Monday, August 23, 2010

Davio’s Gives Patriotic Effort in Foxborough

Owner Steve DiFillippo sure knew what he was doing when he expanded his beloved Northern Italian Steakhouse, Davio’s, from Boston into the suburbs. After all, why not expand his culinary empire into Patriot Place, the shopping plaza built adjacent to the hallowed grounds of a football dynasty? The sheer size of the restaurant almost keeps up with the seating capacity at the Gillette stadium, accommodating an eye-popping 350 patrons.

Our large party was seated in an intimate, rotund-spaced private room, which made for pleasant people watching given the al-fresco dining outside. Davio’s interior as a whole is impressive, from its warm, inviting brown hues to its magnificent cathedral ceilings and its expansive bar and lounge. The décor evokes grandeur, but with a hint of restraint. Mooo…., KO Prime, Grill 23, this is not.

Our cocktails are generous and well prepared, particularly the house-made sangria. Often times, the Burgundy wine flavor is lost amidst all of the juices thrown into this type of concoction. Here, the wine takes center stage, well balanced with the other liquors and juices. My wife’s cocktail, prepared with Kiwi and Sprite, was light and refreshing, a perfect, innovative summer drink. A platter containing four varieties of freshly baked breads, including wonderfully tasty pesto, is brought out to the table with an equally interesting selection of spreads, including roasted eggplant and goat cheese.

The cocktails also go down well with an array of appetizers, including crispy fried clams served with delectable housemade chips and a spicy remoulade sauce ($14). Crispy fried calamari with hot cherry peppers and spicy aioli ($12) pack welcomed, subtle heat. At Davio’s, fried seafood - unlike at many similar establishments - is surprisingly one of its strongsuits. The seafood we sample is not too rubbery and possesses just the right amount of crispiness. A side of sautéed green beans with crispy pancetta ($8) was tasty, if not a tad too spicy.

Entrees are equally strong. One eating companion orders the spaghettini, which includes generous chunks of Maine lobster, sun dried tomato, and creamy basil pesto ($26). Although the prospect of ‘creamy basil pesto’ paired with lobster initially frightened me away from ordering this dish, after sampling a couple of forkfuls, it was no wonder that she was unwilling to part with any additional bites. The pasta was well cooked and the pesto sauce was delicious and surprisingly light. It’s an odd mismatch of ingredients that somehow works. Even better was the gorgonzola crusted prime top sirloin, seared perfectly on the outside, cooked medium rear, topped with gorgonzola cream and accompanied by an otherwordly organic mushroom risotto. For only $29, this generous cut of quality meat was an outrageous bargain. With the exception of a side of far-too-salty-baby spinach on another companion’s dish, the presentation, size, and taste of all entrees were all top-notch. The maccheroni alla chitarra, with shrimp, pancetta, hot cherry peppers, and arugula lemon oil ($24) was another satisfying pasta dish.

Desserts provided a nice conclusion to the evening. Baby cakes – Davio’s take on the warm chocolate molten – were well cooked, if not as dense and gooey as I had hoped. The best dessert, hands-down, was the warmed strawberry rhubarb tort. The flakiness of the dough paired with succulent fruit was heavenly.

Service was respectable, though given such high price points here (i.e. a grilled porterhouse veal chop runs $46, while several steaks run into the $40s and even $50s), one would expect it to be flawless. While our server was only one week into her job, she was genial, surprisingly knowledgeable of the menu (even making recommendations), and attentive while at our table. Minor snafus, which reflected more upon the busboys more so than with our waitress, included a dining companion having to request steak sauce and a coffee refill on more than one occasion. Now in its third year at Patriots Place, one would think that such basic service glitches as these would have worked themselves out by now.

If there were one minor quibble overall with the menu, it’s that it is a bit unorganized and overly expansive, making it difficult to navigate and order at times. For instance, some of the appetizers (and several entrees) are separated out and appear on the Classici section (Davio’s staple dishes since the restaurant’s inception, though this is not explained on the menu). A variety of spring rolls even have their own section unto themselves (Marchi). What does Davio’s pride itself on – steak, seafood, pasta – all of the above? It’s as if the restaurant wants to be all things to everyone, and is a bit too schizophrenic for my taste.

Beggars, however, cannot be choosers. Davio’s pleasantly delivers on several levels. Its ambience and its food make it a welcomed addition to the South Shore dining scene. Is it the Super Bowl of fine dining? Not at all, but DiFillippo and his staff score a touchdown in Paul’s Palate’s book.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Carmen in North End is Secret Worth Keeping

Located just around the corner from bustling Hanover Street in Boston’s North End, blink and you might miss Carmen amongst the countless neighborhood Italian restaurants. Pity, since this charming, romantic hideaway whips up some of the finest upscale Italian cuisine the North End has to offer.

Carmen’s interior is intimately smug. A mini bar is located up front, while brick walls, low lighting, and arms-length wine racks create an Old World ambience.

Small plates from the wine bar (all reasonably priced at $6) include a generous portion of wonderfully fresh marinated mushrooms with smoked bacon and sherry vinegar. The grilled asparagus with truffle vinaigrette and pecorino we sample, however, is quite bland in flavor. First courses are uniquely prepared and impressive. Homemade ravioli of braised short rib, herbed goat cheese, and sage brown butter ($14) is heavenly, featuring pillowy pasta tubes doused in a subtly rich, but not-too heavy reduction. Spice cured beef tenderloin with arugula, parmigiano, lemon vinaigrette, and aged balsamic ($15) contains thinly sliced strips of meat that are surprisingly crisp and slightly candied in flavor (do I detect a hint of licorice?) It’s an oddly appealing, inspiring dish sure to hover in one’s mind (and on one’s palate) long after the meal’s completion. The same can be said for a perfectly executed grilled flatbread with caramelized onions, grapes, walnuts, robiola cheese, and aged balsamic ($15). Its crust is beautifully crisped and the pie strikes a perfect balance between sweet and tart.

Don’t miss the handmade pastas, which include a non-traditional Italian version of a French crepe – called a crespelle – stuffed with porcini mushrooms and caramelized onions, topped with Carmen’s famous Bolognese sauce ($20). While the presentation left little to the imagination (more closely resembling a Sloppy Joe than a crepe), the dish was flavorful and satisfying (albeit a bit too heavy given the summer season). For entrees, seared sea scallops with sweet corn, pancetta, and shrimp risotto, served alongside carrot puree ($29) were fresh and light, although the accompanying risotto and puree did nothing to accentuate the flavor of the fish. The slow roasted rack of pork with roasted acorn squash, braised escarole, and spicy mustard sauce ($26) was unanimously voted as the strongest entrée of the lot. The meat was perfectly cooked (not overly dry, which happens far too frequently in restaurants nowadays) and the mustard sauce packed a sweet and spicy (once again, that candied flavor) wallop. Due to limited space at Carmen, dessert is not offered (no problem for us, as we headed one block north to Hanover Street and ordered delectable cannolis at Modern Pastry).

Our server was genial, knowledgeable of the menu, attentive, and accommodating (i.e. she requested that the kitchen serve half of the flatbread without cheese due to my wife’s dairy allergy). Glasses of wine and water were frequently filled without raising a finger. Speaking of wine, Carmen’s list is extensive (roughly twenty bottles of white and sixty reds, each broken out by region and reasonably priced). House-made seasonal white sangria ($18/litre), about which our eating companions had previously raved, is rather dull, but did help stave off the unbearably hot environment (dining on a hot summer evening at most any North End establishment will pose the same problem given that the majority of them have open-air dining).

Overall, Carmen was a memorable dining experience. It may not carry the lofty nametag or reputation of other neighborhood heavyweights such as Mare or Prezza, but its delectable fare is more reasonably priced and its atmosphere emphasizes romance over flash, substance over style. This is a place to hide from the throngs of ravenous people crowding Hanover Street. It may not be possible, but Paul’s Palate would like to keep this seductive, secretive dining destination all to himself.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lucca Back Bay a Hit-or-Miss Dining Spot

When owners Ted Kennedy, and Matthew and Sean Williams’s decided to expand its North End’s dining hotspot Lucca into the Back Bay last year, Sasso came to be. Evidently, the fancy name didn’t take, as the restaurant is now simply called Lucca Back Bay. Neither did the original chef, David Ross, who was replaced by formidable chef Anthony Mazzotta, he of nationally renowned restaurants of which you may have heard (California’s French Laundry and New York’s Per Se). And yet, when it comes to local publicity of its finest Italian restaurants, Lucca Back Bay is almost always excluded from the conversation. Paul’s Palate trekked over to the Huntington Avenue location (lodged between the Colonnade and Marriott Copley Hotels) to investigate why.

Lucca Back Bay aims high for ambience, and mostly hits its mark. A snazzy little bar with some tables for nibbling on bar bites appears to the left, while an elegant, modern dining room, painted in warm brown hues and providing some great street-viewing outside, is to our right. A long marble staircase leading up to the kitchen, however, seems strangely askew. In fact, after awkwardly attempting to find my way to the rest rooms, whose entranceway was initially pitch black, the deeply embarrassed maitre’d apologized for some of his servers who apparently had bumped into switches upstairs connected to this area on multiple occasions. Though the establishment boasts an impressive décor, minute details such as these prevent Lucca from taking its rightful place atop the classy scale – a la Mistral or Sorrelina.

Mazzotta’s menu changes seasonally, depending on what Italian regional fare tickles his fancy. And like Lucca’s ambience, his food options are typically on the mark. For starters, though, the vitello tonnato ($16) is an utter disappointment. The thinly sliced veal carpaccio is barely discernible, as is the bland tuna tartare, which is rolled into unappealing ball-like shapes. The accoutrements sound enticing – grain mustard remoulade, tiny croutons, pickled ramps, cucumber, radish, and watercress – but they add very little flavor or texture to the dish. On the other hand, Mazzato’s Point Judith calamari ($13) are nothing short of sensational, creatively sauteed with a delectable agro dolce tomato sauce and eggplant. Pasta dishes are Mazzotta’s forte, as evidenced by his superb house-made tagliatelle con pollo ($22), whose blend of perfectly cooked pasta, confit chicken, panecetta, preserved lemon, watercress, and toasted pistachios elevates this bright, lively dish into the canon of all-time great pastas. Four thick, moist seared George Bank scallops ($36) adorn my wife’s dish, but aside from a delicious garnish of turnip puree, sautéed spinich, and confit lobster mushrooms almost hiding underneath the seafood, the plate is practically bare, nary an accompaniment to be had. It were as if we were re-living the commercial in which the couple goes out to a fine dining establishment only to discover miniscule, bordering on pretentious food portion sizes. My wife leans over, secretly pointing to her dish, and whispers, “Is that all there is?” Surely, this cannot happen at a place like Lucca, can it?

Save for a missed water glass, service was consistent and amiable. Our waiter was pleasant and quite knowledgeable of the restaurant’s wine and food selections.

As evidenced by its ambience, service, and food, Lucca Back Bay, like a good-but-not-great baseball player, frequently swings for the fences but more often settles for ground-rule doubles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in today’s competitive culinary world and challenging economic climate – where repeat business is critical - perfection is everything. Given Luccca’s moderately high price points ($13 cocktails, $11-16 antipasti, $22-24 pasta dishes, $26-36 entrees, $10 desserts), expectations need to be tempered here. Musician Suzanne Vega once sang about a character named Luka living on the second floor. This particular Lucca yearns for the penthouse, but like the central figure in Vega’s song, delivers above average, but slightly pedestrian results.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Italy by Way of Belmont? Il Casale Comes Close

You’d have to practically live on Italy’s Amalfi Coast (and who wouldn’t want to?) not to recognize Dante de Magistris’s name amongst Boston’s most revered and exciting chefs. His flagship restaurant, Dante, offers up more upscale, sexy Italian fare in Cambridge’s Royal Sonesta Hotel, and opened to rave reviews a few years back. Fortunately for us suburbanites, de Magistris, along with father, Leon and brothers Damian and Filippo, have scaled things back (bringing un-sexy back?) by recently opening up an establishment in his hometown of Belmont, which serves up more traditional, family-style Italian inspired fare conjured up from his nonna’s (grandmother) recipe book. This isn’t Clio, folks: whereas chef Ken Oringer’s gastronomical dishes are expensively ambitious, de Magistris’s cuisine, like the restaurant’s name (a house in the Italian countryside) achieves affordable simplicity.

If it’s ambience you’re after, il Casale won’t disappoint (unless, of course, you’re seeking out that remote house in the Italian countryside). The restaurant, situated in quaint Belmont center, resides in a converted firehouse. Brick walls, exposed beams, high ceilings, chandeliers, and muted lighting make for a romantic, trendy décor. Dark curtains separate the large bar from the dining room and open kitchen. Lively, good-looking crowds are in abundance, cheerily sipping on cocktails and consuming their meals. Lest we forget we’re in Belmont, not New York City.

At il Casale, family-style dining is the order of the day. Aptly named after Italian race cars, though far more affordable, the Fiat ($35) includes four courses while the Ferrari ($60) offers five courses plus sfizi (small bites).

Speaking of reasonably-priced, the sfizi are a steal at $5 apiece. While every local food critic under t sun raved about the maiale (pork meatballs), I was slightly disappointed by their blandness. They were neither filled with nearly enough mozzarella nor succulent, despite de Magistris’s innovate technique of preparing the meatballs in a pig’s head reduction sauce. Far more intriguing, and simple for that matter, was the traditional carne version, cooked in pure tomato sugo (sauce) and sprinkled with cheese. Old standbys arancini (porcini risotto rice balls with scamorza and tomato sauce) and pomodoro (tomato bruschetta with garlic and Silician oregano) were once again simply prepared yet simply divine. Amongst the entire sfizi offerings, however, the burrata – a buttery mozzarella from Apulia served with Monini olive oil and candied pistachios, was pure bliss: a perfectly balanced dish blending the cheese’s tartness with milky, nutty sweetness.

Entrees offer equal value and quality, none whose price point exceeds $26 (pastas top out at $21). Dante’s nonna, I’m sure, slaved over her pasta dishes, so why not sample one for ourselves? Illustrative of de Magistris’s attentiveness to using fresh, seasonal ingredients, gnocchi ($21) are light, pillowy dumplings served ‘primavera’ style, including a pink porcini sauce and a spring vegetable ragout that includes favas, peas, and asparagus. The secondi dishes are also strong, including the pizzaiola, a slow-braised skirt steak layered with tomato-oregano sugo, where the meat is both perfectly cooked and melt-in-your-mouth good.

A half dozen moderately-priced red and white wines ($9-14/glass) adorn the menu, as do a dozen interesting, adeptly prepared cocktails which range from $8-12. A refreshing, Bellini-like Pear cider ($10) blends cider, pear cognac, and prosecco to perfection.

Be sure to save room for dessert. A traditional tiramisu is thankfully light and packs a healthy dose of gran marnier. The frittelle, however, is worth shouting back to Italy about. Venetian style fried dough, served as beignet-style pieces, are accompanied by a warm chocolate fonduta dipping sauce. The plating of this dish might not be overly inspiring, but as with the lionshare of dishes at il Casale, it’s the flavors that take center stage.

Service is exceptional. Our server never once blinks when questioned about the menu, and seemed to have an innate ability to pare dishes with wines based on our table’s preferences and tastes. He demonstrated a refined enthusiasm over the kitchen’s cuisine, which in turn elevated the quality of our dining experience.

I’ll happily reserve a spot at the deMagistris family table and consume their nonna’s delectable cuisine. After all, il Casale, tucked just far enough away from the bright lights of that big city, Boston, proves that you can, after all, go home for a great meal.

El Oriental de Cuba Brings Little (Bites of) Havana into Jamaica Plain

Poor foreign relations may have always prevented Fidel Castro from frequenting the United States, but perhaps the intoxicating aromas and flavors emanating from a wonderful, little restaurant situated in Jamaica Plain just might entice him here. El Oriental de Cuba, founded in 1994, offers up some of the finest authentic Cuban cuisine north of Miami.

Don’t fret about the restaurant’s interior. The front-to-back setting doesn’t allow for seating parties of more than six, and not a high chair in the establishment had functional seat fasteners for children. The service, though certainly friendly, is a tad too leisurely (more like Caribbean-team), as waters were poured and orders taken nearly fifteen minutes after seating.

But let’s face it: it’s not the ambience you’re after here, but rather, the delectable cuisine. For starters, you’ll find a variety of savory soups and stews, including a marvelously hearty take on traditional seafood stew with rice ($8.95). The beef patty ($2.50), served empanada style, was a revelation: a flaky exterior packed with tender minced meat whose flavor is enhanced by a variety of secret spices. Fried sweet plantains ($1.95) were equally good, with a crème-brulee-like exterior and a heavenly gooey center. While others in my party raved about the octopus salad, I found the fish’s texture too tough, with zero rubberiness and give, and the abundance of vegetables surprisingly added little flavor to the dish.

Entrees fared equally well. While whole red snapper in spicy sauce ($16.95) proved to be a dull disappointment, the shrimp in garlic sauce with mofongo ($16.95) was playfully presented and perfectly prepared. Upon initial glance, El Oriental de Cuba’s Cuban sandwich may sound less appealing than more exciting options that include drunken goat and rabo (braised oxtail). But listen closely to the locals, and they’ll swear by this sandwich, and for good reason. It is served on an airy, baguette-like bread, layered with succulent strips of pork, and lathered with a special sauce, along with traditional ingredients of mustard and pickles. I dare any restaurant’s imitations to match the simplistic, yet optimal flavor of El Oriental’s standout version. And don’t forget to wash all of your meal down with one of the restaurant’s revered tropical shakes ($3.00). They are blended with milk or water, and given the wonderful potency and richness of the fruits, the former ingredient need not be required. Guanabana (semi-tart and semi-sweet) and horchata (rice and banana creating a mild chocolate flavor) are unique and exceptionally good.

Prior to entering this establishment, I discovered that El Oriental de Cuba’s location was firebombed a few years ago, only to re-open at the local residents’ insistence. Not only does that demonstrate the public’s acute sense of what qualifies for fine food, but also the owner’s sense of resiliency amidst hardship. I applaud this little restaurant-that-could as it continues to feed the masses. Count me amongst them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Foodies Can Shop for Extravagant Tastes at Market

Attention, shoppers. Upon hearing that world-renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten – yes, he, the creator of the often imitated yet infrequently replicated warm chocolate cake – was bringing his culinary empire to Boston, it sparked a thought that maybe – just maybe – the culinary scene in Boston may finally be catching up to New York as one of the region’s (country’s?) most exciting dining destinations. Sure, Boston has its highly-regarded Ken Oringers, Michael Schlows, and Barbara Lynches, but their proprietary reach has yet to go international (can any of these chefs claim restaurants as their own overseas in places including British Columbia, Mexico and Qatar?). Located in the new, ultra-modern W Hotel at the corner of Stuart Street, this Market is not difficult to find.

Particularly as you enter its doors. The dining room’s decor oozes chicness, from its oversized windows, to its razor-thin, sleek lighting frozen in midair, to Asian-inspired touches including wood crevices along the ceiling. This is where good-looking, well-to-do individuals spend their time and money.

But Vongerichten’s cuisine – best described as comfort food meets gourmet - is what this shopper had on his to-do (to-eat) list, and shockingly enough, what was sampled presented a mixed bag of goodies. The tuna tartare with avocado, spicy radish and ginger dressing was surprisingly average, attributed to the rather bland texture of the tartare itself. The spicy radish atop the tuna provided a nice, crispy contrast, although the dressing’s flavor was a tad overpowering. In addition, the much-ballyhooed parmesan-encrusted organic chicken, served with artichokes and lemon-basil butter, was a disappointment. What promised to be a tender cut of chicken turned out slightly on the dry side (I’m crying fowl), and while the artichokes were a respectable accompaniment, the citrusy flavor emanating from the creative lemon-basil butter composition in which they were soaked was off-putting and did not mesh well with the dish. This is not to say that Vongerichten’s plates stumble miserably. Far from it, given his sky-high aspirations and unique usage of ingredients (other local chefs would kill to prepare these dishes). What can be ascertained from these dishes is that are merely good, not great. On the other hand, green apple crisp served in a warmed skillet with cinnamon ice cream was ultra-fresh, crumbly-good comfort food, particularly on a bleary, wintry New England afternoon.

Service was astute and prompt. Water glasses and napkins were promptly filled and folded, respectively. A slightly delayed house made soda was the lone blip, but after sipping on the bright yellow, passion chili concoction – which possessed a well-balanced sweetness and heat – all was forgiven.

Value is in line with equally esteemed dining establishments in the area. For lunch, soups and salads range from $8-13, pizza and sandwiches $9-16, appetizers $11-17, entrees faring very well at $18-23. The Market Lunch is a steal at $24 for 2 plates and dessert. Dinner prices are comparable, with only certain entrees reaching into $30 territory, while the Market Dinner is a king’s feast at 5 plates and dessert.

Although Paul’s Palate’s shopping/dining experience at Market proved to be a mild letdown, he’d be receptive to a return visit. After all, there were other highly lauded plates, such as sea urchin toast with yuzu and jalapeno, foie gras brule with spiced fig jam, seared shrimp with silky pumpkin emulsion, and the aforementioned chocolate cake that remained untasted. There’s more than enough culinary experimentation and variety at Market to make dining here both rewarding and dare-I-say, affordable. That should grab your attention, shoppers.