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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Cave of the Monkey

It's just barely starting to be spring here. I've seen a few crocuses popping up, but otherwise things are still pretty bleak, so I thought I'd post a few pictures from a trip we took to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, a few weeks ago. The vacation was all too short, just a few days, and I keep wishing we were still there.

Parts of the town are a little too touristy for our taste, and condos and hotels are being developed like mad, but there's still enough we love about the area to make it special. (This was our second trip there.) The turquoise-blue ocean and white-sand beach (we head north of town to escape the crowds) are otherworldly, the local people, in our experience, are really nice, and the local recipe for guacamole is divine.

The other thing to love about Playa del Carmen is La Cueva del Chango, a.k.a. Cave of the Monkey, a little open-air restaurant, best known for its breakfast, that specializes in natural food and local Mayan cuisine. It's one of my favorite places in the world. That picture above shows the colored glass bottles set into its concrete ceiling like stained glass. A small stream runs through a channel in the stone floor and out into the open garden patio out back. In the bathroom you wash your hands under a little stone waterfall, presumably channeled from the same underground spring. Fish swim in a little pond in the middle of the restaurant, and a tree grows through a hole in the roof. This sounds a bit like Swiss Family Robinson at Disney Land, but the overall effect is more rustic and natural, and supremely relaxing. And it's not just me; Jacques Pepin comes here, too. What more endorsement do you need?

Coffee is served in simple clay mugs, with brown sugar.

Fresh jugo de piña, por favor. There are all kinds of fresh juices on the menu.

Huevos rancheros à la Chango. That green stuff in the beans is chaya, a leafy Mayan vegetable.

A view from the front door.

The monkey over the entrance gate.

Awesome monkey mural in the bathroom.

La Cueva is excellent in its own right, but I must acknowledge it's hard not to love a place when this is your destination once the meal is done.

I mentioned guacamole among our top four reasons to love Playa, so here's a bonus for any who have read this far. We had an afternoon snack at a place called Palapa Hemingway, which is one of those places with the gimmick of making the guacamole at your table, kind of like a Mexican Benihana. I don't mind the gimmick though, because it means we got to spy on the simple ingredients that went into it, and it was the best guacamole of my life! That might have been due primarily to the freshness of the ingredients (and the two margaritas I'd already polished off), but nevertheless, here's the eye-witness recipe:

1 and 1/2 avocados

1/3 of a fresh lime

1 T each, chopped, of:
- tomato
- cilantro
- jalapeno
- onion

1 T light olive oil


[That oil was the secret ingredient for us. Olive oil? Okay, I don't know if it was olive oil, but it was some kind of oil. Not extra-virgin olive oil, at any rate. A pale yellow kind. I wouldn't think that would be good in guacamole, but it was.]

Scoop the avocado flesh into a bowl with the other ingredients. Squeeze the 1/3 lime and add the juice. Shake salt liberally over everything. Mash everything together, and add more salt to taste.

Another place we like called Las Delicias sprinkles crumbled queso fresco on top. This is also extremely good.

Enjoy, then die of happiness.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Lobster Roll Diaries: J's Oyster

I spent an afternoon in Portland, Maine, this weekend, and fans of J's Oyster will be happy to know my friend and I found time to stop there for lunch.

I was expecting your typical wharf-side seafood shack, so was surprised to find J's feels more like a divey bar, albeit an oyster bar. It was pretty crowded when we were there so we took the available table by the door, but if I went back I think I would choose to sit at the bar and order a beer and a bunch of seafood, as my friend said she'd done on her previous visit.

So what makes J's such a favorite? In addition to its singular salty-dog atmosphere, I would guess it's the portions and freshness. I ordered the lobster roll (naturally) and was very impressed with the generous helping of notably large pieces of lobster meat. The price was much lower than most Boston rolls, too, and at a place with table service! The bun was grilled (yum, even better than toasted), and mayonnaise was served on the side (not sure this is my favorite style, but I can see how some might prefer it).

I have to say I found this roll a little bland, but that could definitely be due to the season, and I was also starting to come down with a cold. I also ordered a half dozen oysters, which weren't very good, but again you couldn't beat the price, and it may have just been a bad oyster day. I would certainly give the place another chance on all counts.

Lobster iconography abounds in Portland:

After lunch we strolled around town a bit, and found it a totally cute and happening place, a small coastal city with lots of interesting shops and good restaurants. I haven't been in much of a shopping mood lately, but I still had trouble keeping my wallet closed. Portland inspired me to give it my money!

One of the places we visited was a little "modern crafts" shop a la Magpie in Somerville called Edith & Edna. I noticed the work of several familiar indie craft names among its wares, and finally tracked down the elusive "sad toast" by My Paper Crane that I've been keeping an eye out for in recent months. Here's a shot of a giant-sized sad toast (sad because it's burnt, of course!) with other, happier, friends in the store's window.

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Eight-Armed Copilot

At the age of 35 I'm a bit of a late blooming new driver, so when I acquired my first car late last year I wanted to find something friendly to hang from the rear-view mirror and keep me company. For whatever reason, a purple crocheted octopus was what I immediately envisioned, though I had never seen such a thing before, and figured it would be impossible to find, as with everything else when you're specifically shopping for it.

So imagine my sense of triumph when I found just that at December's Bazaar Bizarre in Boston. I mentioned this amazing coincidence to the crafter who made him as I paid for my purchase, but she just looked at me quizzically. Moments later I discovered why: there was another heap of crocheted octopi on a table right across the auditorium, and a quick search on Etsy confirms that the genre is anything but under-represented.

Still, mine is by Pepperberry Crochet, and to me he's the best crocheted purple octopus in the world.


Monday, March 12, 2007

My Gwynnie Issues

Like many others, I have a love-hate relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow. A one-sided relationship, obviously. I'm not sure why I care so much - probably because she's about my age and has a similar background to mine in some ways (minus the Hollywood connections). As with Sofia Coppola, this makes it easy to overly identify with her and therefore resent her success, even when it is deserved.

I really loved her in "The Royal Tenenbaums," and have a guilty affection for the admittedly pretty silly "Sliding Doors" (the plot of which was memorably summed up by my friend Christina as "blonde hair fun life, brown hair awful life"). I don't think she was completely insane to name her daughter Apple, and she can be quite charming in some interviews. I freely admit I eagerly gobble up each fresh news item about her. And yet ...

What's up with the sanctimonious declarations she makes on so regular a basis? She's entitled to her opinion, but she has a way of expressing herself as though she knows what's best for everyone. Her lack of self-awareness and humility don't help, either. Such statements as "I'm an artist" and "I feel that I have a more European sensibility" come to mind. I mean, is she for real?

I was struck awhile back by some comments she made about loosening up her macrobiotic regimen, how she declared that she's "a lot less strict" than she was, and "now I eat what I want," and then went on to list exactly what she does eat and what she doesn't, "because it's not good for anyone."

That's how the Gwyneth Paltrow Food Issues box was born. As inspiration for its color palette I chose the "dinner with James" outfit from "Sliding Doors": the periwinkle Calvin Klein sweater and dark berry lipstick in which she fetchingly serves pasta (careful, Gwyneth, carbs!) while James dominates the conversation with yet another tiresome Monty Python soliloquy. Its lid features the quote: "I eat wheat and cheese. I don't have milk or butter because it's not good for anybody." Circling the base of the box is another quote - "I drink a glass of wine with dinner, occasionally beer and also Guinness. I can't drink vodka though" - along with pictures of various foods in which Paltrow does and does not indulge.

Cheese: she eats it.

Milk: not good for anybody.

Croissant: qualifies as "wheat"?

Wine: just a glass, with dinner.

And finally, safely nestled inside the box, most favored Gwyneth food of all:

The apple. Not for eating though!