I’ve sung Gran Gusto’s praises before. It’s our go to place any time we’re in the mood for great pizza.  But this particular occasion merits its own mention because of the incredible quality of the meal from top to bottom. From the grilled squid, to the speck and stracciatella, to the pizza, and the dessert, this may have been the best Italian meal I’ve had in the Boston area. Nothing fancy, just fresh, perfectly cooked and delicious.

grilled octopus

A lot of restaurants get too creative with grilled octopus. There’s nothing better than a nice char, lemon and parsley.

stracciatella and speck

On this particular night the kitchen had several specials revolving around what is now my favorite cheese: stracciatella. It’s the cheese that is used to stuff Burrata – a mixture of mozzarella and cream that will blow your mind. It was served with speck, dressed with a little black pepper, oregano and olive oil, and set over some bitter greens. We inhaled it and quickly ordered another.

rigatoni, stracciatella, tomato, chanterelles

Here the stracciatella was laid over rigatoni in a sauce of cherry tomatoes and chanterelles. Unbelievably good.

margarita

Followed it up with the best pizza around.

ricotta pie

And then topped it off with a nice piece of ricotta pie.

Though the pasta dishes are hit or miss at Gran Gusto, when they get it right, they knock it out of the park. It’s the closest thing we have to the kind of trattoria you might find anywhere across Italy. The service used to be spotty but it seems as if they’ve weeded out the problems as the restaurant has picked up business. Go there.

Gran Gusto on Urbanspoon

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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.

T.W. Food on Urbanspoon

Tupelo and Hungry Mother are two of the most celebrated additions to the Cambridge eating scene over the past year. That they are both southern inspired suggests a niche in the Boston area that was screaming to be filled at least since the closing of Bob the Chef’s over on Tremont. By most accounts, Tupelo and Hungry Mother are doing a fine job, and our experiences at both restaurants largely confirm this. So a traditional like/dislike review seems less appropriate in this case than a comparison of these largely similar establishments. If you’re in the mood for some catfish, fried oysters, roasted chicken or grits where should you go? Here’s recommending Tupelo.

With appetizers at $5-8 and entrees for $12-15 Tupelo beats Hungry Mother’s prices ($8-11 apps and $18-25 entrees) by a sizable margin, without sacrificing anything when it comes to the food or atmosphere (though Hungry Mother does trump Tupelo in terms of drink selection and quality). Tupelo’s fried oysters with green tomatoes ($8) stacked up against Hungry Mother’s fried oysters ($11) and I preferred their catfish ($14.50) to Mother’s ($18).

Most of Hungry Mother’s offerings stray a bit too far from the comfort food and too close to the French for my taste. The dishes tend to be a bit more “refined” than at Tupelo, but in a totally vanilla way. There is nothing comforting or interesting about the rainbow trout dish below. Other entrees on the menu are similarly uninspired e.g.  french style gnocchi (I’m not sure what makes these gnocchi French, but anything that would make them less Italian can’t be good) and veal strip loin. These items do not jump off the menu. Tupelo’s entrees, on the other hand, sound unhealthy and delicious: beer battter crepes, daube of beef with hominy mashed potatoes, bourbon maple bbq chicken, new orleans gumbo. The one disappointing part of Tupelo was the biscuit. There are few breads I like more than a good biscuit, but this version was dry and bland. Other than that, Tupelo satisfied on all counts.

Hungry Mother's fried Chesapeake Bay Oysters

Hungry Mother's fried Chesapeake Bay Oysters

Crispy Catfish with fresh green tomatoes, parsley potatoes, and pickled jalapeno aioli

Tupelo's Crispy Catfish with fresh green tomatoes, parsley potatoes, and pickled jalapeno aioli

Hungry Mother's cornmeal catfish

Hungry Mother's cornmeal catfish w/low country red rice middlins, andouille sausage, green tomato relish

Fish was good, but the middlins were quite bland, which was an issue the last time I had this dish.

Hungry Mother's grilled rainbow trout, fingerlings, red vidalias, bacon, almond-brown butter

Hungry Mother’s grilled rainbow trout, fingerlings, red vidalias, bacon, almond-brown butter

Half Roasted Chicken, Bourbon-Maple BBQ chicken with cheddar grits, sweet onions and quick dressed greens

Tupelo's Half Roasted Chicken, Bourbon-Maple BBQ chicken with cheddar grits, sweet onions and quick dressed greens

The half-chicken was moist and sticky and salty and sweet and went great with the dense cornbread and the cheesy grits. This is what I want if I’m in the mood for southern flavors.

Tupelo's Brown Butter Pecan Pie with Toscanini's Tupelo honey ice cream and blackberry sauce

Tupelo's Brown Butter Pecan Pie with Toscanini's Tupelo honey ice cream and blackberry sauce

The pecan pie was delicious though i read somewhere that it might be off the menu now. The rest of the desserts looked equally good, so there should be no shortage of delicious ways to finish your meal.

Tupelo on Urbanspoon

Hungry Mother 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.

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

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

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

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