Friday, December 23, 2011

Say Hello to Hola

For foodies residing on the South Shore, why travel to Boston’s acclaimed Toro when one can feast on well-prepared, innovative tapas and scrumptious flatbreads at Marshfield’s Hola? Tucked away in a rear parking lot in Library Plaza just off of busy Route 139, the restaurant feels like a secluded dining spot that – like a glass of fine Jimenez sherry – you can enjoy just for yourself.

And yet, upon entering into this warm establishment through a set of curtains, you quickly realize that you can’t have Hola all to yourself. Even on an early Thursday evening, Hola’s social scene is already in high gear. Hand-painted walls create a relaxing, fun ambience (there’s also a large fireplace on the outside patio, perfect for late summer/early fall visits).

The only evident drawback of the evening is Hola’s substandard cocktails. A mojito arrives with far too much rum and virtually no sugar (although our server politely brings back an improved version), a Dark and Stormy is equally overwrought with rum, while on the other end of the spectrum, a white sangria – which should be considered a staple at any tapas establishment – is excessively bland in taste (lemonade and wine do not a fine sangria make) and possesses nary a hint of fruit. For concoctions ranging from $8-9, one expects better. Instead, sample more authentic drinks hailing from Spain like the addictive Licor 43 (a vanilla liquer), Pedro Ximenez Lustau sherry (very sweet), or a subtle, light, highly drinkable glass of Rioja Crianza ($9). There are roughly 30 affordable varieties of wine hailing from Spain, Argentina, Italy, and California, about two-thirds of them red, nearly half available by the glass (most between $6-8), and the majority coming in at under $30 per bottle.

As for the food itself, Hola confidently hits its stride with its unique cold tapas. One of the most pleasant surprises of the evening, an option not even on my radar, was a delightful dish of spiced grapes (laced with cinnamon), marcona almonds, goat cheese, and anise crisps ($6.50). It’s a dish packed with many seemingly off-kilter ingredients that somehow strike a balance between texture and flavor. Charred rare beef with sherried figs and blue cheese ($9.50) is also solid, blending together sweetness and tartness. Ceviche-style tuna ($9.50) – which when done improperly can come off as tasting excessively fishy – is perfectly seasoned with mango vinegar, chili aioli, and accompanied by spicy cabbage for a crunchy contrast.

Hot tapas fare almost equally as well. The most noteworthy dish of the evening that had everyone in their seats wondering aloud: How did they (the kitchen) do that (in terms of flavoring)? was the fried calamari with hot and sweet chili vinaigrette ($9). The calamari were perfectly crisped on the outside, succulent on the inside, and possessed some of the best sugary-spicy seasoning I’ve ever experienced with any dish. This was an absolute knockout, and had me clamoring for more once every last crustacean was devoured. Almost equally as good were the curry fried green beans with a lemon aioli dipping sauce ($6) to counter the curry’s heat. Other standout dishes included addictive roasted dates and bacon ($7) with – yes, once again – that sensational mango vinegar, each of which I dreamed about popping into my mouth late into the evening if only I was afforded the opportunity. Grilled shrimp with smoked paprika and lemon ($9), while less adventurous, was a well-executed dish, as were chicken empanadas with corn and black beans ($7.50). Succulent lamb was perfectly cooked and memorable.

A potato torta (akin to a Spanish omelet) with romesco sauce ($6.50) was a disappointment, laced with far too few potatoes, too much cheese, and topped with an unflattering looking dollop of unremarkably flavored romesco sauce. While the coffee and chipotle rubbed steak with fried potato wedges ($12) was decent enough, there was not enough coffee in the rub itself to elevate the dish from merely good to great.

Flatbreads were also exceptional for the most part, just light enough and perfectly crisped to allow for sampling several versions. Noteworthy, innovative selections included smoky garlic shrimp/roasted peppers/scallion and saffron aioli/queso fresco ($11.50), spinach/red onion/hot cherry peppers/asiago ($9), and my personal favorite with figs/prosciutto/gorgonzola ($11), a dish that winningly combined sweet and salty elements. The only misfires here were an unflatteringly tasting eggplant/roasted red peppers/fried garlic/queso fresco ($9.50) and a surprisingly bland mushrooms/butternut squash/manchego/truffle oil ($11).

The evening concluded with a decadent duo of desserts, beginning with – what else? – another flatbread, this time layered with crème anglaise and fresh berries. Churros were prepared in an untraditional, yet inspiring fashion. In lieu of arriving in long, narrow strips, they were served beignet-style, each with a wonderfully hot, crispy exterior (other versions suffer from excess amounts of doughiness) resting atop a warm, gooey chocolate sauce.

With its courteous, attentive, eager-to-please wait staff, reasonable prices, and eclectic, frequently exciting cuisine, you’ll never want to say goodbye to Hola.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Good Fortune at Myers and Chang

Spanish tapas, those delicious miniature delicacies long available at restaurants such as Ken Oringer’s acclaimed Toro and South Shore’s Loco, have unfortunately become a bit of a culinary cliché. If you’re looking to spice up your dining options, head over to Myers and Chang, which offers innovative, flavorful tapas courtesy of the Far East. The restaurant is helmed by husband and wife/restauranteur and chef superduo Christopher Myers and Joanne Chang, who opened their funky, upscale indie dim sum diner in Boston’s South End neighborhood back in 2008.

The ambience is trendy, to be sure, but Myers and Chang’s proprietors don’t take themselves too seriously, either. Take, for instance, the venue’s mirrored walls with playful, handwritten messages, as well as a giant dragon lurking across its windows. Diners are indeed in for a good old straightforward fortune here: fun. There is, however, one caveat: be prepared to shout across the table to your eating companions, as tables are tightly packed together in this surprisingly small space (are the owners trying to re-create China itself?), while indie music blares loudly.

The menu offers creative takes on traditional Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese specialties. Each dish, our server explains, is made fresh to order and served immediately once it hits the plate, so be prepared to eat items out of order. Herbs and spices are abundant and enliven many selections. Sharing several small, affordable plates is highly encouraged. Ah, communal dining at its finest.

A mid-sized bar and open kitchen are located at the back of the room, perfect for viewing one’s food being prepared as well-coiffed singles and couples smile and sip on nicely crafted cocktails including sake sangrias and one of the finest muddled mint mojitos you’ll ever have.

Although sharing s encouraged, you may not want to part with some of the dim sum selections, including a comforting bowl of iridescent orange-colored butternut squash and coconut soup with 5-spice charred wild mushrooms ($7). It’s creamy (but not heavy) and instantly craveable, is punctuated with hints of lemongrass and chili, and is accompanied by crunchy fired kimchi balls (perfect for dipping and contrast). Less inspiring is esti’s hot & sour soup with fresh shitakes, pork, and local tofu ($5), which consists of a broth neither spicy nor tart enough to inspire anything more than slight acknowledgement from Esti Parson herself (for whom the soup is named, a local restauranteur and close friend of the owners). Silky soft braised pork belly buns ($9) with bao, brandy hoisin, and house pickle are also memorable. A friend of mine initially expresses reluctance upon ordering tiger’s tears ($11) given the menu’s disclaimer about its high level of spiciness. He’s happily brought to tears, however, after realizing how delicious this complex blend of grilled steak (served cold), thai basil, lime, and khao koor really is. Island creek clams with housemade black bean sauce and infused with sake ($12) are wonderfully smoky and fresh. My wife expresses mild disappointment in the dish, but I find it bordering on spectacular given all its nuanced flavors.

Under the ‘…and then some’ portion of the menu, which consists of slightly larger portions, the tea-smoked pork spare ribs ($14) are a carnivore’s delight, the perfect sweet and sticky meaty combination. Also highly enjoyable is chef Chang’s playful take on a Southern delicacy of fried chicken and waffles ($17), inserting a ginger-sesame waffle (which will definitely make you leggo your Eggo) and swapping out maple syrup for hot and sweet sauce. It instantly makes me reconsider having breakfast for dinner. The lone misstep of the evening was a heavy, rather bland-tasting noodle dish of beef and broccoli chow fun ($15).

Desserts (all $7) are not to be missed, particularly given Chang’s notoriety for her confectionary concoctions at her nearby Flour bakery. Coconut cream pie with lime whipped cream is an airy, divine delight. “ancient Chinese secret” chocolate mousse – dairy-free, no less – is wonderfully dense and shouldn’t be kept hidden from the public any longer. It’s laced with miniature tasty 5-spice merungues. Lemon-ginger mousse coupe is too tart and curd-like in texture for my taste, but is accompanied by a crunchy homemade fortune cookie.

Service is surprisingly good given the somewhat cramped and chaotic setting. Our waitress’s recommendations are spot-on, her knowledge of the entire menu is extensive, and she is extremely attentive to all of our needs and requests, as evidenced by her repeated spot checks with my wife to ensure that the meal met her expectations given her dairy allergy. Confuscius says, “Superior service makes for very happy customers, indeed.”

So, too, do the reasonable prices for such delicious fare. With dim sum dishes averaging $8-10, and none of the larger dishes exceeding $16, you can enjoy a sultan’s feast at Myers and Chang, particularly when dining with other adventurous couples who are equally eager to sample unique dishes. Don’t forget, however, to tack on an additional $12 for parking in an adjacent lot due to no valet parking and little, if any metered parking alongside Washington Street.
As Chef Chang brought out our plate of clams early on, I announced in jest to the table, “We have a celebrity in our presence.” Chang laughed along with us, politely asked us if we were enjoying ourselves, and proceeded to chat with other customers about their dining experience. It was a pleasant, casual exchange that perfectly embodied what makes Myers and Chang so appealing. Like that wonderful sauce accompanying those chicken and waffles, the restaurant not only remains hot right now in Boston’s dining scene but also packs lots of genuine sweetness.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Zebra’s Earns its Stripes

Have you ever been to a restaurant that wasn’t at all what you expected? And in a good way? Zebra’s Bistro and Wine Bar, located on North Main Street in Medfield, surprised me on multiple levels. From its trendy interior, to its eclectic, New American cuisine, to its superior service, and mind you, all at a reasonable price point, this Metrowest suburban hotspot made me feel as if I were dining in Boston, less the distance and parking valet fees.

If you can overlook the restaurant’s confusing parking situation (the back parking lot cannot be accessed from North Main Street itself but a street over), Zebra’s does not disappoint, particularly in ambience. The entryway opens into an expansive lounge and bar area, packed with affluent suburbanites sipping and smiling the evening away. Who knew Medfield was such a happening town? A short walk leads to a smaller private dining area on the right-hand side, and then to the main dining room, which boasts walls splashed with warm, welcoming hues of orange and yellow and are adorned with several paintings. Several tables are surrounded by yellow and black embroidered chairs resembling zebra stripes (get it?). The room comes off as casual, yet cool.

As for the food, it’s innovative and most often, delicious. Take, for instance, the appetizers, which included pulled pork tostadas with guacamole and pepper jack cheese ($9.95), a unique, fun take on the traditional Mexican dish that left me scraping every last morsel off of my plate. Arancini (risotto stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto, served with pomodoro sauce, for $10.95) was almost equally as good.

Thin crust pizzas utilized different ingredients as well, such as the promising lobster and black fig mission pizza with aged blue cheese, roasted corn and scallion essence ($19.95). While I applaud Zebra’s kitchen for employing such bold flavors, the pie was overpoweringly sweet and dense for my taste, as I could only muster a couple of bites. It was far too ‘busy’ of a dish and a mild disappointment.

Entrees, however, put the kitchen back on track. Beef short ribs over horseradish mashed potatoes ($24.95) were not only plentiful, but also packed tremendous flavor and tenderness, unlike several versions I’ve tasted (the meat was soaked in red wine for 24 hours ahead of time). In lieu of a traditional side of rice, saffron paella was served over risotto accompanied by generous, fresh portions of shrimp, clams, mussels, salmon, and spicy chorizo (a steal at $24.95). My only minor quibble with the dish was that the saffron itself was barely detectable (although our server did warn us about this, and given my experience with saffron, large amounts would need to be incorporated into the dish to make a dent flavor-wise).

For dessert, a seasonal pumpkin cake with buttercream frosting ($7), provided to Zebra’s fresh that day from the bakery across the street, was a comforting conclusion to our meal.

Service at Zebra’s bordered on spectacular. Our server was pleasant, patient, and extremely knowledgeable of the entire menu. She walked us through a reasonably priced, extensive wine selection that included roughly seventy red and fifty white varieties. A bottle of 2007 Hahn Estates (produced in Monterey) provided tremendous value at $39 for this smooth, subtle Bordeaux/Meritage blend. Several other seasonal cocktails included the Red Delicious (cherry bourbon, apple liquer, Chambord, and cranberry, served straight up). About a dozen beer selections as well as cold sake for the more adventurous drinkers are also featured.

Zebra’s owners, upon opening its doors in 1999, sought to re-capture the vibrant, intimate feel of the South End neighborhood they previously inhabited. Given their establishment’s convenient location, commendable fare, and outstanding service, I’d say they’ve accomplished their mission. Zebra’s makes Paul’s Palate’s taste buds – to paraphrase musician Prince – party like it’s 1999.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Seasons Greetings from Summer Winter

No matter the season, Summer Winter will surely please any foodie’s palate, particularly Paul’s Palate. Owners Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, the dynamic culinary duo behind highly acclaimed Maine eatery, Arrows, made shockwaves in the Boston dining scene a few years ago, not only because of their decision to open their sister restaurant in the Greater Boston area, but by taking a risk by doing so in a Burlington-based Marriott, of all places. While the restaurant clearly lacks Arrows’ romantic ambience given its suburban setting (oddly located behind an Irish pub within the hotel), it more than accounts for with its freshly prepared, innovative fare.

True to the restaurant’s name, the modern American menu boasts seasonal, locally produced items. In fact, diners can openly view many of the herbs, vegetables, and spices that are incorporated into their meals by peeking at the on-site greenhouse residing at the back of the dining room (that’s a plus, given the modern-looking, yet relatively non-descript hotel interior sans a couple of pictures of produce adorning the walls). And oh, do these ingredients ever take center stage. Frasier and Gaier certainly utilize a unique array of them, but in a restrained, technically sound manner.

Take, for instance, small bites (a steal at $3.50 apiece) that include ‘Strange Flavored’ Eggplant served with warmed pita bread, a hummus-like spread in texture with hints of Thai spices. It’s a revelatory dish that had my wife and I licking every last drop off of our plates and craving more. Sweet and sour roasted cipollini’s (onions) and mushrooms with Arrows Bacon also popped with flavor, although I wished more of than a half dozen small morsels of the wonderfully smoked meat adored the plate to offset the acidity of the vegetables. Tuna tartar ($16) was the lone, albeit minor misstep foodwise. The tuna on its own was underseasoned, but when paired with Middle Eastern spiced onions and cumin yogurt, showed notable improvement. The accompanying garden frisee was nothing more than superfluous, dried-out lettuce.

Entrees truly showcased Frasier and Gaier’s culinary talents and aspirations. If you think the brown sugar and rhubarb brined pork chop ($28) slathers these ingredients atop the meat, you’d be missing the point. These ingredients are cooked into the meat, making for one of the most moist, smoky, and perfectly grilled chops you’ll find in this area. A side starch of Mom’s corn custard is as mouth-wateringly appealing as it sounds and likely better than anything produced out of your own mother’s kitchen (my apologies if I have offended any mothers reading this article, mine included). This concoction resembles cornbread, only far less cakey and much moister, with actual pieces of corn cooked directly into the custard. It could just as easily pose as dessert, and like the aforementioned eggplant, left me seeking more. Another stellar dish included the MC Whole Fried Trout ($26), impressively de-boned and layered with sesame seeds, scallions, and a surprisingly subtle, well-flavored Chinese black bean sauce. It’s lovely to look at and even lovelier to eat. Who needs a romantic setting when food this sexy is served tableside?

Desserts are equally inspired, particularly a blueberry upside down cake with lemon mousse ice cream and blueberry sauce (with fresh blueberries tucked into the small scoop of ice cream). The moist cake thankfully not as dense as it sounds, but surely is as decadent.

Service was relatively smooth with the exception of bringing out an incorrect entrée, mistaking my pork chop for a ribeye. The General Manager ultimately came out, profusely apologized, and generously comped not only my meal but our desserts. With that said, by the time she approached our table, my wife had nearly finished her trout, but she proceeded to offer to take back the dish and cook up a new one, an offer that should have been extended immediately after my ribeye dish was removed). Cocktails, too, priced at $12, were a major disappointment, particularly promising Sangria with fresh spices that possessed little, if any flavor. Stick with wine selections, from which there are 150 to choose, many of which are reasonably priced.

If you can’t make your way to Arrows in Maine, then Summer Winter is a nice consolation prize. Its hotel setting may not be fashionable, but inspired cuisine at affordable prices always is, no matter the season.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Prezza Leaves Quite an ‘Imprezzion’

Widely-known fact: the North End boasts an extraordinary number of Italian dining establishments. Lesser-known fact: the majority of these eateries serve up good (but not great), often overpriced fare. Prezza, chef owner Anthony Caturano’s critically praised restaurant, now in its tenth year, offers food that as big on flavors and portion sizes as it is on one’s expense account (yes, Prezza is ‘pri…zzey).

Located on Fleet Street, just a stone’s throw away from bustling Hanover Street, Prezza’s ambience is hip, yet subdued. Its interior includes dark wood, warm, welcoming beige walls, dim lighting, and walls adorned with contemporary artwork. Prezza is one of those rare places where you can either go to be seen or simply settle into the background while sipping on a nice glass of wine.

And there is an abundance of wine at Prezza, almost to the point of intimidation. There’s a 30 page selection, including pricey reserves, and at first glance, this navigation process can be overwhelming. Fortunately, our server is well-versed with the entire menu, and recommends a less costly alternative (prices dramatically fluctuate, and $30-50 bottles can be had but require an astute eye). He also keeps our meal at a leisurely pace and is quick, confident, and spot-on with each of his suggestions over the course of the evening. Wine consistently flows in and out of our glasses. Life thusfar at Prezza is good.

So, too, is the cuisine. For starters, the crispy shrimp served with Italian slaw and cherry pepper aioli ($16) is beautifully and brightly plated, four nicely sized crustaceans – heads and all – wrapped in kataifi (phyllo). One of my dining companions is underwhelmed with the dish’s lack of heat, but I couldn’t disagree more, enjoying the mildly fiery aftertaste that each bite left in my palate. As we were discussing the dish, our server interjected that there was a hint of harissa (a Moroccan spice) thrown in with the shrimp which gave them their added spicy kick. Almost equally as good was the wood-grilled squid and octopus with braised white beans and toasted parsley ($15). The seafood, once again, was generous in portion, meaty and smoky, while the white beans in which it soaked was more like a hearty broth, not so much a contrast to the fish, but more like a sumptuous, satisfying additional layer of flavor. A generous half portion of lobster far diavlo with saffron tagliatelle with roasted tomato, fennel, and lobster meat ($18) was also a hit with most of the table. While I was particularly fond of the lip-smackingly good sauce, I found the plate served lukewarm to mildly cold, and the tagliatelle slightly overcooked and not as al dente to my liking.

Entrees also struck positive notes. Caturano’s take on paella with saffron (sensing a theme here?) rice, chorizo, chicken, tomato, lobster, swordfish, shrimp, clams, mussels, and squid ($36) is sure to rival any of Boston’s finest. Unlike more brothy (translation: more goopy) versions I’ve recently sampled, this one stands out, particularly the rice and the manner in which all of the ingredients are plated independent from one another. Like the crispy shrimp before it, it’s a stunning dish to behold. Likewise the wood-grilled Veal Porter House with saffron lobster risotto, broccoli rabe, and red wine sauce. At $44, it’s a pricey dish, but it will reward the diners who invest in it. The large, smokey cut perfectly cooked medium rare and is downright succulent when dipped into that rich, heavenly wine reduction sauce. The accompanying risotto included generous lumps of lobster, and might well rival some of the city’s best (yes, even Mistral’s). And don’t even think about passing on Prezza’s super creamy, super dreamy polenta, served in a pool with tomato, basil, and parmigiano. It’s the best $8 you’ll ever spend for a side dish.

Prezza also offers a creative assortment of desserts, a rarity in most North End establishments. While I’m initially disappointed that their fig turnover with pistachio gelato has recently been taken off the menu, our server tells me not to fret. He recommends the limoncello cheesecake on biscotti crust ($10), and it’s delightful. Also served with shaved coconut, the cheesecake is surprisingly light and airy (I detest dense versions) despite its ricotta filling, while being just tart enough without bordering on overpowering. The server is also high on the white chocolate bread pudding with vanilla bean ice cream and crème anglaise ($10), evoking a smirk from this diner given how ubiquitous the dessert has become. My skepticism, however, quickly transforms into near astonishment as I take a bite, and then additional others, realizing how flavorful this confection is with no accompanying sauces to be seen or had on the plate.

Flavorful food, generous portions, gracious and polished service – these are the signs of a winning establishment, even in spite of a hefty price tag. Special occasion restaurants, after all, should be in the business of making one feel special, right? Given this accomplishment, Prezza is nothing short of ‘imprezzive.’

Monday, May 16, 2011

Delfino Brings Tastes of Italy to Roslindale

We’ve all heard this storyline before: you know, the one about the cozy neighborhood that’s legendary in stature, but only to its local residents, while it remains more or less anonymous to less fortunate diners outside of the area. Think Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain before others caught wind of it and has since expanded into Cambridge given the demand to get in. Roslindale’s Delfino fits this profile to a T. One would assume that given its generous portions of simple, yet well executed dishes that are even more generous in flavor, that the restaurant would be a household name across the state. It surprisingly isn’t.

Perhaps this is partly attributed to its tucked-away location in Roslindale Village, or even its relatively small interior dining room, non-existant waiting area, and no-reservations policy (be prepared to wait 1-2 hours unless you call ahead). And the décor is not Delfino’s strongsuit, either, unless cheesy wall murals of fruit and vegetables along with paper tablecloths tickle your fancy.

But oh, the food has a wonderful way of converting all of the non-believers. Our cordial server impressively recites the evening menu’s specials, down to the last ingredient. The meal is terrifically paced, allowing friendly conversation, wine, and flavors on the palate to linger just long enough throughout the evening.

One appetizer special of a tuna tartare – served in a martini glass – is abundant in volume and taste, mixed with avocado, cherry tomatoes and lime juice. This was the version I’d anticipated but sadly never received two weeks prior at the much more acclaimed Radius. As for entrees, another special of halibut was well cooked in a white wine sauce reduction. My veal marsala tenderloin, cooked perfectly medium rare, may have been one of the finest cuts I’ve sampled in some time, possessing very little fat that often bogs down other versions. Its wild mushroom Marsala sauce was rich in flavor, as was the herb risotto, which was a tad heavy given the denseness of the sauce (although still quite good). House-made pappardelle – ribbon noodles tossed with shrimp and arugula in pink sauce, sounds simple in preparation, but let me assure you is the closest I’ll ever get to my Italian grandmother’s (if I was Italian, that is!) homemade pasta.

A subtle, not overpowering chocolate bread pudding and house-made tiramisu provide wonderful closure to a fine meal.

As we depart, the maitre’d graciously ushers us out and asks us to come again. I almost feel like politely pulling him aside and asking, “Are you sure us outsiders are welcomed back?” I now feel at home here, amongst the locals.

Radius Worth Breaking the Bank Over

Celebrity chef Michael Schlow apparently can do no wrong nowadays (other than his premature exit on Top Chef Masters). His culinary empire grows ever stronger by the day. Via Matta remains one of Boston’s landmark dining destinations for fine dining and people watching, Alta Strada has expanded, and Latin tapa-inspired Tico recently opened its doors in the Back Bay. But ask any local foodie in the know, and they’ll all point to Radius and Schlow’s crowning achievement. Opened over a decade ago, it still warrants consideration as one of the city’s top three or four dining establishments. It’s no small irony that Radius is located in a converted bank vault in Boston’s Financial District. Expense accounts be damned, this is a restaurant customers loosen their wallets for and splurge on those special occasions.

Set in a rotund, white room cloaked with crimson colors and thick columns, Radius’s ambience can best be classified as royal with chic. Shortly after being seated, you know you’re about to be treated like royalty. Behold, the Rotating Servers of the Dining Table, decked out in blue navy blazers. Listen to techno music pulsating over the quite room. Sure, eating at a rave-like event at Caesar’s Palace sounds quirky, but it somehow works.

The seven-course menu is a smorgasbord of Mediterranean, French, and Asian-inspired dishes that work for the most part, and when Schlow is truly on his game as he is this evening, they are innovative and transporting. This is intended to be seductive fare, after all. Take, for instance, ginger poached muschovy duck served atop a crostini with spicy coconut caramel and grilled scallion compote. Sounds highly appealing, but Schlow turns the flavors up a notch by pairing with a pineapple-mango shooter. The combination of flavors is positively delectable, and I allowed it to linger on my palate long after I’d taken my last bite-sip. Tempura set atop seaweed salad-inspired soba noodles is also unusual and memorable in both presentation and taste. Not as successful, however, was an appetizer of ahi tuna tartare with avocado puree, ikura, and citrus, which proved disappointingly bland given the lack of citrusy sweetness.

Onto the main courses, which included a wonderful slow-roasted Scottish salmon set atop a potato cake. Schlow’s legendary slow-roasted ribeye served alongside robuchon potatoes, pearl onions, and drizzled with red wine sauce was perfectly cooked (medium rare) and seasoned. For pre-dessert, an odd-sounding celery sorbet – its description sure to evoke several dry heaves from less adventurous diners – atop a peanut butter base was a tasty triumph. It’s a pity there wasn’t more of it, although I had to remind myself that it was merely a precursor to the decadent pilon de chocolat, a dense, rotund mound of heavenly bittersweet chocolate, although the accompanying fenugreek ice cream was superfluous and slightly off-putting in flavor.

Overall, Radius earns high marks for its doting service and awe-inspiring dishes. Some critics may nitpick about Schlow’s smaller-in-stature portion sizes, but it’s his emphasis on larger-than-life ingredients that elevate his dishes from most of his counterparts around town. When you’re breaking the bank when dining out, rest assured that the high quality of Schlow’s cuisine ensures that there is no highway ‘dining’ robbery transpiring at Radius.

Monday, April 11, 2011

This Yard House Doesn’t Measure Up

Oh, what tricks the food gods play! Yard House, located in the far back of Dedham’s bustling shopping plaza, Legacy Place, appears to be a perfectly logical spot for an evening of fun, casual dining. A seemingly infinite number of creative beer selections on tap, a voluminous menu from which to choose (over 130 items), and an even more voluminous setting (classic rock blaring on a high end sound system to drone out potential tantrums of our children). An upscale restaurant chain couldn’t be all that bad, could it? The ambience is impressively supersized. Behold, ye of drinking age and unquenchable thirst, the glass-enclosed keg room in which 5,000 gallons of beer resides! Behold the gigantic center island bar featuring an endless number of tap handles and over 250 varieties of beers on tap! Behold the number of thirsty patrons downing the ridiculously large 3-foot tall glasses of said beer! The origin of this mammoth glass is equally impressive: stagecoach drivers in England would down these during the periods when horse-drawn carriages were the method of transportation (so much for eschewing the dangers of drinking and driving back in the day). Abstract artwork adorns the walls, while dozens of flat screens keep interested sports nuts informed. It’s as if the owners of this California-based chain, which spans across 25 cities nationally, are saying to documentary director Morgan Spurlock, “Supersize this.” But excess only takes you so far in this world before ultimately combusting. Although I’d happily combust on Yard House’s beers, which travel through three to five of beer lines stretching overhead from the keg room across to the island bar, maintaining a constant temperature between 34 and 36 degrees. I’d recommend heading to the Blends, which feature creative combinations with stouts, ales, and ciders. My favorite? The Black Velvet, which includes Wayder’s pear cider and Guiness stout. The cider offsets the heaviness of the stout and provides a subtle sweetness to the drink. It’s pure mixology nirvana, and I order it in the 3-foot tall glass ($13.50 for a 2-pint drink). And what better way to down beer than with nicely crisped shoestring fries? I also take a sip of a dining companion’s delicious Java Coffee porter, which contains a strong, terrific burst of espresso flavor and is just rich enough without being too heavy. But that is where the fun ends. Entrees are tepid at best. I, along with another person, order the most popular house favorite on the menu, the (Mac + Cheese)2 ($15.95). It’s a combination of comfort food that should sound sinfully good to consume: chicken breast, smoked applewood bacon, wild mushrooms, cheddar and parmesan with campanelle pasta and white truffle oil. It receives a lukewarm reception – literally. While mine was served hot, the other person who ordered the dish immediately sent his cold plate back. Our waitress, prior to ordering this dish, raved about how delicious it was, going so far as to say she ate it once a week. “It’s a diet buster, but well worth it,” she convincingly stated with a smile. How disappointing, then, to receive such a visually and tastefully bland mess such as this? I glanced over to the other diner, and we both gave the universally understood nod that conveys utter disgust with our dishes. I didn’t detect a trace of any one ingredient in the dish but for the pasta tubes themselves. Another diner’s Bernaise burger (with fried onions) and a lush BBQ chicken salad (with roasted pasilla, pinto beans, cilantro, and fried onions) fared better. A trio sampler, including peach apple cobbler and lemon and chocolate soufflés were decent enough but immediately forgettable. The self-described American fusion menu, on the whole, however, proves to be a costly misnomer. Yard House seems to get the basic dishes right, but when it attempts to fuse the finer things together and create more inspired dishes, the menu moves incrementally by inches, not yards. And why must a seemingly well-oiled machine of a restaurant so clueless as to where it seats a large party with two high-chairs? We were somehow seated in an area bursting with a flurry of server activity, which made for treacherous going as waiters cautiously, almost rudely tiptoed around two restless children. Was the hostess actually thinking that they would remain seated during the meal’s entirety? Service with a smile only takes one so far. Our server was polite enough, and willfully provided recommendations. But it was as if we were experiencing the culinary equivalent of American Idol, whereby a contestant doesn’t connect with the song he or she is singing. Our server’s recommendations were not well-founded, and her level of attentiveness was minimal. Water glasses were left unfilled, and our server disappeared for minutes at a time, particularly after the dessert sampler was placed on the table. Surely, she couldn’t have expected that six grown adults and three children split the trio sampler (three small dishes) without asking if anyone would like to order something else, could she? Many a good beer can be had at Yard House. For anything food-related, however, I’d venture several yards in any other direction of Legacy Place. This restaurant’s food simply doesn’t measure up.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Not a Happening (CBS) Scene

CBS Scene, located at Patriot’s Place in Foxborough, proves that size does not matter. Yes, there’s the ‘wick-it aw-suhm’ environment in which to catch sporting events on jumbo-sized HDTVs (of which there are 135 in total). With regard to its cuisine, however, the restaurant is all bark and no bite – it’s overcompensating. The food is highly overpriced and the quality of the fare is – well, pedestrianly fair. Ask yourself this: would either Bob Kraft or Tom Brady be caught dining here after a game (perhaps even during the lockout)?

Starters (most between $6.50-10) are actually CBS’s stronger suit. Sweet-chili garlic glazed crisp chicken wings are, to quote former Arizona Cardinals football coach Dennis Green, what we thought they were: crispy, meaty, tender, and tasty.

Not so tasty, however is the ½ lb. hamburger ($10.50 plain, $1 each for additional sides). Mine was cooked to order (medium rare), but my dining companion’s was overcooked. The bland shoestring fries were underseasoned and barely lukewarm.

A dessert trio sampler platter ($12) was average at best. Of the three confections, the coconut cheesecake beignets with raspberry sauce were the most memorable, the apple crisp was capable but ordinary, while their signature skillet-sizzling chocolate bread budding simply lacked sizzle. In fact, it was woefully overcooked and an inedible slab resting on the plate. When we inform our waitress of this, she apologizes with indifference and nothing more.

At the conclusion of our meal, the General Manager walks by and asks us about our meal. We politely inform him of the meal’s shortcomings, from the service to the quality of most of the food. He, too, nods with indifference. When notified of the shoestring fries, he responds, “Yeah, we’ve gotten lots of complaints before on these.” Um, OK, so what do you propose to rectify this problem? We walk away feeling as if we’re the last football players selected in the NFL Draft – Mr. Irrelevant. Here’s a suggestion: bypass this lackluster scene and head straight to nearby spots Tastings and Bar Louie for better grub and service. With regard to CBS, it’s better not to take one for the team.

(Not So) Secret Rendezvous

Some rendezvous are best kept secretive. Rendezvous, located on bustling Mass Ave in Central Square, Cambridge, should not. Chef/owner Steve Johnson opened up this hip establishment in 2005 in the space formerly occupied by Burger King. But in lieu of serving Whoppers to the masses, Johnson and staff served up sophisticated western Mediterranean-influenced (Italian, French, Spanish, and north African regions) dishes that pack whoppers of taste. Rendezvous opened to wide acclaim and has apparently done little to tarnish its reputation, recently named as one of Boston’s top 50 restaurants by Boston Magazine. Woud Paul’s Palate join the masses?

Johnson’s restaurant is trendy, but without the pretentiousness (this will be a recurring theme throughout the evening). The warm orange and red hues splashed along the walls serve as harbingers of the relaxed, hospitable charm that Rendezvous’s staff exudes. An attractive custom-made counter-high bar resides to our right, while an open-air dining room ushers us is on the left. A rotating wait staff took our orders, knowledgably responded to our questions (although the first waiter failed to mention that one entrée contained milk when someone from our party identified her dairy allergy; thankfully, the next waitress in the rotation brought this to our attention prior to ordering) and provided strong recommendations. Nary a wine nor water glass went unfilled all evening. Most importantly, Johnson’s staff allowed us – like a fine wine resting on one’s palate – to linger and enjoy a well-paced meal.

Appetizers ($8-14) provided a strong beginning to our meal. Seared sea scallops ($12) – four in total – were perfectly cooked, and the accompanying preserved lemon and black olive vinaigrette complimented the fish well. Equally good was the vegetable antipasto with roasted eggplant puree and muhummara ($12). It’s certainly a pretty plate to admire, though there’s a tad too much going on with the dish. I’d have foregone the slaw, beets, or anything antipasto and been content merely spreading the puree and heavenly muhummara (red pepper spread) atop the exquisitely fresh slices of bread (some of the best I’ve sampled in recent memory).

Entrees ($16-28) were equally enticing in terms of Johnson’s playfulness with ingredients. Take, for instance, his highly acclaimed braised pork and veal meatballs ($25). While the four large meatballs weren’t as tender as I had hoped, they were extremely tasty and well seasoned, their flavor enhanced by chicken broth, sautéed maitake mushrooms, kale leaves, and grated paive cheese. Like the aforementioned appetizers, this dish is lovely to look at. What transports it, however, is Johnson’s bold, yet unassuming technique. He fries tiny ears of orecchiette pasta in olive oil until they’re crisped and golden brown on the edges. It’s a finely executed, surprising take on your traditional meatball dish. Even better is the Gascon-style duck three ways ($26). While the sliced breast was tasty, it was a tad underseasoned for my liking. Both the garlic sausage and particularly the confit duck, however, were the duet that ultimately made this trio sing. I’ve never had skate, but the skillet-roasted version served with broccoli rabe, meyer lemon and hazelnut butter was perfectly cooked, surprisingly complex in taste given its simplicity, and will have me looking for this fish in my local supermarket.

Do not, under any circumstances, pass up dessert here. Praiseworthy dishes include their signature lemon-buttermilk pudding ($7), served cakelike in a beautiful pool of huckleberry sauce. Let’s put it this way: a dining companion of ours, renowned for his painstakingly slow pace of eating, nearly devoured the entire plate before I was able to lift my fork. The same problem presented itself with an ultra-moist, airy pineapple and pomegranate upside-down cake with vanilla bean ice cream ($8). These unique spins on dessert were pure comfort food bliss and made for a most memorable finale to our evening.

Rendezvous boasts an impressive, well-stocked wine list (nearly fifty bottles of both reds and whites) from Italian, Spanish and French regions (with a handful of each from the West Coast). A half dozen complex cocktails adorn the menu, while the refreshing non-alcoholic Gulab Sharbatt (a tall glass of soda water infused with pomegranate, cardamom, lemon, and topped with rose petals) is attractive on the eyes and even better gong down.

For its unpretentious, inspired, and relatively affordable cuisine, alongside its (once again) unpretentious, noteworthy service, Rendezvous is a place you want to keep hidden just for yourself. In fact, it’s somewhat surprising that it hasn’t garnered the attention of more upscale, expensive nearby spots like Salts or Craigie on Main. And yet, I sense that’s just the way chef/owner Johnson wants things. “How was your experience here this evening?” he inquired as he brings our coats. “We had a lovely evening,” I respond. A warm, wide smile extends across Johnson’s face, as of to imply that he’s glad our rendezvous out to his establishment has been considered a success. My only problem now? Keeping this a secret.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Dining Under the Tuscan Sun at Siena

What better way to experience the culinary wonders of Tuscany, Italy than by way of Providence, RI? Seriously. Siena, located in the heart of Federal Hill on Atwells Ave, delivers finely executed dishes which are heavily influenced by the Tuscan region. Six years after the restaurant’s opening, owners Anthony and Chris Tarro, who grew up in Warwick, RI, have transformed their passion for authentic Italian food and created a menu constituted of what they term Tuscan soul food. Consistently voted Best Restaurant by RI Monthly Readers’ poll, does Siena live up to its esteemed billing?

Siena’s ambience is as warm as Tuscany’s climate. The dimly-lit restaurant’s color scheme includes walls splashed with terra cotta red, yellow, orange, brown, and green hues. An elongated bar with cheetah print seats welcomes customers inside, while a relaxed back room provides a more private, intimate setting.

The Tarro brothers take authentic Tuscan cuisine seriously. Much of their cuisine utilizes regional ingredients such as beans and olive oil, while also incorporating unique cooking methods such as wood grilling.

Appetizers, which average $7-16, were relatively strong. Funghi Portabello ai Ferri ($9) included two generous, meaty grilled portabello mushroom caps baked with goat cheese, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, and crispy pancetta wheels, whose saltiness nicely balanced the cheese’s tartness. It’s a gorgeously executed and well-plated dish. Equally impressive was a visually stunning Caprese salad ($10), which included yellow and red tomatoes stacked high with mozzarella cheese, basil and baby arugula while topped with gorgonzola cheese and balsamic reduction. Zuppa di Vongole Bianco ($10) included littleneck clams sautéed in a white wine, garlic, and fresh herb broth. While the crustaceans were well cooked, the excessively salty broth rendered the garlic crostini unsuitable for dipping.

Generous portions of pasta can be had for very reasonable prices ($17-19). Schiaffoni del Calzolaio ($17) may not have been all that pretty to look at (the tubular shaped pasta are limply layered atop one another), but the combination of ground sausage, San Marzano tomatoes, white wine, crushed red pepper, herbs, and Pecorino-Romano sauce made for a complex, satisfying dish.

Chicken and pork dishes range from $15-19, while Carni (meat) dishes run from $19-29. Costoletta di Vitello ($29) included a heaping 16 oz. wood-grilled veal chop with crimini mushroom, sherry, and veal demi-glaze. Overall, the dish was more than adequate, although I personally didn’t taste the level of smokiness and char that usually accompanies these types of dishes. The meat was also a tad fatty and could have benefitted from a side of starch as opposed to green beans (albeit tasty ones). The Mazo di Giusepe ($29) featured a 16 oz. Black Angus sirloin with sea salt and grilled over hardwood charcoal. The tender meat was perfectly flavored and cooked, and benefitted from a drizzle of Tuscan olive oil as well as a pouring of warm gorgonzola cream sauce. Creative sides that serve 2-4 customers ($4/9) include Pisseli e Prosciutto, tender baby peas sautéed with Prosciutto di Parma.

Desserts (all $7) include Scripelle con Gelato, which features two miniature fried doughboys dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with vanilla bean gelato and warm Nutella spread. It’s a fun, comforting delicious treat. Siena also serves up its popular Budino di Panettone, bread pudding with Italian almond panetone (sweet bread) and served with amaretto, bourbon, brown sugar, and butter glaze.

Cocktails range from $8-10, and two standouts include a potent housemade sangria ($8) and a sparkling grape martini ($9), which blends grape vodka, proscecco, and cranberry juice. Siena also boasts an extensive wine list revolving around approximately fifty reds and another fifty whites from multiple countries and regions including Italy, France, New Zealand, Australia, Sonoma, and Napa. Most wines are reasonably priced ($35-50), while others veer to moderate price points ($85-95). Half bottles ($26-49) are also available, while handfuls of Interesting Red and White wines are promoted.

Service was excellent. Our meal was well paced, while our server was extremely knowledgeable, patient, and amiable.

Overall, Siena scores high for value. Its cuisine is better than much of what is produced in Boston’s North End, at only a fraction of the cost. Complimentary valet parking only boosts the restaurant’s stock. You may not be dining directly under the Tuscan sun at Siena, but it is certainly close enough.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Incontro Lacks the Midas Touch

Incontro, Franklin’s acclaimed upscale/casual restaurant and lounge, had plenty of hype to live up to prior to my arrival. Glowing testimonials from family and friends alike heightened both my anticipation level and taste buds, and I was cautiously excited about sampling its regionally inspired Italian cuisine.

Incontro’s ambience can be best described as uniquely modern, only because the venue itself resides in the newly restored Brookdale Mill, which was originally constructed in 1883. An expansive 14,000 square foot space is set on two floors, the second of which boasts an intimate lounge area – plush leather seats included – encompassing a sleek, elongated bar that leads into a large billiards area. The scene here shouts trendy/casual: it’s a place where people want to be seen but let their hair down all at once. A more formal setting awaits downstairs in the main dining room (or as Incontro’s owners fancily label it, the meeting room), which features a display kitchen in which diners can view their food being prepared.

For starters, the crispy calamari were well executed and drizzled with lemon aioli, pine nuts, kalamata olives, and hot peppers. A tad less aioli and a small infusion of peppers would have better balanced the otherwise finely prepared dish to an even higher standard. Pistachio encrusted boar (resembling two large pieces of KFC but oh, so much more appealing) came with a trio of sweet and spicy dipping sauces and was a standout dish. The meat was moist and tender, whereas many versions come out gamey and tough. The dish evoked a couple of “Mmm, this is delicious,” moments from our dining companions. So far, so good.

Entrees, however, surprisingly fared far worse. My maple glazed pork ($24) came highly recommended by our server, but I found the meat to be woefully overcooked, dry, and oversalted, almost eliminating any semblance of maple flavor on the palate. A shame, given that the accompanying crispy green beans and heavenly light sweet potato mashed were winning sides. Our friends’ steaks (one filet mignon Oscar and a sirloin strip) were cooked to my liking of medium rare. The only problem was that both had requested theirs cooked medium. Clearly, Incontro’s kitchen staff that evening was not well educated on the importance of Meat Preparation 101.

Dessert offered up a small reprieve. A generous slice of carrot cake was moist, not too dense, and possesses a pleasant, not overpoweringly sweet cream cheese frosting. My molten chocolate cake was decadent and gooey enough, although not any more memorable than countless versions I’d previously consumed. The biggest disappointment of the dessert was the fig gelato, which had more hints of coffee flavor to it than fig. The faint traces of fig I was able to detect were located in a small, isolated area of the gelato jammed with figs.

Service was good but far from exceptional. Water glasses were routinely filled and plates hastily removed by competent and polite busboys, while our server was affable enough. But our waitress faltered on a key recommendation (the aforementioned pork dish) and it was one of the busboys, not the server, who responded to a dairy inquiry on the calamari only after it was served tableside.
On its website, Incontro’s owners, Bridge Restaurant Group, claims that its prices are reasonable enough to attract repeat business. With cocktails averaging $11, wines from $9-15, most appetizers exceeding $12 and entrees ranging from $25-50, that statement is certainly up for debate, particularly given its suburban setting (although complimentary valet parking does help a bit). For these prices, Paul’s Palate expects a feast for a king. On my restaurant royalty scale, however, Incontro’s fare is just that: fair, food fit not for a king, but more for a prince, perhaps even a pauper. Despite its glamorous setting, it is Incontro’s failures in the kitchen that prevent the restaurant’s glitter from translating into gourmet gold.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Here is a ‘LaStoria’ Worth Telling

The owners of LaStoria Trattoria in Stoughton, MA certainly aren’t bashful. On their homepage, they state that their establishment ‘is not your usual “Red Sauce” Italian restaurant.” Only a few years ago, however, their menu read like one: wood-grilled pizzas, veal marsala, eggplant parmiagiano, blah, blah, blah. While the food was often solidly executed, it was rarely adventurous, and I ultimately found myself attracted to newer restaurants that prepared dishes with bolder ingredients and flavors. LaStoria, sadly, became an afterthought in the ever-changing restaurant industry.

When my in-laws mentioned that they had recently re-visited this Italian eatery and raved about its distinctly different menu, I decided to give LaStoria a second chance. To my surprise, I discovered that the menu – which had always boasted dishes from all regions of Italy including Sicily, Napoli, Roma, Calabria, Firenze, and Venice – was finally making good on its promise to deliver an inspiring variety of food true to its roots.

Adding affordable piattini (little plates) to the menu was a stroke of genius. Ranging from $3.50-6.50, these unique Italian style tapas include prosciutto crostini with gig glaze ($5), fried goat cheese stuffed green olives ($3.50), and truffled “Mac n Cheese” ($6.50). We opt for the equally enticing antipasti, particularly the creative scampi e Fagioli “al Forno” ($9.50), which features four plump prosciutto wrapped shrimp atop crispy spinach (comparable to kale) and a sinfully delectable white bean puree (which also accompanies complimentary fresh foccacia bread). On paper, the smorgasbord of flavors here sounds questionable at best, but on plate, it’s a hugely successful dish. Like much of LaStoria’s revamped menu, it’s a wildly pleasant surprise.

The menu is also broken out into traditional pasta dishes ($11-18), LaStoria Classici (including aforementioned marsala and parmesiana style dishes ($15-19), and more daring specialty pasta (including zucca tortellini e Cape Sante, which includes pumpkin filled pasta, maple glazed sea scallops, roast butternut squash, sage and cream for $17) and second dishes. Of the latter, Arista Griglia ($17) boasts perfectly grilled pork tenderloin drizzled with a just-sweet-enough apple cider glaze reduction, accompanied by sweet potato mashed and green beans. I gravitate towards the evening’s special, a generous serving of ultra-tender, fall-off-the-bone veal ossco bucco ($18). The meal is noteworthy for its restraint in terms of incorporating a subtle tomato relish sauce so as not to overpower the meat’s flavor. My one complaint? A blasé side of garlic soaked pasta had me yearning for a more hearty starch such as mushroom risotto. A rum-soaked dessert of tiramisu, however, quickly washed any complaints away. It packed the perfect amount of liquour and texture (neither too dense nor too light) and was light years ahead of its flavorless predecessor years back.

LaStoria also serves a wide assortment of wines and a unique selection of seasonal cocktails including carrot cake (with butter shots) and key lime martinis. As we wait for our tables, the bartender forewarns me that the Hot Apple Cider martini packs quite a wallop, and it does. The rums contained therein, however, overpower the cider flavor, rendering this also only lukewarm cocktail virtually undrinkable. Faring significantly better, however, is the espresso martini, a sweet, caffeinated concoction that excels where other versions (either too creamy or too much alcohol over espresso) have miserably failed.

LaStoria’s space is relatively small and sometimes cramped (you can practically talk with your neighbors at the next table), but this often lends well to a more intimate meal. Service was more than adequate, if not great. Our waitress was genial and knowledgeable enough, though an extra visit or two to inquire about our meal or re-fill water glasses would have sufficed. A cappuccino came out well after my tiramisu had been consumed, though accompanied by a sincere apology from our server.

But that’s why consumers pay exorbitant prices at more glamorous, upscale restaurants. I’ll take the high quality fare and incredible value (no entrees exceeding $20) that this quaint little Italian restaurant offers, thank you very much. By exchanging its red sauce roots for more sophisticated dishes, this LaStoria is writing a brand new chapter in its stories history. Count me in once again as a loyal reader – I mean, eater.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Masona Grill Too Good to Keep a Secret

Have you ever dined at a local neighborhood eating haunt that is simply so breathtakingly and surprisingly good that you want to keep it all to yourself? Typically, I’m good at keeping these places under wraps, but West Roxbury’s Masona Grill has had me breaking my customary silence to family and friends. Tucked away on Corey Street, across from a T stop, Executive Chef/Owner Manuel ‘Manny’ Sifnugel’s establishment is not only one of Greater Boston’s hidden jewels, but one of its finest restaurants as well.

Sifnugel, former proprietor of the highly regarded Claremont Café in Boston’s South End, opened up Masona Grill in 2006. His eclectic cuisine can best be described as New American with Mediterranean influences. Born in Peru, traces of South America ingredients adorn several of his dishes (chimichurri brushed atop steak, oregano, et cetera…). Other vibrant, welcomed ingredients such as cilantro and cumin are also freely used.

The ambience is as lively as the food. Colorful artwork (large oil paintings), chocolate covered walls, contemporary light fixtures (including tea lights), hardwood floors, and circular and square-shaped tables (my wife and I sat on dark tan leather banquettes with a view of the street) create an upscale, yet relaxed atmosphere. There is also a marble bar, whereby patrons can view Sifnugel and his staff cooking in the kitchen. Up-tempo and Brazilian jazz music gently play throughout our meal. Named after Sifnugel’s three daughters (Marcella, Sofia, and Natalia, whose black and white pictures instantly greet diners upon entering through velvet curtains), Masona Grill accomplishes a near miraculous feat: it’s the rare establishment that possesses just the right amount of hipness to coincide with its ability to make you feel like you’re eating the ultimate, most intimate home-cooked meal.

For starters, lobster taquitos ($11) were divine. Never mind that they were served as bona-fide open-faced tacos (taquitos should take the form of cigar-shaped mounds, akin to those we sampled at Caribe in Barbados). The freshness and abundance of the crustacean was impressive, while the cucumber, radish, pickled red onions, and sour cream provided a nice contrast to the sweetness of the lobster. Crispy oysters ($10) were nearly as good, served with a zesty tomato remoulade and mango salsa. My one minor quibble was that the dish also came with the same, unannounced trio of cucumber, radish, and pickled onion that accompanied our previous first course, which made for some redundancy.

Entrees fared even better. My wife’s Latin stew ($27) was packed with a variety of fish including lobster, scallops, calamari, came with a delectably spicy broth, and even included small chunks of two favorites items of mine: chorizo and yucca. One very minor problem with the dish was its inclusion of what can best be described as corn on the cob. It was a non-traditional, overly starchy, inedible object. Otherwise, the dish on the whole was well executed. My coffee rubbed sirloin steak was a steal at $26. Perfectly cooked medium rare and innovatively served with chimichurri, the dish was a true standout. When asking our server what made the accompanying potatoes and grilled zucchini and tomatoes so delicious, he remarked that Sifnugel added oregano to the mix. This is a meal I’d confidently match up against any of Boston’s best. I’m still having dreams about how well this cut of meat was prepared.

About a half dozen, well-selected, reasonably priced bottles each of red and white wines ($29-55/bottle, $7-9/glass) adorn the menu. Desserts are also well priced at $7, particularly the sinfully sweet, warmed pecan pie served with house made Guinness ice cream.

While the food is memorable at Masona Grill, it’s the service that is truly exceptional and what elevates our meal to unforgettable status. Having booked our reservation through Open Tables, our server immediately acknowledged our special anniversary we were celebrating, in addition to paying close attention to my wife’s dairy allergy. The meal was extremely well-paced. Upon inquiring about which red wine to pair with my entrée, the server recommended a Malbec, paused for a moment, and then offered to bring samples of both the Malbec and the house Cabernet. Who does that nowadays? In lieu of coffee with my dessert, he suggested I try a port wine ($8), which, he stated, would perfectly balance the nuttiness of the pecan pie (which it did, of course). Getting back to my wife’s dairy allergy, the server came up at one point during our meal and provided us with information on how to prepare a non-dairy equivalent of cheese. Sifnugel himself even went out of his way to call the pastry chef on his cell phone and find out if the seasonal fruit crisp was non-dairy. Unpretentious, overly accommodating touches such as these make Masona Grill a truly special place.

As we leave, my wife and I are warmly greeted by Sifnugel. We are the last patrons to leave for the evening. Has it already been 2 ½ hours since we arrived? The owner shoots the breeze with us, discussing his past, his family, and his love for food. It’s as if he doesn’t want us to go. Neither do we, because it feels as if we’re already home.