6.09.2015

Dispatch from the Witch City

I have to admit to a few moments of weakness on a recent trip to Salem, Mass. On a windy night, ensconced in my hotel room, I may have believed the ghost stories told about the historic inn as a loose shutter rattled intermintantly for hours. It's hard not to let the weight and history of what went down in this small New England town get to you.

The Hawthorne Hotel isn't so historic that it was standing when a bunch of puritanical nut jobs hanged 19 men and women for witchcraft, but at nearly 100 years old and standing at one end of the original Salem Village limits, the ground is certainly hallowed. You can go online and read about how haunted it is, but mostly, I enjoyed the gracious staff and comfortable bed, and was mostly haunted by how small my bathroom was. 

On our first night in town, we ventured down Essex St., seemingly ground zero for psychic, curiosity, and witch boutiques, to Rockafellas. It's another classic building with gorgeous wood floor and lots of windows looking out over a fountain marking Salem Village's original well and a statue of Samantha, perhaps TV's favorite witch of all time.


Our meal at Rockafellas began with cubes of crusty, chewy semolina bread with emerald green pesto. The sauce was looser than I usually make pesto, and I know enough about food to realize this meant it was made with enough olive oil to float a witch, but I enjoyed the strong flavors of licoricey basil and nutty Parmesan cheese anyway.


The day after sandwich was a witty idea to serve in a New England restaraunt, close to where Thanksgiving dinner originated. The smoked turkey, cranberry-walnut relish, and sage stuffing were soothing after a frazzled day of travel - lighter than one would guess, and each ingredient sung its own song while also reminding the palate of the holidays. The sweet/tart berry relish was doing a lot of heavy lifting, with the earthy walnuts in the mix to provide crunch. Rather than a turkey gravy alongside, Rockafellas served a cream gravy, which was a departure from the expected, and added depth to the overall flavor of the dish.


We returned to Rockafellas a few nights later for our team dinner, and enjoyed the potstickers, pulled pork sliders on tiny, crumbly biscuits, and spicy chicken kabobs quite a bit. The patio out front is terrific for finding time to fit in some day drinking and while away until the witching hour in Salem. 


We also walked around Salem that first evening and enjoyed the cool fountains and architecture that lend a sort of hushed, reverential feeling to this hamlet.


Another night, it was Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives that led me to dinner at the Lobster Shanty with my friend and colleague Shannon. This joint is a dive in every sense, with uber casual service, dark corners, and no-frills ambiance. Nothing Fieri had reviewed was on the menu by the time we made it here, but his countenance remained spray painted on the bulkhead over the bar.

I went for a lobster roll, naturally. In this case Conneticut style, which means dressed with butter rather than mayo; a version I'd never tried before. Honestly, it was a bit too greasy and rich for me, which makes me sad. It could be that, despite my general aversion to mayonnaise, the creamier aspect of that condiment is more suited to balance the lush sweetness of lobster meat. The pile of onion rings I ordered with the sandwich were also greasy, and so Big Hungry moniker notwithstanding, I came nowhere near close to finishing this dish. I will say, however, that the portion size here was massive - this was a two handed, five napkin sandwich, no joke.


We did get to enjoy a few touristy indulgences during this work trip, and my favorite was the Witch Musem, just across the street from our hotel. The museum tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials, via a strong voice on the persecution faced by these ordinary citizens based on accusations by a few silly teenaged girls, as well as some history of obstacles faced by Wiccans and the role of witches in popular culture. It's a small museum, but very well done, and the building is cool as Hell.


The night before, we'd had another team dinner at Turner's Seafood, an easy walk from the Hawthorne Hotel. My favorite bites here were our starters - buffalo calamari and tuna sashimi. But I will say, though extremely loud inside, the restaurant itself was gorgeous, all white subway tile, brass and dark wood finishes, and great service. 


The calamari were wonderfully spicy after their hot sauce bath, but not greasy or saucy, which suited me. The squid was tender, and the breading still crisp despite its buffalo treatment. The tuna was extremely high quality, with the conventional but well balanced flavors of scallion and ginger pinging off one another to great effect with the clean fish taste.


For my entree, I selected stuffed shrimp. It was extremely heavy and the shrimp were a little overcooked. The seafood vegetable stuffing would have benefitted from more herbs and less bread, and both the lobster cream sauce and mashed potatoes accompanying the protein were clunky, with little flavor. A whipped potato or rice would be more apt with the shrimp, and more green on this plate than the sprinkle of basil chiffonade was sorely needed. Even the smarty sautéed summer vegetables on the side weren't enough to rescue this dish.


It would be a really hacky writing move to tell you that I fell under the spell of Salem, but there's some truth to it. The six or so square blocks, including waterfront areas, the House of the Seven Gables, Essex Street, and the very cool Crow Haven Witch House maintain a vibe carefully cultivated by both the Wiccan community and tourism council here, and every step feels connected to those scary months when witch hysteria swept this place. 


This is a walking village, and we spent four days here without ever using our rental car. I think it's a very cool place for a weekend getaway, just about a six hour car ride from the Southern Tier, and convenient to Massachusetts shore towns as well as Boston. Let me know what your favorite eats are in the Witch City, Hungries! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 

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