Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Opulence on Full Display at Yvonne’s

Locke-Ober, we hardly knew ye. Following the lamented closing of Boston’s prestigious supper club after a 150-year stint, the restaurant received a glitzy renovation of the highest order, transforming into one of Boston’s premiere dining hot spots, Yvonne’s. In lieu of an exclusively male clientele which was the hallmark of its predecessor for many years, Yvonne’s – which opened in the fall of 2015 -  welcomes clientele (attractiveness seems to remain in vogue) of all ages, both men and women. If you’re looking for restraint, however, you’ll need to head elsewhere around Downtown Crossing (the more traditional Omni Parker House is nearby, after all, Boston cream pie and all). Although tucked away in a seemingly desolate alley on Winter Place, Yvonne’s is no secret to the public as evidenced by the velvet-roped long lines awaiting entry. It is an unabashedly messy, yet highly enjoyable confluence of many things that somehow manage to work in synch – from Executive Chef Juan Pedrosa’s jaw-dropping menu that boasts intercontinental cuisine to its raucous ambience that honors Locke-Ober’s illustrious past while forging ahead into the future. It’s unapologetically opulent, and don’t think for a second that its owners – who also run Newbury Street’s sexy, subterranean Spanish tapas spot, Lolita – are discouraging it. They’re embracing all that is boisterous.

                Immediately upon entering the establishment, you know you’re in for a special evening.  One is ushered into a small, enclosed room where a couple of hosts warmly greet you and then open another door into what essentially is a Rocky Horror time warp of sorts – 2016 meets 1850s. To the left, a library bar awaits, filled to the brim with a very large party of people. A narrow walkway ahead opens to another room that consists of a large bar to the left along with the main dining room. Leather sofas and banquettes adorn the room. Locke-Ober’s original architecture - mahogany wood walls and gold marble floors that once embodied the restaurant’s elegance and sophistication – has been meticulously maintained. There’s even a portrait of a woman mysteriously shrouded with a black cloak, which, according to our highly engaging server, was Locke-Ober’s annual tradition that Yvonne’s decides to honor should Yale defeat Harvard’s football team (which sadly occurred earlier that day). Like all good supper clubs, the dining experience transforms from dinner and drinks to sheer revelry. And true to form, Yvonne’s transforms itself into more of a nighclubby vibe as the evening proceeds. One will immediately notice the acoustics shift from challenging to near-deafening as 9 PM approaches on a busy Saturday evening, while the room temperature also inexplicably grew more intolerable as the evening wore on. But you’ll no doubt feel much cooler walking amongst the glamorous crowds.

                But beggars can’t be choosers, unless they choose from a massive amount of globe-trotting selections from the menu. Tapas/small plates? You bet. Feasts? Certainly. There are portions fit for both kings and paupers here. One thing is for sure, however - no matter the plate, you’ll be eating like royalty given chef Pedrosa’s adventurous menu that is altogether adventurous, approachable, complex, and well-executed. Let’s get one little pet peeve of mine out of the way, though: don’t confuse customers by breaking down menu selections into headers such as ‘Snacks’ and ‘Social Plates’ as they are barely indistinguishable from one another. Our server graciously prepares us for what’s in store for our party of four – a recommended 8-10 small plates that quickly come out of the kitchen. The restaurant, however, is more than accommodating in terms of allowing customers to more methodically order/pace those plates throughout the evening.

                Onto the food, the majority of which is marvelous, beginning with the perfect autumn bite – four light, airy apple cheddar fritters, resembling miniature scones, that are meticulously plated and seasoned with maple walnuts, sage aioli, and a welcomed, heaty kick of curry oil. They’re delightful. Also highly enjoyable are crispy tater cubes, and I’d eat Pedrosa’s innovative, addictive, deep-fried version for days on end if I could, the starch wedges painstakingly cooked over two days, and dusted with cumin, gouda, and accompanied by both a wonderful Joppiesaus (a Dutch-spiked aioli) and a unique beet-pickled egg. Garden hummus is also a table favorite, mixed with white beans, roasted squash, heirloom tomato, feta and crispy chickpeas, although I found the concoction to be a bit bland.

                Let’s just call a spade a spade: the stone fired pitas are glorified pizzas. However, I’ll take this version over most of the city’s best, particularly the Havana, a beatifically charred pie that riffs on the popular Cubano sandwich, consisting of roast pork, ham, cheese, pickles, and yet again, a wonderfully potent infusion of heat from chipotle oil. It’s a huge hit. Speaking of char, your aversion to brussel sprouts will be removed once you sample Yvonne’s stunning preparation of the typically bitter vegetable, which is sprightened by garlicky walnuts, feta and a delectable Mirasol pepper sauce that gives the sprouts a sweet, candied texture once they are fired up.

                “Tico” tuna crudo is a clean, generous offering of fish served alongside jalapeno vinaigrette, pickled mango, and black bean crema. An Asian-inpsired salad is also nicely prepared, with the exception of superfluous chunks of dry, bland fried tofu whose role as the crunchy counterpoint to the salad was already taken by peanuts. The lone misfire of the evening, on cost alone at a drastically overpriced $24, was the warm lobster toast. While the crustacean meat was fresh and well-seasoned with a unique trio of crushed avocado, shitake chips, and umami butter, it was wedged atop two tiny pieces of toast, minimizing the dish’s full effect. It was the one dish that cried out pretentiousness and on an evening in which there was thankfully very little.

                Yvonne’s also boasts a unique, extensive list of well-prepared, complex cocktails ($13-14) which range from seasonal (Pumpkin Spiced Mule, a playful riff on the Moscow Mule) to more sophisticated options (Slow Motion infuses bourbon, sherry, and amaro; the Enchanted Catnip is a sweet concoction of rum, tamarind, lime falernum and a burnt cherry lit ablaze for dramatic effect; the Grand Dame is a stiff, spicy, well-balanced, blend of tequila and ancho chile).

                Desserts are equally exceptional, including a moist cider cake sundae playfully served in a vertical glass cup as well as warmed sticky toffee housemade doughnuts alongside toffee ice cream.

                With the exception of a small lapse waiting for dessert, service was fantastic. Our waiter was polished, patient, and extremely knowledgeable of Yvonne’s extensive menu, no small feat.
                Restraint is clearly not Yvonne’s strongsuit. This supper club most certainly is, however, a messy masterpiece that illuminates Boston’s ever-evolving, exciting restaurant scene. And you know what? I much prefer a Jackson Pollock over a Renoir any day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Café Nuovo Diss (Services) -es its Customers

Just because a reputable restaurant has long been entrenched in Providence’s dining scene for several years doesn’t automatically make it a fine dining destination. You see, fine dining, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, comes down to two simple factors: the quality of an establishment’s cuisine, but of equal importance, the level of service that one receives. Café Nuovo - a restaurant located in downtown Providence (in the Citizens Plaza building) that is well-regarded for both its global cuisine (the ambitious, fusion-like menu boasts American, European, Asian, and Island-influenced dishes) and its romantic waterfront dining, checks off on the former but, unfortunately, miserably fails on the latter.

                First, let’s begin with the good news. On the whole, the majority of the cuisine emanating from the restaurant’s kitchen strike just the right notes. Take, for instance, a marvelously crispy thin-crust pizza ($18), simply prepared with garlic and evoo which accentuate the sweetness of shaved red onions that cut against the sweetness of thinly-sliced pieces of prosciutto. The dish manages to be hearty yet light, a marvel of a dish that so delighted our table that my wife and I decided to re-create the recipe the very next evening in our kitchen, calories be damned. Less successful was a disappointing dish of calamari + shrimp ($15), both types of fish fried and breaded with such heavy-handedness that I could honestly not distinguish between the two. Not only was the accompanying trio of condiments (a marinara-like Pomodoro sauce, banana-pepper relish, and spicy remoulade) bland in flavor but were served in small dishes for which we did not receive spoons for application.

                Entrees were strong, including a short rib ravioli ($27) packed with flavorful meat, although the short rib apparently wanted to roam freely outside of the pasta and its ricotta interior, which made for slightly challenging consumption. One dining companion swooned over her risotto with jumbo lump crab ($29), a sentiment that I shared over a dish also packed with generous pieces of seafood including littlenecks, shrimp, and scallop. For non-meat lovers, a vegetarian orrechiette ($25) definitely hit the spot, chalk full of artichoke valoute, sugar snap peas, fava beans, tomatoes, pearl onions, and oyster mushrooms. The dish of the night, however, was unquestionably the stuffed rigatoni ($28), a majestic tower of perfectly cooked al dente pasta that somehow stands upright, with each tube miraculously infused with pieces of veal, prosciutto, mozzarella, and portabello, and topped with a rich portabello-madeira sauce. It’s decadent and irresistible – calories, once again, be damned.

                Speaking of decadent, Café Nuovo’s desserts are a fine culinary conclusion to our meal. While a gooey chocolate-peanut butter sundae (including a house made peanut butter cookie) impresses, it’s the Pot of Mousse that is literally and figuratively the eye-candy that leaves its impression on the table. Set atop of raspberry and mango sauces resembling the Waterfire event that the outdoor piazza often overlooks in summertime, creamy dark and white chocolate mousse and cappuccino tartufo are enveloped in a chocolate pot, whose exterior bears the restaurant’s handwritten insignia while a little chocolate handle adorns the top of the dish. It’s grand viewing pleasure without being pretentious, and more importantly, it’s delicious.

                Now onto the bad news, which hinged on our service, or complete lack thereof. Our server’s name was Richard, which we only managed to garner by way of our bill, as he never formally introduced himself to us. Richard packed it in from the moment we were seated by the General Manager. Shall I count the ways? Neither one smile nor one recommendation throughout the evening. Unless of course, one considers “Six of one dozen…” when asked to compare two Pinot Noirs, or “That guy over there seemed to enjoy this type of drink” when I clearly inquired about an altogether different type of cocktail. Unbearable stretches where water glasses went unfilled, wine lists weren’t provided, bread baskets never arrived (resorting to us asking a busboy to bring this to our table). Wrong drinks brought to the table. Wrong meals brought to the table (more on that later). Rudely pulling aside more seasoned waiters (even when reciting specials) with questions he was unequipped to answer. As for our final bill, it was overcharged by $55, stemming from the aforementioned two incorrect meals. “Oh, I knew that could have been a problem on the bill,” he coldly replied. You didn’t bother to check the bill before you set it on our table? Richard, poor Richard, how you have managed to completely sabotage our meal.

                In spite of Café Nuovo’s often inspired cuisine, it pains me to implore readers to seek far better alternatives in Providence for fine dining. For a $200-plus bill, one expects polished service. Instead of an informed, personable, attentive server, we were left with poor Richard, whose motto was clearly ‘Service be damned.’

Monday, August 15, 2016

Shipping Out to Hingham’s Alma Nove a Worthwhile Dining Trip

Back in the summer of 2010, the Shipyard at Hingham bore more of a resemblance to a graveyard than a waterfront destination, particularly given its dearth of fine dining, which resided closer to the town center (Square Café and Tosca). All that the area needed was a large outdoor shopping mall and just the slightest touch of celebrity. Okay, make that a healthy dose of celebrity, by way of the Walhburg brothers, led by actors/part-owners Donnie and Mark and their chef/owner/restauranteur Paul Wahlburg. The modern Italian and Mediterranean restaurant became an overnight sensation and even spawned an offshoot of the upscale hamburger franchise, Wahlburgers (the original sits immediately next door). The restaurant’s Italian-influenced name is apt, an ode to the Wahlburg’s incredibly strong mother (alma) who raised nine (nove) children in Dorchester, Massachusetts. And better yet? The food and stylish atmosphere emit all of the love and joy that the Wahlburgers put into the establishment and want customers to enjoy themselves. There’s not an ounce of pretension to the place – it’s as if the Walhburgers are inviting you into their own home.

                Alma Nove’s ambience is stylish, starting with its interior consisting of large windows, mirrors, white tablecloths, and cathedral ceilings. A large, long bar stretches from the entryway to the patio. Lights hang from a wagon-wheel like structure across the ceiling. On a cool summer night, we elect the large outdoor patio that overlooks Hingham Harbor and features a giant gas fireplace all ablaze and fire pit. This al fresco setting is positively spectacular, featuring one of the finest views you’ll find in all of Massachusetts.

                What about the food, you ask? I had heard whispers from several close friends that Alma Nove was overrated or had simply lost its culinary way over the past couple of years. Let me be the first to quell those rumors. Wahlburg’s menu is enticing, particularly given its succinct, yet delectable description of ingredients (i.e. wood grilled octopus, fingerling potatoes, grapefruit aioli). Courses are split into antipasti (appetizers, $11-18), primi (pastas, $25-27 – although customers take note: smaller, more reasonably priced tasting portions are available at $10), and secondi (entrees, $27-37).

                For starters, potato-crusted calamari ($13) are lovely and smoky from being prepared on the wood grill, served with fresh, juicy pickled green tomatoes whose sweetness serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the saltiness of the tender fish’s coating. If only there were more than a drizzle of mustard aioli for dipping purposes that paled in comparison to the generous portion of squid. Also impressive were a trio of handmade cod cakes ($12.50), whose perfectly crispy exteriors gave way to a moist, fleshy, slightly sweet interior of heavenly fish, which was beautifully balanced with an accompanying base of smoky roasted corn and tomato relish that I would gladly bottle up and take home.

                When it comes to pastas, Wahlburg mostly adheres to traditional dishes but puts his own unique spin on them. Lobster ravioli ($27) comes stuffed with generous chunks of lobster (i.e. even claw) and are topped with a distinct lobster-corn relish and sweet corn cream sauce. While the sauce struck a nerve on my sweetness palate, the dish manages to be an overall success given its successful merger of saltiness and sweetness, all the while not being too heavy as most ravioli dishes are. Orechiette ($25) is less successful, as the enticing combination of flavors of pine nuts, slivered garlic, and Romano cheese just fester in blandness, with Italian sausage that lacked much heat. The winning dish of the evening was undoubtedly the pillowy, ethereal homemade gnocchi ($26) that would make Walhburg’s mother proud. The pasta is light, airy, topped with truffled Pecorino, and are paired with meaty, intensely flavorful wild mushrooms soaked in Madeira wine that themselves could be served as a standalone meal. It’s a knockout. A special of wood-grilled steak ($37) served over a Nebbiolo wine reduction and incredibly smooth mashed potatoes is also memorable.

                Surprisingly, well-regarded pastry chef Christie Radeos’s concoctions were mild disappointments, starting with the blueberry and vanilla swirl cheesecake ($9), which lacked any real traces of said flavors and only a dab of promised blueberry sauce, although dish’s secondary features including a candied lemon rind and cinnamon cookie crust were strong. Chocolate sour cream bundt cake ($10) promised a moist, decadent delight, only to prove to be a dry, dense dud whose house-made raspberry jam was more goopy than jam-like in texture.


                Cocktails were sweet and potent, starting with a spicy, Ginger beer-based Harvest Mule ($10) and an equally refreshing, spicy beverage consisting of watermelon-infused tequila and habanero syrup. A9 barrel-aged cocktails ($11-14, with all barrels seasoned one month in-house with madeira, while cocktails aged a minimum of six weeks) are impressive indeed, including a smooth, well-prepared Old Fashioned (Salerno blood orange liqueur’s sweetness nicely balances out the bourbon’s stiffness) and even vanilla bourbon. And one cannot go wrong with the extensive, Italian-influenced wine selection, featuring about a dozen reds and whites by the glass and dozens other by the bottle, including a reasonably-priced Trebbiano from Italy’s Abruzzo region ($55).


Service was adequate, if not commensurate with the restaurant’s glowing ambience. Our waitress was certainly knowledgeable, but her enthusiasm was lacking and never once broke into a smile (what, no Mark Wahlburg onsite to lieft one’s spirits up?). There were minor hiccups as well, including the time our first round of cocktails arrived after appetizers were placed onto the table, as did serving plates (which were surprisingly as small as the ones we used to dip our bread into oil).

Overall, however, Alma Nove admirably lives up to its lofty reputation as one of the South Shore’s best fine dining establishments. From its innovative, well-executed Italian and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine to its not-to-be-missed atmosphere, in the words of former rapper-turned superstar actor Marky Mark (aka Mark Wahlburg), there are nothing but good vibrations emanating from Hingham Shipyard.


Monday, August 8, 2016

The Beehive: What is the Buzz All About?

Back in early 2007, Boston’s South End was buzzing about a new Bohemian eatery and bar that also provided live entertainment. Rated as one of the top 100 jazz clubs in the world by Downbeat Magazine (other evenings, a variety of other music concerts feature Blues, R&B, Reggae, Latin, Country, and even Burlesque), The Beehive’s festive ambience made quite an initial impression on Boston’s dining scene. But does its kitchen’s casual comfort food ultimately make beautiful music as well?

                The Beehive’s atmosphere is unmatched, harkening to an intimate, albeit larger college coffeehouse I often frequented years ago to watch a capella groups perform onstage. Here, exposed brick, crystal chandeliers, low-hanging glitter disco balls, and red velvet paintings bring to mind the eclectic, uninhibited world of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. There are two floors, the ground floor quieter in nature with a lively bar to its right, while a hostess escorts you down the stairs to a livelier subterranean level where a hip jazz trio performs (another lively bar resides in the back) in what feels like a secret club. Several young couples can be seen intimately conversing, along with groups of ladies out for a pleasurable girls’ night out, and even some families peppered into the crowd. Some customers are dressed more formally (ladies in Depression-era dresses akin to The Great Gatsby), while others don more casual attire. While there is no cover for nightly entertainment, diners should expect to be asked for their credit card when reserving a table, as there is a $25/person surcharge if reservations are not honored.

                Like the ambience, Beehive’s menu does not fit one size, consisting of offerings influenced by the Middle East (i.e. Za’atar spiced chicken and lamb moussaka), Eastern Europe (schmaltz fried rice, anyone?), and America (baby back ribs, cheese and gravy frites). Selections are also split into portion sizes, while price points veer slightly above what one would expect for said portions. Bar Snacks include a “Bacon + Eggs” deviled egg ($5), which is split into two and nicely seasoned. My dining companion and I devour our ½ egg in 2 bites. “Did this only take $.12 to prepare?” she half-joked, yearning for at least another couple of forkfuls.

                Hors D’Oevres feature an extremely underwhelming, under-seasoned order of crispy calamari ($14), our least favorite course of the evening that possessed heavy breading, and seemed to replace the promising heat of jalapenos with subtle green and red peppers. Much better was the BBQ Salt + Pepper Lamb ($15), served over red slaw (would have benefitted from being served warm in lieu of cold, and was a tad vinegary) and whose meat was tender and candied in texture. My only complaint? A handful of small pieces of meat do not justify the $15 price tag. A well-seasoned fluke crudo was appreciated by our entire table, with just enough lime juice to almost label it a ceviche and accompanying thinly sliced potato strips that leant a nice, crunchy texture that balanced against the fleshy softness of the fish.

                Main courses fared the strongest, led by duck au poivre ($29) accompanied by the aforementioned schmaltz fried rice (a German staple that is cooked in chicken fat that gives the rice its rich flavor) pickles and mustard jus for dipping. Like the lamb, the duck was succulent and had a nice sear that provided some heat (jerk rub, perhaps?) and that did not require the jus. And unfortunately like the lamb, 8 small strips of duck vanished from our plates in a moment’s notice and made for costly dish that seemed more appetizer than main in portion size. A heaping portion of vegetarian couscous, Farmstand vegetables and tzatziki proved a much better bet price-wise, while grilled swordfish over black rice, farro, and favas ($26) earned raves from another dining companion.

                Pass on the desserts, which go unlisted on the menu (for a reason, perhaps?). A dry, overcooked maple bread pudding elicits nothing more than shoulder shrugs from the table.

                Cocktails ($9-11) are relatively solid, including the playfully named Blood and Whiskey ($11), a concoction of Irish whiskey, blood orange, and passion fruit that makes for a potent, sweet, summery beverage that goes down smoothly. The bar’s sangria ($9) is prepared with white wine and cucumber. “Interesting,” one says between sips, approving of this unique version.

                Our server was knowledgeable and friendly enough, unobtrusive during the jazz trio’s set. She neither added great value (i.e. little requests such as spoons for sharing larger plates would have been automatically factored in with more polished fine dining establishments) nor detracted from our meal.

                Although the Beehive’s vibe is unequivocally fun, all the buzz I’ve been hearing about this place appears to have faded given its slightly above average, yet overpriced cuisine (a $25 valet charge does not help matters). There are other exciting, new restaurants across the city worth exploring whose cuisine my stomach is eager to make sweet music with.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

This Passport Worth Renewing for Global Culinary Adventure

One need not to hope aboard an airplane to sample some of the finest global cuisine this region has experienced in some time. While passports can be left behind, hungry customers can head over to Weymouth Landing’s aptly-named Passport, an intimate eatery which opened back in 2013, that prides itself on an eclectic selection of international tapas, and is helmed by owner Neil Kiley, who also runs Quincy’s popular Fat Cat restaurant.

                The entrance opens up to a small bar up front with a handful of tables for diners interested in viewing bustling Washington Street outside through the large windows, while the main dining area resides in the back. If you’re looking to dine with a large group (i.e. 10 or more), take note: the restaurant is not all that large, does not take reservations, and will not seat parties until everyone has arrived. Wall murals capturing scenes from abroad along with suitcase decorations set the stage for a culinary journey that spans across multiple countries and continents.

                The menu is divided, perhaps too much so, in a way that encourages groups to share plates and experience a wealth of flavors. They fall into categories such as teasers (very small bites, $3-6), tasters (small bites, $6-10), smalls (appetizers, $8-14), and shares (entrees, $18-22). Teasers offer a promising glimpse of what’s to come, highlighted by a delectable Thai-pumpkin coconut soup ($3), a small plate that while only affording about a half dozen spoonfuls, oh what memorable spoonfuls they are! The pumpkin base, custard-like in texture, contains a subtle heat that emanates from an infusion of cumin and cayenne, and which is superbly balanced by the sweetness of fresh coconut flakes. If afforded the opportunity, I would gladly had licked every last drop of the soup off of the small plate, an opinion with which our entire table concurred. Equally strong were fried octopus with arrabiata sauce ($6), the tentacled fish expertly coated (that is possessing a light, not excessively mealy texture) and tender, while swimming in a pool of nicely seasoned, tangy tomato base. Less successful were rather bland smoked whitefish croquettes ($6). While this category of fish is not particularly flavorful to begin with, it lacked that promised smokiness to better pair with the accompanying roasted garlic lemon aioli, and was ultimately the least impressive dish of the evening.

                Tasters were a bit lackluster compared to its predecessors, including grilled lamb skewers with couscous salad ($10) which featured well-cooked, if slightly under-seasoned meat. The disappointing empanadas ($6), while featuring a well-prepared flaky exterior, ultimately gave way to under-seasoned, un-spicy meat (although another bite from a tablemate’s other empanada proved much tastier,   consistency across the plate was lacking).

                Fortunately, smalls more than made up for the tasters’ shortcomings. A house special of flatbread topped with cheese, a wonderfully zesty tomato base, spicy corn, and caramelized onions was a pie whose sweet and spicy flavor combination resulted in it being quickly devoured by our table. Jamaican pork tostada was also a marvelous take on the Caribbean staple, featuring wonderfully tender shredded beef laced with a mango BBQ with some kick served atop a crunchy giant shell, the textures wonderfully meshing together. A heaping dish of seafood paella ($22) yielded an abundance of fresh shrimp, scallops, mussels, that phenomenal octopus, and spicy chorizo served over wonderfully al dente crispy calaspara rice – just how authentic Spanish paella should be prepared. What was troubling, however – particularly for the vegetarian in our party – is that the menu explicitly left off the chorizo, and when our server checked with the kitchen, he confirmed it was not part of the dish. While delicious for us meat consumers, that was a major faux pas that requires immediate attention on the kitchen’s part.

                Desserts ($4-8) were nothing short of outstanding, led by incredible crispy, flaky churros ($8) accompanied by a trio of dipping sauces including spicy chocolate, salted caramel, and chantilly cream. While the dipping sauces are certainly a bonus, the inherent sweetness and magnificent texture of the doughnuts made for one of the finest versions I’ve sampled since my more gluttonous days dipping them in café con chocolate in the cafes of Seville, Spain. Also noteworthy were Neil’s Nachos (named after Passport’s owner, $8), which consisted of fried wonton chips topped with bananas, fresh berries medley, and a piping hot maple bourbon sauce that like the aforementioned coconut soup, I’d gladly lick every last drop.

                Inventive, well-executed cocktails ($9-11) are prepared by an incredibly knowledgeable, affable, enthusiastic bartended, including the playfully titled Carmen Sandiego ($11), a sweet, spicy, yet refreshing summer beverage I’d gladly travel around the world in search of, consisting of tequila, fresh lime, watermelon juices, agave nectar, and muddled Serrano pepper. The Muddler ($10) holds true to its name, enabling customers to “pick your poison” by selecting from rum or tequila with mint, peppers, guava, pineapple, watermelon, and blackberries. A dining companion’s resulting watermelon mojito is sublime. I glance at a bottle of house-made Applewood bacon smoked bourbon, and the bartender insists he can produce the best Manhattan/Old Fashioned I’ve ever tasted. I concur: served along with a slice of candied bacon whose salty, sweety flavor cuts into the bourbon’s smokiness, the cocktail is one of the smoothest I’ve ever consumed – it was complex and simply divine. A coco-mo (rum with coconut juice and froth, pineapple juice, shaken over ice) nearly rivaled the fantastic version I recently tasted in Puerto Rico.

                Seafood paella snafu aside, our server was also highly knowledgeable of the menu, friendly, and spaced out multiple plates throughout the evening that allowed our table to truly enjoy our dining experience. Weymouth’s Passport has successfully managed to bring global cuisine right to our front step. Given its eclectic menu, reasonable price points, and fun ambience, I won’t be traveling abroad anytime soon to obtain my international food fix – I now have my own personal Passport to relish.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Cielo Has “Sky”-High Culinary Aspirations

                If you’ve ever tired of the Tex-Mex dining invasion that seems to have overtaken the region (like walkers inhabiting the earth on The Walking Dead), then look no further than Braintree’s Cielo (Spanish term for “sky”) for the most authentic Mexican cuisine I’ve discovered in quite some time.

                Cielo’s authenticity can be traced to its ownership team, led by cousins Martin Gonzalez and David Marquez, whose families grew up in Jalisco, Mexico. Their eatery, recently voted Best New Restaurant – South Shore by Boston Magazine, occupies a bright purple building in Braintree Highlands (corners of Washington and Plain Streets), a remote location at the outer reaches of the town that is starved for a successful restaurant following several closures in the past few years.

                Cielo’s festive ambience is as vibrant as its building’s exterior, as customers are warmly greeted into the intimate, slightly cramped dining room, which only holds 12 tables with an 8-seat bar (on pleasant evenings, be sure to grab one of the 16 outdoor patio seats). Wood floors, stone walls, well-placed plants and artwork, and Mexican music blaring on the sound system all make for a homey, relaxed setting. Waiters can also be heard warmly conversing with Spanish-speaking customers.

                A complimentary basket of warmed tortilla chips is brought tableside by our affable waiter (“Sunday is Fun Day,” he jokes). While the chips are decent enough (not greasy, but a tad too salty), the texture of all four salsas (black bean, traditional, salsa verde, and a spicier version) is far too soupy, making scooping a challenge. This only made my wife and I more envious of a nearby table who order a mammoth version of guacamole ($8.25) prepared by a server in a stone bowl.

                Entrees are noteworthy, beginning with huevos rancheros ($7.99), a traditional Mexican dish that Americans may more readily associate with breakfast. Its components come deconstructed: eggs with chipotle and tomato sauce, rice and avocado, but don’t be ashamed of melding everything into a rich mess of flavors. While the eggs are requested over easy – better for the rice to absorb the eggs’ runny yolk – they are disappointingly prepared over medium. No bother, as the dish remains sinfully, spicily delicious, nonetheless.

                Even better and not to be missed are the enchiladas mole poblano ($12.59), consisting of three slim soft tortillas drenched in mole sauce and stuffed with warm chicken. The mole itself is sensational – neither too dense not too sweet like so many inferior versions – packing just the right blend of bitter chocolate and spicy notes, while sliced fresh onion provides a much welcomed textural counterpoint to the soft tortillas.

                Desserts (postres) once again lean toward more traditional, yet well-executed Mexican fare such as cinnamon-dusted churros and wonderfully refreshing, light vanilla custard flan ($7), beautifully punctuated with sweetness by fresh berries and a drizzle of caramel sauce.

                Cielo boasts an impressive selections of tequilas along with nicely flavored, albeit not-all-that-potent margaritas ($10), which include unique flavors such as tamarind and hibiscus. Bypass the inauthentic, tepid coffee.

                Overall, Cielo proves to be a welcomed entry into the local dining scene, filling a much-needed gap in true Mexican dining. Given its above-average cuisine, very affordable price points, fun atmosphere, and friendly service, the “sky” appears to be the limit for this exciting eatery.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Italian-American Fine Dining Lives (and Thrives) at Capo

Who knew that Italian-American dining would ever be frowned upon in foodie circles these days? Regional Italian-inspired restaurants have popped up in recent years and the seriousness of the dishes those kitchens produced have seemed to taken the pure, unadulterated fun out of what I recall from my childhood – a heaping portion of veal parmigiana with an equally heaping portion of spaghetti and meatballs. These restaurants have gradually, inexplicably lost their popularity, that is until restaurants like Capo emerge. Chef Tony Susi - he of the one widely acclaimed and now sadly shuttered North End staple Sage – has opened up a 300 seat behemoth in – wait for it – the South End. Wait a minute, Southie, you ask? Is Susi’s spaghetti accommodated by Bangers and Mash given the historically populated Irish-American neighborhood?

                Surprisingly, the neighborhood works wonderfully, especially since its gentrification over the past several years and a culinary renaissance led by the group that not only oversees Capo – which opened in mid-February of this year – but also successful eateries Lincoln and Loco Taqueria on bustling West Broadway Street. The locals were hungry, and who ever thought they would gravitate towards the Italian-American cuisine made popular in the North End? Whitey Bulger must be rolling over in his prison cell as we speak.

                One caveat: the restaurant is extremely loud. On a lovely summer night, the floor-to-ceiling windows out front are open, and the gleeful laughter and chatter from the hoard of customers can be heard from afar. The establishment seats 300, with two long, illuminated bars extending from front to back. Here’s a recommendation: grab a booth or table in the back room where a large stone fireplace resides – it is far quieter there, as opposed to the front room, whose terrible acoustics force one to shout for audible conversation. The space - occupied by younger and older clientele - is modern, decked out in white tile floors, brick and repurposed wood walls and spherical lighting. Susi himself can be seen in the open kitchen, in which his oak-fired brick oven pizza is also visibly churning out smoky, nicely charred pies.

                We opt to share small plates under the bar sfizi section of the menu, starting with the creamy, dreamy short rib arancini with herb aoili ($8), rice balls possessing a super crispy exterior and a fontina cheese center packed with ultra-tender pulled short rib that left a dining companion and I consuming in silence and with eyes closed in sheer pleasure. Roasted lamb skewers ($9) are also a pleasant surprise, nicely seasoned with sides of fresh agrodolce peppers and salsa verde that provide a cold, spicy counterpoint to the meat. My only quibble? Wider pieces of meat on the skewers – akin to a thick slab of beef teriyaki – would have been appreciated, as the thin slices made for a more challenging dipping experience. House-made pastas come in half and full portions. Spaghetti Pomodoro ($8 or $16), like most of Capo’s dishes, are simply, yet well executed and nicely plated, served up in a hearty, basil-spiked tomato sauce.

While entrée portions are certainly adequate in size and price (none exceeds $26 and most fall in the teens), be forewarned: they are not at all humongous as other local critics have previously suggested, and none come with any sides, although rather nondescript items such as grilled asparagus can be had for $6-7 apiece. Veal saltimbocca ($25) features thinly pounded meat, tenderly sautéed in a rich white wine and butter sauce, and is topped with prosciutto and a tad too much basil that gives the dish a slightly bitter aftertaste. Better yet are the more traditional, red sauce dishes includeing generous portions of exceptionally battered, pan-fried chicken ($17) and eggplant ($13) parmigiana, harmoniously swimming in a pool of that delectable tomato sauce along with melted mozzarella.

Bar manager Kevin Mabry is formerly of popular, recently re-opened Boston restaurant jm Curley, and he brings his inventive riffs on traditional cocktails to Capo, including a fancified Margerita playfully called the Don Corleone ($12) in tribute to The Godfather (the term ‘Capo,’ after all, signifies Mob Captain in Italian), a sweet and sour blend with Don Julio blanco tequila, Pierre Ferrand dry Curacao, blood orange and lime. A stiffer, no less equally enjoyable option is a fun take on the Old Fashioned called King Cole ($12), bourbon infused with ever subtle tones of more tropical pineapple and banana flavors mixed with Fernet Branca. In the spirit of keeping all things Italian, Capo boasts an all-Italian wine selection, including a rare, much appreciated wine-on-tap program featuring house cabernet, Pinot Grigio, and Rose available by glass ($8), carafe ($18 or $36), or for larger, thirstier groups – jugs ($48).

Desserts are also noteworthy. A non-traditional serving of tiramisu laced with tiny shreds of bitter chocolate brittle is memorable for its surprising lightness and heavy, espresso liquer-tinged alcohol content, although the spongy ladyfingers I seek are somewhat lost in the dish. Rarely sighted, often underappreciated olive oil cake (which I last sampled at Brookline’s Ribelle) gets much love here, the cake ultra moist and topped with marscapone and honey.

In spite of the chaos of the large crowds, service was extremely personable, polished and seamless, particularly after our initial waitress – she of self-admitted three days on the job – was instantly swapped out for a more seasoned waitress who was better equipped to provide recommendations once the front of the house was informed of my wife’s dairy allergy. Several servers, in fact, stopped by to check in throughout the evening, one of whom even checked with Susi to determine what type of clam was used for my wife’s wonderfully garlicky-spicy order of linguine Vongole ($11/$23) given that one of our inquisitive dining companions often goes clamming on Cape Cod.

Upon leaving Capo, one might experience a headache given the extreme noise levels which one only hopes Susi and his staff will quickly remedy. However, given Susi’s well-executed, delicious, and relatively affordable Italian-American cuisine, there is much pleasure to be had to offset that pain. Whitey, it’s a shame that you decided to flee town way back when – you’re missing a highly rewarding meal at Capo. In the words of Peter Clemenza from The Godfather: you’ll want to leave the gun and take the cannoli.