Thoughts on St. Michaels

Just minutes ago, I was driving across Bay Bridge in what seemed like miles of concrete, the ferocious rain slapping against the barely visible windshield, all the temporary residents of the bridge enveloped in a thick fog. Even with the wipers toiling at maximum speed, visibility was near zero. Then, in spectacular fashion, the sky cleared and the clouds parted, collecting the rain and its remnants. As rays of sunshine pierced the withering layers of precipitation, the fog cleared as well, dissipating in a heartbeat, as if it were never there to begin with.

“I’ll have a shot of espresso, pulled long please.” Thanks to a faulty navigation system, a supposed two-hour drive up to St. Michaels had taken closer to four, and with a stiff back from the extended drive, I desperately grasped coffee’s medicinal healing powers. Espresso for the back. Worked before, so why not. Doctor’s orders. What came back was an overly bitter, acidic specimen of espresso, remarkably similar in taste to the ginseng extract my mom used to shove in my mouth as a child. Not something you would want to correlate with coffee, especially the first few sips in a new town. In open defiance to the predisposed list of “coffee cities” – the likes of Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – I was, in part, in search of a noteworthy coffee scene in this small tourist destination, a roaster and a cup or two of praiseable beans and coffee. Maryland has its share of excellent specialty roasters, Ceremony Coffee being one of them. But my first stop at Blue Crab Coffee quickly dwindled any hope of making a significant discovery (TripAdvisor and Yelp are not to be trusted blindly). Disappointment trickling down my esophagus along with the shot – I had expected much more from a relatively well-reviewed cafe, especially a more jovial atmosphere in lieu of sorry music – I stepped back outside and into the sun on my first afternoon in St. Michaels.

A trip to crab country when crab season is still months away. The only glimpse of Maryland blue crab was a glistening plastic replica hanging on a wall at Blue Crab Coffee. But St. Michaels was much more than just crab. It is a quiet coexistence of opposites, centered around shipbuilding and leisure. The town first flourished as a mecca of shipyards in the Chesapeake, fueled by people’s explosive appetite for oysters and later crab. A boom in ships, oysters and crab meant a boom for the town. Churches and schools were built, homes were settled, and fisherman, oystermen and businessmen alike flourished. Then the ships were no more. The oysters never died off, but harvest levels fell drastically. Crabbing became the main source of livelihood. Over time, the once thriving ship town evolved into a quaint retreat, with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld purchasing vacation homes on the Bay. Different types of vessels are built now, mostly luxury yachts. Tourism, especially during the summer crab season, sustains the town.

But ironically, the off-season is the ripe time to immerse oneself to the quintessential Eastern Seaboard. Away from the flocks of tourists, jam packed in the one-two-many crab shacks near the docks. Distanced from the temptation to settle for only the guided tours offered twice a day. In all honesty, escaping “touristy” St. Michaels is near impossible. You should pay admission and check out the maritime museum, a must to understand the backbone shipping industry that sustained this regions for decades. Guided tours or not, you should walk through the heart of the city on foot; the historic section is tiny, and you’d drive through it in minutes. In the midst of “touring,” however, be sure to chat up the locals to find out where they eat and where they drink their coffee. In doing so, you will find that crab country is possibly more charming when there are no crabs around.

From my short trip to the heart of the Chesapeake, here are three takeaways.

1. Fried Oysters and Pulled Pork, at Once

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Talbot Street is the main street piercing the belly downtown St. Michaels. The narrow street is clubbered with eateries left and right. One restaurant was particularly eye-catching, with an open patio resembling Cancun during spring break. A menu displayed the usual of what you’d expect on the coast – fried fish, burgers, sandwiches. Packed and bustling, very “family friendly.” Pass. Instead, I walked further down the road, a few blocks, towards the outer edge of downtown. Fewer people on the sidewalk. In the distance, I spotted a cloud of smoke slowly rising from a smoker on a trailer. The smell of smoky, caramelized meat was violently enticing. Gripping. The last thing I expected on this trip was to be standing next to a cozy smoker, inhaling the Divine Breath while contemplating whether to have grilled grouper or oysters. And pulled pork. The sign outside read ‘Big Al’s Market.” Smoked meat. Plus freshly fried Chesapeake oysters. Needless to say, I walked in.

On the hand-written menu, “barbeque” and “oysters” floated harmoniously, shyly as if the two acquaintances did not really know how to coexist within the limited square footage of the establishment. Surf and turf was no longer a plate of disdainfully well-done steak with dehydrated shrimp. Here, pork butt slowly roasted for hours in an actual smoker married just-shucked oysters the size of dried persimmons, breaded and perfectly deep fried. Smoke, pork, bun, oysters, cocktail sauce (with extra horseradish). All consumed at a “smoke-side” table outside, right next to that smoker. Did I mention the smoker? The oysters, still hot, had an audible crunch, and yet I could still taste the sea from the juices in side. The horseradish pleasantly shot up my nostrils, while the fuming smoke from the roasting pork bun and ribs cajoled the left side of my face. No complaints on being completely enveloped in that smoke.

A proper hello to a new city. Cars whizzing by behind my back, the warm midday sun easing the still brisk spring winds, a few local high school students taking the table next to ours with baskets of pulled pork sandwiches and fries. Even if I was sitting on the curb, without tables, I would not have had lunch any other way in St. Michaels. Expected and unexpected at the same time, on that main touristy road but not touristy at all. Southern charm from the ongoing smoker, Chesapeake charm from the oyster juice. A wonderful dichotomy reflective of the bygone glories of the shipyards, the mounds of shiny oyster shells, and the remaining gift shops selling disturbingly ugly t-shirts. Embracing this dichotomy presents a new prism in which to view St. Michaels as something more than a mere settlement of vacation homes. Embracing this dichotomy tastes like, well, smoke. That smoker!

2. White Tablecloth is Not the Devil

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I have a thing on fine dining. Not against, just “on.” The one-too-many shiny utensils, two-too-many glasses, the obviously American-born waiter (quite possibly a George Washington University student) painfully saying “voila” every other visit with an accent even I can detect, the pitifully frugal morsel of food on my overpriced plate with some sauce smeared across the top and mysterious foam slowly deflating on the side. Not against fine dining, not against it. I’d like to redefine it, somewhat. White tablecloth does not make food “fine,” nor does an over indulgence of fois gras or truffles on every dish. To be honest, I don’t know how I’d define fine dining. “Fine” is subjective on so many levels, although Michelin or the Beard Foundation would disagree. Defining subjective things is almost a pointless task, for the final definition of the term will be, by “definition”, different for any individual or group. Different definition across cultures, race, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this, I say the hell with it, here is what fine dining boils down to: enjoyment of well-prepared food in the company of likeable people within the confines of agreeable surroundings. Food, people, place.

Hence the heightened speculation when I was seated at Sherwood’s Landing, the exquisite restaurant at the Inn and Perry Cabin hotel. In any city I visit for the first time, my priority is to explore the hidden huts and shacks no one has heard of and not reviewed in Yelp or TripAdvisor. That cafe only the locals frequent, that burger joint students visit for their hangover cure. But this trip had a grander purpose than my priorities, our first wedding anniversary. For one meal, no shack will do, no hut will do, only the best dining experience in all of St. Michaels would be worthy of our occasion.

The dining area was beautiful, overlooking a small bay with wooden docks, the late afternoon sunshine illuminating the entire room. The tables were mostly empty, as we had opted for an earlier time slot. Like much of the resort itself, the restaurant was serene and calming, the famous spa having rubbed off its influence even in the gastronomic arena. Enchanting, but my interest, as always, was whether the food would match the ambiance. And indeed, the chef rose to the challenge. No foam. No fluff. No frills. Local, in-season ingredients, generous portions. The warm salad, with blanched asparagus and morel mushrooms, was more than pleasing even to this salad-despising carnivore; the butter and crème fraîche sauce, punched with chopped garlic, was perfect. The real highlight, however, is the stuffed duck breast I had for my entree. If you’ve had duck breast done blasphemously incorrectly on more than one occasion (read overcooked), you will empathize with the praise I am about to pour out. Most importantly, the breast was the perfect temperature, pinkish and very moist. The chef butterflied the breast, pan fried it, and stuffed it with a tantalizing concoction of apples and smoked walnuts, among other things. Three medallions, rolled like a futomaki, rested on three beds of pureed parsnips, a much wiser supplement than potatoes or other starches. To best enjoy this dish, every criterion must hit the tongue at once. Juicy duck, tart apples, smoky walnuts, sweet and buttery parsnip. Oh, and the medallions were wrapped in bacon. Not overpowering, just adding salt and smokiness. Do I need to say more? The sauce was something wine-based, sweet, savory, brilliant. No other single dish has left a lasting impression as this one. That says a lot.

Fine dining has reinvented itself in my psyche. The fancy frills, the foie, even the foam – they’re okay. As long as the food is profound and prominent throughout the dining experience, as long as the food is straightforward, as long as the food tastes “fine,” white tablecloth is not the devil.

3. Locals Know Their Brew

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Exploring a new city through its cafes is a brilliant approach. Coffee, the people who serve it and the cafes in which it is served, is a vein that connects cities and their inhabitants. Where there is coffee, there are stories, stories about stories, and the people behind the stories. Cafes are microcosms of the city itself, a miniature that captures its essential characteristics. You know a cafe, and you’re half way there in knowing the city.

I did not have high expectations of St. Michaels’ coffee scene. Most reviews I glanced over indicated two cafes, one of which was closed in 2011. The other is Blue Crab Coffee, a supposed local favorite located in a big yellow house known as the Freedom’s Friend Lodge. As my first stop in town, I walked in and ordered an espresso. The rest is as stated in my opening; nothing special, nothing noteworthy. Bad espresso. Maybe it was that particular barista. Maybe the specialty pour over coffees would have fared better. I judge sushi joints the same way. One bite of nigiri; if it’s off, you haven’t got the basics down. Coffee? Espresso, if it’s off, it’s off. Whatever the reason, my first impression of St. Michaels, and any hopes of discovering a hidden coffee culture within, was all but ruined.

This is why you talk to waiters, bartenders, baristas, and hotel concierge. These folks know their cities in and out, and usually are giddily happy to share nuggets of information with you. At the end of a mind boggling meal at Sherwood’s Landing, as I was stuffing my face with an equally delicious souffle, I asked our waiter about their coffee. Restaurant coffee service, especially in starred establishments, is a recent interest to me, as I have written about it in this post. A blend of Sumatran and Guatemalan beans, the coffee was smooth, full body, and very nutty. With obvious pride, the waiter informed me that they have been working with the local roaster Rise Up Coffee for some time, and this was a specially designed house blend for the restaurant. Rise Up Coffee, I had to get me some of that, pronto. Evidently, the nearest nexus to this new found wonder was a drive thru kiosk a mile or so away.

The kiosk was the last pit stop before driving back to DC. I usually enjoy the cafe experience, walking in, perusing the single origin menu, checking out the espresso machine, the whole bit. But if a ten-by-ten hut in a parking lot serves fresh, tasty coffee, I do not care. Nothing frivolous, just a standard cup of the daily house blend, and yet my last impression of St. Michaels is now etched with Rise Up’s rich brew. The coffee scene did not let me down, after all. A local roaster in existence since 2005 serving great coffee on par with bigger competition in cities like New York and Seattle. It was a shame I did not visit the newly opened roastery in Easton; you can be sure I will drop by during my next visit. New roaster (at least to me) doing things right, brewing excellent coffee – these things excite me. Who knew. The “locavore” concept now makes more sense to me. Local oysters, local duck, and locally roasted coffee. Besides the obvious benefits of freshness and taste, the discovery of locally owned and distributed foods and coffees adds pure bliss to travel. And such discoveries will be the focal point of future tales to come.

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