Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pigalle is Worth Squealing About

Paul’s Palate has always enjoyed taking in a show at Boston’s Theatre District. Even more so when it is of the culinary variety. Pigalle, with its chef/co-owner Marc Orfaly and his creative French fusion fare, have long been showered with adulation from foodies and food critics alike. Would this premiere dining destination, named after Paris’s Red Light District, earn this critic’s standing applause or merely a faint handclap?

After sitting for two hours in what seemed like endless traffic the night before Christmas Eve, Pigalle’s alluring ambience was the perfect remedy to his Holiday blues. Though its brick house exterior is rather mundane looking, it’s Pigalle’s quaint Parisian-like interior that makes patrons feel at ease. While some might find the cozy space small and slightly cramped, I found this setting – which included candlelit lighting and walls of chocolate and cream-colored hues – romantically intimate, particularly with festive Holiday music played aloud. With the exception of a disturbingly unkempt and chilly restroom and lack of a bar area (which seated no more than a few customers), Pigalle’s interior exudes charm sans the stuffiness that often accompanies similar establishments.

On such a brisk winter evening, Paul’s Palate was instantly warmed up by the prospect of sipping on a superlative cocktail filled with whiskey, hot apple cider, and cinnamon.

Appetizers were enjoyable, if not slightly flawed. My companion’s arugula salad was filled with crispy pieces of bacon and even tastier fingerling potato chips, an innovative take had not the greens benefitted from a more potent vinaigrette dressing. My pate de porc was perfectly creamy in texture, accompanied by crispy cornichons. The dish was playfully presented in a triangular shape as if it were a painter’s canvas: the pate in the center, the cornichons to one side, while two others included melt-in-your mouth-good Armagnac soaked prunes and a slightly off-putting, superfluous mustard aioli.

Entrees are where Chef Orfaly flexes his culinary muscle. His cooking style is widely admired, but rarely reciprocated. His secret: uniquely cooking meats in their own fat, which greatly enhances the flavors of his dishes. And there are lots of flavors hitting the palate here. Take, for instance, Pigalle’s coq au vin, a bacon wrapped chicken breast with sautéed greens and bacon. Not only is this some of the most tender chicken this reviewer has ever devoured (and that’s no small feat), but it is also accompanied by a succulent side of pearl onions and mushrooms en croute (a flaky vegetable pop tart, if you will). My sweet potato tortelloni is unlike any pasta I’ve sampled in recent memory, its insides only subtly sweet, while layered with brown butter, sage, and tender confit duck (its fat congeals nicely to the top of the dish). If there is one downside to Orfaly’s fireworks of flavor, his dishes may prove to be too rich (i.e. heavy/dense) for those who are unaccustomed to consuming food prepared in this technique.

Desserts bring the meal to a satisfying conclusion. The apple strudel sounds promising, with its golden raisins, candied walnuts, and cinnamon ice cream. It is only mildly enjoyable, however, resembling nothing more than a petite apple croissant. The pastry possessed little fruit flavor and excess flakiness, not only making it somewhat difficult to eat, but also making it difficult to distinguish some of the other key ingredients. The accompanying cinnamon ice cream was nothing more than s tiny dollop of vanilla atop cinnamon crumble, a fanciful idea that doesn’t quite hit its mark. On the other hand, my companion’s rhubarb crisp, is heavenly comfort food for the soul, perfectly tart, warmed, and topped with a sensationally potent compliment of tropical fruit sorbet.
Bottom line is this: Pigalle is a place where Paul’s Palate isn’t afraid to pig out. Given Chef Orfaly’s inspiring, innovative menu, satisfactory service (a knowledgeable, nice-enough server with impeccable menu recommendations) and a reasonable pricetag ($40 for a 3-course stimulus menu) during these touch economic times, this Theatre District gem deserves an encore.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mount Blue Fails to Reach Culinary Heights

Mount Blue, a 12-year-old restaurant situated in the quaint, affluent community of Norwell, MA, once brought out Paul’s Palate inner rock star. It’s no wonder why: local rock legend Steven Tyler of Aerosmith was once its part-owner, and the high level of craziness and excitement that accompanied both his music and personal life was successfully channeled into his establishment’s eclectic décor and menu selection. Would current owner Jayne Bowe’s cuisine persuade Paul’s Palate to scale any mountain or would it demonstrate that Mount Blue’s culinary reputation has already ‘peaked?’

Given his most recent visit to Mount Blue, it was immediately evident that Paul’s Palate needed to be rescued immediately from its avalanche of mediocrity. While cocktails were adequate - particularly the hearty espresso martini - a $10-12 pricetag per beverage was exorbitantly high given the casual, suburban setting. Moreover, the embarrassed bartender conceded that several ingredients in some of the other cocktails we preferred were out of stock.

Appetizers fared the strongest over the course of the evening. Meaty buffalo chicken wings possessed a nice amount of heat, while calamari were accompanied by a subtly sweet soy dipping sauce. The grilled flatbread pizza was the standout amongst these dishes, with just the right amount of crisp and sprinkled with basil. The lone disappointment was the mini shrimp quesadillas, which were extremely doughy and whose shrimp must have been so miniscule that Paul’s Palate barely tasted them.

Entrees verged on disastrous. Whereas the spicy! Mount blue pad thai succeeded meshing together sweet and sour ingredients with a kick (including peanuts, cilantro, and mint), the 12 ounce cut of Angus steak was fatty and not prepared to order (more medium well than medium rare). In addition, its accompanying béarnaise sauce was surprisingly bland. An excessive amount of salt, particularly evident on the side order of asparagus, made much of the dish inedible (an eating companion tried an asparagus tip, only to immediately spit it out). An acclaimed chef such as Melinda Lynch (previously of Tosca and Rustic Kitchen) should know that less is more. A seemingly unique menu item, the haddock saltimbocca, is also devoid of any distinct taste, in light of its promising prosciutto and sage exterior.

Although desserts are typically Paul’s Palate’s favorite course of the meal and often are impervious to his harsh criticism, Mount Blue’s version manages just that. A Black Forest cake is bafflingly the sole offering that evening, and it is nothing more than a fancy name for a warmed-up, slightly raw (sugar gristles in Paul’s Palate’s teeth) brownie douzed with chocolate syrup. In fact, My question to Chef Lynch is this: how does one make a chocolate concoction so unappealing?

Paul’s Palate’s recommendation: the owners of Mount Blue should immediately consult with Steven Tyler in order to regain its swagger. During this most recent excursion, our party was the only one seated all evening. This might be the sign of a struggling economy, a restaurant still struggling to find its own identity, or perhaps both. One thing is for certain: in the words of our beloved frontman, Mr. Tyler, Mount Blue is perilously ‘living on the edge.’ Like Aerosmith in the 1980’s, Paul’s Palate hopes there is a comeback left in what he once considered one of the South Shore’s most exciting dining destinations.

Monday, November 17, 2008

This Maxwell is 'Smart'

I’ve always been an avid fan of the old TV show-turned-hit-movie Get Smart, particularly of its protagonist, agent Maxwell Smart. And while he may not always get the girl or foil a world takeover plot like Smart, Paul’s Palate finds no mission impossible when it comes to seeking out fantastic fare. This starving spy went undercover to sample the oft-praised gourmet cuisine at Maxwell’s 148 in Natick. Would this prove to be a ‘smart’ decision?

With its cream and bronze tiles, crystals chandeliers, velvet curtains, and hydro rock gardens, Maxwell’s upscale, yet inviting ambience is luxuriously feng shui. It’s a surprisingly successful blend between the opulence of the Oak Room and the relaxation one finds in a day spa. For spies like us, this atmosphere could sabotage our entire mission. After all, there is literally no dirt to be dug up here (from the tiles to the tables, Maxwell’s interior is utterly pristine). Nor does there exist the opportunity to conduct our covert operation here: the wonderfully affable, super-attentive wait staff left neither a napkin unfolded nor water glass unfilled. The copper plated menus were also a lavish touch that did not go unnoticed during this spy’s supper surveillance. How could I possibly maintain my cover when I was instantly made to feel so special?

While Agent 007 may prefer his martini prepared in a universally known manner, this agent prefers Maxwell’s Fig 148, a unique cocktail consisting of house infused vodka, Kahlua, Cointreau, and topped with a subtle layer of cream. It’s a moderately sweet, light cocktail whose daring combination of licquers left Paul’s Palate shaken, but not stirred.

Appetizers provided a nice start to the evening. The heavily hyped Pho Max soup achieved maximum points for taste: the lobster broth subtly brought out the crustacean’s flavor, while succulent shrimp and crab dumplings were nice creative garnishes. Clams in spicy tomato sauce, although prepared on the milder side, were also appealing.

The Italian, Asian, and French-inspired entrees soared. Gnocchi al tartufo was a marvel of a dish, and worth every penny of its considerable cost ($45). While this house-made pasta was filled with creamy ricotta cheese, it was thankfully not nearly as heavy on the stomach as one would have anticipated. The gnocchi was well complimented by an abundance of beautifully cooked, succulent chunks of Maine lobster, whose sweetness was balanced by the tartness of ethereal shaved summer truffles. My wife’s grilled Portobello mushrooms were perfectly prepared in a sweet ginger-soy sauce and accompanied by crispy Indonesian noodles, whose crunchy texture provided a nice contrast to the mushroom’s silkiness. Another dining companion lauded the Catch in a Bag, which consisted of a flaky, buttery cod with shrimp stuffing, Asian vegetables, and hoison glaze. What was the secret to transforming a rather ordinary tasting fish into something extraordinary? Maxwell’s kitchen staff takes the innovative approach of cooking and presenting the fish in rice paper. Ancient Chinese secret, indeed.

Dessert served as an exciting finale to our appetizing adventure. Our knowledgeable, patient server strongly encouraged me to order the banana caramel cake. This concoction resembled a superior version of sponge cake, which was spiked with licquer, stuffed with gooey, baked-in bananas, and doused with rich caramel sauce. It was light, decadent, and for this spy, worth dying for.

Following his perilous mission, Paul’s Palate believes the ‘smart’ money would be on dining at Maxwell’s 148. Sure, price-wise, it’s bit of a splurge (cocktails average $12, appetizers $12-14, most entrees from $25-30, and steaks at $45). For eclectic, sophisticated cuisine and top-of-the-line service bordering on pampering, however, this is money well spent (3-course $29.99 prixe fixe meals during the week are also worth checking out). Free parking in the rear of the building certainly helps matters. To quote an old James Bond film title, one should Never Say Never Again to Maxwell 148 when seeking that special occasion dining destination. It’s no secret that this restaurant has accomplished its culinary mission.

Monday, November 10, 2008

This Vintage Leaves Sour Taste

When West Roxbury’s Vintage opened its doors a couple of years ago, its arrival had South Shore diners abuzz. After all, an upscale, yet affordable steakhouse was a rare find (no pun intended). Vintage also lived up to its very definition: its ambience and fare were characterized by excellence, maturity and enduring appeal. Well, save for the last part: co-owner Jeffrey Fournier, who heads the highly esteemed 51 Lincoln in Newtonville, abruptly parted ways with the restaurant’s founding owners, leaving Vintage with a bit of an identity crisis and ultimately forcing its short-term closure. It now boasts a new ownership team, a revitalized menu, and even cheaper prices. Would Paul’s Palate find that this particular Vintage has aged well over time or would this establishment leave a sour taste in his mouth?

One thing is blatantly obvious: Vintage’s menu selection has undergone a drastic makeover. In lieu of quality cuts of steak tailored for the more carnivorous crowd, Executive Chef Brian Roskow and Sous Chef Claudinei Desouza have opted for a more eclectic selection of culinary offerings that include a variety of pastas, pizzas, meats, and seafood. These meals are presented as ‘family style dining,’ and the menu has more of an American Italian feel to it than its predecessor’s New American theme.

Vintage should be commended for its attempt to serve Halloween-inspired cocktails. Those that we sampled, however, were downright ghastly, as both concoctions possessed exorbitant amounts of straight alcohol while lacking any distinct, sweet flavor.

Appetizers were only a slight improvement. Calamari fritte were thankfully not overly fried and doughy, and yet were disappointingly bland and forgettable. Sam Adams-steamed mussels fared much better and the ale-flavored broth made for a wonderfully succulent, soppy dipping sauce for accompanying pieces of buttery garlic bread. My lone complaint of this dish was that it lacked muscles – ahem, mussels, since three shells were mysteriously devoid of the tasty mollusks.

Entrees were equally hit-or-miss. My wife’s veal parmigiana (sans cheese given my wife’s dairy allergy) was lightly breaded, lean, and perfectly cooked, not to mention the zesty red sauce in which it was slathered. A companion and I, however, order woefully overcooked seared rare ahi tuna (our deeply apologetic server informs us that the kitchen has had continuous problems that evening preparing this dish). In addition, a heaping side of ratatouille, while tasty, was an awkward, heavy pairing that simply overwhelmed the tuna’s light consistency.

Desserts, however, almost made this reviewer forget the evening’s prior culinary miscues. A flourless molten chocolate cake erupted with piping hot chocolate, and was one of the finest I’ve consumed in recent memory. For the more health conscious, a champagne-soaked pear doused with caramel and whipped cream was a light, yet comforting consolation prize.

Although its prices are better than ever (appetizers from $8-12, most pastas and meats ranging between $15-25), Vintage’s overall value appears to have depreciated over time given the substandard quality of its food. Clearly, its fare lacks the confidence and experimental touch of Fournier, its former proprietor. If tradition is what the new owners are staking their claim upon, their dishes must shine. Unfortunately, Paul’s Palate has found that Vintage’s initial, promising luster has worn off.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Is this 'Fireplace' Blowing Smoke?

The Fireplace, located in the heart of Washington Square (Beacon St) in Brookline, has been a popular dining destination to which many locals have flocked since its inception in 2001. Owner/chef Jim Solomon’s restaurant has received numerous accolades for his New American menu whose emphasis is placed upon wood-smoked and rotisserie-style comfort food. But did you know that the Fireplace offers up a much-revered brunch menu? Neither did Paul’s Palate. He therefore decided to conduct a surprise emergency inspection to more accurately gauge whether this Fireplace’s brunch runs hot or cold.

The eatery’s ambience is a tad perplexing. Its copper and wrought iron space, which is accentuated by a large fireplace, certainly feels homey enough. The restaurant resides, however, on two levels, and seating on the first floor is tight. Also, the cathedral-like ceilings and accompanying acoustics appear to contradict Solomon’s intention of creating a more intimate atmosphere.

Minor architectural gaffes aside, the food is what my inspection truly revolves around, and overall, I am pleased to report in my findings that the Fireplace receives a passing grade. For starters, a cup of scallop and clam chowder is a real-crowd pleaser given its creamy consistency and heaping portions of scallops and bacon. The only shortcoming I could find is that I should have ordered an entire bowl. A sampling of the chilled summer gazpacho also passes my taste bud test with flying colors, as it is refreshingly light but packs just enough zip.

Entrees are equally good, and demonstrate how Solomon is able to elevate basic comfort food by infusing them with a burst of unique, mouth-watering ingredients. Checking your calories? Have a fig, peach and apple salad with frisee, arugula, candied almonds laced with strawberry vinaigrette. If cholesterol is not an issue, how about challah French toast with apricot almond cheese? Want to stick with the bread family? The show-stopper of the meal is a portion of crispy corn waffles soaked with rum, bananas, brown sugar, and apple cider syrup. This is one of those signature dishes where one’s eyes close in total bliss.

This inspector, however, found a couple of items not to his liking, and had it not been for the overall quality of the final product, he may well have shut this operation down. For one, our empty water glasses and coffee cups were too often neglected by our server. Second, the kitchen itself might benefit from a real health inspector, as evidenced by an initial serving of waffles that came out inedibly cold, while a small pitcher of cream was slightly curdled. These errors were swiftly rectified, apologies were immediately and sincerely issued by the manager, and order was restored in brunch universe.

Value-wise, the Fireplace gives me a warm, toasty feeling. Appetizers range from $6-$9, while entrees average between $10-$12. As long as Paul’s Palate isn’t burning through his wallet for an above-average breakfast, this is a cozy ‘Fireplace’ he finds much to his liking.

Hip to Be 'Square'

Nowadays, Paul’s Palate’s memory seems to fade in and out like the waves of the ocean sea. How convenient, then, that I am miraculously able to recall my dining experience several years ago at an eatery that lies but a stone’s throw away from this body of water? Square Café, located directly in the heart of Hingham Center, is the brainchild of Patty Libby, former partner/owner of nearby culinary competitor and equally esteemed Tosca. If memory serves me correctly, Libby’s New American menu at that time focused on traditional dishes accompanied by hints of modern panache and a wealth of fresh flavors. This time out, would Paul’s Palate find himself singing Huey Lewis’s eighties anthem ‘Hip to Be Square’ or find himself merely running in circles?

Immediately upon arrival, our dinner party is warmly greeted with open arms, and made to feel like part of Square Café’s extended, if not somewhat likeably dysfunctional family. In fact, the host shouts aloud his attraction to my two-toned loafers, and humorously implies that he cannot seat us until I divulge where I’ve purchased them. Once this matter is settled, we are promptly seated at our table. The café’s interior has the soothing effect of an upscale health spa given its cherry floors, custom furniture, vintage botanicals and warm pastel green walls and seats. On Square Café’s website, its cuisine is even described as ‘food to nourish the soul.’ It’s as if Deepak Chopra and Dionne Warwick decided to open up this semi-spiritual, new-age establishment.

Like the café’s ambience, cocktails are equally quirky and appealing. Forget that boring dirty martini. How about sampling a fun, fruity trio of guava-mango, blood orange, and cantaloupe martinis? Similar to Square Café’s ambience, these drink’s flavors are sweet, but not offensively so.

Appetizers entice us further. Appearances can certainly be deceiving upon initial glance. For instance, offerings that include pork and vegetable spring rolls, shrimp and vegetable tempura, calamari, and shrimp and crab cakes sound as they originate from more commonplace (though respectable) food chains such as Chinatown or Legal Sea Food. Blink, however, and you may miss some of the most unique combinations of ingredients which make these dishes come alive: a light, zesty chili lemongrass sauce (for the spring roll); a smorgasbord of lightly-breaded sweet potatoes, green beans, peppers, zucchini, and onions and a sweet soy dipping sauce (tempura); grapefruit, papaya, and roasted cashews (calamari). Executive Chef Andrea Schnell’s exceptional culinary skills are on full display given her willingness to experiment with such bold, fresh combinations.

Schnell’s creativity sneaks into her entrees as well, which are split into small and large plates. Shrimp on its own would be so laissez-faire. Square Café prepares it hot and sweet, accompanied by simply divine mango fried rice, which could be served as a main course in itself. I’m the lone diner at my table brave enough to consume raw fish, and order the yellowfin tuna. The fish is perfectly seared, its center bright pink, and its texture tender and buttery. What makes this fish dish truly swim is its distinctive accoutrements: yuzu vinaigrette, pomegranate drizzle, seared bok choy, and jasmine rice.

Desserts are sinfully delectable, and our amazement over the quality of the food continues. What could possibly delineate this restaurant’s warm chocolate cake from countless others I’ve consumed over the years? That’s easy: serve with scrumptious, gooey, warmed heapings of English toffee, chocolate and caramel sauces, and a light, gelato-like vanilla ice cream. It also helps matters that the cake itself is as moist and rich as any other version I’ve tasted in years. I yawn at the thought of bread pudding, which can often be bland and dry/over-cooked. Schnell’s ethereal version consists of lumps of bananas and pineapples that awaken one’s taste buds.

Service is nothing short of sensational. Our genial waiter possesses the perfect blend of patience, humor, promptness, and menu knowledge, and his presence played a major role over the course of the evening. He is as polished as any waiter you’ll see in town.

For my money’s worth, Square Café is a hole in one. Sure, the meals may not come cheaply (appetizers $10-$15, small and large plates ranging from $19-$32, desserts $6-$8), but the portions are generous and its innovative cuisine rivals anything that the best and certainly more expensive eateries in Boston (Mistral, L’Espalier, Sorrelina) have to offer. Paul’s Palate’s verdict is in, and I’m saying it loud and proud: it is most certainly hip to be 'Square.'

Monday, August 18, 2008

What's the 411 on Tremont 647?

Tremont 647’s location may not come as a surprise to many Bostonians (that’s 647 Tremont Street in Boston’s hip, vibrant South End neighborhood, for those of you slow on the uptake), but its inventive, playful global cuisine, in which Asian, Latin, and Southern flavors collide, surely does not. Executive Chef/Owner Andy Husband’s eclectic establishment has been churning out tantalizing dishes for twelve years running, which means he must be doing something right. Local foodies have obviously wedded themselves to Husband’s cuisine. Would Paul’s Palate say ‘I do’ to his heralded menu or ask for an annulment?

Like most married couples, there are bound to be a couple of minor quibbles. Take, for instance, Tremont’s interior space, which allegedly, according to the restaurant’s website, comfortably seats 70. My wife and I meander past the bar, through a narrow entryway, and into a quaint, if not slightly claustrophobic main dining area which virtually sits atop the open kitchen. Given this seating arrangement, one can behold Chef Husbands’s dexterity as he provides direction and oversight to his culinary team. For sheer entertainment value, it’s great fun. If you’re seeking a private, intimate conversation with your loved one, however, I’d look elsewhere. The half dozen tables in this dining area also sit atop one another, congregating diners so closely together that I could almost reach across and share dinner with my neighbors. Ah, communal dining at its finest.

The unique selection of cocktails, however, offers a promising glimpse of what’s to come. My wife orders a refreshingly smooth Joy’s Pineapple Martini, in which house-infused pineapple vodka, Stoli Vanil, and pineapple juice are blended together. She’s relieved that her drink does not possess the typically syrupy texture that usually accompanies such a beverage. I’m feeling emboldened and try the Tremont Tang, which consists of house infused papaya vodka, fruit juices, and bubbles. While my wife’s face contorts upon tasting the orange-sugar coated rim (much too sweet, she murmurs), I find that the rim’s sweetness is beautifully balanced by the drink’s other ingredients. Sweet, for sure, but not overly so. The bubbles are also a nice, creative touch, lending consistency and lightness to what could have been a heavy drink.

For starters, we sample the Rare Tuna Nicoise 647, which is a fancy term for an impressively fancy dish. Take two pieces of thinly sliced, perfectly pinkish-colored tuna, encrusted with pastrami spices, and served alongside olive tapenade and egg salad. This trio of ingredients may sound slightly off-putting, but it somehow works. The olive tapenade atop the tuna makes for a potent taste of picante, whose heat is balanced out by the coolness of the egg salad. From there, we proceed with one of Chef Husband’s signature dishes – his Tibetan dumpling momos. What’s a momo, you ask? It’s a fried dumpling that sits atop a wonderfully spicy red sauce called sriracha, and which can subsequently be dipped in a cool soy-sake sauce.

Entrees are equally lip-smackingly good. My wife’s 647 Surf ’n Turf (OK, we get it, we’re eating at Tremont 647 – enough with the naming conventions!) consists of a perfectly cooked braised flank steak with moist lobster tails and shrimp. While the meat and seafood are the headliners of this dish, let’s not omit its amazing supporting cast of ingredients: the salsa roja adds much-needed bite to the dish (it remins me of a fine mojo sauce), while the silky, sweet glazed banana could have been served as a dessert all by itself. My Lobster Mac ’n Cheese is delightfully good, exponentially better than what mom used to make (sorry, mom), filled with an abundance of lobster and topped with Ritz cracker crumbs. What makes this dish so successful, and conversely, what other disastrous mac ’n cheese imitations lack, is its perfectly cooked noodles (neither too soggy nor crisp) and its spot-on amount of cheese (neither too gooey nor dry).

Desserts do not disappoint. I’m positively sure that my wife’s peach cobbler, sans Bourbon cream and hot caramel, would have greatly benefited from these two ingredients, but her dairy allergy prohibited her from including these. Even so, the warmed cobbler has me yearning for the fall season given its fresh, slightly tart taste. I venture to sample another of Chef Husband’s renowned desserts – his Andy’s Signature Banana Cream Pie. While the concoction doesn’t quite stack up to my all-time favorite banana cream pie (that distinction goes to Joan and Ed’s Deli in Natick, MA) given its surprising lack of density (banana filling-wise), it’s a pretty close second. Other pie lovers might have a greater appreciation for Husband’s lighter, flakier version, which is lightly drizzled with chocolate and caramel sauces and comes with a crackling-good piece of nut brittle.

Service, on the whole, is satisfactory. Although our waitress is knowledgeable of the menu and prompt, she does not go out of her way to make us feel wholly welcomed (for heaven’s sake, crack a joke or even a smile!). It doesn’t help matters that she fails to ask if we want any beverages with our desserts. This lack of focus in service, however, is quickly forgiven since the kitchen staff is nice enough to bring out our courses and explain them to us tableside.

Value, at least for this evening, is spectacular. We are fortunate enough to discover an establishment that actually offers its Restaurant Menu on Saturdays (most restaurants exclude this day). A 3-course gourmet meal for $33? OK, tack on the $14 valet parking fee associated with most South End dining destinations. But I dare you to find me a handful of other high-end restaurants at such a bargain (on most evenings, outside of Restaurant Week, appetizers range from $8-10, entrees in the low-to-mid-$20 range, and desserts at $6). No 911 calls here. Paul’s Palate has the 411 on Tremont 647: it’s one of the best restaurants the 02118 has to offer.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Orinoco Will Drive You Loco (In More Ways Than One)

Orinoco, one of the South End’s well-kept secret dining destinations, is clandestine no more. The flagship’s popularity has skyrocketed to the point where extended waiting times have forced its owners to open a second location in the equally bustling, trendy college scene that has become Brookline Village (Harvard Street, to be exact). On its website, Orinoco’s owners claim that its restaurant’s origins were inspired by “’tagueritas,’ small casual rustic eateries found along Venezuelan roadsides.” This Venezuelan establishment’s claim to fame has not only stemmed from its uncanny ability to re-create this very ambience, but to offer a blend of Andes and Caribbean-inspired fare at an affordable price to its customers. Given his love of linguistics, Paul’s Palate discovered that the Orinoco itself is one of South America’s largest rivers. Would he find Orinoco’s ‘waters’ (more specifically, its fare) tranquil or choppy?

Orinoco’s atmosphere certainly has a lot going in its favor. The lively bar, for one, resides smack dab in its epicenter, and on a pleasantly warm spring night, it indeed feels as if we’ve inhabited one of those quaint tagueritas to which Orinoco’s website has alluded. On this particular evening, several chic-looking patrons bypass the booths and head directly for the bar. It’s no wonder why: the wine list consists of an extensive and diverse selection from Chile and Argentina and beers hail from exotic regions such as Brazil, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. And don’t you dare consider departing Orinoco without consuming one of its renowned mojitos (rum, lime, and crushed mint). Sure, it may take several minutes to prepare, but these are some of the tastiest, refreshing cocktails I’ve sampled in some time. I actually sip upon a cojito, which is infused with freshly-cut coconut slices. In addition, Orinoco scores points for its lively artwork, which includes authentic Caribbean masks and lively golden-splashed walls on which these decorations are displayed.

As for the rest of Orinoco’s surroundings, however, the ‘waters’ begin to muddy given some gaping flaws. For one, in contrast to the spacious bar, the remainder of the restaurant’s interior is rather small and inexcusably cramped. No more than eight to ten booths adorn the sides, while group-style tables (yes, eating with thy neighbor makes for slightly uncomfortable eating) account for the remainder. Reminiscent of the movie In The Line of Fire, I find myself frequently pressing my chair against the table in order to allow servers to pass by. I and my fellow diners also routinely resort to shouting given the extremely poor acoustics of the space.

Proceeding on to our food, appetizers are ample in size and more than moderate in taste. Although the empanadas (traditional Latin American turnover patties) are neither as flaky nor crispy as one would have expected from this Caribbean delicacy, they are flavorful. My sole complaint about the Mechada (filled with Venezuelan style shredded beef) is its surprising hollowness and lack of beef (which is excellent). My favorite empanada is the Verde: one might think that a diverse mix of ingredients including plantain dough, mushrooms, piquillo, manchego cheese, and salsa verde might lead to culinary overkill, but this combination works wonderfully. One eating companion raves about the arepas (traditional Venezuelan grilled corn pocket sandwiches), but I do not concur: I find the Guayanesa (filled with said creamy cheese) disappointingly bland, although it is spruced up by a zesty, mustard like sauce which accompanies it. In my mind, the most memorable starter of the evening by far are the datiles, show-stoppers which become instant mouth-poppers and consist of sweet dates encompassed by almonds and bacon.

As the evening progresses, the quality of Orinoco’s fare increases with it, as evidenced by the Principales (entrees). My wife’s churrasquito (grilled tenderloin) is cooked to a happy medium, and a perfect balance is struck between the salty-spiciness of the accompanying salsa chimi and the coolness of the crab picadillo. The asparagus that sits atop the strip of meat, however, seems extraneous. The dish would have benefited from being paired with a more traditional side such as beans or rice. I order my dish, the cordero, based upon hearsay that this is Orinoco’s signature dish. Picture this: panela-plantain-crusted lamb chops doused in a spicy mint mojo sauce. This mouth-watering concoction has me at ‘hola (hello).’ Similar to the churrasquito, I would have preferred a bolder side to compliment the succulent meat. The watercress blue cheese salad is a bit dull, and perhaps could have been substituted with a nice starchy substance (sweet plantains, perhaps?).

Dessert is memorable, though not unforgettable. The torta fluida (molten chocolate cake with 100 percent Venezuelan dark chocolate) certainly comes out hot and gooey. The chocolate itself is not overpoweringly sweet (that’s a good thing) considering that the Venezuelan variety is typically dark and bittersweet. When it comes to presentation, however, Orinoco’s torta does not ‘take the cake.’ I realize that Orinoco aims for casual simplicity, but serving a dessert in a disposable tin cup…Estais loco (are you crazy)?

Another glaring omission: despite Orinoco’s seemingly inviting atmosphere, one which appears to be conducive to both couples and families, there is not one single menu item from which to choose that would be appropriate for a child to consume. Our poor child is left to nibble on a couple of sweet plantains (and yes, we fortunately brought crackers as our backup).

For all its flaws (and there are several), however, Orinoco almost accounts for them all with its more-than-adequate service (our server is genial, prompt, and spot-on with her recommendations) and superior prices (appetizers between $6-$8?; entrees ranging from $13-$19?; desserts averaging a shade under $5? As Bart Simpson so eloquently stated, ‘Ay caramba!’). Would Paul’s Palate consider frequenting this local taguerita in the near future? Most likely not, unless he’s able to get his hands on one of those dreamy, yummy mojitos.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Masa Brings Heat and Coolness All at Once

How does one classify a unique restaurant such as Masa? Let me give it a whirl: a slightly upscale Southwestern eatery (think Border Café casualness combined with more experimental, daring cuisine). Executive Chef Philip Aviles’s unconventional usage of ingredients and his eclectic menu have had customers returning in droves to this South End mainstay. How appropriate, then, for Masa to be situated on equally dynamic Tremont Street. Would Paul’s Palate find himself lassoed into this sizzling Southwestern scene?

Masa makes no apologies for its casual appearance and atmosphere. While we’re in for a superior dining experience, it’s as if the colors and walls instruct us to sit down, relax, sip a margarita, and enjoy ourselves. It’s obvious (and slightly embarrassing, I might add) that we’ve overdressed for the occasion. Clearly, dressing down is an acceptable custom here. And that’s OK by us.

To the left, the copper bar is a nice touch, and the main dining area is spacious enough. The high ceilings do not prevent us from conducting a coherent tableside conversation with our companions. The chandeliers are an oddity in the room (is someone aiming for the Southwestern Victorian era?), but that’s just knit-picking. For better or for worse, given its Southwestern ambience, brown colors dominate the scene (I oddly feel transported into a UPS commercial). I will, however, point out my dissatisfaction regarding the ‘lipped’ booths. I felt like I was doing the meringue just to get in and out of my seat. And that’s not even accounting for the expectant couple with whom we dined. What dance did she need to learn in order to maneuver into her seat? Also a glaring negative: the calamitous state of the bathrooms was, how do I put this politely, reminiscent of the O-K Corral? Casualness needs to have its boundaries.

I’ve heard that Masa’s cocktails are notorious for offsetting some of its zesty fare. I must therefore admit slight disappointment with these beverages. The caramelized apple martini sounds promising, but packs minimal apple flavor and no hint of caramel. The pear mojito comes with excess vodka, too little pear. My favorite of the bunch is the sangria margarita, which is modestly sweet, smooth and refreshing.

While Masa’s cocktails are a mild let down, its cuisine, in the words of the show Iron Chef America, reigns supreme. For starters, my wife orders negra modelo battered fish tacos, and yes, they’re as scrumptious as they sound. The silky smooth fish is served in a soft tortilla wrap, with dollops of a creamy avocado salsa verde and a chipotle taramind sauce that lends a wonderfully smoky flavor to the dish. I order the smoked mussel and tilapia ceviche cocktail, which consists of a dramatic combination of clamato (think spicy clam-tomato base – yum!) and cilantro. But that’s not all: our wonderfully affable, attentive, and knowledgeable server (he somehow reminds me of the charming American Idol contestant, David Archuleta) recommends pouring a potent tequila floater over the ceviche. Throw in homemade cornbread with a trio of distinctive spreads (peppery cream cheese, bean, and molasses butter – yum, again!), and Chef Aviles has successfully cast his spell upon us.

The aforementioned appetizers are glorified showstoppers. The entrees, equally creative and delicious in their own right, could easily have headlined this evening’s event had we not encountered some minor gaffes with the sides that accompanied them. My chipotle apricot glazed short ribs are cooked perfectly medium rare, and possess a wonderfully velvety texture. The apricot jam is not overpoweringly sweet, though the chipotle’s spiciness is missing. What the dish lacks in spice, however, it more than accounts for with its sides. The grilled pineapple salsa is a deceptively zesty compliment (I must admit that my wife mistook it for mashed potatoes, and after one bite, rushed to sip her glass of water). The crisp Southwestern cole slaw, however, is so fire-alarmingly hot that it is practically inedible. My wife’s crushed chile pepper grilled pork tenderloin with ‘Masa’ gnocci is good, but not great. The pork is yet again perfectly cooked, but the sides, once again, are perplexing. Had it not been for my wife’s dairy allergy, I believe she would have certainly enjoyed the dish more: in lieu of what sounds to be a luscious topping of Mexican chocolate cherry mole, the chef substitutes this with a mild chile-lime sauce that lacks punch. The fresh strawberry salsa is minimal and not as flavorful as it sounds. The gnocci, albeit tasty, total only four potatoe-y pellets in all.

Dessert is the unanimous winner of the evening. Imagine this ethereal combination: warmed banana bread pudding with chocolate-banana ice cream (did I say yum already?). In fact, as I let the bread pudding sit on my palate, I unexpectedly discover a mild spiciness begin to set in. The ice cream counters this sensation and serves as the perfect balance to the dish. When asked about the ingredient that has caused my senses to stir, our server politely (almost with a humorous wink, no doubt he has heard this line of questioning from other diners) tells us that he unfortunately cannot divulge the chef’s secret ingredient.

Masa in Spanish means 'dough.' And like many astute customers, I’m not only concerned about the variety that’s being kneaded in the kitchen. The dough to which I’m alluding is the amount of cash that leaves my wallet at the end of the evening. When drinks range from $8-10, appetizers between $7-12, and entrees around $20-25, I equate this to money well spent (just keep in mind that there’s a $16 valet charge on top of all this). Casual ambience, great service, and delectable, often inspiring fare: these traits all translate into a winning culinary combination in my book.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Gaslight Adds Fuel to Fiery South End Dining Scene

Ever have the urge to sample delicious French cuisine without leaving the comfortable confines of Massachusetts? Some diners might actually prefer taking the red-eye to Paris than splurging on a meal fit (and priced) for a king at the upscale Back Bay eatery, L’espalier. Gaslight Brasserie, conveniently located in the South End on Harrison Ave, is a more reasonably priced alternative established by Boston’s renowned culinary team, Aquitaine Group. Boston Magazine and Phantom Gourmet have recently bestowed the dreaded ‘it’ label upon this new dining hotspot. Would Paul’s Palate agree with these assessments or spit out Gaslight’s cuisine like bad pate?

Give Gaslight’s creative team credit: in terms of overall authenticity, the restaurant’s mosaic subway tiles, reclaimed wood floors, nicotine-stained walls, beamed wood ceilings, and shimmering antique mirrors all shine brightly (no pun intended). Although the handcrafted Parisian zinc bar is visually breathtaking, it attracts such a large number of hip patrons this evening that they practically spill over into the dining area. While I am appreciative that Aquitaine Group intended for this bistro to be more casual, these surroundings are completely devoid of any sense of privacy and intimacy. Our party needs to resort to shouting in order to maintain any semblance of conversation. It doesn’t help matters that we’ve been seated behind a partition that is not completely shielded from the main entrance, which results in sporadic, periodic bouts of the chills. Seating arrangements are creative enough, if not a tad chaotic, ranging from café and communal tables to booths and banquets.

Gaslight’s cuisine, however, is what has attracted us to this locale in the first place, and fortunately it offsets any minor issues we’ve encountered with the ambience. Though its fare is less sophisticated than L’espalier, Gaslight serves what is essentially Parisian comfort food. For starters, the Onion Soup Gratinee (fancy term for French Onion Soup) is the ideal remedy to the aforementioned chills we’re experiencing, with its hearty broth saturated with sweet onions and gooey slabs of cheese. The Escargots de Bourgogne (snails served with garlic and parsley) are neither as meaty nor garlicy as I had hoped. The moist steak tartare, however, which comes highly recommend by our patient, courteous server, is a revelation, served with aioli and croutons. The former ingredient infuses the tartare with just the right amount of spice.

Entrees are equally enjoyable. I find myself strangely drawn to a non-Parisian dish, the Choucroute Garni. This German-themed dish consists of frankfurter, garlic sausage, braised apples, duck confit, and sauerkraut. Strange choice, you ask? You bet. Overall, I’d rate the dish as slightly above satisfactory for the following reasons: the frankfurter is a tad bland, the garlic sausage above average, and the duck is moist and divine. I would have preferred a more pungent apple broth base (sorry, no actual apples to be had) as opposed to overkill on the amount of sauerkraut. I must, however, applaud Gaslight for its willingness (like my dining tastes) to venture out of its comfort zone. They refuse to play their food selections safe. Other foreign items on the menu I’d venture to try the next time I’m there include veal wiener schnitzel and daube nicoise (braised beef ragout with olives, orange, tomato and buttered noodles).

My wife orders a more traditional French steak frite with béarnaise sauce, and it is mouth-wateringly good, perfectly cooked to a pink medium. The bar steak is equally delectable, and a tad spicier, layered with a mustard cream sauce. The couple across from us order the poelee espagnol (cod pan roast with shellfish and chorizo). While the fish is moist enough, the chorizo lacks expected spice, in part due to the accompanying sauce a l’amoricaine, which is nothing more than a fancy term for bland marsala wine sauce.

Without a moment’s hesitation, our server recommends the housemade chocolate beignets with crème anglais. What are these, you ask? Imagine chocolate fried dough with a molten chocolate lava center. Hey, are you still with me here? I forgive you for your lack of attention. I, too, lost my focus when dreaming of popping these delicious bite-sized morsels into my mouth. This concoction is the showstopper of the evening, and has all of raving about it long after we have departed for the evening.

In terms of value, what’s not to like about Gaslight? For one, I’ll take the complimentary free parking, a rarity in this section of Boston. Hors D’oeuvres (appetizers) average between $7-$10. Cocktails fluctuate between $8-$11. The majority of Plats prinipaux (entrees) range between $16-$19 and all desserts come in just a shade under $7. You do the math: take a highly satisfactory meal, about three-quarters that of what you’d experience at L’espalier, but cut your bill there in half. I don’t claim to possess strong math acumen, but I believe former game show host Bob Barker said it best: the price is right.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

'Met'-Like Collapse

Like the epic collapse of baseball’s New York Mets (how befitting this parallel in names is) at the conclusion of last year’s regular season, Met Bar & Grill suffers a similar fate. The Met is unable to live up to the enormous amounts of pressure and lofty expectations set forth by its esteemed ‘big brother’ eatery just down the road along Route 9, Chestnut Hill’s more formal Metropolitan Club.

Sure, it seems like a great idea for the upscale Metropolitan Club to create a more family-oriented, informal dining destination that maintains its trendy edge. Ingenious, I might add, to expand within the bustling Natick Collection, New England’s largest mall. Like the vast expanses of the mall itself, with its unique curves, spectacular skylights, and stores both high-end (Nordstram’s, Louis Vuitton) and more pedestrian (JC Penney and McDonald’s) in nature, Met Bar & Grill at least succeeds in attracting all types of crowds through its doors. And like the throngs of customers who have traveled through the ‘great indoors’ and have finally arrived at this dining destination, our appetites are whetted.

Fashion-wise, the restaurant’s appearance is hit-and-miss. Much like the Natick Collection’s stunning architecture, Met Bar’s appeal is sleek and can be easily viewed from its entrance. Take for instance the enthralling burger bar, where about a dozen seats surround a fire-breathing vertical grill. The illuminated bar is also a plus, though on the small side for a moderately-sized eatery. The walls are splashed with a warm, yet far too dark tan-brown paint, which not only clash with the dark brown mahogany tables but make for difficult menu viewing. Walk out back behind the bar, and to our chagrin, there resides an expansive dining room with paintings of both international and domestic city landscapes plastered across the back walls. The crumbs strewn across the room’s carpeting, however, are a major blemish. I highly doubt that the Met’s intention was to replicate metropolitan dining in this level of detail.

Most unfortunately for us, Met Bar & Grill’s food does not justify the effort it takes to get there. Drinks are fine enough, though a tad high in price. My Barcelona Club, more commonly known as red sangria, comes highly recommended by our astute server, and consists of wine, Methilda poire, basil, and seasonal juices. The cocktail wins high marks for its lack of tartness and moderate sweetness, which is exacerbated by an inclusion of fresh pears. After the drinks, however, the quality of our meals rapidly plummets.

Word on the street is that it’s the signature, handmade, cooked-to-order hamburgers, creatively segmented by international and domestic geography, for which this establishment is renowned. So why is it that my exorbitantly priced $14 Tokyo burger (labeled a double burger, but small in portion), which allegedly consists of a richer cut of Kobe beef and is topped with a seemingly mouth-watering array of condiments that includes soy sauce, wasabi mayo, and pickled ginger, so utterly bland, dry and tasteless? It makes me thankful that I didn’t order one of the mini burgers, which are more prone to being overcooked. The french fries are equally dry, a tad cold, and offensively salty. A quick glance around the table reveals several downward glares and long bouts of silence from my eating companions. It is easy to ascertain that they, too, are not enamored with their selections. Had our toddlers not accompanied us to this more family-friendly environment, we would have promptly sent these back to the kitchen without hesitation.

Sadly, Met Bar and Grill does little to impress this critic. On a scale from poor to fantastic, at best I’d rate this meal as a ‘Met-za, Metza’ experience. In fact, if you're looking for a cheaper, more succulent burger alternative, less the trendy atmosphere, head over to Mr. Bartley's in student-friendly Harvard Square. They segment their burgers into celebrity names (such as the Bill Clinton), and unlike the Met's geographically named meats, Bartley's beef is the real deal.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Livin' La Vida Rocca

Rocca has widely been hailed by local foodies as one of the South End’s finest, hippest new dining destinations. Its free parking, for one, is a rare luxury that had me at hello. What about the food, you ask? When Rocca opened up its doors on Harrison Avenue back in April, 2007, some observers quibbled that it could easily have been mistaken for an upscale tapas bar given its miniscule portions. Nearly a year later, however, chef Tom Fosnot has apparently taken his cue from these customers, expanding both his menu items and portion sizes. Would his Ligurian-inspired (Italian Riviera) cuisine rival - and perhaps exceed – that belonging to his esteemed South End counterparts (such as Mistral and Stella)?

My wife and I venture out on chilly Sunday evening to sample Rocca’s aptly-named, uber-affordable prixe-fix menu as part of its Sunday Supper series, in which two courses and ‘sweet’ register at a wallet-friendly $22. Unless you’ve been locked away in a closet, it’s no secret that several upscale Boston eateries have recently created these cheaper dining alternatives with the hope of attracting additional customers during these difficult economic times.

Upon our arrival, Rocca is shockingly devoid of customers. The restaurant’s two-story interior, with eye-popping features that include cork walls and graffiti, is sleek and modern. Its lower level consists solely of a smallish bar/lounge area replete with plush sofas. Although this area is clearly a spot to which attractive people flock during the week, it lacks the visual panache, polish, and ‘it’ factor which makes neighboring Stella’s bar/lounge area superiorly vibrant (might this be where all of the patrons have congregated this evening?).

We proceed upstairs to the larger, more dramatic dining room. An illuminated light that fluctuates between colors flows across the ceiling like water down a riverbed. The general layout of this room, however, remains a mystery. Why not let the room breathe easily (similar to the overhead lighting) in an open space as opposed to partitioning it off into different sections? The antique movie posters and ropes attached to some of the walls violently clash with the otherwise modern ambience that permeates throughout the room.

Minor fashion faux-pas aside, let’s focus on the food, shall we? Parched with thirst, I order a cocktail coyly named ‘Scandolo al Sole,’ a unique concoction of homemade limoncello, tequila, grand marnier, and ginger beer. The mild sweet and sour flavor I am seeking from this beverage, however, is unfortunately wiped away by the overpowering acidity attributed to excess amounts of ginger beer.

More to my liking is a hearty portion of sweet and sour calamari, and not merely the doughy and overly saucy variety you’d typically expect to see in similar settings. These calamari are lightly breaded and interlaced with red and yellow peppers that infuse the dish with its sweet and sour flavors. This appetizer is so delectable, in fact, that the accompanying tartar sauce seems unnecessary. My wife and I also devour a silky, light farinata – chickpea flatbread with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and sage – served pie-like and reminiscent of a top-notch potato latke.

We move on to our entrée, which consists of veal cheeks served over saffron risotto. Although noticeably smaller in portion size than the preceding appetizer, the veal is deceptively rich in flavor and equally hearty. Though a tad on the fatty side (these are veal cheeks, after all), the meat is otherwise cooked to our liking and literally melts in our mouths. Although the accompanying risotto fails to surpass Mistral’s award-winning recipe (whose does?) given some goopy excess liquid, it adequately serves as a light, zesty compliment to the veal.

Our dessert, or ‘treat,’ is equally divine, though on a smaller scale portion-wise. A playful take on the ice cream sandwich – dense vanilla ice cream packed between two moist mini chocolate chip cookies, served with a warm dark chocolate dipping sauce - is far superior than the one I’d purchased on many occasions as a child from the local ice cream truck.

As for intangibles, Rocca passes with flying colors. Service exceeds my expectations, as our waitress, though not the most animated of servers, is competent, knowlegable of the menu, and attentive to our needs. In terms of cleanliness, not a breadcrumb is to be found, not even up the lengthy stairwell (though I will say that the men’s room is surprisingly chilly). And did I forget to praise Rocca’s easy-to-find location and conveniently situated free parking lot (hello, $15)?
Lastly, for sheer value, where else can one consume a three-course gourmet meal for $22 (Sunday evenings only)? Irrespective of Sunday offerings, Rocca’s appetizers weigh in between $8-$12, pastas average $12-$16, fish and meat entrees range from $19-$24, and desserts come in at $7-$9. Perhaps other universally respected but utterly pricey South End institutions such as Mistral and Hammersley’s Bistro would be wise to follow suit (ahem, $40 entrees, anyone?). Or perhaps Paul’s Palate is merely livin’ la via Rocca?

Friday, February 15, 2008

LOCO, I think I love you...

Dearest LOCO, beloved to me in the way you seductively offer the convenience of providing gourmet cuisine at only an arm’s length distance…You are my one and only amore to which I would like to dedicate this voracious Valentine’s Day greeting. I am not ashamed to say that you make me want to be a better diner. I vividly recall our first date several months ago: you were a younger and smaller restaurant then, located on a more tranquil side of town (Easton, Route 138) and tucked away into that quaint little shopping plaza which you called home. You showed gusto, however, when you represented yourself to local patrons as an authentic, upscale Spanish restaurant. Some skeptics laughed and believed your stay woule be ephemeral, but, like a smitten suitor, I dutifully remained by your side. After all, I found your sleek, intimate interior, your superior service, and your flavorful fare to be charming and intoxicating.

I must apologize, however, for the months that passed whereby not a morsel of food traveled from your plates into my mouth. Now that your one year anniversary has come and gone, I can see how you’ve grown and matured. Your owner, Jim Messinger, has wisely re-located you to a larger and more convenient space across town on Route 106 (near Five Corners) that is befitting of your many talents. Your allure, however, has largely remained intact: from the dark red-splashed walls to your genial, attentive wait staff, you haven’t changed one bit.

If there would be one major obstacle in our relationship that I could pinpoint, it would be the way in which you periodically tease me. Why must you insist on keeping me waiting forty-five minutes on the most romantic evening of the year when I had made reservations well in advance? Your friend, Jim, had shared with me in past conversations that he was working on developing a system to drastically reduce your wait time, but apparently there still exists a 2-hour wait on Friday nights. I will forgive you, however, given the dearth of fine dining establishments in the area. Clearly, you’re in demand, and not just the object of my affections. Sharing you with others makes me jealous, you know. At least you promptly e-mail me back when I have questions about your menu, I’ll give you that. You’ve always been courteous to me.

I also have just a couple of minor quibbles about your more new space. First, the expanded lounge area proved difficult to navigate through, particularly with traffic lines of customers occupying this area. I felt like a rat in one of those endless mazes, breathlessly weaving in and out amongst a plethora of leather seats and plastic tables. Second, due to a lack of a partition between the bar/lounge and main dining areas along with your high ceilings, the acoustics made it virtually impossible to conduct a conversation without resorting to shouting.

But let me take a moment to praise your many attributes, beginning first and foremost with the quality of food that comes out of your kitchen. My compliments to your Executive Chef, Melissa Batty, who utilizes relatively simple ingredients (such as olive oil) to create complex, savory dishes. Take, for instance, your fine selection of tapas calientes (hot tapas), specifically the patatas bravas. Merely fried potatoes, a mere foodie novice would assume. However, one bite reveals the potato’s slightly crisped (just perfect) exterior along with its moist, warm, cakey interior (even more perfect). Batty’s decision to cook this potato in olive oil makes these fried concoctions that much easier on the stomach. The lemon allioli garnishing these potatoes is also a refreshing touch: it cleanses the palate and compliments the mild spiciness of the accompanying tomato sauce. The fabada, though a smaller tapa portion, is an austurian stew whose white beans might be the largest I’ve ever seen (yes, you could say that they amount to a hill of beans) and whose base is light and zesty. The seared foie gras, playfully served alongside a grilled pear, buttery croutons, and a miniature apple, is mouthwateringly soft and scrumptious. My one complaint about this dish is its miniscule portion. Between my wife and I, we took no more than six bites of this delicacy before it vanished altogether from our plates.

One down note to the food festivities: prior to re-connecting, promises were made to me insisting that your rioja braised beef short ribs were divine. I must therefore express my disappointment at the relative blandness and fatiness of the meat. The caramelized root vegetables were visually evident on the ribs but lacked any substantive flavor. Shitake mushrooms alleged to be an ingredient were all but missing in action. The amount of fat on the ribs was extensive, and I felt like a jilted lover when faced with the need to adroitly cut away this extraneous residue in a small bowl and a poorly lit area, neither of which was conducive to using utensils. I don’t believe in cheating, my darling, but at that moment, I pondered leaving you for another dining destination. Your friend, Jim, however, convinced me not to break up with you, assuring me that we must order either the paella or the salmon (given that this is shipped three days in advance of most fish on the market, he claims it tastes as if it came right out of the ocean) during our next visit.

But like an aged wine, you improved over time. Particularly when it came to your exquisite desserts, my sweet. The peras al vino was simple but elegant, just like you. The warm pear poached in white wine and cinnamon was a light treat. I also indulged in your signature chocolate flan, which surprised me again and again with its potently sweet, dense, custard-mouse combination of dulce de leche and cocoa nibs. The flan was indisputably one of the most unique and memorable concoctions I’ve ever had the fortune of tasting.

Like every couple out there, we’re bound to have our disagreements, but at the end of the day, it’s you, and no one else, with whom I’d rather be spending my meals. LOCO, I’m crazy about you, and I think you’ve got great legs – that is, when it comes to my outlook on your long-term success in the town of Easton.