Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Mediterranean Cuisine Comes Ashore to Suburbs at Chiara Bistro

Twelve years after its much-anticipated opening, Westwood’s Chiara Bistro still casts a culinary spell. Long considered one of the finest suburban dining establishments in Massachusetts, the 100-seat Mediterranean bistro – founded by executive chef/owner Steve LaCount and lovingly named after his nana – continues to impress with its chic, upscale ambience, its polished, friendly waitstaff, and its adventurous, well-executed fare.

                Don’t let Chiara’s suburban strip mall location (off of Route 109) fool you. There’s elegance to be discovered inside the restaurant by way of warm woods (California redwoods), Italian marble, ceramic tile, leather, windows draped in glossy silk, square lamps, an alcove bar, and a modern exhibition kitchen.

                Fortunately, LaCount’s menu holds up against, if not exceeds the restaurant’s glamorous décor (albeit at a high price point for suburban dining that is justified). A complimentary bread basket arrives, which includes thin olive focaccia crisps accompanied by a unique, refreshingly light, vibrant green-colored pesto feta spread. An amuse bouche features spoonfuls of creamy cauliflower soup (much to the dismay of my wife, who can’t indulge due to her dairy intolerance – this was the only misstep of the evening from our otherwise excellent server, who knew of this intolerance beforehand yet did not swap out the one spoon for an alternate small bite).

                Appetizers were spot-on, beginning with a playful riff on a traditional Italian dish, which resulted in some of the most delectable potato gnocchi ($13 for the starter, $25 for the main course, the latter of which I’d highly recommend) I’ve ever consumed. LaCount’s hand-crafted version features ethereal, ultra-light pillows of the potato-infused pasta, whose flavor is enhanced by pairing it with incredibly tender, thinly shredded red wine braised boar and beef shortrib. All of this was topped with velvety sheep’s milk pecorino whose tartness beautifully melded with the sweetness of the meat’s red wine reduction. It’s simply divine.

                Almost as equally memorable is the steak tartare ($15), a visually striking rendition that consists of a generous, square-shaped wedge of precisely diced meat served over sweet, house-made chips and a grilled baguette. The meat is nicely seasoned and possesses the melt-in-your-mouth texture that a good tartare should always, and yet (no pun intended) rarely ever has. The succulent grilled lamb ($13) is served ‘lollipop’ style, is cooked to perfection (a nicely pink, medium rare), and is accompanied by an intriguing array of Mediterranean-inspired sides such as grilled eggplant, roasted fennel, tomato quinoa tabuleh, cured olives, a welcomed dash of heat from harissa, and a cooling contrast of minted lemon yogurt.

                Aside from that impeccable gnocchi, Chiara also nails the simpler dishes as well, including four plump, tender, perfectly pan-roasted Gulf of Main shrimp served over creamy mushroom risotto.

                Similar to its cuisine, Chiara’s cocktail menu is seasonally inspired, inventive, and well-executed (most fall in the $12 range). Take for instance, this fun trio of spirits: the Pilgrim Manhattan, made with bourbon and house made cranberry vermouth; the aptly named Granny’s Redemption, rye infused with Granny Smith apples and spices; and the Chiara Whiskey Orchard, blended with scotch, bourbon, rye, chestnut liquer, a hint of maple syrup, and infused with roasted pecans.

                And don’t forget to conclude your evening with dessert. My wife gushed over an exquisite tasting, non-icy coconut sorbet, resulting in her exclamation that Chiara’s version rivaled Mistral’s chocolate sorbet, the best she’s ever sampled (and she’s sampled many) over the years. The specialty dessert – coconut cake – was surprisingly light, drizzled with caramel sauce and paired with an equally good dollop of pineapple sorbet.

                Aside from the minor hiccup over the amuse bouche, our server was extremely knowledgeable, attentive, genial, and spot-on with her recommendations throughout the evening.

                Given its exceptional service, cuisine, and ambience, I’ll gladly overlook Chiara’s unassuming, outside strip mall setting and enjoy the relaxed, yet upscale ambience, top-notch service, and creative, superbly prepared culinary treasures that are hidden inside.



Monday, December 18, 2017

Dining at Eataly’s Terra a Guilty Pleasure

When news recently broke about celebrity chef Mario Batali’s decision to step down as partner from his culinary empire at Eataly due to allegations of sexual misconduct, I must admit that while I was not all that shocked about his inclusion on the seemingly endless list of celebrities swept up in these types of scandals (also, go read the Boston Globe’s Devra First’s scintillating article covering widespread sexual misconduct in the city’s restaurant scene), I was deeply saddened and disappointed. Saddened that the orange-crocked chef - whose unbridled passion for cooking was obvious, only exceeded by his willingness to educate and make accessible such complex recipes to the general public – could act so foolishly by mistreating his female employees who have been so critical to Eataly’s (and other well esteemed establishments such as Babbo) success over the years.

                So I must write this review as objectively as possible, removing any distaste I have over Batali’s personal flaws and focusing on the actual tastes at Terra, Eately’s third and latest restaurant addition (following Barbara Lynch’s more seafood-centric Il Pesce) that’s now over a half-year young. Walk past countless luxury specialty stores, and you’ll find the less-glitzy Eately, which resembles a commercialized, massive Italian marketplace. Terra sits directly above it on the third floor, and its breathtaking dining room is one of the city’s finest, filled with towering, scenic skylights (look, I can see the Top of the Hub from this view!), abundant greenery, and even actual shovels and rakes adorning the walls. It’s akin to eating al fresco in your mother’s extravagantly maintained garden. Just behind the chef’s counter lies an active wood fire Italian grill where meats of all varieties and skewers are aflame in all of their smoky greatness. Enormous wine barrels barricaded behind a glass wall contain oak-aged beer on tap. And make no mistake: in spite of the recent news, this place remains as bustling, lively, and energized as it did from day one (perhaps a bit too rambunctious at times, and it is suggested to grab a seat at the back of the dining room to allow for conversations to flow as easily as the wine).

                The menu is split into several different categories, as if to take diners on a culinary excursion through some of the finest tastes of Sicily. Most importantly, it’s fun, and executed by well-regarded chef de cuisine Dan Bazzinotti (hailing from his stint at Cambridge’s esteemed wine bar, BISq). Some may quibble with smaller-than-average portions, but be forewarned: Bazzinotti’s dishes are extremely rich in flavor (sometimes a bit too much so).

                We begin with duo of nicely toasted bruschetta (1 selection for $5, 2 for $9, 3 for $12), featuring ciascolo (housemade pork sausage), which unexpectedly came in the form of a cold pate with a slightly offputting flavor, while the caponata – with its interesting combination of delicate squash, pinenuts and currents - was a rivetingly sweet delight, texturally resembling Charoset - one of my favorite Jewish delicacies consumed on Passover. Next, we ordered from the spiedini (skewers) section, including polpetti di agnello ($10): 3 oversized lamb meatballs ($10) which upon initial glance, appeared overcooked from the exterior, but whose interior was succulent (although perhaps would still have benefitted from a dipping glaze). My favorite, which also garnered mutual satisfaction from my dining companion, were marvelously charred, tender jumbo gulf shrimp (12), the fleshy meat spiced up with Calabrian chili flakes.

                Our journey continued into primi (things with pasta), which showcased agnolotti coniglio ($21), small, pillowy ribbons of pasta drenched in Luigi Guffanti butter and impressively stuffed with tiny morsels of ground rabbit. While I found the pasta slightly overcooked (I prefer mine al dente, like most native Italians) along with a bit of heavy-handedness with the butter, the dish was a rich, decadent, and thankfully un-gamey flavored delight.

                We concluded our evening in the secondi section with incredibly tender rings of calamari ($24) simmering in a zesty pool of tomato broth alongside a wonderfully inventive, seasonal combination of caper berries, olives, pine nuts, and currants. While our hearts gravitated to captivating, in-season dessert selections such as warm semolina pudding with pears and candied pumpkin seeds, and a citrus crostada, our stomachs simply couldn’t muster another bite.

The cocktail program, while consisting of slightly modest pours (at about $14 apiece), were much like Terra’s cuisine itself: extremely complex and altogether enjoyable. The stiff, sweet Il Teatro (under Bold and Daring options, $14)) was a dazzling blend of the restaurant’s hand-selected Russell’s Reserve single barrel bourbon with amaro, while the innovative, refreshingly spicy Fumo Nero was a sweet and smoky riff on the margarita, containing Del Maguey Vida mezcal, amaro, some more of that wonderful Calabrian chili, smoked black sea salt, and pineapple.

One would expect service at one of chef Batali’s restaurant to be exceptional, and Terra, at least for this evening, does not disappoint. Our waiter is amiable, patient, and extremely knowledgeable about the menu.

It’s undoubtedly difficult for me to promote any restaurant whose ownership is rightfully under scrutiny for all the wrong reasons. But make no mistake: Terra – from its immensely enjoyable cuisine to its stellar setting and service – gets most things right. I won’t fault you for not eating there out of protest. But for me, consider it a guilty dining pleasure.




Saturday, August 5, 2017

Liquid Art House is a Culinary Masterpiece

Several years ago, following the economic downturn, upscale restaurants like celebrity chef Michael Schlow’s long departed, yet fondly remembered flagship, Radius, succumbed to the tighter budgets of their once loyal clientele. Smaller plates became more en vogue, and so began the downfall of other legendary eateries including the recently departed, highly regarded Clio under Chef Oringer (don’t fret too much for him, though, as global small plate haven Little Donkey, Italian staple Coppa, legendary South End Spanish tapas mainstay Toro, and sushi headliner Uni all continue to thrive).

                Sufficed to say, with the economic upswing, there are more restaurants opening that dare to be different – albeit quite expensive, but well worth the investment for special occasion dining. Take, for instance, Asta, Alex Crabb’s inventive prix fixe only menu that takes diners on a wild, delightful culinary adventure. And only a few years into its run, there’s Liquid Art House, the perfect confluence of literal and culinary artwork for customers’ viewing and tasting pleasure.

                The visually arresting space – located at the corners of Arlington and Stuart Street (how fitting and of no small irony that LAH sits at the cusp of the Theatre District) – dually serves as both a high-end restaurant and contemporary art gallery where all of the artwork is available for purchase. Owner Ruta Lukian’s backstory is a most fascinating one: born in Lithuania, emigrating to America, flourishing as a Wall Street investment banker, and ultimately deciding to fulfill her dream of opening a place for artists, art lovers, and diners alike. The ambience is impressively grandiose, a hybrid of cosmopolitan and avant-garde. A striking rotunda marble bar resides smack dab in LAH’s center, with an even more strikingly beautiful, massive, purple hand-blown Venetian glass chandelier whose claw-like shape appears to almost be reaching down from the giant 24-foot ceilings and virtually grabbing hold of customers. Abstract artwork both large (majestic canvases) and small adorn the giant walls and flows into the dining room. Even the bathrooms scream chez chic, as evidenced by stunning semi-nude painted portraits of mermaids painted on frosted glass doors.

                Fortunately, LAH has not lost any of its culinary innovation left by its notable predecessor, Rachel Klein (who opened up her own endeavor, RFK Kitchen, in her resident Needham to mixed critical reception). Chef Johnny Sheehan – whose impressive pedigree includes graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, stints at aforementioned Clio and Uni under Oringer’s tutelage, and most recently at Plymouth’s New World Tavern) – has earned several culinary accolades, and it’s easy to ascertain why. He’s not only followed the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ deconstructed style that became a calling card for Klein, but infuses his own unique riffs on some of the most exquisite fare I’ve had the fortune of tasting in quite some time.

                The evening begins inauspiciously enough, as a first batch of deep-fried salt and pepper prawns ($19) are woefully and visibly overcooked, the meat dry where it should be moist and tender. This is brought to the attention of our genial and knowledgeable waitress – who, oh by the way, did not serve us this initial course – and she is deeply apologetic about the mishap, stating had she laid eyes on the prawn’s dark exterior, would never have brought this tableside (we wholeheartedly agree with her). She offers to have the kitchen bring us a second round, and this time they are cooked to perfection, the spicy orange chile oil with peanuts now in vibrant harmony with the juicy, succulent meat (the entire mishap and quick, professional correction by the waitstaff harkened back to my visit to opulent seafood restaurant, Ostra, where a badly charred plate of grilled octopus was quickly, and most deliciously rectified). While I found the doughy, sesame-seed encrusted exterior of Himalayan chicken momos ($10) a bit too chewy for my taste, these dumplings stuffed with ground meat were easy on the palate given the addictive, innovative pool of black pepper tomato sauce in which they swam. For such a typically gaunt bird, a surprisingly generous amount of tender meat accompanies LAH’s quail – the majority of which is graciously deboned by the kitchen – and is uniquely stuffed with sweet Asian forbidden rice which enhances the flavor component of what is often considered by many to be the flounder of birds.

                And Sheehan’s piece de resistance is not to be missed. Pan seared halibut ($39) is unlike any other version of the meaty fish I’ve sampled. It’s a ginormous, beautifully pan-seared (resembling a hash brown in texture) tender cut, and its eye-popping to look at. Akin to an abstract Picasso masterpiece, there are many deconstructed elements to the plate that miraculously come together – tiny, crunchy hearts of palm, pineapple chunks, yellow-orange beads of jellied mango passion fruit, and pea-green dollops of chile-mint vinaigrette. An aromatic Thai curried coconut broth is than theatrically poured around the fish. This is seriously complex, pristinely executed fine dining at its peak, resulting in a smorgasbord of flavors ranging from sweet and creamy to crunchy and spicy. It’s simply divine and will undoubtedly be topping many dining critics’ top dishes in Boston for 2017.

                Executive pastry chef Ryan Boya’s uniquely shaped sweets (all $14 with exception of sorbets) rival Sheehan’s dishes innovation-wise, many of which were apparently inspired by the World of Tomorrow architecture at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Breakfast in a NYC Hotel Room is a deconstructed masterpiece, consisting of a thin bagel chip onto which peanut butter and cream cheese mousses, peanuts, and coffee milk ice cream, all of which is left for diners to playfully schmear onto the bagel chip. It’s whimsical, fun, and delectable.

                And that dish encapsulates my experience at LAH. And oh, what an experience you’ll have. While you’re left with a bill that might approach the price of a low-level Picasso (kidding!), you’ll no doubt me reminiscing about your time there for days, if not months and years later. In the trustworthy and innovative hands of Lukian and Sheehan, Liquid Art House has successfully brought artistic fine dining style to Boston.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Disappointments Abound at Corfinio

Sometimes, simpler is better. Several years ago, Peter Kuplast successfully opened Italian eatery Cibo Matto Caffe in what was formerly a Bertucci’s in his native Mansfield. That quaint, casual modern Italian eatery quickly became a culinary staple at the bustling cross-section of Routes 106 and 140, with its wood-fire stove producing bubbly, charred pies, alongside delectable pasta dishes and inventive seasonal cocktails. A couple of years ago, Kuplas decided it was time to expand his business venture into Easton with Corfinio. The restaurant resides in a more expansive space once occupied by Fresh Catch and its name harkens to the city in Italy’s Abruzzo region. Portions of Cibo’s menu has been transported here, along with the same and sometimes expensive price points given Corfinio’s suburban digs.

                But two major problems exist here. Whereas Cibo’s dishes more often than not nail flavor and execution, Corfinio’s falter. And while the menu at Cibo often surprises and delights with its scope and specials, Corfinio’s feels consolidated, redundant, and truthfully, not all that creative. More ho-hum, traditional pizza and pasta dishes reside here with occasionally appealing flourishes peppered in (fire-roasted artichoke hummus).

                The restaurant’s interior is certainly swanky enough, with a grandiose, antler-shaped chandelier dominating the main dining room, cozy green banquets and a large bar (along with a 12-foot-long chef’s table where diners can enjoy a 7-course tasting with wine pairings. It’s frustrating, however, when upon making a reservation and stating that my wife and I were celebrating a 15-year anniversary dinner, that the hostess explains she’ll have us seated in one of said banquets, only to be seated at a small table (and that the restaurant proceeded to seat a family with young children directly next to us when several other tables remained unoccupied at the time). Not once was our anniversary ever mentioned by the staff. That’s just poor front-of-the house management.

                Antipasto ($10-18) are disappointing, starting with crispy brussel sprouts ($10) that possess neither the crunchy exterior (softly breaded) nor fiery kick (bland cherry pepper aioli that lacks any trace of said cherry pepper) that the menu promises. Mussels saffron ($13) contain tiny morsels of the crustaceans, while the white wine sauce in which they are reduced still reeks of the smell of wine (if cooked properly, the wine odor should be undetectable), evidence that the kitchen needed to simmer the broth at least another five to ten minutes. Two accompanying large slices of grilled crostini, however, were decent enough, if there’s a positive takeaway here.

                Pasta – a focal point and strength at Cibo – was equally and surprisingly off-key at Corfinio. Fettucini Bolognese ($21) lacked finesse, with droopy, overcooked strands of pasta (not even remotely close to al dente) and the barely-there-at-all sauce that was not only unseasoned, but resulted in dried-out chunks of ground up veal, pork and beef.

                Cocktails ($11) were slightly better, but the bartender had a heavy hand mixing an Old Easton (the restaurant’s riff on the Old Fashioned) that was excessively sweet, the result of an infusion of honey and apple slices that overpower the bourbon, what should be the drink’s star attraction.

                I had heard from close friends who had recently visited Corfinio’s that the eatery’s opening kinks had been worked out, resulting in positive dining experiences. To this reviewer’s eyes (and stomach), Corfinio resembles that annoying little brother vying for attention and trying to emulate his older sibling, but no matter how hard he tries, just can’t keep up and ultimately falls short of expectations. With more sure-handedness and execution from its kitchen and a revamped menu that generates excitement in lieu of yawns, perhaps one day it still can.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Stroll Down a Suburban Side Street Yields Big Flavors

“Come for the food, stay for the family.” Sure, this slogan may sound cliché and most certainly has been exploited by countless restaurants that classify themselves (some much less accurately than others) as family-friendly establishments. But I cannot recently recall a more recent, rewarding dining experience than my trek out to Norwood’s Vico. Opened nearly three years ago, this quaint, refreshingly unflashy restaurant’s (seating fifty patrons) name is apt given its Italian translation of ‘side street,’ reflecting its location just off the town center. Vico’s furtive location, however, doesn’t necessarily keep it a secret from the public. Far from it in fact, as evidenced by the loyal customers who continue to pack into the restaurant seeking fresh, highly affordable Italian cuisine.

                Vico’s setting is casual, cozy and intimate. While there’s no bar (only wine and beer are served), several booths drape along the walls while pendant fixtures dangle from the ceiling. The formality of white tablecloths is quickly offset by wooden floors and even more importantly, a cordial wait staff. Executive chef/owner Vincenzo Loffredo, who hails from Foggia Italy, makes several tableside appearances to chat with his customers, while his equally affable wife, Maria, dually serves as both hostess and our server that evening (her inquiry following our appetizer course about if we desired pacing out entrees several minutes was a simple, sincere and welcomed gesture that is incredibly rare nowadays).

                While Vico’s menu is considerably smaller than other Italian eateries, it’s packed with a slew of appealing, tasteworthy dishes, and that’s not including numerous house specials that change daily. Each dish is handcrafted, and Loffredo credits his usage of fresh ingredients to both his proximity to seasonal ingredients during his childhood on a farm along with his tutelage under chef Franco Caritano. Portion sizes are incredibly generous (enough to feed a family!) at incredibly reasonable price points (entrees typically top out at $20, desserts at $7, and generous pours of wine – including a velvety, ripe flavored Argentinian Mendoza – range from $7-9 by the glass while bottles are very accessible).

                Complimentary house-made garlic focaccia and green olives are provided at the outset, which prompted my sole quibble of the evening: the bread could use a touch less salt along with an accompanying dipping oil. Antipasto misto ($14) features a trio of fresh Italian meats (prosciutto di Parma, sopressata, and imported salame), accompanied by provolone, roasted peppers, pickled eggplant, and imported grilled artichokes. The salty-spicy flavor profile of the meats and vegetables meshed well atop the crunchy, aforementioned focaccia. Entrees fared even stronger, beginning with the visually striking Spaghetti Alla Pescatora (at $25, while the menu’s most expensive dish, remains an absolute steal), which showcases incredibly fresh, housemade squid ink spaghetti topped with ample amounts of mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari, and scallops, all topped with an addictively spicy tomato sauce. It’s unsurprisingly a huge hit at our table. Also memorable is bucatini amatriciana ($19), hollow spaghetti blended with red onion, San Marzano tomatoes, slices of pecorino, and my favorite ingredient, pancetta, which infuses the dish with a crunchy, peppery bite. Two house specials are also standouts: meaty, yet tender swordfish with capers and the Pappardelle Cacciatore, with perfectly executed egg noodles laced with minced lamb, veal, and beef, all in that same delectable spicy tomato sauce whipped up by Chef Loffredo.

                Desserts are worth staying for given their value along with the housemade tiramisu topped with pieces of dark chocolate.

                In a time where city restaurant closings are sadly occurring at a feverish clip given high rents and high prices for customers, many restaurant owners could rip a page out of Loffredo’s handbook: settle down in the suburbs, provide high quality fare at affordable prices, and offer doting service to boot. Yes, Vico may be situated on a side street, but it remains very much on the public’s mind as one of the area’s most attractive dining options.

Monday, April 10, 2017

An Avenue Worth Driving To for Fine Dining

Avenue, the brainchild of husband and wife Josh and Jessica Foley (the couple met during their stint at the long-esteemed Harvard Square restaurant, Harvest, during the mid-90s), opened in the epicenter of Medfield in May, 2016, and as evidenced by one very busy Saturday evening, the eatery has hit the ground running and never looked back. The Foleys envisioned a modern, casual bistro, and they’ve certainly accomplished that in terms of Avenue’s ambience. The building in which it resides was renovated, whose floor-to-ceiling windows provide a stunning view of Main Street and the nearby Medfield Town House. Pleasant, smoky aromas emanate from the open kitchen, namely from a wood-burning oven. My lone complaints, albeit minor: the front of the house can be a bit chaotic and cramped at peak times, especially if the small bar area happens to be full of patrons. Nearby are small booths reserved for customers eating dinner, and it’s easier than not to bump into busy servers. Also, in spite of recently installed acoustical ceiling panels, conversations can still remain challenging.

                Josh Foley, who also does double-duty as Executive Chef, offers seasonal American cuisine, from wood grilled flatbreads and meats to seafood, in his attempt to recreate California’s farm-to-table concept. In most instances, I am delighted to affirm that the Foleys have succeeded.  Let’s begin with the bad news: potato crusted Point Judith calamari ($12) does the Rhode Island squid a disservice. While accompanying fried sweet onions and peppers are an inventive touch, the fish’s buttermilk coating is bland and could benefit from some seasoning in the form of salt and pepper, while the tepid tartar sauce adds little anticipated heat. Much better are the wood-roasted flatbreads ($14-16), whose nicely charred crust can be attributed to imported Italian flour incorporated into a pie that is cooked at 750 degrees for only three minutes in that impressive wood-burning oven. The aptly named Avenue consists of house made pork sausage, wild mushroom, and onion jam. The jam’s sweetness meshed well with the spiciness of the meat, whereas the kitchen’s heavy-handedness on the mushrooms resulted in soggier slices than I’d preferred. My personal favorite was the unique and satisfyingly spicy shrimp fra diavolo.

                Entrees were even more enticing, starting with a generous serving of sausage orecchiette ($22), the pasta served perfectly al dente, with minced, spicy house fennel sausage. My dining companion believed the accompanying broccoli rabe was too bitter for the dish, but I politely disagreed, believing the vegetable a worthy partner to the spicy meat in terms of its flavor and textural contrast. While the slightly dense potato gnocchi ($22) could have benefitted from another minute or two of boiling to render the pasta more pillowy and light, I nearly forgot about that having consumed a forkful of thin, ultra-tender sliced short rib, which in this version is playfully served atop the pasta in lieu of being cooked inside. Cast iron seared Scottish salmon ($27) also drew considerable applause, consisting of a generous portion of moist fish seasoned with herbed farro and Tuscan kale.

                But one cannot – I repeat, cannot leave Avenue without sampling their signature wood-roasted Argentinian Brasa Natural chicken. I, for one, have remarkably never ordered chicken out. While I certainly appreciate a well-cooked bird, it’s undoubtedly less appealing than other, sexier options (lamb, duck) and delicious enough when grilled at home. But upon stealing a glance of the dish at a nearby table, I just had to have it, and I’m glad I did. According to our polite waitress, the incredibly tender meat is attributed to how the bird is prepared, hung for six hours and then slow cooked in front of that wood-burning oven’s flame. The dish’s presentation is nothing short of stunning, evoking envy from the table. Inventive accoutrements include a layer of crisp almonds, sweet currants, roasted Anjour pear (which admittedly lost some its sweetness during the cooking process), and what’s humorously labeled grilled peasant bread salad (a fancy term for Avenue’s house bread that is sliced into small chunks with the bird’s charred scallion juices cooked into them; The result? Gooey, crispy, goodness). The dish is exemplary in terms of its stunning presentation, technique, and execution, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that it makes me consider ordering chicken the next time I dine out.

                While desserts (all $9) may not be as exciting as that chicken, they provide an enjoyable conclusion to the evening. Ricotta cheesecake is thankfully not overly dense, served with strawberries, balsamic, basil cream and almonds. The inner child in me allows me to gravitate towards the butterscotch blondie sundae, a warm, gooey, yet ultra-thin slice served with a dollop of sea salt ice cream and peanut brittle.

                Inventive cocktails ($12) from the bar feature a potent riff on the Mai Tai called the Mai oh Mai, blended with white rum, toasted cinnamon, and pineapple. While I was disappointed that the Fig Get About It (made with fig-infused rye) was out of stock that night, the bartender graciously went off-menu to concoct a subtly sweet, rye-infused cocktail called the Toronto that I’d highly recommend. Roughly five selections of white and red wine are available by the glass ($9-12), including a smooth, silky ’14 Noble Tree Cabernet out of Sonoma. About ten or so different New England drafts and bottled and canned beers ($6-8) are also available, including a light refreshing Queen City Brewery pale lager.

                Service is knowledgeable, friendly, and - with the exception of a delayed bread basket to the table and a couple of late-arriving cocktails – attentive. Pair that with fairly reasonable price points for well-executed cuisine in a chic suburban setting, and voila: Avenue is an address I won’t soon be forgetting.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Chicken Kebab Offers Big Portions, But Could Use More Seasoning

Stoughton desperately needs an influx of restaurants, and this quaint Mediterranean-inspired dining spot, which inhabits the space once occupied by a Bajan restaurant in Stoughton's still dilapidated town center (where a town fire ravaged a number of buildings years ago and which remain vacant), wants to please its customers.

Chicken Kebab should be considered more of a takeout restaurant, but there are a half dozen tables inside for sit-down meals. The walls are vibrantly painted orange, and there is a large glass case behind the counter in which delicious desserts (including variations of ultra-flaky, moist baklava - my personal favorite, coconut flavor topped with pistachio) can be viewed, along with the restaurant's friendly owner preparing dishes in the kitchen.

While portions are absolutely monstrous for the price (appetizers top out around $7, while entrees that can comfortably feed up to 4 people top out around $18), some plates succeed more than others. We start with hummus ($5.95), whose accompanying warmed pita bread is comforting whereas the hummus itself is a tad heavy in texture and surprisingly bland, desperate for an infusion of seasoning. More appealing is a mountainous Shepard's salad ($6.95 for large portion) consisting of cucumbers, peppers, onions, parsley (which could have been inserted into the hummus), red and green onions, vinegar and oil.

Entrees are equally hit or miss. While the Mixed Grill ($17.50) succeeds with its juicy chicken and sweet grilled tomatoes and onions, it falters with its shockingly overcooked, bland, underseasoned meats, ranging from thinly pounded slices of lamb shish, adana (long, minced meat kebab), kofte (Turkish meatball), and doner. The restaurant also needs to clarify on its menu that the dish's accompanying peppers are intensely hot peppers - one large bite left me gasping for air. Pity that the restaurant is out of whole striped bass, which is swapped out for a disappointingly bland serving of sea bass. One dining companion complains that her plate's flavor is offputtingly bitter.
Service is a bit disjointed given the small space and one server, but friendly enough. Alcohol is not served, but the restaurant does stock a number of interesting tropical fruit juices (including zippy ginger pineapple).

I truly hope that Chicken Kebab succeeds. Stoughton needs more restaurants like these to help enliven its town center. Customers will appreciate the large portions and affordable price points, but the owners will need to refine their technique in the kitchen to ensure a successful long-term stint. Chicken Kebab could both literally and figuratively benefit from more seasoning.