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.

Clio on Urbanspoon

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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.

100_0208

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 having two bad experiences at L’Espalier, I had assumed I’d never go back, but Monday night I found myself there for L’Espalier’s weekly wine night. The other two bad experiences involved their parallel weekly cheese night in early 2007 and then a birthday tasting menu dinner in late 2007. I don’t remember anything about the food and wine at Cheese Night; all I remember is being forced to pretend to sing and Carlo leaning over and whispering, “Which of our tablemates is most likely to be a serial killer?” We couldn’t decide; it seemed that they all had potential. After having time to recover from that, Carlo and I decided to go there for a tasting menu for our shared birthday in December. We had just done the same at No. 9 Park two weeks earlier so it was hard not to compare. No. 9 had better food, better wine, and better service. We thought the food at L’Espalier was boring and dry, and to top it off our cheese plate, which they selected for us, to our chagrin, had been sitting so long that all of it had congealed to the plate and hardened.

So like I said, I was surprised to find myself back there. This time, it was for a work event. Despite my misgivings about L’Espalier it is not so bad that I would pass up a free visit. Plus, I knew I would know everyone at the table and they don’t sing on Wine Night, so it didn’t seem that it could be that bad. It wasn’t. It wasn’t that good either, but I had fun and didn’t pay for it so all was not lost. The $60 menu, which was called “Summer Sippers” was as follows:

2007 Fairhall Downs, Sauvingnon Blanc, Marlborough, NZ paired with Chilled Melon Soup with Duck Confit

2007 Gai’a, “14-18H”, Rose, Agiorgitiko, Greece paired with Squash tagliatelle salad with feta, almonds and tahini dressing

2006 Montinore, Pinot Noir, Williamette, Oregon paired with Raspberry barbequed chicken with collard greens and potato salad

2006 Burgaud, “Vieilles Vignes”, Morgon, Beaujoulais pair with L’Espalier’s cheese course: Manchego, Taleggio and Bayley Hazen Blue Cheese from Vermont

The best thing I can say about this menu is that the pairings were done well. All of the wine and food together were more than the sum of the parts. That said, the parts weren’t all that good. The Sauvignon Blanc was the best stand alone wine and it was nicely chilled and probably would be good with any sort of light food in the summer. Still, it was not very complex or interesting. It was a little grassy, a lot of tropical fruit and citrus, etc–everything you’d expect in a decent NZ Sauvignon Blanc. It went well with the soup, though the soup was just so-so. I don’t know why: the mix of the duck and the melon just didn’t work. It didn’t even look that good.

Next, we had the tagliatelle, which for the record, was not tagliatelle. It was shredded squash with a pretty good dressing. And as for the rose, it was like sickly sweet candy. And I’m not saying that because I’m a rose-hater. In fact, I tend to like roses and I’m always excited to try Greek wines. This just wasn’t good. Maybe it was meant for food and again, together the squash and wine were pretty good. I was still mad about the tagliatelle though. I thought I was getting pasta with squash, not squash unsuccessfully mimicking pasta.

Next, the barbequed chicken was good, moist, but maybe not something I’d expect to get at L’Espalier. I know they are trying to show they are versatile and can do barbeque just as well as they can do duck confit, but they didn’t really impress me. Throwing raspberry on barbeque doesn’t make it clever.  The wine was okay. I normally love Oregonian Pinots, but this one was just okay. I can’t really remember much about it, and my distaste for it might have been caused by having three wines in quick succession. Together though, the food and wine blended well.

Finally, the cheese was good. But I love cheese and I would think it was good in almost any form. The thing I didn’t like was that the portion sizes varied considerably. I probably only noticed this because mine was considerably smaller than everyone else’s, but whatever, it wasn’t fair. The Beaujoulais was like the perfect table wine: quaffable, nothing challenging or sharp. Pleasant plain red wine.

And finally, we had some petits fours to send us off, for those who didn’t stick around for dessert. I ate two chocolate ones. One was okay, a sort of tiramisu cake with a hint of raspberry. It was kind of soggy but tasted good. The mini chocolate cake I ate was dry and flavorless. I didn’t try the others, an orange thing and a madeleine, but one of my colleagues said jokingly that the orange thing ruined what had been a great night. So there you have it. L’Espalier is overrated despite their charming quintessential Boston townhouse location, which they are soon leaving for the “grander” Mandarin Oriental. Don’t waste your money. Go to No. 9 if you want to drop your paycheck on a fancy meal.

L'Espalier on Urbanspoon

Last Friday night, I met a friend for dinner at Stix, the new “concept” restaurant by the 33 Management Group. Stix’ website claims that diners will eat global cuisine in a chic space with awe-inspiring architectual design. The description actually uses the word “revolutionary” to describe the concept. I am going to make a grand assertion and may live to regret it, but here goes. Unless you are in Disneyland (and even then I’m not sure), “concept” dining is a bad idea destined for failure, especially if you promise your patrons a revolutionary experience.

Stix’ “concept” seems more like a “gimmick”. Basically, all of their “signature” dishes, which consists of half the menu, are little bits of protein or vegetable cooked on a flavored stick. Our waitress explained that the flavored stick would infuse the protein/vegetable bit with the flavors of the stick. For example, the Grilled Lamb on Citrus Rosemary is a small piece of lamb (a bite or two) cooked on a stick that has been infused with Citrus and Rosemary and in turn, the stick should infuse the lamb with those flavors. It doesn’t work; it’s stupid.

We ordered four of the Stix Signature plates:

Shrimp on Thai Coconut Lime STIX
flavored with lime, pineapple and sesame (Thailand)

Duck on Citrus Rosemary STIX*
honey, lime and ginger glaze (Asia)

Seared Scallops on Ginger Mango STIX*
orange oil and sesame (Australia)

Grilled Lamb on Citrus Rosemary STIX*
with cucumber raita (Greece)

None of the protein bits absorbed the flavors of the stick. One of them had decent flavor (the scallop), but it seemed to come from the sauce or seasoning on the actual piece of scallop (ie outside of the food, not inside). The rest of the food was mediocre. The duck was totally flavorless (we actually left one of our three bits). The shrimp tasted like shrimp with nothing on it, and the lamb was dry. The aforementioned scallops were actually really good until my friend bit into one only to crunch down on something very very hard. She looked shocked, said nothing for 15 seconds, then spit out her mouthful of food and explained, “sorry, I thought I broke my tooth, but I think it’s okay.”

Furthermore, none of the dishes tasted like the place with which they were labeled. Stix boldly labels the dishes with the country after whose cuisine they are modelled, just in case you want to know in which country your revolution is taking place. I wanted to be transported to Thailand, Australia, Asia, and Greece, and instead I was left sort of hungry in a bar with decent atmosphere (certainly not awe-inspiring).

I was hungry because there wasn’t very much food. Each plate comes with three stick/meat bits, so approximately 3-6 bites per Signature Dish. First of all, this “group of three” was annoying. Stix seems like the ideal venue for sharing with your dinner compatriots (since everything is pre-apportioned), but how many people go out in groups of three? Certainly this does happen, but I would bet that most diners come in groups of two or four, and having three bits makes sharing awkward. Second of all, I would have had to eat at least 4 of the $9 plates to feel reasonably satisfied (and I’m not very big), and at that point, I might as well have gone to a good restaurant and gotten a $40 entree. So anyway, after I’d eaten my twenty bites of mediocre food, I was still too hungry to get dessert and decided to get the cheese plate. It was fine, totally forgettable.

In sum, if you’re stranded on Stanhope Street some night and you’re not hungry but you’re looking for a bar with a nice, but not awe-inspiring atmosphere, Stix would probably work for you. Under any other circumstances, I would avoid it.

Stix on Urbanspoon