Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Carlo's Cucina Italiana, Allston

Years ago I was looking for a great first date spot to suggest to a man that I had recently met. I wanted something cute, unassuming, and easy. My friend immediately suggested Carlo's Cucina Italiana in Allston. While my love affair with the gentleman was short lived, my love affair with Carlo's is still going strong. In fact, it hedges for one of my favorite Italian spots in the city.

Carlo's doesn't look like much from the outside. On Brighton Ave in Allston, if you aren't boasting a diverse beer menu, or cheap beer, the general population over looks you. But Carlo's quietly stands strong, offering delicious Italian meals, complete with homemade pasta, and servers that make you feel like one of the family.

Last week I had the opportunity to return to Carlo's after about a year and a half hiatus, walking back through those doors made me feel like walking back home. We were seated and our server was the daughter of the owner, who Ive had numerous times before, and is both informative, and welcoming.

My dinner for the evening is my long time favorite- Fusilli con Salsiccia & Broccoli Rabe which is basically homemade fusilli pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe in a light garlic and oil sauce, that I swear is slightly enhanced with a broth. Parmesan cheese is liberally sprinkled over the top and the dish comes together beautifully. There is something about homemade pasta that just makes me happy- the clean taste of it, the lack of preservatives, and the softness of it, is just wonderful. I also have this idea, and I'm happy to be wrong, that it absorbs the flavors of its accompaniments better. So the delightful peppery spice of the rabe is nicely imparted along with the garlic of the sauce. Maybe that's just me though. However I can say that the portions of pasta, broccoli rabe and big chunks of sausage are perfect in the dish. I often find that some places over use sausage and the resulting dish is incredibly heavy. The use of the nice light sauce, and the slightly bitter rabe offset the heaviness of the sausage so it all comes together perfectly.

I have to say, every meal that Ive had at Carlo's has been stellar. I have had several conversations with Irene, who was our server this time as well, and the love that goes into each dish is clear. The place has been in her family's hands for decades, with her father making lasagna on Sundays as the special, some of the pastas being made by hand, and her mother making the Tiramisu. The restaurant is small, but it produces some of the best Italian food I've had, and the biggest amount of heart.

If you haven't made the trek to Allston, no not for the beer, but for this absolute gem of a whole in the wall- you should. Immediately.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

La Morra, Brookline, Restaurant Week

Restaurant week has returned to Boston once again, and we all know what that means- some of the best restaurants in the city put together a limited menu and charge just $33.08 for a three course dinner. For many reasons- you just cant beat it. The price is right, you get to go to restaurants that you may normally not be able to, and it feels like a fantastic night out! However, there are reasons that Restaurant Week is not the best- people often complain that the food is not of the highest quality, that the chefs don't bring their "A game" and that the waitstaff isn't as attentive as they might be. There is something to be said for that. If the chef is used to creating a seasonal, fresh menu, and utilizing whatever is in season that week, and having some variety in the dishes he's preparing, then to prepare the same three entrees over and over may prove to be incredibly repetitive. However, being the food freak that I am- I cant resist hitting at least one spot in honor of the week.

Sunday night I dined at La Morra in Brookline to taste their offerings. I was very impressed with their menu to start because they had expounded on the normal three options for appetizer, three for entree and three for dessert. La Morra offered a full four course meal, with 6-7 options for each. For my appetizer I chose the Arugula and Zucchini salad with shaved Parmesan. I have been a little obsessed with the peppery qualities of arugula for quite some time now, and zucchini has been a staple of my summer diet. So to have the two together, esp with the addition of Parmesan cheese- I was quite excited about it. The salad was definitely tasty. It was well dressed without being too much, and the zucchini and the arugula nicely balanced each other. The dressing was very lemony, which was a great compliment to the pepper of the arugula, though I believe it was a bit too heavily salted. The cheese however was delicious and sturdy- just as it should have been to stand up to the bold flavors of the dressing.

My second course was a Tomato Risotto. I loved that they mixed yellow and red cherry tomatoes, as well as sliced sun dried tomatoes. Together these had a really nice contrast and showed the versatility of the fruit. I'm always a fan of a chef using several different variations of the same ingredient in a single dish. However, the risotto itself was undercooked. The grains had an unsettling crunch to them and it was rather distracting to the flavor that was so lovely. Perhaps this is an example of the chef not bringing his "a game" to the restaurant week crowd, but in my estimation, if you're going to offer risotto, you should know how to cook risotto.

Third I had a hanger steak that was served with a potato gratin made with ricotta, grilled zucchini, and a salsa verde. Unfortunately, I found the entire dish flavorless. The gratin, to be honest, didn't hold a single rewarding quality. It was bland to taste, and bland to look at. A bit of parsley, or thyme, or any herb would have gone a long way with it. The steak didn't appear to have been seasoned at all, again-a little salt and pepper perhaps? It was rather dry and had nothing exciting about it. The salsa verde, which I was most excited about, was more of the same. Very little of it was served, and what was on my plate was just tasteless. I got the impression, that someone in the back had rationed out my salt intake for the evening, and used it all up in the first course. I would have been much happier had they spaced it out a bit.

For dessert, we split the tiramisu and the panna cotta with raspberry coulis. Though the presentation for the panna cotta was lacking, a big piece had been shifted out of its molded spot, the flavor and texture was delicious. Just enough vanilla bean was visible to the eye and was tasted throughout, and the raspberry coulis was perfect in addition. This was a winner of a dish. The tiramisu was also tasty. Quite a bit of rum soaked the base layer, and the fillings were nice and creamy. The heavy sprinkle of cocoa powder on top was perfect to add the chocolate factor to the dish. Dessert was delicious.

Our server was also great. He was able to speak to every dish on the menu, and provide suggestions as well as clarifications to what certain items contained. He was friendly and pleasant and made the night quite enjoyable.

However, overall, both my dining companion and I were dissatisfied with our meals. She had started with a grilled potato salad, that again- was seasoned nicely, if not too much, but she found the potatoes very tough and wondered how old they were. Unfortunately, that's not the best impression of a restaurant. I would try La Morra again in the hopes that Restaurant Week is just not the best time to go, but for now- I'm in no rush to return.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bar 12-21, Morton's, Boston

A few days ago a friend of mine and I were out for some drinks and decided to get a little food, more of a snack, to go with our beers and wine. His suggestion was Morton's bar, 12-21. It turned out to be a fantastic suggestion. The bar itself was relatively quiet, just a few people scattered around it, while the restaurant and private rooms were still jumping. We settled in, got some drinks, and perused the menu for what our evening snack would be. 12-21 has devised a really creative "bar menu" full of tasty selections for a reasonable cost. Honestly, we had difficulty choosing what we were going to have, but finally decided on the Four Petite Filet Mignon Sandwiches and the Blue Cheese French Fries. I was VERY happy with our selections.
The filet was served medium rare (as it should be) in sandwich form with a tasty mustard mayonnaise that really complimented the beef well. If there is one thing that I am- its a tried and true carnivore. I really enjoy the taste, the flavor, of beef, so I really enjoyed that the sauce wasn't at all over powering, but simply added a bit of wetness to the bread, and another dimension to the offering. I do have to note though- the portions of filet were not generous. They were thin slices of the beef, maybe two to a sandwich. Now-I wasn't anticipating a full serving at the prices that they were charging, but the meat got a little lost in the bread that that they served it on. If they were looking for suggestions, I would think maybe a smaller serving of bread- as opposed to a soft roll, maybe toast (?) or a ciabatta bread that seems a bit thinner by nature? Something that doesn't completely over power the rest of the ingredients as they are spot on, and completely delicious.
The Blue Cheese French Fries die for. The fries were crisp, perfectly crisp, and piping hot. The blue cheese crumbled over them gave that beautiful tangy flavor, and the softness of the cheese really offset the crisp fries. The part that I really loved though, was that they had sprinkled some red pepper flakes over the top as well. It was a fantastic addition- the lovely fried, starchy flavor of the potato, the tangy and creamy cheese, and then spicy hot pepper flakes- it was a perfect dish.
The setting of the bar was also very nice. Morton's in the Back Bay is underground, so I almost had that "gentleman's club" feel while there. Its quiet and elegant inside, with several private rooms for intimate dining. The bar was spacious, and to my initial happiness, the bar tender was chatty and friendly. However, I fear that my friend and I slightly abused him with some Red Sox post- trade banter. With any luck, he wont remember me though- I have to go back for some of those fries- they were out of this world!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cityside, Brighton, MA

I do love food, and some might consider me a "foodie"-though does anyone know what the real definition of that is? However there are some restaurants that make me incredibly happy, even though their food is only so so. These are the places that hold memories, that you've had great times in with friends or family, and that going back to, again and again in some cases, make you feel as though you're almost going home. I recently got to re-visit one of my favorite restaurants from when I first moved into Boston- Cityside Bar and Grille in Brighton.

The food at Cityside is not stellar. Its nothing out of the ordinary- general pub food really- but being there just brings back these wonderful memories and feelings. I enjoyed my grilled salmon salad well enough- the salmon was fully cooked-something that I relish in a place that isn't known for great seafood, and the greens were fresh. The dressing, nicely served on the side, was light, fresh and delicious. Was the meal inspired? Is it somewhere that Id tell out of towners they HAVE to go to? No. But Cityside remains one of my favorite spots.

I think that that is one of the best things about food-wonderful feelings can well up from little things. Of course there is something to be said for a beautifully prepared, perfectly cooked, well plated meal. I will never knock that, and completely appreciate it, however how often do you order a slice of apple pie and emphatically proclaim that your mom's is better? Is it really? Well maybe, but more so you're probably associating the taste with the love of being home again, in mom's kitchen enjoying the fruits of her labor. In that case-its not about what schools the chef went to, or where they were trained, but more its about those wonderful feelings that are instilled from the memories of what apple pie means to you. That is what Cityside is to me- its a place that I know, that I feel as though I had some of my first "after work cocktails" in, and became the city girl that I am in.

Cityside- your food may not be off the charts (though I challenge anyone to not enthusiastically suck down a house made MGM cocktail in record time) but you hold many wonderful memories for me, and have won a place on my list of favorites.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Individual meatloaf, tomato beer sauce, lazy mans mashed potatoes

After what turned out to be a very hectic week last week, all I wanted to do on Friday was relax at home, and unwind by cooking myself a good meal. I decided that since it wasn't ridiculously hot out, I could try making an idea I've been playing with for meatloaf over the past couple of months. Basically, I wanted to do individual servings, complete with mashed potatoes, and greens. My original idea had concentric circles- a little round of meatloaf, potatoes around that and then the final circle of greens- most likely spinach. I got a little lazy on Friday and so I amended this slightly- individual meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and then this tomato based sauce with arugula over the top. Similar- and I am pleased to say- really good.

After work, I headed to Whole Foods to pick up the meats for the meat loaf. I like to combine a variety of different meats to give a really good flavor. So I got a third of a pound of ground veal, a third of ground pork, and the same of 85% lean ground beef. I also picked up a package of pepper rubbed bacon, some tomatoes, parsley, basil, and garlic.

Back at home, I cubed up about four tomatoes, layed them out on a baking dish and covered them with lots of parsley, basil, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and then put them in the over under the broiler to roast them a little bit. I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do with these tomatoes, but I knew I wanted them somehow. I love ketchup, tomato sauce on my meatloaf. I also started my lazy mans mashed potatoes, by cubing up red potatoes, skins still on, and putting them in a pot with cold water. About half way through making the rest of my dinner I turned on this pot to get them a boiling.

To get started on my meatloaf, I chopped up some onions, baby portabello mushrooms, and zucchini. I added the onions to a saute pan with a little vegetable oil and some thyme and let them cook over medium/low heat until they turned translucent. I then added the mushrooms and zucchini til the were cooked through. While they were hanging out, I combined the three types of meat in a bowl, added parsley, garlic, basil and one egg. I mixed these together, and then started adding bread crumbs til the mixture dried out a bit. Once the veggies had cooled a bit, I added them in, and then countered the additional moisture with just a little more breadcrumbs, and of course a little salt and pepper. Then i divided the mixture into five ramekins, topped each with two pieces of the peppered bacon and put into a 400 degree oven. They baked for about a half hour before they were ready to come out.

Meanwhile, I opened a bottle of Sam Adams Brown Ale, and added it to the saute pan I had cooked the veggies in, with just a teaspoon of butter as well. I allowed this to simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes or so, until I saw the liquid reducing, and the smell had concentrated quite a bit. Then I added my roasted tomatoes to the beer, and made a sauce from that, and some arugula that I added in last minute. The smell of this was amazing. It had a great herby tomato smell, and enhanced just sightly by the caramel of the Brown Ale.

The final step was just to mash up the potatoes with a little butter and cream, and dinner was ready. I laid out a little bed of potatoes, removed the meatloaf from its ramekin, and placed that on top. Then I spooned just a bit of the sauce on top of the meatloaf.

I have to admit-I used a bit too much salt- but otherwise I am really pleased with this meal. The mushrooms and zucchini added a nice texture and flavor to the meat, and sauce was delicious. This was my first experience with making a sauce from beer, and I really liked it. Ill definitely use it more often, I'm already starting to think of what else I can use with it...

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...