Sunday, March 19, 2017

Easton “Lucky” to Add Shino to Its Dining Scene

Shino Restaurant opened its doors in South Easton last month, and local residents have most definitely taken notice. On a recent Saturday evening, he bar scene is lively at the front of the house, where co-owner Allan Yee – a bar manager for over two decades at esteemed Boston restaurants including Jae’s Café, Sibling Rivalry (both now sadly shuttered), Oishii, and Chestnut Hill’s Bernard’s – can be seen perfecting inventive cocktails such as a potent, well-balanced Ginger Manhattan (infused with ginger beer) and a Mezcal Mule (a playful riff on the Moscow Mule, swapping out vodka for tequila, while an edible flower provides a spicy kick that puts the mule in Moscow). So, too, is the dining room bustling with couples and families, while calm, friendly, attentive wait staff keep service seamlessly flowing. Yee, himself – a genuinely engaging owner who is excited to join the Easton community and is eager to ensure his customers’ satisfaction – can frequently be spotted socializing with each table.

                Shino, which is situated directly off of Route 138 in a small shopping plaza next to the popular Mexican restaurant, El Mariachi, is conceptually based on a Japanese izakaya, Yee states. The izakaya is a casual Japanese gastropub where patrons can sample both innovative Japanese dishes along with more traditional ones (many foodies may be familiar with this type of restaurant when O Ya owners Nancy and Tim Cushman launched the trendy Hojoko in Fenway’s Verb Hotel back in 2015). Yee and his business partner, Long Lam (the duo met at Bernard’s years ago) have created a family-friendly, pub-like ambience that accommodates nearly fifty customers. The eatery features several bamboo fixtures, and Yee revealed that the term Shino in Japanese signifies bamboo artist. According to Yee, it is customary in both Japanese and Chinese culture to offer bamboo gifts to new businesses for good luck, and he laughingly alludes to his own bamboo as lucky. No such luck, however, is needed here.

                My recommendation: travel to Shino with either your family or a large group of friends. That strategy will enable you to sample as many of the affordable, wildly inventive, and delicious array of shareable cold and hot appetizers ($5-14) as possible. Spicy tuna buns ($8) feature minced, sashimi-grade tuna lumped into crispy buns. The texture and seasoning of the fish are spot-on, and the buns’ buttery sweetness is the perfect flavor counterpoint to the tuna’s heat. It’s so good, in fact, that my in-laws – who often shy away from sashimi – raved about the dish. Pork belly ($8) appears in soft buns (Yee gleefully alludes to them as Japanese hot dogs), the meat braised and incredibly tender, so flawless in execution that this once again gains my in-laws’ attention as one of the finest versions they’ve sampled. Gyoza ($6) are fried dumplings with a perfectly seared exterior that rivals its flavorful, minced pork interior. Kaki fry ($7) showcases large, elongated fried sticks infused with potent, fish-forward flavored oyster, served in a sweet pool of tonkatsu sauce along with a spicier mustard sauce. Specialty maki rolls, including the aptly named Route 138 consisting of fried soft shell crab, grilled eel, tamago, avocado, and black tobiko, also impress.

                As memorable as the preceding dishes are, the following dishes are considered showstoppers, starting with the dazzling Shino wings ($9), Yee’s favorite menu item. The wings are a shining example of the kitchen’s consistent, skillful display of preparation, technique, and execution. Yee explains that he takes the wings, pulls the bones out, and then lightly fries them, resulting in an incredibly tender, easy-to-eat piece of meat (the drumsticks themselves are stunningly served upright) slathered in a delectably sweet and spicy garlic chili sauce. It serves as both eye and meat candy. Grilled black cod ($12) is also a big hit, featuring an impossibly moist piece of fish that falls apart at the tap of a fork, its top nicely blackened, the fish swimming in a pool of sweet, sticky miso glaze. It’s a vibrant, lovely dish. Okonomiyaki ($9), a giant seafood pancake commonly served in Japan, is extravagantly displayed with chili fish flakes (that magically give off the appearance that they’re moving atop the pancake) and artfully painted with lines of spicy mayo. The dish is packed with an abundance of seafood ranging from shrimp to squid, and once again evokes adulation from my in-laws, who had recently returned from a trip to Japan where they sampled several versions of the popular dish.

                The word is out, and the crowds are arriving in droves at this new suburban dining hotspot. Shino needs no luck at all. It is the town of Easton that is fortunate to welcome Yee, Lam, and their intoxicating, exciting cuisine and hospitality.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Leandro’s: The Perfect Italian Pub?

Blackthorne Publick House, we hardly knew ‘ye. Taking over the space previously occupied by the lamented Blackthorne (where the food - prepared by a former head chef at Providence’s reputable CAV – often excelled, but the art and music vibe endorsed by its endearing owner unfortunately never fully caught on with locals), Leandro’s Italian Restaurant and Tavern is an undeniable hit. One recent Saturday evening was evidence enough, from the parking lot at near capacity to the raucous bar and bustling dining room. Amidst the crowd chaos, an engaging, humorous hostess whisked us to our table. Gone is the artwork adorning the walls, the musical stage, and the dour black mahogany seating, replaced with warmer, lighter colored tables and walls (but with muted, more romantic lighting). Couples both young and old, along with larger families, seem to be enjoying themselves, and it’s no wonder why.

                Keeping all things in the family, owner Michelle Refinski Leandro manages the establishment, while her husband, Emanuel along with his cousin, Leandro man the kitchen (both have cooked for well over a decade). Their Italian-inspired menu is extensive, while dishes are generous in portion size and well-executed. Prices are extremely reasonable, even considering the restaurant’s suburban locale. What’s not to like?

                Leandro’s features a modest, yet interesting and well-priced selection of wines available by both the glass (a velvety, robust Joel Gott Cabernet, at $11, is a standout) and bottle, while the beer list is equally impressive, ranging from Worcester’s popular Wormtown IPA to a denser Allagash Black Belgian stout out of Maine. Inventive cocktails ($8.50-12) – including the aptly named Midnight in Siciliy, whose combination of bourbon and averna Sicilian amaro is not only smooth, well-balanced, and potent, but whose dark appearance strikingly resembles red wine – are most definitely worth exploring.

                Appetizers ($6.50-14) veer more towards traditional Italian-American cuisine, including stuffed meatballs with prosciutto. Surprisingly, it is a salad - of all things -  that proves to be one of the most satisfying course of the evening. A baby arugula (at $10, the most expensive but most worthwhile salad option), offers the perfect counterpoint of flavors and textures, as the sweetness of soft figs, crunchy pecans, and a lively orange-poppy dressing battle for supremacy against the tartness of crumbled goat cheese.

                Grilled entrees ($18.50-26) are an absolute steal given their mammoth portion sizes and flawless execution. There’s nothing necessarily flashy about these dishes – but boy, they taste mighty good! Take, for instance, the perfectly cooked, nicely seasoned, succulent pork chop ($21) served in a not-too-heavy apple demi glaze, caramelized onions, and served alongside crispy Lyonnaise potatoes. Veal marsala ($19) features thinly pounded, equally tender slices of meat in a rich marsala and mushroom sauce, accompanied by garlic mashed potato.

                Traditional Italian desserts (i.e. tiramisu) offer an appealing, if slightly underwhelming conclusion to the evening. We sample a house-made carrot cake which sadly tastes pre-made, the cake slightly moist if not a tad dry and dense, with an insufficient of cream cheese frosting to satisfy one’s sweet tooth. I’d suggest bypassing these for a chest-warming alcoholic dessert flight such as that wonderfully sweet amaro or port sherry ($12).

                Our dining companions also inform us of Leandro’s weekly specials such as $1 oysters at the bar on Sundays and Mondays, along with Tuesday Tastings that, at $20, gets you three tasting portions and a wine or beer flight. It’s this type of menu flexibility, along with genuine hospitality, reasonable price points, and nicely executed (albeit heavily traditional) Italian cuisine, that only adds to the eatery’s allure and initial wave of success. Leandro’s restaurant team may be all in the family, but it certainly appears eager to extend its culinary family to local residents.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Nosh & Grog Provisions is a Pub Minus the Gastro

Why ruin such a good thing? Formerly Zebra Bar and Wine Bistro, a beloved culinary staple in downtown Medfield for 17 years, owner Craig Neunecker inexplicably decided to revamp his fine dining eatery into the playfully named Nosh & Grog Provisions, an unabashed gastropub that the owner undoubtedly expected would attract a broader segment of customers. Gone were the formal white tablecloths and famed zebra themed-upholstered chairs, replaced with more rustic exposed brick walls, industrial artwork, and wooden light fixtures. Quality food, however, doth not a re-invention make.

                Don’t tell that to the throngs of customers waiting at standing tables and along the U-shaped bar on a busy Saturday evening (Reservations are not accepted, so perhaps after witnessing customers waiting for over an hour following a 6 PM arrival might prompt Neunecker to reconsider that policy). While awaiting our table, we order poorly executed, small, exorbitantly priced cocktails (at $12 apiece, with several arriving in tiny copper mugs that allow for a mere few sips), including the Spicy Valentine, a promising blend of chili-infused tequila that is excessively spicy with seemingly little tequila and zero balance, a tepid-flavored sangria, and a maple-infused bourbon cider that lays on the bourbon, but  again, packs little sweet cider flavor as a counterpoint. (My recommendation: order from an extensive selection of beers that include a Kentucky bourbon-infused ale and a potent, passionfruit-tinged Finch Chimera IPA). These are ominous precursors to the meal to come.

                White bean hummus ($8.50) consists of woefully overcooked naan while a white and chickpea hummus’s offputting flavor is attributed to a heavy-handedness of basil oil. Jonah crab Rangoon ($12.50) consists of three large, overly-doughy wedges consisting of a filling dominated more by cream cheese than crab (is it even there?), whose underlying house duck sauce is all liquid with little discernible flavor that’s unable to stick to the rangoon’s limp, uncrunchy exterior (makes me clamor for Chinatown’s much less fussy, smaller, yet far superior version).

                Entrees are unequivocally disastrous, beginning with Nosh & Grog’s signature OH S#%T Burger. At $15.75, the burger sounds promising enough, with bacon aioli, caramelized onions, and mesquite ketchup. The burger, however – small in stature – arrives grossly overcooked not once, but following a message to the owner, twice, one initially ordered without cheese arriving with (but with no onions) and the other with half-melted American cheese and what looks like a sloppy application of mayo, not bacon aioli. The fries are oversalted and served lukewarm, accompanied by a small container of ketchup that’s a quarter full. I sadly yearn for a Big Mac in lieu of what should more aptly be called the Completely Overpriced, Utterly Mediocre Burger. Another dining companion’s chicken sandwich is likewise rendered dry, overcooked, and utterly inedible. The entire meal is comped by the incredulous, apologetic manager, but too little, too late.

                What a shame. Our party would have been far better served at nearby Avenue, a new, eight-month-old, contemporary eatery where we decided to grab dessert. A dreamy, piping hot blondie brownie sundae and double espresso later – along with an attentive, affable bartender who was the polar opposite of our friendly enough, yet utterly inattentive waitress who disappeared for long stretches and left water glasses unfilled – and it almost…ALMOST made up for our forgettable dining experience minutes earlier. While Nosh & Grog is distinctly a pub, it’s kitchen’s lack of refinement and execution make the gastro elements of its new concept both literally and figuratively difficult to swallow. If this establishment continues to fail in its execution of even the most basic dishes, it’s path will lead it to a much gloomier Avenue: closure.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

SRV Brings Venetian Flair to Boston’s South End

SRV might be short for Serene Republic of Venice, but on a busy Saturday evening at co-chefs Michael Lombardi and Kevin O’Donnell’s South End venetian bacaro (a setting where small plates termed cicchetti and Italian wines are intended to be shared), it is anything but that. The popular wildly popular eatery, run by the well-respected Coda Group, is bursting at the seams with customers, so much so that the friendly hostess apologizes for a slight wait in spite of our reservation and cordially invites us to the side windows where standing drink tables await those unfortunate customers that have to…well, wait for their drinks. And while impatiently waited for several minutes, a cordial server offers us something to dull our pain in the form, well…cordials, of the meticulously executed, distinctly Italian variety. My dining companion’s pleasant, but not-too-sweet and citrusy cocktail, the 63 Fairbanks, consists of gin, aperol, and elderflower, while my bourbon and amaro (a sweet, Italian after-dinner aperitif) strikes the perfect balance between subtle sweetness and welcomed potency, a creative Italian riff on the more conservative Manhattan. Said hostess then whisks us away to our table, genuinely inquiring about the outcome of my son’s basketball game (I had previously called ahead and asked if we could move back our reservation on account of his suddenly rescheduled game earlier that afternoon). It was a sincere gesture that most definitely did not go unnoticed and set the tone for a phenomenal dining event.

                Lombardi and O’Donnell, who first crossed paths at Mario Batali’s esteemed New York outpost Del Posto, clearly possess their mentor’s passion for authentic Italian cuisine, striving and succeeding in re-creating a communal dining sensibility common in the streets of Venice. I would encourage anyone to take advantage of the duo’s Arsenale menu, which at $45 per person, is an absolute steal, comprised of six small-to-midsized snacks, two larger, entrée-style courses, two hearty pasta dishes, and dessert. This extensive prix fixe menu represents a term rarely uttered from the mouths of customers seeking reasonably-priced fine-dining in Boston: value.

                One of the rare misfires of the evening is the very first small bite, an underwhelming Nantucket bay scallop crudo with a slightly off-putting flavor resulting from accompanying fermented beet. A soft-boiled quail egg, however, is magical, causing my dining companion’s taste buds to suddenly perk up and exclaim that this bar bite – whose creamy, intensely rich flavor is punctuated by an innovative dash of white anchovy, caper, and garlic pangrattato – rates amongst the finest she’s ever consumed. My ricotta-stuffed red pepper – whose blanched exterior lends to a welcomed crunchy textural contrast -  nearly scales those heights, as well. It’s simple in presentation, but like so many of SRV’s dishes, complex in technique and execution while bold in flavor.

Equally satisfying bites follow, including the polpette, a seemingly ho-hum, been-there-done-that pork and beef meatball whose interior is surprisingly, wonderfully tender, not tough and dry like so many other less successful versions, no doubt attributed to the addictive tomato sauce in which the meatball swims. Another traditional Italian standby, salumi misti, features nicely cured Italian meats paired with sweet, vinegary marinated olives that nicely cut into the meat’s saltiness. And if I’m quibbling here, the phenomenal Suca Baruca – an ingenious blend of squash, granny apples for crunchy contrast, and wait for it… lardo, for pure umami richness – would have been best served as a luscious punctuation mark to the meal as a showstopper finale of a dessert, not as a precursor to the forthcoming meat, fish, and pasta dishes.

But come those courses did, and nary a high note did they miss, starting with tuna belly in Saor, the fresh fish sliced into pieces and uniquely paired with picked cipollini (another ingenious stroke of technique) and fennel grapes. A precisely cooked, well-seasoned, enjoyably fatty chunk of lamb belly was equally enticing, served with carrot in pinzimonio, quince, and a saffron yogurt that I admittedly forgot to utilize (and that’s a compliment to the bold flavor profile of the dish).

Whooh! Have you caught your breath yet? Fortunately, with the exception of a quickly corrected, small miscue of the lamb belly a following the tuna a tad too hastily, the pacing throughout the evening was thoughtfully deliberate and spot-on. A rotation of friendly, polished, informed servers thoroughly addressed any dining concerns (such as ‘Can the Arsenale menu be split between a couple where one person has a dairy allergy?,’ to which the response was a thankfully resounding ‘Yes, we can!’). So it’s onto the next chapter of Whirlwind through Venice, with our protagonists discovering good fortune in sampling Lombardi and O’Donnell’s piece de resistance: a pair of hearty, grain-milled pastas made in-house, both of which are spectacularly flavorful and unique, rivaling some of city’s best pasta joints, including Central Square’s Giulia and Batali’s own recent, mammoth Boston entry, Eataly. Thick strands of rigatoni are mixed with cauliflower and mustard greens, creating a wealth of buttery, bitter goodness. I gravitate to the meatier fazzoletti, akin to strozzapreti in texture and laced with spicy sausage, swiss chard, and chickpea.

Given our whirlwind tour, I must admit that the dolce (dessert) portion of the menu is a bit of a letdown, not that Venetian eateries have ever been famous for their confections. While biscotti misti (Venetian cookies) are playfully presented in a cookie jar, the cookies – with the exception of chocolate coconut and merengue varieties – largely disappoint given their blandness.

Fortunately, irrespective of this minor misstep (and perhaps better crowd control mechanisms in place at the front of the restaurant), there’s not a lot to dislike at SRV. With its glass doors opening to an outdoor courtyard, crystal-cut pendants hung at different heights, knotted rope dividers between rooms, and exposed brick walls with wine racks, the restaurant has a festive, chic, casual, inviting vibe to it that, like the menu itself, is a modern, fresh take on the traditional Venetian bacaro. And then there is the open kitchen from which diners can view a team of chefs feverishly working lock-in-step to seamlessly prepare delicious plates that servers swiftly whisk away to their tables. Seamless, delicious, entirely satisfying, and yes, ultimately a serene dining experience, SRV has masterfully transported the culinary treasures of Venice into Boston’s South End.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Scorpion Bar Packs a Fun Sting

Notwithstanding the culinary ambiguity that Scorpion Bar’s name may evoke (“We thought this was an Asian-themed restaurant,” laughed several dining companions, who had mistakenly correlated the popular, shareable booze-filled Asian cocktail with this location), there’s nothing all that confusing about the latest addition to restaurant row, located at the epicenter of Patriots Place. Scorpion Bar is the newest endeavor from Big Night Entertainment (Empire, Red Lantern) and reputable chef Kevin Long (Empire, Red Lantern, Tosca), and it is an unabashedly Mexican-themed restaurant that doubles as an exotic tequila/sports bar (the restaurant stocks 100 premium tequilas), perfect for post-Patriots game crowds. Creative takes on Mexican standards include tacos, burritos, and enchiladas.

                The restaurant’s ambience, much like a Pats game, is energetic, if not perhaps raucous (the restaurant transforms into a nightclub around 10 PM). The mammoth 7,800 square foot space that seats 300 patrons – formerly occupied by a high-end department store – has been impressively revamped to make one feel as if they’ve been transported to Mexico itself. You half-expect Johnny Depp to join the festivities as Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow given the wood-planked windows adorned with skulls and sangrias playfully served in glass skulls. Wrought-iron chandeliers hang from high, mirrored walls while imported Mexican crosses are in full view. There’s no sign of Toby Keith here (his restaurant looms nearby), as rock and roll music is loud and abundant (be warned: acoustics make for incredibly challenging conversation, particularly with large groups). A giant LED TV rests against one wall while several other hi-def monitors blare at the large bar directly across the room. Security guards monitor the entrance and oddly enough, the hallway to the bathrooms. Scantily clad, seductive waitresses in black tank tops politely – and frequently – ask if you’d like a refill on your cocktail. That aforementioned scorpion bowl actually does make an appearance here, and several tables delightfully sip from their straws on the Patriots-inspired monster-truck of a drink, the Gronkerita (at $44, a homage to the menacing tight end). Even people dressed in dog and unicorn costumes show up (I was expecting Scott Zolak to subsequently appear in a ‘Unicorn and Showponies shirt).

                The menu is laced with items that include an appealing variety of appetizers, such as nicely chili-powder dusted tortilla chips (although the accompanying salsa was disappointingly bland and loose in texture), jalapeno fried ravioli, and a memorable Mexican riff on traditional French fries that was a hit with our table – papas fritas, served with an addictively spicy garlic sauce. Also noteworthy were flaky, meat and potato filled empanadas and carne asada Philly rolls, featuring steak, peppers, balsamic ranch and cream cheese. My one complaint is that the menu, particularly its entrée selections, needs more focus and consolidation. A whole host of steak, chicken and pork offerings exist across taco, burritos, and enchiladas sections, and the menu can be redundant, confusing, and perhaps overwhelming to customers, especially when one is interpreting the difference between street tacos and regular tacos while portion sizes differ by one or two tacos. My personal favorite?: ‘barbacoa’ style pork tacos laced with thinly diced green and red jalapenos, the perfect balance between sweet and spicy flavors that mesh with the succulent meat.

                The list of tequila-filled cocktails, while inventive and tasty enough, are somewhat watered down and not nearly as potent as one would have hoped. Margarita selections range from excessively sweet (coconut) and smooth (the Cadillac blended with Grand Marnier) to spicy (my personal favorite, the Jalapeno blended with pineapple tequila).

                The first iteration of Scorpion Bar took shape at Foxwoods Casino, while plans for a third location are already underway for the Seaport District in late spring/early fall of this year. The connecting theme here? It’s fiesta time. And while Scorpion Bar is far from culinary perfection, the restaurant serves up perfectly enjoyable, reasonably-priced Mexican fare with decent enough cocktails in a relaxed, suburban location. Now if only we could have NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell loosen up and imbibe on that grand Gronkerita.

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.’