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 CafĂ©, 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.