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.