Culinary vacations are all the rage; they’ve become true gastronomic adventures for hands-on learning or pure entertainment. Here, we present three trips focused nearly entirely on dining: Franklin County, Fla., where you’ll dine from the nursery bed of the Gulf of Mexico; Elkhart Lake, Wis., a resort lake community where restaurants innovate with locally-sourced bounty; and a tightly edited Manhattan food lovers’ trip. Ready your maps!
We’re Salty! — By Kristen K. Tucker
Benefiting from the richness of the flood plain that extends from the Gulf of Mexico to the mountains of North Georgia, Franklin County, Fla. — home to Apalachicola and St. George Island — truly offers the bounty of the bay in dining.
Erik Lovestrand, acting manager of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, emphasizes the importance of Franklin County to Florida’s culinary flavor: 90 percent of the state’s oyster crop is produced there.
Harvest your own oyster breakfast fresh from the bay with an experienced oysterman who also will invite you to shuck them, and eat the oysters on crackers, dashed with hot sauce.
If you’d rather a chef handle your oysters, visit Up the Creek Raw Bar in Apalachicola, where Chef Brett Gormley infuses his menu with exciting culinary trends. Oysters are prepared in tasty variations; clams, locally grown, are steamed with white wine and seasoned with unsalted butter — Asiago cheese bread sops up the addictive broth; and grouper is delectably wrapped in bacon. Not always on the menu but worth inquiring about: homemade sarsaparilla root beer and homemade vanilla ice cream presented in a float.
At Tamara’s Café, also in Apalachicola, zesty Latin flavors perk up the menu. House specialties include pecan-crusted grouper, taste of Apalachicola stew, Cuban black bean soup, and a Caribbean banana split — a fried banana topped with vanilla ice cream, fruit compote, and drizzled with chocolate syrup.
[pagebreak]Northern Culinary Exposure — By Kristen K. Tucker
Escaping our sweltering Southern Indiana summers is a decade-long tradition for many local families, and a handful have sought cooler breezes in Elkhart Lake, Wis., about an hour north of Milwaukee.
Alan and Sandy Newman of Evansville have spent summers in Elkhart Lake, and neighboring Sheboygan for nearly four decades; Bob and Candy Shetler have spent summers there for 46 years, though Candy’s family began visiting in 1955.
“This laid-back lake community has been a favorite destination of ours for many years,” Newman says. “Elkhart Lake is a close-knit area that offers golf, water sports, and dining that are all a real cut above.
“The restaurants all are homegrown; no chains, and the food is outstanding,” Newman adds. “Whether brunch or dessert at Seibkens (an Elkhart Lake family institution right out of “Dirty Dancing”) or a double Johnsonville brat (right from the local plant), you are reminded what a special place Elkhart Lake is to visit. There are more upscale restaurants in Sheboygan and Elkhart Lake than you might imagine based on the size of these quaint communities.”
According to village board president Alan Rudnick, a friend of the Newmans, “Elkhart Lake is a village of 967 residents that can boast having 16 restaurants.”
A favorite dining spot of the Newmans is the Paddock Club, known for its hanger steak. Chef Lynn Chisholm presents well-made, simple food. Half portions of handmade fresh pasta are offered so you can sample more dishes.
The Shetlers enjoy the charming delicatessen and coffee shop Off the Rail (it literally is), featuring an impressive lineup of sandwiches including the Freight Train: Nine-grain bread filled with turkey, havarti cheese, bacon, sprouts, onion, tomato, and creamy horseradish. It tastes like summer.
Other notable dining experiences in Elkart Lake include:
Lake Street Café: Behind the family-style pizzeria and friendly bar is a cozy dining room with white linen, candles, an excellent wine list, notable martinis, and a tempting California bistro style menu.
Back Porch Bistro: Located in Victorian Village Resort, a beautifully restored vintage resort on the lake, the Back Porch Bistro uses local produce, artisanal Wisconsin cheese, and only the best ingredients in its seasonally-changing menu. Summers get lively at Victorian Village with its Barefoot Tiki Bar.
The Osthoff Resort: Elkhart Lake’s premier resort, the AAA Four Diamond Osthoff Resort, is home to a French cooking school, L’ecole de la Maison, offering guests single and multi-day courses on artisan breads, chocolate desserts, specialty pastas and sauces, and a five-course holiday dinner.
Lola’s on the Lake, with panoramic views of the water, offers an eclectic lunch and dinner menu. Set aside your concerns over a rich meal and enjoy Black Angus carpaccio or duck risotto fritter, Lola’s soup trio, veal ragout with chestnut potato gnocchi, or osso buco Milanese. Save room for vanilla crème brulee.
Siebkens Resort/Stop-Inn Tavern and Restaurant: Internationally known as the “best bar on the racing circuit” (a reference to the area’s racing history and Road America), the Stop-Inn is a favorite with locals and tourists. Stop in, and you’ll see why.
[pagebreak]Savor the City — By Trisha Weber
Embarking on a visit to The Nation’s Greatest City can seem overwhelming. New York City attracts more than 40 million guests each year. At peak time, sidewalks are filled with high-heeled women carrying knock-off Gucci handbags, suited businessmen, hippies, and tourists. For the latter, blending in with the others often seems impossible. It’s OK. Enjoy the touristy hotspots such as Times Square and the 9/11 Memorial — you’d be missing out if you didn’t. Marvel at the tall buildings while taking as many photographs as you like. The faux pas is playing it safe on the dining scene. Don’t fall into the Hard Rock Café rut. Manhattan has so much more to offer; live like the locals.
Head to Luke’s Lobster in the East Village. Although this gem also resides in five other Manhattan locations (Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Financial District, Penn Quarter, and in the Nauti Mobile, a traveling Luke’s Lobster truck), the East 7th Street restaurant sits right beside another dining delicacy, Caracus Arepa Bar. This is important.
Sprinkled with lemon butter and topped with secret spices, the lobster roll at Luke’s Lobster is flavorful enough to turn any seafood pessimist into a believer. Inside a toasted New England-style, split-top bun, the chilled lobster — or crab, or shrimp, or all three — offers the perfect combination of hot and cold. The best part: the seafood comes straight from Maine, where founder Luke Holden grew up lobstering on the coast, and is processed immediately after the boat docks. The website says it best: “It doesn’t take a master chef to make a great lobster roll; it takes great lobster.”
You will be asked to add a soda or beer, chips, and a pickle to your roll — don’t. Save room for an arepa from next-door neighbor Caracus Arepa Bar. “Double-dipping” between restaurants is a common practice among locals, for good reason. The small interior is only one reason a line is inevitable at this popular restaurant; the other is the corn flour, pita-like “sandwiches” that come filled with a variety of meat, vegetables, and beans. Called arepas, this unique dish hails from Venezuela, where its versatility — and deliciousness — often makes it the center of every meal.
For a more let’s-take-our-time-and-stay-for-a-while approach to dining, New York’s Mulberry Street staple Le Mela Ristorante in Little Italy has been delivering for 25 years. Recommending one item from Le Mela’s menu doesn’t do the restaurant justice; it’s best to bring a large group to experience the three, five, or seven-course family-style dinners boasting several choices of appetizers and antipasti (baked clams, fried calamari, asparagus parmigiana); pastas (gnocchi, tortellini, rigatoni pomodoro); main dishes (veal francaise, chicken scarpariello, shrimp marinara); and desserts (tartufo, cannoli, tiramisu). Although single dishes come just as beautifully and delicately presented, Le Mela’s is best experienced in the good company of many.