Friday, March 28, 2008

Union Bar and Grille, Boston

Two nights ago I had the opportunity to re-visit Union Bar and Grille in Boston's South End. I had been last summer for brunch one Sunday and hadn't come away with the best memories of it. I realise though that brunch is rarely the main focus of a restaurant, and was willing to chalk up the bad taste I had in my mouth for Union to that. Needless to say, I was really excited to check it out again, this time for dinner, and really get a true feeling for the place. Unfortunately, I remain disappointed in it.

I started with a shitake mushroom and baby spinach salad, garnished with crispy beets and scallions. I really enjoyed the varied tastes and textures in this salad. The mushrooms had been smoked and so they had a soft texture to them, the baby spinach was bright and clean, and the beets added a nice crispness to the dish. The dressing was heavy in spots, but that is easily remedied at the table.

My main course was shrimp penne with a lobster broth. At least it was advertised with a lobster sauce which was a key reason I got it. Honestly, I have no idea where the lobster was in the broth. It had no taste or odor of lobster, which I found to be rather disappointing. Furthermore, I really couldn't place what the flavor of the sauce was. It wasn't BAD so to speak, but quite disappointing. However, the shrimp were well cooked and they had added roasted cauliflower which I quite enjoy, as well as green olives. It was also advertised to have a pine nut gremolata but this I didn't see or taste at all. Perhaps it was forgotten?

As restaurant week was still going strong for Union, I was able to indulge in a dessert as well without feeling overly guilty about it. I chose to have a chocolate pudding tart topped with marshmallows that had been torched to a nice golden brown, and then garnished with almond clusters. Unlike D's disappointment last week at Stix with their pudding cake, this was a true pudding filling, and was quite tasty. It reminded me of a much more sophisticated s'more. The pastry of the tart was light and flaked nicely, the pudding was very rich, so that the marshmallow was a perfect compliment to it. The almond clusters seemed unnecessary to the dish, but they also didn't detract from it. All in all, I was very pleased by the dessert.

So Union goes down in my book as an ultimate disappointment. I hate to write off restaurants, and will normally continue to go back in the hopes that I just had a bad dish, or it was a bad day, but I think that with Union, it needs to be written off.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Elephant Walk, Boston

Last Saturday night my mother, my sister and I voyaged to The Elephant Walk on Beacon Street in Boston for a pre- Easter family dinner. It is not often that we are all in the same area to dine together, so I definitely treasure it when we are. My sister and my mother had both dined at Elephant Walk before, but were anxious to go back, and I was excited to try it for my first time. The cuisine is a mix between Cambodien and French, and the menu features selections from both. I was intrigued by this. Often when you go to a "fusion" type restaurant they actually attempt to fuse the two cuisines together into each dish. It was exciting to me that their form of fusion was just different sections of the menu.

To start we had Rouleaux which were Cambodien style spring rolls with ground pork mixed with peanut, and a variety of vegetables and noodles and then wrapped and fried. These are served with a tuk tey (a soy based sauce) on the side and with lettuce leaves, basil, mint and sprouts for wrapping around the rolls. The sauce was very light and not at all over powering. The mixture of basil, mint sprouts and lettuce with the crips spring roll was a delightful combination, however the actual filling of the rolls I found to be lacking in flavor. The filling was basically just a brown mash of ingredients with no discerning flavor shining through.

I selected to also have a Cambodien style entree as well, called Coquilles St Jacques au Gingembre. It was a dish of sea scollaps, in a creamed ginger sauce placed around a small mountain of mashed edamame garnished with red radiccio and fried ginger. The scollaps were delicious and their delicate flavor was nicely enhanced by the creamed ginger sauce, which I loved countered with the bitterness of the radicchio. I did find that the edamame had a nice flavor to them, but the mealy-ness of the bean was not lost in the mashing and resulted in a slightly dry texture. With the sauce it was good, but there was just not enough sauce for the amount of the mash.

We found that though we would have liked to have passed up dessert, that was just not possible, so instead we ordered two and shared them among the three of us. We ordered Le Péché au Chocolat which was a rich chocolate flourless cake that was garnished with a raspberry sauce. I do have to admit failure however, I have neglected to remember th proper name of the second dessert that we ordered, and actually all of its ingredients (Ill blame this lack of memory on the several delicious drinks I had had?) however it was a layered dessert with the flavors of praline, almond and dark chocolate throughout. Honestly, I enjoyed this one immensely and am rather upset that I have failed to remember its distinct flavors.

I truly enjoyed The Elephant Walk, and it lived up the hype that my family had given it.

The Publick House, Brookline

As I've mentioned several times up to this point, I am a huge a fan of mussels. To me, there is no better meal than a big bowl of mussels, some good bread to sop up the broth with and a good drink- if you add some outdoor seating to that equation-I'm in heaven. My sister has the same affinity mussels and for years now has been raving about how they are served at The Publick House in the Washington Square area of Brookline. I have been to this spot several times for their huge variety of beers, but have never indulged in their mussels. Since my sister was going to be home for the Easter holiday, we made plans to spend Friday evening there so I could finally try their mussels.

For drinks or food alike, The Publick House is a great spot. It is fashioned like the public brew houses that I remember from my time spent in London, dim lighting and rustic furniture included. I always love these no frills establishments. The decor alone lets you know that you're in for a real experience, good beer and hopefully good food. It has become quite a hot spot around the Brookline area, so when we arrived around 7:30 pm or so on a Friday night, we were informed that our wait would be an hour to an hour and a half. We had anticipated this and so resigned ourselves to fighting through the crowds to the bar to get a couple of beers, Duvals to be exact. I have always enjoyed a really good beer, as well as the occasional "bad" beer, and I have a real soft spot in my heart for places that know the proper glassware to serve different types of beer in, and are knowledgeable about the brew and can make recommendations. The Publick House succeeds on both counts. However, as Id heard great things about Duvals before, yet had never tried it, and because it was just too crowded to engage the bartenders in a discussion, I went with it. It was a good hearty beer with a full head.

Our wait ended up being about an hour, maybe a little over, before we were seated. However once we were, we were greeted by a friendly waiter and set to work choosing our dinner. We decided to start off with stuffed zucchini. This was delicious. A very large zucchini had been hollowed out and stuffed with bell peppers, onions, herbs and a little cheese. It was served over a very lightly dressed arugula salad. I loved the combination of the bitter arugula with the sweater peppers and the light zucchini. I will absolutely be making this for myself soon enough- it was delicious! I then chose to have their Moules Frites pot #2 which are mussels steamed in La Rulles Triple, a beer from the Louxembourg region, with spinach, tomatoes, asiago cheese and finished with garlic bread crumbs, with a cone of french fries on the side. The dish was served in an actual pot which was aesthetically pleasing, but I found that it took away from the flavor of the dish. Much of the broth was at the bottom of the pot and so the first half of the mussels were not soaked in it at all. For this reason, I prefer mussels to be served in a shallow bowl so that the broth can be used almost as a condiment to showcase the different flavors with each bite. So I was a bit disappointed in this. However when I got to the broth it was very tasty and did compliment the mussels well. The fries were light and airy and a very tasty accompaniment.

Our server continued to be friendly throughout the evening and despite the busy nature of the restaurant did not at all rush us to finish our meals, or to leave his table. He was knowledgeable and absolutely added to the experience.

All in all, Publick House will remain to be one of my favorites for good Belgian beer and cuisine. I just wish that they would revise how their mussels are served.

Their website appears to be down currently, however their menu can be found at

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Family Holiday

Holidays in my family are always fantastic events. My mother comes from a great Italian family so food plays a starring role for the day of the holiday, as well as the days leading up. This past weekend was Easter, and it was no exception.

Friday I arrived at my mothers and we set out to make a rustic Italian staple, Pizza Gain. The basic principle behind this was an enhanced bread dough, flavored with anise. That is then stuffed with meats and cheeses before baking. My mother remembers this as something that her mother used to make when she was growing up, but we hadnt attempted it in our family before. It was an exciting prospect.

Our first challenge to overcome was converting the dough recipe that we had for the authentic base, to one that we could use in our bread machine to cut down the aggrevation of finding a good spot for it to rise in, and then to eliminate kneeding it. Bread machines are very particular about the order in which you add the ingredients so that the yeast doesnt touch the liquids until the appropriate time- Im definitely not a bread maker (yet) so Im not entirely sure about why the yeast wont work if its soaked too early, but apparently it wont. So we spent a fair amount of time working through which were liquid ingredients, and which were solids- I almost messed that up by not seeing the word 'melted' next to the butter but we caught that in the nick of time. Finally though we were able to load all of the ingredients into the machine and started its cycle. An hour and a half later, we pulled the dough, perfectly risen with a light, airy texture, from the machine and started to roll it out for the pizza. We divided it into two sections, one we baked just as a loaf, and the second we layed over a 8 x 8 greased baking dish so that it hung over the sides and and then we began to layer in slices of cappacola, ricotta cheese mixed with an egg and cracked black pepper, genoa salami, prosciutto, provolone cheese and mozzarella cheese. Then we flapped up the sides so that they encased the pizza, and painted the top with an egg wash. Into the oven for about 45 minutes, and it came out a golden brown pizza gain.

It was delicious. Extremely heavy so that small portions were needed, it was rich and satisfying. The cheese had melted into the bread a bit so that it created a soft, doughy layer, and then faded into a light layer of bread. Personally I found the ricotta layer a bit thick, but that is definitely personal preference and can be amended based on your taste.

Our Easter dinner menu consisted of stuffed artichokes to start, pork roast, mashed potatos, fennel salad, beet salad, and ended with assorted pastries from Mike's Pastry in the North End. Normally we have ham for Easter dinner so it was a nice change this year to instead have a pork roast. I created a rub for the roast consisting of fresh rosemary and thyme, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, ginger, orange peel and dijon mustard, after slathering that on, I re-wrapped it in tin foil and returned it to the fridge for two hours or so. We then cooked that on top of fennel, carrots, onions and oranges to add some flavor for about an hour and a half. It turned out delicious. I created a sauce to go over it as well, consisting of butter, shallots, garlic, a serrano pepper, white wine that I attempted to reduce, pepper, salt, orange marmalade and just a teaspoon of dijon mustard. I found the sauce did exactly what I had anticipated, it leant some sweetness to the meat, while having a backround heat from the serrano. The only thing that I noticed about it was that it had a slight bitterness at its finish that Id like to cut. Im wondering if because the marmalade that I used wasnt very sweet I could have added a sweetener to cut that out? Ill have to play with the recipe a bit, but overall, I considered it a great success.

We had decided to try a new way of cooking our artichokes this time. Normally we stuff them with bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, garlic and parsely and then drizzle olive oil over the top and bake for 45 minutes or so. This time we had heard that you could boil then first for about a half hour, and then spoon out the choke section before stuffing and baking. It definitely made for easier eating as the choke was already removed when they got to the table, and the boiling with lemon slices did create a richer flavor, however I found that they were completely water logged. Every leafe I attempted to eat was so watery it was dripping and rather messy. We wondered if perhaps we hadnt drained them long enough? I enlisted some professional advice as well- and it was thought that we might have just brought the moisture further to the surface by boiling them (thank you!). Either way....I enjoyed the taste of them more, but the mess of eating them detracted from that which was sad. That method will have to be a work in progress apparently.

My sister made a delicious fennel salad consisting of watercress, arugala, fennel bulbs and head, orange slices and an asian pear. She dressed it with a homemade dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, salt pepper, a tiny amount of mustard and a small amount of honey as well to cut the bitterness of the lemon juice. It was light and delicious and allowed the flavors of each of the different portions of the salad to shine through. Thats the great thing about those types of salads, there are a lot of really interesting, exciting flavors in them and covered under a heavy dressing they would be lost- but with a really light vinagrette its easy to enjoy each independently.

The beet salad that my mother prepared looked wonderful, however as I have an childhood aversion to beets that I apparently refuse to let go of, I did not indulge in it. However she had made it with both red and golden beets, walnuts, feta cheese and scallions. They both enjoyed, I am limited in my description though. I promise to try to taste things like that in the future.

Mashed potatos are a food that Ive been making for years, and is always just a great comfort food and an easy staple in holiday cooking. Boil the potatos til they are fork tender, add butter and cream and mash to the consistency youre looking for. Of course you can dress them up with a host of other flavors, but in my book, sometimes, there is nothing better than pure mashed potatos. They are just a wonderful throw back to those kid meals of meatloaf and potatos that I still enjoy today.

Our homemade dinner was absolutely delicious. One that we will be discussing for years I assume. The pork was tender and flavorful on its own, but was nicely enhanced with the marmalade sauce. The salads were delicious, and the artichokes were lovely despite the water mess with their stuffing that we had added a bit of mozzarella to this year. It was capped off with some of the best pastry in boston from Mikes in the North End, a staple in this city, and a glass of port. Honestly, in my opion there is nothing better than a great meal with wonderful family around, ending with a sweet treat and a well aged glass of port. Happy Easter to all...

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Stix Restaurant and Lounge, Boston

Earlier this week I finally got the chance to check out one of the newer restaurants in Boston. Stix Restaurant & Lounge opened last summer as a new concept place that serves the majority of their offerings on wooden sticks that are infused with a variety of different flavors. The idea is that the flavor infused into the sticks will then lend itself to the protein that is cooked on it. I have been excited to check this place out since it opened.

As it was still Restaurant Week (which is oddly actually two weeks) we were privvy to the fixed price menu options. For my first course I chose Shrimp on a Thai coconut lime stick, that was accompanied by a pineapple dipping sauce. The flavoring of the stick worked marvelously and created a hinted backround flavor. The pineapple sauce was sweet where the shrimp was slightly spicy and it offset it well. D had the same as I did, and our only complaint on the course was that the sticks were rather large for the shrimp and their size made it difficult to eat. Additionally, as we were attempting to eat them from the stick, I would have removed the tails. Aesthetically it obviously looked better with them on, however it just became difficult to eat.

My second course was salmon served over a vegetable risotto. After dining at Dante last week, I was disappointed. I found the salmon to be overcooked to the point where it was dry. I discussed this with D and she made a good point that a bit of a crisp on the outside is good, I definitely agree, but this took that to the next level. I enjoy salmon to be medium rare, the middle slightly rare and the rest tender. Stix salmon was not up to par. The risotto was well cooked, however the vegetables were sparse and limited. I found only two or three pieces of zucchini and summer squash.

Desert for me was the truffle tree, which D thoughtfully pointed out was more of a truffle cube than a tree. However four truffles were served, on sticks, out of a glass cube. The effect was nice, and the truffles were delicious. Each was a different flavor, one white chocolate, three dark chocolate. The three dark chocolates were independently flavored on by peppermint, one grand marnier and one champagne. These flavors were rather muted, and I would have liked for them to have been stronger flavors, however they were chocolate so they cant be too bad.

I enjoyed the concept of Stix, and if I were to return I think I would order only from their sticks offerings as more of a tapas place. I think that their forte is mainly with those, and their entrees were an unfortunate after thought.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lucca, Boston

Last night I met up with a friend of mine to have dinner at Lucca in the North End, a place sure not to be over run with the St Patrick's Day crowd (a difficult feat this weekend in Boston). I hadn't been to Lucca in several years, but it definitely ranks as one of my favorite North End restaurants.

The ambiance always reminds me of an old library with its dark wood and white linens...but I digress, though I do feel as though the style of a restaurant lends itself greatly to the experience as a whole. A poorly designed or decorated restaurant can distract from the quality of the food.

As Ive said before I will normally order any dish with mussels in it, similarly I will order almost anything with clams as well. Therefore Lucca's Linguini alle Vongole is high on my list of things to order. A traditional dish in nature, Linguini is served in a lemon white wine sauce with clams in the shell dispersed, as well garnished with sliced garlic, parsley and red pepper flakes. The clams were well cooked and the linguini was just slightly al dente which I enjoyed. However while the garlic and the parsley were prevalent, the lemon was not distinguishable, and sadly to me, the red pepper flakes were not either. I was hoping for a real punch of flavor from both, however I found it slightly disappointing. I remember being very impressed with it the last time I dined there, so perhaps it was just an off night for the chef. Perhaps he had a bit too much Jameson and Guinness, to be honest- I'm going to hope that was the case. It wasn't at all awful-however it wasn't up to the caliber that I remember from Lucca.

However, I was more than pleasantly surprised with their Tiramisu. As I discovered at Toscanos a few months back, Tiramisu can be made badly. Lucca was the exact opposite of Toscanos. The lady fingers were sufficiently soaked with a pear liqueur which added a very nice component, and the marscapone was creamy and delicious. It was a perfect end to the meal.

All in all Lucca's will remain a favorite of mine, and I will continue to hope that it was just an off night for that dish. Beyond that, there is absolutely nothing better than the North End in Boston- it is so full of culture and history, that it doesnt matter what the food is that youre eating, you just simply feel as though youre in Italy!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dante, Cambridge

Restaurant week comes to Boston but just twice a year- and I will say they are some of my favorite weeks ever in this city! Most of the best restaurants in Boston offer three course meals for lunch and dinner, at the very reasonable prices of $20.08 for lunch and $33.08 for dinner.

Wednesday evening four of my friends and I went out to Dante, a restaurant in the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, to indulge in our three courses, and to celebrate our girl K's birthday! I had heard very little about Dante previous to our plans to go there, other than that a good friend had dined there the Friday previous and had loved it. So I was very excited to check it out.

We arrived, and because M was smart enough to make reservations weeks ago, we were seated right away. We were given our limited selection Restaurant Week menus, a wine list and a coctail menu. As I had been dreaming about this dinner for a few weeks, I had already reviewed the menu and knew exactly what my first course, entree and dessert selections would be. I have to say first, that service at Dante went well beyond my expectations. Our waitress greeted us right away, was warm and friendly, and was able to make suggestions and recommendations. As she did not rush our orders, we were able to sit and soak up the atmosphere (they had sat us near a window that looked out over the Charles and the Boston city skyline), enjoy our drinks, indulge on bread that was readily refilled, and chat amongst ourselves. I feel as though timing is key to the restaurant business, not just within the kitchen-though that is absolutely my biggest challenge when cooking- but in the front of the house as well. There is a delicate balance between rushing a table and making them wait too long. The staff at Dante had it down to a science.

Once we finally did order, it didnt take them long to bring out our first course. I had chosen their cauliflower soup with scollaps and hazelnuts. The soup consisted of creamed cauliflower, enhanced with a small amount of oil over the top, and then garnished with small scollaps, chopped hazelnuts and fresh herbs. My only complaint was that there wasnt more of it. The soup itself had a delicate flavor to it wherein it was creamy, but not over powering, and the flavor of the cauliflower itself was also muted. The hazelnuts added a surprising, but very pleasing crunch that off set the textures, and the scollaps were perfectly cooked and added a nice accent to the other ingredients. M had selected the same first course and was equally pleased by it. The others in our party had chosen to have the gnocchi, which had been mixed with a duck ragu, black cherries, ricotta salata, and duck fat frites. K insisted that I try a portion of hers, it was also delicious. The combination of the cherries with the duck was perfect, and while I thought that gnocchi was a bit overcooked, the dish was very well put together.

My entree was salmon cooked medium rare, served over soft polenta and mushrooms. Salmon is by far my favorite fish, and I normally will order it when its served in a restaurant. Dante did a beautiful job on its preparation. Ive found that salmon can often be over seasoned because of its delicate flavor. So its a trick to not go overboard. Additionally, it should always be served medium rare, but this is also difficult to achieve. Dante successfully did both, it was cooked to a perfect temperature, and it held its own flavor well. It was accented nicely by the earthy mushrooms and the creamy polenta. While I really enjoyed the dish, the menu had listed horseradish as an ingredient as well, however I did not taste this at all. Im a horseradish lover, and it had influenced my decision in choosing the entree, so I was a bit disappointed that it appeared to be missing, or under used to such a degree that its potent flavor was lost.

The rest of my table also enjoyed their meals- although I was too enraptured with my own to taste test, they gave them their highest reviews of "mmmmm"s and satisfied sighs.

We then chose our desserts- an olive oil cake accented with limoncello zabaglione and sections of various types of citrus fruits. Olive Oil cake is by nature a rather dry cake, and having no distinct flavor of its own, it takes on the flavors of any accents very well. In this casethe limoncello and the citrus fruits made this dessert very light and spring like in its flavors.

Overall I was extremely impressed by Dante. Their food was delicious with inventive combinations of flavors and textures, and their service went above and beyond. For every course that they brought out a server explained in detail what the dish was, and how it was prepared. On K's dessert plate they spelled out Happy Birthday in chocolate. They found the smallest of details to pay attention to and it resulted in a highly enjoyable experience. I would recommend Dante with the very high praise.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Figs, Charlestown MA

Friday night I had the extreme pleasure of dining at Todd English's restaurant Figs, in Charlestown MA. I had heard some poor reviews Figs last fall, but I was still excited to check it out for myself. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it exceeded all of my expectations.

We started with a Greek Salad, consisting mainly of romaine, red onions, olives, grape tomatos and feta cheese. Personally, I find it very difficult to make a bad salad, unless of course you are using bad ingredients. This salad was fresh and flavorful. First course was a success.

For my entree I had Butternut Squash Agnolotti, served in a brown butter and sage sauce. I was actually ordering somewhat blind as I had never before had agnolotti, but chose the item based on the combination of brown butter, sage and butternut squash which is a combination I truly adore. I was not at all disappointed in this dish. As it turns out, agnolotti, roughly translated to mean "priests hats", are a rectangular ravioli. I found that Figs version had a slightly bitter flavor to them, but this was perfectly off set by the sweetness of the butternut squash filling. Each bite was broken down between an initial hint of pure pasta, where that bitterness lay, followed by the sweet taste of the squash. Each flavor hit your palate differently so that you were able to experience both with every bite. It was delicious. The butter sage sauce added just enough liquid to the dish so you didnt feel as though you were eating dry pasta, but not enough to over power the delicate flavors. I would say that it was a perfect combination.

My companion had their Old School Tuscan Bolognese, which he raved about. Unfortunately I declined to taste it (trying to be observe those old Lenten practices about meat on Fridays) but he was sung its graces enough for me to know that it was a good dish.

We ended with their apple crisp, served with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Whipped Cream is one of those items that I will judge a restaurant on. I feel as though fresh is the only way to go, and the preparation of it is important. This was done very well. It was absolutely fresh, and had the perfect blend of sugar and vanilla in it to make it not over poweringly sweet. The apple crisp was also good. I find that more often then not, people neglect to peel their apples for their crisp. Ive never been a fan of this method. Often the peel doesnt cook down to a palatable piece, but remains somewhat tough. This was the case with the apple crisp at Figs. Overall the spices were good, the crisp layer had a good combination of oats and sugar, but I walked away with a slightly bad taste in my mouth from apple peels.

Despite my own issues with their apple crisp, I would rate Figs to be an outstanding restaurant. I went in with very low expectations, but was absolutely astounded by the attention to detail and the flavors of their meals. I will absolutely be going back!


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bolognese sauce

As I previously mentioned, I spent much of my vacation reading the book Heat by Bill Buford. It is an autobiography of sorts that followed a lay person through their time in a professional kitchen, under the direction of none other than Mario Batali. Mr. Buford experienced the different facets of working in a kitchen from the basic kitchen slave, learning to properly chop carrots, to a line cook. It is cleverly written in that it concentrates not just on his experiences, but stories from Batali's rise to fame as well as exploring different Italian dishes. For instance, Buford spends time researching the origin of pasta and when an egg was added to the mix of flour and water. Side tangents like this made the book not only very readable, but rather inspiring.

One of the sections that inspired me most was his description and explanation of authentic Bolognese sauce- a staple in Italian cooking. Basically put, the sauce contains very few ingredient- normally two types of meat, and three types of liquid. It comes from the Italian brown cooking style so tomatoes are not a necessary ingredient, and Buford explains that the addition of them may be seen as a more American spin rather than the authentic. I decided to try my hand at an authentic Bolognese, keeping in mind that dishes should be more about the pasta than the sauce which is merely a condiment.

For my adaptation I chose three meats- cured pork bacon for a smokey flavor, veal and ground beef. I browned the bacon first, added garlic to the pan with parsley and basil, and then added the ground veal and beef. After those had sufficiently browned and caramelized, I began to add the liquids. Traditional Bolognese is made with Beef Broth, Milk and Wine- so those are what I added, though I was very uncomfortable added the milk- it just seemed strange to me. I simmered these together until most of the liquid had been absorbed and then I ladled a bit over Orecchiette pasta, my favorite type of pasta. The sauce wasn't bad. It absolutely allowed the pasta to shine which had been my goal, though I wasn't used to eating pasta that way. I had been very light handed on the salt and pepper, so in the future I may bump that up. I was also very light handed on the milk addition so Ill increase that next time as well. Additionally, I had used skim milk which may have defeated the purpose of the milk all together. All in all though, I was pleased with my sauce.

I decided the next night to use the sauce as a stuffing for shells. So I boiled up quite a few shells, added some shredded mozzarella cheese to the bottom of each shell and then spooned in healthy portions of my Bolognese sauce. I laid each in a pan and covered with a homemade marinara. I then topped this with slices of fresh mozzarella and baked for 20 minutes or so at 350 degrees. The result was delicious. Normally when I cook, I am rarely hungry by the time the dish is prepared (a helpful trait for someone who loves cooking and food as much as I do- cuts down on my portions) however- I ate more than my normal portion because the combination was so complete between the spiciness of the sauce with the creaminess of the cheese and the intricate flavors of the Bolognese- I was quite pleased with the result.

I have one problem though- many of the shells I cooked broke apart during the boiling process and were un use able- any suggestions?

Oh and D- I need to remind myself again but SCONES! Thanks :-)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Various establisments in Aruba

I have returned from my week on the gorgeous island of Aruba. The week was spent in great company, relishing the sun, the heat, the pools, the beach, sunsets, and of course the food of the island. I like to think that we experienced a full cross section of dining during our stay there.

Our first night we ate at a small Italian place close to our hotel named Casa Tua. This was our first experience with the "island" form of customer service. While they were incredibly friendly, they were also incredibly slow. Once were seated, 20 minutes past the quoted wait time, our waitress was also slow to bring our drinks and to take our orders. However, the meal was delicious. We had decided to have a beer and pizza night and so we began with Balashi beer, which tasted light, while being very full bodied. I sort of fell in love with it and am now wishing Id hit up the duty free store before leaving! D and I began with tomato, basil and mozzarella salad. The tomatoes were good, which can be difficult when you're dealing with imports. Normally when I make this salad at home I dress it with olive oil, garlic, and ground pepper. I tend to enjoy the added flavor this gives to the dish. Casa Tua did not dress theirs, but there was goodness in their simplicity. I followed this salad with a simple mozzarella, tomato sauce and basil pizza. Its difficult to make this pizza poorly. They did not fail. All in all the meal was simple and clean, and honestly hit the spot after a day of travelling. Even more so, we dined outside which was the highlight of most of my meals on the island.

Monday night we headed to Amazonia Churrascaria which is a Brazilian BBQ place. I have heard of Brazilian dining before, the idea of skewered meat sliced at you table of numerous different varieties, but I had not gotten to experience before. I can say this much- it is definitely an experience, and you must starve yourself for a full day ahead of time. They have 16 different types of meat that they appear at your table with, from Fillet Mignon to ribs to chicken wrapped in bacon to lamb. Each piece is hot from the grill and cooked to its perfect state of being done. The Fillet was fantastic. It was cooked to medium on the inside, but each piece that they sliced also included enough of the flamed crisped outside to give the idea of a full piece of steak. I found the chicken dishes to be flavorless, and the rib that I had contained no meat whatsoever, but basically just fat. I enjoyed the majority of meats, and the salad bar that you start with was fantastic. There were many options of vegetables to add to your salad to ensure you were getting the nutrients that you just don't get from meat alone. And it was large enough to make a meal of just the salad bar alone, for those travelling with vegetarians.

The next night we dined at Salt and Pepper, a small Mediterranean place not far from Casa Tua. We started with marinated olives and a tapenade. Both were tasty, though we found that the olives were not as flavorful as we might have hoped. My entree was a pan seared tuna served with a seafood, spinach and cream sauce. The tuna was cooked very well. It was still slightly pink inside, just as it should be. The cream sauce left something to be desired, and the seafood that was in it, well I'm not entirely sure what type it was. However, overall it was presented well and the tuna itself was quite good.

The next night we dined at Hostaria Da Vittorio, an Italian place across the street from Amazonia. The attention to detail was what really impressed me about Hostaria. Two of the members of my party ordered a red snapper special. In many places they would have cooked the snapper as fillets, plated it in the kitchen, and served it, here they cooked two fish whole, seasoned at the discretion of the patron, and then de-boned and reconstructed the fish at the table. This gave a rustic, authentic feel to the dish whereby you had the impression that the fish had been caught earlier that same day. My dinner that evening was on the lighter side, a chicken breast that had been pounded out to a thin fillet and then grilled, served atop a salad of radicchio and arugula. The smokey flavor from the grill mixed well with the pepper of the salad and all in all made for a pleasant dish.

Our final big dinner of the week was at an Argentinian steak house called El Gaucho in the heart of Oranjestad. This was absolutely the crowning finish to a week of good eating. We had heard reviews of this place even before arriving in Aruba, and then they were echoed by our cab driver from the airport. It definitely lived up to the hype. I ordered their 12 oz tenderloin steak, medium, and chose sides of balsamic grilled vegetables, smashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli. I have honestly never had a better steak. It was cooked to the perfect shade of pink on the inside, and was flavored just enough to bring out the natural flavors. The truly fun part about their serving was before the entrees arrived, they put a trio of sauces on the table for dipping. The first was spicy marinated onions, the second was a garlic salsa verde, and the third was a traditional, though slightly thin steak sauce. These were the perfect accompaniments to the steak, though it didn't need them. Depending on your taste each one hit your pallet differently and just enhanced the experience. I haven't had time to research the authenticity of these yet, but I wondered about their origin. The side dishes were also good, but absolutely out shined by the steak- to be honest- I don't think I can even really review them-my concentration was just not on them.

So those were the culinary highlights of my trip to Aruba. It is a culturally diverse island, a melting pot of different countries, and that was well represented in its food.

As a side note, I spent much of the week reading and contemplating the book Heat by Bill Buford. For anyone who is interested in food, especially Italian cooking, this is absolutely a must read. It is extremely well written and inspired many dishes in me. Honestly, I finished four other books during the week, which I read only so that I didn't have to finish Heat- its just that good that I don't ever want to finish it. Thank you, M, for giving it to me a very well appreciated Christmas gift.

Restaurant Reviews: A dead art?

Last December I declared 2023 the year I would return to food writing.  It was a bold statement (even now as I look at my last published dat...