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.'