Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This Empire Truly Strikes Back

Big Night Entertainment Group follows a simply philosophy with its restaurants – go big in both atmosphere and cuisine – or go home. Like Back Bay’s Red Lantern and MGM Grand Foxwood’s Shrine restaurants before it, Empire delivers on both fronts. Conveniently located on South Boston’s Waterfront, this eatery provided one of the most enjoyable dining experiences I’ve had in quite some time. In all honesty, I was struck by how consistently good everything was.

Starting with Empire’s modern, hip ambience. Yes, there’s the obligatory (yet really, really cool) expansive, illuminated bar, complete with light techno music, cushy lounge seating, and scantily clad, affable bartenders who craft potent fruity cocktails. It’s been said that if one looks closely enough, a celebrity or two may be spotted. Yes, there are lots of well-groomed diners either viewing others or waiting to be seen themselves. Empire’s atmosphere also playfully nods to Asia, particularly with its large dining room resembling an open dim sum hall that can likely be seen only blocks away in nearby Chinatown. Several smaller, private dining rooms extend to the back.

The Asian-inspired cuisine is consistently very good, sometimes stellar. Most dishes are thoughtfully served in half portions as well as larger ones, the perfect way to share several tapas-style with groups. Singapore street noodles (bowl is $25 and large enough to feed four; a large bowl is $44) include thin pasta with shrimp, scallops, and pork, along with a Madra curry spice that supplies a welcomed touch of hear. A hot app includes nicely seared chicken & mushroom dumplings (eight piece $12, 16 piece at $22), that possess chewy texture and just the right amount of crunch. Fried starters include a large assortment of Empire tempura vegetables ($15) that feature nicely battered onions, broccoli, and even sweet potato, accompanied by unique white miso aioli and citrus ponzu sauce for dipping pleasure (I prefer the latter for its acidity), along with steamed, slightly salted edamame.

Lobster and crab rangoons (6 piece $16, 12 piece $30) are so beautifully fried and presented that you may not want to bite into them. If you do, however, you’ll be handsomely rewarded by the mixture of meat with cream cheese along with an innovative topping of sweet soy molasses and Chinese plumb sauce, intended to be the restaurant’s riff on traditional duck sauce. My lone complaint: had the server not identified the lobster from the crab, I would have had difficulty differentiating between the flavors of the fish (again, delicious nonetheless). Eight sushi come with the Red Dragon roll ($18), consisting of blue fin tuna, daikon sprouts, sake, and red chili miso that lends the dish its heat. One dish that surprisingly had the entire table fawning over it, wishing we had ordered an entire tureen – was the addictive Bin’s Hot & Sour Soup ($8 individual, $27 for the tureen), which contained mushrooms, tofu, pork broth, white pepper and chili sesame oil – all of which provided the perfect blend of heat, acidity and warm comfort.

Well-prepared cocktails were a nice complement to the wonderful food. A pineapple mai tai for 2 ($24) is nothing more than your traditional beverage, only with lots more liquor and playfully served in a frozen pineapple. For the more adventurous drinker, the rye tai ($14) is a must as well. Lighter drinks also fare well, including the peartini ($14) mixed with pear sake and rum, while the refreshing Coco Dojo ($13) includes coconut, pear sake, pineapple, and soda. A group of four women celebrating their friend’s 50th birthday tackle the rightfully named Big Kahuna ($68), consisting of grey goose punch served in a mammoth watermelon (dry ice makes for an eye-opening presentation) along with watermelon juice, mint and ginger.

Non-traditional desserts are also first rate, including the most popular menu option according to our server, a chocolate macadamia nut tart ($11). What sounds pedestrian proves to be quite the opposite: six miniature slices of dense, buttery chocolate drizzled with brown butter caramel and with sweet chili cooked into the tart to provide subtle bite. Equally decadent are the ethereal, gooey sticky toffee donuts along with a special of fried apricot dumplings paired with creamy raspberry sorbet.

Servers are knowledgeable, gracious, and prompt, while the meal’s methodical pacing across several dishes was pitch-perfect.

Empire delivers exceptional atmosphere, service, and cuisine. I followed Big Night Entertainment Group’s motto to a T, with one exception – I went big (on food), but after such a wonderful dining experience, begrudgingly went home.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Does Mooo ‘Stake’ Its Claim amongst Boston’s best steakhouses?

Located in Beacon Hill adjacent to the XV Hotel, Mooo is a modern steakhouse from restauranteur extraordinaire Jamie Mammano, whose Columbus Group company runs the equally opulent, well-regarded restaurants including Mistral, Sorellina, L’Andana, and its newest arrival – the ultra-extravagent, ultra-expensive seafood-oriented Ostra.

Mooo’s interior, while warm (off-white and beige tones) and sheek (chandeliers framed in large amber shades), possesses all of the traits that make you well aware that you’re dining in a steakhouse (pictures of calves, giant armchairs) and here to consume what else, but steak?

Prices here are as exorbitant as in other steakhouses around town, if not a bit more so. If you’re dining on a budget, however, take advantage of Mooo’s 3-course, $25 prix fixe lunch menu, quite possibly one of the best values in the city.

We start with a nicely seasoned appetizer of steak tartare. The hand-cut beef is thick and meaty, unlike more traditional, thinly-sliced versions I’ve sampled, and can be stacked atop four miniature warmed, grilled pieces of flatbread. My 12 oz. New York sirloin strip is again well-seasoned, but sadly, is dry and a tad overcooked (it is served medium to well, as opposed to medium rare). Fortunately, a nicely balanced, unique, and quite potent cocktail comprised of Liquor 43 (vanilla flavor) and whiskey eases my disappointment, as does a delectable dessert of bananas foster, with the bananas beautifully bruleed that crackle against the creamy vanilla ice cream that is layered with additional banana pieces.

Service was adequate, but a bit unpolished, particularly during an extended lull between the main course and dessert.

Overall, Mooo provides good, if somewhat inconsistent food and service. For the 3-course lunch special, it’s well worth trying. Otherwise, if you’re there to order $45-$60 steaks and demand top-notch cuisine and service, it may not quite be worth ‘moooing’ home about.

Food Lets Out a Rebel Yell at Ribelle

Tim Maslow is not only man of the hour amongst Boston’s culinary landscape– he’s eagerly attempting to re-define it with highly innovative fare rarely seen – or attempted – north of New York City. Maslow, who worked in that same city for several years under the tutelage of superstar chef David Chang at his universally revered Momofuku restaurants (he ultimately became chef de cuisine at Momofuku Ssam Bar), ultimately decided to take both his training and immense talent up north to Watertown, MA. It was there where he decided to miraculously transform his father’s sandwich shop, Strip T’s, into a much-buzzed about dining destination serving fascinating items from razor clams with chili jam, cilantro and sesame to sourdough brioche donuts topped with tarragon.

Now comes Ribelle, Maslow’s own attempt to conquer contemporary Italian cuisine, located in Brookline’s suddenly trendy Washington Square neighborhood (it’s across the street from other popular dining hotspots including Fairsted Kitchen and Barcelona Wine Bar). The restaurant’s name in Italian stands for ‘rebel,’ and Maslow’s menu isn’t afraid to stray from the culinary norm. Many of the options are intended for more adventurous diners, who will no doubt squint their noses at the dishes’ off-kilter ingredients, excitedly questioning if and how such bold and unique flavors will meld together.

The atmosphere, like Maslow’s food, is trendy and fun. A long, illuminated bar – with lights resembling ice cubes hanging overhead – extends onto the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where servers with hats slave away preparing meals under Maslow’s close watch (He isn’t afraid to deep-six a dish if it is not up to his lofty standards, which I witness when waiting to use the restroom). Equally long communal tables foster friendly, albeit loud conversation. For a more intimate meal, on a nice spring/summer evening, I suggest scoring either an outside table overlooking Beacon Street or an indoor table abutting the large window that opens out streetside. Tattooed servers are affable, graciously providing their recommendations accompanied by thought-provoking explanations behind them.

And boy, is there high-calibur cuisine to be had. While I lamented the fact that the much ballyhooed lamb tartare dish was out of season, my spirits quickly perked up when sampling a half plate of rigatoni with fennel, octopus, and smoked tomato sauce ($15 for half plate, $26 for whole). Like most dishes at Ribelle, it’s wonderfully seasoned and highly complex – there are lots of intense flavors that linger on the palate well after each bite, like miniature umami bombs. Sesame buns ($8) are essentially two glorified vegi sliders containing chickpea fritters slathered with calabrian mayo. The buns are super fresh, and the fritters are once again nicely seasoned, if not a tad excessively spicy due to an overzealous application of mayo (my wife, however, adores the dish). Entrees include a medium rare lamb neck alongside chickpeas, peas, and pea green paste. While the dish was adequate and the meat nicely cooked, it was my least favorite, as the ingredients seemed to be repetitive, while the flavor of the pea green paste was slightly off-putting. My favorite entrée, however, was the squid fideo – black ink pasta perfectly cooked al dente and served with buttery chunks of lobster ($27). The dish features an accompanying dollop of almond paste that, on its face, seems superfluous, but when blended into the pasta, is essential to the overall success of the dish.

Desserts are equally strong. I had my heart set on ordering Ribelle’s staple dish – olive oil ice cream topped with a hard chocolate shell. “It’s good, but it’s ice cream,” our waitress honestly states, instead steering me to a trio of avocado mousse, hibiscus ice, and tapioca, once again a delicious testament to Maslow’s mad-scientist experimentation that produces the sweetest culinary music.

For suburban dining, wine selections are a bit pricey per glass ($11-15), but are well thought out (a select handful of sparklers, whites and reds adorn the menu) and playfully described (i.e. a bubbly is labeled “bright, but rich enough to cut the cheese”). It’s this type of cheekiness that makes Ribelle so memorable, and reminds you that there is approachability to Maslow’s complex cuisine.

While Ribelle’s squished-up neon script sign is barely recognizable from Beacon Street, most of the food certainly stands out. Maslow’s culinary rebel yell can be heard well into the suburbs of Brookline and far beyond. He has ‘stripped’ away every culinary cliché on his menu to create food that is distinctly his own – and it fits him to a ‘T.’

Monday, May 5, 2014

Barcelona Wine Bar Lacks Spice of Spain

Brookline’s Washington Square neighborhood has certainly undergone a culinary transformation over the past couple of years, as evidenced by newcomers Fairsted Kitchen and universally revered contemporary Italian hotspot Ribelle, restaurants that have deservedly received wide acclaim for their innovative cuisine. Barcelona Wine Bar – a well-regarded national chain - has received similar attention, and it’s apparent when walking over to the restaurant one evening that it is busy. In fact, the place is packed to the gills, with a lively, younger, twenty-ish crowd that appears to prefer a nightlife scene over sophisticated cuisine. Unfortunately, Barcelona Wine Bar appears to cater to that very clientele. While there are evident hits across both its menu and service, the results are disappointingly, sometimes maddeningly, inconsistent.

Diners seeking an intimate, romantic dining experience that one may experience on the streets of Barcelona, consider yourselves warned: Barcelona Wine Bar is excessively loud. From it cramped, noisy bar area (where our party, along with several others were forced to wait at least 30 minutes over our reservation times), music loudly blares. A nice touch, however, is the restaurant staff acknowledging the extended wait, as a server brings out complimentary fried cheese wedges subtly sweetened with lavender. When the first table becomes available, guess where the hostess plans on seating us? Tableside right by the bar, where our voices have gone hoarse and eardrums are pierced. “Uh, no thank you,” I insist. We are thankfully soon seated in the dining room next door, which while an improvement, has terrible acoustics that still force us to shout over the loud music that continues to pulsate from the bar. In hindsight, given such a lovely evening weather-wise, I would much rather have opted for Barcelona’s outdoor seating with heated lamps. The restaurant’s dimly lit, sleek interior showcases brown wood paneling and a fun open kitchen featuring hanging meats that are a fun nod to the Spanish butchery windowsills. Spanish-themed pictures including the Barcelona national soccer team and a bullfighting arena, along with a bull head plaque, playfully adorn the walls.

Barcelona Wine Bar’s focus is on tapas – fun, Spanish small plates intended for sharing – and there are several fine ones to be had. The menu, our genial waiter acknowledges, nicely reads from top to bottom in terms of lighter to heavier options. Smaller bites – apertivos – include addictively spicy mixed Spanish olives ($3.50) that are gone from the plate before one can say “Rapido.” Asparagus topped with fried egg and manchego cheese brings me back to my college days abroad in Seville, the ultimate traditional comfort food that my senora used to prepare as part of their most important meal of the day, almuerzo (lunch), a perfect dish to precede their siesta. Another traditional, heartier dish that is well executed is the potato tortilla ($4.50), a Spanish omelet whose firmness and denseness are traits not always evident in previous failed carbon-copy attempts I’ve sampled, and is nicely paired with chive sour cream. Patatas bravas ($6.50) are crisped just enough and layered with salsa brava and garlic aioli. If I had one minor quibble here, it’s a mistake of my own doing: this dish seemed a bit repetitive starch-wise following the tortilla, and I would have opted for the latter plate if I could re-order. Albondigas ($7.50) – luscious meatballs in a sinfully good, zesty sauce – were delightful, and disappeared nearly as quickly as the olives. Lastly, a highly innovative dish of octopus-infused noodles with black squid ink pasta ($14.00) was breathtaking to both look at – served in a large, round steaming black iron skillet – and eat. The octopus tentacles were meaty and the dish was topped with garlic aioli. It was by far the most memorable dish of the evening.

Unfortunately, there were several notable misfires that offset some of the fine cuisine we’d sampled. A pity, given Executive Chef Steven Brands’s (formerly of the highly regarded, now shuttered Harvard Square staple, Upstairs on the Square) reputation for delivering consistently tasty fare. Migas ($6.00), a traditional Spanish dish which fried egg over chorizo, was surprisingly bland, and would have greatly benefitted from some heat, either by way of a spicier cut of chorizo or that wonderful aforementioned sauce dousing the meatballs. Another major problem was with Barcelona’s menu, where groups are typically encouraged to share small tapas plates. If groups, however, prefer to blend standard tapas with larger, intriguing plates such as paella or mixed grill options, it becomes cost-prohibitive (as well as straining stomach capacity), since you must order at least two plates per table at $24.50 per person. This is a blemish that the restaurant needs to rectify – pronto – as it runs entirely counter to the tapas sharing dining concept. With that being said, our table orders one portion of the grilled churrasco ($23.50), a tender, thinly pounded slice of steak that while nicely cooked medium rare, is a tad salty for my taste. The meat is topped with sweet potato frites, which while they sound enticing, are slightly undercooked and not crispy.

Forego desserts here – they border on disastrous. Flan Catalan ($6.00) is average at best (a good thing we didn’t order it – it was mistakenly brought to our table). Crepas salguero ($7.00) have no crispness whatsoever, two thin, limp slices of dough filled with grocery-store quality whipped cream and covered with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce that resembles Hershey syrup. I’ve also sampled far tastier churros. These dough sticks, while crispy enough, should come piping hot tableside – they’re not. What they are is excessively sweet and over-dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Sometimes, a little restraint from the kitchen is a good thing. The aforementioned chocolate sauce with which these are paired should be thick and gooey, not drippy. The mediocrity of desserts at Barcelona Wine Bar makes me feel as if I’ve stumbled into Applebees, not a well-regarded restaurant.

Sangria ($6.50/glass, $24/pitcher) should be Barcelona’s signature drink. Sadly, it’s not. Instead, this version is weak alcohol-wise and far too sweet with no tartness to balance it whatsoever. “Is this house-made?” I ask the bartender. “Yes,” he confirms. Tastes as if it came out of a can, I think to myself, relieved that I did not order an entire pitcher. You’ll have much better luck imbibing on Barcelona’s interesting cocktail selection, including the Hot Dahlia ($9.50), a unique, intensely spicy blend of roasted Jalapeno infused tequila, muddled orange, cilantro, and lime juice. Also noteworthy is the Bourbon Spice Rack ($10.50), a complex, balanced, subtly sweet beverage combining Four Roses bourbon, Doc’s maple syrup, lemon juice, Scrappy’s cardamom, lavender bitters, and is served over one giant ice cube that maintains the drink’s chill.

Barcelona does boast a large, interesting selection of wines that are heavily weighted towards Spain, and available by the glass ($6-$12.50), ½ glass ($4.25-$6.75), or wine flights (a trio of tastes for $15). There are several tempranillos (including a medium-bodied, ripe La Montera), along with ten different types of sherry ($6-17/glass). Beer lovers will take solace in several intriguing options, including a Staropramen lager imported from the Czech Republic ($7) and more adventurous, pricier types such as a St. Peter’s cream stout hailing from England ($14) and Estrella Damm. Inedit out of Spain ($28).

Much like the cuisine, service is wildly erratic. While our server is extremely helpful and knowledge of the menu (he even graciously takes the time to check off dairy-free options for my wife), he disappears in stretches (understandable, given how busy the restaurant is and how many tables he is covering), while the wait staff is barely noticeable, as water refills were nonexistent.

Barcelona Wine Bar may be attracting throngs of customers, but its hype does not live up to the reality of its inconsistent cuisine and service. For better executed cuisine and more polished service, head to the South End’s Toro. This Brookline eatery, however, is unfortunately literally and figuratively continents away from the best restaurants that Spain’s beloved Catalan-based city has to offer.