Saturday, April 3, 2010

Review: 19 hours in Newport

Newport, RI April 2010
We arrived in Newport at about 2:00 pm and after a quick check-in at the Hyatt on Goat Island, a small island next to Newport, we headed into town for lunch. Parking wasn't easy to find, but hey, we're from Queens, we're used to walking a few blocks. We found a free street spot about 3 blocks up from Thames, the main strip.

Before we ate my beau J eagerly had us stop in a sports memorabilia shop after commenting that the stores on Thames were the same stores we'd seen in Mystic a few weeks prior. Of course we didn't stop into a sports memorabilia store in Mystic so perhaps it wasn't really a relevant comment... Made all the more ironic by the fact that the reason we were stopping in this particular store was so that he could by a Hartford Whalers t-shirt. I mean why buy a Connecticut team tee in Connecticut when you can get one in Rhode Island, right?

One t-shirt and absurdly large car decal later we headed back out to look for lunch. For no particular reason except that they had 6 salad selections on their menu, we ducked in Busker's "Irish" Pub. It was dark and oddly decorated, with all the trappings of the "traditional Irish pub" themed decor plus some unusual yet still Irish-y decor choices: bar of Irish Spring soap anyone? Or perhaps a 4 pack of Snicker's bars packaged with a toy "Irish car"? They were proudly displayed along with the Guinness signs and Irish oatmeal tins.

J ordered a burger with "Irish bacon" and a ginger ale, while I ordered the salmon salad: a green salad to be topped with grilled salmon, and a Guinness. His burger arrived and was conspicuously smaller then the large bun it arrived on. It was topped with a slice of thick cut and crisped ham. By lucky chance he was given the hand-cut fries - he had forgotten to mention what kind of fries he wanted and the waitress had neglected to offer "hand-cut or shoestring?" as indicated on the menu. My salad was a nice mix of fresh greens, 3 quarters of a tomato and some red onion, bell pepper and cucumber and topped with a well done, crispy, pan fried piece of salmon. So much for the healthy grilled option.

J was not particularly impressed with his meal. I have to say though, I appreciated that his fries were absolutely awful, because it effectively stopped me from having more then one. I never really get how places can mess up fries. Its a cut potato, dropped in a frier, add some salt; its not neurology. I thought my pan fried not grilled salmon was way over cooked, but I did like the variety in my salad and the fact that my dressing was served on the side and was tasty enough that I only needed to use half the little cup to dress my whole plate of greens.

What really got us though was the impressively slow service. There were only a few other tables seated and they had arrived well before us, so it wasn't very apparent why it was so slow. The waitress did immediately replace my water once she noticed I was 3/4 done with the glass I had. She also very helpfully refilled beau's glass to the top with water. Too bad he had been drinking ginger ale.

Thoroughly unimpressed with lunch we decided to head back out into the perfect weather to brave the famous Cliff Walk along the coast. I was excited that J had agreed to the walk so I downplayed that I had read the cliff was somewhat treacherous in parts and played up that there were several exits along the way and a bus at the end to bring us back to the car.

I should probably stop over thinking things.

The beginning of the Cliff Walk is well labelled and paved with walls and fences along the way to protect people from falling down the cliff onto the sharp rocks and breaking water below. We saw several other walkers of all ages along the way, but it wasn't unbearably crowded. At 3/4 of a mile we came to the first exit to the street but J was eager to carry on. We were walking along at a comfortably slow pace and enjoying the beautiful water views to our left and commenting on the impressive mansions to our right.

After about a mile and a half, at a street exit, there was a sign indicating there were no more exits for the next 2 miles. I was sure J would be bored of the walk by this point and would want to abandon the trek. To my surprise he was determined to push forward "just to say we did it". We mused that they should sell t-shirts at the end to commemorate the accomplishment (they do not).

At some point the walls and fences along the cliff side ended, so falling would be a horrific idea, probably resulting in death or at less terrible terrible pain. There were significantly less other walkers at this point. Soon into the "no exits for 2 miles" portion the lovely paved path ceased to exist. For a while the path was dirt and gravel (and at at several points mud) and then it was just nothing. Not a vast void of absolute nothingness - it was actually quite beautiful coast line - but certainly a void of anything resembling a path. The strolling walk had officially morphed into a hike over tremendous boulders. J slipped for a moment on some mud and I asked how much he weighed. I thought pretty hard about how far I could carry him over this terrain should he break a leg; its probably good he didn't fall, because I don't think I could carry him too far.

We did make it to the end, marked only by a sign and the fact that we dumped onto a residential street. Time to take that bus back to our car! Did I mention, we're from Queens, land of the well marked bus stops and frequent buses? Did I mention this was all taking place in Newport Rhode Island, in April (which despite the perfect weather is apparently "off season")? As we walked along Bellevue Avenue, surrounded by ostentatious displays of wealth in the form of mansions, we bickered about what the signs at what we surmised were bus stops meant "Bellevue buses do not go past Marble House" (well it said something like that...) So we walked. And we walked. I wondered how the walk back could possibly be 4.5 miles when its a more direct route then the Cliff Walk, which is only 3.5 miles, but J was in no mood. He hates long walks.

Finally, after about 3/4 of a mile, and walking on J's last nerve, we finally arrived at a large building with a large sign: Marble House. And approaching us, a trolley. We climbed aboard and were greeted by a smiling driver. We asked if this would take us back to the beginning of the walk and commented we had almost lost hope in finding the bus. She waived off our offer to pay our fares ($1.75 each) and mentioned she had never done the Cliff Walk but had heard its quite nice, we agreed with her previous reviewers. A few blocks later she announced "well this is the beginning of the Cliff Walk" and let us off. We walked up the block towards the water and realised this was not in fact the beginning of the Cliff Walk but rather the first street exit, the one at the 3/4 of a mile mark. But with an end in sight - literally we could see the road where the car was parked in the distance - J was rejuvenated and back in his usual jovial mood.

We headed back to the hotel and asked the woman at the front desk for some good restaurant suggestions and when last call in Rhode Island is. Normally I do a bit of prior research on dining options but there are simply so many in Newport I figured I didn't have to. The hotel clerk had the same problem, there are simply too many places to narrow down to one or two suggestions. She did mention however that the hotel provides a free shuttle to the center of town every half hour, which is handy because its a several block walk over the bridge towards any action and we were pretty walked out. She let us know last call was usually about 12:45 as bars close at 1:00 am.

After a brief rest and a quick shower we dressed for dinner and headed down to the lobby to find the shuttle. A family with too many kids that were way too fat and in t-shirts way too small passed by us. We were directed to the shuttle and walked out to it only to be informed that there was only one seat left, but the driver assured us he would be back in "6 minutes" to drive us to town. The shuttle was full of fat kids in tight t-shirts. 11 minutes later the shuttle returned.

We were dropped off at one of the main wharf's along Thames and started looking for restaurants. The first one we found had entrees in the $25-55 range so we kept looking. Most other options had entrees in the $19-32 range. In retrospect, perhaps bargain shopping in a tourist area isn't the best way to find culinary delights.

We put our name on the list for dinner at the Black Pearl, which I believe predates the Johnny Depp movies but not the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney. We didn't ask about the origin of the restaurant's name nor did the menus offer an explanation. The wait was announced as 45 minutes and the bar was packed. We decided to walk around and see if perhaps we could find somewhere else, knowing even if we didn't we were on this list. 20 minutes later with no better options found we returned to find the bar area much less crowded and only 3 couples ahead of us on the list. We ordered 2 Sam Adam lager drafts, at $4.75 each, and served in quite small looking glasses.

Once seated we hungrily scanned the menu. I ordered a cup of clam chowder, which our hotel clerk had mentioned was considered the best in Newport, and Nantucket Bay scallops with lemon butter sauce and a baked potato. J ordered a cup of chili with onions and the pepper chicken, described on the menu as a chicken breast marinated in hot pepper and grilled, with rice.

My chowder was ok, but if its the best Newport has to offer, perhaps they should stop bragging about it. J declared the chili to be "a disaster" and described it as "marinara sauce with some beans dumped in it". But we were hungry so we ate. Good thing because the meal went downhill from there.

We had rejected several of the other restaurants in town because almost all the seafood was listed on the menus as fried. Having never ordered Nantucket Bay scallops before perhaps I was unaware of it being code, but it simply never occurred to me anyone would bread and fry a tiny little scallop. Apparently it occurred to the chefs at the Black Pearl, although not the menu author. They were served with a large dollop of tartar sauce, not the lemon butter I requested. A huge heap of glistening green beans - the one and only vegetable I can't stomach - sat next to them on my plate. In fact my whole plate was glistening, as not only were my scallops fried, they were sitting in a pool of oil. I ate about 3 - again how anyone can mess up fried food is beyond me, I mean sure its a coronary nightmare but usually fried food is at least tasty, not so with these little golden brown grease balls.

My baked potato however, was quite good.

J's meal was also served with a huge heap of glistening green beans, and the small singular chicken breast looked like it was grilled on a Foreman. It was doused in what tasted like sweet & spicy commercial barbecue sauce.

Upon noticing my mostly untouched plate of food, our waitress, who offered but never brought us a second round of Sam Adams, asked if there was anything wrong with my meal. I confessed I had been unaware the scallops would be fried. She responded "if it makes it better they are only pan sauteed, not deep fried." It did not make it better. She asked if she could bring me something else but I declined. She pushed "it only takes 7 minutes for them to make up a new dish." I did not think that was a good point to emphasize.

As we waited for our bill -which did not include my meal - we overheard the couple at the table to my right growing ever more agitated at being unable to find the waitress - they had been given back the wrong check and more disturbingly the wrong credit card. Soon I overheard the couple to my left discussing their meal, the female diner noting that while her salad wasn't bad it "most certainly [was] not a Caesar salad." There was a partition blocking my view which annoyed my curious nature - what could they have served her? There are only 4 ingredients in a regular Caesar salad, 5 if you get fancy and add anchovies. How can you mess up romain lettuce, parmesan cheese, croutons and dressing?

So far Newport had proven itself to be visually beautiful and a culinary nightmare.

We delved into the night in search of libations to wash down the lingering grease flavor from our dinner disaster. Only a few doors down the wharf we found a great little bar that was not too crowded. There were 10 bar stools, 9 of which were occupied (of course the one empty seat was right in the middle). We stood at the end of the bar and ordered some pints and the man sitting at the last stool immediately got up and offered me his seat. I thanked him but refused, only to have, unrequested, everyone along the bar move over one; at that point it seemed rude not to sit. We got into chatting with him and his friend and the bartender. Turns out they were all students at the local International Yacht Restoration School. I asked if it was for international yachts, or international students. He quickly answered "international yachts" but then introduced his friend down the bar who has come from Italy to study there, so we determined it was also an international student body.

The bar patrons and bartender righted all the wrongs our meals had provided. They were interesting and friendly and we felt completely welcomed and at ease.

I noticed the bar participated in a tradition I've only ever seen in New England - regular's glasses. My new bar friend and 2 other patrons were drinking from thick glass mugs, each etched with 3 letters and a number. Additional glasses hung above the bar. J and I, and the rest of the patrons were served our drinks in standard glasses. After a while I asked and it was explained in order to get a personal mug you had to drink 30 different varieties of beers at the bar with a daily limit of 2 varieties. You were then assigned a number and given a personal glass. The advantage was you paid the same price but got 4 extra ounces in each glass. The unspoken advantage of course is the coolness factor of having a personal beer mug at your local watering hole.

At 11:45 the bartender called last drinks. The bar cleared out as we finished our beers, leaving myself and J and one other couple. We lamented to the bartender over his early closing and asked for a recommendation of another good bar. He suggested Benjamin's on Thames. The other couple from the bar joined us, and upon entering our new friend offered us a round of beer. We ended up sitting through 2 rounds with them and having a great time. They were the same age as us and also on a short getaway; they were from Massachusetts.

At 1 we caught the last shuttle back to the Hyatt and retired to our room. Not there 10 minutes there was a knock at our door. Apparently the woman in the room next too us thought were too loud and repeatedly mentioned her kids were sleeping. She seemed to be complaining about us at much louder volume then we had been using. I apologised but dismissed her. As I was telling J what her complaint was she called out something through the wall to us. I yelled back at her through the wall and called down to the front desk to alert them there was an irate woman harassing us. I mentioned we had just taken the 1 am shuttle to emphasize we had not been in our room long enough to justify the woman's apparent rage at us.

J went to go get his iPod from the car and upon exiting our room was met in the hallway by a security guard. Immediately the next door opened and both the woman who had knocked and a man, presumably her husband, entered the hallway. I watched through the peephole. The couple was irate, raised voices, animated hand gestures and the woman kept repeating "my kids..." "my kids..." Apparently they have some sort of deadly disease where other people being loud will kill them but her screaming won't affect them. It was the only logical explanation to her behavior. J remained calm and so of course the security guard dismissed him and stayed to have a chat with the couple about keeping it down.

We retired for the evening and awoke the next day refreshed. We did not see our neighbors again.

We checked out and started the drive home. We took note of some interesting looking places in Newport as we drove out and then started our quest for a Denny's for breakfast. There is simply no better road trip breakfast then Denny's. Unfortunately we didn't find one until mid-Connecticut.

Overall I enjoyed Newport and would recommend it as a good destination. In fact I repeatedly mentioned to J we should return, as we hardly experienced any of the sights and attractions in the area. But next time, I will definitely do some dining research to find us some edible meals.