Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Simcha Hopes to Bring Sharon Food Scene to New ‘Heights’

For a town steeped in Israeli heritage, it’s downright shocking that Sharon has for so long failed to land a restaurant that pays proper homage to the exotic Middle Eastern/North African cuisine of its ancestors. That is, until now. Simcha, lovingly named after chef/owner Avi Shemtov’s (a Sharon native himself), and in Hebrew translates to ‘joy,’ recently opened its doors in Sharon Heights (historically, a revolving door of fledgling shops and countless Asian restaurants; hopefully, the eatery will reverse this trend) following its initial manifestation as a Roslindale pop-up. Prior to that, Shemtov – whose father, Yona emigrated from Israel to the States to fulfill his dream of becoming a chef – served more traditional Israeli cuisine (think falafel and shawarma) out of his highly successful Chubby Chickpea foodtruck for nine years. Simcha’s menu, however, veers more towards what is best described as modern Israeli cuisine (i.e.: not your average bubbe’s receipes from the Old World). Think sharable, Middle Eastern-inspired tapas and you’re on the right path.

                Step inside, and the restaurant’s cozy, swanky interior will surprise you. Behind a frosted glass window (in which the skyline of the city of Jerusalem is deftly painted) and a black curtain, you may initially think you’re walking into a secret speakeasy establishment. To the right, there’s a mid-sized bar dimly illuminated by funky lamps that playfully and proudly display Jewish star insignias. The main dining room is tiny, yet intimate, seating roughly two dozen patrons. The restaurant’s name is boldly painted along the left wall, along with the mysterious punim of a woman (my guess is it’s Shemtov’s grandmother). The restaurant’s inviting color schemes are beige and brown (including the brown formal table cloths), replicating the color of plump, airy, warm, and incredibly delicious complimentary pitas that are served piping hot out of the massive giant oven from which smoky aromas permeate the air.

                Shemtov’s creative menu is broken out into three sections: Salatim (small bites), Mezze (larger, sharable tapas), and Something Larger (entrée-size). Starting with the Salatim, while the hummus ($13) is light and creamy, consisting of Maine soldier beans tinged with tahini, garlic and evoo, it’s disappointingly bland and could benefit from additional seasoning. Also, there could simply be much more of it rendered on the plate to support the three aforementioned pitas (it’s barely enough for two). I’m always of fan of establishments that utilize locally sourced products, and Shemtov makes fine use of nearby Ward Farm’s carrot sticks ($13). Perhaps, though, the menu item should be labeled carrot stick (singular). While I admired the char on the vegetable and the unique flavors stemming from orange blossom syrup and Moroccan spices, it appeared that one carrot was sliced into several scrawny sticks. Carrots are a relatively cheap vegetable to purchase, so why is Simcha skimping on portion size here? I experienced this very problem with the seared eggplant ($12), pan seared and whose flavors generally popped with roasted red peppers and smoked onion puree with balsamic. But if you asked me if I could delineate between a trio of Indian, Thai and Chinese varieties that the menu insists are there, then you’re a more astute diner than I (one version was decent while another was excessively bitter to the degree of burnt).

                Mezze fare better, including a generous portion of calamari ($16), whose fresh tentacles and rings have a nicely balanced texture between the crunchy crackle of a lightly breaded exterior and the squishy tenderness of the fish’s interior. The dish is further enhanced by a welcomed, heated spike of zhoug, a chili-pepper and garlic infused hot sauce originating in Yemenite cuisine. My personal favorite menu item is Shemtov’s innovative Middle Eastern riff on traditional French fries, this time served up as fried rutabaga ($9), doused with a delectable pomegranate molasses sauce that I was reluctant to share. Short rib poutine ($13), however, was another downer given its (sense a theme here?) inadequate portion of chickpea polenta fries topped with meat that (you guessed it) lacked seasoning that would have invigorated the otherwise creamy potato slivers that were nicely plated tic-tac-toe style.

                Having sampled the Yemenite fried chicken ($24) entrée, it’s easy to understand why it’s Simcha’s staple dish (although it doesn’t quite reach the flavor profile pinnacle that those wonderful rutabaga fries had achieved). The bird is brined and battered in chickpea flour, unapologetically cooked in gluttonous schmaltz (chicken fat) to moisten and enhance the white and dark meat’s flavor, and dipped in a vibrant, zesty pool of red zhoug.

                Desserts were a mixed bag. A semi-dry chocolate lava cake was much too hastily brought tableside (our generally knowledgeable and affable server, during his lone misstep of the evening, stated that it was a leftover slice from an anniversary cake baked moments before), whereas a giant, marshmallow-infused whoopie pie drew praise across our table. Regardless, it was a bit baffling that none of these selections drew from Middle Eastern influences.

                A small, select list of cocktails were well executed (including a spicy jalapeno infused margarita and a refreshing bourbon blended with brown sugar lemonade with candied lemon peel), but at $13 a pop, I would expect a far more generous pour of alcohol in my concoction in lieu of over half of my glass packed with ice. An interesting offering of craft beers – both canned and on tap – span across the New England region, including a double IPA from Fall River.

                I am rooting for Simcha to succeed. The town of Sharon has been clamoring for an upscale eatery for years and it appears to have finally arrived. Shemtov and his energetic team are undoubtedly giving Simcha along with the local dining community their best shot. With some minor tweaks in the kitchen and a slight reduction in price points to more accurately reflect their portion sizes, this eatery will then become a simcha to behold.


Saturday, March 16, 2019

Blessed Union of History and Cuisine in Foxborough

Sometimes, it's comforting to take a friend's advice – particularly as it relates to comfort food. Having recently dined out with some of mine recently, they were eager to highlight an upscale American restaurant, Union Straw, that had recently opened in Foxborough Common, and what a positive dining experience they had. It piqued my culinary curiosity, to say the least.

Union Straw’s owners understand and pay a respectful nod towards the town's history. Their establishment is named after Union Straw Works, a factory that once employed thousands of workers and was situated a couple of blocks away. The factory put Foxborough on the map as a major force in commerce and industry until its demise by fire in 1900. The eatery itself is housed in a space previously occupied by the Foxborough American Legion Post 93. Union’s interior gives way to a much larger building than its quaint external appearance portends, sleekly extending from front to back (a lively bar to the left, a dining room to the right, and a smaller dining area at the rear) and possessing a rustic, yet contemporary charm, with trussed beams and gleaming hardwood floors. My only complaint with the building? A lack of parking spaces, which gleaming through the general manager's responses to recent diner reviews, the Union team appears to be working on rectifying with town officials (I'll bet the American Legion never anticipated such a crowd!).

While the cuisine is characterized as upscale American, the offerings – created and flawlessly executed by talented Executive Chef Jenn Mekler along with a talented, up-and-coming Executive Sous Chef Kam Booth- are frequently fun, unpretentious, inventive riffs on American classics. If you can work your way through a perplexingly large number of paper menus (again, the restaurant is working through these minor hiccups), you'll find exciting flatbreads including the Sweet and Savory ($14), a nicely crisped pie with fig jam, caramelized onions, balsamic reduction, creamy ricotta, and a boatload of prosciutto that struck the perfect balanced flavor trio of saltiness, tartness, and sweetness. A pair of pulled chicken sliders ($10) also impressed, the bird moist in texture and slathered with dry rub, housemade quickles and embedded within a warm mini Ciabbata roll. A heaping, vertical stack of piping hot parmesan frites ($9) doused with garlic aioli and served with spicy ketchup were also quickly consumed. Salads, too, often playing second fiddle to more exciting (i.e. meaty) menu options, left a mark, including the PBG ($10), a fresh harbinger of spring with its lively mix of pear, bacon, and goat cheese.

The restaurant insists on its website that patrons are welcomed to eat only dessert if they so choose. I highly encourage every reader to come to Union Straw if not for their innovative, delectable selections, including ice cream made in-house, including mint chocolate chip and coconut (with fresh coconut slices meshed inside each scoop). Selecting the latter flavor to accompany a coconut rum cake was one of my finest dining choices in recent memory. This version wasn’t your traditionally dense, cold, rum-soaked version from Montilio’s which I adore), but rather, a fluffier, warmed, moist take. A special of molten chocolate cake with toffee crunch was even more decadent, along with a potent pot de crème packed with welcomed, strikingly bitter notes of dark chocolate.

Union’s cocktail program is also not to be missed, including a unique, extensive beer program that featured a special peanut butter milk chocolate stout hailing from Maine. Inventive, potent libations included a pomegranate Manhattan ($12) and a cranberry Old Fashioned ($11).

For such a relatively new establishment, service was incredibly polished, attentive, and friendly. It’s no surprise how downright homey and hospitable the staff is, which can partially be attributed to the oversight of General Manager Steve Pesek, a seasoned restauranteur who most recently managed the ticket holder space at Target Field in Minnesota. Given Union’s lively ambience and exciting menu, this certainly will not be the last ‘straw’ for me (along with my friends, of course) at this new suburban dining hotspot.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Square Kitchen & Bar Takes Shape in Suburban Sharon

Irrespective of longtime culinary staple Coriander (once a premiere French-inspired dining destination from the owners of Westwood’s Chiara Bistro and for the past several years a very suitable spot serving refined Indian cuisine but less than refined service), Sharon Center has widely been considered a ghost town for fine dining, an inconceivable notion for such an affluent suburban community. Now that longtime liquor laws have been relaxed, and Sharon’s cultural demographics have expanded over the years, the timing seemed perfect for the owners of gastropub Square Kitchen & Bar to lay down their roots in the space previously occupied by pizza joint, Pizzigando.

What should, however, serve as the eatery’s primary attraction and draw is the arrival of acclaimed local chef Rachel Klein, who oversees a smaller, yet focused and inspired menu that should appeal to the masses. Klein, lest foodies forget, has been a rising superstar over the years, having helmed the kitchens at Cambridge’s late, lamented Om (would that legendary deconstructed Caesar salad be up for revival?), Boston Seaport Hotel’s Aura, the sadly shuttered, yet boundary-pushing Liquid Art House, and her recent venture in her hometown of Needham, RFK Kitchen. She has also brought her creative flair to the menu at Providence’s beloved Red Stripe restaurant. Sharon and local diners everywhere are now fortunate to welcome her into a new location in which she can showcase her dynamic culinary skills.

Square’s ambience is intimate and lively. The owner – a Sharon local - happily greets and converses with customers, several of whom chat away at an L-shaped bar with the restaurant’s logo brightly illuminated on a neon sign. Exposed brick walls provide rustic charm to an otherwise modern space. Large glass windows enable customers to view Sharon Square while allowing people outside to peer in and witness the festivities inside.  Several locals - families and singles alike – pleasantly run into one one another, seemingly relieved that their town finally has a dining hotspot they can frequent. My one quibble is that the supply of the venue’s space does not match the demand of customers – translation: seating is a bit cramped. Service, too, falls a bit flat and is somewhat unpolished one evening (waiting forty minutes for our drinks to arrive from the bar), but that is to be expected upon a restaurant’s grand opening and I fully anticipate those types of shortcomings to quickly be ironed out by the management team.

The menu is broken out into creative sections (seafood: Raw & Once Was Raw; tapas-inspired fare: Come Share With Me; salads: All Things Green, more popular bowl portion, a handful of entrees, and burgers). Prices are reasonable for high end pub food while portions are generous. While the accompanying smoked chipotle aioli sauce proved to be merely satisfactory, the zing of cherry peppers and the tartness of pear tomatoes provided a nice contrast in flavors for the crunchy calamari ($13). That same aioli was utilized for street tacos ($14), consisting of three flour tortillas packed with raw tuna cubes. A little more seasoning to the fish would have elevated the dish.

Very popular amongst my dining companions were the Big Bowls ($15-$17), including the zesty Cuban Mama comprised of an innovative confluence of garlic and lime brown rice, crispy tortilla, picadillo, sugar roasted tomato, cabbage slaw, and avocado. Klein and her team are wise to insert these types of healthy options on the menu, which are very popular nowadays with more health-conscious consumers.

But if it’s carbs you’re seeking, look no further than the Red Eye Burger ($15), unquestionably my favorite item currently on Square’s menu. This black angus baby is grilled medium rare to perfection, the juices wonderfully seeping from the meat and into the brioche bun, topped with delectable bacon jam, cheddar cheese, watercress, and a subtle, yet satisfying espresso mayo (trust me, it’s divine). Paired  with the kitchen’s handcut truffle fries and you’ll forget all about Five Guys. This patty may very well match up to some of Boston’s best burgers (Craigie on Main and Alden and Harlow come to mind).


If you have room for dessert ($11), Square is nice enough to recognize and honor Sharon’s wildly popular and legendary ice cream establishment, Crescent Ridge, by serving its ice cream and sorbet. Take for instance, a black bean ice cream paired with a brownie sundae, which Klein insists we take home with us to sample.

The bar whips up approximately a handful of creative cocktails ($11), including a vanilla bean bourbon Manhattan, the same amount of red and white wines (primarily from California), while offering an extensive list of intriguing craft beer selections (many of which are sourced from local breweries). My favorites included Hingham’s Tempest IPA (Shakesbeer Brewery) and a bourbon barrel ale from Lexington, KY.

In the words of the immortal pop rock artist, Huey Lewis, it’s hip to be square. In the hands of chef Klein, Square Kitchen & Bar is quickly reshaping Sharon’s dining scene.