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.