Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Grotto an Underground Treasure

Blink and you just might miss Grotto, a subterranean Italian dining hotspot located on the back side of Beacon Hill, just a stone’s throw away from the State House. And if you miss Grotto, you’ll be missing out on some of the finest, most authentic, and reasonably priced contemporary Italian cuisine in all of Boston. Every night, customers can discover perhaps the best prix fixe offerings in the city – three courses for only $36.

Walking down Grotto’s steps transports you to a little piece of Italy. Exposed brick walls, red ceilings, and artwork from local artists (they can’t be starving, though, right?) adorning the walls make this bistro-like establishment feel like a secret dining destination you want to keep all to yourself. But the restaurant’s secret has long been revealed, as evidenced by the full, bustling dining room from the moment we are seated just after 7 to the moment we depart around 9:30 (and yes, that length of time translates to a relaxed, well-paced meal). The ambience is intimate and conversation is easy enough (that is, if you don’t mind speaking up just a tad). Despite all of the dining room’s commotion, our waitress is as calm, polished, patient, prompt and knowledgeable as I can recall in recent memory. Her casual, yet professional service elevated our experience, and made it seem like a relaxed, albeit fancier home-cooked meal.

Primi (appetizers, all $10 if ordered separate from the prix fixe menu) consist of perfectly grilled calamari (my favorite preparation) with white beans, peppers, greens, and lemon. It’s light, simple, and lovely. My friend orders a large bowl of Grotto’s garlic soup, and one sip makes me wish I had, as well. A perfect amount of garlic permeates, but does not overpower the dish, while parmesan gives the soup just enough of a thick consistency, traces of black truffle can be detected, and toasted bread crumbs provide a nice, crunchy contrast texture-wise. It’s a stunning dish. Almost equally as good is my fontina cheese fondue, a fun little presentation that includes a quartet of nicely seared beef tenderloin tips and even meatier Portobello mushrooms. The fontina cheese sure ain’t your mother’s Velveeta, but it’s velvety good for dipping purposes.

Secondi (entrees regularly priced at $21 outside of prix fixe) did not disappoint, either. One dining companion ordered pan seared roasted diver scallops ‘ravioli,’ which our server identified as her favorite menu item, and for good reason. Three nicely sized, perfectly seared scallops were engulfed by a giant, house-made ravioli, accompanied by arugula, leeks, and wild mushrooms. Butter poached lobster, linguine, and spicy tomato sauce (fra diavlo) is also memorable, packing nice heat and includes a surprisingly generous piece of the succulent crustacean. I order one of Grotto’s signature dishes, the Bolognese, which our server explains locals adore and claim to be one of the most authentic versions they’ve had that closely resembles the finest plates in Italy. It consists of house cut tagliatelle pasta, San Marzano tomatoes, lamb, pork, and beef. It’s downright hearty, a shade spicy, and lamb flavor dominates the dish. It’s divine, and would make one of my all-time favorite pasta dishes if not for the slightly undercooked al dente pasta, a tad too crunchy for my taste.

Dolce (dessert at $9 separate from prix fixe) provided a decadent conclusion to the evening. Moist, warmed banana bread pudding was delicious on its own, but smooth, creamy caramel ice cream and spice nuts put other, inferior versions to shame. I admit my hesitancy upon ordering yet another warm chocolate cake. It’s a universal dessert that’s rarely done right. Our server highly recommended Grotto’s melting chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, and because she hasn’t steered us wrong selection-wise all evening, I succumb. I am pleased to say that Grotto’s version does melt in one’s mouth, and is without a doubt one of the finest I’ve sampled in a long while. It’s sinfully good, a moist, gooey concoction that had me licking every last drop off of my fork and resistant to share with others at the table.

That heavenly chocolate cake had me thinking more about my terrific dining experience at Grotto. The food, d├ęcor, and service are neither flashy nor pretentious. Here, they are unabashedly simple and yet perfectly executed. A grotto is defined as an indoor structure resembling a cave. Grotto the restaurant defines itself by its exceptional food, service, and value. Do some digging of your own and you’ll unearth this buried treasure of a restaurant.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Nara is ‘Blah-ssez Fare’

An upscale Middle Eastern restaurant and hookah lounge situated in the heart of Providence’s Federal Hill? Nara, you could say, is a foreigner trying to find its way in this Italian food-dominated neighborhood. The menu is littered with promising Lebanese delicacies laced with even more promising exotic spices. And yet, despite a trendy interior consisting of earthy colors and a seemingly can’t-miss menu from Executive Chef Marios Azrak, Nara – from its insipid cocktails (a much-hyped $9.75 peach mojito begs for stronger peach flavor and more mint while a Saucy Mango, consisting of mango-infused tequila, lacks balance and had me wishing I had ordered its spicier version mixed with habanero) to its average cuisine – is merely adequate. If you’re expecting Nara’s cuisine to be on par with Tangierino, a much more accomplished Middle Eastern restaurant in Charlestown, MA, then, in the words of many old school Italians, “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

Let’s start with the one menu item that Nara gets completely right. Thankfully, the restaurant does justice to traditional hummus, which they (no pun intended) beef up by mixing in ground lamb, onions, and toasted almonds. It’s delicious, and the crunchy morsels of lamb in this version, hummus blahmeh ($12), are a welcomed contrast to the smooth, velvety texture of chickpea. While others at the table rave about the baba ghanouj ($9), I found it overwrought with lemon juice, creating an off-putting tartness to the dish. Mini lamb sausages (maaneek, $12) sounded wonderful, cooked with pomegranate molasses, but the dish is an unmitigated disaster due to meat that is overcooked, dry, and a tad salty. Mediterranean sea scallops ($12) are perfectly seared, but where is the intense flavor one would anticipate from sweet pea mousse, fresh orange zest, and white truffle oil?

Sugarcane tenderloin ($13) is oversold on the menu as mouth-watering. Two generous pieces of steak are nicely prepared medium-rare, but are lukewarm and merely sit over a slightly charred fresh slice of pineapple. The meat and fruit tandem should pair nicely, but each component merely dangle on the plate – like two people on a blind date with nothing in common – offering little by way of flavor. A quartet of jumbo mango tiger shrimp ($12) is a slight improvement, drizzled in a refreshing chardonnay-mango reduction. Deep-fried garlic cilantro chicken wings ($12) are meaty and crispy – always a winning combination – but like many dishes on Nara’s menu, they’re lacking that special something in terms of spices – in this instance, not enough cilantro (but in my case, is there ever enough of it?). Bata harra ($9) is Nara’s Lebanese version of Spanish patatas bravas, only in lieu of tomato sauce, the kitchen infuses the potato cubes with cilantro, garlic, and cayenne pepper. Again, what sounds wonderful on paper is merely average in terms of spice execution.

Service is pleasant enough, but plates tend to stack up (fortunately, we place them on the bar just behind us) and a reminder needs to be placed around water refills. For a relatively slow evening, more polish is to be expected from such a seemingly posh establishment.

Like the sweet hookah smoke floating around the restaurant, Nara’s cuisine is harmless and quickly evaporates from one’s memory. Aside from its hip, fun location, there are far better dining alternatives on the Hill to explore. Nara’s all style, but little substance.