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.