Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Alta Strada Reaches New Culinary Heights

An excursion to Alta Strada, a chic, new Italian dining establishment located slightly off of Rte 16 in Wellesley (off of Rte 135, to be exact), proves painstakingly cumbersome. The restaurant’s website is currently under construction, and its occupants appear incapable of providing directions that make any sense. This minute detail leaves this ravenous reviewer debating whether all the fuss over chef/owner Michael Schlow’s expansion into the suburbs is indeed warranted.

Following our half-hour detour, my wife and I meander into a moderately-sized, pristine, brightly-lit room, its walls splashed with vibrant yellow, green, and orange tones. The wooden tables and floors, in addition to interlaced brick walls, create a rustic ambience that meshes well with the otherwise modern décor of the room. On a Monday afternoon, patrons continue to filter in and the atmosphere is lively. It appears that Alta Strada is no longer a secret dining spot.

Our server arrives, instantly apologetic about the confusion over the erroneous directions they have provided. In a surprisingly genuine gesture, she offers us a complimentary side comprised of crisp crostini layered with homemade, red-pepper laced ricotta cheese. Not only are we deeply appreciative of the gesture, but we are left in awe over the superior quality of the ricotta itself, which is refreshingly light. We also munch on an additional crostini dish, this time smothered with fig jam and accompanied by thinly sliced, imported Italian prosciutto. This one is a legitimate show stopper: plainly put, this reviewer would gleefully lose his way on several more occasions if only for a taste of this supreme sampler. Resistance to the silky sweetness of the fig jam alongside the oh-so-fresh prosciutto is futile. Suddenly, this reviewer reaches an epiphany that this dish epitomizes the overall fare at Alta Strada: simplicity, freshness, and perfection over complexity and panache.

We proceed to our pasta entrees, for which chef Schlow is renowned. My wife orders a shrimp dish, which is accompanied by a spicy sauce and homemade spaghetti. The sauce, while pungent, is not overpowering, and carries just the right amount of kick. The generously-sized shrimp are moist, while the pasta is fresh and perfectly cooked al dente. My gnocci dish is equally divine, and I would be content simply gnawing on the plate’s other ingredients, which consist of a scrumptious symphony of tomato sauce, Italian hot sausage, and peas.

Without hesitation, our waitress recommends a homemade fruit torte for dessert, and are we ever glad that she does. This delectable concoction is served warm and moist, light yet rich, and its flaky crust and sweet berry filling are mouth-wateringly good. I must restrain myself from asking our server for additional fig jam from our earler crostini dish. What a perfect conclusion to a perfect meal that would be.

Service is top-notch. Our waitress is pleasant and extremely knowledgeable about the menu items and their ingredients. She is confident, and most importantly, accurate about her food recommendations. She is also attentive to my wife’s dairy allergy, ensuring that the kitchen prepares dishes accordingly.

Must this reviewer place a price on food that is of the utmost quality? Appetizers average between $12-14, pasta entrees around $16-17, and desserts at $7. Let me be the first of many to applaud Mr. Schlow for foregoing the flash of his more famous city eateries (i.e. Great Bay and Radius) and sticking to an age-old culinary formula: simplicity + freshness = delightful dining. Paul’s Palate has never claimed to be a mathematician, but he knows this equation inside and out, and Alta Strada passes this taste test with flying colors.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

This Mockingbird sings

Slightly obscured from Route 18’s path in East Bridgewater, this passerby may easily have missed the Mockingbird Restaurant and Martini Lounge. In fact, upon entering into this fairly upscale establishment’s parking lot, customers can just as easily and mistakenly enter the gravel driveway of a nearby house to the right. This house is awkwardly situated given its proximity to the restaurant, and is on full display from the restaurant’s dining area window. Urban planning gaffes aside, does the Mockingbird make Paul’s Palate sing?

Although visibility is minimal in the entryway, my wife and I are brought into a larger, brighter room that emits a trendy confidence with its contemporary greenish colors, cushy couches, radiant lighting, and cathedral ceilings. The dining area is pristine, not a crumb in sight. We are immediately at ease, introduced to our attentive, courteous, if not slightly loquacious server.

From there, we let the martini marathon begin. This martini bar carries an astronomical assortment of eighty alternatives from which to choose. The Key Lime martini with a graham cracker-laced rim is simply sublime, while the Patriot (Blue Raspberry vodka, Chambord, sour mix, and Sprite) is equally refreshing. The lone disappointment of the bunch is the Aqua Marine (Hpnotiq with crème de banana and pineapple juice), which leaves a strange, sour aftertaste on the palate.

Merry from our martinis, we proceed to our appetizers, which prove to be by and large satisfactory. Although the beef barley is not as hearty as one would hope, the salad is crisp and light, layered with a zesty chardonnay dressing. The bacon-wrapped scallops are a winning dish, served moist, warm, light, and most importantly, scrumptious in a blackberry emulsion.

Entrees are generous in terms of both portion size and taste appeal. The duck is prepared just right (medium rare) and its accompanying pomegranate reduction is pure heaven – neither too sweet nor syrupy. This dish also scores high marks for its unique rice presentation, which is stacked high in a circular fashion. This reviewer, however, questions the logic - or lack thereof - behind including a bland side of spinach with such a rich dish. The roasted veal tenderloin is equally tender and also perfectly cooked, though once again, the pasta seems an oddity here. Minor complaints aside (get it?), the meats in these dishes are the stars and they shine brightly.

Dessert comes in the form of a decadent fallen chocolate torte that effortlessly falls into our mouths. This concoction is moist, warm, and laced with a gooey hot fudge sauce and vanilla ice cream. Dare I say that this chocolate lover’s dream is one of the finest I’ve devoured in quite some time?

Value-wise, Mockingbird cannot be beaten. Martinis and appetizers average out around $7 apiece, while entrees come in at $16. For sheer comfort and quality, that sure beats doling out at least twice that amount for a comparable meal in the city. The Mockingbird leaves Paul’s Palate singing a glorious new tune, and he believes it’s destined to be a hit.