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Middletown, CT

Taking Stock at Foodstock

As an alumna of Wesleyan University, I knew I was back on campus when I passed a stop sign bearing stickers with the words “don’t” and “believing” framing the word “stop.” Some things never change. Some things, however, change a lot. One of these is the sheer number of self-professed “foodies” that walk those hallowed halls and tree-lined pathways. The school paper, which I edited back in the day, now boasts a food section. A student-organized farmers’ market sets up shop a couple on campus times a month. There’s a program house dedicated to cooking, known as “Full House.” Even the campus catering is done by Bon Appétit Management, known for its local, sustainable sourcing of ingredients. It’s not that I’m shocked by this transition—there was a student protest while I was at Wesleyan to get the on-campus grocery store to stop selling eggs laid by caged chickens—but it is a reminder of how quickly food awareness has sprung up in the American consciousness. Some of these Wesleyan foodies (members of the class of ’12, ’13 and ’14, if you can believe we’re that old) organized a conference on food writing called Foodstock, at which I—along with others more accomplished and more luminary—was asked to speak.

The morning was occupied by two conversations led by the Connecticut Public Radio cooking-show host, Faith Middleton. The first was with former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine editor, Ruth Reichl, and the second was with New York Times wine critic (and Wesleyan grad) Eric Asimov. The afternoon schedule would be packed with more notable names, including Raymond Sokolov, Dorie Greenspan, Jane Stern and Molly O’Neill. But first, it was time for lunch. Talking about food is all well and good, but what kind of food conference would be complete without a feast to gorge on? Lucky, the smarty-pants Wesleyan students who planned Foodstock were on top of their game in this department as well. They recruited a small fleet of food trucks to come to Middletown and park in a lot near the science center. Naturally, I had to scout out the full range of options before deciding what to eat. I passed on Ethiopian, grilled cheese and a pizza truck with an internal oven and opted for three tacos from Hartford-based Lucky Taco.

I tried one filled with carnitas, one with chicken and one with beef. It didn’t take me long to realize that the carnitas is where it’s at. The meat was tender and porky, and the cabbage slaw in the taco added crunch and moisture. I dumped the entirety of my salsa verde cup on top and chowed down. The other two tacos were far less remarkable. The chicken was bland and uninteresting, and the ground beef cried out for seasoning and textural character. Both of these tacos also came with fresh tomatoes on top, which are simply a watery disappointment until tomato season starts in earnest. The remaining two cups of salsa were also tomato based, and they lacked the kick of smokiness or spice I was craving. I sat down on a curb in the parking lot—between Eric Asimov and some undergraduates—to eat them. Ah, the democracy of food carts!

As I sat there eating my less-than-stellar tacos, I overheard numerous passersby raving about the Lebanese fish wrap from the Munchies Food Truck. I felt a pang of orderer’s regret. Then I stopped myself. Why worry about having missed out on the sandwich when I could buy it and eat it for second lunch? I did just that, although I didn’t end up eating it until later. The battered, fried flounder was tender and moist and evocative of the Northeast region, while also bringing in a kick of the Middle East with tahini sauce and a crunchy salad. The pita was that thin pliant variety that really holds a sandwich together well. This may well have been the best item available at the food trucks assembled in that parking lot, but what struck me the most about these food offerings was the sheer variety at that level of quality. These carts were reflective of what college students wanted and found delicious. Even the little gourmet on-campus market and the vegan cafe of my undergraduate days did not rise to this level of sophistication. Would my classmates and I have thought to plan a conference based purely on the enjoyment of food? Probably not. But, in the age of the foodie, it seems, we are all more conscious of what we eat and how we document its every detail.

O’Rourke’s Redux

O'Rourke's ExteriorDespite what they tell you on the tours at Wesleyan, Middletown, Connecticut is not what I would call a restaurant town. You can count the worthy restaurants on one hand, and you might not need your thumb or pinky. Considering that, it may seem strange that I was itching to skip out on a free catered meal at a conference on food I was attending at Wesleyan over the weekend. But anyone who’s spent a day or two in Middletown can tell you that there’s nothing better than breakfast at O’Rourke’s Diner.

Pre-breakfast snackOpen daily from 4 am until 3 pm, O’Rourke’s is a tiny, old-fashioned silver diner on the south end of Middletown’s Main Street. It has been open for years, but according to some older alumni I spoke with, it used to be little more than a greasy spoon. That changed when Brian O’Rourke took over from the previous generation and turned the diner gourmet. Now O’Rourke bakes almost all his own breads, including wheat bread, Irish brown and soda breads and a host of breakfast breads like banana, lemon and zucchini. Patrons waiting in line outside the restaurant (inevitable on the weekends) are often treated to slices of Brian’s bread, still warm from the oven. And when you are seated, a small sampler of the sweeter breads keep you sated until the food arrives. The restaurant’s interior used to have a considerable coating of grease and a number of tiny little booths that seated only two people. The four-person booths had mini coin-operated jukeboxes. This all changed in August, 2006 when a fire during the night destroyed the entire interior. This, combined with a lack of fire insurance, forced the diner to close until just a few months ago.

Irish EmbassyI went this time with my friend Honey Roasted Peanut, who was also attending the conference, her boyfriend Pecan Pie, my cousin Leftover Girl and her friend from college. As we waited in line outside, we witnessed Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl departing from the restaurant with her son (Wesleyan class of 2011). She was in Middletown to speak at our food conference, so we weren’t surprised to see her there. Still, it was nice to feel vindicated in my love of O’Rourke’s by one of America’s foremost food authorities. The interior of the restaurant has changed. It’s cleaner, and the booths are a little bigger. The tabletops are covered in a retro-looking Formica instead of the old, authentic vintage stuff. Gone are the mini jukeboxes and the old counter stools. The menu also looks more professional, but, thankfully, it still contains the same favorite dishes. HR Peanut and I didn’t feel confident that we could finish anything on the menu. We decided to share the Irish Embassy (pictured here). It comes with two over-easy eggs, crispy bacon, smoky Irish ham, corned-beef hash, Irish brown bread and well-seasoned potatoes. One stab of the fork sends the egg yolks running over the coarse, hearty bread and dousing all of the succulent meats. Would you like a little cholesterol with your cholesterol? My favorite meat is the corned-beef hash, which comes in delightfully uneven chunks and has enough spicing to give it great savory depth. Needless to say, we were glad we’d shared.

OmeletThe other three members of our party ordered omelets. These are all huge and fluffy and come filled with all the freshest ingredients available. Pecan Pie went way gourmet with smoked salmon and asparagus, while Leftover Girl settled on this beautiful, vegetable-laden version. I don’t usually order omelets in restaurants, but O’Rourke’s incorporates complex, innovative elements that make theirs worth trying. Other popular menu items include such decadent concepts as banana bread French toast (on Brian’s own bread) and an entire lunch menu, which boasts great turkey and Reuben sandwiches. It’s also fun to put your fate in Brian’s hands and order “Brian’s Breakfast” or “Brian’s Lunch,” both of which are made of whatever Brian feels like putting on the plate. It may take you a while to work up to this level of trust, but if there’s one thing you learn from eating at O’Rourke’s it’s that the diner and its owner won’t let you down.

O’Rourke’s Diner
728 Main St.
Middletown, CT 06457

O'Rourke's Diner on Urbanspoon

Two Meals Worth of Tikka Masala

VindalooWhen I was in college at Wesleyan in Middletown, Connecticut it was always a challenge to find a nice restaurant for dinner. There were the ubiquitous Thai joints, the beer and burger stops, the fajita and margarita vendors and the pizza and pasta places. There was also sushi, which was great, but not always affordable on a college student budget. When I needed a place for my parents to host a group for my 21st birthday, I did some asking around and learned about Haveli India. It’s a great Indian restaurant on the outskirts of town— so good, in fact, that I have yet to be as impressed with any the places I’ve tried in Chicago.

I was in Middletown on Friday and Saturday for an alumni meeting at Wesleyan. My cousin Leftover Girl just transferred in as a junior, so I took her and a couple of her friends to check out Haveli. After a few twists and turns as I attempted to remember how to get there, we finally made it. We were seated immediately after walked in and served delicious pappadums (lentil crackers) with three kinds of chutney. A round of Indian Kingfisher beers followed shortly.

Chicken Tikka MasalaWe wanted to share, but Leftover Girl’s friends were vegetarians. We decided to get two vegetable dishes and two meat along with a side of chewy naan. LG ordered the classic, rich chicken tikka masala. Tender boneless skinless chicken is cooked in ginger, garlic, yogurt and various spices, baked in the tandoor and sautéed with tomatoes. And don’t forget the special ingredients that make this dish so rich and filling: butter and cream. I ordered the lamb vindaloo (pictured above), extra spicy. It consists of earthy lamb cooked with every spice from coriander to cinnamon, potatoes and some vinegar for bite. I always ordered this dish as a student, so I decided to do it again for old time’s sake. It was as good as I remembered it, but not quite as spicy. Maybe my palate has toughened up in the past two years.

Saag PaneerLeftover Girl’s friends ordered the saag paneer (sauteed spinach with large squares of soft Indian cheese) and the mattar paneer (the same cheese with a tomato-based sauce similar to the tikka masala). These were almost better that the meat dishes. It’s amazing to me how Indian cooking styles from both the Northern and Southern parts of the country manage to produce vegetarian food that is as appealing, if not more so, than meat-filled dishes. The spices, the richness and the depth of flavor in the sauces makes these dishes like these filling as well as inspiring, things I can rarely say about vegetarian menu items.

We left the restaurant ready to burst and carrying three take-out bags. True to her name, Leftover Girl announced plans to have chicken tikka masala for breakfast. When I got back to her campus apartment and put the bags in the fridge, it almost seemed for a split second like I was back in college eager to make my leftovers from Haveli last for yet another delicious meal.

Haveli India
1300 South Main St.
Middletown, CT 06457