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?