April 2009


Liz, my parents and I went to Erbaluce last weekend. It was quite a memorable night for several reasons. Not the least of which was my dad getting a little bit soused and telling the same story about the hazards of flying Ryanair at least three times. He also kept asking Liz if she was poor. Not quite sure what that was about. But hey, it was the night before Easter and the wine was a-flowin’. This was thanks in large part to the incredible generosity of Chuck Draghi, the head chef and co-owner of Erbaluce, who selected several delicious  bottles from his collection of Northern Italian wines for us. We had met the chef before both as a server at no. 9 Park as well as in a class on Friulan wine at Stir. It takes a lot to impress my dad when it comes to knowledge about Italian wine and food and Chef Draghi is one of the few in the Boston area who has managed to accomplish that.

This is the second time Liz and I have been to Erbaluce and both times the chef has greeted each table in the restaurant with a small complimentary plate. This time, he brought some grilled octopus that came with a fresh salsa of different tomatoes and herbs. Very nice.

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Then came the appetizers: razor clams, scallops, anchovies, and polenta. The razor clams were the winners here, but every dish was quite tasty, and I think an impressive demonstration of Erbaluce’s cooking M.O: simple, simple, simple. The dishes came with just a few subtle accompanying flavors, but above all you taste the fish. Fresh, whole herbs are another calling card of the food here. There will be no little sprigs of rosemary, but entire trees adorning your plate.

100_0166 Native razor clams steamed with green peppercorns, leeks, and white wine. Delicious, I sopped up all the broth.

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Scallops. My dad inhaled these before anyone else could try them so I assume they were good.

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Fresh anchovies with lemon, black olive and green beans. Special of the night. The scales were so delicate, I just chomped these suckers down whole.

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Polenta with tomatoes. My mom found the polenta a bit coarse and grainy, but Liz thought it was just right.

Next, the pastas:  I really want to say good things about them, but the pasta dishes are where Erbaluce strays from it’s own philosophy of simplicity and totally misses the mark. This is tragic since the housemade pasta is actually very good – it’s just lost in the sea of flavors. Of the four pastas ordered, three suffered from this: the pansoti, the gnocchi, and the fusili. My spaghi were a bit better in this respect, but still nothing that special.

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Pansoti with sauteed greens, ricotta and a walnut lemon thyme pesto.

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Gnocchi in a far-too-soupy ragu of wild boar . The gnocchi broke down into mush sitting in the liquid.

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Fusili arrabbiata. The sauce was an odd combination of sweet and spicy.

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Spaghi with clams and a tomato bronze fennel broth.

The meal got back on track with the meat courses. The signature rack of boar, the branzino, the veal, and the rabbit all stood out for the emphasis on the taste and quality of the meat itself.

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Branzino. They offer to fillet it for you if desired, but how would you suck the eyeballs out if they did that?

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Roasted rack of wild boar with a wild Concord grape and lavender mosto. Once again, my dad sucked it down before anyone could get their forks in there.

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Lemon roasted veal loin. The sauce was on the sweet side (something that, oddly, was true of several dishes over the course of the night), but that didn’t offset the melting texture of the meat.

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The Easter Bunny. Liz barely got through a bite of this, but that’s because she filled up on her polenta and the tasty bean puree that came out with the bread. My dad was flabbergasted at her lack of will and called her   “a total disappointment”.

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The desserts were just okay. This is the Giandjua truffle.We also tried the orange and chocolate tart. Both were a little too rich for the end of a big meal.

Overall we were very happy with our meal. If the kitchen could get rid of the heavy hand with the pasta sauces then Erbaluce would be my favorite Italian restaurant in Boston.

Erbaluce on Urbanspoon

Garden at the Cellar is having an identity crisis.  The food is original, delicious, and well-presented – thanks to Will Gilson who was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award.  Unfortunately, the atmosphere and service are part airport bar and grill, part college town watering hole.  That is to say, the only decoration is an electronic beer sign and the service, though friendly, is inattentive and absent-minded. It feels as though an excellent chef was just plopped into a nondescript local bar and the two haven’t totally adjusted to each other yet. Though there were several employees milling about, and only 6 diners in the restaurant when we arrived at 5:30pm, it took them a few minutes to acknowledge our conspicuous presence and ask if we wanted dinner.  We did, and we were told we could choose any table.

The menu at Garden at the Cellar is enticing: chickpea fries and pork belly and foie gras with donuts!  The only disappointment was the wine list.  It was very reasonably priced, but also very limited in selection.  There were fewer than 20 wines, none of which were particularly interesting, to choose from, which was surprising since the name of the restaurant is derived from The Cellar, the wine store it is connected to.  The variety is irrelevant though if you order wine and it never comes, which is what happened to us.  We ordered the cheapest bottle on the list ($24), a Primitivo, after quite a bit of discussion and thought.  But our waitress never brought it.  She did remember it about 3/4 into the meal but, at that point, we didn’t want it. Carlo did get the cocktail he ordered, a basil lemon drop.  It tasted metallic and took a long time to arrive because, our waitress informed us in a very friendly way, they couldn’t find the simple sugar.

Onto the food.  We decided to get two small plates, four appetizers, and to share an entree because the former two lists just looked so good.  For small plates, we got chickpea fries with lemon zest and parmesan and other various toppings I can’t quite remember.  Wow, they were delicious.  Chickpea flour is really underused.  A beautiful golden color, creamy, unique, best dish of the night.  We also got White Bean Puree, which was very good, but not as original.

White Bean Puree and Chickpea Fries

White Bean Puree and Chickpea Fries

We each ordered two appetizers, with the hope that they would come out two at a time.  We should have said that, and we didn’t, and they all came out at once, and it was annoying.  If you’re in a bar and your buffalo wings come out with your burger, who really cares? But if you’re in a place that serves interesting, delicious food, then having to shovel it all in before it gets cold really undermines the chef’s efforts. We ordered Cod Fritters with chives, remoulade and citrus, Handmade Burratta with spiced date purée, Za’atar, lemon oil, Seared Foie Gras & Doughnuts with various forms of rhubarb, and Pork Belly with spicy beans. The cod fritters tasted fresh and were hot and crispy on the outside and the seared foie gras and rhubarb and donut combination was original and delicious–tart, sweet, and fatty all at once.  The Burrata was a little too sweet and though the pork belly was great, the beans were so spicy that they contrasted in a weird way with the rest of the sweet-ish food.  But overall, we were impressed.

Housemade Burrata from Somerville

Burratta from Somerville

Pork Belly

Pork Belly

Cod Fritters

Cod Fritters

Foie Gras, Donuts, Rhubarb

Foie Gras, Donuts, Rhubarb

And finally, we split the Pork Weiner Schnitzel with poached egg and artichokes and lima beans.  Our shared entree was just as good as the appetizers.  Deliciously well-seasoned schnitzel, though the artichokes and lima beans were a little salty as was the sauce they were sitting in.  And our poached egg came out in a bowl after we were half-way through the dish because someone had forgotten to put it on the plate.  We would not have remembered this had they not brought it out, but they did, and it just reminded us of their sloppy service.

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So despite the strange ambiance, the meal was great.  Though again, we were in a restaurant that does not take reservations and thus does not offer dessert.  I will also point out that we had arrived at the door of the restaurant, consumed a cocktail and seven different plates of food, paid and left the restaurant, in an astounding 58 minutes.  There will be no lingering in Garden at the Cellar, they want you out of there ASAP, yet another thing that undercuts the quality of the food.  The Garden’s only saving grace was that they give diners a little bit of chocolate at the end of the meal.  Enough to not make me hate them, but certainly not enough to satiate one’s need for dessert.

So at this point, it was 6:28pm and we decided to set out for Sweet, a cupcake bakery in the Back Bay that we had heard has phenomenal cupcakes.  Being a lover of the bus, I thought this was a great opportunity to hop on the #1 that heads straight down Mass. Ave.  We walked over to the stop in Central Square and began patiently waiting for the bus.  Which didn’t come.  And the crowd got thicker and thicker.  I do recommend the Central Square bus stop if you’re looking for a bit of post-dinner theater on a Saturday night.  After a 15 minute wait and the third time a seemingly drunk man who kept engaging me in conversation about his best friend’s girl yelled angrily at me to stop looking at him with my “deer eyes” we decided to walk into Boston, which is really not that far.

It wasn’t worth the walk.  We paid $7 for two semi-dry overly frosted, though pretty, cupcakes.  The place is also trying too hard to be cool.  It’s all white and they have a big flat screen that was playing American in Paris.  Odd.  To be fair, we got there at the end of the evening and they were out of nearly every kind of cupcake they have, so maybe there are better options.  We got the dark chocolate with chocolate frosting and the vanilla with chocolate frosting.  Just not worth it; better value for your money with Duncan Hines.

Garden at the Cellar on Urbanspoon

Sweet on Urbanspoon

After very much enjoying our visit to Sportello for dinner, Liz and I decided to go back to try their lunch – the menu is significantly different from the dinner menu so as to warrant a separate trip. Not that we wouldn’t have gone back either way. We were again pleased with our meal and given Sportello’s proximity to downtown Boston (10 min walk from Post Office Sq.) I anticipate taking Liz out for a lot more lunches as the weather starts to warm up.

Isn’t it great to get something more than just bread and oil at the beginning of a meal? A dip, a cheese, a spread – it seems so simple to create and the psychological payoff for the diner is huge. The two times we have been to Sportello they have served some variant of fresh ricotta. This time it came with some yummy oil, sea salt and raisins.

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We started off with creamy polenta with bolognese sauce. The polenta won’t be winning any health awards but it tastes so damn good, especially with the bolognese sauce which I’m fairly confident is this recipe. I’m interested in what Sportello will do for  a summer menu, though. This is the kind of dish you look forward to after a long cold day spent hiking or skiing. Not exactly warm-weather material. I’m sure they’ll come up with something equally delicious but not quite so hearty.

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I had the strozzapreti with slow-braised rabbit and green olives. Mixed feelings about this one. The rabbit was tender and delicious but it came in a substantial broth of braising liquid. This would be fine with me except for the fact that the pasta was overcooked. It almost had the consistency of the noodles at the bottom of the chicken noodle soup vat in a high school cafeteria – like it had been sitting in the broth for quite some time. It could have used a little more variety of flavor as well. The salt of the meat, with the salt of the olive and the salt of the cheese could be overpowering for those who don’t spend their down time snorting Morton’s. I hesitate to advise against ordering it because it was quite tasty, but I prefer the other pasta dishes  I’ve had here.

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Liz had the taleggio cheese panini with oven roasted tomato and tarragon. She loved the bread and the flavor combo but wanted more filling. Typical Liz. Always  more, more, more.

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We had to get the budino with olive oil and sea salt again for dessert. Not too sweet. Not too salty. Perfect.

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The prices for lunch are reasonable considering what you get. Soups under $10, sandwiches and polenta $12ish, and pasta’s for $15. Portions are big enough to get any one of these and be satisfied.

Sportello on Urbanspoon

Though our last visit to Ten Tables was sort of a bummer, we have not given up on it and were excited about trying the new location in the former Craigie Street Bistro.  The quarters are tight even in Ten Tables’ new establishment, but there is enough space not to feel like you’re going to knock wine and people over as you walk to the bathroom.  Ten Tables has done a nice job with the decor; it’s both sleeker and more inviting than Craigie Street was with better (lower) lighting and leather banquettes.

Feeling celebratory, we started the meal with cocktails.  I got the KK, named after TT’s proprietor Krista Kranyak, and made with passion fruit juice, ginger, and champagne, an unfortunate choice for a preprandial drink.  It was all passion fruit and ginger and no champagne, which was the opposite of what I was hoping for.  It wasn’t bad; it was just meant for brunch.  Carlo’s drink, the Gaston 76 made with White Lillet, Cucumber and Tarragon on the rocks, was the perfect summer late afternoon cocktail, cold and refreshing and only a little sweet.  And while we’re discussing pre-dinner fare, the bread was also really good, chewy and soft and reminiscent of the best of Iggy’s bread.  The only downside  of the bread course was that we didn’t get much oil and no matter how clean we licked its plate, no one brought us more.

Onto wine…we made a bad choice.  Okay, I made a bad choice.  As a small, easily-intoxicated person, I am trying to push for more half bottles and carafes in Boston restaurants.  And by “trying to push”, I mean I like to order them.  Ten Tables offered a house wine, which is something I frequently and successfully order when traveling, as well as a few half bottles.  Carlo was adamantly opposed to the half bottle on account of it being a rip off.  Since we can usually only drink a half bottle anyway, I don’t see the problem in paying $23 for a decent but overpriced bottle.  I still get what I want and so it’s a win if it’s even marginally cheaper than the whole bottle we may have ordered.  Carlo wouldn’t hear of it so we compromised on the horrible barely palatable half carafe of house wine for $14, which tasted like it came out of a box of Franzia or possibly a jug.   Carlo pointed out (after we ordered) that the reason house wine is good when we travel in Europe is that we are drinking in the vicinity of a vineyard.  We should have asked what it was before we paid for it.  We didn’t.  You get what you pay for.

Onto the food.  A lot of it was good. Some of it wasn’t.

For our appetizers:

Spicy Steak Tartare: Pickled hon Shimenji Mushrooms and Watercress

Spicy Steak Tartare: Pickled hon Shimenji Mushrooms and Watercress

Carlo ordered Spicy Steak Tartare.  This was the loser of the appetizers from my perspective. Though Carlo thought it was tasty on the whole and liked it better than what I ordered, to me, the flavor of the pickledness was overwhelming and came across as almost sweet.  It wasn’t bad; just not re-orderable.

Fluke Crudo with chives, olive oil, sea salt and citrus

Fluke Crudo with chives, olive oil, sea salt and citrus

My appetizer was fresh and well-seasoned and overall tasty.  This is not an original combination but it was done with fresh and flavorful ingredients and was exactly what I wanted. The picture makes it look really busy, but flavorwise it did not come across that way. Carlo thought the grapefruit dominated everything else on the plate, though I chalk this up to him not liking grapefruit.

Entrees:

Portuguese Monkfish Stew with Wellfleet Littleneck Clams, Fine Herbs, Garlic Aioli and Piment D'Espelette

Portuguese Monkfish Stew with Wellfleet Littleneck Clams, Fine Herbs, Garlic Aioli and Piment D'Espelette

Meh.  The broth and poached Monkfish were flavorless and there was a big gob of aioli in the middle of the bowl that did not stir in well.  The only good part of this was the clams.  They were good and were basically all I ate.

Housemade Boudin Blanc with Hudson Valley Duck Confit, Mustard Cream Lentils, Endive and Apple

Housemade Boudin Blanc with Hudson Valley Duck Confit, Mustard Cream Lentils, Endive and Apple

Best dish of the night.  I did not try all of the components, but the Boudin Blanc itself was flavorful and unique and something I would order over and over.

Desserts: Carlo and I both thought our own dessert was better than the other, which I guess is a good sign. I had the chocolate terrine with Thai basil ice cream and sea salt -  the perfect complement of rich creamy chocolate, salt and sweet basil.

Warm Sticky Toffee Pudding with Homemade Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Warm Sticky Toffee Pudding with Homemade Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

To me, this was a sickly sweet mess, but Carlo liked it so much he couldn’t keep his hands still for the picture.  It tasted good and I would have been happy with it had it been mine, but it had none of the balance of the chocolate dessert.  To each his own.

Overall, Ten Tables delivers with just a few mis-hits.  Unfortunately it’s out of the way for Bostonians, a bit of a walk from Harvard Square T and has only four parking spots, making a visit difficult.  It’s a place I would happily go to if in the neighborhood, but I am not sure it is good enough to merit a special trip, especially considering it requires risking a parking ticket.

Ten Tables on Urbanspoon

Consult your doctor before trying this dish, it is not for the weak of heart. In Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s “Charcuterie”, they describe a recipe for pork belly confit used by Jim Drohman at Le Pichet in Seattle. Essentially it’s pork belly braised in duck fat and then deep fried. But believe me, the heart attack will be worth it. First, you’re going to need to secure yourself a pork belly. I got this glorious slab of love from Bobolink Farm in Vernon, NJ. If you join their mailing list they will email you when their meat (veal, pork, beef) becomes available and you can have it delivered to your door. The belly comes in a slab of approximately 10lbs: 10 lb pork bellyCut this beauty into approximately a 6lb and a 4 pound piece. I would make the fatter end the 4lb’er, as the fattier cut is better for roasting (which is what I did with it).

SkinRun a sharp knife along the underside of the skin pulling the skin back as you go. Keep as much of the fat on the meat as you can.

100_0088Cut into 1 inch wide strips and then divide into 1in x 3in chunks.

100_0089Toss with the following dry cure:

2 tbsp ground black pepper

1/2 tbsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

3 bay leaves crumbled

10 sprigs fresh thyme

4 tbsp salt

1 tsp pink salt (I did not use this)

100_0092Cover the pork in white wine. Cover and refrigerate for 24-36 hours.

100_0094Remove pork from cure, pat the pieces dry, place in an ovenproof pot/ dutch oven and cover with rendered fat (duck/pork). I needed a 5lb vat of duck fat to entirely cover the pieces. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop, remove from heat, and then place in the oven, uncovered, and cook until the pork is fork tender, about 2-3 hours.

100_0105Remove from the oven and let it cool to room temperature. Refrigerate in the pan it was cooked in – the pork should be completely submerged in the fat. Refrigerate until completely chilled or for up to 2 months.

100_0112Remove as many pieces as you’d like from the fat, wipe off the excess fat, and allow to come to room temperature. Heat a deep heavy pot of oil for deep-frying and deep-fry the pieces until crispy and heated through (about 2 minutes).  Remove and drain on paper towels.

100_0113Deep frying the pieces in oil (you can also fry them in the fat they were preserved in) makes them a bit crispy on the outside with a melting fatty texture on the inside. Ruhlman suggests serving with a simple salad with vinaigrette, some good mustard, and a crusty baguette. REALLY. REALLY. REALLY. GOOD.

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