Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Simcha Hopes to Bring Sharon Food Scene to New ‘Heights’

For a town steeped in Israeli heritage, it’s downright shocking that Sharon has for so long failed to land a restaurant that pays proper homage to the exotic Middle Eastern/North African cuisine of its ancestors. That is, until now. Simcha, lovingly named after chef/owner Avi Shemtov’s (a Sharon native himself), and in Hebrew translates to ‘joy,’ recently opened its doors in Sharon Heights (historically, a revolving door of fledgling shops and countless Asian restaurants; hopefully, the eatery will reverse this trend) following its initial manifestation as a Roslindale pop-up. Prior to that, Shemtov – whose father, Yona emigrated from Israel to the States to fulfill his dream of becoming a chef – served more traditional Israeli cuisine (think falafel and shawarma) out of his highly successful Chubby Chickpea foodtruck for nine years. Simcha’s menu, however, veers more towards what is best described as modern Israeli cuisine (i.e.: not your average bubbe’s receipes from the Old World). Think sharable, Middle Eastern-inspired tapas and you’re on the right path.

                Step inside, and the restaurant’s cozy, swanky interior will surprise you. Behind a frosted glass window (in which the skyline of the city of Jerusalem is deftly painted) and a black curtain, you may initially think you’re walking into a secret speakeasy establishment. To the right, there’s a mid-sized bar dimly illuminated by funky lamps that playfully and proudly display Jewish star insignias. The main dining room is tiny, yet intimate, seating roughly two dozen patrons. The restaurant’s name is boldly painted along the left wall, along with the mysterious punim of a woman (my guess is it’s Shemtov’s grandmother). The restaurant’s inviting color schemes are beige and brown (including the brown formal table cloths), replicating the color of plump, airy, warm, and incredibly delicious complimentary pitas that are served piping hot out of the massive giant oven from which smoky aromas permeate the air.

                Shemtov’s creative menu is broken out into three sections: Salatim (small bites), Mezze (larger, sharable tapas), and Something Larger (entrée-size). Starting with the Salatim, while the hummus ($13) is light and creamy, consisting of Maine soldier beans tinged with tahini, garlic and evoo, it’s disappointingly bland and could benefit from additional seasoning. Also, there could simply be much more of it rendered on the plate to support the three aforementioned pitas (it’s barely enough for two). I’m always of fan of establishments that utilize locally sourced products, and Shemtov makes fine use of nearby Ward Farm’s carrot sticks ($13). Perhaps, though, the menu item should be labeled carrot stick (singular). While I admired the char on the vegetable and the unique flavors stemming from orange blossom syrup and Moroccan spices, it appeared that one carrot was sliced into several scrawny sticks. Carrots are a relatively cheap vegetable to purchase, so why is Simcha skimping on portion size here? I experienced this very problem with the seared eggplant ($12), pan seared and whose flavors generally popped with roasted red peppers and smoked onion puree with balsamic. But if you asked me if I could delineate between a trio of Indian, Thai and Chinese varieties that the menu insists are there, then you’re a more astute diner than I (one version was decent while another was excessively bitter to the degree of burnt).

                Mezze fare better, including a generous portion of calamari ($16), whose fresh tentacles and rings have a nicely balanced texture between the crunchy crackle of a lightly breaded exterior and the squishy tenderness of the fish’s interior. The dish is further enhanced by a welcomed, heated spike of zhoug, a chili-pepper and garlic infused hot sauce originating in Yemenite cuisine. My personal favorite menu item is Shemtov’s innovative Middle Eastern riff on traditional French fries, this time served up as fried rutabaga ($9), doused with a delectable pomegranate molasses sauce that I was reluctant to share. Short rib poutine ($13), however, was another downer given its (sense a theme here?) inadequate portion of chickpea polenta fries topped with meat that (you guessed it) lacked seasoning that would have invigorated the otherwise creamy potato slivers that were nicely plated tic-tac-toe style.

                Having sampled the Yemenite fried chicken ($24) entrée, it’s easy to understand why it’s Simcha’s staple dish (although it doesn’t quite reach the flavor profile pinnacle that those wonderful rutabaga fries had achieved). The bird is brined and battered in chickpea flour, unapologetically cooked in gluttonous schmaltz (chicken fat) to moisten and enhance the white and dark meat’s flavor, and dipped in a vibrant, zesty pool of red zhoug.

                Desserts were a mixed bag. A semi-dry chocolate lava cake was much too hastily brought tableside (our generally knowledgeable and affable server, during his lone misstep of the evening, stated that it was a leftover slice from an anniversary cake baked moments before), whereas a giant, marshmallow-infused whoopie pie drew praise across our table. Regardless, it was a bit baffling that none of these selections drew from Middle Eastern influences.

                A small, select list of cocktails were well executed (including a spicy jalapeno infused margarita and a refreshing bourbon blended with brown sugar lemonade with candied lemon peel), but at $13 a pop, I would expect a far more generous pour of alcohol in my concoction in lieu of over half of my glass packed with ice. An interesting offering of craft beers – both canned and on tap – span across the New England region, including a double IPA from Fall River.

                I am rooting for Simcha to succeed. The town of Sharon has been clamoring for an upscale eatery for years and it appears to have finally arrived. Shemtov and his energetic team are undoubtedly giving Simcha along with the local dining community their best shot. With some minor tweaks in the kitchen and a slight reduction in price points to more accurately reflect their portion sizes, this eatery will then become a simcha to behold.


Saturday, March 16, 2019

Blessed Union of History and Cuisine in Foxborough

Sometimes, it's comforting to take a friend's advice – particularly as it relates to comfort food. Having recently dined out with some of mine recently, they were eager to highlight an upscale American restaurant, Union Straw, that had recently opened in Foxborough Common, and what a positive dining experience they had. It piqued my culinary curiosity, to say the least.

Union Straw’s owners understand and pay a respectful nod towards the town's history. Their establishment is named after Union Straw Works, a factory that once employed thousands of workers and was situated a couple of blocks away. The factory put Foxborough on the map as a major force in commerce and industry until its demise by fire in 1900. The eatery itself is housed in a space previously occupied by the Foxborough American Legion Post 93. Union’s interior gives way to a much larger building than its quaint external appearance portends, sleekly extending from front to back (a lively bar to the left, a dining room to the right, and a smaller dining area at the rear) and possessing a rustic, yet contemporary charm, with trussed beams and gleaming hardwood floors. My only complaint with the building? A lack of parking spaces, which gleaming through the general manager's responses to recent diner reviews, the Union team appears to be working on rectifying with town officials (I'll bet the American Legion never anticipated such a crowd!).

While the cuisine is characterized as upscale American, the offerings – created and flawlessly executed by talented Executive Chef Jenn Mekler along with a talented, up-and-coming Executive Sous Chef Kam Booth- are frequently fun, unpretentious, inventive riffs on American classics. If you can work your way through a perplexingly large number of paper menus (again, the restaurant is working through these minor hiccups), you'll find exciting flatbreads including the Sweet and Savory ($14), a nicely crisped pie with fig jam, caramelized onions, balsamic reduction, creamy ricotta, and a boatload of prosciutto that struck the perfect balanced flavor trio of saltiness, tartness, and sweetness. A pair of pulled chicken sliders ($10) also impressed, the bird moist in texture and slathered with dry rub, housemade quickles and embedded within a warm mini Ciabbata roll. A heaping, vertical stack of piping hot parmesan frites ($9) doused with garlic aioli and served with spicy ketchup were also quickly consumed. Salads, too, often playing second fiddle to more exciting (i.e. meaty) menu options, left a mark, including the PBG ($10), a fresh harbinger of spring with its lively mix of pear, bacon, and goat cheese.

The restaurant insists on its website that patrons are welcomed to eat only dessert if they so choose. I highly encourage every reader to come to Union Straw if not for their innovative, delectable selections, including ice cream made in-house, including mint chocolate chip and coconut (with fresh coconut slices meshed inside each scoop). Selecting the latter flavor to accompany a coconut rum cake was one of my finest dining choices in recent memory. This version wasn’t your traditionally dense, cold, rum-soaked version from Montilio’s which I adore), but rather, a fluffier, warmed, moist take. A special of molten chocolate cake with toffee crunch was even more decadent, along with a potent pot de crème packed with welcomed, strikingly bitter notes of dark chocolate.

Union’s cocktail program is also not to be missed, including a unique, extensive beer program that featured a special peanut butter milk chocolate stout hailing from Maine. Inventive, potent libations included a pomegranate Manhattan ($12) and a cranberry Old Fashioned ($11).

For such a relatively new establishment, service was incredibly polished, attentive, and friendly. It’s no surprise how downright homey and hospitable the staff is, which can partially be attributed to the oversight of General Manager Steve Pesek, a seasoned restauranteur who most recently managed the ticket holder space at Target Field in Minnesota. Given Union’s lively ambience and exciting menu, this certainly will not be the last ‘straw’ for me (along with my friends, of course) at this new suburban dining hotspot.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Square Kitchen & Bar Takes Shape in Suburban Sharon

Irrespective of longtime culinary staple Coriander (once a premiere French-inspired dining destination from the owners of Westwood’s Chiara Bistro and for the past several years a very suitable spot serving refined Indian cuisine but less than refined service), Sharon Center has widely been considered a ghost town for fine dining, an inconceivable notion for such an affluent suburban community. Now that longtime liquor laws have been relaxed, and Sharon’s cultural demographics have expanded over the years, the timing seemed perfect for the owners of gastropub Square Kitchen & Bar to lay down their roots in the space previously occupied by pizza joint, Pizzigando.

What should, however, serve as the eatery’s primary attraction and draw is the arrival of acclaimed local chef Rachel Klein, who oversees a smaller, yet focused and inspired menu that should appeal to the masses. Klein, lest foodies forget, has been a rising superstar over the years, having helmed the kitchens at Cambridge’s late, lamented Om (would that legendary deconstructed Caesar salad be up for revival?), Boston Seaport Hotel’s Aura, the sadly shuttered, yet boundary-pushing Liquid Art House, and her recent venture in her hometown of Needham, RFK Kitchen. She has also brought her creative flair to the menu at Providence’s beloved Red Stripe restaurant. Sharon and local diners everywhere are now fortunate to welcome her into a new location in which she can showcase her dynamic culinary skills.

Square’s ambience is intimate and lively. The owner – a Sharon local - happily greets and converses with customers, several of whom chat away at an L-shaped bar with the restaurant’s logo brightly illuminated on a neon sign. Exposed brick walls provide rustic charm to an otherwise modern space. Large glass windows enable customers to view Sharon Square while allowing people outside to peer in and witness the festivities inside.  Several locals - families and singles alike – pleasantly run into one one another, seemingly relieved that their town finally has a dining hotspot they can frequent. My one quibble is that the supply of the venue’s space does not match the demand of customers – translation: seating is a bit cramped. Service, too, falls a bit flat and is somewhat unpolished one evening (waiting forty minutes for our drinks to arrive from the bar), but that is to be expected upon a restaurant’s grand opening and I fully anticipate those types of shortcomings to quickly be ironed out by the management team.

The menu is broken out into creative sections (seafood: Raw & Once Was Raw; tapas-inspired fare: Come Share With Me; salads: All Things Green, more popular bowl portion, a handful of entrees, and burgers). Prices are reasonable for high end pub food while portions are generous. While the accompanying smoked chipotle aioli sauce proved to be merely satisfactory, the zing of cherry peppers and the tartness of pear tomatoes provided a nice contrast in flavors for the crunchy calamari ($13). That same aioli was utilized for street tacos ($14), consisting of three flour tortillas packed with raw tuna cubes. A little more seasoning to the fish would have elevated the dish.

Very popular amongst my dining companions were the Big Bowls ($15-$17), including the zesty Cuban Mama comprised of an innovative confluence of garlic and lime brown rice, crispy tortilla, picadillo, sugar roasted tomato, cabbage slaw, and avocado. Klein and her team are wise to insert these types of healthy options on the menu, which are very popular nowadays with more health-conscious consumers.

But if it’s carbs you’re seeking, look no further than the Red Eye Burger ($15), unquestionably my favorite item currently on Square’s menu. This black angus baby is grilled medium rare to perfection, the juices wonderfully seeping from the meat and into the brioche bun, topped with delectable bacon jam, cheddar cheese, watercress, and a subtle, yet satisfying espresso mayo (trust me, it’s divine). Paired  with the kitchen’s handcut truffle fries and you’ll forget all about Five Guys. This patty may very well match up to some of Boston’s best burgers (Craigie on Main and Alden and Harlow come to mind).


If you have room for dessert ($11), Square is nice enough to recognize and honor Sharon’s wildly popular and legendary ice cream establishment, Crescent Ridge, by serving its ice cream and sorbet. Take for instance, a black bean ice cream paired with a brownie sundae, which Klein insists we take home with us to sample.

The bar whips up approximately a handful of creative cocktails ($11), including a vanilla bean bourbon Manhattan, the same amount of red and white wines (primarily from California), while offering an extensive list of intriguing craft beer selections (many of which are sourced from local breweries). My favorites included Hingham’s Tempest IPA (Shakesbeer Brewery) and a bourbon barrel ale from Lexington, KY.

In the words of the immortal pop rock artist, Huey Lewis, it’s hip to be square. In the hands of chef Klein, Square Kitchen & Bar is quickly reshaping Sharon’s dining scene.



Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Mediterranean Cuisine Comes Ashore to Suburbs at Chiara Bistro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, December 18, 2017

Dining at Eataly’s Terra a Guilty Pleasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, August 5, 2017

Liquid Art House is a Culinary Masterpiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Disappointments Abound at Corfinio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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