Travels in Newport with The Chowder Boy

Restored colonial houses, mansions that incite rounds of “whoas” and “wows,” a harbor full of sailboats, gently rolling waves licking piers, and…python jerky? All of the above can be found in Newport, Rhode Island. But don’t worry; I don’t think you’ll find any live pythons making their way up and down Thames Street. At least my family and I didn’t see any last week when we were in town.

We did, however, score many memorable meals in this city that should be considered a foodie destination. Even our 11-month-old son, vacationing for the first time, joined in on the action.

Offering seafood on a pizza reveals something important about the establishment. Since seafood is more perishable, more delicate, and more easily overcooked than most other ingredients, a successful seafood pie is an indication that the kitchen possesses a certain attention to detail that others may lack. Fortunately, Newport’s Nikolas Pizza, a five-minute walk away from the city’s Thames Street waterfront strip, served us a garlicy Greek-style pan pizza with properly browned cheese and sweet, juicy shrimp that popped when we bit into them. The shrimp must have been added halfway through the baking process so that everything was done at the same time. Being a pizza joint didn’t stop them from offering clam chowder, my son’s new favorite dish, easily ousting the crayons he had been starting to munch on.

At Salt Water, the Newport Harbor Hotel and Marina’s restaurant, fried oysters are not just for po-boys at lunch and dinner time. We enjoyed their fried oyster sandwich (with Old Bay aioli) for breakfast two mornings in a row.

Our favorite dinner offering was their chowder fries: a bowl of clam chowder with bacon and caramelized onions, served with waffle fries for dipping. I kept thinking that if the chowder were just a little thicker, the whole thing could be served poutine-style with the chowder poured over the fries, creating an ugly, tasty mess of a bowl. Speaking of messes, our son showed his approval of the dish with a sloppy chowder face.

The meals at Salt Water—and a few nights at the Newport Harbor Hotel and Marina—were part of my prize for winning a gold medal in the NATJA Travel Journalism Awards, courtesy of Discover Newport. The winning article, published by VICE Munchies last year, can be found here.

We happened to be in Newport for the opening weekend of the farmer’s market on Memorial Boulevard, where we met Matthew and Tammi Mullins, the husband and wife team behind the Newport Sea Salt Company, selling their product at the farmer’s market for the very first time. While wearing hip waters, Matthew gathers the sea water himself at Brenton Point Reef, about three miles southwest of downtown Newport. He then evaporates the sea water in a professional kitchen to produce the chunky crystals of salt for finishing dishes. “Reef to table” is their catchy, food-trend-aware slogan.

Sea salt from Newport has a glaring under-your-nose obviousness to it. I mean, the open ocean is right there! Surprisingly, the Newport Sea Salt Company is the first of its kind.

Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of the bag of doughnuts—fried, slightly sweet hush-puppy-like balls of shrimp and lobster morsels with a chipotle-mayo dipping sauce at The Mooring on Newport’s waterfront—because I was too busy feeding their native scallop chowder to our son (see the trend here?). But I managed to get a shot of Sticks & Cones’ waffle on a stick—baked to order on a custom-made waffle iron and covered with white chocolate, maple syrup, and caramel—before the sauces dripped too far down my hand. The ability and desire to eat anything off a stick is proof that America is already great, and has been for a long time. Who knew waffles could be political?

After serving us a cup of her horchata ice cream, the owner told us that “No one from the East Coast knows what it is,” a statement I found curious, since any New Yorker with a nose for our city’s bountiful Mexican food offerings has drunk horchata at least a few times. Perhaps New Yorkers don’t travel to Newport that often and instead choose a bungalow in the Hamptons instead?

We lucked out and scored an unseasonably warm weekend, which called for a visit to the Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown (a 15-minute drive northeast of Newport) for their strawberry ice cream, filled with plenty of strawberry chunks. And hey, the ice cream gave Chowder Boy a non-chowder treat to try, wincing at the coldness of the first bite, but then pointing at the cup for more. The farm also makes their own yogurt and whoopie pies. The latter were satisfying, but not as good as my grandmother’s (because that would be more or less impossible – sorry).

We also happened to be in town for the Newport Oyster festival, where dozens of local oyster farms set up iced tables and shucked their fruits of the sea. But how to choose? I’ll have to admit that I chose some based on the name of the farm, like Walrus and Carpenter. Because anything with the word walrus in its name is worth considering. They turned out to be one of my favorites—yielding a tender taste of the sea—along with the offerings from Rocky Rhode. The latter’s oysters were among the smallest at the festival, but were also some of the most flavorful, with a sweet, friendly finish.

Generally, I don’t count myself as a fried chicken fan. In lieu of seasonings, most fry joints rely on the mouth feel of fat and the crunch of the breading to get the eater through the task. Too many flavorless chicken-oil-breading mouthfuls have warded me off. But my wife had researched the benefits of a visit to Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, and she was right—upon opening their box containing both fried and rotisserie pieces, a very un-fried-chicken aroma hit me, one of rosemary. Chunks of sea salt sat flirtatiously atop the pieces. Winner Winner Chicken Dinner has shown that when done right, fried chicken can compete with seafood in a coastal town.

If you can handle the reality of a respectable fried chicken restaurant in a seafood town, then you should be able to accept not one, but two outposts of Newport Jerky Company, one at the southern end of town and one at the northern end. Their beef jerky is the obvious choice here, and their red wine & herb variety, using wine from Newport Vineyards, topped our tasting list, with its rich beef bourguignon bouquet and soft texture. (Am I the first person to use the word ‘bouquet’ to describe jerky?)

Being in Newport, I had to try the clam strip jerky, made from clams harvested off of Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands. The Newport Jerky Company had wisely added liquid smoke to the clams—a common pairing, found in clam and smoky chorizo stew, or the iconic stuffie, Newportspeak for a clam stuffed with chorizo stuffing. The brown sugar added an odd but intriguing note to the sticky snack strips.

No scientific category of beasts seem to be sacred in the eyes of their jerkying process, as vacuum-sealed pouches of alligator, alpaca, octopus, and earthworm jerky tempt shoppers to roam away from tried and true proteins. The python jerky caught my eye, and would you expect anything less from someone who won a trip to Newport for writing a story about dining on the world’s largest rodent?

There was another reason I was drawn to the python jerky. It was on a shelf next to animals it would consider prey. In the jerky shop, all meats humbly occupy the same rung on the food chain.

The package did not mention if the snake was sourced from a farm or the wilderness, but if it was the former, I doubt it was fed a vegetarian diet. The python jerky wasted no time introducing its flavor—black pepper and brown sugar attempted to tame a wild essence that sent me into thoughts of the creature squirming as it plotted its next move. Half of the pieces were ropy, indicating that the python must have strangled its share of critters in its days. Go python! At $19.99 for 1 ½ ounces, the package is too expensive to make into a habit, unless you have a vendetta against pythons (and if so, I’m sorry to hear about your Aunt Bertie’s untimely end while she was hiking in the jungles of Indonesia).

I wouldn’t fault you for passing on the python jerky entirely. When in Newport, the chowder is a great place to start. Just ask my 11-month-old son.

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About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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