Friday, August 29, 2014

Is Grill 23 a Cut Above Rest of Boston Steakhhouses?

What do Morton’s, Capital Grille, Abe and Louie’s, Mooo all have in common? Steak and creamed spinach would be far too easy a response. Answer: they all allegedly aspire to live up to Grill 23’s gourmet greatness. Still going strong after its grand ushering into Boston’s fine dining scene over 30 years ago, Executive Chef Jay Murray’s establishment still serves up some of the most exceptional (and exceptionally pricey) cuts of beef in the city. What has distinguished this restaurant from its competitors, however, lies in its unique menu offerings that break away from traditional steakhouse fare.

While the cuisine continues to remain innovatively modern, Grill 23’s vast, yet outdated dining room screams for refurbishing. The mahogany panels, Corinthean columns, and tapestry-draped walls are no doubt impressive, but so Locke-Oberish circa 1983 (the revered Downtown Crossing restaurant whose interior and cuisine ultimately ran its course and has since closed). The vaulted ceiling for the massive space also makes for unbearably loud acoustics and are better suited for business meetings, not intimate dates (most couples are awkwardly seated side by side, divided by a small partition).

Back to the cuisine, though. Fresh bread baskets and prompt water-filling have always been considered pillars for a solid meal. Grill 23 knocks both elements out of the park. Cordial white-tuxedoed servers work effortlessly and in synch, polished and attentive while not overly intrusive. The bread basket is the finest I’ve sampled since Cambridge’s Bondir, consisting of an ultra-thin sheet of crispy cracker laced with red pepper and cheese, rye bread plush with sweet dates, and cheesy focaccia with a wonderfully fluffy interior and perfectly charred crust.

Cocktails are in my estimate overpriced ($15-$25), but admittedly, well crafted. We gravitate to more seasonal, refreshing options such as the Goombah Smash ($16), which contains a variety of rums (one of which was a housemade coconut rum) mixed with fresh pineapple juice, while spiked iced tea ($15) is a much more potent, upscale version of Snapple. There is also an eye-opening number of wine selections (roughly 1,500 bottles) from which to choose.

While steaks are always the order of the day at Grill 23, we ventured to sample the three course prix-fixe menu ($38) during Dine Out Boston week, one which veered away from the cow. A grilled wedge salad struck just the right balance between chewy and charred crispiness. Smoked bluefish pate was creamy and meaty, although I found the baby carrots and turnips superfluous and the toasts upon which the pate was spread rather limp. While the espresso brined chicken was tender, I barely detected a trace of espresso flavor, while the accompanying wild rice and peach pilaf was underseasoned. Short rib risotto, however, was incredibly hearty and comforting, if not a tad oversalted, the tender meat sliced razor thin into the risotto, which packed nice heat due to horseradish cream and charred scallion.

Desserts were different, decadent, and on the whole, enjoyable. While the ‘Candy Bar’ Brownie Sundae came with a rather small, non-descript brownie, far too chewy dabs of peanut nougat, and a barely discernible orange yogurt panna cotta, make no mistake: the toasted marshmallow ice cream topped with cocoa nib puree, with its incredibly light texture and subtly sweet flavor, was the star of the dish. More fluff, and less nutter, please. My wife, who has a dairy allergy, was allowed to order off menu and sampled a blackberry sorbet infused with fresh coconut, whose creamy texture resembled gelato, and which we agreed rivaled, if not surpassed her favorite chocolate version at Mistral.

While Grill 23 certainly has its flaws, they are easy to overlook when its kitchen continues to experiment with and largely succeed preparing dishes aside from steak. A steakhouse whose innovative menu manages to stay relatively fresh 30 years later? Rare, indeed.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Broadway Bistro Worthy of Mild Applause

Sophisticated cuisine at a reasonable price on Broadway? Say it ain’t so, Broadway Joe! Indeed it is, if you’re dining on Broadway on Providence’s Federal Hill. Broadway Bistro is a quaint little restaurant with large culinary ambitions that manages to keep your wallet intact. Think $15-20 entrees and you’ll easily be able to splurge for that cannoli you’re craving on nearby Atwells Ave (while desserts are not offered here, complimentary, dense chocolate truffles are).

The bistro’s attempt at an intimate atmosphere is partially successful. On one hand, there are brightly illuminated white bulb trees along with walls painted in dark red hues, while on the other, the remainder of the dining room’s lighting is ultra-dim while music blares ultra-loud. Fortunately, servers are prompt, generally knowledgeable of the menu, and genuinely friendly. To take your mind off of the music, well-crafted Painkillers - a fruity cocktail that is a staple of the Caribbean - are a welcomed option, infused with housemade pineapple rum and topped with a dusting of nutmeg. They’re potent and refreshing, almost bringing me back to a beach on Barbados.

Starters ($7-9) bring mixed results, including a rather bland fruit salad with cantaloupe and walnuts (others, however, at the table, rave about it) and a chicken taco that was unquestionably bland and whose meat was overcooked and dry. No quiero mas, por favor, I felt compelled to tell our server after this failed attempt. Much better was the ceviche, which contained an abundance of plump, fresh seafood laced with just the right amount of seasoning and acidity from the citrus juice. Tender ribs marinated in orange-soy sauce and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds fell right off the bone and were served atop grits – Southern-themed cuisine at its finger-licking finest.

Entrees were equally mixed. While paella contained a generous portion of chorizo and shrimp, I found the rice too pasty and the dish itself woefully under-seasoned, one which could have benefitted from a touch of salt. My vermicelli noodle dish, however, was the clear-cut winner of the evening, featuring fried oysters and cilantro.

While Broadway Bistro isn’t the runaway culinary hit I predicted it would be, given its pristine location (far enough away from busy Atwells Ave but within walking distance), its unique small restaurant charm, and highly affordable menu, this establishment should have a long, productive run alongside Providence’s Restaurant Row.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Not Your Average Run of the Mill Cuisine at Mill’s Tavern

One expects greatness at Mill’s Tavern, one of Providence’s most revered dining spots located alongside Brown University. Chef Edward Bolus’s thoughtful, innovative approach to his cuisine certainly seems to match the neighborhood’s academic, presitigious vibe. Like Brown’s Ivy League-educated students, Bolus has lofty aspirations for his menu. Take, for instance, his modern, whimsical interpretation of foie gras ($21), the goose liver’s flavors elevated by chocolate ancho shortbread, candied bacon crumble, pickled citrus sorbet, and mango chili leather. Similar to Brown’s rigid admissions criteria, unambitious, unadventurous dining candidates need not apply for this unique dining experience.

Mill’s Tavern is situated in the historic Pilgrim Mills Building. While the restaurants is only 12 years young, its interior, like the food, is sophisticated, resembling a centuries-old tavern with its red brick walls, vaulted casement ceiling, dark woods, and linen tablecloths. If you can, snag a quieter, more romantic table alongside the giant floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking bustling N. Main Street. An elongated bar sits to the left, while a wood burning oven blazes in the open kitchen towards the back.

Oh, and that wood burning oven so happens to produce a mean pizza pie. The wood fired pizza ($18) is served with an herbed citrus ricotta base, arugula, braised duck, balsamic fig glaze, and a sunny side duck egg. The pizza is wonderfully charred, and possesses a fine balance between sweet and tart flavors by way of the fig glaze and ricotta, and whose texture is enhanced by the egg’s creaminess. I stated weeks ago that nearby Bacaro’s wood-fired pie reigned supreme in Providence, but I now stand corrected: Mill’s Tavern’s complex version closely rivals it. Equally memorable was an appetizer of braised littleneck clams ($18) in smoked tomato and Naragansett lager broth packed with grilled chorizo and sweet onions. Our waiter strongly endorsed this dish, suggesting it was a crowd favorite and menu staple since the restaurant’s inception, and he did not steer us wrong. The clams were clean, luscious, and meaty, the chorizo tender and spicy, while the garlic bread served alongside the bowl was quickly used to sop up what proved to be a zesty, comforting, addictive broth.

Entrees were solid, if not nearly as spectacular as the preceding small plates. Less successful was the lemongrass glazed Long Island duck breast ($28). While the duck was featured as one of the eatery’s wood-fired entrees, I barely detected a trace of crackle or smokiness to the meat that one would come to expect. Nor did I find the meat, which admittedly was perfectly cooked medium rare and tender, to be all that well seasoned, as the accompanying mango-papaya salsa’s dry, canned corn-like texture was bland. The plate would have greatly benefitted from a sauce of some sort (perhaps that terrific balsamic fig glaze?). A side of unique yucca tater tots, however, was exceptional, with their crispy exterior and warm, gooey, slightly sweet interior. The finest entrée of the evening was once again a customer favorite/longtime menu staple: the 12 oz. soy-brined pork chop, a cut of meat so massive that it was playfully presented in two strips served upright. A luscious grilled peach compote and peach mustard barbecue sauce demonstrated Bolus’s expertise in utilizing seasonal ingredients, and they wonderfully complimented the tender meat, once again cooked to perfection.

Desserts were a bit uneven. A warmed Veronha chocolate cake ($10) was slightly overcooked. While seasonal sorbet offered refreshing, interesting flavors such as coconut and strawberry hibiscus, other flavors were less successful, such as mango and the excessively icy key lime pie. Things rebounded nicely with the lovely, airy blueberry crumb cake, served with white-chocolate cremeux, yuzu caramel, and crème freche ice cream, which, just like the aforementioned duck pizza, struck just the right balance between sweet and tart.

Mill’s Tavern’s cocktail program ($12) is as sophisticated as its fare. While a coconut mojito and a Just Peachy (orange vodka, peach, cointreau, pineapple and lemon juice) are light and refreshing, more adventurous libations are worth trying. Same Difference was a sweet, smoky blend of blackberry-infused tequila, port, and lime and lemon juice, while She’s a Knockout was just that: an intoxicatingly semi-sweet, sweat-inducing mix of bourbon, Gosling’s rum, Cointreau, lime and pineapple juice, punctuated by bright red habanero bitters. This is a complex, stiff, and well-balanced drink. The establishment’s wine program extends from California to Italy to France. A glass of Belle Glos “Melomi” Pinot Noir ($13) from Central Coast has robust fruit flavors and a smooth, velvety finish, pairing perfectly with that unforgettable duck pizza.

Sadly, however, it’s our mediocre service that prevented us from having a truly great dining experience and that also prohibits me from providing Mill’s Tavern with a ringing endorsement. Service began promisingly enough, with our waiter amicably providing recommendations while demonstrating a deep understanding of the menu selections along with the restaurant’s history. When we ordered our pizza, my wife – who has a dairy allergy - had asked if a slice of the pizza could be prepared without cheese, which our waiter swiftly confirm could be accommodated. After a prolonged period of time that elapsed after our orders were taken, and only moments before our appetizers arrived, he stated that the kitchen cooked the ricotta into the pizza’s base, and that my wife’s request could not in fact be accommodated. The timing was terrible, and after we politely voiced our displeasure, we noticed a dramatic shift in our waiter’s demeanor the rest of the evening. He suddenly seemed unengaged and inattentive. A second round of cocktails were late arriving with nary an apology (aside from our waiter stating that the bar was behind that evening) while cappuccinos were served far ahead of our desserts’ arrival. It’s unfortunate that such a lovely (and yes, expensive) dining experience at Mill’s Tavern could be sabotaged by lackluster service that does not match the quality of its cuisine.

Overall, I’d gladly return to sample several other exciting options on Chef Bolus’s menu (Melon gazpacho? Braised shortribs soaked in Port wine? Yes, please.). It’s the uneven service, however, that gives me pause to venture there anytime soon. While Mills’s Tavern graduates with ease, it fails to do so at the top of its culinary class.