Friday, February 27, 2009

Sel De La Terre, Boylston Street, Boston

Sel De La Terre has always been known for great French inspired food at their original location near the waterfront on State Street in Boston, however over the past couple of years they are pushing their brand to new heights. In 2007 they opened a second location in Natick, MA, and just recently they opened their third in the famed Mandarin Oriental Hotel- the building that changed the face of the Prudential Tower, at least to me. A few nights ago I had the opportunity to dine at this newly opened location, and I have to say, I found the reasoning behind the glowing reviews I've heard.

The Mandarin opened last fall with two big name restaurants attached, the aforementioned Sel De La Terre, and the known pinnacle of dining in Boston, L'Espalier. At the time, I found it interesting that both were of the French persuasion, leaving the only variation to its "in house" dining to Asana, which is said to encompass both Asian and American cuisine. Through a little investigation though, Ive found that the Chef of Sel De La Terre worked under the executive chef of L'Espalier for eight years. This makes their dual occupation of restaurant space in the Mandarin a lot more understandable to me.

Sel De La Terre has a very clean look to it, straight lines, dark wood and white linens. In a way it is a classic look, though the high ceilings, open kitchen leading to what seemed to be a "less formal" dining area, and blackboard signs added a funkier vibe.

We started our meal with a trio of tastings- a chick pea and olive oil emulsion, a selection of French olives, and a goat cheese and eggplant puree topped with toasted black walnuts. These were served with a variety of sliced breads. The chick pea emulsion was ok, not out of this world, I believe that they Mediterranean spices that they said to have used in it could have been kicked up a bit. Basically it just tasted like chick peas blended with olive oil. Not bad, not good. The Olives were delicious, simple, well marinated. Very tasty. The goat cheese was delicious. The eggplant, while it didn't add any real variation to the flavor, made the cheese a bit creamier and lighter in a way. The walnuts added a really nice texture variety, though we both agreed that there could have been a few more of them. However, all in all the trio was tasty and satisfying, and really set the tone for the meal.

I chose their Tazmanian Salmon for my entree. This was served over farro, and with roasted fennel and mandarin orange slices. This was a really beautifully executed dish. Skin still on the salmon, it was served to order, and I requested mine to be medium rare. The soft silky texture of the fish, with a very robust flavor, was very well offset by the crispy skin. This was laid on a bed of farro, a wheat product that when cooked maintains a crunchy texture, and has that great nutty flavor that wheat gives off. The fennel was fork tender, and had really en captured the different flavors of its preparation, without losing its own unique anise background. The final component was the mandarin orange slices-which, when combined with the fish added this wonderful sweetness that was just fantastic. The portion size was also perfect. While I could have eaten more, I certainly didn't need to.

We also split a side dish of their spaetzle, seasoned with mustard, and topped with comte. Spaetzle is a form of egg noodle or dumpling, German in origin and often cooked in boiling water. Comte, an ingredient I had to look up, is a French cheese, with a slight nuttiness to its flavor. The dish, with these beautiful ingredients was incredible. In credibly rich, the flavors of the mustard mixed with melted shavings of Comte can only be described as decadent. I had to restrain myself from eating the entire pot of it...and now just thinking about it- I want more.

Luckily, I did practice restraint as it allowed me to order dessert. I chose the Apple Galette with cider caramel, ginger ice cream, and a piece of pepita brittle.
A Galette basically refers to any round crusty cake. At Sel De La Terre their adaption of this was a flaky crust placed over warm apple smothered in a beautiful caramel sauce. On the side of that was a small accompaniment of ginger ice cream. I cannot imagine how they were able to achieve such a pungent ginger flavor, while mellowed with the creaminess of the dessert, but it was really amazing. It tasted how ginger smells to a T. The brittle looked delicious, though I was so excited about the rest of my dessert, I neglected to even try it.

Sel De La Terre surpassed my expectations. The courses were well designed, beautifully plated, and wonderfully satisfying. Our waitress was knowledgeable and friendly- and really made our meal delightful. If I had pick out a complaint, and I'm hard pressed to believe me, it would be that they were almost too speedy in bringing the courses. It seemed that no time had passed after we had ordered that our tasting plate appeared, and, though we were able to enjoy the tasting plate, as soon as we were finished with it, our entrees arrived. Without the time to linger, it felt a bit rushed. Otherwise though, this is a place that ranks high on my list, and one that I will be returning to...soon I hope.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Feeling sick? A couple of quick ideas

Over the past couple of days I have been afflicted with the plague that has spread over Boston. Yes-I realize that "Plague" is a bit strong for a common head cold-but that is what it has felt like- I can be overly dramatic if I want. Normally when I feel myself coming down with a cold I make myself a big pot of chicken soup and nurse my way back to health the good old fashioned way. Unfortunately, this time, I was refusing to believe I was sick when I was in the grocery store, and so bought ingredients only for my week of dinner salads that I had planned. However, I have been able to get myself better with a few simple things that I had in the house.

First off, Liptons Chicken Noodle Soup. The horrible dehydrated stuff. I don't know why this stuff is so good- but it is delicious. Luckily, I had a couple of boxes in my cabinet.

Second, I bought a big chunk of fresh Ginger Root that I was planning to use for marinades etc. Luckily for me, Ginger has a lot of fantastic medicinal uses to it. Indian and Philippine cultures use it for teas etc to treat the common cold, and sore throats, and so Ive been adding it to much of my cooking for the past couple of days.

My first use was a trick that a friend of my taught me ages ago, chopped pieces of peeled ginger make a fantastic, and healing tea. So into a loose tea infuser I placed about a tablespoon of chopped ginger, and a few pieces of lemon rind as well. I added some honey to the mug, steaming hot water and some lemon juice and had a delicious tea that cleared out my sinuses quite nicely.

Later I made a few more substantial items. First I made a marinade out of more ginger, a Serrano pepper, as well as some (still) leftover champagne for a nice piece of pork that I had. After grilling in my grill pan the meat had taken on a really nice gingery flavor with a little bit of heat from the pepper. The champagne (which I'm now obsessed with cooking with) complimented both versions of spicy- the ginger and the pepper with a slight sweetness that really played in nicely. I sliced the pork over a salad of fresh veggies that I tossed with a ginger vinaigrette and I had a delicious meal!

Later, as a side dish I melted just a little pat of butter in a sautee pan and added a very healthy helping of (again) fresh ginger, and another Serrano pepper seends and all. When I could smell the very aromatic ginger and the spice of the pepper all throughout my kitchen, I then added some snow peas. A few minutes tossing them around and they picked up all of the great flavors from the pan. These were a delicious dish that I ate for a couple of days that were able to clear my head immediately.

Ginger is absolutely my go to now when Im feeling under the weather. However, it is also fantastic for treating, or helping to reduce the risk of other afflicitions as well. On going studies (ie dont quote me here) see that ginger can assist in the fight against heart disease, and in easing the pain of morning sickness and chemotheraphy. Ginger is just one of those foods that should be a part of a healthy lifestyle-in my "expert" opinion of course.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Grotto, Boston, MA

Being who I am, I of course equate any type of occasion with food- happy occasions- lets celebrate with food, sad times, well food will cheer you up. I don't pretend that this is a healthy way of looking at things, but I do accept it for what it is. That said, Friday night was "an occasion" and so I booked reservations at Grotto, a small, intimate, Italian restaurant in Beacon Hill.

I have been to Grotto once before, but for Restaurant Week a year and a half ago so I was excited to try it with out the RW hype. Grotto's set up is Prix Fixe, though everything is also available a la carte, so you have a nice option of how you choose to dine.

I started with a salad of spinach, roasted red peppers, black olives, capers and all topped with a beautiful piece of pan "toasted" mozzarella cheese. Served in a stack, dressed with a slightly acidic, though highly addictive dressing, this was a wonderful salad. The spinach was very fresh and delicious, the red peppers slightly sweet, the olives and capers added that wonderful salty flavor that brings together all other flavors, and the mozzarella was slightly gooey, and beautifully creamy and nutty all at once. This was a really nice way to start off what could be a typically heavy Italian meal. My DC started with a dish of house prepared ricotta cavatelli, sausage, peas, mushrooms, pancetta and cream. I had a small bite and found it to be delicious, though very rich. The sausage had a slight spice to it that blended nicely with the creamy pasta and cream sauce, and the peas added a small texture change that gave it a really nice feel. He decided that he could have eaten a whole plate of that for his meal he enjoyed it so much.

My main course I decided on Pork tenderloin for my main, also served in the "tower" fashion, it was paired with polenta, wilted spinach, caramelized onions and dried cranberries. Though rather salty for my taste, this had really nice contrast of flavors. The pork was cooked to medium, and very nicely flavored, the spinach maintained its own flavor which stood up really nicely to the meaty flavor of the pork and the smoky sweetness caramelized onions. The cranberries added an interesting flavor contrast with the sweet tartness, and the polenta was a nice backbone, though I believe it to be the culprit of salt overload-either the polenta or the sauce whose flavors I could not quite place. Though I enjoyed the meal very much, I was bothered throughout with the salt content. Hopefully that is just a one time error.

We reviewed the dessert menu but nothing seemed to jump out at us so we ended our meal there.

Grotto is a great little restaurant when you want an extremely intimate setting. The room is fashioned like a wine cellar, brick walls and showcases of wine bottles. Our waitress was efficient, and kind-and was ready to be engaged on the different types of wine, as well as sharing her favorites that she thought I also might enjoy for other evenings. Grotto is absolutely one of my go-to places for special occasions purely because I can depend on them for an evening of great service, and attention to detail.

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...