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.