October 2009


My favorite restaurant in New England, hands down. Combines the perfect amount of newfangled cooking trends and experimentation with comfort food flavors in a casual and friendly atmosphere. This is the only local restaurant that is attempting to be in the same class as places like Alinea and French Laundry, and it helps that the chef, Rob Evans, used to work with Thomas Keller. As far as I’m concerned, Evans has already surpassed his former mentor, creating an establishment that serves high concept but totally accessible food in an environment that feels like your local bistro.  It’s (almost) priced that way as well. This is not the kind of place that you only go to on your birthday or anniversary. One look at their menus will reveal that, with all dishes under $25, you could easily spend  a lot more and eat a lot worse at any number of Boston restaurants. The variety of menu structures can also accommodate an assortment of appetites. From the traditional appetizer-entree folk, to the somewhat more adventurous who might like the nightly 6 course blind tasting, to the food frenzied who could take the necessary steps of reserving the 15 course Chef’s Menu well ahead of time and structure their vacations around availability. We, surprise surprise, fall into the latter category. A phone call 6 weeks before our visit got us a 6:30 table on a Saturday night for the Chef’s Menu. We were informed that it is typically not offered on Saturdays (I suppose because that’s the busiest night), but that the chef was willing to make an exception (Sidenote: Portland restaurants seem to have an annoying habit of not staffing a reservationist such that when you call to make a reservation you leave a message and wait a day to hear back. Come on, Portland. Shit.) One of the other perks to ordering this menu is that because it’s not highlighted on the website, there’s a one line note at the bottom of the blind tasting menu page, you will elicit a staggering amount of food envy, and since advance reservations are required, that warm self-satisfied feeling will last all meal as other stare on helplessly. The menu goes for $120 a head with $50 for wine pairings. Here’s what we had:

puffed lobster

puffed lobster

The waiter described this as lobster mixed with tapioca, frozen, then fried. Had the consistency of a rice cracker but with a potent lobster flavor.

fried pemaquid oyster, horseradish sauce

fried pemaquid oyster, horseradish sauce

pemaquid oyster, cocktail orb

pemaquid oyster, cocktail orb

We each had a different oyster preparation. Though these weren’t the best bites of the night, they exemplify the way Hugo’s takes classic flavor combo’s and dresses them up. Simultaneously comforting and cutting edge.

romaine hearts, white anchovy, bottarga, caesar dressing

romaine hearts, white anchovy, bottarga, caesar dressing

atlantic fluke crudo, petite panzanella, lemon olive oil, aleppo pepper

atlantic fluke crudo, petite panzanella, lemon olive oil, aleppo pepper

For the next course Liz had a deconstructed Caesar (she loved it -we had a similar dish our first time at Hugo’s) and mine was a wonderfully fresh piece of raw fluke over a savory  and rich panzanella.

smoked trout roe, potato cone

smoked trout roe, potato cone

smoked char jerky ala minute

smoked char jerky ala minute

Liz won out for the next course. I had a very nice smoked trout roe in a potato cone, with some kind of cream hidden in the cone (very similar to the amuse bouche at the French Laundry and Per Se) but Liz was presented with a smoking glass jar set in a cube of ice, containing a piece of smoked char. The waiter explained the technical merits of smoking the char within ice but I cant remember any of it. I’m just a sucker for smoke billowing off a plate, and it tasted great. Brought me back to the smoked fish we had in the Netherlands.

matsutake mushroom "noodles", matsutake consomme, autumn aroma

matsutake mushroom "noodles", matsutake consomme, autumn aroma

This dish came with a story. Apparently the chef and his wife, Nancy, who runs the front of the house amongst other things, had recently moved into a new home they had been working on for some time. This consomme was served surrounded by a bed of nettles, leaves, pines and other assorted shrubbery the chef had foraged from their property that morning, over which the waiter poured steaming hot water to give off a delightful Fall scent.

gently cooked casco bay cod, egg battered croutons, saffron-tabasco mayo, chorizo-mussel broth

gently cooked casco bay cod, egg battered croutons, saffron-tabasco mayo, chorizo-mussel broth

Great textures in this dish. Crispy crouton, flaky cod, chewy mussels.

green apple snow

green apple snow

Palate cleanser. They needed to make sure your mouth was ready for the party that was about to bust out with the next dish.

gedalias farm goat ravioli, fried halloumi, raisin puree

gedalias farm goat ravioli, fried halloumi, raisin puree

Good lord this was amazing. The raviolo was filled with a rich braised goat and the crispy fried cheese and sweet raisin puree was a perfect contrast. I saw this on the regular menu as well so if it’s there, get it, and reap the delicious rewards.

bresaola, shaved fennel, beet

bresaola, shaved fennel, beet

beef fat belgium fry, beef tartare, quail egg

beef fat belgium fry, beef tartare, quail egg

This time my dish won. The thick, crispy fried potato topped with beef tartare and sunny side up egg was the perfect bite.

sweet and sicy sweetbreads, basmati rica cakes, peanut, bok choy, cilantro

sweet and sicy sweetbreads, basmati rice cakes, peanut, bok choy, cilantro

Of all the great food we had, this was my favorite. And again, it was a traditional flavor combination but prepared with a twist. The rice cake was like the world’s best tater tot, and the sweetbread gave the asian flavors a texture contrast that a more traditional meat can’t offer. It was perfect. I ate mine and Liz’s. Very quickly.

"beef ribs", rib eye, short rib, potato puree, multiple= “beef ribs”, rib eye, short rib, potato puree, multiple preparations of onion

The hits just kept on coming with the two preparations of beef along with potato and onion accompaniments. Fried onion, onion puree, onion pearls, grilled onion. The short rib had been pulled and then pressed to form a cube of tender beef heaven, and the potato puree with the pool of gravy was buttery magic.

tarentaise, spring brook farm, reading vt. port poached pear, toasted vanilla walnuts, baguette chips

tarentaise, spring brook farm, reading vt. port poached pear, toasted vanilla walnuts, baguette chips

Even the pear on the cheese plate brought it. Port poached to perfection.

Maine blueberry sorbet, short bread crumble, ginger, honey mead sabayon

Maine blueberry sorbet, short bread crumble, ginger, honey mead sabayon

The first dessert was a nice preamble to the second and third. Started off on the lighter, fruitier side.

"crispy cream" braised apple, date, long pepper

"crispy cream" braised apple, date, long pepper

The crispy cream here was a fried custard  and along with the braised apple it made this dish-licking good.

"Peanut butter cup" warm bittersweet chocolate pudding cake, salted peanut ice cream, peanut butter powder

"Peanut butter cup" warm bittersweet chocolate pudding cake, salted peanut ice cream, peanut butter powder

But this was even better. The salt, the ice cream, the creamy cake that was buried underneath, all contributed to a perfect ender. Might be a bit rich for some after a big meal, but not this guy. I finished Liz’s as well.

There were no flaws in this meal. Usually when we get a tasting menu there is a dish or two that we didn’t love or, perhaps, didn’t even like. But for the second time at Hugo’s the Chef’s Menu has impressed top to bottom. I don’t think there is another restaurant in New England that could pull that off. If you live in Boston, take the ferry, the train, or just drive the 1:45 to Portland and see what it’s all about for yourself.

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While browsing through Rabelais books on Middle St during my trip to Portland last week, I overheard the shop’s proprietress speaking with a young man in his early twenties:

“Chad! Great to see you! How’s life at Jean-Georges?”

Chad is having a great time, apparently. As are the slew of other young Portland chefs who began their careers at the likes of Hugo’s, Fore Street,Evangeline’s, 555, etc… and have since moved on to continue their training at some of the best restaurants in the country (Daniel and Bernardin were also mentioned). It was a fitting beginning to a three day stay in what is certainly the culinary capital of New England. The food quality per capita absolutely dwarfs Boston, and  is on par with the other great food cities in the country. My food tour began at Bresca, a cozy 20 seat Italian-ish place with a charming interior close to the corner of Middle St and Franklin Ave.

Welcome to Bresca

Welcome to Bresca

The menu is small but interesting. A few small plates, including the gorgonzola and chorizo stuffed dates pictured below, 5 or so apps and entrees and a couple of pastas.

gorgonzola and chorizo stuffed dates

gorgonzola and chorizo stuffed dates

Toc - smoked ricotta, creamy polenta, royal trumpet mushrooms, radicchio, lardo

Toc - smoked ricotta, creamy polenta, royal trumpet mushrooms, radicchio, lardo

The texture of polenta was different – a bit pasty and sticky, not so much creamy.  But all the flavors worked together. The thin slide of lardo over the top really made the dish. As would a thin slice of lardo over virtually anything.

Braised Tuscan black kale - 6 minute egg, crispy pancetta, hombu butter, charred multigrain bread

Braised Tuscan black kale - 6 minute egg, crispy pancetta, hombu butter, charred multigrain bread

Pan fried sweetbreads, bacon lardons, caramelized shallots, frisee, arugula, sherry vinaigrette

Pan fried sweetbreads, bacon lardons, caramelized shallots, frisee, arugula, sherry vinaigrette

This is how I want all my greens from now on – served over a bed of sweetbreads.

sea urchin linguini, uni, evoo, basil, mint, lemon zest

sea urchin linguini, uni, evoo, basil, mint, lemon zest

Great dish. Interesting and unique flavors. The refreshing mint, basil and lemon perfectly complemented the rich and fishy sea urchin. Bresca could benefit from making their own pasta, though. Not much difference between these linguini and what I get out of a box of Barilla.

market fish, cod

market fish, cod

For the quality, Bresca is very reasonably priced. Though that most likely reflects the cost of operating in Portland. If it were in Boston I would be happy paying $15 app $30 entree. Though it isn’t really an Italian place, the few dishes that are Italian inspired puts the vast majority of the North End’s offerings to shame (though they do a fine job of that on their own these days) and are right up there with the best Italian Boston has to offer.

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On Sunday nights Clio has started offering a $35 fried chicken dinner. That money will get you a heaping plate of chicken (you will most likely have a healthy amount of leftovers), a couple of sides (we had mac and cheese, cornbread and collard greens), and a dessert. It’s a great value and a great concept – a high end restaurant making simple comfort food.

winner winner, chicken dinner

winner winner, chicken dinner

What I’m about to say may sound like an insult, but I think it’s a high compliment. This chicken tasted like the chicken wings you get on a PuPu platter at a below average Chinese place. I was immediately transported back to my senior year dorm room, sitting on the couch at 3 am playing Fifa on XBox with a chicken bone in my mouth and a spare rib in my lap. Consider what this means. First, it’s delicious. Whoever denies that shitty Chinese food tastes good either has an anomalous palate or is kidding themselves. Second, they  created that tasty flavor profile without the subsequent feelings of nausea, regret, or msg-induced late night scrambles to the sink for water. They’ve managed to turn fresh ingredients (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on this) into the kinds of flavors you crave desperately. I had a similar experience at Hearth in New York City. One of the pate’s on the charcuterie plate, when eaten in combination with the mustard on the plate, tasted almost exactly like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Incredible! Fast-food restaurants have food scientists whose sole job is to identify the flavors which activate pleasure centers in the brain and will leave customers salivating. Indeed, the suggestion that the Colonel uses addictive chemicals in his chicken which make you crave it fort-nightly is not far from the truth. Given this, I consider it an incredible achievement to  create these flavors not synthetically, but organically. I wish more food tasted like Double Whoppers, I just don’t want to feel like I ate a Double Whopper.

So, in sum, the chicken rocked. The skin was crisp, the breast was moist, and it tasted just as good cold the next day.

lloyd dobbler, apple cobbler

lloyd dobler, apple cobbler?

This was a totally fine apple cobbler. Overall we were very happy with our meal, especially the price. Clio is typically prohibitively expensive, but $35 for a dinner and your Monday lunch is reasonable. And given the quality of the food, I’d say this is an opportunity you don’t want to miss. Not sure how long they’ll keep it on the menu.

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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.

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After a last minute change of plans forced us to cancel our Saturday night reservation at Il Casale in Belmont we  scrambled to find a table somewhere in Boston and came up with Rocca. We had been once before shortly after it opened and were largely ambivalent about it’s offerings but figured we’d give it another chance, particularly since they were advertising an overhauled menu. Unfortunately, while there were several things on the menu that sounded interesting and tasty, my ambivalence towards Rocca continues.

pizzette

soppresatta pizzetta, ricotta, roasted tomato, broccoli rabe

In what seemed like a safe play Liz went with the pizzetta as an appetizer. She wasn’t expecting a masterpiece of the brick oven, but it’s pretty hard to make an offensive pizza. This one was particularly doughy and the bitter broccoli rabe dominated the flavor.

baccala

baccala mantecato

There were two appetizers that I was legitimately excited about ordering since they are not often on menus. Baccala and farinata. The baccala came pureed and baked and was served with toast and roasted peppers. I enjoyed this quite a bit and ate it up happily. The farinata, on the other hand…

farinata

farinata

Farinata is essentially a chick pea pancake. It’s easy to make and is a great alternative to polenta as a comforting winter starchy dish. This is the first time I’ve seen it on a menu in Boston so I give credit to the kitchen for serving it, but this one was exceedingly dry. I imagine this is because of its girth. The thinner the farinata the better as far as I’m concerned – the thicker it is the longer you have to cook it to heat through, the harder it is to control the internal temperature, the lower the heat you apply has to be so you don’t burn the outside… it’s just a recipe for mediocre farinata. I do hope that this becomes a food trend though because it is one of my favorite Italian small plates.

tomato basil

spaghetti poveri

The pasta was well-cooked and had a nice texture but the sauces were just ordinary. Not too much flavor going on in the tomato sauce and the panzotti sat in a pool of butter and oil that had me wiping them off on the side of the plate before eating.

squash pansotti

sugar pumpkin panzotti

On the whole, you could do a lot worse than Rocca in terms of Italian food in Boston. It aspires to be more than another North End red sauce dump and it succeeds. It’s just not a place I’d be excited to go back to. But given the perhaps unreasonably high bar I set for Italian food, that might just be a ringing endorsement.

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