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.’

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.