February 2009


I was very much looking forward to our meal at Craigie on Main last weekend. I have a weakness for all things pork, and I have come to know Craigie as an institution cut from that same mold. What incarnation of piggy delights would be on the menu this time around? Trotter? Cracklins? Jowel? Definitely some sort of belly. Will it be confit? Braised? Maybe it will be something I’ve never heard of before! Well, imagine my distress and disappointment when I opened the menu to see (gasp) one measly little pork option on the menu. A trio of charcuterie (boudin noir appeared on the menu as well, but not as the main component of the dish). I got it, of course, but I was none too pleased with my lack of options. It was a Sunday night, sure, but if you’re going to have a pig as the emblem of your restaurant then make sure it’s well-represented on the menu. I mean, I understand the whole “we print the menu at 5:09″ thing, and you dare not throw some piggy parts in the freezer to ensure strong supply, but tell you what: print the menu two weeks before and make sure there’s a damn pig on it.  Feeling good about my local eating habits isn’t going to make up for the lack of pig in my mouth. F.

homemade rabbit sausage, boudin noir, cock's combs, mushroom, farm egg

homemade rabbit sausage, boudin noir, cock's combs, mushroom, farm egg

Tempura fried dayboat cod cheeks w/ pickled peppers and squid ink anchoiade

Tempura fried dayboat cod cheeks w/ pickled peppers and squid ink anchoiade

These two dishes were my favorites of the night. A farm fresh egg will make virtually anything taste good in my opinion, but this light stew of sausage, boudin noir, cock’s combs and mushrooms  was the perfect compliment. The dish could have used a bit more in terms of different textures as everything was on the soft side, but the taste was money. The cod cheeks were crispy without being greasy and the squid ink had some serious depth of flavor. Other appetizers at the table included the Grilled Spanish Octopus which got rave reviews from the Globe, but was by far the worst dish of the night. This octopus did not taste grilled as it was neither chewy nor charred. It was completely mushy which, characteristic of octopus that was boiled too long for its own good, and came in a far too salty chorizo sauce.

side of bone marrow

side of bone marrow

side of roasted potatoes

side of roasted potatoes

I love restaurants that have tasty side dishes. It’s like a little bonus when I look at the menu –  a nice addition to the traditional appetizer-entree-dessert sections. These were both solid versions of marrow and potatoes. Though I don’t know how I feel about all that marrow without any accompaniments. It’s the type of dish that needs a little something with it to really get me going.

Hangar steak w/ bone marrow, beef tongue, walnut foie gras puree

Hangar steak w/ bone marrow, beef tongue, walnut foie gras puree

crispy yelow corn polenta w/ winter vegetables, forest mushrooms, carrot jus

crispy yelow corn polenta w/ winter vegetables, forest mushrooms, carrot jus

I had the hangar steak and Liz had the polenta. The steak was well-cooked but I really got the dish because of the walnut foie gras puree, and it didn’t totally deliver on my expectations. It was a bit bland relative to the other flavors on the plate, like the tongue. Liz liked her polenta, particularly the flavor of cinnamon in the carrot jus.

gingerbread pain perdu w/quince ginger ice cream, cranberries

gingerbread pain perdu w/quince ginger ice cream, cranberries

The pain perdu for dessert tasted very good, but I wish it was a bit more interesting. The white corn grits with dried fruit compote were a mushy mess that resembled a hot breakfast dish more than a dessert. Liz actually ordered something else and was brought the grits by mistake. I’m sure had we said something about it they would have acted swiftly and courteously to correct the problem, but at that point we didn’t particularly care.
Over all the meal was good, but by no means the best meal I’ve had at a Craigie establishment. I hope it’s not an indication of the new location. I don’t think it is. And for the love of god, Craigie on Main, take a cue from the many pigs you have adorning the dining room and put some mother loving pork on the menu.
white corn grits w/ dried fruit and cinnamon ice cream

white corn grits w/ dried fruit and cinnamon ice cream

Craigie On Main on Urbanspoon

The Hen House’s signature dish is the 5-step program, where patrons choose their waffle (buttermilk, multigrain or cornbread), their butter (whipped, cajun, herb), their syrup (maple, clove honey, maple bbq), their chicken (tenders, whole pieces, wings), and their sauce (too many to list). Most people seem to go this route, scraping the chicken off the bone on top of the waffle and then smothering the melange with butter, syrup, and sauce. Considering that I do not like waffles, syrup, or any relative of bbq sauce, I am probably not the best person to write a blog post about eating at The Hen House. But here I am, and though I did not do the Program, I loved my chicken and corn bread. I got the combo meal with three pieces of chicken, 2 sides, and a drink, which cost $8 or so and was way more than I could eat. The chicken was crispy, not at all greasy, and flavorful. The cornbread was moist and delicious. My second side was collard greens, but I was too busy to notice them. I really ordered them because I felt guilty ordering only buttery cornbread and deep-fried chicken. But the guilt was unnecessary. I had gone into the meal resigned to feeling sick immediately after eating. Surprisingly, my compatriots and I felt totally fine after the meal. We even discovered, by way of a small sticker on the door out, that The Hen House is transfat free, if that’s the sort of thing you care about.

Carlo and the two friends we were dining with can vouch for the chicken and waffles. According to them, the waffles were light and crispy, though not as hot as one might like. And, with all the sweetness layered on top of the dish, the chicken needed a bit more salt. Carlo enjoyed his side of fried cabbage, as it was surprisingly comprised of equal parts bacon/assorted pork and cabbage.

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The atmosphere at the Hen House is similar to that of a sandwich shop. It’s not particularly comfortable, and I don’t recommend it for a night of romance. That said, the service was very friendly, if a little disorganized. The cashier had never heard of the root beer floats that appear on The Hen House’s online menu, but after thinking it over for a minute, he said he could make one for me anyway. It’s also a little slow for a place where you order at the counter. We waited at least 10 minutes for our food, but so long as you’re not in a hurry, this is actually a good thing because unlike most fried chicken you’re going to get in Boston, this stuff is actually being made to order. The Hen House may be difficult to get to without a car (with a car its very easy – right off 93 and with a parking lot at the adjacent liquor store), but if you can swing it, it’s well worth the trip.

Hen House Wings 'n Waffles on Urbanspoon

Carlo and I were lucky enough to receive as wedding presents several gift certificates to our favorite Boston fine dining establishment, No. 9 Park. Instead of making them last, we decided to go all out and have one big, but cheap, wine-paired tasting menu to celebrate President’s Day (thanks Abe!).

Carlo started out the celebration with a cocktail called the Dharma Bum, a new addition to No. 9’s superlative drinks menu. Carlo chose this drink not because he is a Jack Kerouac fan, but because he is a Lost fan with tunnel vision and thought this must be an homage to the Dharma Initiative. It wasn’t but it was a brilliant combination of rum, lime juice, and cardamom.

We made the mistake of checking out the sample tasting menu on No. 9’s website, and though we knew it was just a sample, we had high hopes of receiving a turnip veloute and escargot pot au feu with pork belly followed by liquid chocolate with pistachio pain perdu. Alas, as we well knew, the menu was different, though no less exciting:

Peekytoe Crab Salad, pickled Island Creek oyster, cauliflower panna cotta, creme fraiche

Peekytoe Crab Salad, pickled Island Creek oyster, cauliflower panna cotta, creme fraiche

Unfortunately, we have not gotten over our embarrassment of taking pictures in restaurants so you’re stuck with flashless photos from a cell phone. On the left is the crab salad and on the right is the cauliflower panna cotta, which was by the far the most interesting thing we ate all night. It looked like flan but tasted like fresh cauliflower. The dish was paired with NV Nino Franco Prosecco “Rustico”.

Local Codfish, brandade, chorizo, cabbage

Local Codfish, brandade, chorizo, cabbage

Carlo and I practically licked our plates at the end of this round. Those little black chunks are chewy bites of chorizo and the sauce, though not heavy, tasted like chorizo flavored butter…in other words, it was really good. The skin on the cod was crispy and delicious and the brandade tasted almost like mashed potatoes. This was paired with a 2007 Domaine de la Petite Cassagne Costieres de Nimes Rose. I am not afraid to admit that I like rose wines and this one was really delicious. It was almost like dry strawberry juice and, based on a little internet research, is pretty affordable at about $10/bottle.

Grilled Leek Agnolotti, Bouchot mussels, razor clams, saffron

Grilled Leek Agnolotti, Bouchot mussels, razor clams, saffron

Though it had a lot of potential, this was our least favorite dish. I don’t love leeks, and Carlo, of course, thought the pasta was cut unevenly and this affected the consistency of the texture throughout each agnolotto. We both cleaned our plates, so it obviously wasn’t offensive, just not as good as all the rest. It was paired with a 2005 Corte Sant’ Alda Soave “Vigne di Mezzane.”

Prune Stuffed Gnocchi, seared foie gras, toasted almonds, Vin Santo

Prune Stuffed Gnocchi, seared foie gras, toasted almonds, Vin Santo

At this point in the meal, guests can choose whether to add an additional supplement or to move on with the tasting menu. There are always two options, the one you see above and then some variation on foie gras. Considering we were there to celebrate, we decided to get one of each of the supplements. The prune stuffed gnocchi is No. 9 Park’s signature dish, always on the menu. I don’t like it. I find it to be too sweet and creamy for pasta. Carlo enjoys it so he got this one and I got the other. This was paired with a 2005 Bastianich Tocai “Plus.” It’s great to see Friulian wines on Boston menus, but it’s unfortunate that it’s usually a Bastianich of some variation. This is not a cheap wine ($50+ per bottle). The Bastianich’s are famous and can charge a premium for it, but there are many good Friulian options out there, tocai and others, at a quarter of the price.

Terrine of Foie Gras, pistachio, grapefruit, grains of paradise

Terrine of Foie Gras, pistachio, grapefruit, grains of paradise

Yum yum yum. I love foie gras in any form, especially when I’m paying for it with a gift certificate. This one was served over a grapefruit gel with a little pistachio cracker on the side. The grains of paradise were all piled into one little corner and were hard to spread around, making the seasoning too overpowering in that corner and underseasoned in the other corners. That said, the grapefruit/foie gras combination was delicious so I just cut the grains off and spread the grapefruit onto the terrine. It was served with a 2006 Domaine du Traginer Banyuls Blanc.

Roasted Duck Breast, baby turnips, sesame, honey

Roasted Duck Breast, baby turnips, sesame, honey

My memory starts to get a little foggy at this point in the evening. I remember really liking the sesame/honey paste. The duck was moist and fatty in a good way. The wine, a 2006 Heinrich Blaufrankisch from Austria, was everything a red wine should be, at least a red wine I want to drink. It was purpley red and tasted like dark cherries and wasn’t too tannic.

Prime Sirloin, short rib ragu, vegetable blanquette, Perigord truffle

Prime Sirloin, short rib ragu, vegetable blanquette, Perigord truffle

The tasting menu really starts to lose me at this point. I can down a dozen plates of pasta, but when I’m no longer hungry, red meat just doesn’t do it for me. I’m ready for cheese and chocolate. I still ate everything and enjoyed it, but I did not enjoy it as much as it probably deserved. It was served with the 2005 Chateau la Caminade Cahors, which was good but I was too in love with the previous wine to get excited about it.

Cheese

Cheese

Cheese Accompaniments

Cheese Accompaniments

I’d lie if I said I knew what cheese we ate. There was one that was really chalky and one that was really creamy and one that was dark blue…they were all really good and it’s fun that No. 9 let’s you try as many as you want. It was served with little toasts and golden raisins and grapes and honey.

Grapefruit, ginger, apple

Grapefruit, ginger, apple

This was our palate cleanser, which was tasty, but nothing exciting. The best part was that the apples were Honeycrisp, which are only available at the grocery store for a few months in the fall, but are categorically the best apples in the world (after English Russets).

Chocolate & Hazelnut Gateau, chocolate ganache, marasca cherries

Chocolate & Hazelnut Gateau, chocolate ganache, marasca cherries

Though we had really been looking forward to the pistachio pain perdu, this was a pretty good substitute. The cake was a hazelnut cream on top of a chocolate wafer. On the upper left is the chocolate ganache, which I could have eaten on its own, and then a little chewy sour marasca cherry, the original maraschino cherry (very different from the ones in the jar). This was served with an increasingly ubiquitous (as it should be) Brachetto d’Acqui.

All in all, our marathon meal was a fun way to celebrate President’s Day. It’s hard to justify spending this kind of money on a meal in any economic climate, least of all this one, but we were more than happy to do it with the gift certificate. And if you’re going to splurge on a fine dining experience in Boston, No. 9 is the place to do it.
No. 9 Park on Urbanspoon

The V Majestic, (formerly) of Brighton, MA. vs. Vietnam 2000, Albuquerque NM

By Roger Boulay

Comparing these two restaurants is an impossible task, not only because the V-Majestic is now defunct and I haven’t eaten there since 2006, but also because I am surely a novice as far as Vietnamese cuisine is concerned, if not culinary judgements as a whole. Such absurdity makes a comparison all the more alluring.
An epic cross-country comparison of a minor Asian cuisine by a white boy from a Massachusetts suburb demands some explanation: I like Carlo and Liz’s blog. As a starving art student in New Mexico existing on sopapillas and burritos, I get to experience a bit of the posh Beacon Hill lifestyle vicariously through Carlo and Liz. So by writing this, I’m trying to express a little bit of gratefulness to my friends. Thank you, Carlo and Liz. Furthermore, some of my best memories from my early twenties occurred at the V-majestic in Brighton with Carlo and Liz, among others. So this is not only a culinary comparison, but a shameless exercise in nostalgia.
The V-Majestic was located on Brighton Ave, right in the heart (or armpit, rather) of Brighton. Vietnam 2000 is on the outskirts of Albuquerque’s scruffy, alternative Knob Hill neighborhood. All of Albuquerque is an armpit. So both these restaurants provide safe havens in otherwise desolate urban landscapes. To further illustrate this fact, Vietnam 2000 shares a building with an emissions testing shop owned by the same folks who run the restaurant. I have some friends who refuse to eat here solely for this reason. Snobs, all of them. By contrast, the V-Majestic was two blocks from a liquor store we frequented on the way. Positioning your restaurant down the street from a liquor store when your place is BYOB is a smart move. In our case, this often resulted in massive tips which would have been smaller had we not brought a bottle of wine per person along for the dining experience.
I love the decor of both restaurants. The V-Majestic staff tilted their art at a 45% angle off of the wall with some elaborate hanging system. This ensured you would see a depiction of the gorgeous Vietnamese landscape as you ate, if not feel as if a picture might come crashing down on you and your chicken curry at any moment. Who doesn’t love a little danger with chicken curry? However, Vietnam 2000 contains a masterpiece of kitsch. The back wall of the place is dominated by a 5×7 foot framed poster of what appears to be vampire horses galloping through water. Yes, some have fangs and none of the horses have irises, their eyes consisting only of big black pupils, fully dilated. If I am concerned about actually listening to what the people I am dining with at Vietnam 2000 are saying, I have to sit with my back to this oeuvre or risk having it dominate my concentration for the entirety of the meal.
One aspect of the V-Maj that Vietnam 2000 can never live up to is its restroom. In order to freshen up at this establishment, you had to walk through the kitchen and locate a trap door in the floor of their back room. Once you found this, a set of stairs descended into a cellar. With your head scraping the ceiling, you made your way through boxes of supplies to the back of the cellar and climbed into a white, plastic tank with a toilet at one end, as if they installed a port-o-potty in the basement of the restaurant. I usually tried to hold it long enough to turn this into a video game and see if I could navigate my way through this obstacle course and make it without peeing my pants. By the time I finally got to the white contraption I always had to urinate so badly that I forgot that Scott or Brian had followed me down to jump out from behind some boxes and scare me silly. It worked every time.

We often fell into a comfortable rhythm at the V-Majestic. Someone inevitably got chicken wings and somebody else got the fresh Vietnamese spring rolls as appetizers. The spring rolls at the V-Maj had a wonderful balance of mint and vermicelli delicately wrapped and accompanied by peanut sauce. Vietnam 2000 has similar spring rolls, but adds in little shrimps. I’m all for this addition.

Entrée choice often varied at the V-majestic the first few years we went there. People experimented with various beef, chicken and pork dishes. Eventually, led by Carlo and Liz, we came to a consensus that the chicken curry was their best dish. A big bowl of curry containing hunks of fresh chicken mixed with vegetables made any visit to the V-Majestic a success. I have yet to find any equivalent dish at Vietnam 2000. Their chicken curry consists of slices of chicken fried with onions and a curry sauce atop a bowl of vermicelli and fresh vegetables. It has no broth and the quality of the chicken is nowhere near what the V-majestic used. My girlfriend has found her favorite dish at Vietnam 2000, vermicelli with pork and fried tofu. The tofu is crispy and full of flavor, but there is no sauce, broth or additional flavor to tie the vermicelli, pork and tofu together like the V-Maj’s chicken curry.
Finally, the V-Majestic’s fried bananas were the perfect finale if you could wait long enough to eat one and avoid burning off the entire roof of your mouth. Dodging this pitfall, their fried bananas had a sugary crispy exterior coupled with a sweet, melting texture inside. It was not only delicious, but also a social dessert. One order was enough to share between several people, and thus a great way to wrap up the meal. Vietnam 2000 has no equivalent dessert, offering only western-style ice cream and fortune cookies. The V-Majestic definitely had better food. That said, Vietnam 2000 is a very good deal. I can eat a perfectly good meal with an appetizer and entrée there for under 10 bucks, a significant caveat for a graduate student with a part-time job. The ridiculously low bill quickly reminds me of the V-Majestic and the many great nights I spent there with good company. I’m happy to have found a restaurant that, while ultimately inferior, brings back such good memories.

How nights at the V Majestic started:

vmajestic3vmajestic4vmajestic1

vmajestic5

How nights after the V Majestic ended:

vmajesticdance2

vmajesticdance1

vmajesticdance

vmajesticdance3

The V. R.I.P.

The one-two combo of Drink and Sportello rocked my world. I was all smiles. And all regrets that we didn’t get an apartment in Fort Point when we moved into the city several years ago. Curse someones shortsightedness…. then again, Fort Point was mostly newly designed but empty warehouse conversions back then. Who could have foreseen its renaissance as a neighborhood teeming with newly designed but empty warehouse conversions along with a Barbara Lynch franchise. Not us.

Drink and Sportello, as well as a fine dining restaurant scheduled to open in late spring, are housed in the FP3 development that you’ve undoubtedly seen advertised across the Fort Point neighborhood with obnoxiously large banners giving cryptic invitations to explore their website. Drink occupies the basement floor of the complex. Though we only stopped in for a quick drink before dinner, we were impressed by the service, decor, and the tasty Cava we tried for a reasonable $9 a glass. Given our brief stay I’ll let this article do the talking for me. Though I will say that Barbara missed the mark a teensy bit if she was aiming to have a spot where construction workers would come in for a shot and a beer. I suppose they could, in theory. But by “in theory” I mean wearing the latest style from the clothing designer as that will be the minimum standard of hip that they’d have to achieve in order to fit in with the late twenties, early thirties after work crowd that the bar attracts. It’s very similar in feel to the Butcher Shop and B&G Oysters, and the day I see a fisherman duck in to B&G for a lobster roll will be the day construction workers make Drink their local haunt. That’s not a value judgment, it just is what it is.

We made our way up the interior staircase to Sportello and settled in to the casual, though not all that comfortable, stools at the large wrap around counter that comprises the restaurant’s seating chart. We decided to skip the wine (though the list is interesting and reasonably priced) and concentrate our energy on the food. Here’s what we got:

Spicy tomato soup w/ caraway grilled cheese

Chestnut bisque

Ricotta gnudi w/nutmeg brown butter, parmigiano

Bigoli w/clams, sea urchin, bottarga

Pork belly w/roasted apples

Braised short ribs w/ butter beans and sunchokes

Pistachio torte

Chocolate budino w/olive oil and salt

The four course meal does not seem to be the norm for Sportello. It’s more of a quick-bite place. But when the food is this good, get as many courses as you can squeeze in. The only dishes that didn’t impress were the tomato soup, fairly ordinary stuff, and the pistachio torte, which was disappointingly dry. Everything else was delicious, with the standouts being the gnudi, pork belly, and budino. Ricotta gnudi are gnocchi in shape and size, but with a much lighter texture (given the replacement of the potato with ricotta)- perfect for the dumpling lover that likes to save room for more food. The pork belly was your standard braised belly, crisped to finish, but went incredibly well with the apples and whatever else was on the plate. The budino was essentially a creamy chocolate torte, but the large chunks of salt and olive oil were perfect compliments.

The genius of Sportello, and the Italian lunch counter model in general, is that 95% of the cooking is complete before the doors even open for customers. Nearly everything on the menu (soups, sauces, fresh pasta, braised meats) can be made ahead of time and then re-heated or finished, leaving very little actual cooking to do when the orders come in (assemble a salad, sear a scallop, boil the pasta). Though the kitchen is directly behind the counter in full view of the customers, you won’t see chefs going crazy. More likely, they’re opening Tupperware and boiling water. The genius of Barbara Lynch is knowing which foods won’t suffer in the process, and which will actually benefit from the rest. This also make service very easy. We took a good long while finishing our soups, and at other establishments this might have caused problems (e.g. our next dish being prepared and having to sit in the kitchen while we finished) but once we were done, the gnocchi and fresh bigoli hit the water and 5 minutes later we’re eating a hot plate of perfectly cooked pasta.

The price tag on the meal was $114 ish with tip which, considering the amount we ordered and the healthy portion sizes across the board, is very reasonable. You could easily fill up with a soup and a pasta (or half a portion of pasta and an entree) and that would cost you $35ish each. If you are in Fort Point visting the ICA or have business to attend to at the convention center, then lunch at Sportello is a no-brainer. But it’s also worth making a special trip. The walk over the channel is pretty during the day or at night and the walk back will give you plenty of time to digest the quantity of food that you ought to eat while you’re there.

Sportello on Urbanspoon

Shelburne Farms and I go way back. I had my first “fine dining” meal there in 1997 when I visited my brother at the University of Vermont, where we both went to college. In 1999, I spent the nights before I moved into my freshman year dorm room at the inn at Shelburne Farms. And I continued to enjoy the restaurant each time my parents came to visit.

Shelburne Farms is much more than a restaurant and hotel. It’s a 1400-acre working farm, museum, and “education center”, all perched right on the edge of Lake Champlain. When I was a regular patron of the restaurant, there was a disconnect between the restaurant and the rest of the property. The farm is a great, though historically underused, resource for produce, livestock, and cheese.  But the restaurant was a very ordinary brand of fine dining.  A few years ago, when Chef Rick Gencarelli took over the kitchen at Shelburne Farms, he brought with him an appreciation for eating local. He also made the food better and more interesting. So when my brother announced he was moving to the New Frontier after 12 years in Burlington, Vermont, Carlo and I decided to visit him one last time and to go there for a farewell dinner. We had a great meal. Unfortunately it was in August, right around the time we fell off the blogging wagon. We took a lot of pictures so we decided to post them, but I think it’s a little late to critique the food.  I’ll just say that it’s very good, and if you’re looking for a place to go this summer (they are only open April to October), spend a weekend in Burlington and pay a visit to Shelburne Farms. Make sure to go early; part of the experience is wandering around the grounds before you eat.

Shelburne Farms' Cheddar For Pre-prandial Snacking

Shelburne Farms' Cheddar For Pre-prandial Snacking

Carlo's Beet Sangria

Carlo's Beet Sangria

The First In A Series Of Amuses Bouches Small Plates

The First In A Series Of Amuses Bouches Small Plates

Eggs And Bacon

Eggs And Bacon

Savory French Toast

Savory French Toast

Falafel

Falafel

Cold Beet Soup

Cold Beet Soup

Crispy Pig Salad

Crispy Pig Salad

Housemade Charcuterie And Pickles

Housemade Charcuterie And Pickles

Fried Oysters On Crispy Pork Belly

Fried Oysters On Crispy Pork Belly

Handmade Pasta Bolognese

Handmade Pasta Bolognese

Ricotta Gnocchi

Ricotta Gnocchi

Vermont Pig With Cattle Beans And Peaches

Vermont Pig With Cattle Beans And Peaches

Shelburne Farms Lamb With Smoked Eggplant And Yogurt

Shelburne Farms Lamb With Smoked Eggplant And Yogurt

Dessert (I don't remember what this is)

Dessert (I don't remember what this is)

Little Mousse Cup With Macarons

Little Mousse Cup With Macarons

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