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Ice cream, Lycee Agricole, Moorea

Three glorious scoops, rapidly melting in the South Seas shade.

I’ve turned a lot of corners and had my eyes pop at what I saw, I’ve felt meh about going somewhere only to get knocked out, never saw that coming, I’ll always remember this. These are some of my most exciting food discoveries. A brief chronicle, presented in the hopes that 2016 has plenty more…for the both of us.

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Mo’orea, a tiny island off the coast of Tahiti, was one such corner and one such pop. We’d read about the Lycee Agricole, the farm school, on the island. The students there make homemade ice cream and sorbet from local produce. One day we turned off the main road to a low little cluster of buildings and pulled over. The soursop and the citron sorbets were gorgeous. But the above picture…I wish it could do justice to the quality of the ice cream. Three scoops: banana, vanilla…and gardenia. Locally grown. Or wild, for all I know. It was one of the most exquisite experiences of my life. At the end of a narrow, dusty road on a sandy rock in the middle of the Pacific, I ate flowers.

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Farther north, on Kauai and Maui, I ate lots of mahi and ice cream* and enjoyed every bite. But it’s practically a given, stamped on your plane ticket and all, that you’ll come across great mahi and ice cream (along with sea turtles and a luau every Tuesday night at your hotel). What you don’t expect to come across are pastures filled with cows. We learned Maui of all places has a thriving cattle ranch industry: All of that juicy green grass gets transformed into, I’m told, absolutely righteous steaks and hamburgers. I was in shock; if you blinked, you’d think you were in Wyoming.

Turtle, Kauai

I can’t find my cow pictures and we didn’t do a luau, so here’s a sea turtle.

I grew up slurping nectar from honeysuckle blossoms every spring at the ball field with my sister and our neighbors. A couple of years ago I wondered if I could make something edible with the nectar, as the Lycee students on Mo’orea did with gardenias. Found a recipe for honeysuckle simple syrup, and it was like what Tim Leary said acid was like. Not the flipping-out part, but the opening-your-brain-to-an-entirely-new-universe part. I mixed the syrup into vodka, I sold some to a local bartender, I drenched warm homemade pound cake in it. And soon I’m going to try it out in homemade marshmallows. Why not? And while I’m at it, why not flavor them with the other things I pick: quince, beach plum (they’ll be lavender!), wild mint, persimmons? Tim would be so proud.

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Honeysuckle and its progeny.

I have a cookbook, nearly 50 years old, of English recipes. It’s commonplace to roll one’s eyes at British Isle food, but I’ve never been able to because it tastes as good as it does. Traditional English Christmas cake, Irish fruitcake, Toad-in-the-Hole, and many more recipes later, I found Scotch Woodcock. It sounded pretty good. I was wrong. Anchovies and paste, very softly scrambled eggs, and buttered toast—so simple yet so out-of-the-bloody-park luxurious that I actually started laughing at the first bite. Recommended when you’re a little deprived and disheartened. Winter can do that to you.

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Open face and open mouth.

For my birthday in 2012 my brother and sister-in-law took me to Ben’s Best in Queens, NY, for real Jewish delicatessen. I ordered chicken noodle soup. The big surprise here was the nonchalant way they brought me a bowl that was clearly intended for a full-grown bull mastiff. I brought home leftovers and ate them for lunch for four days.

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For last: this is something I dream of eating all year. They’re so good I almost dream of eating them while I’m in fact eating them. I don’t even have a proper picture of them because I eat them too quickly to grab my camera first. Fried squash blossoms. I made them on a whim in 2013 and was almost overcome by how lovely and delicate they were. Never expected quite that level of good. Stuffed or unstuffed, half burned or delicately browned, that’s enough, I have to stop thinking about them because it’s only January.

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*Lappert’s. Holy cow, go. It’s only sold on the islands, and believe me, I tried to get them to ship it here to the states. Coconut cream. That’s the one!

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The wood-burning oven at Rafele.

You might say I made the most of my press pass.

Last Wednesday my sister and I, together with a handful of Australians, Brits, Canadians, and a pair from Sacramento, ate up most of New York City’s West Village. Sorry about that.

To be fair, it was the old Italian section of the Village, which at face value sounds as if we were among scuffling men in overcoats worn at the elbows, mourning loudly of Kids These Days, but it actually meant the district in which some of the oldest Italian specialty shops can be found. Which means good eating. But while Italian they may be, our tour guide Naheem pointed out, ‘Today we’re eating like Americans….We’re going to taste our way through it. Now for realsies, let’s go.’

My sister Amanda is the PR rep for Foods of New York Tours. She totally twisted my arm to bring me along on this odyssey*, which started with pizza.

There are 800 pizza places in New York City. We ate at one with a loyal following since 1975: Joe’s. One-ingredient sauce.** Dripless. Firm cheese. Pliant crust. Only four pizzas are baked at once. These are pizza requisites to those of us in the New York tri-state area, but to out-of-area/out-of-country/out-of-bloody continent patrons, what we call requisites can be sadly lacking. Amanda and I wept a little tear thinking of the crap that passes for pizza in other places, because we’ve eaten it, too.

I asked one of the Aussie ladies if the pizza at Joe’s was different from the pizza she gets at home, and her eyes widened and said, ‘Oh, yes–this is amaaaazing!’ I asked how it differed, and she said, ‘It’s not greasy.’

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Peripheral customers.

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The inside-outside counter at Joe’s.

Next we hit O & Co., the olive oil and vinegar purveyor. They do right by olive trees by harvesting their fruit without shaking the trees, and do not use heat to extract the oil from the olives (which destroys nutritional value, to say nothing of flavor). From little spoons we tasted a buttery, thick, late-harvest oil from Provence, then an early-harvest oil that tasted like crushed arugula. Fascinating.

Bread rounds smeared with Pecorino-Romano truffle cream came next, and as I stood munching on my little slice of fungi heaven I remembered that my sister is not a mushroom person. The hushed conversation went like this.

‘You’re grossed out. ”I’m grossed out.’

Cheap balsamic vinegar was next, and tasted like the kind of wedding wine you get in mini bottles with the happy couple’s name in Lucida Calligraphy on the label. It made my eyes water and got me on a coughing fit. The good-quality balsamic vinegar from Modena tasted almost warm, and was sweet, smooth and thick as honey.

We made an impromptu pop-in at Royce’ Chocolate, where we ate chocolate-covered popcorn, green-tea candy-covered almonds, and tiny squares of…I don’t know, but they tasted as if the pastry chefs made butter cream out of powerful milk chocolate, semi-froze it, dusted it with cocoa, and balanced it on a toothpick. A mouth-melter.

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The next sample, from Faicco’s, might have been my favorite, one, because it was the very first rice ball I’d ever had that didn’t taste like hot spackle; and two, because it was so wonderfully crunchy. No bigger than a plum, it was peppery, cheesy, and I need to stop thinking about it. Moving on.

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There. Now it can haunt on. You’re it!

Palma is the romantic little spot we visited next, and is inside a renovated old carriage house. The restaurant is in front, and the owners live in the back. It’s genteel; you can smell the genteel. Naheem joked, but nailed it: ‘You go in, you eat, you say you’re sorry.’

And the details—milk-glass and fat fragrant roses and paint that’s been loved off century-old cabinets. One whole room was sky-lit, and earthy elements of wood and stone and tile were everywhere. I loved all of it before we even ate. The owners make a point to offer dishes from small Italian cities, dishes people don’t usually get to try unless they travel there. When we ate it was from a platter of chopped cauliflower that was vinegary and delicious. And that’s true, I mean it; but that’s all I remember, because the notes I took were about the setting. It’s really that lovely. Go.

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I mean, look at this. A wooden farmhouse table with roses in little glass cups. We met the woman who cuts and arranges all of the flowers. And tiny, colored ceramic cups.

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Right?

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This was the door, heavy and marred and made more glorious with a wooden latch. I was ready to move in and sleep on the floor.

Rafele came next, where the chef/owner keeps the food pure and the setting comfortably homey. I’ve never been an eggplant fan; it’s usually over-breaded and as light as an insulated leather utility boot. But this rollatini was filled with buffalo ricotta and mozzarella that was like liquid velvet, and was delicate as a pappardelle noodle. The sauce was made from tomatoes grown on the restaurant’s Catskills farm.

Oh, may the industry’s current fancy with farm-to-fork cooking continue. There are a lot of things we can rightfully complain about in today’s world. This is not one of them.

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Rosemary, squash and painted piggies at Rafele.

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Plein-air artist. Came across a few of them. Natural habitat and all.

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This was wild—the entire facade of a teensy, triangular shaped locksmith’s place. All in keys.

If ever there’s something to leave room for. Milk & Cookies, a little storefront with a wallop of sweet smells, you are my friend. I’d been before. This time, we all got cookies right out of the oven: oat-based chocolate chip. Translation: hearty and fat.

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And butter-staining. Look, it’s smirking.

While we ate cookies, I asked another vacationing Aussie, a young redhead, if she liked the food she’s had in New York so far. She told me that she had a good slice of pizza outside Yankee Stadium (bit of a head scratcher, that), but didn’t like McDonald’s. I politely made a face and said, ‘You didn’t really expect it to be good, did you?’ Her boyfriend said that when they told their friends they were coming to the U.S., they all said they just had to go to McDonald’s. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘It’s all over the world. You’ve had it before.’ They said they’d heard the price was better here. And so it was. But they learned the difference between price and value, I suppose.

Cool little non-food side trips on the tour: This is one of the two alleyways leading out from 86 Bedford, also known as Chumley’s, the notorious speakeasy from Prohibition days (Naheem: ‘Where my Canadians at? That’s when you saved us from ourselves.’). When the place got raided, the cops came through the front door, the owners would yell ’86!’*** and the patrons would tear out the side entrances, into the alleyways, and scatter.

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This is one of the boot scrapers (for mud) on the front steps of many residences, and is a reminder that this area used to be very much the country.

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And this is a slice of spicy, firm-edged soppressata made in house back at Fiacco’s, a five-generation business. We were warmed to hear how this shop fed New York City’s bravest, exhausted and famished in the weeks after 9/11, and how those firemen come back every single day to support the shop. Community goes both ways, and it always will.

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Murray’s Cheese is an institution. I had never been. Place is massive. Cheese caves right there, cured meats drying behind panes of glass.

We were treated to several kinds of cheese (the white variety was very young and unpasteurized, and was so wonderfully, sweetly fresh tasting. It tasted like spring, if that’s possible), with a dried apricot chaser.

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Not a cannoli girl so much, but Rocco’s—43 years in business—did a pretty nice job of it. Everything in this sweet shop is made on site and by hand except for the sfogliatelle, for which we can give them a break. The cannoli shells were fresh and crispy, and the filling was not insipid pudding or icing but proper sweetened ricotta with citron.

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And baby chippies.

Happy exhale.

*Oh, like you just met me.

**Guess.

***This historic remnant is still in use today, when we say to ’86’ something. This needed to be explained to our out-of-town guests. They dug it.

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January’s been typecast as cold, gloomy and bleak as a dungeon. Well, it earns every adjective. Time for an imagination vacation.

In 2008, after several years of being almost totally debilitated from stress, images of Bora Bora kept popping into my head. To put an even finer point on it, I was dreaming of the color I imagined the water to be—turquoise blue, impossibly beautiful. This color became a nearly all-encompassing obsession; I didn’t just need to see it, I needed to rub it into my skin like lotion, I needed to let its essence sink into and saturate my very bones. Lucky for me, at the time I was married to Michael, a guy who was game for anything. We figured we were exhausted already—me from being sick and him from taking care of me—and in need a change of scenery, so why not travel halfway across the world?

We packed two small rolling suitcases, a backpack full of food for the trip out, and a camera. Then we walked to the train station a couple of blocks away in our little beach town and ended up in an archipelago in the South Seas. Six and change hours from Newark Airport to LAX, then nearly 8.5 hours to Papeete, in Tahiti. From there, we would puddle jump to Mo’orea, then to Raiatea and Taha’a, then end on Bora Bora. We decided to see the other islands when we learned they offered black pearl farms, vanilla plantations, jungles and astonishing beauty. If we were going to take the trip, we wanted to see it all. Two weeks, five islands, and nearly 48 hours of that time crossing a continent and the huge bucket of water called the Pacific.

Why would anyone do this, especially in the shape I was in at the time? I can’t explain it better than this: I was desperately hungry for that blue. I still don’t really know why. I knew the whole idea sounded crazy. (Our arrival at the airport in Papeete did a lot to confirm this: We were greeted at 5a by two mildly hysterical guys playing tiny guitars.) But we did it anyway.

Very happy to report that I did find my blue; and as is so often the case, I found a lot more on the way. You know me well enough to know where I’m going with this, right? (Vague hint: Boy howdy, did I eat well.)

First…Mo’orea.

View of Moorea from plane

View from the window of the six-seat plane, a ten-minute flight from Tahiti.

The thing about culture shock is sometimes it’s a good thing. Both Tahitian men and women go about their daily lives with a little flower like the one below tucked behind one ear. No one thinks of it as a female thing. No one questions the men’s sexual orientation. It occurred to me on the first day in French Polynesia that any meaning people assign to flowers, or colors, or clothes, or anything else is subjective and arbitrary. And it also occurred to me that when offered the chance to cast off the assignations we happen to have been taught, it’s quite liberating.

Tahitian gardenia, Raiatea

Tahitian gardenia–delicate, fragrant, and tasty, too. Stay tuned.

The natives there move slowly, laugh heartily, and don’t seem to worry about anything. They also have a charming way of speaking. They don’t just say ‘Iaorana’ (ya-RAH-na, with a little roll on that r) as a hello or ‘Mauruuru’ (ma-RU-ru, same little r roll) as a thank-you. They singsong it: ‘Iao-RA-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…mau-RU-ruuuuuuuuuuuuuu.’  It takes a long time for them to finish talking but it’s a lot of fun to listen to. And it forces you to slow down.

We stayed at Club Bali Ha’i, near Cook’s Bay. Our bungalow had the coolest 2×2 foot window in the floor so you could see fish swimming underneath. It even had a light so you could watch at night! But the camera didn’t get the full effect. Bummer.

No TV, or clock, or phone in the rooms. If you needed something from the desk, you walked there. But you had to do it before something like 10 at night because Georgina at the front desk went home.

This was the view from our deck, late one afternoon.

Late afternoon, Moorea

The little hotel restaurant, the Blue Pineapple, served fruit platters made with local bananas, pineapple, papaya and watermelon along with wonderful grilled tuna (what they call ‘lagoon fish’). But one evening we took a half mile walk along the road that encircles the island and found a little roadside place that served pizza so good that we went back every day. Yeah, I know, the idea of any pizza, let alone good pizza, in French Polynesia is a nutty idea. And let me further impress upon you that it was a shack, just a counter—no bigger than the french fry deals on the NJ boardwalk. But what a shack.

The place was called Allo Pizza, the French-speaking kid who worked there was maybe 19, they had no real refrigeration and by all rights we should have died from ingesting some evil microscopic, Pacific Island, singsonging, flower-wearing organism, but their pizza was so incredible that it nearly made me weep. I should have taken a picture—forgive me—but I’ll tell you my favorite was Le Marseillaise, topped with fresh tuna, chopped capers, tomato sauce, garlic, herbes de Provence, Parmesan and anchovy.

Incidentally, when I say fresh tuna, I don’t just mean it was local. I mean the Allo Pizza shack was across the narrow street from the beach, where fishermen would hang their catch from a makeshift rack and wait. Over the course of the day, people would drive by, choose one of their enormous fish, pay and drive off. The Allo kid did this too. The distance was about the same as you going out your front door and down the driveway. Fresh tuna. Fresh fresh.

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Waiting for a buyer.

One night we tried Allo’s homemade chocolate mousse. Who would eat chocolate mousse served on a dusty road from a pizza shack on a sandy dot in the middle of the Pacific? Us. They don’t call it French Polynesia for nothing. It was perfect.

Cats have a rep for sleeping most of the day no matter where they live. But on these islands they go for the gold. The kitty below, who hung around our deck, is not dead. He is doing what he was born to do: beg for leftover bits of anchovy from my pizza, and summarily pass out for the rest of the day.

Cat, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One of the selling points of Mo’orea was their swimming-with-sharks expeditions. (This is a part of the crazy that I didn’t tell you earlier. We read that you go out for the day on a small boat and jump out–as into the water—to see reef sharks and other fish. The sharks have no history of attacking anyone. Of course no one ever asked a shark to sign an affadavit swearing he had never attacked anyone, but we took the people offering the trip at their word and signed up. The organizers have such confidence that no one will die at the viselike jaws of a shark that they don’t even call it a swimming-with-sharks expedition. They call it a ‘motu picnic’, a motu being an uninhabited island, and one on which we’d eat when we were through.)

The itinerary read, ‘it includes visit of our 2 bays, fish, shark & ray feeding, snorkelling, barbecue on one of our nicest islet of Moorea…rice & pasta salad, fish, chicken, fruits, bread, rhum maitai, beer, juice, water and a coconut show with a lot of time for snorkelling and relaxing!’ So apparently no one dies. Look at all the food you get when you’re done hyperventilating!

Actually, for some reason I was not worried at all. I was stoked, beyond excited. Saw the first dorsal fin and yelled ‘shark!’, cueing Bruno, grinning host, to open his cooler full of lagoon fish and start hacking off pieces to throw to the hungries. He threw it at a distance, while we were to jump, snorkels and cameras at the ready, maybe 10 feet away.

They suggest jumping in as soon as possible ‘before you lose your nerve,’ they said (or if you didn’t leave logic back at the hotel). Michael ducked underwater, came back up and I asked him what it was like. He said, ‘Absolutely f***ing amazing!’

It was.

Reef sharks, Moorea

Zillions of kinds of colored fish, maybe a dozen sharks—it was like being inside an aquarium. I was never afraid. Don’t know why. Sometimes a shark would swim my way, face first, and come within maybe five feet of me. Then it was a little unnerving, but that’s all. They always turned around to eat the cut-up fish.

By the way, that set of legs and fins in the photo belongs to a kid who actually swam among the frenzy, shooting the video which you could buy later. Mhm.

Next we sailed to a shallower area and jumped out to wait for the rays. Before we left we were assured that the type we’d meet were not the type that killed naturalist Steve Irwin, that these did not have stingers. (Similarly, it’s not as if they had a list of rays that had registered to stop by, but we believed them. And they were right.)

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He looks menacing, but they were very friendly—too friendly sometimes, like a yellow lab that’s just rolled in something gross and can’t wait to tell you all about it. You fed them bits of fish from your fist, but you had to be sure to tuck your thumb inside your fist or they’d try to slurp up your thumb. Enormous, some of them, several feet across.

Here I am in ray water, only about four feet deep, and clear as glass. In the travel journal I wrote, ‘It was a huge feeling of blueness.’

I found it.

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This is the view right over my head of the sky and a Pacific tern enjoying his day….

Pacific tern, Moorea

…and the view from the beautiful motu where we had our picnic.

Motu, Moorea

Here are the guys who were asked to try to crack open a coconut Polynesian style. Not too successful, but they had a good time. (Eventually Bruno got the coconuts open, shredded some of it, tossed it in the air and yelled, ‘Tahitian snow!’)

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Bali Ha’i, shot from the boat on the way back…the real deal.

Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One day we drove the circumference of the island, marvelling at the spectacular mountain peaks, turquoise and cobalt striped water, and palm trees grouped as densely as forests…

Coconut palms, Moorea

…and eating. Les Antipodes (Restaurant Creperie) served savory and sweet crepes. ‘La Chicken’ was outstanding, chicken in a white wine/bechamel sauce, as was a crepe with hot pineapple and caramel. Polynesian + French influences coming together, and it was inspired.

Carameline’s, a little bakery you’d miss if you sneezed, served banana and pineapple pastries with a buttery, buttery, tender crumb.

We passed a lot of the enlongated mailbox-looking units below and asked a passerby what they were. Can you imagine?….They’re baguette boxes. Baguette eating is such a way of life on these islands now, a ritual picked up from the French newcomers, that many have it delivered daily the way we have mail, and the way we used to have milk, delivered.

Baguette box, Haapiti, Moorea

One afternoon we hiked in the jungle at the center of Mo’orea and saw moss-covered rocks, marae (places of ancient worship), sinewy tree trunks…and chickens. I’ve noticed wild chickens love the tropics. We trekked deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle before turning around. Here I got nervous. This wasn’t a Monmouth County, NJ park near a major highway; it was about as remote a place as you can possibly get. And the deeper you went, the darker it got. Before we left I took this shot of a leaf in a shaft of sunlight.

Leaf in sunlight, Marae site, Moorea

On our way back, we stopped at the Lycée Agricole (Farming School) where the students there make the most delicious things from what they grow, using nothing artificial. Went delirious over their homemade pineapple/soursop (cherimoya) juice and very kicky citron sorbet. Another day we went back and had (below) three scoops of the most exquisite ice cream I have ever tasted: vanilla, gardenia (yes) and banana…all from local fruits and flowers.

I’ll talk more about vanilla when I post about Raiatea and Taha’a, but in my journal I called the banana (there it is on top) ‘an avalanche of banana!’ And the gardenia is hard to describe—lovely, floral (of course), and very strange, but in a good way. What can I say. Gardenia ice cream.

Ice cream, Lycee Agricole, Moorea

Back at Club Bali Ha’i they kept us entertained. At 5:30 almost every night one of the owners, Jay, a thin, wiry, extremely friendly guy, came out for the very casual Happy Hour. Originally from from Long Island, he and his partner Muk Mc Cullum—‘The Bali Ha’i Boys’—came here in the 1950s with plans to become vanilla plantation owners. They became hoteliers instead, inventing the over-the-water bungalows and having a really, really good time. He drank two little bottles of tequila and told us about the early days, when he and Muk spent much of their time here ‘H & H’ (hammered and happy). At 77, I asked if he had any regrets. He said, ‘Regrets? Yeah, I have a few. I regret that I didn’t come out here a decade sooner.’

On Monday nights, if no one shows up to the crab races in the lobby by 6, one of the employees walks around the grounds with an empty crab bucket and bangs on it and yells, ‘Crab race-eeeees! Crab race-eeeees!’

Crab races, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

It’s raucous and silly but really fun, even though we lost every race—300 francs, about $4. The crab bucket guy goes and finds crabs for the races, which is easy because on Mo’orea they are everywhere, the way squirrels are for us—on the beach, yes, but on the grass, along the sides of the roads, everywhere. He writes numbers on their backs in chalk and people place their bets. If we spent too much time hemming and hawing, he’d call out ‘hava-TEEEEEE! hava-TEEEEEE!’ (‘hurry up!’).

I learned the way to pick up a crab and not get pinched: You put your fingers on their backs between their pincers and their back claws. They can’t turn their pincers around, so you’re set. (Full disclosure: the guy asked me to pick one up but I refused. What a chicken. I’ll swim with sharks but I won’t bloody pick up a crab? That’s it. I’m going back to do it. 🙂 )

I saw these hibiscus on a windy evening, and had to chase them to shoot them. They were really beautiful.

Fallen hibiscus, Moorea

Puddle jumper to Raiatea and Taha’a next week.

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Oh you little tease.

So I must have passed this place a gazillion times heading toward Route 34, but never went in until last weekend, and only because my friend plays piano there. I wanted to hear ‘Jungleland’. Plus I was starving. A happy accident to have had the opportunity to learn about, and taste, their cheesecake.

Backing up: Portofino is teeny tiny, but in a really appealing way; it feels like Sunday dinner at your aunt’s house. A handful of tables, the music from the piano, warm servers and even warmer owners—this kind of synchronicity makes the food taste even better. I’m sure the dinners are good. But here, today, I’m starting with dessert.

I’m not a cheesecake person—that is, I’m not a New York style-cheesecake person. After only a couple of bites, that cream cheese gets to be too rich. But along with the Ferrari 599 GTO and mozzarella in carrozza, the Italians also came up with cheesecake made with ricotta. It’s creamy without being overwhelming, full of nuance—the Jane Austen of desserts.

Finding it homemade, though, ain’t easy. If you’re lucky, your aunt might make it every Easter. If not, finding a specimen at a Jersey Shore restaurant, one that hasn’t been frozen, is a frustrating challenge.

It’s last Sunday night, at the tail end of the heat wave, and I sit down at Portofino’s cozy bar. While waiting for a snack and a drink, I watch Cake Boss with a woman sitting a couple of seats down from me, and together we groan as we watch him pile on the Rice Krispie treats (you know, instead of actual cake). I comment on the blasphemy of it all; my companion agrees. Turns out we have a lot in common: we’re both self-taught pastry chefs, we prefer authentic ingredients, and we bake everything from scratch. I ask her if she eats often at Portofino, and she looks at me quizzically. “I’m his wife,” she says, aiming her thumb at the kitchen. The owner’s wife, Lena.

She disappears into the kitchen for awhile and I look at the dessert menu. Lots of really nice choices, but I saw homemade ricotta cheesecake, so obviously something had to be done. I ask the waiter if it’s made in house, too, and he says yes. Sold.

It’s the simplest, most perfect presentation: one generous slice on a plate with a little dusting of powdered sugar. That’s it. That’s all it needs. (Heads up, platers: When you have a stellar piece of cake, it doesn’t need to be dressed up like a drag queen. In fact, a heap of ice cream and whipped cream is usually a giveaway that the cake underneath is lacking.)

I talk to the bartender, Jim, about the topic of his senior thesis and eat the cheesecake slowly, licking the fork after every bite. It’s dreamy-light, not at all cloying, not at all dense, and the crust is thin and tender. I tasted citron, an essential ingredient in Italian cheesecake, but it didn’t power through. It was subtle. When Lena came out, I asked if the cheesecake was hers. It was.

Get this: she really liked a cheesecake the restaurant used to outsource, and she was bent on replicating it in Portofino’s kitchen. It took months of work—tasting the original cake, making her own, comparing the two, tweaking. Finally, with the right amount of a special ingredient (Can I tell? I never asked. Curses!), she nailed it. And how.

Portofino is casual, hang-out-with-friends friendly and family-friendly. The homemade pasta on the menu blew me kisses, and I’ll be going back for that for sure. But that cake haunts me yet.

Portofino

Tinton & Sycamore Avenues

Tinton Falls, NJ

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