better than a giant - a Super Giant! So, before dropping us off at the airport Liz took us to her local Super Giant and there in the bakery department was boxes and boxes of Bergers Cookies. I grabbed three boxes and didn't worry about how I was going to manage them on the plane. I happy to report that they made it home in good shape and are LONG GONE!

Yes, it was another wonderful weekend with the fabulous Kelley sisters - such generous hosts and dear friends. Spending time with them made every meal special, every trip an adventure, and gave us a weekend to remember. When you are with people who love food, you are with friends! We're looking forward to seeing them again soon! (R.M., Liz and Ralph in front of Cafe Hon)

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