Monday, August 15, 2016

Shipping Out to Hingham’s Alma Nove a Worthwhile Dining Trip

Back in the summer of 2010, the Shipyard at Hingham bore more of a resemblance to a graveyard than a waterfront destination, particularly given its dearth of fine dining, which resided closer to the town center (Square Café and Tosca). All that the area needed was a large outdoor shopping mall and just the slightest touch of celebrity. Okay, make that a healthy dose of celebrity, by way of the Walhburg brothers, led by actors/part-owners Donnie and Mark and their chef/owner/restauranteur Paul Wahlburg. The modern Italian and Mediterranean restaurant became an overnight sensation and even spawned an offshoot of the upscale hamburger franchise, Wahlburgers (the original sits immediately next door). The restaurant’s Italian-influenced name is apt, an ode to the Wahlburg’s incredibly strong mother (alma) who raised nine (nove) children in Dorchester, Massachusetts. And better yet? The food and stylish atmosphere emit all of the love and joy that the Wahlburgers put into the establishment and want customers to enjoy themselves. There’s not an ounce of pretension to the place – it’s as if the Walhburgers are inviting you into their own home.

                Alma Nove’s ambience is stylish, starting with its interior consisting of large windows, mirrors, white tablecloths, and cathedral ceilings. A large, long bar stretches from the entryway to the patio. Lights hang from a wagon-wheel like structure across the ceiling. On a cool summer night, we elect the large outdoor patio that overlooks Hingham Harbor and features a giant gas fireplace all ablaze and fire pit. This al fresco setting is positively spectacular, featuring one of the finest views you’ll find in all of Massachusetts.

                What about the food, you ask? I had heard whispers from several close friends that Alma Nove was overrated or had simply lost its culinary way over the past couple of years. Let me be the first to quell those rumors. Wahlburg’s menu is enticing, particularly given its succinct, yet delectable description of ingredients (i.e. wood grilled octopus, fingerling potatoes, grapefruit aioli). Courses are split into antipasti (appetizers, $11-18), primi (pastas, $25-27 – although customers take note: smaller, more reasonably priced tasting portions are available at $10), and secondi (entrees, $27-37).

                For starters, potato-crusted calamari ($13) are lovely and smoky from being prepared on the wood grill, served with fresh, juicy pickled green tomatoes whose sweetness serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the saltiness of the tender fish’s coating. If only there were more than a drizzle of mustard aioli for dipping purposes that paled in comparison to the generous portion of squid. Also impressive were a trio of handmade cod cakes ($12.50), whose perfectly crispy exteriors gave way to a moist, fleshy, slightly sweet interior of heavenly fish, which was beautifully balanced with an accompanying base of smoky roasted corn and tomato relish that I would gladly bottle up and take home.

                When it comes to pastas, Wahlburg mostly adheres to traditional dishes but puts his own unique spin on them. Lobster ravioli ($27) comes stuffed with generous chunks of lobster (i.e. even claw) and are topped with a distinct lobster-corn relish and sweet corn cream sauce. While the sauce struck a nerve on my sweetness palate, the dish manages to be an overall success given its successful merger of saltiness and sweetness, all the while not being too heavy as most ravioli dishes are. Orechiette ($25) is less successful, as the enticing combination of flavors of pine nuts, slivered garlic, and Romano cheese just fester in blandness, with Italian sausage that lacked much heat. The winning dish of the evening was undoubtedly the pillowy, ethereal homemade gnocchi ($26) that would make Walhburg’s mother proud. The pasta is light, airy, topped with truffled Pecorino, and are paired with meaty, intensely flavorful wild mushrooms soaked in Madeira wine that themselves could be served as a standalone meal. It’s a knockout. A special of wood-grilled steak ($37) served over a Nebbiolo wine reduction and incredibly smooth mashed potatoes is also memorable.

                Surprisingly, well-regarded pastry chef Christie Radeos’s concoctions were mild disappointments, starting with the blueberry and vanilla swirl cheesecake ($9), which lacked any real traces of said flavors and only a dab of promised blueberry sauce, although dish’s secondary features including a candied lemon rind and cinnamon cookie crust were strong. Chocolate sour cream bundt cake ($10) promised a moist, decadent delight, only to prove to be a dry, dense dud whose house-made raspberry jam was more goopy than jam-like in texture.


                Cocktails were sweet and potent, starting with a spicy, Ginger beer-based Harvest Mule ($10) and an equally refreshing, spicy beverage consisting of watermelon-infused tequila and habanero syrup. A9 barrel-aged cocktails ($11-14, with all barrels seasoned one month in-house with madeira, while cocktails aged a minimum of six weeks) are impressive indeed, including a smooth, well-prepared Old Fashioned (Salerno blood orange liqueur’s sweetness nicely balances out the bourbon’s stiffness) and even vanilla bourbon. And one cannot go wrong with the extensive, Italian-influenced wine selection, featuring about a dozen reds and whites by the glass and dozens other by the bottle, including a reasonably-priced Trebbiano from Italy’s Abruzzo region ($55).


Service was adequate, if not commensurate with the restaurant’s glowing ambience. Our waitress was certainly knowledgeable, but her enthusiasm was lacking and never once broke into a smile (what, no Mark Wahlburg onsite to lieft one’s spirits up?). There were minor hiccups as well, including the time our first round of cocktails arrived after appetizers were placed onto the table, as did serving plates (which were surprisingly as small as the ones we used to dip our bread into oil).

Overall, however, Alma Nove admirably lives up to its lofty reputation as one of the South Shore’s best fine dining establishments. From its innovative, well-executed Italian and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine to its not-to-be-missed atmosphere, in the words of former rapper-turned superstar actor Marky Mark (aka Mark Wahlburg), there are nothing but good vibrations emanating from Hingham Shipyard.


Monday, August 8, 2016

The Beehive: What is the Buzz All About?

Back in early 2007, Boston’s South End was buzzing about a new Bohemian eatery and bar that also provided live entertainment. Rated as one of the top 100 jazz clubs in the world by Downbeat Magazine (other evenings, a variety of other music concerts feature Blues, R&B, Reggae, Latin, Country, and even Burlesque), The Beehive’s festive ambience made quite an initial impression on Boston’s dining scene. But does its kitchen’s casual comfort food ultimately make beautiful music as well?

                The Beehive’s atmosphere is unmatched, harkening to an intimate, albeit larger college coffeehouse I often frequented years ago to watch a capella groups perform onstage. Here, exposed brick, crystal chandeliers, low-hanging glitter disco balls, and red velvet paintings bring to mind the eclectic, uninhibited world of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. There are two floors, the ground floor quieter in nature with a lively bar to its right, while a hostess escorts you down the stairs to a livelier subterranean level where a hip jazz trio performs (another lively bar resides in the back) in what feels like a secret club. Several young couples can be seen intimately conversing, along with groups of ladies out for a pleasurable girls’ night out, and even some families peppered into the crowd. Some customers are dressed more formally (ladies in Depression-era dresses akin to The Great Gatsby), while others don more casual attire. While there is no cover for nightly entertainment, diners should expect to be asked for their credit card when reserving a table, as there is a $25/person surcharge if reservations are not honored.

                Like the ambience, Beehive’s menu does not fit one size, consisting of offerings influenced by the Middle East (i.e. Za’atar spiced chicken and lamb moussaka), Eastern Europe (schmaltz fried rice, anyone?), and America (baby back ribs, cheese and gravy frites). Selections are also split into portion sizes, while price points veer slightly above what one would expect for said portions. Bar Snacks include a “Bacon + Eggs” deviled egg ($5), which is split into two and nicely seasoned. My dining companion and I devour our ½ egg in 2 bites. “Did this only take $.12 to prepare?” she half-joked, yearning for at least another couple of forkfuls.

                Hors D’Oevres feature an extremely underwhelming, under-seasoned order of crispy calamari ($14), our least favorite course of the evening that possessed heavy breading, and seemed to replace the promising heat of jalapenos with subtle green and red peppers. Much better was the BBQ Salt + Pepper Lamb ($15), served over red slaw (would have benefitted from being served warm in lieu of cold, and was a tad vinegary) and whose meat was tender and candied in texture. My only complaint? A handful of small pieces of meat do not justify the $15 price tag. A well-seasoned fluke crudo was appreciated by our entire table, with just enough lime juice to almost label it a ceviche and accompanying thinly sliced potato strips that leant a nice, crunchy texture that balanced against the fleshy softness of the fish.

                Main courses fared the strongest, led by duck au poivre ($29) accompanied by the aforementioned schmaltz fried rice (a German staple that is cooked in chicken fat that gives the rice its rich flavor) pickles and mustard jus for dipping. Like the lamb, the duck was succulent and had a nice sear that provided some heat (jerk rub, perhaps?) and that did not require the jus. And unfortunately like the lamb, 8 small strips of duck vanished from our plates in a moment’s notice and made for costly dish that seemed more appetizer than main in portion size. A heaping portion of vegetarian couscous, Farmstand vegetables and tzatziki proved a much better bet price-wise, while grilled swordfish over black rice, farro, and favas ($26) earned raves from another dining companion.

                Pass on the desserts, which go unlisted on the menu (for a reason, perhaps?). A dry, overcooked maple bread pudding elicits nothing more than shoulder shrugs from the table.

                Cocktails ($9-11) are relatively solid, including the playfully named Blood and Whiskey ($11), a concoction of Irish whiskey, blood orange, and passion fruit that makes for a potent, sweet, summery beverage that goes down smoothly. The bar’s sangria ($9) is prepared with white wine and cucumber. “Interesting,” one says between sips, approving of this unique version.

                Our server was knowledgeable and friendly enough, unobtrusive during the jazz trio’s set. She neither added great value (i.e. little requests such as spoons for sharing larger plates would have been automatically factored in with more polished fine dining establishments) nor detracted from our meal.

                Although the Beehive’s vibe is unequivocally fun, all the buzz I’ve been hearing about this place appears to have faded given its slightly above average, yet overpriced cuisine (a $25 valet charge does not help matters). There are other exciting, new restaurants across the city worth exploring whose cuisine my stomach is eager to make sweet music with.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

This Passport Worth Renewing for Global Culinary Adventure

One need not to hope aboard an airplane to sample some of the finest global cuisine this region has experienced in some time. While passports can be left behind, hungry customers can head over to Weymouth Landing’s aptly-named Passport, an intimate eatery which opened back in 2013, that prides itself on an eclectic selection of international tapas, and is helmed by owner Neil Kiley, who also runs Quincy’s popular Fat Cat restaurant.

                The entrance opens up to a small bar up front with a handful of tables for diners interested in viewing bustling Washington Street outside through the large windows, while the main dining area resides in the back. If you’re looking to dine with a large group (i.e. 10 or more), take note: the restaurant is not all that large, does not take reservations, and will not seat parties until everyone has arrived. Wall murals capturing scenes from abroad along with suitcase decorations set the stage for a culinary journey that spans across multiple countries and continents.

                The menu is divided, perhaps too much so, in a way that encourages groups to share plates and experience a wealth of flavors. They fall into categories such as teasers (very small bites, $3-6), tasters (small bites, $6-10), smalls (appetizers, $8-14), and shares (entrees, $18-22). Teasers offer a promising glimpse of what’s to come, highlighted by a delectable Thai-pumpkin coconut soup ($3), a small plate that while only affording about a half dozen spoonfuls, oh what memorable spoonfuls they are! The pumpkin base, custard-like in texture, contains a subtle heat that emanates from an infusion of cumin and cayenne, and which is superbly balanced by the sweetness of fresh coconut flakes. If afforded the opportunity, I would gladly had licked every last drop of the soup off of the small plate, an opinion with which our entire table concurred. Equally strong were fried octopus with arrabiata sauce ($6), the tentacled fish expertly coated (that is possessing a light, not excessively mealy texture) and tender, while swimming in a pool of nicely seasoned, tangy tomato base. Less successful were rather bland smoked whitefish croquettes ($6). While this category of fish is not particularly flavorful to begin with, it lacked that promised smokiness to better pair with the accompanying roasted garlic lemon aioli, and was ultimately the least impressive dish of the evening.

                Tasters were a bit lackluster compared to its predecessors, including grilled lamb skewers with couscous salad ($10) which featured well-cooked, if slightly under-seasoned meat. The disappointing empanadas ($6), while featuring a well-prepared flaky exterior, ultimately gave way to under-seasoned, un-spicy meat (although another bite from a tablemate’s other empanada proved much tastier,   consistency across the plate was lacking).

                Fortunately, smalls more than made up for the tasters’ shortcomings. A house special of flatbread topped with cheese, a wonderfully zesty tomato base, spicy corn, and caramelized onions was a pie whose sweet and spicy flavor combination resulted in it being quickly devoured by our table. Jamaican pork tostada was also a marvelous take on the Caribbean staple, featuring wonderfully tender shredded beef laced with a mango BBQ with some kick served atop a crunchy giant shell, the textures wonderfully meshing together. A heaping dish of seafood paella ($22) yielded an abundance of fresh shrimp, scallops, mussels, that phenomenal octopus, and spicy chorizo served over wonderfully al dente crispy calaspara rice – just how authentic Spanish paella should be prepared. What was troubling, however – particularly for the vegetarian in our party – is that the menu explicitly left off the chorizo, and when our server checked with the kitchen, he confirmed it was not part of the dish. While delicious for us meat consumers, that was a major faux pas that requires immediate attention on the kitchen’s part.

                Desserts ($4-8) were nothing short of outstanding, led by incredible crispy, flaky churros ($8) accompanied by a trio of dipping sauces including spicy chocolate, salted caramel, and chantilly cream. While the dipping sauces are certainly a bonus, the inherent sweetness and magnificent texture of the doughnuts made for one of the finest versions I’ve sampled since my more gluttonous days dipping them in café con chocolate in the cafes of Seville, Spain. Also noteworthy were Neil’s Nachos (named after Passport’s owner, $8), which consisted of fried wonton chips topped with bananas, fresh berries medley, and a piping hot maple bourbon sauce that like the aforementioned coconut soup, I’d gladly lick every last drop.

                Inventive, well-executed cocktails ($9-11) are prepared by an incredibly knowledgeable, affable, enthusiastic bartended, including the playfully titled Carmen Sandiego ($11), a sweet, spicy, yet refreshing summer beverage I’d gladly travel around the world in search of, consisting of tequila, fresh lime, watermelon juices, agave nectar, and muddled Serrano pepper. The Muddler ($10) holds true to its name, enabling customers to “pick your poison” by selecting from rum or tequila with mint, peppers, guava, pineapple, watermelon, and blackberries. A dining companion’s resulting watermelon mojito is sublime. I glance at a bottle of house-made Applewood bacon smoked bourbon, and the bartender insists he can produce the best Manhattan/Old Fashioned I’ve ever tasted. I concur: served along with a slice of candied bacon whose salty, sweety flavor cuts into the bourbon’s smokiness, the cocktail is one of the smoothest I’ve ever consumed – it was complex and simply divine. A coco-mo (rum with coconut juice and froth, pineapple juice, shaken over ice) nearly rivaled the fantastic version I recently tasted in Puerto Rico.

                Seafood paella snafu aside, our server was also highly knowledgeable of the menu, friendly, and spaced out multiple plates throughout the evening that allowed our table to truly enjoy our dining experience. Weymouth’s Passport has successfully managed to bring global cuisine right to our front step. Given its eclectic menu, reasonable price points, and fun ambience, I won’t be traveling abroad anytime soon to obtain my international food fix – I now have my own personal Passport to relish.