Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hot off the 'Oven' Presses: Al Forno Impresses

For nearly thirty years (January 2, 2010 will mark its three-decade anniversary), Al Forno in Providence, RI has served up some of Rhode Island’s finest Italian fare. The restaurant’s primary claim to fame, however, is its reputation as the original home of grilled pizza, created by husband-wife/chef-owner tandem Johanne Killeen and George Germon. Although furtively tucked away in a slightly remote waterfront location along South Main Street, Al Forno’s simple renditions of Italian food with a twist are difficult to miss.

Al Forno’s ambience, like its cuisine, is simple yet elegant. Although its interior extends to two levels (the second floor decked with stone tiles, bricks, mirrors, and wood, while the first floor is splashed with ivory and suspended corn stocks from the ceiling), the limited number of tables and their proximity to one another create the perfect romantic setting (one in which, I’m sure, many a weddings proposals have been popped). A line begins to form outside the restaurant as early as 5:30: apparently, this establishment is recession-proof. Or, perhaps, customers are lured by the intoxicating aromas emanating from the wood-burning ovens and grills over charcoal fires. Think Lady and the Tramp, particularly the classic scene in which the two dogs share the spaghetti strand and a kiss. There’s amore in the air at Al Forno. Our only minor quibble upon arrival: where to find the maitre’ d? After going on a scavenger hunt from the top floor to the bottom, we finally find the affable gentleman who promptly seats us.

Appetizers range from the famed grilled pizza margarita (or for the most daring type, try one cooked with sweet pumpkin) to grilled cod cakes with smashed avocado. While we’re initially disappointed in the owners’ lack of flexibility in terms of accommodating my wife’s dairy allergy when our request to have half the grilled pizza prepared with no cheese is rebuffed, I also admire them for sticking to their gourmet guns. After all, this pie is their piece-de-resistance, their claim to fame. What if Leonardo da Vinci removed the semblance of a smile from his masterpiece painting, Mona Lisa. The artist would never be able to view his art in the same way once it has been desecrated. To the initial observer’s eye, this might be viewed as stubborness verging upon arrogance, but given further consideration, Killeen and Germon’s decision is about maintaining the purity of their culinary vision. Al Forno makes amends by serving a generous portion of some of the most tender shreds of beef carpaccio we’ve tasted, beautifully presented with arugula salad and a not-too-heavy herb aoili reduction.

We reluctantly pass on the pastas – partially due to my wife’s allergy, partially because we’re saving room for dessert – though the selections sound wonderfully appealing. Take, for instance, shells baked with pumpkin, cream, pancetta and five cheeses, or the gnocci with bread crumbs, or linguine with creamy egg, duck bacon, and pea tendrils. We proceed to the less heavy wood-grilled selections, which include my wife’s succulent honey-glazed duck leg and grilled sausage. The sausage could stand on its own as a dish, packing a mild spiciness that is perfectly balanced by a wonderfully creative side of candied banana peppers. The pheasant is perfectly cooked, and the kitchen performs a small miracle by making even the less glamorous components of this dish shine, such as roasted broccoli and pomme frites with a tangy, addictive spicy catsup sauce. I typically shy away from inhaling aromas off of the plate – the only other time in recent memory was over a spiced lamb dish at Charlestown’s Tangierino – but those from my wood-roasted gorgonzola stuffed veal cutlets were potent enough to grab my nostrils’ attention. The tender veal is wrapped in wood-roasted homemade bacon – and who doesn’t like bacon? I certainly don’t, when it’s tragically over- or undercooked, charred to a crisp or limp like a dead flower. This rendition is far superior: think gourmet pigs in a smoked blanket. The bacon is unbelievably meaty and full of flavor. Gorgonzola oozes out and is perfect for sopping up the meat. While accompanying leeks and wild mushrooms were more of an afterthought, the pears are a sweet complement to the sourness of the cheese.

As for the house-made desserts, several of which are prepared for two, the number of and variety of selections was mind-boggling. Should we go for the grand cookie finale, toasted coconut ice cream, or warm chocolate filled crepes? Once again, due to my wife’s allergy (one limiting factor to this restaurant is that it is not lactose-friendly), we opt for the native pear and walnut tart. This concoction may very well be the most delectable we’ve ever sampled. The piping hot fruity insides, both fresh and refreshing while thankfully not overly sweet, are perfectly cooked into a slightly wood-charred crust. Take my word when I say that this signature dish puts any of your grandmother’s best pies to shame, one that warrants many returns to Al Forno, if not to sample several other varieties of tarts.

Service is exceptional. Our server is not only amiable and extremely knowledgeable of the menu, but also earns our admiration by deeply apologizing for the aforementioned grilled pizza snafu. Bread baskets and water glasses are promptly refilled by an efficient wait staff.

An evening at Al Forno is a special occasion and the prices reflect this. Appetizers average $15-20, pastas around $20, wood-grilled entrees between $25-32, and desserts (usually for 2) at $20. But for generous portions of the highest quality (a strong argument can be made that given such large quantities of food and the corresponding price points, Al Forno may be best enjoyed with large parties/ a la family style), exceptional service, and a charming, Old World atmosphere, it’s worth the splurge. Al Forno – Italian for ‘off the stove’ – stokes Paul’s Palate’s appetite. Put that on your foodie Hot Stove.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Olivadi: The Next Olive Garden?

Let’s face facts: aside from Greek restaurant staple Byblos, Norwood Center has never been a must-drive dining destination that foodies have marked down on their calendars. Lo and behold, Olivadi Restaurant & Bar arrived just over a year ago riding the wave of Chef Daniele Baliani’s impressive culinary pedigree and the promise of delectable ‘modern classic’ Italian cuisine. Only a few months in, however, Baliani abruptly left, leading to General Manager Bruno Marini, formerly of the Federalist, to oversee the kitchen. With Baliani’s departure, would Olivadi’s cuisine be lost amidst the transition?

Sadly, yes. Whereas the wine selection (impressively stocked at 280) is extensive and moderately priced, and the cocktails are tasty enough (the Lime Rickey and Olivadi Punch, in particular), it’s the lack of flavors that make the restaurant’s fare seem well, just fair – sometimes bordering upon poor.

For starters, a complimentary basket of homemade bread and crostini with olive-colored, herb-flavored dipping sauce is satisfying enough. As are the fried calimari ($10), which are cooked in lemon-garlic aioli and served with arrabiata tomato dipping sauces. A dining companion remarks how perfectly cooked these crustaceans are prepared based on their rubbery-ness and lightness. I agree, though they lack any distinct flavor, sauces included (there’s no spiciness to the arrabiata). The spinach salad ($8) with sliced pears, candied pistachios, ricotta salad, crispy bacon, and champaigne vinaigrette sounds like a medley for the mouth (particularly given my affinity for all things bacon on greens). It’s decent enough, but for all of the wonderful ingredients, this medley doesn’t quite sing in flavor. And the cheese, in particular, a common theme throughout the course of the meal, is bland bordering on tart. There’s no balance to it. The seafood cioppino ($9/$18) is an improvement, a tuscan stew of mussels, shrimp, cod and onions in a spicy tomato broth. While the mussels and shrimp are instantly forgettable, the cod is perfectly cooked and the broth is delightful. Not so delightful is an oven roasted duck tart ($11), which sounds full of promise, but is surprisingly – wait for it – bland in texture and taste. The caramelized onions and goat cheese should elevate this unique dish but ultimately make it rather pedestrian. The carpaccio ($8) may be the worst dish on the menu. It is described as paper-thin beef tenderloin, and that description may be generous. Lumped together with baby arugula, the meat is barely recognizable and tasteless. We might as well have ordered another salad from the antipasti menu.

Entrees were equally disappointing. The stuffed pork chop Milanese ($21) came highly recommended by our server, and we were baffled as to why. The cut of meat, which came lightly fried, was slightly overcooked. The fontina cheese oozing from the sides would be a nice novelty had the cheese registered any distinct flavor. Nor could I find a trace of prosciutto that was supposed to be part of the dish. A truffled fondue sauce was overkill based on the amount of cheese within the cut of meat. Worst of all, a side of broccoli rabe was oversalted and had hints of fishiness to it, rendering it inedible. Mashed potatoes reaked of being pre-made and seemed a heavy compliment to such a dish. A dining companion of ours barely touched her Nonna’s roast chicken ($17), and it was easy to discern why: the bird was extremely overcooked and dry, which begs the question: how does a place carrying itself as a fine dining establishment destroy something so rudimentary to prepare? It would not have surprised us if our server had suddenly come out to apologize for a new chef manning the kitchen – that’s how mediocre the quality of the food was that evening.

Service is certainly hospitable enough. Our server was patient, cordial, and brutally honest in his opinions on what he believed worked and what didn’t on the menu. Unfortunately for him, there’s not much on the menu that did.

I’d heard second-hand reports that $3 million was invested to renovate Olivadi’s space. While the earthy tones, wooden floor, and dropped ceilings lend a hint of casual intimacy ambience-wise, there’s nothing remotely memorable about it (like the food itself). And by the looks of things on a Sunday evening, in which we were the lone table served, Olivadi may well face a steep climb if it is to celebrate its second anniversary next year. Mezza-mezza food may be acceptable for customers frequenting the Olive Garden, but for Olivadi, we expect much better.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Don’t Believe the Hype with CAV

CAV (short for Coffee, Antiques, and Victuals – all of which the owner has traveled around the word to collect) seems like no other dining experience. Hidden away in a secluded part of downtown Providence, RI in a converted warehouse, the restaurant claims to serve up fusion cuisine as eclectic as its unique space. Over the years, CAV has been showered with rave reviews (i.e. Top 5 restaurant in Providence by the New York Times), but would Paul’s Palate agree with these assessments?

Certainly, CAV’s ambience merits recognition. Though situated in a remote (somewhat unsafe?) neighborhood of Providence that’s a bit challenging to find (CAV’s website has its own set of driving instructions, and instructs customers not to follow Google; there’s a free parking lot behind the restaurant, though, which is a plus), its funky interior is visually intoxicating. From the exposed pipes, brick walls, mirrored ceilings, white lights, to the crystal chandeliers (originally from the Four Seasons Hotel, the owner proudly boasts) and African artwork adorning the walls (carvings, wooden masks, drums, woven rugs, many of which are for sale to the public), it is as if customers were plopped into the movie Beetlejuice- an eye-dropping, dream-like setting, only paired with fine dining.

CAV’s food, however, sadly fails to deliver an equally satisfying sensory experience. For appetizers ($6.95 - $13.95), the calamari ($9.95), which were pan sautéed with fresh garlic, hot peppers, and fresh basil, were disappointingly bland. While the lobster bisque, infused with vanilla extract, packed plenty of flavor, it was served lukewarm and its consistency was not thick enough.

Entrees (pastas $15.95-$18.95, chef specialties $19.95-$28.95) fared somewhat better, though again, failed to deliver on a spectacular scale. Sesame Hijiki encrusted tuna, Sashimi quality, served rare with Wasabi aioli, Maki rolls, and pickled cucumber salad ($23.95) came highly recommended by our server, but I found that the tuna was neither as rare a cut as I had hoped, nor was there much bite to it (Wasabi – what Wasabi?). While my duck ($28.95) tasted delicious, the meat perfectly cooked and melding with creamy mashed sweet potatoes, the presentation was downright ghastly and frankly, disgraceful for a restaurant that prides itself in plating aesthetically pleasing dishes. It looked like the mush slopped onto the plate by the high school cafeteria lunch lady. My wife’s poulet aux Poires, however, a panseared chicken breast with pears poached in a red wine and ginger pear sauce ($21.95), was the rare dish where CAV seemed to find its groove both presentation and taste-wise: ultra-tender chicken with delightful accompaniments, particularly tasty sautéed Asian chive dumplings.

Where some of the food faltered, service was superlative. Our waiter was genial and prompt over the course of the evening, while the equally friendly owner periodically dropped in to greet and check in on our party.

CAV distinguishes itself with its unique interior and exceptional service. If only its cuisine were equally inspiring. On a scale from poor to outstanding, I would rate this establishment’s fare as merely good, but instantly forgettable. Unfortunately, that translates into CAV not living up to its own hype.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tangierino Brings Tastes of Morocco to the Hub

If you can’t find Charlestown all that easily, follow the freedom trail. Or, simply follow your nostrils, which will lead you to the tantalizing aromas emanating from well-regarded Moroccan chophouse Tangierino, which is located steps away from the historical (if not off-the-beaten) path on charming Main Street. This ten-year-old establishment was founded by executive chef/owner Samad Naamad, whose flair for creativity (he also poses as an interior designer and filmmaker) makes Tangierino an unforgettable, exotic dining experience.

Tangierino’s ambience is intoxicating, much like its food (more on that in a moment). The African mahogany bar is simple yet cozy and elegant. The main dining area is doubly impressive aesthetic-wise, swathed in dark hues and upon whose walls hang several mysterious paintings of a stranger’s veiled eyes. A more intimate, secluded seating arrangement includes several lowered tables replete with sofas, pillows, and curtains. Moroccan music plays over the speakers throughout the course of the evening, but the room’s spacing and acoustics make for easy, pleasant tableside conversation. A belly dancer sporadically pops by, embellishing the already exotic festivities. One minor flaw: the dimly lit setting may be a perhaps too dark, particularly for customers who want to fully observe and appreciate the meticulous presentations and plating of dishes (or for that matter, successfully order from the menu).

Namaad and chef de cuisine Abdul Laarag infuse the menu with both old and new world cuisine (the latter is simply old world with French/Asian touches). For appetizers (averaging $11-19), my partner and I sample one from each: a delectable Moroccan fisherman stew (old world selection - $14), abundant with shrimp, littlenecks, squid, and white fish. What makes the stew sing, however, is the zesty tomato-cilantro broth in which the seafood simmer, which includes marinated olives and harissa (a spicy North African hot red sauce made from chili powder and garlic). Perhaps even better? A new world selection of 4-layer tuna tartare, a bombardment of flavors that include moist, spicy tuna, guacaomole, scallions, cucumber and cilantro, accentuated by a unique, refreshing honey-mango sauce.

Entrees (ranging from $19-33) couldn’t possibly live up to the quality of the starters, but boy, do they ever. Our llamb dishes arrive, and my companion asks me to direct my nose just above her dish and inhale. I comply, and must attest that I cannot recall the last time a prepared meal so aroused these senses. The Moroccan spices not only enhance the flavors of these dishes, but make them sexy to eat (a Middle-Eastern aphrodisiac, if you will). My wife’s Couscous Royal (old world tagine - $28) consists of a perfectly tender braised lam shank, accompanied by 7-vegetable couscous (which includes sweet potatoes and chickpeas) and a spiced merguez (ground lamb in phyllo dough). My wife’s eye’s close in pleasure with each bite, and after a few of my own, I wholeheartedly concur. The Sultan’s Kadra (new world - $31), our server explains, is far and away the restaurant’s most popular entrée, and it’s easy to understand why. I certainly feel like a sultan when consuming a lip-smackingly good, generous 8 ounce cut of roast lamb sprinkled with Za’atar spice (which provides the lamb with a fascinating, perfume-like aftertaste) and rosemary reduction. A fresh fig and apricot sweetly compliment the lamb, but the star of this dish, and possibly the evening, is the stunningly good fried eggplant, served in the form of a giant tart stuffed with goat cheese, and topped with shitake mushrooms. Praise is often heaped upon dishes that do not merit it, but when a concoction as inventive and bold in flavor as this one arrives, you’re witnessing culinary magic.

Cocktails ($11-13) are a tad overpriced given their underwhelming flavors. The sparkling blue lemonade ($12), consisting of Cold River blueberry vodka, lemonade, muddled blueberries, lemon and soda) is not sweet enough and far too bitter – not enough berries to quench one’s thirst on a hot summer day. The Moroccan coffee ($12) promises to be a more authentic upgrade over the standard espresso martini, adding kahlua, cinnamon, and nutmeg into the equation. While traces of kahlua are noticeable, the other two ingredients are all but absent. You’ll have more luck with a wide array of wines which consist of over 200 bottles (averaging $9-13). A subtle Chilean pinot noir ($9) pairs magnificently with the lamb.

Desserts are decent enough, but lack the authenticity and creativity of our preceding courses. A flourless chocolate cake ($10) surrounded by whipped cream is gooey and tasty, but we’ve devoured better ones. Instead, head straight for the addictive Moroccan mint tea ($7), a steamy, sweet beverage that left us craving another pot.

Service was nothing less than exceptional. Our waiter was extremely competent, attentive, and knowledgeable of the menu, politely and patiently guiding us through his recommendations, all of which were spot-on. The meal was also well-paced. Case in point: several minutes after having our appetizers removed from our table, our server asked if we would like to have the kitchen proceed in terms of preparing our entrees. Now that is the leisurely approach that fine dining establishments everywhere need to adopt with its customers.

Tangierino treats its clientele like royalty with its eclectic fare and romantic atmosphere. And while the newly-expanded space include a multi-room lounge and cigar bar downstairs (Koullshi) that was a little bit club-ish and ill-fitted for the space for my taste, its kitchen puts out some of the city’s finest, and might I add grossly underappreciated cuisine: how did this place not find its way onto Boston Magazine’s Top 50 restaurants of 2009?). Prices are high, but not exorbitantly so when compared to the city’s other top eateries. After all, is it fair to place a price on an establishment that makes couples, if just for an evening, feel like kings and queens?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Walk, Don't Run, to Elephant Walk

Given that Cambodian-French cuisine often proves to be challenging hunting down in the suburbs, Paul’s Palate donned his own safari hat and ventured into the jungles of Boston in search of a particular elephant – Elephant Walk, that is – to appease his dining desires. Much praise has been heaped upon the unique, sometimes adventurous ingredients and flavors emanating from this revered restaurant’s kitchens (additional locations in Cambridge and Waltham), so I decided to see if this Elephant was worth trumpeting about.

With its Boston location practically bordering upon Brookline (Beacon Street), Elephant Walk’s ambience is casually cool. Particularly noteworthy is its funky South Pacific-themed dining room, which includes several versions of elephants propped up against yellow walls. Be prepared, however: the open-aired room eliminates any possibility for an intimate meal. Also, what gives with the untidy bathrooms – located downstairs, no less - for such a moderately upscale restaurant?

Appetizers start our meal off on a positive note. Rouleaux – Cambodian spring rolls – are moist and flavorful. These are not your average spring rolls – nothing on the menu is traditional, for that matter – and are stuffed with a combination of ground pork, crushed peanut, bean thread, carrot and onion. Sweet tuk trey dipping sauce is merely a bonus, since the spring rolls are stand-alone scrumptious. Even better: the Nataing - ground porked simmered in coconut milk with sliced garlic, crushed peanut, and chili pods – which is served alongside crispy jasmine rice to be dipped into the concoction. What might sound a bit unconventional is pure culinary bliss. It’s the Cambodian equivalent of chili and nachos, only infinitely better.

Second courses are a mixed bag. Salade de Bleu au Poire William - tossed greens with Gorgonzola cheese, toasted walnut, balsamic vinaigrette, pan-roasted pear, and Poire William coulis – sounds like a delicious meshing of flavors, but sadly falls flat. There’s surprisingly little of the pear (which is delicious), and the vinaigrette – a sweet and sour glaze which should pull together all of the ingredients – is bland. Faring much better is the avocado soup – deliberately served cold – that is the perfect light and refreshing solution for a hot summer day. Add in succulent mushrooms along with citrus-lemon juice and cilantro for some bite, and there you have your Cambodian version of gazpacho.

Entrees, in one word, soar. Khar Saiko Kroeung – braised short ribs – is a spectacular success. What’s more rare to find in this area – an elephant or meaty, perfectly cooked, tender short ribs? Sometimes, I think it’s the latter, but Elephant Walk’s version is stellar, served alongside Shanghai noodles sauteed with baby bok choy, bean sprouts and scallion, a perfect compliment to suck up the juices flowing from the meat. Curry de Crevettes is not your mother’s traditional Thai curry, which is sometimes bland and heavy. This dish, served with jumbo shrimp, asparagus, baby bok choy (can one ever have enough of this wonderful Chinese cabbage?), eggplant, snow peas, and yellow squash, is spiced up with red pepper and a wonderfully light red curry sauce. While I detect a slight hint of fishiness to the curry (though not off-putting in the least), my companion finds this concoction to be her favorite one from our evening’s selections. Given the large portion sizes that preceded dinner, the two of us decide to pass on dessert.

Service is capable enough, though far from perfect. Although our waitress is genial enough, she’s a bit too prompt with our meals. The three courses seem to immediately follow one another, leaving little time to digest and appreciate what we have just eaten (we were seated for an hour).

Pass on the cocktails, which sound appealing but are rather blasé by this imbiber’s standards. A green tea mojito is refreshing enough and packed with mint, but its taste is not all that distinct from your average mojito filled with rum. A ginger-lemon martini is loaded with an exorbitant amount of ginger and not enough lemon. It’s far too bitter and lacks tartness. While we’re at it, pass on the bread as well, which is nearly stale and virtually inedible. Thankfully, the remainder our meals wash out this bad taste from our mouths.

Value cannot be beaten at this establishment. Prix-fixe menus range from $29.95 for three courses, and $33.95 for four. If you’re seeking out additional dinner options, starters average around $7-8, entrees at $16-18, and desserts at $8. Vegan and gluten-free menus are also available, a nice gesture from the owners not lost on this reviewer. Valet parking is $7, though there is a bevy of meter parking available alongside Beacon Street.

Would Paul’s Palate book a return trip to Elephant Walk? Surely, especially with his wallet not all that much lighter from when he entered the restaurant (and in this economy, that is most certainly a good thing). Would Elephant Walk be the first place worth visiting on his safari itinerary? Let’s just say I’d like to travel to other dining destinations beforehand.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hungry Mother Needs A Scolding

Please allow me to be the first and perhaps last food critic to express my disappointment in Hungry Mother. Sure, it’s had an inordinate amount of hype and positive press behind it since its opening last year in Cambridge, MA. But Chef/Owner Barry Maiden’s French-Southern comfort cuisine – a rarity in the city to be sure – left me perplexed about what the hubbub has been all about.

Maiden – a Virginia native who previously spent his days as Chef de Cuisine under Michael Leviton at West Newton’s much revered Lumiere – clearly cooks with passion for all things Southern, as evidenced by adventurous dishes such as boiled peanuts, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp with grits. This is true comfort grub consumed by those South of the Mason Dixon line. Even house mixed drinks, which are listed numerically, contain a hint of the deep South. Take, for instance, the no. 2, mixed with maker’s mark, sorghum syrup, luxardo amaretto, and boiled peanut for good measure. Southern comfort, indeed. Even water glasses resemble Southern-style jars.

Where there’s promise, however, there’s much letdown. While the aforementioned no.2 was unique in taste, it lacked the distinct peanuty aftertaste I expected. My drinking companion’s no. 47 (laird’s applejack, aperol, buffalo trace bourbon) was much too heavy on the bourbon and practically undrinkable. First courses also proved to be a mixed bag. Fried green tomatoes - while accompanied by a zesty remouloude sauce and a perfectly cooked, delicious, meaty piece of bacon – contained too much batter and too little tomato (which wasn’t ripe enough for my taste). Warm beef toungue canapé with gruyere and Dijon was overcooked and quite bland. A tasting tray containing artisinal cheese, fois gras, and candied prunes, was shockingly small in both size and taste. The lone appetizer that had me wanting more: a Southern staple of shrimp and grits, which contained Maine shrimp (though on the small side), salty tasso ham, New Orleans barbeque, and delectable cornbread croutons. One of my companions remarked during the meal that Hungry Mother was a tad heavy-handed on its inclusion of salt (for instance, the collards). While I agreed with him to some extent, I expressed that extra salt is customary in many Southern dishes.

Main courses were equally mixed. I found the special of bourbon braised pork slightly overcooked and lacking in bourbon flavor. Though one of my eating companions believed that the cornmeal catfish lacked freshness, I did not detect this and found my dish to be rather good. While the fish could certainly have been meatier, its crunchy cornmeal exterior was just right texture-wise, while its accompanying sides of hoppin’ john, andouille sausage, and chow chow meshed well together. Giannone farm roasted chicken was also satisfactory, served alongside brussel sprouts and organic carrots, while drizzled with a savory red-eye gravy jus. Surprisingly, I found Maiden’s French-influenced dish – pillowy-soft French style gnocchi with tender foraged mushrooms, kale, butternut squash broth and sage – to be the most successful entrée on the menu.

Desserts were solid, but not spectacular. Old fashioned coconut cake with cream cheese frosting and toasted coconut, while thankfully not too sweet, was not as moist as I had hoped. While my eating companion claimed that its crust was not thick enough for his taste and found its nutty crunchy texture slightly off-putting, I was a huge fan of the peanut pie, particularly the way the bite of the cooked-in bourbon was perfectly counterbalanced by the creaminess of the sorghum ice cream.

While Hungry Mother’s ambience is certainly inviting and homey, its interior proves that even Southern hospitality has its flaws. On the first floor is a tight waiting area, while behind it lies a handful of tables and a small bar. The entryway should be re-named ‘draft central’ for those tables that experience repeated wind gusts from the doorway opening and closing. The main dining area on the second floor is quaint enough, though seating is a tad cramped and acoustics are poor, as we virtually resorted to shouting throughout the evening. Worst of all, while coats are taken by the maitre’d upon arrival, they are stored right in front of the sole bathrooms in the establishment, sometimes creating long lines in the dining area and making it difficult to discern who is leaving the restaurant and who is going (to the bathroom, that is). On a more positive note decorum-wise, Southern jars are memorably converted into funky lighting fixtures (most notably, a number of these are strikingly displayed over the bar to great effect). The white walls and dark wood floors are simple and perfect for the casual family-style vibe for which Hungry Mother aims.

Our server was attentive, amiable, and knowledgeable of the menu. Like any Southern meal, ours was served at a pleasant, leisurely pace.

Value-wise, most of Hungry Mother’s appetizers come out under $10 and entrees average around $20. While some may believe these prices to be a bargain compared to other high-end city restaurants, I was not so enthusiastic given the relatively small portions.

Location-wise, Hungry Mother sits across from the Kendall Square Cinema on the corner of Medeiros Ave, which can make for a nice dinner/movie night out (especially since the restaurant offers discounted movie passes which they will pick up for customers). There is no valet parking, so customers are on their own in that regard.

Did Hungry Mother leave me hungry for seconds? Sure. Maiden’s menu is just eclectic and diverse enough for me to return for seconds. Did his fare leave me feeling as if I had just dined at the seventh-highest rated restaurant in all of Massachusetts (according to Boston Magazine’s recently published list of the Top 50 Restaurants in 2009)? I’ll try to be as Southern gentlemanly as possibly when I say unfortunately, no.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sorellina Brings Luxurious New York City Ambience to Boston

Boston’s Copley Square has been long known for its extravagant high-end stores, so why not add another lavish hotspot to its ensemble? Sorellina, the ‘kid sister’ restaurant of revered Chef/Owner Ken Mammano, is part of the culinary quintet of restaurants known as the Columbus Restaurant Group (CRG also consists of flagship Mistral, L’Andana, Teatro, and Mooo…) Sorellina, located on One Huntington Avenue, is now almost two years young, and although its opulence may not be as chic as it was since its opening given the present economic downturn, it remains one of Boston’s finest dining destinations given its sophisticated contemporary Italian-Mediterranean cuisine and unparalleled ambience.

Immediately upon entering Sorelllina, one gets the feeling of being transported into the most chic of New York City eateries. The enormous space holds 126 seats in the main dining room, and another 20 at the stylish white bar/lounge. One’s eyes are immediately drawn to Sorellina’s ultra-modern décor, punctuated by a riveting back wall mural that held my attention all evening. Black and white columns are sleekly displayed throughout, as are floor-to-ceiling windows, suspended glass lanterns, and illuminated back walls in which Sorellina’s extensive number of wines may be viewed. Now this would be a place where I would expect to see celebrities dine. As scantily-clad hostesses walked across the dining room, I wasn’t quite sure if they were checking upon table availability or merely serving as attractive eye candy for male customers. After all, this is the place to be seen.

For starters, my companion and I shared a half-portion of the Maccheroncelli, consisting of two American Kobe Beef meatballs, accompanied by a creamy Barolo reduction sauce and flecks of parmigiano. The meatballs’ texture was smooth as silk, and the meat was extremely rich and satisfying. One minor complaint was that the meatballs were accompanied by a disproportionately small amount of three buttery, homemade pasta tubes. Also, the parmigiano was an unnecessary ingredient given the richness of the meatballs. And while I’ve never claimed to be a huge fan of French fries, Sorellina’s creative take on them made me reconsider my opinion of them. Its version of truffled fries consisted of thin, buttery crisp slices, and my companion and I believed these to be the best we’ve ever devoured.

Sorellina’s entrees soared in terms of taste, ingredients, and presentation. My companion’s Long Island Pekin breast of duck served ‘Saltimbocca’ style with prosciutto, sage, parsnips, and Ambra Marsala, was perhaps the moistest version I’ve sampled in some time. My pan-roasted venison, served alongside vanilla scented chestnut spuma and a sweet huckleberry gastrico, was delightfully good. Venison is a meat that can be easily overcooked and overprepared, and requires a touch of restraint and simplicity from anyone cooking it. Sorellina’s chef cooked this Red Stag medium rare, as it should be, and the meat was perfectly charred on the outside. It’s a jewel of a dish, and rates as equally good as La Cachette’s renowned version (Los Angeles’s acclaimed French restaurant).

Desserts are nothing short of compelling. My companion’s sorbetto is, for the most part, refreshing and delicious, particularly the coconut flavor (the pomegranate less so, and the lemon, not so much). My warm chocolate budino with vanilla gelato, playfully served in a cast iron pot, might be the best chocolate concoction I’ve ever tasted. Its sweet scent can be instantly traced once the dish is presented upon the table. Its exterior sensitively sways back and forth at the touch of a spoon, revealing a hot, gooey, decadent bittersweet chocolate interior.

Service was impeccable and efficient. Our genial server was prompt and knowledgeable of the menu, providing her honest opinion on dishes she preferred over others (although an uber-happy server beside her suspiciously raved that all of the cuisine was sensational). Water glasses were constantly filled and the meal was well paced, especially given the large portion sizes. There was nary a crumb to be found in this establishment, and even the over-sized bathrooms (with sitting chairs included) were spotless.

Value is in the eyes of the beholder. Appetizers average out at $16, pasta at $27 (half portions also available), entrees at $35-40, and desserts at $10. Tack on a $15 fee for valet parking, and the check comes out to roughly $200 for two. For some of the finest cuisine in the city, it’s certainly worth splurging on a special occasion. Given today’s economic climate, it’s no secret that luxury dining destinations are struggling to stay in business. Let’s just hope that Sorellina is still around the next time I want to go out for that special occasion.