Friday, May 18, 2007

Loco is crazy good!

Venturing into Loco, a quaint, little tapas and wine bar situated directly off of busy Route 138 in South Easton, MA, Paul’s Palate initially feared the worst. Only because on an evening in which torrential downpours and blackened skies dominated the landscape, this superstitious soul felt that the hostile weather pattern presented an ominous sign in terms of an enjoyable dining experience. Would this reviewer ultimately go “loco (spanish term for crazy)” over Loco or would he be left uttering the phrase “Nunca Mas (never again)?”

Fortunately, my deepest fears are immediately allayed upon arrival. Loco’s unique atmosphere can be attributed to its blend of warmth and intimacy. With its pristine interior, walls splattered in dark red hues, a copper bar, dimmed lighting, authentic Spanish songs playing aloud, and a relatively smaller-sized, cozy dining area, Loco exudes a hip, romantic vibe without being overtly pretentious. Its atmosphere is only enhanced by the attentiveness and friendliness of the wait staff, all of whom make diners feel welcomed and right at home. Our server is particularly good this evening, proving accurate in her culinary recommendations and her casual manner. This evening, the Executive Chef even goes out of her way, jovially making tableside rounds to ensure that her customers are content. Meanwhile, Loco’s co-owner is in the kitchen whipping up an array of potentially delectable dishes that make me reminisce about the Spanish cuisine I adored several years ago during my year spent abroad in Seville, Spain. Would Loco’s cuisine live up to such lofty expectations?

Cocktails are memorable, though we do get off to a rather auspicious start. The Manhattan, with its combination of whisky and Spanish sherry, sounds promising, but an excess of the former makes for an unbearably strong beverage. My wife cannot even bring her lips to the glass, overwhelmed by the intense aromas of the whisky. With the sincerest of apologies from our server, the Manhattan is swiftly taken away, and I proceed to order a much more enjoyable mojito, a cool, crisp mix of Spanish rum doused with fresh mint. My spouse’s Key Lime martini comes highly recommended, and for good reason. This concoction is sweet, light, and not too heavy on the stomach, a fate that befalls many dessert cocktails in other establishments. The home-made sangria falls a bit flat given its surprising lack of sweetness, leaving a pungent aftertaste.

As a mini-starter (“pinchos”), we share pan de tomaquet (catalan garlic and tomato rubbed bread), a zesty dish that leaves us wondering why we nibbled on the complimentary bread from Iggy’s in Cambridge - as good as it was - in the first place. From there, we proceed to sip on a light, refreshing bowl of gazpacho a la barceloneta (gazpacho of Barcelona) as our tapa fria (cold tapa), which is a delightful orange-colored soup that proves not too creamy and packs a peppery punch.

In lieu of entrees (platos principales), many of which appear tempting (such as the paella and rioja braised beef short ribs), we decide to experiment with several smaller hot tapa (tapas calientes) dishes. The first and most intriguing of these that arrive are the mojito marinated chicken and beef skewers with grilled lime. While the presentation is a plus given that the dish is accompanied by a mojito shooter and the skewers are served in triangular fashion, the meat itself is disappointing, particularly the chicken, which is prepared on the dry side. Next come the seared diver scallops with spiced grapefruit relish. Although the relish tag proves slightly misleading in that it is comes in the form of a juice, this dish wins us over, as the scallops are succulent and perfectly cooked, absorbing the tangy bitterness of the grapefruit. The tortilla espanol (Spanish egg and potato omelet with romesco sauce) is equally enjoyable, and its accompanying spicy romesco sauce make this dish sizzle. Lastly, the duo of pork dish, which includes rioja braised bbq pork and seared tenderloin, is tasty, though my spouse and I unanimously prefer the former, wishing we could consume just the tangy, moist pork alone.

To finish, we split a heavenly trio of warmed churros, a Spanish dessert (postre) consisting of dough, subsequently dipped in chocolate ice cream with flecks of cocoa. These doughy delights are some of the best I’ve tasted, including those from Seville. A healthy infusion of café con leche (Spanish coffee and espresso blend with steamed milk) washes away all traces of the churros, and my spouse and I are ultimately content with the conclusion of what has to be considered by and large a successful dining experience.

Value rates well for Loco. From a price perspective, small tapa dishes range from $3-6, while the majority of hot and cold tapa plates run from $5-10. Main entrees fluctuate from $15-29. And of course, one cannot put a price on the quality of authentic Spanish cuisine. This reviewer certainly hopes that surrounding towns rapidly catch wind of this eclectic eatery. Might Paul’s Palate return for an encore? I’d be “loco” not to.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Aquitaine Bis is a slight miss

This secret reviewer rightfully holds lofty expectations for Aquitaine Bis, sister restaurant to its beloved flagship establishment in Boston’s South End. Located in a small plaza off of busy Route 9 in Chestnut Hill, Paul’s Palate wonders if the buzz over this bistro is warranted. Besides, its previous occupant, Bella Luna, was a staple of fine dining for years in this community. Would Paul’s Palate find a worthy heir apparent in Aquitaine Bis?

Arriving a few minutes early, my wife and I meander to the bar area, where we dejectedly learn that no martini menus exist. I request an espresso martini, which is rich in taste, not too thick, and does not possess a surplus of vodka, which often ruins this mixed drink. My spouse orders a margherita, whose potent tequila flavor emerges without being overly sweet. Along the way, we soak in the restaurant’s intimate, if not somewhat gloomy atmosphere, which includes dimmed lighting and dark leather seating. We are informed that our table is now ready and we quickly proceed to our seats, hunger pangs and all.

We are bewildered to learn from our server that my wife cannot delve into any of the appetizers due to each item containing dairy products. This is particularly troubling because this reviewer has called ahead of time and is told that the kitchen can in fact accommodate patrons who have this particular allergy. Even more exasperating is the fact that our server brings us what appears to be a zesty plate of sage gnocci dusted with cheese. We ultimately decide upon the escargots de bourguignonne with garlic and herb butter and brioche toast, and the snails’ buttery squirminess assuages whatever frustrations we have about the aforementioned culinary faux pas.

We carnivorously devour the flesh from our meaty entrees, mine being the highly regarded steak frites. The thinly cut steak strips are perfectly cooked, succulent and sweet, given that they are drizzled with meat juice and perigord black truffle vinaigrette. The accompanying watercress shallot salad is rather bland in comparison, and seems to be the dish’s lone oddity. The dish’s other side, however, the slightly salty, crispy frites (special take on french fries), proves to be more memorable. In lieu of the ketchup bottle, this reviewer contently dips his fried friends into the meat’s juices. My wife’s veal osso bucco is equally delectable, falling right off the bone and melting into the mouth, though she cannot resist taking sporadic bites of the irresistibly scrumptious steak dish that rests across the table.

Dessert, however, is an utter disaster. The warm chocolate pudding cake is overcooked, the cake dried out and the hot pudding center itself evaporated. For a bistro that prides itself on simplistic takes on elegant dishes, how, pray tell, do they manage to botch such a simple concoction as warmed chocolate cake?

Dining at Aquitaine proves to be a rather expensive proposition for my money’s worth. Although the quality of the fare is above-average, it is not strong enough to sustain a hefty price tag ranging between $26-$34 per entrée. Also a factor: medium-sized portions that leave us licking our plates and yearning for one or two additional bites of each dish. Does Paul’s Palate enjoy an evening at Aquitaine? Sure, but you certainly won’t see this caped critic doing somersaults to return there any time soon.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Steak and cheese? Puh-leeze. Try the Parish Cafe...

Sandwiches do not typically evoke much excitement from this reviewer given the unwarranted mass appeal of retail chains that include D’Angelos, Quiznos, and Subway. One surprising alternative, however, the Parish Café, resides in Boston. Situated directly on bustling Boylston Street, this establishment elevates sandwiches to an art form by consulting with several local culinary giants - including Radius chef/owner Michael Schlow and Blue Ginger’s celebrity chef/owner Ming Tsai – who provide their own unique variations on the often substandard sandwich. Did this experimentation ultimately appeal to Paul’s Palate or would I simply be left craving a measly steak and cheese sub at D’Angelos?

Although the café’s dining area is somewhat crammed and one must nearly resort to shouting in order to be heard, the atmosphere is rather relaxed once we settle in to our table. Given the busy environment of the restaurant, the wait staff is friendly, albeit interchangeable. While these comings and goings smoothly keep our meal moving at a pleasant pace, they do diminish our overall satisfaction level with service. There is something to be said for developing a rapport with one, and not several, attentive servers.

Our meal begins with one of the most memorable appetizers I can recall tasting. We munch away on the heralded roasted reggae wings, which come marinated in a potent blend of Jamaican jerk spices, fresh citrus and soy. The amount meat on these wings is generous and extremely succulent. As an added bonus, the wings are accompanied by a heavenly concoction of banana-mango chutney. This reviewer could have gnawed on several of these wings and simply called it a day. As the waiter removes this savory dish, we begrudgingly proceed to our entrees.

The sandwiches, however, prove equally delectable, and are simply awe-inspiring given their boldness and combination of flavors. My companion, who is a regular inhabitant here, resorts to what she identifies as “old reliable,” otherwise known as the Zuni Roll. This sandwich, enmeshed in a warmed flour tortilla, contains smoked turkey, bacon, scallions, dill havarti cheese, and cranberry-chipotle sauce, and is as good as it sounds. The turkey is moist and virtually melts in one’s mouth. In an adventurous mood, I decide to order the Schlesinger, aptly named for East Coast Grille’s chef/owner, Chris. This sandwich consists of warm banana-nut bread, smoked ham, Monterey jack cheese, mango chutney, and pickled ginger red cabbage. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t initially feel queasy, if not intrigued by this perplexing combination of ingredients. The result, however, is pure magic. This innovative item is one of the most mouth-watering meals I’ve enjoyed feasting upon, and I suddenly have the urge to walk over to Mr. Schlesinger’s establishment and shake his hand in admiration.

The homemade white chocolate brioche bread pudding brings the meal to a successful conclusion. This dessert is served warm and is sufficiently moist to boot. Fortunately, it does not suffer the fates of similar plates, which include excess heat, syrup and whipped cream, and which are frequently on the heavier side.

Value is just right based upon the flavorful fare to be had. Appetizers range from $8-$12, while sandwiches fluctuate from $12-$15. Not bad, considering this patron would find himself in the poorhouse dining at one of the Parish Cafe’s all-star consultant chef’s main establishments (such as the aforementioned Radius and Blue Ginger). I apologize in advance, D’Angelos, but I believe I’m going to pass on that steak and cheese sub for now. Paul’s Palate can’t bear to take another bite.