Josh Play Gay motss.con.xx. (Providence, RI)

The following is my motss.con.xxi con report, or my experiences of the 21st soc.motss.con (held Jul 17-21 in Providence, RI). If you don't like such things, feel free to hit 'n' and not read it. It won't bother me. Much.

Thursday, July 17

Woke up at 3:45am to take a quick shower, pack the CPAP and toiletries, and hit the road for the 20-odd mile drive to the airport. Traffic was negligible, parking was actually easy this time (as opposed to the last time I tried to part at the McNamara terminal at DTW), and I managed to clear Security and hike to the gate in plenty of time. Of course, the airport suffered a power failure overnight and the computer responsible for the gate signage was confused; my flight was the only one on the airport-wide monitors with no gate assigned, and our gate had the next flight (at 8:50am) to our destination instead of ours (at 6am). In any event, the 8 adult paying passengers, the sleeping 3-month-old baby, and the one airline employee flying standby all got on board and we actually had an early departure (by 9 minutes) and got into Cleveland a full 30 minutes early.

Unfortunately, the Cleveland to Providence flight had a last-minute equipment change, leading to reissuing everybody's seats (the old plane was a shorter 2-and-2 configuration but the new one was a longer 1-and-2, so everyone in a D seat was going to be out of luck if they didn't), additional paperwork for the crew (who didn't show up on time themselves), and a 22-minute late boarding process. By the time we departed we were down to only 13 minutes late, and by the time we arrived in Providence we'd managed to cut it down to only 5 minutes late.

I caught the next (10am) shuttle to the hotel, checked in with minimal problems (and thanks to one of the airlines doing a 6-month free-trial of gold status, got an upgrade to "an enhanced room in the corner of the building with windows on two sides), did some telephone banking (a CD came due today, so I had to roll it over to another one; longer-term rates are improving, though not anywhere near the 5.5% bonus rates I was seeing before the mortgage crisis hit the fan), and took a disco nap before lunch.

At lunch, I did a little walking around before deciding on the (chain) Shula's 347 in the nearby Hilton. They (like many others this week) were participating in Restaurant Week here, so I wound up having a caesar salad, pan-seared salmon sandwich with fries, and key lime pie for $12.95 (plus beverage, tax, and tip). Very tasty, and while hunger makes the best sauce (and I'd not eaten since the cranberry-ginger muffin on the CLE-PVD flight), the only complaints I'd have about the meal were that the rectangular salmon didn't fit well on the round bun (use a different bread next time) and the fries were cooked variably (some were crisply crunchy, others were done much less so).

Afterwards, I swung past an ATM to grab some cash (seems my bank doesn't have much presence on the east coast yet, so I paid a fee as well, which ticks me off) and I also cashed in a pseudo-traveller's check at the hotel registration desk. (Seems the apartment finding service mailed me a $50 American Express gift certificate that in all other respects was exactly like a traveller's check. I probably won't use the $100-off one month's rent on their rental furniture since, well, the 60-days-since-issue are almost up and I have yet to even make it to their showroom to look.) I decided it's not worth $9.95 per day just for Internet access, at least not from the computer; I've got work email (my initials only at umich dot edu) and a Mobile IE browser on my work-provided cell phone, so I'm not completely out of touch.

After another shower, I hung out in the lobby to see who all arrived. Shortly after 8pm, the Foodie Dinner group — Jim, Joe, John, Lars, Mike, Ned, Robert, Sim, and me — headed off to Gracie's for dinner. (Despite our 8:30pm reservations they didn't actually seat us until after 8:45pm, but we showed them: We were the last patrons out at 11:50pm.) As a table we decided to have the seven-course tasting menu with the wine pairings which, with tax and tip, came to $150 a person. This wouldn't be a trip report without the actual menu, so:

We also got star-shaped sugar cookies with raspberry filling.

Now for the commentary, ignoring the initial seating problems (waiting 20 minutes past a reservation time for a 9-peson table when we knew we'd be dropping over $1,000 on dinner). The salad course was very tasty, but there was no good way to eat the gazpacho as the restaurant did not provide spoons; I wound up drinking from the bowl. The gnocchi were the consistency of smooth air-whipped mashed potatoes and almost melted away on the tongue; this contrasted very nicely with the bite in the carrots and English peas and the mild bite of the balsamic vinegar in the gastrique. The fois course was better than I was expecting, and the sweetness of the buttermilk biscuit contrasted very nicely with the tartness of the blueberies and lemon (with candied lemon zest) and the smooth creaminess in the mouthfeel of the fois gras. The halibut was a very nice crust on it just from the pan sear. The sorbet was a nice surprise, served in Chinese soup spoons, but since at this point we know that they had spoons so why not provide one with the gazpacho? The fattiness of duck contrasted with the sweet tartness of the plum. The cheese (served on a marble tile plate) was just crumbly enough and contrasted very nicely with the traditional prosciutto serrano-wrapped melon, and the tiny spray of baby ameranth on one corner of the cheese was both pretty and tasty. I'm not a huge fan of sharing four dessert types across nine people, but all four were very nice; if they wanted to do a dessert sampler plating, then do a sampler and provide small portions of the three or four desserts per person, because otherwise it looks like "here's what was leftover at the end of the night, let's get rid of it" to me. The portions in each course (except perhaps dessert) were perfectly sized for a tasting menu; I was comfortable, but not bloated or full and not drunk or tipsy from all the wine, when the meal was over. Excellent food, excellent conversation; many thanks to Robert for coordinating it.

We staggered back to the hotel, chatted briefly in the lobby, then carried ourselves upstairs and off to our respective beds.

Friday, July 18

I slept in (ah, bliss!) until about 10am. I packed away the shirt and slacks I wore to dinner (I was too sleepy or lazy or both to do so last night), caught up on a couple of major LJ entries (Dave is recovering from a stroke and his partner Paulo is keeping us updated with very detailed summaries, and Tom is back online via dialup from his rehab center, recovering from the torn leg muscle and two subsequent surgeries), showered, dressed, and headed down to the lobby to meet up with the other six staying in the hotel to carpool out to the Johnson & Wales Inn for lunch, where we met up with Jim and Joe (who are all commuting from Bostonia) and Bitty and Arthur (who'll check into the hotel afterwards).

Lunch was very tasty. I had a gorgonzola and fennel salad with mixed baby greens and pine nuts in a balsamic vinaigrette to start, and a cuban sandwich as the main course. Other than some oddities in the order taking (one long side of the table placed orders a good 5 minutes before the other long side, but the ordered-laters got served first), and some oddities in service (I was first served Ned's half-sandwich and cup of soup, then served Arthur's turkey cuban, then finally got the last plate served), it was very tasty.

After lunch, we carpooled over to Slater's Mill for a tour of the facilities there, including the Brown House and Wilkinson's Mill. I surprised myself with how much of the process and lifestyles I remember, since it's not really my period of history. It was still fun, and both tour guides were acceptable (though the nose ring and black nailpolish on the first and the cargo shorts on the second weren't really period), though the second one was perhaps a bit more on top of the subject matter. We carpooled back to the hotel, and after a brief interlude in Bitty and Arthur's junior suite (backup con.suite space; mm, complementary fresh fruit) then met in the lobby at 5:30pm to head out to dinner at an inexpensive place that Steven suggested, Caserta Pizzaria. Bitty and I headed out by trolley (free for the day thanks to the heat and air quality) and got there first, so we held down several tables until the walkers and others (everyone else from lunch, plus Jed and Darren) got there, then we self-divided to share pizzas. (I shared a large pepperoni pizza with Lars, Mike, Ned, Robert, and Sim.)

After dinner, I wasn't really in a desserty or shoppy mood so I walked back down Federal Hill with Arthur before catching up on email (560-odd new emails since Wednesday night; easly 98% or more was spam) and a little LJ on the free lobby wireless before heading off to bed to crash. At least I didn't get caught in the rain, unlike the desserters.

Saturday, July 19

I woke up before the alarm (at least I know my kidneys are still working), so did my morning ablutions before heading down to the lobby. The hotel crowd (including Ann and Henry) left the hotel at 10:30am to head off to the Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum for a guided tour. Jim, Joe, and Beth met us there. The museum had some interesting exhibits, but not a lot of surprises; the biggest surprise for me was the way some of the original lithography from the early to mid 20th century has held up (obviously stored away from sunshine).

We then headed off to brunch at The Rue where we were joined by Jed and Darren. I had some delicious scrambled eggs, applewood-smoked bacon, and home fries (which were delightfully crispy and lightly peppered), and a corn muffin before finishing it all off with a slice of turtle cheesecake (which, while very nice, tasted nothing like turtle). We then headed off to the John Brown House, where we were split into two groups of seven for a guided tour of the mansion. (My one quibble was that our docent was unsubtle when hinting how little money the Rhode Island Historical Society has; I was surprised that so much about what each room was used for and furnished like was purely conjecture.)

After the John Brown House, I headed back to the hotel with John and Robert for a disco nap; neither the RISD Museum nor the Brown Campus held enough appeal to keep me on my feet. At 6:15pm, we all walked a few blocks over to the evening's dinner at Local 121, where we met up with Ellen, Tim, and their two kids. They're also participating in Restaurant Week (which ends today), so I had a starter of clams in broth (topped with crumbled thick-cut bacon and a cherry tomato), followed by the grilled chicken with mashed potatoes and ratatouille, and the chocolate chip bread pudding for dessert. Yum. $850-odd poorer and 3 hours later, we adjourned from the restaurant to go to the river for Waterfire for about 90 minutes up the river. (My crowd-phobia kicked in after about an hour.) Did run into Martha and exchanged hugs and a very brief hi-how-are-you conversation. After Waterfire we headed back to the hotel, where I decided to shower off the campfire smoke before bed.

Sunday, July 20

I managed to sleep in 'til about 9am, when the next-door neighbors got visitors (it sounded like bridesmaids from the wedding party last night). I showered again (mainly to get my hair to behave; that's one disadvantage of the CPAP) and met folks in the lobby (10:30am) before heading out to the bus depot to catch the 10:59am bus to the 12:15am ferry to Newport for lunch at Christie's at 12:45pm. The food was good; I enjoyed my summer rolls (effectively a shrimp caesar salad wrap with a sirracha swirl on the plate) and the maaroni and cheese. Alas, service was both slow and neglectful (failure to refill drinks including water and clearing away glasses before dessert) and there were problems with dessert itself: They were out of brownie sundaes, then they reported there was a freezer problem so no ice cream was available, then they were out of my second-choice dessert (chocolate and raspberry doughnuts and dipping sauces), and when they finally got my third-choice dessert (the cookies that Arthur loved when they taste-tested this restaurant last month), they were all badly burnt. I sent mine back; the other two who ordered the cookies kept and ate at least some of theirs, but the restaurant did indeed take them off the bill without prompting.

After lunch, about half of us headed over to the Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the United States. We had a decent enough docent giving the tour, and she seemed to know her stuff. She did try to trick us by asking us to identify the passage shown on the 500 year old Torah scroll which was visible behind glass; Sim and I figured out it was from fairly late in the book of Exodus, and it turns out it was about the crossing of the Red Sea. Go us!

We then caught the trolley off to The Elms, the Berwind family mansion in Newport. Apart from the staff (who gave me an audio device, then told me where the bathrooms were but not that I'd have to return the audio device first, then it turned out the directions to the restrooms were wrong, then finally made me jump through even more hoops to get my audio device back), it was a decent enough tour. I felt a bit pressed for time, as the mansion closes at 5pm and we weren't starting until after 4pm, but it was still enjoyable.

Following the tour, we hung out in the gardens until they closed down around 5:30pm and then Bitty and I headed off to dinner via the trolley while the rest of the cohort went on the bataan death march cliff walk towards the ocean. Dinner itself was at Tucker's Bistro, which self-describes as a cross between a bistro, an art gallery, and a bordello, and was thoroughly delicious. I started with the pear salad (sliced pears, spiced walnuts, gorgonzola cheese, mesclun greens, and cranberry vinaigrette) and followed it off with the grilled New York strip steak (medium rare, served with cheddar and chive baked Russet potato, a crispy onion ring as garnish, horseradish sour cream, and a cabernet demi glace). Dessert was a molten chocolate lava cake (yum). Conversation more or less came to a halt when the entrées were delivered ("Can't talk; eating").

We rushed out to catch the #60 bus which never came, so we death-walked to the ferry terminal to catch the last ferry back to Providence. A bit bumpier and rockier than the previous ferry ride, but more or less uneventful. We got back to the hotel around 11:30pm, bid adieu to Jim and Joe (who wouldn't be back for the Stragglers' Breakfast), and went to our respective rooms to crash. I did a preliminary packing of that which can be done now to facilitate leaving quickly tomorrow.

Monday, July 21

Woke up before the alarm somehow, showered, and finished packing before meeting up with the folks in the lobby to take a trolley to the Stragglers' Breakfast at Louie's. Very diner-like feel; grab a table or sit at the bar (we grabbed 3 tables); they'll supposedly take your order and deliver it grumpily (though our service wasn't grumpy at all). And the food was delicious again as well; I had the drunken jack omelette which was three eggs plus grilled onions, monterey jack cheese, and hash browns. The hash browns had a nice crunch to them, and the cheese was all ooey and gooey. This came with home fries (thick slices of potatoes, grilled, with just salt and black pepper) and two slices of toast with butter. I was thoroughly stuffed.

We said our goodbyes to Ann and Henry (who were heading off to catch a train), then trolleyed back to the hotel where Bitty and Arthur and John and Robert were going to check out and drive to work and home back in Bostonia. Ned was kind enough to agree to take me to the airport with him when he returned the rental car, so I hung out in the room and digested for a while before checking out, doing a quick mall run to the Apple store for Mike, then hanging out in the lobby (yay, more spam and LJ) until we left around 2pm.

After Ned returned the rental car, we checked in and cleared security before hanging out at his gate (11) until his flight boarded a bit after 4pm. Then I grabbed an overpriced sandwich for lunch-and-dinner before hanging out at my gate (8).

The return flights themselves were uneventful. The Providence to Cleveland leg was on-time, though my seat-mate had missed her original connection to Newark so she was going to Cleveland en route to home in Las Vegas (she was out at Martha's Vineyard for her neice's wedding). I got to the next gate in plenty of time for the Cleveland to Detroit flight (which had only 4 passengers); that too was on-time. Got home by 11pm (via a gas station to refill the tank) only to find problems with my cable services (both Internet and television). Reset the clocks as needed, processed the postal mail which came during my absence, and did an unpack-the-necessities before crashing.

Last update Jul24/08 by Josh Simon (<>).