Thursday, December 27, 2012

GEM, Downtown Crossing, Boston

Years ago I remember sidling up to the bar at Kennedys in Downtown Crossing and feeling as though I was looking back in time.  The space was old, the clientele was likewise, and though it held a certain "old time" appeal, it was aged and appeared to be on its way out in the face of the rejeuvenation of the area.  Therefore, when I walked past earlier this year and saw a bright, shiney new sign exclaiming the space to now be known as GEM, I was excited to see what had been done with the space.  I was invited in last week to check out their menu and the space. 

GEM has been designed in the style of the European Supper Club, unique to Boston's dining scene, it is a spot spend an entire evening, a fantastic dinner and then linger for the remainder of the evening, enjoying libations and the company around.  Somehow this is a style of evening that hasnt taken hold in Boston previously, and I was excited to check it out.

The restaurant and lounge space of GEM resides on the second floor of their building, and upon reach the top of the stairs it became immediately apparent the overhaul that had been completed within the walls to redefine it.  Gone were the tattered stools and the aged wooden bar.  Gone were the creaky bar tables and dingy surroundings.  In their place was a beautiful marble bar installed bedecked with comfortable bar chairs, luxurious red booths, and intimate spots for reposing. 

We were shown to our table and began to peruse the menu, a dizzying array of dishes ranging from hearty comfort foods to more adventurous offerings.  We consulted with our waitress and she helpfully led our choices- starting our meal off with their Hamachi and Tuna Tartare.  Thick pieces of fresh fish were tossed in a light mayonnaise based dressing, mixed with fresh, refreshing cucumber, piled on to an onion soy sauce and topped with fried onions, and green onions.  To begin, the underlying sauce was delicious-  soy sauce, cut with what I assume was rice wine vinegar, and enhanced with sweet onion made for a perfectly savory, not overly salty back drop for the raw fish.  The fish itself was incredibly fresh and both held their flavor well in the face of other strong ingredients.  I was apprehensive of the mayo dressing, but ended up enjoying the creamy contrast to the umami flavor of the other sauce and the pungency of the onions.  The Hamachi and Tuna was served with crisp wontons which served as a wonderful utensil to enjoy the other flavors with.

We also decided to try out the homemade tatertots.  Crispy fried orbs of creamy mashed potatoes topped with fresh green onion and served with Russian Dressing and Siracha sauce for dipping.  These definitel strayed from the traditional tater tot in their texture- mashed over shredded, but they were punched up with additional flavor from nutty Gryuere cheese mixed in.  As a small bite- these definitely satisfied the craving for something decadent on a cold night.

Chef Brendan then sent out a dish that had been previously on the menu during the summer months, its refreshing qualities were more than welcome.  A beautifully seasoned watermelon and basil gazpacho pooled in a bowl with a small brick of fresh watermelon set in the middle, topped with blackened seared tuna, a section of an orange, a slice of pear and hint of sweet apple compote.  The spice from the tuna, mixed with the sweet fruit and refreshing soup was a lovely combination and made clear why this was one of the chefs favorite dishes to serve.  Each flavor layed delicately together, none overcoming the others but rather benefitting each.  

We turned out attention to entrees next, and while I had been pleased with all previous dishes, I was thrilled with the entrees.  My dining companion for the evening selected their special for the night- skirt steak layered over mushroom risotto and topped with an Italian herb style Chimmichuri sauce.  I chose their Brined Pork Chop, served with a ham hock and white bean ragout, topped with a cranberry agrodulce and rutabaga.   The pork was perfectly cooked, moist, and full of flavor.  It wasn't overly seasoned and its own natural flavors show through.  The contrast that I loved here was the smokey flavor of the hamhock and bean ragout showcased next to it- presenting the different sides of pig.  The cranberry agrodolce, which in its basest form is a sweet sauce, played the sweet tart card well, and paired very nicely with the earthy beans.  Every component of this dish was well thought out and well prepared.  I won't lie to you- if I hadnt been in public- I would have gnawed on the remaining bone of the pork chop- I was sad to see that dish end!

The skirt steak was equally delicious, yet playing on a completely different palatte.  The steak was perfectly cooked, making a normally tough cut tender and full of flavor.  The risotto was creamy and dotted with well prepared mushrooms adding their own earthy qualities.  The chimichurri sauce here stood out- twisting a normally Latin American tradition into an Italian pairing with the risotto- it was bright and well seasoned tieing the dish together. 

Somehow we managed to find room for dessert- and the lemongrass creme brulee appeared on the table with spoons ready to go.  It may just be me, but I often find creme brulee to be a bit played out, and can often run on boring.  I really enjoyed the full lemon flavor of the lemongrass, it was clean and fun, and after a big, heavy meal it felt light and finshed it nicely.  The sugar crust was a great ratio to the lick custard beneath, and all together it was a very satisfying dessert.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when we walked into GEM.  The sexy- chic environment screamed night club to me, and I haven't seen many of those with a good menu to boot.  Every dish we were served was creative and well paired with ingredients that played off of each other well.  As we surveyed the other diners there were a host of other dishes that we knew looked delicious as well and the remarks from all were positive.  Though we may not have many other Supper Clubs around this area, this is a spot that is definitely worth checking out. They are using fresh produce, good quality proteins and producing truly delicious meals. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Fresh City, Various Locations, Boston

Wow I seriously lucked out- a ho hum Friday was elevated into the stratospheres with a little lunch time delivery which satisfied every craving in a fresh and delicious way.  Fresh City specializes in food prepared quickly- but lets not confuse them with a "fast food" spot.  Their offerings are prepared with local, fresh, healthy ingredients all combined into creative sandwiches, soups, salads, smoothies and more offered from Breakfast right through lunch.   

They surprised me with a smorgasbord of their lunch offerings- starting with their Napa Valley Turkey sandwich, their Powerhouse Salad, a serving of their Butternut Squash and Apple soup, their own Sweet Pita Chips and a delicious Berry Blast smoothie. 

I immediately tore into the sandwich and the smoothie,  The Napa Valley Turkey sandwich was a fresh baked crusty roll stuffed high with naturally raised roasted turkey breast, fresh avocado, smoked crispy bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and topped with a lemon chive aioli.  The crunchy roll gave way perfectly to well seasoned, moist turkey breast surrounded by the smokey bacon, and creamy avocado.  I love the aioli with this- it added a nice tangy punch of flavor that highlighted the other other flavors.  This was a stacked high, satisfying sandwich big enough where I split it into two meals!

Next up was the Powerhouse Salad, a huge helping of fresh veggies and assorted toppings that made for a filling lunch.  Combining hearty spinach with romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, edamame, carrots, cranberries, grapes, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, toasted almonds and a smatter of grated cheddar cheese- this salad was full of all sorts of incredible vitamins, flavors and great textural changes.  I mowed this down for dinner the night I received it and felt like it was a great size.

Next up the butternut squash soup with apple was rich and creamy, full of spices and offset with the sweetness of full chunks of apple.  I loved this variation, taking a normally monotonous soup texturally speaking and adding sweet chunks of apple.  It was a hearty, satisfying lunch served with a crackly sourdough roll it made for a perfect lunch.

Along with the rest of the lunch they sent a long a Berry Best smoothie- a refreshing blend of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apple juice and raspberry sherbet blended into a frozen drink.  It was nicely sweet and tart, making it a little addictive and easy to finish long before it melted. 

The final addition to the meal, providing an incredibly sweet end were their cinnamon sugar pita chips.  Crispy, sweet and full of rich cinnamon flavor these were a lovely end to several meals.

I have seen the signs for Fresh City around the city and surrounding areas but for some reason haven't ever stopped in before.  I was incredibly excited to find their foods to be fresh, locally sourced, and their dishes creative with exciting flavors and well seasoned to boot.  Fresh City is definitely now on my list of places to head to for a hearty, healthy lunch.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Oak Long Bar, Fairmont Copley Hotel, Boston

Years ago the Oak Bar, located in the Fairmont Copley, was my favorite spot to go for a special occasion cocktail. The ornate, shadowed and deeply masculine feel of the room leant itself to quiet conversation shared over a double pour martini, or a velvety rich pour of Bourdeaux. It was a place to linger, it was a place to speak in hushed tones as the veteran staff attended to every need. The Oak Bar was a place to savor as with a piece of flourless chocolate cake- sparingly. When I got wind that the room, and its accompanying restaurant - The Oak Room, were closing for renovations in honor of the centennial celebration of the hotel, I was devastated. Fearing the worst, I pictured an overhaul to the rooms, losing the mystery, the history of what had been there.

I feared the worst, and as I tend to do, I didn't even want to see the new space. However, I ran into a lady who can easily be known as a treasure of Boston herself, and she began to reveal more and more about the history of the building as it had been, and the reverence that the renovations had paid to that. Stories of a tile mosaic floor unearthed won me over, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to stay away from the new look for long. I have made several visits since then, and each time I have fallen deeper in love. The front halls of the hotel, leading to the front desk, had their linoleum floors removed to reveal a tile mosaic laid at least a century ago. The restoration paid that artistry homage, allowing the tiles missing from their places to be respected, not replacing them with the new and shiny. The Oak Bar and Room have been joined into one room, with a massive bar (83 feet long) the longest in Boston, spanning between them, bedecked with high backed leather bar stools perfect for lingering. Cozy fireplaces have been installed, and where heavy, dark drapes once blocked the light, the room now has an airy feel with rich curtains now welcoming a new era. Remnants of the old room remain, the chandeliers remain, and, if you look closely, the long abandoned track of the carousel that once turned in that room has been polished up and left intact. This is now a room that brings a crowd every night of the week, and whose new look is bright, and beautiful, but remains the historical masterpiece it was built as.

I had the extreme honor of being invited to the Oak Long Bar for dinner one evening and was treated to a sampling of their new menu. I am extremely happy to attest that the food is as wonderful as the restoration, offering something for everyone.

We began our food adventures with the LBK Charcuterie Board. This is a board like no other- served with flourish as every pice is revered as a crucial ingredient. Ours included speck, sopressata, coppa, porchetta and prosciutto amiercano, with a mix of cheeses including local Berkshire Blue, Landaff, and Cabot's Clothbound Cheddar. Accompaniments included a cranberry apricot relish, a mustard spiked with maple syrup, house cured pickles and olives. A charcuterie board like no other. The cured meats were salty and tender, melting as they hit your tongue- exactly the way you want them. The cheese, a perfect sampling of the beauty of New England cheeses complimented those decadent meats with a tangy relief. Portions were nicely measured out- and our table of six couldnt finish the massive offering.

Our next course featured a selection of their wood fired flatbreads: their Backyard Farms Tomato Flatbread, their Pulled Pork Flatbread and their Organic Mushroom Flatbread. You all know my love of Backyard Farms Tomatoes- locally grown in northern Maine, these tomatoes are cared for with love and attention all year long and the farm renders August style tomatoes throughout the year- hence you know that a flatbread in October featuring their tomatoes is going to be special. How about if we add to that flatbread Maplebrook Burrata cheese (another local contender) and allow its creamy center to mingle with those beautiful tomatoes and sweet basil in a way that traditional mozzarella is just not able to do? A masterpiece is created.

Not to be outdone, the pulled pork flatbread entered the race with its own secret weapons. The tender pulled pork, full of smoky flavor had been paired with smoked cheddar cheese to carry through that theme and then topped with pickled grapes adding a contrasting pop of tang. The result was unusual and addictive.

The winner, as though it was easy to choose, was the organic mushroom flatbread which, quite simply, blew the others out of the water. The crisp crust had been topped with tender mushrooms, an earthy truffled vinaigrette (a perfect compliment to mushrooms in my book), spicy arugula and, finally, an Heirloom egg, cooked to perfection so that the sunny yellow yolk spilled over into the rest of the flatbread and mingled with the other components creating a perfect combination of decadence and earthy heartiness.

Next out to our table though was a crispy yet tender piece of braised pork belly. The meat crackled in its pan, the tender meat permeated from its now crispy roof of flavorful fat. This decadent piece was topped with just a bit of spicy and sweet candied ginger, and another pickled grape lending their own sharp flavored tastes in stark contrast to the unbelievable richness of the dish. While more than a bite or two of this is all that I was able to "muster"- Ill gladly admit that in privacy I may have housed it.

We were next treated to their Prosciutto Sandwich which combined Blythedale Farms brie, local apples, more of that spicy arugula, and fig jam with the salty cured meat, and was served with a kale slaw on the side. The sandwich hit every flavor sensation between the bitty and spicy greens, the creamy cheese, the salty meat and the sweet fruits. The toasted bread added a satisfying crunch to every bite and resulted in a feeling of complete comfort. As much as I enjoyed the sandwich, here it was the crisp, hearty and refreshing kale slaw that I loved most of all. The slaw was delicate, yet had an incredibly hearty vibe to it- and allowed me to feel as though I was getting some crucial nutrients in as well.

We turned our attention next to dishes more pulled from the entree section of the menu, starting off with their Lamb Osso Bucco. Large chunks of slow cooked, tender lamb stewed into a rich, velvety sauce, were served over a mushroom farro and then topped with a pistachio gremolata. This dish hit all of my high points- well cooked protein, with an unique accompaniment, and textural contrasts. The Osso Bucco appeared to be an ossobucco in bianco, which includes flavors of cinnamon and bay leaf as opposed to tomato in its braising liquid and here that concentrated liquid clung to the meat and to every grain of the nutty farrow creating beautiful continuous flavor profile with subtle variations. Here the parsley and pistachio gremolata added a beautiful freshness contrasting the rich sauce and the crunch of the nuts complimented the tender qualities of the rest of the dish. Huddled into this cozy space, I couldn't help but picture enjoying this meal on a dark and snowy night.

Next up was a classic, the New England Clam Bake incorporating Georges Bank Cod with littleneck clams, chorizo, and root vegetables all in a light broth. I am one of those weird New England fanatics who thinks that this is a crucial item to a menu here in Boston. Its such a celebration of what our area is known for, and the cultures that come together here that I am thrilled when one is done perfectly. Oak Long Bar concentrates on the simplicity of the dish, not adding in superfluous ingredients but keeping it pure. In this lack of pomp and circumstance is where the real dish lies- a clean meal that has been made for centuries by the rugged fishermen of New England.

Our final savory dish of the night was truly a dish not to be missed. A "Bone Out" 16 oz Rib Eye served with roquefort butter, a cabernet jus, crispy onions and the bone itself contained grilled marrow for creating an even more decadent offering. The steak itself was perfection- cooked to a beautiful medium rare, not over seasoned to allow the full flavor of the beef to emerge -it was a worthy steak contender for our city. The accompaniments just pushed it over the top in every way. The tang from the roquefort paired with rich butter, the subtle sweetness of the cabernet reduction and the crisp onions all created a dance of flavors.

Dessert was served at once for us and brought with it enough temptations that somehow our very full bellies found the room to fit in a "few more bites". A flourless chocolate cake topped with a dried fruit and nut relish and served with a cranberry and clove coulis, a Creme Fraiche Cheesecake enhanced with a cranberry and dried cherry compote, and finally an Apple Croissant Pudding with caramelized apples and raisins and topped with traditional vanilla ice cream rounded out our selection. My dining companions and I long debated the best of this triplet. The cake was dense and rich, exactly how you want a flourless cake to be, but paired with the sweet tart and citrusy relish it fit in perfectly to the season and walked away from its "typical" role. The Apple Croissant Pudding took a classic bread pudding and created a whole new eschelon of "pudding". Sweet apples and raisins showcased against the buttery delicacy of the croissants and found a result in something with effortless sophistication. My pick for best though was the Creme Fraiche Cheesecake. I am not, on the whole, a cheesecake fan. I often find it monotonous and overly tangy. Here the more diluted sour of the Creme Fraiche created a softer, silkier feel to their offering and when paired with the sweet tart compote the result was elegant and delicious.

The Oak Long Bar is a new shining star in the very heart of Boston. No longer is it a place reserved only for special occasions, it has emerged as a space where cocktails and wine welcome a late evening crowd, while the diverse yet cohesive menu full of local favorites calls out to any food lover looking for a unique and satisfying meal. If you haven't yet had a chance to revel in the beauty of the time honored Fairmont Copley -I urge you to check it out- soon!

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...