On some occasions  a meal at TW food, particularly the tasting menu, can rival the best you can get anywhere in the Boston area. Other times it falls a bit flat. On this particular night some dishes shined, and others… not so much. The fact that TW food changes their menu so frequently means that a poorly conceived dish (like the rosti below) is not of particular concern. It will fall out of favor soon enough. Their restaurant model, a reliance on local and seasonal products, means chefs often have to do more with less and this seems to motivate them to take a few more risks in the kitchen, trying things they otherwise wouldn’t. This comes with the cost of the occasional misfire, but overall leads to a better dining experience for the loyal customer. But this acceptable level of variability in dish quality cannot explain a particular failure of execution of which TW Food is too often guilty: simple seasoning errors.  This was my fourth visit and on each occasion several if not more dishes have either been under or over seasoned. This meal was seriously lacking some salt. As far as problems go, under-salting is fairly benign. But shit, it’s fairly easy to correct too.

charcuterie plate

charcuterie plate

We sampled the boudin blanc, pate de campagne and the pig’s head scrapple. All excellent. The pig’s head scrapple (the fried discs on the far right) was particularly delightful. All of it is housemade and I plan on returning soon to try the rest of the charcuterie (rillettes, morcilla sausage, cotechino, liver mousse).

fennel soup

fennel soup

The soup was the first indication that the kitchen was running low on Morton’s. My friend had to request a shaker.

scramble farm egg with forest mushrooms

creamy scrambled farm egg, honeycap mushrooms, onion marmelade

My scrambled egg was a tasty little dish. The eggs themselves, again, needed salt. But eating them in combination with the onion marmelade restored balance to the flavor. Though if that was the concept then the onions shouldn’t have been buried at the bottom of the glass. Maybe a different vessel would solve this problem.

thing i cant remember
swiss potato rosti, beer-braised pork shank, pig foot, cured ham and wild marinated mushrooms

This dish was a total paper tiger. How good does it sound? A mix of braised pork, pig foot, potato and ham? But this turned out to be little more than glorified hash browns. The pieces of meat were almost indiscernible within the somewhat dry shredded potato.

tagliatelle
fettucine, goat’s milk cheese, leeks, chanterelles

Again needed salt. My friend went back for the shaker.

I’m going to keep going back to TW Food despite their salt aversion. The atmosphere is tasteful and casual and that charcuterie is top notch. The tasting menus are creative and reasonably priced and more often than not we enjoy the food there. Maybe I should learn to just appreciate their attempt to contribute to the cardiovascular health of their patrons.

T.W. Food on Urbanspoon

Alice Waters has long been well-known amongst epicureans, locavores, and Nothern Californians.  But lately she has garnered more widespread attention by calling for the Obamas to plant an organic White House garden and through her increasing appearances on national news and talk shows.  I have to admit that I find Waters’ views on food sort of impractical.  Her breathy, fanciful speeches about organic produce as a fundamental human right and her unwillingness to admit that it might be more important for school districts to spend limited resources on books rather than on fresh, locally-grown, organic white peaches are just annoying.  And not only that, her flagship restaurant, Chez Panisse, has dropped in our favorite international restaurant rankings.  Nonetheless, there are worse things she could advocate for and she still has one of the best restaurants in the world, so Carlo and I paid it a visit during our trip out west.

Chez Panisse includes a fine dining restaurant and a cafe.  The cafe is more casual and offers an a la carte menu and the restaurant offers a daily-changing fixed-price menu.  On the evening of our visit, the menu was as follows:

Warm asparagus with capers, pancetta, and Parmesan

Warm asparagus with capers, pancetta, and Parmesan

Pan-seared sea scallops with wild fennel, hot pepper, and oregano

Pan-seared sea scallops with wild fennel, hot pepper, and oregano

Spit-roasted Becker Lane pork with fava beans, cannellini beans, and rapini

Spit-roasted Becker Lane pork with fava beans, cannellini beans, and rapini

Twin Girls Farm cherry crostata with bitter almond ice cream

Twin Girls Farm cherry crostata with bitter almond ice cream

Supposedly, there is also an optional cheese supplement, but we were never offered it, the only flaw in service for the evening.  We would have ordered it had it been offered, but we were plenty full so we weren’t that upset to miss it.  This was a very nice meal.  Everything was cooked perfectly, the flavors were great, and the produce was in perfect form as promised.  If we lived in Berkeley, I am sure we would happily become regulars.  But it wasn’t a very exciting meal despite the great ingredients.  The kitchen is very competent but not very creative.  Given the same quality ingredients, competent home cooks could easily replicate and improve on these dishes.  Except for the last one.  The dessert was out of this world, fresh juicy perfect cherries on an almost marzipan-y crust with fresh ice cream. I wish I could go back and get that dessert, though there is no guarantee that it would be on the menu, since it changes everyday.  So, all in all, Chez Panisse was a pleasant experience and a good dinner, only marginally over-priced, and worth a visit for anyone in the Berkeley area.

Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

After Carlo and I spent the day wandering around San Francisco we decided to give Zuni Cafe a try for lunch.  Carlo had been treating me to meals cooked from the excellent Zuni Cafe cookbook for weeks and we wanted to see if the original version of their famous Ceasar salad measured up to Carlo’s.  It didn’t but it was very good.  Zuni has a neat set up.  The bulding is shaped like a triangle, and the kitchen is in the middle of the base of the triangle with the bar along one side of the triangle, so Zuni has arranged little pockets of seats all over the place, including in the mezzanine.  We were seated in the only two seats that face right into the open kitchen so we had built in entertainment.  Our view was of the pizza guy, who mesmerized us with his methodical repetitive pizza making throughout our lunch.

pizza guy

pizza guy

I ordered the Ceasar salad, of course, and Carlo had a half-dozen oysters.

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caesar salad

caesar salad

The Ceasar salad was very good, but I missed the grilled chicken and whole pieces of egg that Carlo put on his, and the oysters were tasty, though we’re not really oyster connoisseurs.  We shared a cheeseburger on rosemary foccacia with Roth Kase cheese from the great state of Wisconsin.  Our very friendly server had the kitchen cut it in half for us and put it on separate plates after he learned we were sharing, which was a nice touch. The cheeseburger was a little rich, but very fresh and flavorful.

cheeseburger, pickled red onions, pickled cukes

cheeseburger, pickled red onions, pickled cukes

It came with a mountain of crispy salty shoestring potatoes that we made them take away after we ate half of them.  They were a little too good.  The highlight for me was the dessert: Gateau Victoire with whipped cream.  Essentially a perfectly moist, chocolately, but not too sweet, not too dense, chocolate cake with whipped cream on it.  Can’t beat that.   All in all, it was a very nice meal to compliment a beautiful day walking around San Francisco.

chocolate cake with a glass of nonino amaro

chocolate cake with a glass of nonino amaro

Zuni Cafe on Urbanspoon

ad hoc

Ad hoc was originally intended to be a temporary space filler as Thomas Keller put the finishing touches on his burger and wine restaurant concept, but it became so popular that he decided to keep it around. The concept is simple: a fixed price ($50 a head)  family style four course meal, changing daily. The atmosphere is great – casual, comfortable and hip with music that Liz’s brother occasionally found “flaccid and mundane” but otherwise enjoyed. The service was friendly and the food was great all around.

trout saladSmoked trout salad with radishes, fava beans, red onions, boiled potatoes and a delightful dressing.

whole duckDuck three ways: confit legs, seared breast, and duck sausage in rice. Sugar snap peas on the side.

cheese plateCheese plate with apples and honey roasted hazelnuts.

bread pudding

Bread pudding with raisins, vanilla custard and marmalade.

The success of ad hoc should be a model for other restaurateurs. Specifically what they should take note of is that, contrary to what many people believe, people don’t like options. Really, they don’t. There’s strong evidence from psychological research on decision making showing that people are happier with their choices when they have fewer of them. This may seem counterintuitive, but think of the experience of looking at a huge menu. It can be overwhelming. Are you in the mood for pork? Veal? Beef? Fish? Pasta? If a lot of the choices look good to you (indeed, especially if a lot of choices look good to you) you will likely take a long time to pick, pick arbitrarily and then have a strong case of buyer’s remorse when you see the waiter serve the hanger steak with polenta fries that you passed on to the self-satisfied stooge at the next table. Something not quite perfect about the monkfish you settled on? It’s so easy to imagine how good that steak would have tasted.

This phenomenon doesn’t solely work on the psychological level. A smaller menu lets the kitchen concentrate on making those dishes better. The cod fritter appetizer you order from a selection of 3 options will definitely be prepared with more care than the same dish ordered from a selection of 10. It’s a win-win. The customer is happier, the food is better, the kitchen is calmer. Of course, it would be unfortunate for people who have very specific dietary needs, and for those who are particularly picky eaters. But a smart kitchen will always be able to accommodate dietary restrictions in a tasty way, and I’ve always had a particular disdain for the latter group who think that every restaurant should be capable of accommodating their whims. Don’t eat fish because it’s yucky? Then go to a steakhouse. Trade specialization worked for most societies, seems like it would do wonders for the food industry as well. I am all about promoting more vegan restaurants if it makes it easier for other restaurants to cook food the way they want to and in a manner more conducive to quality.

Ad Hoc on Urbanspoon

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

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

Henrietta's Table

Henrietta's Table

I just don’t have a lot to say about Henrietta’s Table. It’s okay, not too exciting, not bad enough to get worked up about. I ate there a few times when I lived in Harvard Square, and I remember it as a good place to take a mixed group of eaters (e.g. allergies, vegetarians, meat eaters) because the food is pretty inoffensive and the menu is varied and the bread and desserts are good and it’s not too expensive and the service is decent and so on. I guess some of that’s still true, but I was disappointed to find that in my three year hiatus from Henrietta’s, the food has declined slightly. Not significantly, but the bread is more generic than I remember and the Barbeque Stout Braised Elysian Field Farm’s Pulled Lamb Shank with bacon and feta, which has a promising, or at least long, description, was underseasoned (though Carlo thought it was seasoned well, I disagree) and the House Smoked and Grilled Free Range Duck Breast was slightly overcooked. And finally, I was extremely disappointed to find that my dessert was bad. I got chocolate bread pudding, and considering that I love all desserts, especially chocolate, and especially bread pudding, this should have been great. The ice cream that came with it was pretty good, but the bread pudding looked like a cow chip and, though it didn’t taste as bad as I imagine manure would, I’m not sure it was significantly better. It was dry and not very chocolatey, and may have been scraped from the bottom of a pan.

The mediocrity of the food was all especially disappointing in light of Henrietta’s claim that its “mission” is to “deliver the freshest available food, through proper cooking techniques and excellent service” and it has farmlike scenes and fresh vegetables all over the website. The first part of the mission might have been achieved, and the last part is true, the service is good. The food is just a bit boring. The highlight of the meal was actually the wine, a 2006 bottle of Seven Deadly Zins, which was one of the cheaper selections on the red wine list, coming in at $38. I generally don’t like Zinfandel, but this one was special, with a finish that tasted exactly like cinnamon toast. It’s not a particularly complex wine, but definitely a delicious one.

In sum, Henrietta’s Table is fine. You probably won’t have a great meal there but you certainly won’t have a bad one. It’s generally inoffensive, that is, unless you find it offensive to spend $20 on a plate of food that is just okay.

Henrietta's Table on Urbanspoon

Fairly sure I called this: http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/07/does-pigeon-mea.html

One wedding and a doctorate later, I am ready to get back on the blogging saddle – particularly after our experience at the Butcher Shop Tuesday night where Rick Gencarelli, the chef from Shelburne Farms in Vermont, was in the house to discuss his new book and cook up a delicious three course meal with wines paired by Cat Silirie and her troop from The No.9 Group.

I want to talk less about the meal, which was very good, and more about the impression it left me regarding the direction of the “taste of place” food trend that seems to be sweeping the nation. Words like local, organic, artisan, farm-fresh, etc. are thrown around fairly fast and proud these days, with restaurants vying to prove their ingredients come from the closest and most regionally authentic source. This trend has not only affected the quality of the ingredients (for the better, I think) but also the techniques applied to the food itself. Simplicity has become a virtue, allowing the taste of the ingredients to show through by using basic preparation methods. In short, the “taste of place” trend wants to bring back the pre-industrialized way of cooking and eating. You eat what you grow, you grow it “organically” (whatever the hell that means at this point), and you cook it simply. Peasant food has become chic – it’s now a reflection of the way meals ought to be, some form of culinary authenticity.

Shelburne Farms in Vermont exemplifies this style and mentality. They grow their own produce and raise their own animals, so the transition from birth/seed to product to plate is on display. A total transparency of process. And the food, at least from what I could tell last night, also reflects this mentality: garden fresh raw ingredients for a salad, simple grilled meat with roasted vegetables, fresh pasta with Vermont creme fraiche, garden peas, and Vermont morels.

There is something troublesome about this trend, though. As I looked around and saw a room full of wealthy and well-dressed thirty- and forty-somethings clinking glasses of expensive Bandol and musing on the authenticity of the culinary experience they were having, I had the same awkward and slightly disgusted sensation that I do when I see tourists in small Italian towns taking pictures of the townsfolk as if they were on display for them. We weren’t buying the food, we were buying the ability to be psychologically transported to a place from which our cosmopolitan life is very far removed – a place where we live in harmony with the environment and extravagance is demonized. But there we were paying $125 a head for the experience. Quite ironic. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were all being duped.

I surely haven’t seen a reduction in restaurant prices as the techniques become simpler and the menu options become more limited (because, come on, they only buy local). So where does the money go? I wonder if those most responsible for the taste of the food we are eating in this new era of local/artisan products (i.e the farmers) are directly benefiting – something tells me they are not.

It would be quite a trick indeed if restauranteurs are able to continue this food trend deifying a return to simplicity and regional authenticity of ingredients while reaping the benefits of saved time, energy and cost. I am not complaining, I like the dishes that are being produced, but I fear the day when a braised Boston pigeon plucked fresh from City Hall is served to me on a bed of organic Public Gardens grass for $40 and I actually believe that it is worth paying for.

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