Monday, November 23, 2015

This Birch Leaves You Hungry For More

Providence’s Birch has garnered much acclaim since its opening two years ago, right next door to the city’s other revered fine dining restaurant, Gracie’s. Whereas the latter treats its customers like royalty in a more grandiose setting (i.e. tables sparkling with confetti, complimentary amuse bouches throughout the meal, free valet parking, complimentary house baked chocolate chip cookies left in one’s vehicle), the former aims for delivering serious Modern American cuisine, albeit in a minimalist setting and with smaller portions at a similar price point (4 course prix fixe at $49). Is Birch worth the price of admission?

               Chef Benjamin Sukle is considered a big deal in these parts, having previously worked at the Dorrance and apprenticed at one of the world’s most acclaimed restaurant’s, Copenhagen’s Noma. Therefore, one expects big, bold flavors, unique ingredients, and beautiful presentations. Sukle’s wife, co-owner and GM Heidi, happily greets customers at the bar.

               The restaurant’s vibe is casually chic, resembling a sushi bar with a U-shaped, illuminated counter that tightly seats 20 customers (the squeaking sound of seats moving in and out evokes nails on a chalkboard). A friendly, knowledgeable bartender mixes a small list of well-balanced, potent cocktails. Notable options ably blend drier spirits with citrus flavors, from the Royal ($10), consisting of rye, chamomile, sherry and lemon to the Scarborough ($12), which has bourbon, chartreuse, and lemon. Back to that sushi bar theme, Ginjo sake ($12) has a nice clean finish and makes for a refreshing beverage when mixed with dolin blanc and lime.

               Terrific flavors, however, are often overshadowed by petty portion sizes. Sukle himself brings out a chip (yes, one chip) as an amuse bouche. While the preparation and flavors of this chip are intriguing (made of mushroom, filled with apple butter and black garlic), it can only be enjoyed in one small bite. When Sukle states that it is okay to use one’s hands to eat the chip, I almost burst out laughing, thinking to myself, “As opposed to the tweezers I’d need to pick this up?” There is no starch provided at the meal (bread, breadsticks, crackers, anything!), and most courses offer only 3-4 bites apiece. Rhode Island mushrooms with teeny-tiny chicken hearts (and maybe a miniature hazelnut or two) are delicious, but as the elderly Wendy’s spokeswoman once said, “Where’s the beef?” My favorite course is a lovely, tender Rhode Island fluke grilled on the bone with broccoli and potato, but it is gone in 4 bites. Parting is such sweet sorrow. My wife enjoys a nicely cooked suckling pork, but it is a very small, nondescript piece that sits rather limply on the dish and to me, tastes overseasoned with salt.

               Desserts are also whimsical in execution but restrained in portion size, including the Apple, which is a smashed version of the fruit laced with raspberry sauce.

               If you’re looking for a unique dining experience, Birch has the potential to be that dining destination. But with portions bordering on pretentious, it’s difficult to recommend. Birch is Providence’s version of Clio, which boasts fascinating flavors and culinary techniques, but portions at unsustainable price points that literally leave you hungry for more. Clio is sadly closing its doors at the end of this year, and I am hopeful that the Sukle’s will take their cue from the public’s disdain for overpriced cuisine. While in life, sometimes less is more, at Birch, more is desperately needed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Bigger is Not Necessarily Better at Strega Waterfront

Go big or go home.  That has always seemed to be the mantra of affable restaurateur Nic Varano, who began his empire with North End’s Strega in 2003 and boldly followed that with his flagship destination, Strega Waterfront in 2010. Strega Waterfront, located at Fan Pier in Boston’s Seaport District, is 5,700 square feet of pure opulence, from its dramatic décor featuring multiple fireplaces and flat screen televisions (even caught the Alabama-Ole Miss football game in the restroom!), oval-shaped awnings, a large piano, and Italian-imported flooring to the celebrity clientele (or those that may dress like and think they resemble one) to which it caters. And this is an Italian-inspired restaurant after all, didn’t you know? Mob movies are humorously played on those rows of televisions, while large portraits including the likes of Sinatra and Pacino adorn the walls. Hoo-ahh! The scene is loud and lively. But is Strega’s cuisine under the guidance of Executive Chef Salvatore Firicano as bold and exciting as its atmosphere?

               Pricey cocktails average out at $15 (paying above and beyond is a common theme at most Waterfront-based restaurants, but it’s exacerbated across Strega’s entire menu), and are served either on the rocks on ‘Up’ (straight up, martini-style). While potent, these drinks are not quite as balanced as one would hope. A pomegranate margarita with jalapeno packs subtle heat, but the sweetness of the tequila is a bit lost (as it is in a similar watermelon-flavored concoction). A dining companion’s Bee’s Knees swaps out gin for bourbon, but in this case, the honey and simply syrup with which it is infused is poured with a heavy hand, the drink far too sweet. The Knight Time tastes purely of bourbon, with nary a trace of Grand Marnier, and is quickly removed and substituted with a much more balanced, refreshing beverage consisting of port wine, ginger, and pineapple that lingers on the palate. If cocktails aren’t your preference, the wine list unsurprisingly leans heavily on Italian varieties, but others hail from France and California as well, some reasonably and others, well, not-so-reasonably priced.

               Appetizers are also hit or miss. The surprise of the evening, a lovely roasted beet salad ($16), fares the strongest, the beets just firm enough and sweetened with drizzles of local organic honey, with tart whipped ricotta that balances the sweetness and toasted pine nuts that provide a crunchy textural contrast. While pepper-encrusted ahi tuna carpaccio ($22) is nicely seasoned with spicy aioli, the fish is so thinly sliced that the fish itself is no longer the main attraction on the plate. Fried calamari “Strega” style ($16) is merely average, the squid rings’ exterior too heavily breaded although they go down easier with a spicy arrabiati dipping sauce. The kitchen’s knife-wielding skills are called into question once again here, although this time out, the accompanying pepperoncini slices are sliced too large. The evening’s most disappointing course, however, was one of its most promising: prosciutto wrapped shrimp and pineapple ($22) translates to three so-called jumbo shrimp served atop massive, succulent slices of pineapple (perhaps it should be re-named Massive Pineapple with Wee Little Shrimp?). While the fruit itself is dynamite, it overwhelms the plate. The shrimp themselves are a tad overcooked, and the prosciutto in which they’re embedded - which does have a tendency to naturally be salty - is excessively so and renders the fish virtually inedible. What a shame.

               Entrees fortunately fare better, most notably pappardelle Emiliana ($29), a hearty portion of nicely cooked pasta with a comforting Bolognese sauce laced with diced filet mignon. Even more comforting on a September evening heading into fall is the Zuppa di mare ($50), a heaping bowl chock full of fresh seafood including mussels, calamari, shrimp, and lobster, served in a spicy, ciappino-like broth. Braised short ribs ($39) are roasted all day, resulting in very tender meat, which is slightly underseasoned/undersalted. The dish could also benefit from a different, lighter starch as creamy fettucini with English peas is quite heavy and seems out of place with the meat.

               Traditional Italian desserts are also a mixed bag. While the cannoli ($6) is simply presented, its crispy shell exterior and just-sweet-enough ricotta interior are near perfection and serve as gentle reminders that the North End and all of its beloved pastries are just around the corner. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, the tiramisu is presented as a large slice of cake in lieu of the standard espresso-soaked ladyfingers, including a superfluous vanilla frosting. Any hint of marscapone and cocoa flavors are wiped away with an excessive amount of rum that’s been baked in. It’s the anti pick-me-up.

               Service is polished, as one would expect given Varano’s emphasis on hospitality and making one feel as if they are part of Varano’s own family. Varano himself even appears on the menu, pictured with other staff members in what appears to be an opening bash event at the restaurant. Brash, you bet, but the restaurant continues to attract throngs of customers, in spite of cuisine that often attempts to goes big but seldom delivers on that promise.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Troquet a Cozy, yet Sophisticated Dining Delight

A view of a what was once a peasant cemetery lining the outskirts of Boston
Common doesn't necessarily scream out 'romantic dining experience.' Across from this morose setting, however, lies the illustrious Troquet, a Theater District treasure of a restaurant now 14 years young in its existence that delivers the liveliest of dining experiences. Somehow lurking inexplicably in the shadows of more publicly talked about French-inspired establishments such as L'Espalier, 5-time James Beard award semi-finalist and GM/Owner Chris Campbell's bistro has consistently delivered modern, French-New American cuisine in a polished, yet casual setting (its name is apt, as Troquet is French slang for cozy bistro). You may have also heard about Troquet's nationally recognized wine program, which Campbell developed an affinity for when he first frequented France's Burgundy region in the mid-eighties while crafting his hospitality skills. And like a fine wine, Troquet has aged well. Executive Chef Scott Hebert (who had worked with the likes of acclaimed chefs including David Burke in New York City) joined Campbell back in 2001 during the restaurant's opening, and in Troquet's small, yet bustling kitchen he has loyally remained, as have some quirky, pleasant, polished, attentive, and dare I say fun waitstaff. In fact, Troquet may offer the most enjoyable, yet least talked about dining experience in all of Boston.

And before I get back to the restaurant's sterling wine selection, what better way to begin one's meal with butter - lots of it, by way of an enormous bucket of Normandy's finest? The butter is creamy, yet not too heavy, and melts inside of a piping hot roll whose crispy exterior belies a wonderfully fluffy interior. Just be careful not to have too many of these, unless, of course, one intends on taking the time to enjoy the entire meal over several hours and pours of wine.

And there are several pours to be savored, more than forty by the glass, conveniently made available by either 2 oz (half glass) or 4 oz (full) options. The extensive wine selection leans heavily on varietals from France and Italy, rounded out by several from Napa, Germany, Australia, and Spain. Even more attractive is Campbell's willingness to make difficult to find wines more accessible and affordable to the masses, as evidenced by the fact that all bottles are sold at only $10 above retail. Troquet prides itself on pairing all courses with select wines, and all glassware is served with oval paper discs at their base baring the restaurant's name along with the ID number of the wine you've ordered. And similar to Kai Gagnon's intriguing wine program at Somerville's terrific Bergamot, all wines are served at exactly the temperature they require for maximum sipping pleasure (45 degrees for whites, 58 degrees for reds).

That German Kabinett Riseling ($7.25 for 2 oz, $14.50 for 4 oz) is a fruit forward, light, yet not overpoweringly sweet white wine that pairs beautifully with highly recommended sushi specials that include a tuna terradito served sashimi grade-style topped with avocado and tomato along with a soft shell crab tempura with avocado and edible flowers. They're both lovely to look at, even lovelier to eat.

A subtle Spanish tempranillo from Bodegas Volver La Mancha Single Vineyard ($7.25 2 oz, $14.50 4 oz) compliments the roasted suckling pig ($39), Troquet's signature dish. "It's as if you read my mind," our server jokes upon requesting the wine. The tender meat is cooked to perfection, meticulously executed and uniquely presented as a trio of loin, rillettes, and ribs, with crackling skin atop the loin. Chipotle glaze accentuates the pig's smokey flavors. It's literally a feast for a king, and fondly brings me back to my college year abroad in Spain when sampling my first suckling pig under the aqueduct of Segovia. The dish is accompanied by long, pretty glazed baby carrots along with a  small skillet of corn spoon bread infused with spicy pepper succotash that is innovative, fun, and quite delicious. Slow roasted Vermont lamb ($38) also impresses in both taste and complexity, the tender meat rubbed in spicy mustard (in lieu Lebanese yogurt due to my wife's dairy restriction) and served with eggplant and faro with heirloom squash.

For dessert, the Valrohna chocolate soufflé ($13) is Trouquet's piece de resistence. Pastry Chef Sarah Woodfine's decadent concoction is moist gooey goodness, exacerbated by pouring in grand Marnier anglaise and blending with a small dollop of espresso gelato. Those with dairy allergies need not fear: the chocolate itself is non-dairy, while the kitchen will swap out both the Grand Marnier with more of that incredible chocolate melted into a sauce as well as the gelato with one of their interesting sorbet selections (in this instance, coconut, which my wife attested nearly rivaled Mistral's heralded chocolate sorbet).

Troquet's first floor hosts a small bar and Le Patissier, the restaurant's much ballyhooed dessert lounge. You can either walk up a slight of stairs - or even take an elevator - to the second floor where the real action takes place in Hebert's small, yet bustling kitchen that leads to the main dining room lined with dark red walls and mirrors.

You're likely coming to Troquet prior to attending a Broadway show in Boston's Theater District. The real show, however, resides in the restaurant itself. From its sterling waitstaff to its impeccable food and wine options, Troquet certainly won't come cheap, but is definitely worth the price of admission.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ostra Delivers An Opulent Dining Experience

Can fine dining and seafood coexist in Boston? That's a phenomenon about as rare as a Tom Brady cellphone sighting nowadays. Sure, there's beloved Island Creek Oyster House in Kenmore Square, its more scaled-back sister restaurant, Row 34 on the Waterfront, and even Chef Daniel Bruce's well-respected, longstanding Meritage at the Boston Harbor Hotel. But from the likes of chef/owner Jamie Mammano, who oversees other luxurious restaurants including the ageless South End eatery, Mistral and the uber-stylish Backbay Italian staple, Sorellina, what better way to celebrate contemporary Mediterranean seafood than in the space once occupied by popular Middle Eastern themed Avila, located at the outskirts of both Chinatown and the Theater District? Ostra is, after all, a truly an intoxicating combination of East meets West culinary styles.

And like its Columbus Hospitality Group counterparts, Ostra swings big across the board, starting with its sophisticated ambience. You know you're in for a serious dining experience from the moment you arrive -a  piano lounge and expansive bar with Beetlejuice-themed furniture to the left (garrulous, Hollywood blonde hostess straight ahead), and a towering dining room to your right (complete with catherdral ceilings and high noise levels unless seated near a window), complete with immense black and white photographs depicting land and sea. There's also an open kitchen in which a team of chefs can be viewed meticulously preparing one's meal, an ice-filled case of whole fish, and pendants resembling jellyfish. While rather vapid white walls and tablecloths are a bit dour, expensive white fine china plates ($125 apiece) featuring wave-like patterns are meticulously presented while mysteriously quickly whisked away from our table, as if the servers are teasing us. Who said luxury should be a fleeting moment?

An ultra-fresh, housemade bread basket cooked with potatoes and vidalia onions is a harbinger of good things to come from Executive Chef Mitchell Randall's intriguing menu.There are several appealing items from which to choose on Ostra's raw menu. We bypass a jalapeno-seasoned himachi for an aesthetically pleasing sea bass tartare ($22), an artfully presented fish that is both light and elegant, topped with a couple of slices velvety, black truffle. Vertical, wafer-thin fennel crostini are served on the side, a wonderful crispy compliment to the moist fish.

A first course of grilled Spanish octopus ($24) comes in several small round, chewy bites, and yet, to our amazement, the first order is woefully overcooked, rendering the meat charred and flavorless. It is swiftly removed from our bill with the most sincere apologies and check-ins from Ostra's general manager. Thankfully, the second attempt is flawless, the octopus's rubbery texture accentuated by a hint of lemon, a pool of olive oil, paprika, and raw sweet Vidalia onions as a bold counterpoint in flavor.

Paella "Valencia Style" ($48) brings me back to my college studies abroad in Spain, a mammoth silver platter theatrically opened by our server to reveal short-grain Spanish rice laced with flavorful saffron with just enough crunch along with an abundance of lobster (which, to me, tasted a tad too fishy), jumbo shrimp, mussels, clams, more octopus, squid, nicely spiced chorizo, and even a chicken drumette.

What better way to celebrate a fine dining experience near the Theatre District than to enjoy a theatrical dessert from budding executive pastry chef Jennifer Luna? While a unique sorbet trio ($10) consisting of coconut-yuzu, mango-pineapple and fresh berry didn't recreate the flawlessly executed, ice cream-esque chocolate sorbet that is universally beloved at Mistral, it was a refreshingly smooth finale nonetheless. But the real showstopper of the evening was Luna's visually stunning "snow egg" ($11) that our server insisted we must try. The 'egg' itself was in actuality a lemon curd mousse-filled meringue appearing to float atop plump raspberries, basil syrup, and a yarn of spun sugar resembling a crown. While the sugar was a bit tough to navigate one's spoon through, its flavor, albeit a bit overpowering, nicely cut into the tanginess of the lemon curd. I don't think I've tasted such an innovatively light, delightful dessert like this in ages.

Service is polished yet inviting, our waitress eager to steer us in the right direction with her recommendations (she seems to be a veteran stolen away from Mistral's staff). Cocktails can be steep price-wise ($15-21), including an odd-sounding, yet aptly prepared oyster martini. Ostra's wine selection is extensive and hails from regions including France, Italy, Spain, Napa, and even some unique selections from Greece and Germany/Central Europe. Wines by the glass range from $12-$25, and one can find moderate priced bottles to the exorbitant (a $ 2300 Shafer Hillside Select Magnum cabernet from Napa).

Tack on $21 for valet, and you have yourself one very expensive, yet highly rewarding dining experience. Ostra is defined as a tropical marine bivalve that is a major source of pearls. And that's what one should expect when dining at this fine dining establishment - it's legitimately one of Boston's crown jewels for sophisticated, well-executed seafood.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Erbaluce Represents a Sour Grape Dining Experience

Erbaluce was hailed by local food critics several years ago as one of Boston's top Italian restaurants, primarily for its daring cuisine under chef Charles Draghi and its cozy, hospitalable setting and waitstaff. The restaurant, named after a Piedmont grape, continues to push the envelope for more adventurous diners with dishes including wild boar and rabbit, but sadly, this spot tucked away in Boston's Bay Village (just a stone's throw away from more luxurious, spotlight-stealing establishments such as seafood staple Ostra and the recently opened Vegas-themed steakhouse STRIP by Strega) appears to have lost its luster.

Draghi himself can be seen preparing meals along with his band of merry chefs in the kitchen that adorns the back of the dining room. The waitstaff is unfortunately hit or miss. The individual who refills out breadbasket (wonderfully fresh, slightly crispy concoctions including sourdough mixed cinnamon) is vivacious, witty and funny, while our main server, although very knowledgeable of the menu, is reserved and at time seemingly a bit pretentious (it doesn't help that he abruptly takes an awful, overly icy sorbet away from our table at a dining companion's request, only to silently take the bill a few minutes later, sans apology, to remove the expense from the bill). It's a weird dynamic, for sure - is the restaurant's ambience supposed to be fun, serious, or a blend of both?

Herbs and spices seem to be Drahgi's sweet spot, and he accentuates these in a lovely, light rendering of scallops crudo, nicely cut dollops of fish tossed with basil.

It's Draghi's entrees, however, where these herbs tend to get lost. In lieu of the wild boar, which our server indicated possessed more of a gamey, chewy consistency to it, he recommended as his favorite dish rabbit with rhubarb and strawberries. While I found the meat - which came in a very generous portion consisting of loin and leg - very nicely cooked and surprisingly tender, there was very little of the rhubarb's sweet-tart flavor in the dish, but rather, a slightly off-putting gamey tone that dominated the dish. It made me regret passing on the equally intriguing parpadelle with boar ragu. A more conservative steak dish, while cooked appropriately, was surprisingly lacking the bold seasoning and herbs that the meat demanded and on which Draghi's kitchen prides itself.

Desserts were where Erbaluce faltered. The aforementioned sorbet was prepared with egg whites and supposed to lead to a creamy texture, and not the icy version that fell apart. My chocolate cremeaux dish, while tasty, was woefully undercooked, with flecks of sugar apparent within every bite. Complimentary housemade truffles served after dessert, while delightful, were oddly timed, and I had wishes I had known about these prior to ordering our sweet misfires.

The restaurant boasts an appealing, extensive, and often well-priced variety of northern Italian wines by the glass and bottle to pair with Draghi's experimental cuisine.

All in all, Erbaluce, for all of its inventiveness, feels merely average in Boston's present-day culinary scene. This 'grape' unfortunately left a more sour aftertaste in this reviewer's mouth.

Friday, June 5, 2015

51 Lincoln Brings Latin Heat to Suburbs

Amidst the tranquil streets and shops that make up Newton Highlands lies a forward-thinking restaurant that is known for producing bold flavors and inventive, Latin-influenced dishes. 51 Lincoln, the brainchild of chef/owner Jeffrey Fournier, has been a longtime staple of local residents, several of whom stroll into the bar on a busy Saturday evening and are warmly greeted by affable bartenders who whip up stiff, well balanced cocktails. Fournier, who grew up in a French-Armenian home, isn’t afraid to take risks in the kitchen, some of which succeed, while others do not.
The restaurant is divided into two floors, the upstairs section more lively (and noisy, making conversation somewhat challenging) while the more intimate lower level presents the polar opposite challenge – it is so quiet, that you may very well hear that proverbial pindrop and thereby be afraid to raise your voice for fear of being considered too loud. Fournier’s funky, abstract artwork of his own creation adorns the walls, a harbinger of the eclectic cuisine to come.
 A house special appetizer of Spanish mackerel ceviche with green papaya and Georgia pea hummus ($12) hits all the right marks, the fish beautifully seasoned, the ceviche less soupy than more traditional versions (intended to be a compliment), while the vibrant green pea hummus adds visual appeal. The dish garners universal praise across the table. Just about equally as good is a generous slab of creamy, melt-in-your-mouth chicken liver pate (a steal at $6), although more than 2 thin crostini pieces are required for spreading.

 Other starters falter to different degrees. A baked to order skillet cornbread with jalapeno jam ($4) sounde intriguing, only to be ruined by the bread being overcooked, while the jalapeno jam is more jalapeno than jam, which results in a slightly off-putting texture (soggy jalapenos atop dried out bread = meh). And while Fournier’s signature pan seared watermelon steak with pea hummus, charred spring onion, radish salad and French feta ($12) sounds fascinating, the dish’s execution is poor and the overall concept lost on me. While the sear on the two watermelon slices does transform its look into something resembling pieces of steak, the texture is akin to biting into a fatty piece of meat while the watermelon flavor itself virtually disappears (I doubt that is the kitchen’s intent). Also, the pea hummus, which worked so well with the mackerel ceviche, here is carelessly splattered across the plate (and adds little flavor to boot), as if someone sneezed between the 2 watermelon slices. While I applaud Fournier’s innovative approach to the fruit, it is unfortunately our least favorite dish of the evening.

 Entrees are on the whole very strong, starting with Chef’s Famous rigatoni Bolognese ($14 for an appetizer, $28 for an entrée), an enormous portion of piping hot pasta tubes with nicely seasoned meat sauce consisting of veal and pork. A beautifully plated whole roasted bronzino ($29), usually a relatively bland white fish, here is elevated by tabbuleh salad, blistered cherry tomatoes, and tahini vinaigrette. It is lovely to look at (even as its eyes peer out at you) and devour. A special of crispy soft shell crab ($16 for appetizer, $32 for entrée) is, however, disappointing, given that its coating is more soft than crispy, while the crab itself is woefully underseasoned. A glaring omission from the dish is a dipping sauce that almost any crab would come jumping out of its shell begging for, especially since this version is paired with redundantly textured johnny cakes.

 Dessert is satisfying in the form a moist, chocolate tres leches cake ($8) served atop vanilla sauce (the accompanying espresso-pecan soil is barely discernible, but no matter).

 A small, yet interesting selection of cocktails is worth your time, particularly the Fresas Del Gaucho, a refreshing, spicy concoction consisting of tequila, lemon, strawberry puree, elderflower liquer, honey, and habanero (be sure, however, to ask for the Bartender’s Special, as the bartender, upon inquiring about my tolerance for heat, inserted several chilies into my initial drink, rendering my lips numb). The restaurant’s wine list has a surprisingly limited variety of options available by the glass, but a 2012 Michal & David Syrah produced out of California ($11) is light and pairs quite nicely with the hearty rigatoni. For such a Latin-influenced restaurant, wine bottles – which seem marked up much too high here - surprisingly nod more towards Napa, although there are some selections hailing from Spain and Latin America.

 Service is satisfactory, our waitress pleasant and attentive enough, although deferring to the maître d’ when fielding questions on the restaurant’s bourbon selection.

 As we’re departing for evening, one of those engaging bartenders thanks us for our patronage and asks us to join them again. And given Fournier’s experimentation in the kitchen, it’s easy to see why regulars continue to flow into his establishment years after its much heralded opening. Fournier’s dishes frequently swing for the fences, and more often times than not they make contact, so it’s easier to forgive the swings and misses. The quiet, cozy confines of Newton Highlands, after all, demand some spicing up every now and then.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Gracie’s Delivers Royal Treatment

Gracie’s, located in the heart of downtown Providence on Washington Street (situated next to another venerable eatery, Birch), and almost universally recognized as the city’s go-to special occasion restaurant, indeed makes good on its sterling reputation. From the very moment you enter this fine dining establishment, to the moment you depart, Gracie’s kitchen and staff go above and beyond to ensure that its customers leave satisfied after experiencing inspired, well executed cuisine and first-rate hospitality.

 Take my suggestion, arrive a few minutes prior to your reservation, and head straight to the bar. There you will find an award-winning mixologist whose seriousness in her craft is evident from the moment we lay eyes on spray bottles, flasks and droppers used to create her cocktails. She’s like a mad scientist conducting a lab experiment, and I’m gladly offering myself as the guinea pig by way of an immensely enjoyable concoction both sweet and spicy, a blend of lychee and habanero bitters over a large ice cube that is set ablaze for extra smokiness.

 The ambience here is romantic, yet relaxed. We’re seated with another couple at a large, comfortable, horseshoe-shaped table with cushy maroon seats, and a white tablecloth covered in star-shaped confetti. Stars also artfully adorn the walls. Our genial server arrives, and upon announcing that someone at our table is celebrating a special occasion, brings out a complimentary bottle of Spanish cava. Three complimentary, unique and tasty amuse bouche peppered throughout our meal - including scallops with kimchee, basil and lemon sorbet, and miniature pomegranate macaroons – are thoughtful gestures that do not go unnoticed. A fresh bread basket featuring eye-opening varieties such as sourdough sesame and red pepper focaccia is quickly devoured and readily made available for re-devouring. With its gracious service, it’s as if Gracie’s is openly welcoming us as new stars to join the restaurant‘s own star-themed constellation.

 Customers can select from 3-course ($45), 5 course ($80), and for ravenous diners, 7 ($95) and 9 ($110) course prix fixe menus (3 generously portioned courses will more than suffice). For appetizers, a Middle-Eastern inspired roasted beet salad is actually exciting, spruced up with labneh, dukkah and harissa for spice with a touch of honey for sweet contrast. A more hearty, less traditional version Russet potato gnocchi includes tender braised rabbit, English peas, mushrooms, and provolone, the pasta cooked perfectly.

 Entrees do not disappoint, starting with Gracie’s Rigatoni Campanaro, which consists of large chunks of sweet and spicy sausage blended with fresh plum tomato. Crescent Farms duck breast was nicely prepared medium rare, and included tasty sides of bok choy, maitake mushrooms, and soy beans. While I found the meat’s seasoning a tad oversalted, sweetness for kumquats nicely cut into the saltiness.

 Desserts are also highly innovative, including a chocolate blondie, a decadent chocolate concoction topped with confit apricot, sesame and puffed rice bark providing a crunchy textual contrast, whipped white chocolate, and a small dollop of unique, heavenly, refreshing ginger pistachio ice cream. It’s a dish that manages to be complex yet simple all at once, and I had to scrape every last morsel off of my plate.

 After we stepped into our car, we noticed that a complimentary pack of homemade chocolate chip cookies had been left by Gracie’s valet driver (which is also gratis). It was yet another in a long list of thoughtful gestures that while unnecessary, left us with a lasting impression. From it’s fun, masterful approach to food to its personable, polished staff, Gracie’s is a name that I won’t soon be forgetting, and one that should be synonymous with dining excellence.




Tuesday, March 31, 2015

There’s Nothing Fishy about Hemenway’s

            Hemenway’s, located in downtown Providence on S. Main Street, not only features a captivating view of the Providence River and the city itself, but also extremely fresh, well-executed seafood and impeccable service. The restaurant is a popular, longtime dining staple that never seems to garner the headlines that the city’s Italian restaurants do. But make no mistake – this is one of Providence’s most enjoyable and reasonably priced dining experiences.

            The glass-enclosed, multi-level restaurant is enormous, with a massive bar sitting on the elevated top floor, while general seating is on the main lower floor. Blue and pink fluorescent lights shine across the room while murals of fishing vessels adorn the walls. The ambience is warm and inviting, and has old school appeal with a slightly modern feel. Given the space’s vaulted ceilings, one would expect awful acoustics, but conversation is easy. Large, visually appealing trays of stuffed lobster float by in droves, the wonderful aromas lingering as our stomachs growl.

            While the selection of fish is surprisingly slim and veers towards the traditional (salmon, schrod, swordfish), the quality of the fish is undeniably extraordinary. And it should be based on Hemenway’s partnership with local purveyor Foley Fish, out of New Bedford, which purchases one and two day fish in lieu of their competitors’ customary purchase of four day fish. Crab and lobster cakes ($15) are tender and packed with generous chunks of meat, nicely paired with a spicy chipotle aioli, small chunks of bacon and corn succotash. Even better are eight addictive, massive bacon and scallion wrapped scallops ($17) served with a spicy Asian slaw and soy ginger dipping sauce. A cup of Hemenway’s award-winning clam chowder ($6) is what New England chowda ought to be: rich, creamy, hearty, and packed to the gills with fish. Perfectly comforting on a chilly spring evening.

            Entrees also deliver, including (yet another) heaping portion of high grade, rare, sesame seared tuna ($31), accompanied by sriracha aioli, soy ginger sauce, sticky white rice, and seaweed salad. It may not be innovative given its simplicity, but it’s simply delicious. Also memorable is a seafood paella brimming with those incredibly plump scallops, swordfish, chorizo, clams, mussels, pimentos, and of course, saffron rice. It’s as solid a rendering of the classic Spanish dish that I’ve had in some time. A house special of spicy BBQ salmon accompanied by wonderfully caramelized Brussel sprouts with bacon showcases the kitchen’s willingness to extend itself creatively all the while perfectly executing on seasoning and technique.

            Desserts ($9) were solid, if not as strong as the preceding seafood. Hemenway’s Brulee Our Way featured a trio of cherry, chocolate, and coconut flavors (although our friends swore the last one was vanilla). A chocolate peanut butter trifle, while dense and rich, lacked distinct peanut butter flavor aside from a faint crunch at the bottom of the bowl. French press coffee was a welcomed gesture.

            Expect exceptional service at Hemenway’s, including a friendly, attentive waitstaff that always appears to be in synch with one another. They seamlessly tended to every unfilled water glass, finished plate, and dairy allergy. When my wife’s inquiry on the crab and lobster cakes was responded to, our server proactively proceeded to explain that their house balsamic also contained cheese and therefore should be substituted. He was engaging yet highly polished, knowledgeable of the entire menu, and confident and insightful with his recommendations, including a wildly inventive cocktail called the Smokey Mule ($11), a subtly sweet, smoky, spicy concoction consisting of lime and ginger infused Hammer & Sickle vodka, simply syrup, jalapeno, and scotch wash. My wife’s hibiscus bellini ($10) featuring Mionetto prosecco and jasmine liquer was also refreshing.

            Hemenway’s has also been recognized by Wine Spectator for its extensive, yet reasonably priced wine program, which featured almost two dozen glasses alone by the glass including a Louis Martini Cabernet ($10). Other values by the bottle include and Argentinian Don Rabolifo Malbec ($32), a Hayman & Hill Meritage (Monterey, CA, $30), and Napa’s Avalon Cabernet ($40). Wine connoisseurs willing to dole out a pretty penny can splurge for the renowned Caymus Special Edition Cab at $275.

            Given its prime location (and three hour complimentary garage valet parking!), well-executed fare, and exceptional service, Hemenway’s proved to be a surprise hit. A quick piece of advice for those who swear to dine exclusively on Federal Hill: don’t underestimate one of Providence’s premiere seafood establishments. There’s nothing fishy going on at Hemenway’s, and that is the highest compliment one can pay to a seafood restaurant of this caliber.    

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Waterman Grille Does East Side of Providence Proud

For innovative, reasonably priced cuisine in an intimate, historic setting, check out the East Side of Providence. No, not East Providence, but the east side of the city, which proudly boasts what just might be one of its least heralded fine dining establishments. Waterman Grille rightfully deserves your attention and recognition. Located in an old gatehouse overlooking the Seekonk River, Executive Chef Tim McGrath serves up seasonal, locally produced comfort food – much of which is wood-grilled – that delivers robust flavors at moderate price points. While waterfront dining is not an option this snowy winter evening, we feel right at home in the restaurant’s inviting, bustling, wood-scented dining room.

They say that a good bread basket is a harbinger of good things to come in a meal (or is it the way to one‘s stomach? I cannot remember which), and Waterman’s warm, airy slices rate highly, prepared earlier in the day at Providence’s Palmieri’s Bakery (as our server happily educates us), and laced with EVOO and a touch of sea salt. Our table begrudgingly refuses a second serving for fear of ruining our appetites. For starters, four crispy shrimp tacos ($11, also available in pork belly) are beautifully plated, soft flour tortillas in lieu of crispier tacos, while the shrimp themselves are well seasoned and seared just enough to pack that promised crunchy texture. Accompanying vegetable slaw and miso vinaigrette are refreshing, while sriracha aioli – which arrived in far too small a dipping dish – provided a welcomed, spicy counterpoint to the dish’s acidity. Point Judith calamari ($12) came in a heaping portion of nicely tempuraed, not too breaded, meaty octopus and banana peppers (the latter of which resembled fried pickle chips). My only complaint: a rather unique peppadew (a sweet, tangy pepper) aioli was faintly smeared on the plate, which like the sriracha before it, begged to be applied more liberally. Other appealing shareable plates I look forward to trying include tender harissa meatballs ($11), cornmeal-crusted oysters ($13), and an Irish-themed beef ‘n‘ biscuits ($11, featuring beef pastrami and hand-made caraway biscuits).

When a restaurant promotes its signature plates, my skepticism radar almost immediately goes off. Here, however, a chili-brined hanger steak ($25) is melt-in-your-mouth tender, perfectly cooked medium rear, and topped with roasted fennel chimichurri. While I’d hoped the meat would pack a bit more heat given the brine that encompassed it, it was flavorful nonetheless, elevated by its pairing with heavenly whipped Narragansett Creamery queso potatoes and sauteed spinach. Even better was the Duck Duo ($28), consisting of impeccably cooked pan-roasted duck and duck confit, some of the finest execution of the bird I’ve ever consumed. The meat was also wisely plated over addictive lemongrass rice. More impressively, in lieu of the kitchen’s attempt to transform the dish into a Thai offering by utilizing a red curry cream sauce, given my wife’s dairy restriction, they substituted it with an Asian-style sweet sauce that seemed like it was born to be paired with the duck – it was divine. Other promising entrees include the Maine Family Farms grass-fed burger ($15) topped with poblano-onion jam, butternut squash pickles and served on a buttery brioche bun, along with the Berkshire pork osso bucco ($25) served with an oddly captivating-sounding pretzel bread pudding.

Desserts (all $8) are also worth splurging for, and like much of Chef McGrath’s menu, are adventurous in nature. While the traditional fried apple pie was mildly disappointing (it reminded me too much of McDonald’s version, only spiked with tastier enhancements such as salted caramel and house-made vanilla ice cream), my Almond Joy was a perfectly de-constructed take on the revered candy bar – a decadent, warm gooey chocolate brownie laced with crushed almonds and topped not only with house-made coconut ice cream, but a hardened chocolate magic shell.

The lone disappointment of the evening was the middling quality of Waterman’s cocktail program. Concoctions that sounded promising (blood orange jalapeno margarita, $11 and a pomegranate mojito, $9) yielded unfavorable results (the former excessively sweet with no bite, the latter having barely any discernable pomegranate flavor). Where its cocktails faltered, however, the restaurant’s wine program excelled given both its extensive selection and tolerable markups. A Hahn Pinot Noir, for instance, comes in at $9.50/glass and a very manageable $33/bottle. For a more high-end, adventurous sip, try the Oberon Cabernet from Napa ($14/glass, $56/bottle). There are also roughly three dozen beers ($5-6/glass) available, including interesting local selections such as Narragansett Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout (out of Providence) and Foolproof Backyahd IPA (Pawtucket).

Our server was highly knowledgeable of the menu, polished, yet friendly, and prompt throughout the entire course. The restaurant‘s setting was casual, yet intimate. The cuisine was well executed, thoughtful, and contained innovative, bold flavors that left me wanting to try more. Haven’t heard of the Waterman Grille? My advice: take a stroll out to the East Side. This restaurant puts the fine in fine dining.