Tuesday, November 12, 2013

This Sangria Needs Seasoning

With a restaurant bearing the name of Sangria’s, one would expect a little spice to be infused into the otherwise ho-hum dining scene in downtown Attleboro. The timing is certainly right for this Spanish and Portuguese tapas-themed eatery to succeed, particularly given that its main competition only minutes north in Easton, Loco, has recently closed and will be re-opening early next year under new ownership and with uncertain expectations. It’s that spice, however, that Sangria’s shockingly lacks, both in terms of its cuisine and service, which could use lots of seasoning.

The restaurant’s interior aims for contemporary and intimate, yet strangely feels cold and unromantic for such a promising, open space. There are only a handful of actual tables, a few of which are situated by a large window overlooking Attleboro Center, another few tucked away in the rear, surrounding a more vibrant, illuminated bar wedged in between. High ceilings make for awful acoustics, leaving diners resorting to near-shouting, which quickly transforms into the full-fledged variety once a guitar-playing musician begins his ear-piercingly loud set right behind us.

Sangria’s menu looks appealing enough, with several tapas broken out by starch, cheese, vegetable, seafood and meat. Batatas Doce Fritta ($5) provide a promising start to the evening, a generous portion of hand-cut sweet potatoes fried with brown sugar and cinnamon. The spuds possess a crispy exterior and a piping hot interior. They are the Spanish take on addictive fried dough poppers that could easily pass for dessert.

But that is where the superlatives end. Sometimes a little more salt, pepper, or spices would transform a merely good dish into an exceptional one. Take, for instance, empanadas de atum ($7), pastries with a buttery, flakey exterior but filled with tuna that’s not quite as spicy as the menu suggests. Camarao Alhinho ($11) offer four plump, nicely pan-seared shrimp braised in white wine butter sauce, but the roasted garlic component of the sauce is barely discernible. Three mini flame-grilled chourico sliders ($8) are well cooked and have a nice char to the meat, but the accompanying caramelized onions and horseradish mayonnaise barely registered on the palate, while the Portuguese sausage lacked seasoning and heat. Polvo A Feira ($12) was the evening’s biggest disappointment. What sounded so intriguing – braised octopus, finished with cold-pressed olive oil and smoked paprika – was entirely bland, rendering the fish as mere pieces of rubber to be consumed. A delicious, gooey, custardy coconut flan drowning in caramel sauce demonstrated a flicker of the culinary heights Sangria’s aspires to ascend yet rarely manages to reach.

Fortunately, Sangria’s boasts an inventive cocktail menu highlighted by several house-made sangria selections. The house red and white varieties are available for either $7/glass or $21/bottle. I’d recommend splurging for a couple of dollars more to sample a pitcher of Cinco Frutas ($24), consisting of a sweet, potent, yet refreshing blend of red wine, Ruby Porto, Chambord liquer, orange and cranberry juices, blueberries, blackberries, and topped with champagne and Sprite.

Service borders on laughably bad for a restaurant promoting itself as a fine dining establishment. When our server asked if she could remove our dish, she prematurely removed a two-thirds finished pitcher of sangria. At the conclusion of our meal, while ordering dessert, she remarked that Jamaican coffee was available. How astonished I was, then, to discover a mug filled with tea and alcohol (our server seemed surprised at my astonishment, and when asked what it was, she didn’t quite know herself). Nor was the Jamaican concoction, whatever it was, properly removed from our final tab. Perhaps our server was on Jamaican time herself that evening. A complimentary shooter of white Port wasn’t enough to offset the scattershot service.

If you’re looking for tasty cocktails, Sangria’s is a serviceable destination. For an actual dining experience, however, I’d recommend either heading south to Providence’s Bacaro or north to Ken Orringer’s beloved Toro in Boston’s South End. Both restaurants’ cuisine and service as finely seasoned. Sangria’s could use some sprucing up.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Boston Foodies Should Head South to Providence’s North

In Devra First We Trust. At least, most of the time, when pondering which restaurants I’d like to dine at. A few weeks ago, the revered Boston Globe food critic caused shockwaves throughout the Foodie Blogosphere when she proclaimed that North – situated in obscure Luongo Square just outside of Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood – blew her mind. Paul’s Palate was excited to try North for himself on a quieter weekday evening and determine if Miss First’s assessment was accurate.

North’s ambience is interesting to say the least. Its dark interior has a nautical theme, as evidenced by thick, knotted ropes that flow from wall-to-ceiling, as if one walked into a small schooner vessel and its crew downing their grub. Paintings of nude pearl divers adorn the walls. Space here is also tight (only a half dozen tables stacked atop one another and a seating capacity of 30). But there are even more funky touches. 80’s rock music – including true Van Halen tunes before the band became more commercialized and Social Distortion – blares throughout the establishment. The bathroom features odd masks and even odder, indecipherable video collages, including one clip that reads “I hate turtles.” Tattooed, cordial servers attend to artsy clientele, several of whom don bifocals far larger than their heads allow. Behind the small bar up front lies a slurpee machine, which this evening boasts a cantaloupe flavor that will be mixed with rum and mint. It’s all very bohemian cool in a West Greenwich Village type of way.

The Asian-Cambodian influenced cuisine at North is almost as eccentric and fun as its atmosphere. The eatery opened last September and is run by three Johnson & Wales graduates, and you can taste the excitement of these young chefs via the bold flavors bursting from their dishes. The menu is very condensed (and is roughly the size of a tiny envelope), while selections are mostly limited to smaller, Chinese tapas options including Bowls and Plates to Share, Country Ham & Oysters, and Veg ($3-15). A couple of supersized entrees humorously labeled Very Big Things ($35-38) are served a giant, sizzling platter and can be shared by 2-4 people, while one dessert resides on the menu. While some might find the usage of ingredients redundant across dishes, such as cilantro, rice vinegar, and chilies, you can’t fault North’s owners for their joy in experimentation and creativity. Like a mad scientist placed in a kitchen setting, sometimes they fail, but more often than not, they achieve culinary greatness.

Take, for instance, the divine, instantly craveable Dan Dan noodles ($11), a dish influenced by New York’s beloved Momofuku restaurant chain, where one of North’s owners, James Mark, previously worked. The dish features Korean rice cakes – chewy, white tubes with just the right amount of crunch to them, tossed with even chewier rings of squid tentacles and smothered in a tender goat meat ragout enhanced by a hearty kick of black peppers and fermented chilies. It’s the must-have dish on North’s menu. Also noteworthy, if a bit less exciting ingredient-wise, is the Hot and Sour Chinese/American Bok Choy ($8), whose exterior strikes just the right balance between firm and soggy, is paired with crunchy puffed rice for crispy contrast, and packs subtle heat with fermented chilies and rice vinegar. I found the beautifully plated Burmese chickpea fritters ($10) lovely to both look at and consume. The fritters, to my surprise, were not fried, but rather, pan-seared, rendering the garbanzo beans’ texture more custardy than crunchy, and paired with delicious squash piccalilly, coriander, fennel, and a welcome touch of lime for acidity. It’s a complex, tasty dish.

Less successful offerings included Hidden Oysters, Crispy Fried, Ver 2.4 ($9), which consisted of three disappointingly lukewarm, somewhat dry Burmese pancakes containing celery, radish, pickled pepper, and only traces of the oyster, the supposed star of the plate. The friend pancakes were screaming for a dipping sauce, and a ginger-scallion version when provided upon request did wonders. Relatively spicy cucumber & Chino sausage ($11), while a refreshing counterpoint to the spicier, aforementioned dishes, was a mild letdown considering the lack of sausage (three small pieces) and the over-abundance of heavy rice that coincided with barely discernible hints of anchovy, scallion, chile, and mint.

Fortunately, dessert quickly revived my memory of what makes North shine brightest. The Mushi Pan ($8) melded a warmed, yogurt-infused griddle cake with uber-fresh, melt-in-your-mouth warmed blueberries and strawberries swimming in apple jam shiso, sorrel, and a dollop of crème fraiche. Paired with sweetened, strong Vietnamese coffee, this triumphant confection was a marvelous conclusion to the meal.

Service was relaxed yet polished, attentive yet not doting, and our server was extremely knowledgeable and gracious throughout the evening.

If you’re seeking a restaurant that possesses a unique atmosphere and cuisine, head south to North. While it’s not quite the mind-blowing experience as reported by Miss First, more often than not, it’s a culinary adventure worth taking.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bergamot a Winning Addition to Somerville’s Restaurant Row

Somerville has long been recognized as a hub for fine dining. Bergamot, located at the outskirts of Inman Square, opened to near universal acclaim back in 2010 in the intimate space once occupied by EVOO (which now resides and thrives in its larger Kendall Square quarters). The eatery has also earned its way onto Boston Magazine’s annual list of Top 50 restaurants, in large part due to its progressive American cuisine and its top-notch service. When presented the opportunity to sample an abundance of Chef/co-owner Keith Pooler’s (formerly of Scampo, Excelsior, and Harvest) intriguing menu by way of an amazing Groupon special (seven course tasting for two at $75), Paul’s Palate couldn’t pass it up.

A complimentary amuse-bouche nicely opens the meal – a refreshing, juicy piece of melon topped with zucchini relish, its sweetness beautifully balanced by a subtly acidic dash of balsamic glaze. For such a small dish, it’s large in flavor and complex in technique, a harbinger of the meal to come. I’m admittedly anti-beet, usually finding the vegetable flavorless, but Bergamot spruces up, even re-invents how delicious it can be. They’re roasted here ($11), paired with less bitter, leafy escarole, orange-calaminta syrup, miniature Honshimeji mushrooms, pistachios for welcomed crunch, and a dreamy dollop of cream cheese. It’s a marvelous dish.

That’s not to say that there aren’t minor missteps along the way. While an appetizer of braised crimson carrots ($12), alongside black mission figs and a crispy chickpea flour crepe called socca are all delightful, accompanying Kamut (a khorasan wheat resembling rice) is a tad undercooked and tough, while an unappealing, bland spoonful of ricotta sitting atop the socca seems out of place. While Polish sausage is nicely smoked, the eggy/custard-like polenta over which it is served is completely offputting, although I think I understand and applaud Pooler’s attempt to execute a more sophisticated breakfast as dinner concept.

Fortunately, my memory is short and the list of menu offerings is long. I devour every last bite of the pan-seared Atlantic salmon ($27), masterfully prepared with a crisp exterior and a wonderfully moist, fleshy interior. The fish is innovatively paired with generous chunks of lobster, avocado, green beans, basil oil, and orange tomato vinaigrette. As the aforementioned beets made me a believer, this critic - who typically shies away from fish offerings when dining out - will be seeking out salmon more often. That’s the mark of a truly great restaurant: it pleasantly surprises you and smashes all pre-conceived notions about what food can be. A hearty bowl filled with long strings of tagliatelle, topped with melted mozzarella and sitting in a zesty tomato base with a medley of fresh vegetables, is also a winning, seasonal dish.

Pastry chef Stacy Mirabello’s confections confidently stand up against Pooler’s cuisine. A second, pre-dessert amuse-bouche consists of a refreshing, almost creamy mini scoop of red currant sorbet sitting atop shaved coconut. It’s delightful, and I want more, but am glad I save room for Mirabello’s chocolate bourbon bête noir ($10), essentially a rich, decadent flourless cake that’s paired with raspberry sorbet.

Bergamot’s inventive, expertly-crafted cocktails and extensive, award-winning wine list are not to be missed. The 1771 ($11) is a refreshing concoction of citadelle gin, orange curacao, rhubarb syrup, cardamom bitters, and sparkling wine, while the Beacon Fix ($10), with Reyka vodka, lemon, luxardo, and Bergamot-Rooisbos syrup is another subtly sweet winner. Wine Director Kai Gagnon’s selection – all of which is encased in a dual-zone refrigerator tucked behind the eatery’s bar, boasts an appealing number of varieties, including $12 glasses of a crisp, slightly peppery 2012 chenin blanc from France’s Loire Valley and a robust, fruity Italian 2011 Lambrusco di Modeno ‘Albone’ hailing from Tuscany.

A rotating wait staff will gladly cater to your every whim. Need a glass of water re-filled? No problem. “Would you like another slice of bread?” they happily inquire early on in the meal. “No more, thank you,” I wearily reply after ingesting a third slice topped with heavenly whipped mustard butter, even though deep down I’d like an entire loaf to myself. Each of our servers is attentive and incredibly meticulous about each dish’s ingredients (they recite these without missing a beat). Their level of hospitality not only demonstrates that they love the fun environment in which they work, but are enamored with the equally fun food that they serve their customers. When I ask one of our waiters if I could obtain information about that delightful Lambrusco wine I sampled earlier in the meal, he gladly writes it down and passionately describes its characteristics in more detail.

Given its relaxed ambience, playful and innovative fare, reasonable price point, and awe-inspiring service, Bergamot earns high praise from Paul’s Palate, though not likely as effusive as its professional, enthusiastic staff.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Pan E Vino Fails to Live Up to its Reputation

Pan E Vino (Italian for bread and wine) has been a reputable dining staple on Providence’s Federal Hill for just over a decade. It’s also recently earned Best Italian Restaurant accolades as voted by Rhode Island Monthly readers. On a stifling July 4th weekend evening, Paul’s Palate ventured down to the Hill to determine if this eatery lived up to its billing.

Compared to nearby restaurant gem Trattoria Zooma, Pan E Vino’s décor feels woefully outdated, with tacky Mediterranean-themed touched ranging from the unappealing yellow paint on the walls to the even more unappealing Italian-inspired music playing more loudly than one would like through overhead speakers. Even the indoor temperatures resembled the Mediterranean region, as the restaurant’s air condition system inadequately ventilated the back room in which our party was seated. The restaurant aims to establish a rustic, intimate ambience, but with its two small dining rooms and cramped tables, it’s less charming than one would have hoped.

The cuisine itself is hit or miss. A relatively modest portion of calamari fritti ($12) was traditionally served with tomatoes, hot peppers and white balsamic. The squid were far too bready in texture and lacked any hint of the peppers’ promised heat or seasoning.

Entrees fared a bit better, particularly the linguine alla far diavolo ($29), which consisted of a hearty portion of black squid ink pasta, lobster, and spicy San Marzano tomato sauce. The behemoth, 14 oz. bone-in veal chop parmiagiana ($27) was an impressive sight to behold, the Flintstone-sized meat evoking the envy of my dining companions. Breaded and pan-fried, and doused with a slab of melted mozzarella and ragu sauce, the veal was tender and well-executed, if not a tad underseasoned, while the dish would have benefitted from spaghetti in lieu of a handful of hollow short rigatoni pieces to better soak up the zesty sauce.

Sadly, desserts were a dud. A sinful sounding bourbon chocolate fudge cake ($8) was far too dense and dry, while the much heralded golden raising bread pudding ($8) – legendary, according to our server – was an outright disaster. Resembling kugel – a Jewish delicacy that is far tastier – this dish had an inadequately bruleed exterior and a dry, slightly custardy, and lukewarm interior. It seemed as if the dish was overcooked and then left unattended for several minutes prior to being served. Three small dollops of caramel and a smidge of whipped cream seemed to mock me from the plate, only exacerbating this confection’s epic failure.

Cocktails were the highlight of the evening, including a Spring Blossom ($10), which consisted of gluten free Cold River blueberry vodka, St. Germain elderflower liquer, and a wild hibiscus flower plopped into the libation’s center for visual effect. While a touch too sweet for my liking, it was refreshing and potent. A more traditional Campari and grapefruit ($8), served with soda over ice, was an equally enticing, bittersweet delight. Pan E Vino’s extensive, exclusively Italian wine list, which has earned Wine Spectator’s awards, was also impressive.

Service was scattershot. While our server displayed patience and generosity throughout the evening, there were extensive gaps where she went missing, most noticeably following her recommendation of a house special wine that did not arrive until halfway into my main course. Our waitress made no apologies when flagged down by our table about the delay, which represented a significant shift from Trattoria Zooma’s much more polished service, as evidenced by their removal of a slightly late-arriving glass of wine without me even inquiring about it.

Due to its mediocre service and cuisine, Paul’s Palate would rather get his Pan E Vino elsewhere on Federal Hill.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Trade is Sophisticated Fun

Celebrity chef Jody Adams has struck culinary gold yet again in the form of her new urban brasserie, Trade, set in a renovated brick building whose setting is as sleek and sexy as the wonderfully innovative food coming out of the kitchen.

Trade’s ambience can be best described as casually upscale. The restaurant itself is funky and fun, as evidenced by reclaimed pine tables and countertops, along with lightbulb fixtures dangling overhead. A long, lively bar extends to the back of the eatery, while a smaller, more intimate dining room – with impressive two-story windows overlooking Atlantic Avenue, is located at the front. Although Trade is located in a seemingly tranquil section of the Financial District (nearby landmarks include South Station and the Federal Reserve), the scene inside is quite lively. Noise level is moderate, but certainly tolerable for conversation.

If you can snag a bar seat in front of the kitchen’s Wood stone gas oven, consider yourself a lucky customer. It’s there where Executive Chef Andrew Hebert – who joined Adams after a longtime stint at her flagship restaurant, Cambridge’s Rialto – works his magic. Take for instance, a couple of small plates – playfully labeled on the menu A Little Extra – which include a serving of Scallion pancakes with sesame and chili dipping sauce ($7). The pancakes are razor thin, well-seasoned, crispy-crunchy discs, not your average Chinese food variety that are typically ultra-doughy and bland. Even better are crispy fingerling potatoes with paprika and cumin ($5). These spuds are oily, piping hot, slightly sweet, and tremendously addictive. Paired with a stiff cocktail, I’d have been content consuming these all evening long.

Some appetizers, while not prepared in that wonderful stove, are equally appealing, where Adams and Hebert put this own unique stamp on more traditional fare. Grilled squid with beans, olives, and vinegar peppers ($9) is nicely seasoned and served salad-like in a bowl, while a pair of fried tentacles are placed in the center, like a cruel joke to remind us that calamari indeed lives on. Creamy avocado topped with sweet green mango-tamarind-peanut chutney ($8) instantly gained admirers tableside for its delicate balance of soft-crunchy texture and mild-spicy flavor.

Back to the oven, a whole roasted trout ($24) was a marvel to behold in both presentation and bold flavor. The fish possessed a crackling skin exterior and a moist flesh interior, and was topped with a unique combination of slaw and raisins that somehow manage to complement the fish. “Why didn’t I think of using these ingredients when cooking fish?” one dining companion remarks. My personal favorite: steaming-hot, hearty baked rigatoni served in a large cast-iron pot, with generous chunks of lamb ragu and provolone ($22). The pasta is nicely browned and cooked al dente with just the right proportion of chewiness to crispiness, and packs a welcomed, subtle heat due to the incorporation of chili flakes. Like those addictive potatoes preceding it, this is a fantastically executed, extremely tasty dish that rivals any pasta in the nearby North End. Also rivaling any pie produced in the North End are Trade’s pizzas – recognized here as Flatbreads – which possess some of the finest crusts in all of Boston. A version of mushroom and figs with gorgonzola, sage, pesto and walnuts ($16) is a crispy, creamy, smoky delight.

While desserts may not deliver the same stratospheric levels of complexity as the plates preceding them, they deliver bold flavors nonetheless. While a Taza chocolate budino ($10) was a tad too pudding-y in texture for my taste, its seasoning with seasalt, rosemary, and butter made for a bittersweet, salty treat, accompanied by a thin, crispy sesame wafer for dipping. While a couple of dining companions swooned over a dairy-free baked Alaska ($10), I found the merengue exterior itself merely average while gravitating more towards the wonderfully chilly, almost creamy interior packed with chocolate and coconut sorbet.

Cocktails were skillfully crafted and stiff. A refreshing rhubarb daiquiri infused with house-made rhubarb-vanilla sauce was a tad too sweet and not quite tart enough for my liking. My favorite was a spicy-sweet pomegranate martini over ice, laced with hints of cilantro, charred pineapples and chilies. It was the perfect complement to those addictive potatoes.

Service was nothing short of exceptional. Our waitress, who possesses a delightful British accent and even more delightful, witty sense of humor, confidently steered us to the perfect dishes and drink pairings. We ultimately decide to forego our tables in the dining room just so that we can remain in her company throughout the evening.

Trade delivers on the mile-high expectations that heralded its much-anticipated arrival last year. The service, atmosphere, and the food at this eatery is sophisticated, yet fun, and that is why I wouldn’t trade my experience at Trade for anything – except, maybe, those mesmerizing potatoes

Monday, May 20, 2013

Zooma Trattoria’s Flavors Hit Warp Speed

Who needs the North End when you can find equally sensational and innovative pasta dishes in Providence’s Federal Hill? Zooma Trattoria serves up some of the finest, tastiest Neapolitan cuisine I’ve enjoyed in recent memory, and this Atwell Avenue establishment was a much more pleasant culinary surprise than I anticipated it would be.

Zooma’s atmosphere is warm and modern, if not slightly garish for its no-frills Atwells Ave locale. There are muted magneta walls, feathered chairs, large murals, and even larger chandeliers. Two large dining rooms are filled with customers and lots of noise. Fortunately, my wife and I are seated at the kitchen table, where are backs are turned away from much of the bombast and enables us to pay closer attention to the entertaining kitchen crew who meticulously, effortlessly prepare meals as the kitchen expediter shouts out orders. We’re also closer in proximity to the wonderful aromas emanating from the plates. The head chef graciously hands us our meals piping hot from the pot without breaking a sweat. The setting feels private and enthralling all at once.

Zooma opened in late 2004, but underwent a transformation when its present head chef, Jeffrey Burgess – who was a protégé of acclaimed chef Mario Batali (who is soon opening up a highly anticipated pasta/pizza joint of his own in Boston’s Fort Point District) –took over the kitchen. One should expect that any chef mentored by the likes of Batali to have mastered both pasta and pizza, and that is exactly where Zooma excels. My suggestion: bypass the appetizers (although dishes like the $12 pepperoni ripieni – a spicy sausage, risotto, and Montasio cheese stuffed bell pepper – sounds intriguing, while a complimentary house specialty of filet mignon spicy stew is a bit bland), and head straight to anything cooked with a flour base.

Zooma’s Neapolitan pizzas and pastas are made with high-end Caputo “00” flour, and the pizzas (all $14), although slightly doughy in texture, are perfectly crisped and charred in an 800 degree wood-fired oven. The Diavola, made with sweet house tomato sauce, spicy salami, and creamy mozzarella, possesses a firm crust that never wavers under its intensely flavorful toppings.

Pastas ($15-$28) are all made in-house by and, as evidenced by the impressive, glass-enclosed pasta-making room - the pastaficio - that appears on the left side of the entrance. The TLC that Burgess and his team place into pasta making is on full display in dishes such as the zesty tagliatelle nere ai gamberi ($24), with unique black ribbon pasta with four plump jumbo shrimp, garlic, chilies, tomatoes, and scallions. Even better? Since I was wavering between two dishes, the kitchen expediter took it upon himself to order on my behalf a combination plate. One half consisted of tortellini vino rosso - goat cheese-filled red wine ravioli soaked in a brown butter and orange reduction. The ravioli’s appearance came as advertised, possessing a striking red-tinged color, and the tartness of the goat cheese contrasting with the sweetness of the reduction were heavenly. The plate’s other magical half could have easily posed as a decadent dessert: pumpkin-stuffed ravioli topped with crushed amaretti cookie crumbles and grapes. Once again, the contrasts in textures and flavors – crunchy cookies against pillowy dough; the hot, sweet pumpkin filling with the cold, mild acidity of the grapes –work in perfect harmony. It’s a revelatory dish, one in which technique and just the right touch of creativity work in tandem, while the ingredients don’t overwhelm, but showcase the real star of the dish: the pasta itself.

Refreshing cocktails ($10) – playfully served in tall, narrow glasses - are stiff, yet nicely balanced and complex. A Dirty Lemonade (vodka, muddled fresh lemons, club soda, and Chambord raspberry lemonade over ice) is a refreshing seasonal drink, while I cozy up to the Zooma, a unique bittersweet concoction made with prosecco, Crown Royal, grapefruit, and elderflower liquor over ice. The wine list is extensive and reasonably priced, ranging from more interesting varieties (a $9 glass of Sangiovese/Merlot blend, Monte Antico, from the Tuscan region is a lighter, more suitable red wine to pair wit hearty pastas) to the more familiar (Cigar Box Malbec, $7/glass).

Service is relaxed and our waiter is extremely polished knowledgeable of the menu. Another nice touch was the restaurant’s acknowledgement of even the slightest delays, as evidenced by the aforementioned free stew, as well as a glass of wine that was removed from our tab. The fact that complimentary valet parking exists and that nearby confectionary haven Pastiche is within short walking distance only enhances Zooma’s allure. I eagerly look forward to sampling more of Chef Burgess’s sophisticated pasta. It just might keep me from frequenting the North End for good.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Steel & Rye Fuses Old and New with Mixed Results

The Industrial Revolution has returned to the suburbs of Milton. Not the actual Revolution, but in the form of Steel & Rye, a new fine dining restaurant houses in an innovative space that also serves up equally innovative cuisine rarely seen outside of Boston (although that trend is beginning to shift with the heralded arrivals o Newton’s Sycamore and Jeffrey Fournier’s Waban Kitchen.
Chef/owner Chris Parsons, the well-regarded head of former Winchester dining hotspots Catch and Parsons Table, has opened up a chic-looking eatery whose architecture pays tribute to the past. The sprawling 7,000 square foot space was once a car dealership turned ambulance garage. High ceilings make conversation a bit challenging, but bearable. There is also a more far-reaching nod towards the Industrial Revolution several hundred years prior in the form of old tools adorning windowsills, rusty beams cradling the bar, exposed pipes and ducts, steel beams with light bulbs burning bright overhead, and a concrete floor. But like many of the welders from that period, Steel & Rye manages to fuse the past with modern touches. Glass garage doors open to the patio, there’s a lively bar area, and there’s an open kitchen in which customers can view a multitude of chefs painstakingly preparing their meals. Diners consume their food on exposed wooden tables, and drink water from old-fashioned glass milk jars. The vast space is divided into different dining areas, and include fun touches including a table quaintly nestled into a window alcove at the front of the restaurant as well as a table in the back for two privately perched atop a spiral staircase. Despite the enormous space and crowds, Steel & Rye’s ambience is surprisingly warm and homey.

With mixed results, so does Parsons’s ambitious cuisine. Starters and small snacks are where Steel & Rye shines brightest. You’ll never invest a better $6 than with Today’s Cheese, which consists of homemade black pepper bread onto which sweet quince jam is spread and creamy Monk’s Head cheese is beautifully shaven into flower-like shapes. It’s a small delight that evokes silent nods of agreement at our table and will undoubtedly be placed alongside of some of Boston’s must-have dishes. A half dozen lamb meatballs ($12) are also pleasing, rich and silky due to an eclectic mix of runny poached egg, pine nuts, Greek yogurt, and whose flavor is further enhanced by a spicy kick of harissa (a North African chili paste).

Entrees are a mixed bag, but give Parsons his due – it’s not for lack of experimentation and innovation. On the positive side, homemade gemelli ($22) consists of tender pieces of braised lamb mixed with calamari-shaped pasta tubes that are perfectly cooked al dente. The pasta’s texture and flavor is enhanced by a masterstroke inclusion of breadcrumbs that soak up the sauce. East Coast halibut, which comes highly recommended by our server, shines in some areas, particularly the perfect execution of cooking the delicate white fish that instantly breaks apart at the gentlest touch of a fork (although a dining companion remarked that his was a bit dry). This dish, however, disappointingly falters in other areas that sounded much more intriguing on paper than how they appeared on the plate. A braised pork and hominy stew in which the halibut is cooked is less hearty than expected and surprisingly bland, while the hominy grits themselves are woefully undercooked and rendered inedible. Also barely discernable are accompanying grilled cactus and any hint of heat from gualjio chili.

Dessert, like the aforementioned halibut, delivers in some respects, but fails in others. While elements of the affogato such as frozen chocolate semifreddo and ultra-creamy vanilla gelato are quite delicious, their flavors are overwhelmed – drowned, actually – when decaf espresso is poured over the dish. While just a dash of espresso would have been preferred, there is an excessive amount of it here, which transforms the dish into a soupy, overly bitter-tasting mess. Housemade chocolate pop rocks add little, if any fizz to the plate, and ironically, a once-promising plate ultimately fizzles out.

Steel & Rye rebounds with its cocktails ($11), which are creative and well-balanced. Given the restaurant’s name, one would expect the bartenders to craft expert drinks containing rye, and the Bluster (comprised of whiskey, grapefruit, and pomegranate grenadine) delivers with its bittersweet, potent flavor. Also enticing is the Good Cuban, a bright, refreshing seasonal, citrusy cocktail with rum, lime, mint, bitters, and sparkling wine. There are also over a dozen modestly-priced wines available by the glass ($9-13), which include an inviting Cooper Hill Pinot Noir hailing from Wilamette Valley.

Service is understandably a bit slow on a bustling Saturday evening, and we appreciate our server routinely keeping our table informed of any delays. Thankfully, water glasses are constantly filled and delicious rye (sensing a theme here?) bread is constantly served with mouth-watering butter spread as we await the arrival of our courses. Our waitress is also extremely knowledgeable of the menu, patient, and enthusiastic (if not always spot-on) with her recommendations.

Prior to our departure, we notice a couple seated just behind us who arrived far later than us and are nearing the conclusion of their meal. I soon realize that they came only for starters, drinks, and dessert. And at the end of the day, that’s what I envision works best for Steel & Rye. Skip the less successful entrees and head straight to the more intriguing appetizers while washing them down with stiff libations. After all, the more (rye), as the saying goes, the merrier.

Monday, April 22, 2013

No. 9 Knocks it Out of the ‘Park’

It’s Barbara Lynch’s world, and we foodies are just fortunate to be living in it. Lynch has gained well-deserved fame and countless accolades (annual appearances on Boston Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants, the esteemed Relais & Chateaux status for Menton, AAA Four Diamond ratings, a James Beard award recipient, just to name a few) for her French-Italian inspired cuisine that can be sampled all over Beantown, from South End’s B&G Oysters and The Butcher Shop to Fort Point’s Sportello and adjacent cocktail haven, Drink. And lest we forget the aforementioned Menton, Lynch’s ode to opulent fine dining in Fort Point where price tags exceed well north of $100 for a 3-course prix fixe menu. But in the midst of Lynch’s empire expansion, let’s not forget where all of the acclaim stems from. No. 9 Park, located at the hilly peak of Park Street, a stone’s throw away from the State House, is Lynch’s flagship restaurant/crown jewel that fifteen years after its heralded opening (longevity that represents an eternity for most restaurants nowadays), still manages to pack in avid diners and amaze with its exceptional cuisine and service.

No. 9 Park’s ambience oozes elegance. For starters, witness the entrance door’s silver-plated No. 9 door handle. A lively bar area resides at the front, while more formal dining rooms are tucked away at the rear and right side (the latter with large windows that provide splendid view of Park Street) of the restaurant. Taupe-colored walls and antique chandeliers adorn the establishment, as do wealthy, well-coifed patrons decked out in their finest blazers and dresses, as if out of a GQ catalog, chatting up themes around politics, academia, and finance. Such an extravagant setting calls for an exorbitant hit on your wallet. A three course prix fixes menu costs $69, while a Chef’s Tasting consisting of 7 courses runs $112, and an additional wine pairing with the latter is $74.

The entire table samples Lynch’s world-renowned appetizer, a quintet of prune-stuffed gnocchi. While the gnocchi dough itself was a tad dry for my liking, I applaud Lynch for her innovation and technique in embedding wine-sweet prunes within the pasta. Although the dish is simply plated, it’s complex in flavor, as evidenced by the sweetness of the prunes balanced by the salty, buttery richness of three rosy-pink pieces of foie gras and vin santo glaze. This dish merits all of the praise it has garnered over the years. Globe artichoke veloute is the perfect seasonal green soup playfully poured into a plate and served with focaccia, pecorino caggiano, and boquerones (a Spanish delicacy with anchovies) that mesh well together.

Entrees are equally impressive. While portion sizes are average at best – make no mistake, there will be no doggy bags to take home here – they are extremely savory. One taste of my friend’s Colorado lamb quickly leaves him reluctant to share, and it’s easy to ascertain why. Succulent pink slices of meat are taken from the lamb loin and braised shank, and are nicely glazed with a unique pea green and pistachio pesto and paired with polenta. A Duet of Rohan Duck had me singing the bird’s praises. While its presentation was nothing flashy (scattershot plating is a common trend at No. 9, while Lynch focuses more on executing technique and flavors), the crispy leg confit and breast were not only perfectly cooked medium rare, but ingeniously paired with miniature canele, a French pastry with a soft and tender center and a thick, caramelized crust. The contrast in textures and the sweet-saltiness of flavors make this a most memorable dish. Had crispy pork belly, served alongside littleneck clams and drizzled with a chorizo vinaigrette – in all of its fatty goodness – not followed the savory gnocchi dish preceding it, my wife would have enjoyed it even more.

Desserts were simply divine and highly innovative. Given my wife’s dairy allergy, the more-than-accomodating kitchen whipped up a delicious off-the-menu vegan chocolate cake, topped with raspberry sorbet and walnuts. Chocolate cremeux was a confection akin to a deconstructed S’more, with coffee, graham cracker, sticky burnt marshmallows, dense chocolate, and basil ice cream. It’s complex and homey all at once, and it’s sinfully good, better than any campfire version you’ll ever try.

Well-crafted cocktails ($13-16) are balanced and equally complex, including the bittersweet No. 10, comprised of Tangueray gin, Campari, and grapefruit and another that consists of a refreshing springtime combination of sparkling wine, rum, and honey.

No. 9 Park is also the rare special occasion restaurant that makes diners feel, well…special. This is in large part to the attentive, doting service that makes this sophisticated establishment feel so surprisingly unpretentious. While a well-groomed gentleman who took our menu questions while our waitress was occupied was a bit superfluous – particularly because he faltered when confirming that a couple of dishes didn’t contain dairy when they in fact did – it was still a thoughtful gesture, one of several throughout the course of the evening. Other nice touches included a pair of complimentary non-alcoholic sparkling sodas infused with elderflower for the ladies at our table who had refrained from drinking alcohol. Water glasses and bread plates were continuously filled and timed to perfection. A dining companion’s gnocchi was even placed under a silver platter to keep the dish warm while he used the restroom. Our waitress, who knew the menu inside and out, and was warm, informative, and patient, brought over a pair of wine samples when deciding which to pair with my duck. “This is the most exciting part of the dinner for me!” she beamed.

As we departed, our waitress flagged us down, thanked us for dining with them, and hoped we’d enjoyed our experience. And what an experience it was. On a scale of 1 to 10 on Paul’s Palate, No. 9 Park, with no shortage of irony, earns a solid 9.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Chez Pascal Brings French Chic to Providence

Who needs Paris when Chez Pascal, a cozy French-influenced bistro and wine bar, is a much closer dining destination? Nearing its ten-year anniversary (the restaurant opened in March, 2003), Chez Pasal – like a fine French wine – seems to have only gotten better with age. The bistro utilizes local, seasonal produce in its cuisine. The menu, while small in stature (selection-wise), provides dishes that are hugely creative and flavorful. And you know you’ve discovered a serious culinary restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously, as evidenced by both its servers decked out in jeans and its menus playfully inserted underneath many of its platings.

The bistro is divided into two intimate rooms, with a cozy bar to the side. We’re seated in the back room, with its yellow-splashed walls, that are decorated with a local artist’s (Anthony Salemme) jungle-themed paintings, a perfect complement to the leopard cushion seating. Tables are situated side-by-side, perhaps a bit too close if one does not want to hear an arrogant 21-year old Brown graduate endlessly boast about all of his knowledge on all things political and wordly. Fortunately, Chez Pascal’s extremely polished, yet casual waitstaff comes to our rescue. Multiple servers cater to every empty water glass while politely, unintrusively inquiring about how each course is.

And is each course ever delightful. For starters, we order the chacuterie ($18). With the exception of a couple of cured meats (which are made at nearby Daniel’s Catering), all other meats and pates – including a silky smooth, heavenly duck liver mousse topped with sweet onion relish – are produced in-house. This beautifully plated dish is sinfully good. Traditional escargot a la bourguingnonne ($12.50) are anything but, as six giant snails soak in an aromatic, warm garlic sauce, perfect for spreading on parsley-scented brioche. Pork of the day ($34) – which our server is nice enough to split into two plates – is a generous portion of tender meat prepared three ways, accompanied by sauerkraut and fingerling potatoes.

Desserts provide an immensely satisfying conclusion to the evening. Chez Pascal’s seasonal sorbets ($8) include a trio of blood orange, green apple, and lemon flavors that are light and refreshing. A tasting of three French custards ($10) was sensational, including a mocha pot de crème (the last of which, while quite good, was the weakest of the trio, as the mocha flavor was barely discernable amongst the dense, bitter dark chocolate flavor), a unique eggnog crème brulee, and a ridiculously good, silky maple scented crème caramel.

Providence might be more renowned for its Italian cuisine in Federal Hill, but if you head a shade beyond the Pawtucket border into Providence, Chez Pascal’s romantic ambience, attentive service, and creative French cuisine will make foodies forget Paris.

Caffe Bella Strips Away Strip Mall Restaurant Label

Randolph may not be widely regarded as a fine dining haven, unless one considers Not Your Average Joe’s fare to be above average. But look more closely, however, in a rather nondescript strip mall of all places, and you’ll find a gourmet gem in the rough. Caffe Bella is an Italian bistro that has long been popular with locals, and it is easy to understand why. An extensive menu boasts large portions of surprisingly creative, mouth-watering Italian cuisine at a fairly reasonable price point that falls below what you’d be accustomed to doling out for similar fare in Boston (although some may still find the prices a bit excessive for the strip mall setting).

            For appetizers, head directly towards Caffe Bella’s impressive assortment of fresh seafood offerings, including a heaping serving of Cape Cod littlenecks (there’s nothing little about these plump clams) and P.E.I. ‘Icy Blue’ farm raised mussels alongside spicy sausage ($21.50). Everything is playfully served up in a giant sauté pan, perfect for allowing the seafood, meat and two buttery-good pieces of wood grilled bruschetta to soak in an aromatic, intensely flavored, spicy broth infused with plum tomato, jalapeno, chile, garlic, scallion, and basil. The broth, in and of itself, could be served as a stand-alone dish. “We’ve had customers actually ask to bring just the broth home, it’s so good,” our affable server explains.

            Entrees are just as strong, including a hearty portion of Caffe’s Bolognese sauce tossed with fresh hand-cut parpadelle noodles ($16). It’s meaty and the perfect comfort food on a chilly, snowy winter evening. Wood-grilled duck breast and slowly roasted leg ($28) are moist and perfectly cooked medium, laced with a lovely sweet apricot fig glaze. Sides of lima beans and frisse salad are merely superfluous here, bland and seemingly for display. As impressive as the duck tastes, however, the dish’s piece de resistance is its accompanying house-made sweet potato prosciutto ravioli, one of the most memorable pastas I’ve sampled in the last couple of years (since that wonderful sweet pea lobster parpadelle dish at Providence’s woefully underappreciated restaurant, CAV). This version includes two raviolis that are uniquely prepared: they’re cut razor-thin, while the prosciutto is finely minced in with the sweet potato. A touch of sweet cream is then layered atop the pasta, enhancing the ravioli’s already ethereal flavor. It’s a stunning accomplishment, and quite frankly, left this critic stunned as to why it is not served as a stand-alone entrée. I’d gladly order it time and time again.

            Desserts, all of which are made in-house, provide a scrumptious conclusion to the evening. I forego the more traditional tiramisu and gladly dig into espresso ice cream topped with broken biscotti pieces and creamy nutella.

            Service is extremely polished and genial. Our waitress effortlessly recites the menu from front to back and confidently makes suggestions based on the fact that she has sampled every item (an impressive feat). Earlier in our meal, when I inquire if Licor 43 (a vanilla-flavored Spanish licquer) is available, she warmly smiles and recalls enjoying Licor 43 and Coke during her days studying abroad in Spain several years ago. When she reveals that she studied in Sevilla - where I, myself studied as well – a fun conversation ensues. Before we know it, my wife and I have been at Caffe Bella for over an hour and a half.

            Where did all the time go? And how did I end up so thoroughly enjoying my experience in this strip mall locale? Caffe Bella casts conventional wisdom aside by proving that there is always a time and a place for great food and exceptional service, strip malls be damned.