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.