Monday, December 18, 2017

Dining at Eataly’s Terra a Guilty Pleasure

When news recently broke about celebrity chef Mario Batali’s decision to step down as partner from his culinary empire at Eataly due to allegations of sexual misconduct, I must admit that while I was not all that shocked about his inclusion on the seemingly endless list of celebrities swept up in these types of scandals (also, go read the Boston Globe’s Devra First’s scintillating article covering widespread sexual misconduct in the city’s restaurant scene), I was deeply saddened and disappointed. Saddened that the orange-crocked chef - whose unbridled passion for cooking was obvious, only exceeded by his willingness to educate and make accessible such complex recipes to the general public – could act so foolishly by mistreating his female employees who have been so critical to Eataly’s (and other well esteemed establishments such as Babbo) success over the years.

                So I must write this review as objectively as possible, removing any distaste I have over Batali’s personal flaws and focusing on the actual tastes at Terra, Eately’s third and latest restaurant addition (following Barbara Lynch’s more seafood-centric Il Pesce) that’s now over a half-year young. Walk past countless luxury specialty stores, and you’ll find the less-glitzy Eately, which resembles a commercialized, massive Italian marketplace. Terra sits directly above it on the third floor, and its breathtaking dining room is one of the city’s finest, filled with towering, scenic skylights (look, I can see the Top of the Hub from this view!), abundant greenery, and even actual shovels and rakes adorning the walls. It’s akin to eating al fresco in your mother’s extravagantly maintained garden. Just behind the chef’s counter lies an active wood fire Italian grill where meats of all varieties and skewers are aflame in all of their smoky greatness. Enormous wine barrels barricaded behind a glass wall contain oak-aged beer on tap. And make no mistake: in spite of the recent news, this place remains as bustling, lively, and energized as it did from day one (perhaps a bit too rambunctious at times, and it is suggested to grab a seat at the back of the dining room to allow for conversations to flow as easily as the wine).

                The menu is split into several different categories, as if to take diners on a culinary excursion through some of the finest tastes of Sicily. Most importantly, it’s fun, and executed by well-regarded chef de cuisine Dan Bazzinotti (hailing from his stint at Cambridge’s esteemed wine bar, BISq). Some may quibble with smaller-than-average portions, but be forewarned: Bazzinotti’s dishes are extremely rich in flavor (sometimes a bit too much so).

                We begin with duo of nicely toasted bruschetta (1 selection for $5, 2 for $9, 3 for $12), featuring ciascolo (housemade pork sausage), which unexpectedly came in the form of a cold pate with a slightly offputting flavor, while the caponata – with its interesting combination of delicate squash, pinenuts and currents - was a rivetingly sweet delight, texturally resembling Charoset - one of my favorite Jewish delicacies consumed on Passover. Next, we ordered from the spiedini (skewers) section, including polpetti di agnello ($10): 3 oversized lamb meatballs ($10) which upon initial glance, appeared overcooked from the exterior, but whose interior was succulent (although perhaps would still have benefitted from a dipping glaze). My favorite, which also garnered mutual satisfaction from my dining companion, were marvelously charred, tender jumbo gulf shrimp (12), the fleshy meat spiced up with Calabrian chili flakes.

                Our journey continued into primi (things with pasta), which showcased agnolotti coniglio ($21), small, pillowy ribbons of pasta drenched in Luigi Guffanti butter and impressively stuffed with tiny morsels of ground rabbit. While I found the pasta slightly overcooked (I prefer mine al dente, like most native Italians) along with a bit of heavy-handedness with the butter, the dish was a rich, decadent, and thankfully un-gamey flavored delight.

                We concluded our evening in the secondi section with incredibly tender rings of calamari ($24) simmering in a zesty pool of tomato broth alongside a wonderfully inventive, seasonal combination of caper berries, olives, pine nuts, and currants. While our hearts gravitated to captivating, in-season dessert selections such as warm semolina pudding with pears and candied pumpkin seeds, and a citrus crostada, our stomachs simply couldn’t muster another bite.

The cocktail program, while consisting of slightly modest pours (at about $14 apiece), were much like Terra’s cuisine itself: extremely complex and altogether enjoyable. The stiff, sweet Il Teatro (under Bold and Daring options, $14)) was a dazzling blend of the restaurant’s hand-selected Russell’s Reserve single barrel bourbon with amaro, while the innovative, refreshingly spicy Fumo Nero was a sweet and smoky riff on the margarita, containing Del Maguey Vida mezcal, amaro, some more of that wonderful Calabrian chili, smoked black sea salt, and pineapple.

One would expect service at one of chef Batali’s restaurant to be exceptional, and Terra, at least for this evening, does not disappoint. Our waiter is amiable, patient, and extremely knowledgeable about the menu.

It’s undoubtedly difficult for me to promote any restaurant whose ownership is rightfully under scrutiny for all the wrong reasons. But make no mistake: Terra – from its immensely enjoyable cuisine to its stellar setting and service – gets most things right. I won’t fault you for not eating there out of protest. But for me, consider it a guilty dining pleasure.




Saturday, August 5, 2017

Liquid Art House is a Culinary Masterpiece

Several years ago, following the economic downturn, upscale restaurants like celebrity chef Michael Schlow’s long departed, yet fondly remembered flagship, Radius, succumbed to the tighter budgets of their once loyal clientele. Smaller plates became more en vogue, and so began the downfall of other legendary eateries including the recently departed, highly regarded Clio under Chef Oringer (don’t fret too much for him, though, as global small plate haven Little Donkey, Italian staple Coppa, legendary South End Spanish tapas mainstay Toro, and sushi headliner Uni all continue to thrive).

                Sufficed to say, with the economic upswing, there are more restaurants opening that dare to be different – albeit quite expensive, but well worth the investment for special occasion dining. Take, for instance, Asta, Alex Crabb’s inventive prix fixe only menu that takes diners on a wild, delightful culinary adventure. And only a few years into its run, there’s Liquid Art House, the perfect confluence of literal and culinary artwork for customers’ viewing and tasting pleasure.

                The visually arresting space – located at the corners of Arlington and Stuart Street (how fitting and of no small irony that LAH sits at the cusp of the Theatre District) – dually serves as both a high-end restaurant and contemporary art gallery where all of the artwork is available for purchase. Owner Ruta Lukian’s backstory is a most fascinating one: born in Lithuania, emigrating to America, flourishing as a Wall Street investment banker, and ultimately deciding to fulfill her dream of opening a place for artists, art lovers, and diners alike. The ambience is impressively grandiose, a hybrid of cosmopolitan and avant-garde. A striking rotunda marble bar resides smack dab in LAH’s center, with an even more strikingly beautiful, massive, purple hand-blown Venetian glass chandelier whose claw-like shape appears to almost be reaching down from the giant 24-foot ceilings and virtually grabbing hold of customers. Abstract artwork both large (majestic canvases) and small adorn the giant walls and flows into the dining room. Even the bathrooms scream chez chic, as evidenced by stunning semi-nude painted portraits of mermaids painted on frosted glass doors.

                Fortunately, LAH has not lost any of its culinary innovation left by its notable predecessor, Rachel Klein (who opened up her own endeavor, RFK Kitchen, in her resident Needham to mixed critical reception). Chef Johnny Sheehan – whose impressive pedigree includes graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, stints at aforementioned Clio and Uni under Oringer’s tutelage, and most recently at Plymouth’s New World Tavern) – has earned several culinary accolades, and it’s easy to ascertain why. He’s not only followed the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ deconstructed style that became a calling card for Klein, but infuses his own unique riffs on some of the most exquisite fare I’ve had the fortune of tasting in quite some time.

                The evening begins inauspiciously enough, as a first batch of deep-fried salt and pepper prawns ($19) are woefully and visibly overcooked, the meat dry where it should be moist and tender. This is brought to the attention of our genial and knowledgeable waitress – who, oh by the way, did not serve us this initial course – and she is deeply apologetic about the mishap, stating had she laid eyes on the prawn’s dark exterior, would never have brought this tableside (we wholeheartedly agree with her). She offers to have the kitchen bring us a second round, and this time they are cooked to perfection, the spicy orange chile oil with peanuts now in vibrant harmony with the juicy, succulent meat (the entire mishap and quick, professional correction by the waitstaff harkened back to my visit to opulent seafood restaurant, Ostra, where a badly charred plate of grilled octopus was quickly, and most deliciously rectified). While I found the doughy, sesame-seed encrusted exterior of Himalayan chicken momos ($10) a bit too chewy for my taste, these dumplings stuffed with ground meat were easy on the palate given the addictive, innovative pool of black pepper tomato sauce in which they swam. For such a typically gaunt bird, a surprisingly generous amount of tender meat accompanies LAH’s quail – the majority of which is graciously deboned by the kitchen – and is uniquely stuffed with sweet Asian forbidden rice which enhances the flavor component of what is often considered by many to be the flounder of birds.

                And Sheehan’s piece de resistance is not to be missed. Pan seared halibut ($39) is unlike any other version of the meaty fish I’ve sampled. It’s a ginormous, beautifully pan-seared (resembling a hash brown in texture) tender cut, and its eye-popping to look at. Akin to an abstract Picasso masterpiece, there are many deconstructed elements to the plate that miraculously come together – tiny, crunchy hearts of palm, pineapple chunks, yellow-orange beads of jellied mango passion fruit, and pea-green dollops of chile-mint vinaigrette. An aromatic Thai curried coconut broth is than theatrically poured around the fish. This is seriously complex, pristinely executed fine dining at its peak, resulting in a smorgasbord of flavors ranging from sweet and creamy to crunchy and spicy. It’s simply divine and will undoubtedly be topping many dining critics’ top dishes in Boston for 2017.

                Executive pastry chef Ryan Boya’s uniquely shaped sweets (all $14 with exception of sorbets) rival Sheehan’s dishes innovation-wise, many of which were apparently inspired by the World of Tomorrow architecture at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Breakfast in a NYC Hotel Room is a deconstructed masterpiece, consisting of a thin bagel chip onto which peanut butter and cream cheese mousses, peanuts, and coffee milk ice cream, all of which is left for diners to playfully schmear onto the bagel chip. It’s whimsical, fun, and delectable.

                And that dish encapsulates my experience at LAH. And oh, what an experience you’ll have. While you’re left with a bill that might approach the price of a low-level Picasso (kidding!), you’ll no doubt me reminiscing about your time there for days, if not months and years later. In the trustworthy and innovative hands of Lukian and Sheehan, Liquid Art House has successfully brought artistic fine dining style to Boston.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Disappointments Abound at Corfinio

Sometimes, simpler is better. Several years ago, Peter Kuplast successfully opened Italian eatery Cibo Matto Caffe in what was formerly a Bertucci’s in his native Mansfield. That quaint, casual modern Italian eatery quickly became a culinary staple at the bustling cross-section of Routes 106 and 140, with its wood-fire stove producing bubbly, charred pies, alongside delectable pasta dishes and inventive seasonal cocktails. A couple of years ago, Kuplas decided it was time to expand his business venture into Easton with Corfinio. The restaurant resides in a more expansive space once occupied by Fresh Catch and its name harkens to the city in Italy’s Abruzzo region. Portions of Cibo’s menu has been transported here, along with the same and sometimes expensive price points given Corfinio’s suburban digs.

                But two major problems exist here. Whereas Cibo’s dishes more often than not nail flavor and execution, Corfinio’s falter. And while the menu at Cibo often surprises and delights with its scope and specials, Corfinio’s feels consolidated, redundant, and truthfully, not all that creative. More ho-hum, traditional pizza and pasta dishes reside here with occasionally appealing flourishes peppered in (fire-roasted artichoke hummus).

                The restaurant’s interior is certainly swanky enough, with a grandiose, antler-shaped chandelier dominating the main dining room, cozy green banquets and a large bar (along with a 12-foot-long chef’s table where diners can enjoy a 7-course tasting with wine pairings. It’s frustrating, however, when upon making a reservation and stating that my wife and I were celebrating a 15-year anniversary dinner, that the hostess explains she’ll have us seated in one of said banquets, only to be seated at a small table (and that the restaurant proceeded to seat a family with young children directly next to us when several other tables remained unoccupied at the time). Not once was our anniversary ever mentioned by the staff. That’s just poor front-of-the house management.

                Antipasto ($10-18) are disappointing, starting with crispy brussel sprouts ($10) that possess neither the crunchy exterior (softly breaded) nor fiery kick (bland cherry pepper aioli that lacks any trace of said cherry pepper) that the menu promises. Mussels saffron ($13) contain tiny morsels of the crustaceans, while the white wine sauce in which they are reduced still reeks of the smell of wine (if cooked properly, the wine odor should be undetectable), evidence that the kitchen needed to simmer the broth at least another five to ten minutes. Two accompanying large slices of grilled crostini, however, were decent enough, if there’s a positive takeaway here.

                Pasta – a focal point and strength at Cibo – was equally and surprisingly off-key at Corfinio. Fettucini Bolognese ($21) lacked finesse, with droopy, overcooked strands of pasta (not even remotely close to al dente) and the barely-there-at-all sauce that was not only unseasoned, but resulted in dried-out chunks of ground up veal, pork and beef.

                Cocktails ($11) were slightly better, but the bartender had a heavy hand mixing an Old Easton (the restaurant’s riff on the Old Fashioned) that was excessively sweet, the result of an infusion of honey and apple slices that overpower the bourbon, what should be the drink’s star attraction.

                I had heard from close friends who had recently visited Corfinio’s that the eatery’s opening kinks had been worked out, resulting in positive dining experiences. To this reviewer’s eyes (and stomach), Corfinio resembles that annoying little brother vying for attention and trying to emulate his older sibling, but no matter how hard he tries, just can’t keep up and ultimately falls short of expectations. With more sure-handedness and execution from its kitchen and a revamped menu that generates excitement in lieu of yawns, perhaps one day it still can.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Stroll Down a Suburban Side Street Yields Big Flavors

“Come for the food, stay for the family.” Sure, this slogan may sound cliché and most certainly has been exploited by countless restaurants that classify themselves (some much less accurately than others) as family-friendly establishments. But I cannot recently recall a more recent, rewarding dining experience than my trek out to Norwood’s Vico. Opened nearly three years ago, this quaint, refreshingly unflashy restaurant’s (seating fifty patrons) name is apt given its Italian translation of ‘side street,’ reflecting its location just off the town center. Vico’s furtive location, however, doesn’t necessarily keep it a secret from the public. Far from it in fact, as evidenced by the loyal customers who continue to pack into the restaurant seeking fresh, highly affordable Italian cuisine.

                Vico’s setting is casual, cozy and intimate. While there’s no bar (only wine and beer are served), several booths drape along the walls while pendant fixtures dangle from the ceiling. The formality of white tablecloths is quickly offset by wooden floors and even more importantly, a cordial wait staff. Executive chef/owner Vincenzo Loffredo, who hails from Foggia Italy, makes several tableside appearances to chat with his customers, while his equally affable wife, Maria, dually serves as both hostess and our server that evening (her inquiry following our appetizer course about if we desired pacing out entrees several minutes was a simple, sincere and welcomed gesture that is incredibly rare nowadays).

                While Vico’s menu is considerably smaller than other Italian eateries, it’s packed with a slew of appealing, tasteworthy dishes, and that’s not including numerous house specials that change daily. Each dish is handcrafted, and Loffredo credits his usage of fresh ingredients to both his proximity to seasonal ingredients during his childhood on a farm along with his tutelage under chef Franco Caritano. Portion sizes are incredibly generous (enough to feed a family!) at incredibly reasonable price points (entrees typically top out at $20, desserts at $7, and generous pours of wine – including a velvety, ripe flavored Argentinian Mendoza – range from $7-9 by the glass while bottles are very accessible).

                Complimentary house-made garlic focaccia and green olives are provided at the outset, which prompted my sole quibble of the evening: the bread could use a touch less salt along with an accompanying dipping oil. Antipasto misto ($14) features a trio of fresh Italian meats (prosciutto di Parma, sopressata, and imported salame), accompanied by provolone, roasted peppers, pickled eggplant, and imported grilled artichokes. The salty-spicy flavor profile of the meats and vegetables meshed well atop the crunchy, aforementioned focaccia. Entrees fared even stronger, beginning with the visually striking Spaghetti Alla Pescatora (at $25, while the menu’s most expensive dish, remains an absolute steal), which showcases incredibly fresh, housemade squid ink spaghetti topped with ample amounts of mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari, and scallops, all topped with an addictively spicy tomato sauce. It’s unsurprisingly a huge hit at our table. Also memorable is bucatini amatriciana ($19), hollow spaghetti blended with red onion, San Marzano tomatoes, slices of pecorino, and my favorite ingredient, pancetta, which infuses the dish with a crunchy, peppery bite. Two house specials are also standouts: meaty, yet tender swordfish with capers and the Pappardelle Cacciatore, with perfectly executed egg noodles laced with minced lamb, veal, and beef, all in that same delectable spicy tomato sauce whipped up by Chef Loffredo.

                Desserts are worth staying for given their value along with the housemade tiramisu topped with pieces of dark chocolate.

                In a time where city restaurant closings are sadly occurring at a feverish clip given high rents and high prices for customers, many restaurant owners could rip a page out of Loffredo’s handbook: settle down in the suburbs, provide high quality fare at affordable prices, and offer doting service to boot. Yes, Vico may be situated on a side street, but it remains very much on the public’s mind as one of the area’s most attractive dining options.

Monday, April 10, 2017

An Avenue Worth Driving To for Fine Dining

Avenue, the brainchild of husband and wife Josh and Jessica Foley (the couple met during their stint at the long-esteemed Harvard Square restaurant, Harvest, during the mid-90s), opened in the epicenter of Medfield in May, 2016, and as evidenced by one very busy Saturday evening, the eatery has hit the ground running and never looked back. The Foleys envisioned a modern, casual bistro, and they’ve certainly accomplished that in terms of Avenue’s ambience. The building in which it resides was renovated, whose floor-to-ceiling windows provide a stunning view of Main Street and the nearby Medfield Town House. Pleasant, smoky aromas emanate from the open kitchen, namely from a wood-burning oven. My lone complaints, albeit minor: the front of the house can be a bit chaotic and cramped at peak times, especially if the small bar area happens to be full of patrons. Nearby are small booths reserved for customers eating dinner, and it’s easier than not to bump into busy servers. Also, in spite of recently installed acoustical ceiling panels, conversations can still remain challenging.

                Josh Foley, who also does double-duty as Executive Chef, offers seasonal American cuisine, from wood grilled flatbreads and meats to seafood, in his attempt to recreate California’s farm-to-table concept. In most instances, I am delighted to affirm that the Foleys have succeeded.  Let’s begin with the bad news: potato crusted Point Judith calamari ($12) does the Rhode Island squid a disservice. While accompanying fried sweet onions and peppers are an inventive touch, the fish’s buttermilk coating is bland and could benefit from some seasoning in the form of salt and pepper, while the tepid tartar sauce adds little anticipated heat. Much better are the wood-roasted flatbreads ($14-16), whose nicely charred crust can be attributed to imported Italian flour incorporated into a pie that is cooked at 750 degrees for only three minutes in that impressive wood-burning oven. The aptly named Avenue consists of house made pork sausage, wild mushroom, and onion jam. The jam’s sweetness meshed well with the spiciness of the meat, whereas the kitchen’s heavy-handedness on the mushrooms resulted in soggier slices than I’d preferred. My personal favorite was the unique and satisfyingly spicy shrimp fra diavolo.

                Entrees were even more enticing, starting with a generous serving of sausage orecchiette ($22), the pasta served perfectly al dente, with minced, spicy house fennel sausage. My dining companion believed the accompanying broccoli rabe was too bitter for the dish, but I politely disagreed, believing the vegetable a worthy partner to the spicy meat in terms of its flavor and textural contrast. While the slightly dense potato gnocchi ($22) could have benefitted from another minute or two of boiling to render the pasta more pillowy and light, I nearly forgot about that having consumed a forkful of thin, ultra-tender sliced short rib, which in this version is playfully served atop the pasta in lieu of being cooked inside. Cast iron seared Scottish salmon ($27) also drew considerable applause, consisting of a generous portion of moist fish seasoned with herbed farro and Tuscan kale.

                But one cannot – I repeat, cannot leave Avenue without sampling their signature wood-roasted Argentinian Brasa Natural chicken. I, for one, have remarkably never ordered chicken out. While I certainly appreciate a well-cooked bird, it’s undoubtedly less appealing than other, sexier options (lamb, duck) and delicious enough when grilled at home. But upon stealing a glance of the dish at a nearby table, I just had to have it, and I’m glad I did. According to our polite waitress, the incredibly tender meat is attributed to how the bird is prepared, hung for six hours and then slow cooked in front of that wood-burning oven’s flame. The dish’s presentation is nothing short of stunning, evoking envy from the table. Inventive accoutrements include a layer of crisp almonds, sweet currants, roasted Anjour pear (which admittedly lost some its sweetness during the cooking process), and what’s humorously labeled grilled peasant bread salad (a fancy term for Avenue’s house bread that is sliced into small chunks with the bird’s charred scallion juices cooked into them; The result? Gooey, crispy, goodness). The dish is exemplary in terms of its stunning presentation, technique, and execution, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that it makes me consider ordering chicken the next time I dine out.

                While desserts (all $9) may not be as exciting as that chicken, they provide an enjoyable conclusion to the evening. Ricotta cheesecake is thankfully not overly dense, served with strawberries, balsamic, basil cream and almonds. The inner child in me allows me to gravitate towards the butterscotch blondie sundae, a warm, gooey, yet ultra-thin slice served with a dollop of sea salt ice cream and peanut brittle.

                Inventive cocktails ($12) from the bar feature a potent riff on the Mai Tai called the Mai oh Mai, blended with white rum, toasted cinnamon, and pineapple. While I was disappointed that the Fig Get About It (made with fig-infused rye) was out of stock that night, the bartender graciously went off-menu to concoct a subtly sweet, rye-infused cocktail called the Toronto that I’d highly recommend. Roughly five selections of white and red wine are available by the glass ($9-12), including a smooth, silky ’14 Noble Tree Cabernet out of Sonoma. About ten or so different New England drafts and bottled and canned beers ($6-8) are also available, including a light refreshing Queen City Brewery pale lager.

                Service is knowledgeable, friendly, and - with the exception of a delayed bread basket to the table and a couple of late-arriving cocktails – attentive. Pair that with fairly reasonable price points for well-executed cuisine in a chic suburban setting, and voila: Avenue is an address I won’t soon be forgetting.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Chicken Kebab Offers Big Portions, But Could Use More Seasoning

Stoughton desperately needs an influx of restaurants, and this quaint Mediterranean-inspired dining spot, which inhabits the space once occupied by a Bajan restaurant in Stoughton's still dilapidated town center (where a town fire ravaged a number of buildings years ago and which remain vacant), wants to please its customers.

Chicken Kebab should be considered more of a takeout restaurant, but there are a half dozen tables inside for sit-down meals. The walls are vibrantly painted orange, and there is a large glass case behind the counter in which delicious desserts (including variations of ultra-flaky, moist baklava - my personal favorite, coconut flavor topped with pistachio) can be viewed, along with the restaurant's friendly owner preparing dishes in the kitchen.

While portions are absolutely monstrous for the price (appetizers top out around $7, while entrees that can comfortably feed up to 4 people top out around $18), some plates succeed more than others. We start with hummus ($5.95), whose accompanying warmed pita bread is comforting whereas the hummus itself is a tad heavy in texture and surprisingly bland, desperate for an infusion of seasoning. More appealing is a mountainous Shepard's salad ($6.95 for large portion) consisting of cucumbers, peppers, onions, parsley (which could have been inserted into the hummus), red and green onions, vinegar and oil.

Entrees are equally hit or miss. While the Mixed Grill ($17.50) succeeds with its juicy chicken and sweet grilled tomatoes and onions, it falters with its shockingly overcooked, bland, underseasoned meats, ranging from thinly pounded slices of lamb shish, adana (long, minced meat kebab), kofte (Turkish meatball), and doner. The restaurant also needs to clarify on its menu that the dish's accompanying peppers are intensely hot peppers - one large bite left me gasping for air. Pity that the restaurant is out of whole striped bass, which is swapped out for a disappointingly bland serving of sea bass. One dining companion complains that her plate's flavor is offputtingly bitter.
Service is a bit disjointed given the small space and one server, but friendly enough. Alcohol is not served, but the restaurant does stock a number of interesting tropical fruit juices (including zippy ginger pineapple).

I truly hope that Chicken Kebab succeeds. Stoughton needs more restaurants like these to help enliven its town center. Customers will appreciate the large portions and affordable price points, but the owners will need to refine their technique in the kitchen to ensure a successful long-term stint. Chicken Kebab could both literally and figuratively benefit from more seasoning.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Easton “Lucky” to Add Shino to Its Dining Scene

Shino Restaurant opened its doors in South Easton last month, and local residents have most definitely taken notice. On a recent Saturday evening, he bar scene is lively at the front of the house, where co-owner Allan Yee – a bar manager for over two decades at esteemed Boston restaurants including Jae’s Café, Sibling Rivalry (both now sadly shuttered), Oishii, and Chestnut Hill’s Bernard’s – can be seen perfecting inventive cocktails such as a potent, well-balanced Ginger Manhattan (infused with ginger beer) and a Mezcal Mule (a playful riff on the Moscow Mule, swapping out vodka for tequila, while an edible flower provides a spicy kick that puts the mule in Moscow). So, too, is the dining room bustling with couples and families, while calm, friendly, attentive wait staff keep service seamlessly flowing. Yee, himself – a genuinely engaging owner who is excited to join the Easton community and is eager to ensure his customers’ satisfaction – can frequently be spotted socializing with each table.

                Shino, which is situated directly off of Route 138 in a small shopping plaza next to the popular Mexican restaurant, El Mariachi, is conceptually based on a Japanese izakaya, Yee states. The izakaya is a casual Japanese gastropub where patrons can sample both innovative Japanese dishes along with more traditional ones (many foodies may be familiar with this type of restaurant when O Ya owners Nancy and Tim Cushman launched the trendy Hojoko in Fenway’s Verb Hotel back in 2015). Yee and his business partner, Long Lam (the duo met at Bernard’s years ago) have created a family-friendly, pub-like ambience that accommodates nearly fifty customers. The eatery features several bamboo fixtures, and Yee revealed that the term Shino in Japanese signifies bamboo artist. According to Yee, it is customary in both Japanese and Chinese culture to offer bamboo gifts to new businesses for good luck, and he laughingly alludes to his own bamboo as lucky. No such luck, however, is needed here.

                My recommendation: travel to Shino with either your family or a large group of friends. That strategy will enable you to sample as many of the affordable, wildly inventive, and delicious array of shareable cold and hot appetizers ($5-14) as possible. Spicy tuna buns ($8) feature minced, sashimi-grade tuna lumped into crispy buns. The texture and seasoning of the fish are spot-on, and the buns’ buttery sweetness is the perfect flavor counterpoint to the tuna’s heat. It’s so good, in fact, that my in-laws – who often shy away from sashimi – raved about the dish. Pork belly ($8) appears in soft buns (Yee gleefully alludes to them as Japanese hot dogs), the meat braised and incredibly tender, so flawless in execution that this once again gains my in-laws’ attention as one of the finest versions they’ve sampled. Gyoza ($6) are fried dumplings with a perfectly seared exterior that rivals its flavorful, minced pork interior. Kaki fry ($7) showcases large, elongated fried sticks infused with potent, fish-forward flavored oyster, served in a sweet pool of tonkatsu sauce along with a spicier mustard sauce. Specialty maki rolls, including the aptly named Route 138 consisting of fried soft shell crab, grilled eel, tamago, avocado, and black tobiko, also impress.

                As memorable as the preceding dishes are, the following dishes are considered showstoppers, starting with the dazzling Shino wings ($9), Yee’s favorite menu item. The wings are a shining example of the kitchen’s consistent, skillful display of preparation, technique, and execution. Yee explains that he takes the wings, pulls the bones out, and then lightly fries them, resulting in an incredibly tender, easy-to-eat piece of meat (the drumsticks themselves are stunningly served upright) slathered in a delectably sweet and spicy garlic chili sauce. It serves as both eye and meat candy. Grilled black cod ($12) is also a big hit, featuring an impossibly moist piece of fish that falls apart at the tap of a fork, its top nicely blackened, the fish swimming in a pool of sweet, sticky miso glaze. It’s a vibrant, lovely dish. Okonomiyaki ($9), a giant seafood pancake commonly served in Japan, is extravagantly displayed with chili fish flakes (that magically give off the appearance that they’re moving atop the pancake) and artfully painted with lines of spicy mayo. The dish is packed with an abundance of seafood ranging from shrimp to squid, and once again evokes adulation from my in-laws, who had recently returned from a trip to Japan where they sampled several versions of the popular dish.

                The word is out, and the crowds are arriving in droves at this new suburban dining hotspot. Shino needs no luck at all. It is the town of Easton that is fortunate to welcome Yee, Lam, and their intoxicating, exciting cuisine and hospitality.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Leandro’s: The Perfect Italian Pub?

Blackthorne Publick House, we hardly knew ‘ye. Taking over the space previously occupied by the lamented Blackthorne (where the food - prepared by a former head chef at Providence’s reputable CAV – often excelled, but the art and music vibe endorsed by its endearing owner unfortunately never fully caught on with locals), Leandro’s Italian Restaurant and Tavern is an undeniable hit. One recent Saturday evening was evidence enough, from the parking lot at near capacity to the raucous bar and bustling dining room. Amidst the crowd chaos, an engaging, humorous hostess whisked us to our table. Gone is the artwork adorning the walls, the musical stage, and the dour black mahogany seating, replaced with warmer, lighter colored tables and walls (but with muted, more romantic lighting). Couples both young and old, along with larger families, seem to be enjoying themselves, and it’s no wonder why.

                Keeping all things in the family, owner Michelle Refinski Leandro manages the establishment, while her husband, Emanuel along with his cousin, Leandro man the kitchen (both have cooked for well over a decade). Their Italian-inspired menu is extensive, while dishes are generous in portion size and well-executed. Prices are extremely reasonable, even considering the restaurant’s suburban locale. What’s not to like?

                Leandro’s features a modest, yet interesting and well-priced selection of wines available by both the glass (a velvety, robust Joel Gott Cabernet, at $11, is a standout) and bottle, while the beer list is equally impressive, ranging from Worcester’s popular Wormtown IPA to a denser Allagash Black Belgian stout out of Maine. Inventive cocktails ($8.50-12) – including the aptly named Midnight in Siciliy, whose combination of bourbon and averna Sicilian amaro is not only smooth, well-balanced, and potent, but whose dark appearance strikingly resembles red wine – are most definitely worth exploring.

                Appetizers ($6.50-14) veer more towards traditional Italian-American cuisine, including stuffed meatballs with prosciutto. Surprisingly, it is a salad - of all things -  that proves to be one of the most satisfying course of the evening. A baby arugula (at $10, the most expensive but most worthwhile salad option), offers the perfect counterpoint of flavors and textures, as the sweetness of soft figs, crunchy pecans, and a lively orange-poppy dressing battle for supremacy against the tartness of crumbled goat cheese.

                Grilled entrees ($18.50-26) are an absolute steal given their mammoth portion sizes and flawless execution. There’s nothing necessarily flashy about these dishes – but boy, they taste mighty good! Take, for instance, the perfectly cooked, nicely seasoned, succulent pork chop ($21) served in a not-too-heavy apple demi glaze, caramelized onions, and served alongside crispy Lyonnaise potatoes. Veal marsala ($19) features thinly pounded, equally tender slices of meat in a rich marsala and mushroom sauce, accompanied by garlic mashed potato.

                Traditional Italian desserts (i.e. tiramisu) offer an appealing, if slightly underwhelming conclusion to the evening. We sample a house-made carrot cake which sadly tastes pre-made, the cake slightly moist if not a tad dry and dense, with an insufficient of cream cheese frosting to satisfy one’s sweet tooth. I’d suggest bypassing these for a chest-warming alcoholic dessert flight such as that wonderfully sweet amaro or port sherry ($12).

                Our dining companions also inform us of Leandro’s weekly specials such as $1 oysters at the bar on Sundays and Mondays, along with Tuesday Tastings that, at $20, gets you three tasting portions and a wine or beer flight. It’s this type of menu flexibility, along with genuine hospitality, reasonable price points, and nicely executed (albeit heavily traditional) Italian cuisine, that only adds to the eatery’s allure and initial wave of success. Leandro’s restaurant team may be all in the family, but it certainly appears eager to extend its culinary family to local residents.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Nosh & Grog Provisions is a Pub Minus the Gastro

Why ruin such a good thing? Formerly Zebra Bar and Wine Bistro, a beloved culinary staple in downtown Medfield for 17 years, owner Craig Neunecker inexplicably decided to revamp his fine dining eatery into the playfully named Nosh & Grog Provisions, an unabashed gastropub that the owner undoubtedly expected would attract a broader segment of customers. Gone were the formal white tablecloths and famed zebra themed-upholstered chairs, replaced with more rustic exposed brick walls, industrial artwork, and wooden light fixtures. Quality food, however, doth not a re-invention make.

                Don’t tell that to the throngs of customers waiting at standing tables and along the U-shaped bar on a busy Saturday evening (Reservations are not accepted, so perhaps after witnessing customers waiting for over an hour following a 6 PM arrival might prompt Neunecker to reconsider that policy). While awaiting our table, we order poorly executed, small, exorbitantly priced cocktails (at $12 apiece, with several arriving in tiny copper mugs that allow for a mere few sips), including the Spicy Valentine, a promising blend of chili-infused tequila that is excessively spicy with seemingly little tequila and zero balance, a tepid-flavored sangria, and a maple-infused bourbon cider that lays on the bourbon, but  again, packs little sweet cider flavor as a counterpoint. (My recommendation: order from an extensive selection of beers that include a Kentucky bourbon-infused ale and a potent, passionfruit-tinged Finch Chimera IPA). These are ominous precursors to the meal to come.

                White bean hummus ($8.50) consists of woefully overcooked naan while a white and chickpea hummus’s offputting flavor is attributed to a heavy-handedness of basil oil. Jonah crab Rangoon ($12.50) consists of three large, overly-doughy wedges consisting of a filling dominated more by cream cheese than crab (is it even there?), whose underlying house duck sauce is all liquid with little discernible flavor that’s unable to stick to the rangoon’s limp, uncrunchy exterior (makes me clamor for Chinatown’s much less fussy, smaller, yet far superior version).

                Entrees are unequivocally disastrous, beginning with Nosh & Grog’s signature OH S#%T Burger. At $15.75, the burger sounds promising enough, with bacon aioli, caramelized onions, and mesquite ketchup. The burger, however – small in stature – arrives grossly overcooked not once, but following a message to the owner, twice, one initially ordered without cheese arriving with (but with no onions) and the other with half-melted American cheese and what looks like a sloppy application of mayo, not bacon aioli. The fries are oversalted and served lukewarm, accompanied by a small container of ketchup that’s a quarter full. I sadly yearn for a Big Mac in lieu of what should more aptly be called the Completely Overpriced, Utterly Mediocre Burger. Another dining companion’s chicken sandwich is likewise rendered dry, overcooked, and utterly inedible. The entire meal is comped by the incredulous, apologetic manager, but too little, too late.

                What a shame. Our party would have been far better served at nearby Avenue, a new, eight-month-old, contemporary eatery where we decided to grab dessert. A dreamy, piping hot blondie brownie sundae and double espresso later – along with an attentive, affable bartender who was the polar opposite of our friendly enough, yet utterly inattentive waitress who disappeared for long stretches and left water glasses unfilled – and it almost…ALMOST made up for our forgettable dining experience minutes earlier. While Nosh & Grog is distinctly a pub, it’s kitchen’s lack of refinement and execution make the gastro elements of its new concept both literally and figuratively difficult to swallow. If this establishment continues to fail in its execution of even the most basic dishes, it’s path will lead it to a much gloomier Avenue: closure.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

SRV Brings Venetian Flair to Boston’s South End

SRV might be short for Serene Republic of Venice, but on a busy Saturday evening at co-chefs Michael Lombardi and Kevin O’Donnell’s South End venetian bacaro (a setting where small plates termed cicchetti and Italian wines are intended to be shared), it is anything but that. The popular wildly popular eatery, run by the well-respected Coda Group, is bursting at the seams with customers, so much so that the friendly hostess apologizes for a slight wait in spite of our reservation and cordially invites us to the side windows where standing drink tables await those unfortunate customers that have to…well, wait for their drinks. And while impatiently waited for several minutes, a cordial server offers us something to dull our pain in the form, well…cordials, of the meticulously executed, distinctly Italian variety. My dining companion’s pleasant, but not-too-sweet and citrusy cocktail, the 63 Fairbanks, consists of gin, aperol, and elderflower, while my bourbon and amaro (a sweet, Italian after-dinner aperitif) strikes the perfect balance between subtle sweetness and welcomed potency, a creative Italian riff on the more conservative Manhattan. Said hostess then whisks us away to our table, genuinely inquiring about the outcome of my son’s basketball game (I had previously called ahead and asked if we could move back our reservation on account of his suddenly rescheduled game earlier that afternoon). It was a sincere gesture that most definitely did not go unnoticed and set the tone for a phenomenal dining event.

                Lombardi and O’Donnell, who first crossed paths at Mario Batali’s esteemed New York outpost Del Posto, clearly possess their mentor’s passion for authentic Italian cuisine, striving and succeeding in re-creating a communal dining sensibility common in the streets of Venice. I would encourage anyone to take advantage of the duo’s Arsenale menu, which at $45 per person, is an absolute steal, comprised of six small-to-midsized snacks, two larger, entrée-style courses, two hearty pasta dishes, and dessert. This extensive prix fixe menu represents a term rarely uttered from the mouths of customers seeking reasonably-priced fine-dining in Boston: value.

                One of the rare misfires of the evening is the very first small bite, an underwhelming Nantucket bay scallop crudo with a slightly off-putting flavor resulting from accompanying fermented beet. A soft-boiled quail egg, however, is magical, causing my dining companion’s taste buds to suddenly perk up and exclaim that this bar bite – whose creamy, intensely rich flavor is punctuated by an innovative dash of white anchovy, caper, and garlic pangrattato – rates amongst the finest she’s ever consumed. My ricotta-stuffed red pepper – whose blanched exterior lends to a welcomed crunchy textural contrast -  nearly scales those heights, as well. It’s simple in presentation, but like so many of SRV’s dishes, complex in technique and execution while bold in flavor.

Equally satisfying bites follow, including the polpette, a seemingly ho-hum, been-there-done-that pork and beef meatball whose interior is surprisingly, wonderfully tender, not tough and dry like so many other less successful versions, no doubt attributed to the addictive tomato sauce in which the meatball swims. Another traditional Italian standby, salumi misti, features nicely cured Italian meats paired with sweet, vinegary marinated olives that nicely cut into the meat’s saltiness. And if I’m quibbling here, the phenomenal Suca Baruca – an ingenious blend of squash, granny apples for crunchy contrast, and wait for it… lardo, for pure umami richness – would have been best served as a luscious punctuation mark to the meal as a showstopper finale of a dessert, not as a precursor to the forthcoming meat, fish, and pasta dishes.

But come those courses did, and nary a high note did they miss, starting with tuna belly in Saor, the fresh fish sliced into pieces and uniquely paired with picked cipollini (another ingenious stroke of technique) and fennel grapes. A precisely cooked, well-seasoned, enjoyably fatty chunk of lamb belly was equally enticing, served with carrot in pinzimonio, quince, and a saffron yogurt that I admittedly forgot to utilize (and that’s a compliment to the bold flavor profile of the dish).

Whooh! Have you caught your breath yet? Fortunately, with the exception of a quickly corrected, small miscue of the lamb belly a following the tuna a tad too hastily, the pacing throughout the evening was thoughtfully deliberate and spot-on. A rotation of friendly, polished, informed servers thoroughly addressed any dining concerns (such as ‘Can the Arsenale menu be split between a couple where one person has a dairy allergy?,’ to which the response was a thankfully resounding ‘Yes, we can!’). So it’s onto the next chapter of Whirlwind through Venice, with our protagonists discovering good fortune in sampling Lombardi and O’Donnell’s piece de resistance: a pair of hearty, grain-milled pastas made in-house, both of which are spectacularly flavorful and unique, rivaling some of city’s best pasta joints, including Central Square’s Giulia and Batali’s own recent, mammoth Boston entry, Eataly. Thick strands of rigatoni are mixed with cauliflower and mustard greens, creating a wealth of buttery, bitter goodness. I gravitate to the meatier fazzoletti, akin to strozzapreti in texture and laced with spicy sausage, swiss chard, and chickpea.

Given our whirlwind tour, I must admit that the dolce (dessert) portion of the menu is a bit of a letdown, not that Venetian eateries have ever been famous for their confections. While biscotti misti (Venetian cookies) are playfully presented in a cookie jar, the cookies – with the exception of chocolate coconut and merengue varieties – largely disappoint given their blandness.

Fortunately, irrespective of this minor misstep (and perhaps better crowd control mechanisms in place at the front of the restaurant), there’s not a lot to dislike at SRV. With its glass doors opening to an outdoor courtyard, crystal-cut pendants hung at different heights, knotted rope dividers between rooms, and exposed brick walls with wine racks, the restaurant has a festive, chic, casual, inviting vibe to it that, like the menu itself, is a modern, fresh take on the traditional Venetian bacaro. And then there is the open kitchen from which diners can view a team of chefs feverishly working lock-in-step to seamlessly prepare delicious plates that servers swiftly whisk away to their tables. Seamless, delicious, entirely satisfying, and yes, ultimately a serene dining experience, SRV has masterfully transported the culinary treasures of Venice into Boston’s South End.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Scorpion Bar Packs a Fun Sting

Notwithstanding the culinary ambiguity that Scorpion Bar’s name may evoke (“We thought this was an Asian-themed restaurant,” laughed several dining companions, who had mistakenly correlated the popular, shareable booze-filled Asian cocktail with this location), there’s nothing all that confusing about the latest addition to restaurant row, located at the epicenter of Patriots Place. Scorpion Bar is the newest endeavor from Big Night Entertainment (Empire, Red Lantern) and reputable chef Kevin Long (Empire, Red Lantern, Tosca), and it is an unabashedly Mexican-themed restaurant that doubles as an exotic tequila/sports bar (the restaurant stocks 100 premium tequilas), perfect for post-Patriots game crowds. Creative takes on Mexican standards include tacos, burritos, and enchiladas.

                The restaurant’s ambience, much like a Pats game, is energetic, if not perhaps raucous (the restaurant transforms into a nightclub around 10 PM). The mammoth 7,800 square foot space that seats 300 patrons – formerly occupied by a high-end department store – has been impressively revamped to make one feel as if they’ve been transported to Mexico itself. You half-expect Johnny Depp to join the festivities as Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow given the wood-planked windows adorned with skulls and sangrias playfully served in glass skulls. Wrought-iron chandeliers hang from high, mirrored walls while imported Mexican crosses are in full view. There’s no sign of Toby Keith here (his restaurant looms nearby), as rock and roll music is loud and abundant (be warned: acoustics make for incredibly challenging conversation, particularly with large groups). A giant LED TV rests against one wall while several other hi-def monitors blare at the large bar directly across the room. Security guards monitor the entrance and oddly enough, the hallway to the bathrooms. Scantily clad, seductive waitresses in black tank tops politely – and frequently – ask if you’d like a refill on your cocktail. That aforementioned scorpion bowl actually does make an appearance here, and several tables delightfully sip from their straws on the Patriots-inspired monster-truck of a drink, the Gronkerita (at $44, a homage to the menacing tight end). Even people dressed in dog and unicorn costumes show up (I was expecting Scott Zolak to subsequently appear in a ‘Unicorn and Showponies shirt).

                The menu is laced with items that include an appealing variety of appetizers, such as nicely chili-powder dusted tortilla chips (although the accompanying salsa was disappointingly bland and loose in texture), jalapeno fried ravioli, and a memorable Mexican riff on traditional French fries that was a hit with our table – papas fritas, served with an addictively spicy garlic sauce. Also noteworthy were flaky, meat and potato filled empanadas and carne asada Philly rolls, featuring steak, peppers, balsamic ranch and cream cheese. My one complaint is that the menu, particularly its entrée selections, needs more focus and consolidation. A whole host of steak, chicken and pork offerings exist across taco, burritos, and enchiladas sections, and the menu can be redundant, confusing, and perhaps overwhelming to customers, especially when one is interpreting the difference between street tacos and regular tacos while portion sizes differ by one or two tacos. My personal favorite?: ‘barbacoa’ style pork tacos laced with thinly diced green and red jalapenos, the perfect balance between sweet and spicy flavors that mesh with the succulent meat.

                The list of tequila-filled cocktails, while inventive and tasty enough, are somewhat watered down and not nearly as potent as one would have hoped. Margarita selections range from excessively sweet (coconut) and smooth (the Cadillac blended with Grand Marnier) to spicy (my personal favorite, the Jalapeno blended with pineapple tequila).

                The first iteration of Scorpion Bar took shape at Foxwoods Casino, while plans for a third location are already underway for the Seaport District in late spring/early fall of this year. The connecting theme here? It’s fiesta time. And while Scorpion Bar is far from culinary perfection, the restaurant serves up perfectly enjoyable, reasonably-priced Mexican fare with decent enough cocktails in a relaxed, suburban location. Now if only we could have NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell loosen up and imbibe on that grand Gronkerita.