Monday, June 30, 2008

Mike's Pastry, Boston

There are some places that you just anticipate greatness from. They are the places that either you have heard stellar reviews about, or better still those that you have been dining at for years and have always provided a level of pure deliciousness that cant be compared to. For as long as I can remember, Mike's Pastry in Bostons North End has been the only place for my family to get Italian pastry in the Boston area. We haven't dared to touch another purveyor for fear of a complete waste, and that nagging thought- we should have gone to Mikes.
Over the past couple of years though, I have been hearing, more and more, that Modern Pastry, just down the street from Mike's, is the better pastry spot. It seemed like blasphemy, and with a daunting two hour line each time Ive passed it, Ive happily gone about my business loving Mike's and blissfully unaware.
This past weekend my family and I celebrated my mothers birthday, and as part of tradition, I headed over to Mike's early on Saturday morning to pick up a pre ordered rum cake, beautifully en scribed with "Happy Birthday Mom". Package in hand, I turned to leave the North End and had an idea- at 9:30 on a Saturday morning, the Modern didn't have anywhere close to a two hour line. I decided to pop in and pick up Sfogliatella, a favorite pastry of my moms that is good enough to enjoy with morning coffee. Sfogliatella, also known as a Lobster Tail, can be made two ways. Both have a light flakey crust formed in a shape that resembles a lobster tail, however it can either be stuffed with a sweet, white, fresh cream filling, or a yellow custard filling. From what I have seen, normally when one orders a Lobster Tail, they receive the sweet cream filling, and when you order a Sfogliatella, the custard filling is given.
So I headed to my moms with my cake from Mike's, and three Sfogliatella from the Modern, excited to taste compare, certain that the hype around the Modern was simply hype and couldn't possibly compare to the beloved Mike's. We opened the box, and split the first Sfogliatella- it was still warm from the oven- an experience we had never had at Mike's. It was positively delicious. The cream had a wonderful background flavor that we couldn't quite place between cinnamon, or almond, and it was all put together so nicely. I have to say, from Mikes, I have never been a fan of Sfogliatella, Ive always watched my mother enjoy them and wondered what the fuss was about. From the Modern, I loved it.
A bit jolted from our revelation that possibly the Modern might be better, fresher, than Mike's, a few hours later we cut into the rum cake to "taste test" it before serving it later that evening. It was a very good thing that we did. Anticipating that great rum soaked cake, separated by creamy custard, what I tasted was nothing like that. It was sour, and we wondered what had happened to it. Had they used Cointreau instead of rum? Did they use lemon extract? We called immediately to complain, and were told that we could bring it back. So back to the North End we drove, no easy feat for those of you not familiar with the area, and I popped back into Mikes to return the offensive cake, and hoping to find out what exactly was wrong with it, as I had eaten a bit of it trying to figure it out.
Mike's was a lot more crowded at 3:00 pm than it had been at 9:30 am, and so I stood in line. Finally, I reached the counter and asked to speak with the manager, as we had been instructed over the phone. He came over and I asked that he taste the cake so that it could be determined what was wrong with it, basically I wanted to know in case an ambulance needed to be called at some point- I wanted to be able to tell the EMT's what I had eaten. The manager flatly refused to taste it, and then, somewhat rudely asked if I wanted to know what had happened. Of course I did, so I learned that one of their refrigerators had died the night before, and they tried to move everything to working refrigerators, but somehow our cake had been missed. And so, we were sold a soured cake.
There are several facets to this that concern me. First, that their quality check is so poor that a pre ordered cake was missed in a refrigerator meltdown. Wouldn't you think that for a loyal customer, who has ordered in advance, that that cake would be rescued? Second, the attitude that I was greeted with when exchanging the cake. I may not be a menacing looking person, and I may have been trying to be polite in the face of huge lines and not wanting to give my beloved Mike's a bad name, but that does not give the workers the right to tell me that they really wont be able to do anything if I am sickened by the cake other than to give me a hug. Honestly- the last thing that I want is to be hugged by a stranger in the face of eating sour cake, and on that note, I found it to be an offensive statement. Had I eaten more of the cake, or had I served it to the rest of my family, and they had become sickened by it, a hug would not have solved the law suit that I would have served Mike's Pastry.
Apparently the manager sensed my discomfort, and so after wrapping up the new cake, which he warned was probably "too fresh" and we had to let sit for a while, he wrote out a gift certificate good for $25, guessed it- a hug. $25 barely covered the cost of the cake.
So I left Mike's feeling de-valued as a loyal customer, and disrespected as a female. It disheartens me to say, that if anyone would like a $25 gift certificate please let me know- I wont be returning to Mikes.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Interpretation of Fra Diavlo-with Clams, Mussels, Shrimp and Scallops

Last night a couple of my favorite ladies came over to celebrate the day I turn a year older, and have some dinner. Being the food nut that I am, I was thrilled to have the chance to cook for people and try out some new things that Ive never made before. Oddly enough- that is a present to me- allow me to cook for you. Anyway- striving for something somewhat light, I decided to make sort of a seafood fra diavlo sauce to top over fresh pasta that one of the girls picked up for me.

So Tuesday night, I headed to Whole Foods after work and picked up all of the fixings for what would turn out to be a bit of a seafood feast. Mussels, clams, scallops and shrimp were all purchased, along with the needed ingredients for a tomato based spicy sauce.

I stocked my fridge with all of the seafood as soon as I got home so it would stay cold, fresh, and in the case of the clams and mussels, alive until Wednesday night, then I got to work on my sauce. In a large sauce pan I melted a teaspoon of butter into about the same amount of olive oil. Then I added about 4 cloves worth of chopped garlic, chopped red onion, one and a half chopped Serrano peppers (I realize I am obsessed with those spicy devils), and a bit of salt and pepper. I allowed those to simmer together for a while over medium-low heat, and then added very healthy amounts of chopped parsley and basil. Once those had blended together, and my kitchen was smelling amazing, I added a couple of handfuls of sliced baby Portobello mushrooms. Once they were looking slightly cooked, I added just about a half a cup of Pinot Noir, and simmered just long enough to cook off the alcohol and impart its flavors into the other ingredients. Then I added a can each of fire roasted crushed tomatoes and fire roasted chopped tomatoes. Under normal circumstances- I would MUCH prefer to use fresh tomatoes, however this salmonella scare has me terrified, so I decided to go with canned. Sue me. After the tomatoes had had a chance to mingle with everything else for a while, I started my tasting process. A nice piece of french bread into the pan, and then an addition of a bit more salt. Next time through- I realized that I wanted it a bit spicier- so a few shakes of crushed red pepper went in. Third time- it tasted right. I pulled it off the heat, cooled it off in some Tupperware, and then into the fridge for the night.

Last night, the girls arrived, and all I had to do was heat up the sauce, once I was satisfied with that, I threw in the clams and the mussels-which we had quite a time sorting through, covered and allowed them to steam. While they were working in the sauce, I sauteed shrimp in pesto for about a minute each side, added those to the sauce to finish cooking, and then cooked the scallops in the same pesto pan. Unfortunately, I did not anticipate the scallops taking as long as they did to cook, so by the time I was satisfied with their done-ness to be added to the sauce and finish cooking their, I believe I over cooked the shrimp a tad. The mussels, however, were open and had captured the lovely flavors of the sauce, as had the clams. I ladled this mixture over these beautiful fresh cheese ravioli that D had picked up at Russo's and we dug in. Both D and J stated that they loved it, and I found it pretty tasty as well. The sauce had a nice heat to it, and the scallops- lo and behold- were cooked perfectly. I'm just a little sad that my shrimp were slightly over done.

The girls then treated me to delicious desserts of strawberry shortcake and red velvet cupcakes decorated with LOTS of candles. I have to say it was a beautiful sight.

I will definitely be making this meal again- and I think that the next time I might fore go the clams, and serve a nice white fish in their place? Otherwise, I loved the chunky-ness of the sauce, and how nicely the flavors lingered on the seafood, and though I wouldn't normally pair ravioli with the seafood, it was absolutely delicious. We did remark though that the sauce had enough to it for it to be served alone as well.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Taranta, North End, Boston

This past weekend my family celebrated my up-coming birthday by taking me out to dinner at Taranta in the North End. Taranta is one of those places that I have only heard good things about and so I was really looking forward to enjoying their offerings. It is an Italian/Peruvian place, so it encompasses all of the wonderful flavors of the Mediterranean.

I realized that we were really in for a treat very early on in our meal. As soon as we had sat down, my sister noticed a bit of something, lingering on her wine glass from its previous use. She gave it a funny look, and I'm sure earmarked it as a first request for when our server arrived. Even before our server had arrived though, another helpful member of the staff had noticed the incident, and had already replaced her glass. Small touches like this, noticing discomfort or concern of a patron, is something that is invaluable in a restaurant. It shows great attention to detail, and one that you can hope is carried forth into the food.

We started with two appetizers, one their mussels prepared with Marsala wine, Italian bacon, and shallots, the second was shrimp and broccoli rabe over crostini. I felt as though the mussels were a great showcase to the Mediterranean influence of the restaurant which would make labeling it as simply Italian, fully incorrect. The Marsala wine was a delicious throw back to Sicilian cooking, which is fully different from Northern, or even Southern Italian cuisine. The sweetness of this wine was beautifully offset by the smokey bacon. Shallots were the perfect ingredient to round this out. Though they are normally grown in Asia, they are a symbol, at least to me, of French cuisine, as garlic is a symbol of peasant Italian cooking. The addition of shallots here, rounded out the enforcement that the chef was looking for influences from the surrounding cuisines. In return, the shrimp and broccoli rabe were perfect. Served with a grilled crostini that soaked up the cooking juices from the sauteing of the shrimp and rapi, it was incredibly well flavored. I have found that broccoli rabe can be difficult to cook, and its inherent bitter flavor can be overpowering, however here it was very nicely prepared, and they had been able to balance out the bitter flavor.

I decided to try something new for my main course, and having never had trout before, I elected to have their trout which was served grilled, with saffron butter, and with pallares, peruvian yellow potatoes, and wilted greens. Overall, this dish was extremely well flavored, light and yet indulgent with the richness of the saffron butter and the potatoes. The pallares, which are lima butter beans, were a delicious addition to the dish as they simply enhanced that butter flavor. Now, perhaps I should have been aware of this, but I was not anticipating the trout to be served whole, unfortunately the presence of the fish' head on my plate was a bit disconcerting to me. However, the flavor of the fish was delicious and it served to be a very tasty meal despite its presentation. I would have enjoyed there being more of the wilted greens however, as I only had a few even after I went digging for them. To be honest, I didn't even have enough of them to be able to figure out just what kind of "greens" they were.

I have to say, our service throughout the evening was top notch. From the very start with the glass replacement, to the description of the specials, to her knowledge of the menu and wine list, to her simple allowance of us to dominate her table for the entire evening, our server was fantastic. The meals were delicious, as all of my dining companions agreed, and we were each able to linger over coffee, port and sambuca to close out our meal.

I must say, Taranta was a birthday dinner to remember.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Abe & Louie's, Brunch, Boston

Sunday morning I met my mother downtown for a little shopping, and a nice brunch. After dining at Atlantic Fish Company for brunch a few months ago, we decided to try another Boylston Street eatery this time. We settled on Abe & Louie's next door to Atlantic.

This was my first time at Abe & Louie's, though its always been a not so secret desire of mine to try it. I was excited to see the inside of such a well renowned steak house. Unfortunately, on one of the hottest days of the summer thus far, the air conditioning was not working as well as one might have hoped and the air felt incredibly clammy, however not willing to have that, nor the fact that the tables were placed ridiculously close together, mar my experience I kept my hopes up for brunch to be a great meal.

To be fair, as it was extremely hot out, my appetite was not what it probably should have been, nor was I in the mood for anything very heavy. I settled on their eggs benedict served with a truffle hollandaise sauce and a latte (I can drink them at any temperature, I'm not sure why). After ordering, the waiter brought out a basket of breakfast breads including a croissant, some cinnamon scones, and a variety of mini muffins. The scones were absolutely delicious, the rest were completely forgettable. I've learned that croissants are either perfect, flaky, buttery- wonderful, or horrible and a complete waste of calories. This was a complete waste of calories.

Soon enough our entrees were served, two halves of an english muffin served with sliced pan fried ham, poached eggs and the hollandaise sauce. These were separated by what can only be described as a brownish gray mass. Honestly, Ive never seen potatoes turn gray after being cooked, you could slightly make out some distinct pieces of potato, but for the most part the mass was just a mush of potatoes, not seasoned, and utterly unappetizing. On the plus side of the meal, the ham was nice and smokey, really well seasoned, and the hollandaise sauce was light and flavorful-very delicious. Unfortunately, the eggs were over cooked with very little run left to the center, and that mass of potatoes was just too hard to get over.

I entered Abe & Louie's on Sunday morning knowing that Brunch is not something that most restaurants put much importance on. Often they use the leftovers from the week, or their "B team" is assigned to it. However, at a restaurant at the caliber of Abe & Louie's, I would have anticipated at least a palatable meal.

I would still like to return to try their steaks, however for my brunch money, Ill head to Atlantic Fish Company, or really any other place on Boylston, including Starbucks, after shopping any day.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Zocalo Cocina Mexicana, Brighton

Boston may rank as one of my favorite cities, however I have found that restaurants around here do not do "ethnic" foods very well. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, there are some stand out Italian places, a few great Indian, a couple of fantastic Thai, and some fantastic Sushi. However I have found that for truly out of this world Mexican food, Boston is just not the right city. Of course I enjoy a few places just to get my fix once in a while, Border Cafe, for one, Ole Mexican Grill as another, but neither "blow my socks off" so to speak as fantastic restaurants fully encompassing the cuisine of the land.

Saturday evening I revisited Zocalo Cocina Mexicana, a Mexican restaurant located on Comm Ave in Brighton (Allston?) that opened a couple of years ago. This was not my first visit to Zocalo, though I haven't been in quite some time. The space is open and airy, and decorated nicely in the theme of Mexico. Something about the openness of the restaurant though, or perhaps its the wall of booths, just doesn't scream "authentic" to me. Unfortunately, it sets the tone of another ho hum Mexican restaurant in Boston.

We started dinner with Elote, corn on the cob, char grilled, and then seasoned with Crema Mexicana, lime juice, queso fresca, and chile spice. Crema Mexicana is a creme fraiche type of cheese, with a semi sweet taste to it. This had been blended with the lime juice, queso fresca, which had a similar consistency to a feta cheese, and the chile. Unfortunately, I did not get too much of the chile spice when I was eating the corn, though the other flavors were really quite tasty. It was a tasty appetizer, however the portion was very small and almost left you with a feeling of - "now what?" as you finished it in record time.

I selected their Pollo al Carbon as my main course. This was a grilled chicken breast topped with orange sections, jalapeno peppers, a pickled onion salsa and cilantro. It was served with rice and black beans. I enjoyed the lightness of this dish, it felt very summery and something that I could imagine being an authentic meal, however I didn't think it was very well executed. I really enjoy spicy foods, but I enjoy being able to taste the other flavors as well. The chicken was over powered by the jalapenos so that even the sweetness of the orange sections weren't able to cut through it. Unfortunately, the pickled onions were a bit over powered as well, and they were part I was most looking forward to after having something similar in Aruba a few months ago. The rice was rather dry unfortunately, and so did not make an acceptable side dish to it. The black beans were fine, though obviously intended only to be a side dish.

We decided to share a dessert of chocolate bread pudding served with a raspberry sauce and whipped cream. The presentation of this was very nice, a ball of dark rich bread pudding served on the red raspberry sauce with three dollops of whipped cream around it. The pudding was incredibly chocolaty, and actually I found that I could have used a bit more sauce and whipped cream to balance it. However overall, I found it pretty tasty-something I would definitely order again.

Zocalo is an acceptable place for seemingly authentic Mexican food. It is by no means a fantastic restaurant, but when you're in the mood for a little south of the border grub- it will do the trick.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Black Eyed Susans, Nantucket, MA

This past weekend I had the distinct pleasure of taking part in one of the best parts of living in Boston-spending time on "the islands" specifically, Nantucket. This being only my second visit in all the time Ive lived in Massachusetts, I am still totally enraptured with this island. It is absolutely the quintessential New England "town" complete with cobblestone streets, and historical architectural preservation societies. It is one of those places that you can imagine a horse drawn buggy in place of the present day cars. They have maintained this integrity, but all the while all of the vacationers needs are met from beautiful beaches, shopping galore, gorgeous views, and, of course, amazing dining experiences.

Monday evening I had the opportunity to go to one of the well loved establishments on the island, Black Eyed Susans. Located in the heart of their down town are, this is a quaint little restaurant serving basic new American fare, at a high quality. We chose to sit at a long counter that over looked the kitchen so we could watch the chef prepare each dish as the orders came in. I have to say- I was completely enthralled by this experience. I spend FAR too much time watching the Food Network, and asking ridiculous questions in restaurants to anyone who seems to be in the know, but sitting at a counter that for all intents and purposes was in the kitchen completely blew me away. To watch a chef create dish after dish, adding a little of this and a little of that, working in conjunction with his sous chef, creating the rhythm between them- well to say it was fascinating is worlds largest understatement. I can take full responsibility for being a horrible conversationalist throughout the evening.

We started with one of their appetizer specials for the evening, fried soft shell crab in a tempura batter, dressed with a peanut sauce. The crab was fried perfectly golden brown, and the tempura batter was just light enough to allow the flavor of the crab to shine through. Ive often been disappointed in fried seafood as the batter, or method of frying, sometimes takes away the delicate flavors of the seafood. It is a hard balance to reach, and I thought that Black Eyed Susans well maintained it. The peanut sauce that was served with the crab was also well balanced. Oddly enough I had had a conversation earlier in the week with a good friend of mine who had had a bad experience making her own peanut sauce- the recipe had instructed her to use too much soy sauce making the end result incredibly salty and, unfortunately, inedible. Personally, I have had peanut sauces that have been too "peanutty", whereby I feel as though I'm eating a big tablespoon of peanut butter which is not very enjoyable, and extremely over powering. The sauce that was served with the crab was very well combined- the strong peanut flavor was cut beautifully with what I assume was soy sauce and other oils etc. It was rich and full without completely overshadowing the crab, and rather really enhanced it. I found this dish to be perfect.

As D knew the chef we were sent a second appetizer as well, asparagus, mache and mozzarella salad with an oven dried tomato vinaigrette enhanced with a lavender honey. I have to say, for the evening, this was by far my favorite dish. The asparagus was cooked and cooled so it was crisp and refreshing, the vinaigrette captured a slight tartness that was beautifully offset with the sweet lavender honey, the mozzarella was cold and creamy, and the mache provided that very subtle crunch to round out the textures of the dish. The dish captured every essence of summer for me. Hot summer days all I want is something cool and refreshing, without losing the comfort of cream. Every ingredient in this dish played into this. The asparagus and mache were light, cool, crisp and delicious, and the mozzarella and the honey played into an indulgence factor with their sweet and creamy combination. This was honestly a dish that I found to be beyond perfect, and I was extremely sad when it was finished.

As a quick aside, as I had to look into it as well, Mache, also known as "lambs lettuce", is a mild green often served with other greens and lettuces, and reminded me greatly of micro greens. It was small and delicate, almost with more stem than leaf. So there is my interpretation of what Mache is- for those confused as I was.

I had been told that Black Eyed Susans is known for their linguine with clams in a white sauce, and so I decided to go with the tried and true. It is my impression that what a restaurant is able to do with a "simple" dish, such as linguine with clams, is a great indicator for their quality. Having one of these dishes shine, and not get left in the dust for some of their "showier" entrees, indicates that there is real quality to the place, and dedication to the craft. That is, at least, my impression. On that note, if I were to use only their linguine with clams as an indicator, I would be more than excited to try the rest their menu. The flavors of the white sauce were spot on. The presence of garlic, though beautifully in the background, enhanced by parsley and generous additions of clams made it slightly rustic but delicious. During plating they had also added small piles of ground black pepper and Parmesan cheese to the side of the bowl for the consumer to add as desired. I found this touch to be a fantastic addition, often there is too much cheese, or not enough pepper. This touch was thoughtful, and made the meal a constant work in progress up to each individual. I loved it.

D had ordered their halibut special- served with tofu, spinach and bacon based demi glace. The way that the chef had described had made it sound beautiful, but honestly- the dish surpassed even those expectations. Luckily I was offered a bite. Each flavor was preserved in its own right, and I even enjoyed the tofu, though I rarely do.

We also ordered dessert, which of course I'm not going to remember the proper name for, but was basically a pot of chocolate mousse, topped with fresh whipped cream and served with three cookies on the side, a macaroon, a white chocolate chip cookie, and chocolate chocolate chip cookie. The chocolate pot was delicious- the chocolate was rich and slightly tart which to me is a sign of a great chocolate, and the it was nicely lightened by the whipped cream topping. The cookies were good as well, though I wasn't blown away by the, though at that point my expectations were probably over the top for cookies.

I have to also note, Black Eyed Susans has a BYOB policy, and so we had brought a couple of bottles of wine with us. I was rather honored to share a bottle from my friends reserve selection. The chosen was from the Silverado Vineyards of Napa, a Fantasia wine, vintage 2002, comprised of 54 percent Sangiovese 43 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 3 percent Zinfandel. The result was full bodied, ripe fruits with a delicate finish. I couldn't quite place what it was, though I believe we narrowed it down to the ripeness of the fruit, but I had a very strong feeling of Port within the wine as well, though without its characterized sweetness. By far, this is one of the best bottles of wine I have had the pleasure to enjoy.

Black Eyed Susans far surpassed my expectations. Knowing my friend who recommended it, I knew it would be good, but I did not anticipate the variety and the expertise and the thoughtfulness of the meal. E- I am working on a rating system-but you can be sure that I would offer this my highest rating.

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...