Thursday, March 29, 2012

Nick's on Broadway, Providence, Rhode Island

The highlight of our dining tour of Providence this past weekend was, without a doubt, our Sunday morning brunch.  We sat in our hotel room on Sunday morning and poured through Chowhound and Yelp seeking out where to go for brunch before heading over to Johnson and Wales University to check out the Culinary Museum.  Almost unanimously the internet rewarded us with Nick's on Broadway as the stop for brunch in Providence.  We are not one's to argue with the internet, so we headed to Nick's. 

We were greeted with a line out the door, as apparently the rest of Providence also knows how to use the internet :-).  When I spoke to the hostess to give our name for a table, she asked if the bar was ok if seats were available sooner. The only bar I saw was the literal bar where drinks were made, but I agreed as my stomach was clamoring for food.  As we stood, waiting, we saw the other bar.  A line of stools sat perched next to a dining counter that looked the open kitchen.  Sitting at those spots would have been a perfect view of the food being prepared, the chef interactions, and general food geek inducing amazement.  We, through divine intervention I can only assume, were awarded three seats at this coveted bar. 

We pulled up our seats, ordered coffee and juice, and though we tried to concentrate on the menus, the show happening in front of us was tough to pull ourselves away from.  Every dish was finely crafted, eggs cooked with finesse, perfect circular pancakes flipped and plated with just the slightest of hand.  To every plate, chef owner Derek Wagner added the finishing touches- a leaf of parsley here, a sprinkle of mint there, a shower of Parmesan cheese on another plate.  The chefs and cooks moved and worked together in harmony- like a finely crafted orchestra each one performing their assigned task, and not missing a beat no matter what was thrown at them.  Even better than watching their incredible precision, was watching their camaraderie.  Sitting at those seats was a window into a different world, a world I am truly fascinated by.

That aside, there was the food.  Most likely based on our extreme staring for over an hour, Chef sent over some breakfast parfaits to get us started.  Homemade cinnamon granola was paired with tangy yogurt, fresh cut up melon and berries, a drizzle of honey and a few torn leaves of mint.  Simple as this parfait was, it combined a delicious mix of textures and flavors, ranging from the warming comfort of cinnamon, to the bright flavors of fresh fruit and refreshing mint. 

After a long debate, and much back and forth, I settled on Parmesan and herb polenta topped with spinach and two eggs as my breakfast.  I was served a gorgeous plate of two squares of firm polenta, liberally topped with fresh baby spinach, two poached eggs and then topped with a healthy dose of grated Parmesan cheese and enhanced with herb and chili oils.  The polenta was well flavored, every bite containing a burst of a variety of herbs.  The spinach added a nice fresh component, and when my poached eggs were burst the runny yolk made everything just a bit more luxurious. 

I love the combinations of this breakfast, and as I sat with my friends, this food was the only thing that captivated us as much as watching the chefs in the kitchen during our visit to Nick's on Broadway.  Nick's is definitely a key spot for brunch in Providence, and with their commitment to using local fresh ingredients, I am certain that every meal Chef Derek Wagner and his team produces is fantastic.  Nick's alone is worth the trip from Boston to Providence.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Julian's, Providence, Rhode Island

As I mentioned, we didn't have a lot of plan when we arrived in Providence for the weekend, so as we explored, and our hunger grew over the afternoon, we used our social media outlets to find our next food stop.  Overwhelmingly, we were told to check out Julian's, a uniquely American style restaurant in the Federal Hill area of the city.  We checked out the menu on line and were thrilled to see some interesting creations.  We began our journey to Julian's almost immediately.

We chose to split a few of their appetizers among us as opposed to having big meals, and settled on their Roasted Winter Squash Savory Donuts with chile-cashew butter,whiskey smoked sugar, & fennel seed créme fraiche, their Caralemized Parsnip and Mushroom dip served with house tortilla chips, their Shiitake- Leek Chow Mein, and their steamed broccoli.  Our little feast was served promptly and we dug in.

I was most excited about the idea of a savory donut so I immediately went for those.  Unfortunately my first taste at Julian's was a bit of a disappointment.  The donuts didn't have any discernable flavor to them, and the roll in sugar made them basically identical to the sweet breakfast treats.  The little donut holes were tasty, but didn't contain the punch of squash, chili, chashews or whiskey- sadly.  The creme fraiche was a tasty addition, but again, lacked the punch of fennel seed.  I had most been looking forward to these treats, and was rather disappointed by the result.

The Caramelized Parsnip and Mushroom dip however was delicious.  The parsnips were every so slightly sweetened, and the earthy mushrooms perfectly balanced the that sweetness to ground this dip as a savory snack.  It had been topped with a kale based pesto, whose garlicky bite was a great addition.  Paired with salty tortilla chips- this was a great dish.

The shiitake- leek chow mein was a really fun recreation of that famous Chinese take out food.  The mushrooms were fresh and meaty, and the leeks lent their subtle onion flavor to the noodles.  I felt that there was a bit too much salt to the dish, but the others felt it was appropriate. 

We ordered the broccoli as an after thought, realizing that our order was severely lacking in nutritional value, but somehow those gently steamed spears of broccoli ended up stealing the show.  The broccoli was nice and fresh, it was cooked to just the right al dente spot, and I believe tossed ever so lightly in a little butter.  It was a wonderful addition to our table, and we ended up fighting over the last pieces -our former childhood selves (haters of the green veggie) shaking their heads in disbelief. 

Overall, I loved the vibe of Julian's.  At first site, it looked like a rough and tumble burger joint.  However the menu was vast in it's creative options, each dish with a unique twist and turn.  There were the missteps along the way, however I could definitely see why Julian's receives so many recommendations -it is a truly cool spot with a really unique food concept.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Rocket Fine Street Food, Food Truck, Providence, Rhode Island

Ladies weekends away...a time when girlfriends come together to catch up, explore a new place, and chat abut whatever pleases and ails them.  At the last minute Jen and Aimee and I found that our schedules changed and manuevered and somehow we all ended up with some time to spend together this past weekend.  As we're all just a tiny bit food obsessed (Im sorry- is that news?  I'm sure I just let the cat out of the bag on that one ;-) ) we decided to head down to Providence, RI both to explore and to check out the culinary museum at Johson and Wales University. 

Now as I've said before, when I head out of Boston I am usually armed with a long list of restaurants that I want to try.  This time however, time was tight and I travelled down to Rhode Island with my pals with no itinerary.  Jen had been told of a food truck that sounded fantastic- the Rocket Fine Street Food.

Known for their burgers made with 100% Nieman Ranch pure Angus beef, we made a beeline for their truck when we made it to town.  I as tempted as I was by a soothing cup of tomato soup and a grilled cheese that was proudly displayed on their menu, I knew I'd regret ordering anything but a burger.  I finally settled on the Red Planet- a single flat patty, topped with red leaf lettuce and a homemade organic tomato jam- this burger was then sandwiched into a roll from Providence local bakery- Taunton Avenue.  The roll had been lightly toasted lending just a slight, satisfying crunch to each bite. Otherwise pillowy, this bun gave way to the meaty burger, pure beef flavor, and only lightly seasoned allowing the natural flavor to be enhanced and not overwhelmed.  The tomato jam teetered the line between tangy and sweet, and with it's lovely natural acidity the condiment perked up the burger flavor.  I found every bite to have good texture contrast and wonderful flavor.

The Rocket Food Truck definitely kicked off our trip to Providence on the right foot.  They can be found at various locations all over the city- you can track their location on line on Twitter and on their website

Friday, March 23, 2012

Wicked Good Cupcakes

I don't even remember where I first heard about Wicked Good Cupcakes- it might have been on, or...somewhere.  The point is when I heard about this mother daughter team of cupcake creators, well my heart went out to them.   They began by just taking a cake decorating class together, just as a way to bond. Proud of their work, they posted some photos on line for friends and family to look at, the surprise came when the anticipated support became requests and orders for their creations.    Today they own and operate Wicked Good Cupcakes together- a business where they daily bake their cup cakes using only real, fresh ingredients- no mixes allowed.

Last week I was contacted by their PR and asked if I'd like to try out one of their more creative initiatives- cupcakes in a jar.  Recalling the story- I immediately agreed.  So, after spending all of last week working in California, including many plane transfers and delays, I was thrilled to receive three little mason jars stuffed full of cake and frosting.   Really- does anything sound any better?

I'll be honest- I was a little worried about shipped cupcakes.  I was concerned they'd be stale- dried out from their travels.  However as I cracked open the first vacuum sealed jar (Cuckoo for Coconut) I found how very wrong I was.  The cake was as moist as it had been if it had been baked that day.  Coconut butter cream frosting encapsulated the lovely vanilla cake- making for the perfect balance of coconut and just delicious cake. 

Having no will power at all, I ripped into the remaining jars- a Marble Mutt and a Cookies N Creme.  The Marble Mutt, a blend of dark chocolate and vanilla cupcakes and dark chocolate an vanilla butter cream icings, contained the same moist cake, and the icings did compliment each other well.  It was a solid offering, however after the coconut, I felt a little let down.  The Cookies N Creme however brought me right back.  Vanilla cupcakes layered with Oreo crumbles and topped with Vanilla Cream Cheese Butter cream frosting -this was a delicious cupcake.  The Oreos, somehow, had maintained their crunch adding a perfect amount of texture variate to the cake, and the frosting brought it all home.

I was truly thrilled to try out Wicked Good Cupcakes- not just Becca's a delivery of cupcakes is pretty awesome- but because of the great work this mother daughter team is doing.  I was even more thrilled that their cakes are fresh and delicious.  These are the perfect treat for anyone who deserves a little cake in their life- no matter how far away from you they might be.

Wicked Good Cupcakes can be found at:

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sweet Cheeks BBQ, Fenway, Boston

Her name was whispered in culinary circles for months before Sweet Cheeks opened its doors. Highly acclaimed, formidable competitor on Bravo's Top Chef, Tiffani Faison was opening a restaurant- in Boston. But this wouldn't be your typical celebrity chef space. No updated American comfort food here, no elegant gastropub or classic Italian or French fare here. No, Chef Faison was taking a risk, she was breaking the barriers- she was bringing real, southern style BBQ to Boston, the land of atrocious BBQ spots. She was going to bunk our reputation and fill the air of Fenway with smoke creating a spot to sink your teeth into classic BBQ and all that goes along with that.

I'll spare you the suspense. Chef Faison is nailing it. Boston's BBQ Top Chef award (should we have one) goes to her- in a heart beat.

That isn't to say that there are a few missteps. If you don't feel like having awkward conversation with your too close neighbors, the community dining tables may turn you off. Some of the sides miss the mark, but let's face it- if you're hankering for BBQ, you're hankering for smoked meat- and that's where Sweet Cheeks shines.

The entrees are served as "trays", of varying sizes (meaning basically one type of meat or two), a scoop of a hot side, one of a cold side, classic white bread, and, delightfully, a lovely array of homemade pickles and raw white onions. It was a difficult choice but I settled on the pulled pork tray, choosing the Broccoli Cheese Casserole and the Farm Salad for my sides. The Broccoli Casserole was nothing to write home about, rather lackluster, I had a fork of it and then pushed it aside. It was wasted calories in the face of the mountain of meat that sat in front of me. The Salad was crisp and refreshing however, with a simple vinaigrette dressing lightly coating the greens, Brussels Sprouts, red grapes and sunflower seeds. It was full of flavor and it's slight acidity actually paired really nicely with the meat. The meat...the meat was truly fantastic. Deep smoke rings, crispy ends, unbelievably tender morsels...I was rendered a bit speechless. The flavor was exactly what I've had in southern locals, robust smoke accentuating the pure pork natural flavors. Sweet Cheeks offers three house made sauces to sample with your trays: a BBQ, a North Carolina Vinegar based, and a Thai Chilli sauce. I am not actually a BBQ sauce fan. Normally I find it cloyingly sweet, a result of far too much molasses added. Sweet Cheeks however created a blend of acidic tomato, just a hint caramel sweetness, and a wonderful does of smoke resulting in a powerful punch of flavor that complimented the meat without overpowering it. The North Carolina style sauce brought me right back to my experiences in mountains of North Carolina, where BBQ is found on the road sides, and the idea of a family gathering without pork n' pickles is outrageous. The punch of vinegar was strong, and only further charged up with a blast of chili flakes making a well balanced flavor palate. Pairing this sauce with the rich meat broke through its natural fattiness and clarified the flavors. Finally I reached for the Thai Chili sauce- fully anticipating a typical, weak, watered down version of Thai heat. Not so at Sweet Cheeks. I poured a healthy dose on my fork full of pork and soon found that when Chef Faison says her stuff is spicy- she isn't holding back. My mouth immediately caught on fire, the sauce had good mix of both front of the mouth and back of the throat heat creating a very full experience. For the heat lovers out there -this stuff is great- addictive and delicious.

It must be said, if you're looking to truly experience a southern meal, and Chef Faison's genius -don't skip the bucket of biscuits. Four huge biscuits arrive in a tin can to the table, and are served with a small mason jar full of freshly made honey butter. The biscuits are the biscuits you dream about- warm, a crisp external crust, all giving way to a flakey, impossibly buttery interior. These are what biscuits SHOULD taste like, but too often resemble hockey pucks instead.

Boston has been challenged to find good BBQ for as long as I can remember. We have failed in this task time and again, often not smoking meat long enough resulting in flavorless meat, or overcooking it all until a tough piece of jerky is all that remains. Sweet Cheeks BBQ is delivering on tender meats, well flavored, and completely addictive. Any downsides of the restaurant, including those strange questions that random person sitting next to you might ask, melt away with the first bite of the meat and bliss sets in. Oh, and look into that open kitchen with the busy staff- that lovely red headed chef is none other than the celebrity herself- attentive and visible throughout the restaurant.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mamma Maria, North End, Boston

When one thinks of the North End, one may automatically think of tourists, double parked streets and chaos. Unfortunately this thought isn't entirely inaccurate, especially in regard to Hanover Street, and especially in the summer months. However, a quick turn off of Hanover and all the hustle and bustle and you can find yourself enjoying the calm serenity of North Square. There, in a renovated brownstone, sits Mamma Maria, a locally sourced Italian restaurant with a daily changing menu and a flair for detail.

Entering the structure feels like entering a home, the original layout preserved, with every crevice of the elegant manor used for premium dining space. We were led upstairs to a beautiful dining room with commanding views of downtown Boston. Gracious staff welcomed us, set us up with water and then disappeared as we set through the menu.

I'm sure it comes as no surprise, I had perused the menu for Mamma Maria at least a dozen times prior to the evening, and though knowing that what I was viewing on line was merely a sample as changes and additions are brought in each day, I had settled on their Rabbit Pasta. As I looked through the actual menu that evening I was thrilled to see the dish was still available. I went through a quick debate between that and a Suckling Pig dish, but, with assistance from our server, stuck with my gut and chose the rabbit.

I started with an arugula salad, paired with a creamy vinaigrette, crisp bacon and mandarine orange sections. the pairing of these ingredients was really a delight. The peppery arugula was offset by the creamy dressing, rounding out the flavors so that neither over came the other. I thought that the pairing of the orange with the bacon though was a stroke of genius. I always feel so healthy eating oranges, their plump juiciness, with their natural sweetness, they just always provide such refreshment. A bite of the orange mixed with the ever appealing yet indulgent crisp bacon was perfection. I loved the two together.

Now, I know what you're thinking, how could I eat rabbit. I understand the disgust- to be frank I cannot think about what I'm eating when I eat rabbit lest I will break down in tears. I made a pledge to myself a couples years ago that I would learn to love every food possible (aside from hard boiled eggs in any capacity (blech)) and so I have been trying all sorts of foods I never would have tried previously. Rabbit was on that list. I can say this much, if you can get past the image of Peter Cottontail, this protein is delicious.

Mamma Maria created a perfect dish for it as well. Wide noodles matched with the gamey meat, coated in a light tomato sauce- every flavor worked together. The carb-tastic noodles were the perfect back drop to the simple sauce, which played down to the tender and well cooked meat. It was clear that the rabbit was the star of this show, and its tender, full flavored qualities ensured that this decision was not in vain. It was delicious.
Mamma Maria truly impressed me. A spot that I have passed a hundred times provides a beautiful, elegant space to enjoy a meal, and a quiet conversation, or a family gathering. The service is spot on, welcoming, joking when needed, and extremely knowledgeable. Their daily changing menu, with references to the farms that they are able to pull ingredients, screams fresh preparations, and a true dedication to their craft. Mamma Maria is on my short list of fantastic North End restaurants....scratch that -Mama Maria quickly moved to the the short list of favorite Boston restaurants.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Greek Inspired Turkey Meatballs with Eggplant Yogurt Sauce

I have been on a turkey meatball kick lately.  They are just so versatile that you can combine any number of spices and herbs and come up with a different flavor profile every time.  Being that they are made from that ever so lean turkey, and I bake mine to ensure that no pesky oils or unwanted fats infiltrate them, they end up being a really healthy dinner option!

This week I had a craving for olives and Feta cheese.  I don't know where these things start, but I decided to go for it.  The Greek Inspired Turkey Meatball was born.

Of course a turkey meatball on its own isn't super fun, so I envision a rich and creamy sauce to go along with it.  I wanted something that would be full of flavor, compliment the meatballs, add some excitement but not kill the healthy style of the turkey.  The result?  Eggplant Yogurt sauce.

1 lb ground lean turkey meat
1/2 yellow bell pepper, diced
1/4 cup diced red onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Zest of one lemon
1 tsp chili pepper flakes
1 tbsp chopped oregano (dried is fine)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup fat free Feta Cheese crumbles
1/2 to 3/4 cup breadcrumbs
1 egg
Salt and pepper

In a large bowl combine the above ingredients until will mixed.  Get your hands in there and really work the ingredients together-the result should be visible-an even distribution of the ingredients, not too wet but not too dry either.

Shape the meat into balls- no more than 2 inches in diameter, place on a baking sheet and bake at 400 for about 30 minutes, or until completely cooked through.

1 medium eggplant, pealed and chopped into 1 inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp chili pepper flakes
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp oregano
Salt & pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup fat free Greek yogurt, plain
2 tbsp honey

Toss the eggplant with garlic, chili pepper, oregano, cumin, salt, pepper and half of the oil.  Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast at 400 for 20 minutes or until the eggplant is soft and cooked through. When done remove from oven and cool.
Transfer the eggplant to a food processor add the yogurt and honey and turn on the processor to begin blending.  Slowly add in the rest of the oil.  The consistency should be thick, but still loose.

Serve the meatballs over a bed of fresh spinach and Kalamata olives and drizzle with the sauce.

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...