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.