Monday, October 27, 2014

Amelia’s Puts the ‘Special’ in Special Occasion Dining

Fine dining in Stoughton? Yes, there is longtime Italian favorite LaStoria situated near the town’s center, but despite its consistently appealing cuisine, its interior and charm have lost their luster over the years. Recently, however, the answer to this question has shifted to a resounding and refreshingly surprising yes. In the space once inhabited by the antiquated Albert’s (largely reserved for an older crowd) and more recently, Greek eatery X&O, Amelia’s brings an excitement to Stoughton that is long overdue. With cuisine resembling a Northern Italian trattoria along with farm to table ingredients, the restaurant is run by the owners of Dedham’s well-regarded Sofia’s, and the same level of sophistication and attention to detail that can be experienced at the flagship site is on full display here.

The days of Albert’s stale atmosphere are long gone, only to be replaced with a spacious, sleek, contemporary layout accented by a dark, stylish mahogany finish. A stunning lounge area with plush sofas is located behind a large bar, vibrant and cozy all at once, as evidenced by reclaimed skip planed oak, stone walls, and an antique fireplace. This is what you envision a nice night out in the suburbs looking and feeling like. Also a nice touch: while the restaurant is clearly busy on a Friday evening, the hostess tells us to take as long as we’d like ordering drinks in the lounge and that our table would be waiting for us. A special occasion restaurant that also makes you feel, well…special.

The menu at Amelia’s is as accessible and inviting as its atmosphere. For starters, calamari fritti ($10) are delightfully chewy and coated with minimal breading which allows one to truly enjoy the fish itself, cooked with sweet chili sauce and mixed with banana peppers for a nice burst of heat. The result is one of the finest versions I’ve tasted in recent memory. Also noteworthy is a special of tuna tartare ($14), the fresh fish expertly sliced and nicely plated.

Entrees are equally strong, including exemplary seafood offerings, such as Wild Atlantic cod ($22), which I have always found too mildly a flavored fish. Here, however, the well-seasoned fish shines in creamed corn with smoked bacon, Graham cracker crumbs, and beurre blanc. Also well executed are beautifully seared, meaty sea scallops ($22), whose sweetness is punctuated by sweet corn risotto and accompanied by a lovely chilled green bean salad with charred heirloom tomato vinaigrette.

Pastas also rate highly, including the zesty Spaghetti ($23), in essence a glorified version of frutti di mare, featuring perfectly cooked al dente pasta packed with generous amounts of Scituate lobster, mussels, and shrimp topped with a light, spicy tomato sauce.

Wood-grilled items also impress, such as a massive portion of double-cut Australian lamb chops ($24), two hunks of meat playfully stacked atop one another and layered with a delectable, innovative pomegranate fig demi that nicely compliments, but does not overpower the lamb. While the au gratin potatoes were adequate, the dish would have benefitted from a touch of restraint, swapping out the heavier starch or a vegetable.

Desserts also impress, including a house-made molten chocolate lava cake that is well worth the ten minute wait as it is prepared. The cake’s moist, yet not too dense exterior breaks at the slightest tap of the fork, leading to an interior overflowing with rich, bittersweet chocolate. It’s simply decadent and rivals the best of any lava cakes I’ve tasted in either Boston or Providence.

Outside of an isolated, awkward moment in which our waitress (Camille, who I’d ask for over and over again) asked me about the preparation of a pork chop I had not ordered, service overall was relaxed, prompt, and attentive (example: my wife’s spilled martini resulted in her sighing what a long week it had been, prompting our waitress to immediately order her a new drink while wittily replying, “Think of this as the start to a great weekend”), as polished as one would expect for Boston, not the suburbs.

Cocktails are well crafted and potent, particularly a beverage blended with Maker’s Mark and Cointreau, a much stiffer version of a Mai Tai. There are over four dozen intriguing, yet reasonably priced wine selections available by the bottle, ranging across France, Italy, and Napa, while two dozen wines are also available by the glass ($6-14). You can enjoy a bottle of vibrant, light Angelina Reserve pinot noir at just $38, or be bold and splurge for a more robust flavored, pricier Caymus at $114.

At the conclusion of the evening, I remarked to our dining companions what a pleasant surprise Amelia’s was. Given its reasonable price points, superior service, and well executed cuisine, it’s just the fine dining establishment that Stoughton desperately needed. There, I said it: fine dining and Stoughton are indeed now synonymous.

Monday, October 20, 2014

This Foundry Not Yet on Solid Footing

They say that all good things come to those who wait. And that’s exactly what customers at The Foundry, An American Table & Bar – whose much-anticipated mid-September opening in Easton in the space previously occupied by popular tapas hotspot, LOCO) – will need: time and patience. Like many new restaurants, there are still several kinks to be worked out, primarily the restaurant’s service. With Foundry’s elevated price points in comparison to owner Neil Levine’s other popular pub Maguire’s across the street, one expects top-notch, polished service, and yet, this is surprisingly one of this establishment’s biggest pain points.

With its soft lighting, muted colors, and custom-made furniture, Levine’s intent is for Foundry to resemble what he calls a “…40s or 50s cocktail lounge.” Modern touches include a high-end audiovisual system and a lounge area consisting of a sleek, stainless steel bar with plush leather sofas. The restaurant seats up to fifty customers. When Foundry is at capacity, the location’s acoustics make for challenging conversation.

Levine describes his cuisine New American, and in most instances, Executive Chef Logan Powell’s (formerly of Smith and Wollensky’s and Blue Ginger) menu succeeds. Every menu item is made from scratch and the kitchen utilizes fresh, locally sourced ingredients. We forego a rather small, non-descript selection of entrees (labeled Supper) that range from swordfish, Bolognese, to a veal porterhouse, and decide to share a handful of more enticing appetizers (labeled Welcome), tapas-style. The mussels ($12), however - made with Vermont sausage, roasted fennel, and San Marzano tomatoes- are a major disappointment, with few of the shells closed and rendered inedible, a bad mussel here, and all tomato and no juicy broth with which to dunk crispy crostini chips there. While the short rib spring rolls are promoted as the signature menu item by the wait staff, the meat is a tad overcooked and dry, while the smoked gouda barely registers on the palate (accompanying sriracha aioli, however, adds nice heat, while creative Dijon mustard slaw provides a sweet, crispy contrast). The remainder of the dishes, however, shine, including sweet potato fries ($6), in essence fried potato wedges that are perfectly crisped and dunked into an addictive vanilla maple aioli. Also craveable are scallop ceviche tacos ($20) the seafood incredibly fresh and nicely seasoned with picked red onion, roasted corn, and avocado crema. Caribbean chicken wings ($10), whose recipe apparently originated from a Jamaican dishwasher employed by Levine, were also fantastic, tender meat slathered in Trenchtown sauce laced with spicy Jamaican jerk spice. There’s neither hesitation nor embarrassment in licking the delectable sauce from my fingers (although wet naps are thoughtfully made available up front).

Desserts (Sweets - $11) provided a satisfying conclusion to the evening. While heavier options such as the Chocolate Chip Cookie (a giant, warmed cookie served in a cast iron skillet topped with salted caramel ice cream and chocolate-covered pretzels) and Chocolate Casserole (chocolate cake modeled after Devil’s food cake recipe and filled with ganache) are more intriguing options on paper (and both very satisfying), it was actually the simpler local berries topped with honey that proved to be the most memorable dessert of the evening.

Cocktails are a bit pricey ($12) and yield mixed results. On one hand, there is the refreshing, sweet, potent Harvest, comprised of spiked cider and nutmeg, the perfect fall seasonal beverage. On the other, a promising Sakatini – blended with jalapeno sake and pineapple juices, is anything but, an unbalanced mess of All Spice with no sweetness. Our server fails just as miserably in her laughable description of the drink when asked about the ratio between the drink’s sweet and spicy flavors: “It’s like Sake served as a martini” (Thanks for the insight). There are thirty high-calibur, yet reasonably priced wine bottles available, including a smooth Smith & Hook cabernet. Levine shared with me that “…a $7-8 glass tastes like a $20 glass,” while more sophisticated varieties from Napa reach upwards of $90 a bottle.

Service, while prompt (water glasses swiftly filled, baguette rolls with yummy caramelized onion butter graciously provided) and friendly (when our waitress offered to add a fourth taco to a trio considering our party of four), was extremely scattershot. There were simply too many basic errors that one would expect a fine dining establishment would avoid. Our server seemed uncomfortable, even awkward at times (the Jamaican chicken wings story was painful to listen to), and was not at all knowledgeable of the menu. While my wife’s dairy allergy was accounted for when the crema accompanying our tacos was served on the side, the mussels were initially served with a slab of cheese cooked into the plate’s center, while the berries were first topped with gran marnier whipped cream. These mistakes, mind you, were quickly rectified and came with sincere apologies from both our server and Levine himself.

So perhaps patience is a virtue. After all, one month does not a fine dining establishment make. You root for someone like the charismatic Levine to succeed, and Easton demands a successful high-end eatery. But if Foundry’s service – which its elevated price points are predicated upon – does not rapidly improve, I’ll happily cross the street to Maguire’s, where I can grab a side of Levine’s famous honey hot tenders along with a warm Guinness on tap, for just a fraction of the cost. I’ll just have to wait and see if all good things come to Foundry in the weeks and months ahead.