Phantom Farms in Cumberland, RI

Like the other women in the Vienna branch of my ancestry, I love all kinds of pastry — pumpkin pies, fruit tarts, chocolate molten cakes, cream horns, etc. But my favorite kinds are the breakfast kinds, specifically croissants and scones and especially scones. I can almost never walk into a bakery without eating an entire one, no matter the time of day. And I judge a bakery based on how well it executes the scone.

Scones are very simple to make and yet there is something about the mix of ingredients that requires the perfect balance. I have tasted scones that are too dry, too cookie like and my least favorite — too muffin like. I have found that you need to stop pouring in your liquid ingredients just before the batter looks like a muffin batter.

In my opinion the best scones moist yet crumbly. But instead of the crumbs being dusted all over the place, they stick together. They should be somewhat like a drop biscuit but sweeter.

I have found a coffee shop/bakery in Cumberland, RI that serves a very good scone.

Phantom Farms on Diamond Hill Road has a farm stand, a general store and a said cafe with air-conditioned indoor and patio outdoor seating. It is a charming place, filled this morning with whom I am sure were “the regulars” — a group of smiling and joking seniors.

But this place isn’t intended just for the older set, as evidenced by the jars of candy and displays of gingerbread cookies.

Ladies can also find a nicely curated selection of Top It Off Accessories at closer to wholesale prices. I have always admired this brand’s style but shied away from the price tags in Newport boutiques.

Gardeners can visit the garden center (outdoors) and cooks can select from a small array of fresh produce. Today there was enough varieties of tomatoes to make a good tomato tart.

Hosts can purchase pies or cheeses and invitees can bring the specialty food gifts such as Vermont maple sugar candy.

Coffee? Check. Clothes? Check. Corn on the Cob? Check. I can’t wait for apple season! (There is an orchard.)

Providence Flea

Awhile ago, while still residing in Newport, I saw the Providence Flea promoted in a free paper. Weeks later, I’m just 20 minutes away, so it was easier for me to check it out yesterday with my children along for the ride. Parking was not the usual hassle, since it was Sunday, and the day was sunny and clear.

I hyped up the food trucks to my oldest child, who is almost five (“There are kitchens — IN THE TRUCK! You can buy food right from — THE TRUCK!”), so naturally he was hungry as soon as we arrived. After walking past almost half a dozen gastronome mobiles, we both agreed that a grilled cheese from Fancheezical would be best for him and his sister.  After ordering one Old Skool for each kid and handing my credit card for payment, the cashier told me that the business didn’t accept my form of payment. Wondering if I would run into the same problem while ordering my lunch, I changed my order to just one grilled cheese. More than likely the sandwich was huge anyway. It was $5 after all. More than likely my kids wouldn’t finish a whole sandwich by themselves anyway.  I also held off on the beveridges in case there wasn’t this problem at another truck; the truck that was capable would get most of my money.

My kids were being patient but the wait seemed long even to me. Graciously, I didn’t look at my watch but I noticed that people started browsing the tents rather than stand in line for their orders. After one customer received their order, it was another several minutes before the next order was up. Finally, our simple grilled cheese on white bread was ready. It was golden on the outside and melty on the inside and as it turned out enough for my restless children to split an ordinary grilled cheese but I was disappointed that it wasn’t special in any way. I could have made the same thing at home (on the menu it is described as “just like Mom used to make”), quicker and for much less the cost. It wasn’t really fancheezical, whatever that means, but I assumed it must have something to do with fantastic. If it was fast and cheap, it would have been somewhat fantastic.

The kids didn’t complain, though. Except for the crust. What else is new?

On the way to Fancheezical, I had already made up my mind that my lunch would be ordered at Plouf Plouf but I had considered a taco truck and the Lotis Pepper which serves up Vietnamese food. Plouf Plouf was an excellent choice. It is pricey at $14 a meal but it is organic French food in large portions. And I didn’t need to worry about having enough cash because it accepts credit cards. I told my son, “We’re going all out here. Everyone gets their own drink!” which meant 3 Perriers because it doesn’t serve anything else besides Coca Cola. I love white wine and mushroom sauce, so I got the Sauteed Chicken, Normandy style and added frites.

My order was ready as soon as I finished paying and before I had finished pouring our cans of Perrier into paper cups and grabbing the necessary napkins and utensils.

It was delightful, carrying that surprisingly heavy, hot take-out box to a seat by the river and opening it up to discover that a side of lettuce in red wine vinaigrette garnished my entrée. The chicken melted in my mouth, the frites were truly pommes frites and not chips, as some places are wont serve as “frites.” They were so crispy they seemed double deep fried. And the red wine vinaigrette was perfectly emulsified.

It was worth every dollar and every bite after I was satisfied.

After my son waited patiently for me to finish the last bite, we watched the ducks on the river for awhile and then browsed the tent wares. There were a few outposts of vintage goods and a lot of artisan jewelry. I stayed awhile at a couple of tents and got an early start on my fall birthday and Christmas shopping.

I could have stayed a just a few minutes longer, but my kids were getting bored and tired. It was almost a perfect two hours. The flea didn’t take all day, like some craft fairs do, and yet had enough of a variety to make it well worth the trip.

The Providence Flea is every Sunday 10-4, rain or shine, through September 15 on S. Water Street.  I highly recommend spending a leisurely Sunday morning or afternoon here.

Fall River style chow mein

I have been aware of another long stretch of absence. A change in our lifestyle resulted in less eating out.

This summer, we made a quick move to Attleboro, MA. We’re still trying to find the best Chinese restaurant around here. Back in Newport, which is close enough to just across the Bay from Fall River, we found one sister restaurant which served the famous Fall River style fried chow mien noodles. In the meantime, we made a trip to Fall River for the best noodles ever to be found and served them to our out of town guests. They look forward to them each time they visit!

Read more about the Oriental Chow Mien Company (a.k.a. Hoo Mee) and chow mien sandwich in this great blog post by a Fall River sister and fellow foodie:  Fall River style chow mein.

Jonathan’s Cafe/Ocean Coffee Roasters

Jonathan’s Cafe in Washington Square has often beckoned me. I admit, though I have had my loyalties, I would pop in to get an Italian soda since it is easier to order an Italian soda there than anywhere else downtown. I wasn’t that impressed overall at first, I think because of the service, so I never stopped in more often that I had that craving for something sweet and cold. But one morning I needed to get some work done, there was no parking in front of Empire, and there was one right across the door of Jonathan’s Cafe. Seeing it offered free WIFI, I walked in, determined to try the breakfast.

It was a hub for all sorts of locals performing their ritualistic daily communion with one another, just as I remember some of my customers at Starbucks doing. Not being one of the regulars at Jonathan’s, I got some curious looks as I walked in. I tried to ignore them and act like I knew what I was doing. I made a beeline to the counter and asked questions of the server. This time it was a friendly older gentleman who did not seem a bit annoyed, abeit a bit surprised, at my questions. Do I order here and sit at the counter if I don’t want a table? (That would have been awkward, considering I would have been the only person sitting alone.) May I have a breakfast sandwich? Do I need a password for the WIFI? (The answer was no, which is unusual and convenient.)

After I placed my order and grabbed my fresh cup of Ocean Coffee Roasters’ coffee, I sat down at the counter and made myself at work easily. There was an outlet for my laptop and I got on the WIFI without a hiccup.

My coffee was excellent. I find it a rare thing to get an excellent cup of coffee, which is one you can drink black. If you drink your coffee with milk and sugar, it is because you have never experienced a great coffee or you just don’t like coffee. Otherwise, put coffee syrup in your milk and warm it up, why don’t you? But enough about you. I mean, it’s not entirely your fault. It really is difficult when you take that first sip and the coffee tastes bitter and over-steeped instead of like a squeezed freshly roasted bean.

I guess I had expected my coffee to be undrinkable, but it was so delicious I had way more than I usually do. I also expected to have to get up when my order was up and to have to hunt around for my utensils and condiments but the server at the counter brought over my sandwich, along with knife and salt, and asked if I needed anything else. The last especially surprised and pleased me. “Wow,” I thought. “No, thank you,” I said as pleasantly as I felt.

But my experience was only to get better as I opened my box to find a gigantic sausage and egg on bagel sandwich which had apparently come with a substantial side of home fries – for the same price as a breakfast sandwich anywhere. And I do mean my sandwich was huge. Two giant sausage links were cut in half and laid between two fried eggs.

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One of my complaints about local breakfast places is that they are kind of dirty, meaning I guess that they get too busy to clean their grills and you end up with your food cooked in rancid, burned grease, reeking of a mixture of old food that ruins the taste. I realize we are just talking about eggs and potatoes but they do absorb a lot of flavor and, um, gross. Anyway, Jonathan’s food is as comforting as eating at home, where mom’s eggs are cooked on a nice, clean buttery surface.

The sausage was flavorful, but not too greasy, and the bagel was toasty on the outside and chewy on the inside. The home fries looked hand cut and they were crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and seasoned just right. I ate until I could not fit another bite. After writing this, I find I am craving it again even though it’s 10:30 in the evening. Mouth waters and lips smack together as I think of buttery, chewy comfort food.

I suppose it wasn’t just my loyalty to other establishments that prevented me from really trying Jonathan’s. It was the fact that I thought I would be disappointed while there were so many good offerings out there. If I want a good cup of plain ol’ Joe and a tasty breakfast sandwich or muffin, I’m sure to go to Ma’s, where they have both. If I want a relaxing atmosphere, I go to Empire. And if I want to be barraged by marketing tactics as soon as I step in, I go to Starbucks. (Yes, I am being sarcastic.) Why would I potentially waste my time and money? But I am glad the fates guided me there that day, glad I braved the piercing gaze of the crowd of strangers. Because it turns out, Jonathan’s is a great place to sip, eat and work.

I snapped my laptop shut, packed up my things and strutted out of the cafe like I knew what I was doing. I was coming back again, so I had to keep up the façade.

Pastiche

Whenever I go out and whatever I’m doing when I go out, I always think it’s a perfect idea to end the event with a slice of bakery goodness and a cup of tea or java. There are just a few problems with this plan. One is, if you haven’t noticed, I’m kind of picky. Another is that there are few cafes open at night so this option is only viable during the daytime. Finally, I find that I have virtually no options left when I need to go dairy free. (That is, when I am nursing, since both my babies turned out to be allergic to cow’s milk.)

In discussing the first problem, I’ll just say that I haven’t found many coffee desserts locally that are as amazing as I can imagine them to be. As far as being open at night, about half the coffee shops around here close by the time afternoon rolls around. So if I have the time and I’m in Providence, I go to Pastiche, which is renowned for it’s fine European desserts and is open until 11 or 11:30 p.m.

On my latest trip to Pastiche, my nursling was allergic to dairy, so I wasn’t sure I could even have dessert but I wanted to linger somewhere after dinner.  I prepared to have a nice cup of decaffeinated tea but look with envy at the dessert counter. Much to my surprise and delight, however, I was also able to have the macaroons and chocolate, which just happen to be a couple of my favorite things. I had the mararoons with my tea – brewed perfectly – and they were soft and moist and delicious. The chocolate bar came home with me and when I opened it I experienced creamy, Belgianlike chocolate, even though it was dairy free!

Pastiche is usually a sure bet and now you know it is worth the trip even if you are going dairy free. 

El mejor amigo del hombre

My favorite place to eat in Newport is Perro Salado on Charles Street. I don’t go there very often, because it isn’t the place to bring children, but it is a great spot for a romantic dinner for two or a cozy dinner with a friend or two or three. It’s in an old colonial home where tables are tucked into corners and flames from the fireplaces flicker on the walls. Authentic Mexican inspired dishes are served with fresh ingredients; I usually get one of the specials, which highlight this last feature. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the dessert is the best around I’ve discovered yet.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that the owners of Perro Salado opened a quick serve restaurant on Thames Street called El Perrito Taqueria. “Even though though he ambiance won’t be as charming,” I thought, “Hey! I can take my kids out and enjoy good Mexican food. Alright!” After it had been open an eternity, it seems, I finally made it down to El Perrito with my family today. The atmosphere was actually quite cozy. It’s almost literally a hole in the wall place, in the basement of a building. (There are several shops and restaurants set up this way.) A Mediterranean pocket place used to occupy this particular basement. But the new renters have transformed it so completely that it’s hardly recognizable. The interior designer kept with the dark wood theme of the parent restaurant but implemented a more rustic look. Despite the small size of the place and the dark colors, it has an open feel, with large tables, benches and even a little market to shop for sauces and even produce.

The menu did not disappoint. Just as it’s parents’ menu, the Little Dog’s offerings are extensive, affordable and unique. And, just as it’s parent does, the offspring offers up dishes thoughtfully executed with tender meats, flavorful sauces, soft cheeses, fresh cilantro and the like. Although the ingredients are familar at Mexican restaurants, the final products are unique. The result is savory and memorable. I ordered a chourico and potato taco, a braised short rib topped with mango sauce taco and Yucca fries with chimichurri sauce. The braised short rib is my favorite so far. You can’t go wrong with this tender rib for $2.75. And topped with a slice of mango in a sweet sauce…mmm. The Yucca fries are basically deep fried mashed potatoe sicks; they have a thick, golden crust and taste like Tater Tots. I love Tater Tots but never would have thought to dip them in a spicy green sauce. (I will now.)

Sadly, I did not have enough room for dessert. But I did also have chips — golden fried flour tortillas like Gringo Jack’s, and two varieties of salsa – one sweet and one hot. I also had some Mexican Coca Cola — which, as soft drink afficionados know — is the only Coke to have, as it is made with real sugar. That said, I cannot wait to go back to try the dessert. I just may have to order three more items off the menu as well. Y’know, since I’m already there. 

Coffee Shops in Newport, RI

Granted, since I’m 9 months pregnant, I haven’t had coffee in a long time. But, generally, for the 4 years I’ve been living in Newport, I’ve enjoyed a specialty latte or cappuccino every now and then. And I frequent coffee shops for their non-caffeinated drinks, sandwiches and of course pastries!  Mostly, I love having a place to go.

This isn’t an extensive list of what’s offered in town but here is a review of what I consider three major competitors in the area of the European style coffee shop.

The People’s Cafe

I couldn’t help but be intrigued when I first noticed this cafe was opening in an old bank. The People’s Cafe on Thames Street is spacious and utilizes this advantage to have charity fundraisers, mom’s group meetings, Sunday brunches, etc. What also caught my eye was the lunch menu with plenty of hot sandwiches, soups and specialty salads. “Could this be the local answer to Panera?” I thought. And “Will this replace Hendricka’s Cafe or Bliss Grocer in my heart?” (Both Hendricka’s Cafe and Bliss Grocer were great breakfast, lunch and coffee spots on Broadway. Well, the coffee was okay but the food was good.)

I tried it a couple of times. The first time, it was newly open and I went in the evening for a pastry. The staff was helpful but there was no offering to be had, as the croissant was moldy (yes, moldy). I turned away disappointed, but remembered that it was difficult to find a cafe which was open in the evening, let alone still stocked with fare.

I gave the spot a couple of months to find it’s business groove and returned at lunchtime. It was very clean, though it was crowded. The clientele was older but hip. The menu was not quite so ambitious as it was originally. My small companion got a yogurt parfait and I got grilled ham and cheese with a cup of tea. (There are baristas with a limited repertoire of espresso drinks but for aforesaid reason I couldn’t try any at the time.)

My two-year-old son couldn’t say much for the parfait, as he didn’t finish it, but, hey, toddlers are fickle. As for my grilled ham and cheese, it wasn’t as good as home and was overpriced. In fact, the total for our meager meals (my sandwich did not come with chips or even so much as a pickle) was around $15. The parfait was probably around $5, the tea around $2 and the sandwich around $7.

Not wanting to have absolutely no reason ever to return to the People’s Cafe, I ordered a cookie. It was like eating hardtack.  I haven’t given it a second glance.

Starbucks

I have a love/hate relationship with Starbucks, also on Thames. Here’s what I love.

The people. The baristas are the best. You’ll never meet any more interested in you personally. They talk to you like it’s their job, because it is. The more they get to know you, the more they know what you like and how you like it – also, the more likely you’ll return because you that welcoming feeling you get is part of the third place experience.

The clientele of Starbucks, excluding the tourists, are good, salt-of-the earth New Englanders and community-oriented Newporters.

The coffee. I rarely get an espresso drink from Starbucks that isn’t good. Generally, the machines are calibrated at regular intervals, the beans fresh and the baristas well-trained. The recipes are standardized and easy to modify. Also, the brewed coffee is the best anywhere. In fact, the only other place I like a cup of coffee is at Ma’s Donuts. Only Starbucks and Ma’s brews coffee in the correct proportions and have the heartiest flavor beans. But this review is focusing on places to hang out with your cup of coffee, so no further mention of the truck stop will be made.

Here is what I hate about Starbucks.

The atmosphere. If I’m going to be completely honest, I have to say that Starbucks is filthy. Yes, it is probably the busiest coffee spot, but crowds I can handle – filth, I cannot abide. During busy times – which is almost always – the counters are encrusted with dried milk; trash bins are overflowing; tables littered with papers, crumbs, spilled drinks and the bathrooms – well, let’s just say that unless I was cleaning the bathroom when I worked there, I used the public restroom in the parking lot instead.

Another thing I hate about the atmosphere of Starbucks is the advertising. Since Howard Schultz has come back onto the scene, it hasn’t been as bad, but sometimes I feel like my eyeballs are bombarded with glossy cardboard signs. They’re hanging from the ceiling; propped up in the display cases; leaning on the counter; taped in the windows; the fabric of the menu; on packaging, cups and napkins and even standing in line on posts bigger than traffic signs. It’s as if Starbucks thinks I just wandered in and have no clue where I am or how to begin to order. If that last bit weren’t the case, it certainly could be; just give me one place to look for my options, please!

The food. Not that having great food is one of Schultz’s goals, but the stuff is trucked in, stored for a few days and warmed, if desired, in a microwave/toaster. The selection is severely limited, very difficult to modify and overpriced.

Empire Coffee and Tea

Empire Coffee and Tea on Broadway is difficult to write about because I love it so much and it’s difficult to give an unbiased review. Or is it that I need to review it separately in order to give it just praise? It’s also hard to write a critique when there is nothing to critique. Those two complaints I have had have been resolved either by mere hint or the foresight of its owner/manager. For example, although Empire is the only coffee shop I know of that is child friendly, it just replaced a rickety changing table with a new changing station. (When you’re a parent of a small child, your life kind of revolves around poop so anytime you don’t have a potential crisis looming over your head, it makes your day that much better.)

There is only one barista who can’t seem to make a cappuccino for beans (You guessed my other complaint! But when this drink’s done right, which is most of the time, it’s one of the best. I will only have my favorite espresso drink from either Starbucks or Empire.), but of course I have my favorite – CJ, the owner himself. CJ takes a keen interest in what I’m interested in and offers samples of new recipes, to concoct something for me on the spot or even to “test” my cappuccino before declaring it “perfect.” Then CJ gets me interested in what he’s interested in – all the changes to Empire that I will be seeing soon.

And here is where Empire really has an edge over any other local business or even corporate Starbucks – constant and quick improvement, from new artwork and furniture to new machines and recipes. If it’s not already your favorite spot, I promise it will be soon.

Notes on Empire

Clientele: the college crowd or professionals

Food: the standard offerings – such as breakfast and deli sandwiches, muffins and scones – plus decadent desserts and mochi ice cream

Coffee and tea: the most original and extensive menu

Cleanliness and overall atmosphere: the occasional need to wipe the table or toilet seat; the most spacious and artsy, yet the most homey and conducive to hanging out

Price: the most reasonable