The wait is over. Ken Oringer and Jaimie Bissonette’s newest venture, Coppa, has finally opened. The restaurant had a lot to live up to, not the least of which was the hype built up over the past six months, as every week brought tidbits of news about its opening/ projected menu etc… So, it seems a bit unfair to say that it didn’t quite meet expectations. But it didn’t. And given that restaurant experiences are by nature subjective, the influence of your expectations on your satisfaction are no less legitimate than the quality of the food itself. So, let me do you a favor that will surely enhance your experience should you choose to go: Coppa is not as good as you think it will be.

That said, Coppa is a damn fine concept, with damn fine food, in a, if I may say so my damn self, a damn fine little corner of Shawmut St. Is it as good as Toro? I don’t think so.  My standards for Italian fare are higher than for any other food so I might be a bit biased, but the dishes here (save for the ravioli) didn’t pack the flavorful punch that Toro more often than not delivers. Maybe this will change in time as the chefs tweak the menu based on customer feedback, but right now it’s not as good as it could be. Here’s what we had:

pig's ear terrine

This was tasty enough. The texture of pig’s ear is usually a bit gummier and tough, but this melts in your mouth.

Arancini

This wasn’t tasty enough. Arancini are easy to make. If you need confirmation of this get thee to Galleria Umberto where they sling them out by the hundreds on a daily basis. If I order them at a nice restaurant I want something a bit more interesting going on. Get playful with your balls, chef. Show me something I’ve never seen before. Or drop the price on it.

sea urchin panini w/mostarda and butter

This wasn’t that tasty at all. But to be fair, there’s only so much sea urchin flavor I can handle. I ordered poorly here.

margherita pizza

This was nice. It’s no Gran Gusto. But it’s a Picco caliber pizza.

grilled octopus, salsa verde, preserved lemon

Loved the taste, but good lord there was a lot of sauce. An unwieldy amount of sauce. Like the amount of mayonnaise McDonald’s puts on its McChicken sandwich. That amount of sauce.

calves brains ravioli, radicchio, brown butter, calcagno

This is the dish that will make me go back. Wow. A great entry level dish for the brains rookie. If you don’t like these ravioli I will eat my hat. If you don’t love these ravioli, I won’t eat my hat but I will do something. You can count on that.

I think Coppa will get better with time, and given Oringer’s success with his other restaurants I will be returning frequently to double-check.

Coppa on Urbanspoon

There’s something odd about the aesthetic of Ginger Park. The interior, inherited from its predecessor Banq, seems like a combination of an underground sand bunker and an ear canal.  Like when Han Solo landed the Milennium Falcon in the belly of the space slug, you get the feeling that at any moment the restaurant could come alive and swallow you up. If it did, you’d be consumed along with some occasionally very tasty and otherwise just kind of tasty asian food. The menu is fairly long, ensuring there will be at least a few things for everyone. And in keeping with the Boston area trend away from three course meals and towards small plates (or, in my case, 5 course meals), Ginger Park encourages you to order a spattering of dishes to share with your friends. This trend irks me for several reasons. First, this can lead to occasionally awkward group ordering should hunger not be equally distributed amongst your party.  Erring on the side of too much food solves this problem, but is that really a position I want to be put in? Second, if group dining and sharing is the idea then offer some dishes that deserve to be shared – not plates where you have to ask how many dumplings come with an order to ensure everyone gets a bite. Specials that cater to groups of 4,6, 8 people. Something akin to the Bo Ssam at Momofuku in New York would not only be a more appropriate group dish but also be a unique addition to Boston restaurants more generally. I digress.

The food at Ginger Park is good. How good? Not good enough to persuade me to regularly pay twice the amount I would in Chinatown or Allston for dishes with the same flavors but that are less aesthetically pleasing. But good enough to make me go back when I want to accompany those flavors with good drinks and  a nice outfit. Here’s what we got:

Stir-Fried Silver Pin Noodles w/ snow tofu, bean sprouts

Dolsit Bi Bim Bap

Duck confit and chinese sausage fried rice w/ sunny side up egg

Tea smoked duck, mandarin pancakes, roasted plums

fried fish special

The only disappointment was the whole fish. Not a lot of meat on them bones. The “mandarin” pancakes were essentially  scallion pancakes, and a mediocre version at that. They didn’t compare to Gourmet Dumpling House. I appreciated the kitchen’s willingness to drop a raw egg on the bi bim bap – not too many restaurants would risk offending the squeamish with that move. Both rice dishes and the noodle dish were quite tasty.

While there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly new or exciting about the food at Ginger Park, we were happy with our meal and it does seem to fill a niche in Boston. Asian food tends to come in a casual if not downright dirty atmosphere (not counting Japanese which lends itself quite nicely to an upscale environment, as evidence by O Ya, Oishii, etc..). While there are a couple places that try to defy the stereotype (PF Chang’s? maybe Ginger Exchange?) Ginger Park is to my knowledge the only restaurant serving this kind of food in a trendy atmosphere. One where you might take a date, or meet with co-workers after a long day in your suits. I think that will keep it alive, and makes it worth a visit when that’s what you’re looking for.

Ginger Park on Urbanspoon

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.

Rocca on Urbanspoon

It has taken us a while to drag ourselves down to the end of Washington St. to try out Ken Oringer’s celebrated tapas restaurant. The whole no reservations thing sapped our motivation a bit, particularly since one of us has an irrational distaste for waiting more than 10 minutes to be seated. But we’ve very much enjoyed Clio, Uni, and KO Prime in the past so it was about time we made the trek. Plus, with a menu that offers such delights as beef heart, tongue, sweetbreads, and head cheese it was only a matter of time before I answered my stomach’s call. We arrived at 5:30 thinking there was no way we’d have a problem getting a table – which we didn’t, but the restaurant was already 3/4 filled. The accommodations are a bit tight, but it works out great for couples who like to stare longingly into each other’s eyes while secretly listening to the conversations around them, sharing knowing smirks and “can you believe that shit?” kicks under the table.

The menu is long and varied, and you will most certainly have several cases of food envy, but you will inspire it as well. We did so, on several occasions, with the following:

ox heart?

corazon a la plancha: grass-fed beef heart with romesco

Thin slices of beef heart. I’ve sung this meat’s praises before. I don’t want porterhouse, I don’t want filet mignon, I want heart. So much more flavor and the texture is lean and chewy.

sweetbreads

crispy veal sweetbreads

tomato salad

tomato salad

Came with what they called Green Goddess dressing, shaved cheese (maybe manchego?), and a creamy avocado mousse. I normally don’t love tomato salad anywhere but in Italy, but I ate my fair share of this one.

foie gras

seared foie gras

Much to my surprise, this was the least successful dish of the night. The jam on the toast overpowered the foie gras with its sweetness.

serrano ham

serrano ham

corn

grilled corn w/ alioli, lime, espelette pepper, and aged cheese

I like corn as much as the next guy, and I would certainly never order it at dinner, but this was labelled as the kitchen’s specialty so I was intrigued.  One cheesy, corn-filled mouth later and I was about ready to order another plate. This is the dish that has me thinking about my next visit to Toro. Do not order this if you are looking to make out with your date after dinner, but if toothpicks and gargling aren’t a turn off or romance is not in the air, then pig the F out. Corn has never tasted so good.

pork belly

crispy pork belly w/fried green tomato and maple crumble

Also delicious. The belly was cooked just right – juicy and melting with a crispy skin – and the flavor combination of the sweet maple crumble and the light, slightly acidic tomato came together perfectly.

churros

churros and chocolate

We finished off with a plate of churros that must have been fried in bacon fat, because these tasted particularly porky. That, in combination with a bit of a spicy kick from the chocolate, gave the flavors in this simple dish several added layers of depth. On the whole, we had a great experience at Toro. We would certainly return, though only for an early seating since by the time we left the line had spilled out the door and into the street. This made me look forward to the opening of Ken Oringer’s new restaurant, Coppa, even more.

Toro on Urbanspoon

Franklin Cafe

Franklin Cafe

Carlo and I have had a visit to Franklin Cafe on our to-do list for quite some time.   What has been holding us back is my uncanny inability to wait for anything.  Franklin Cafe does not take reservations and unless I’m on vacation with no place to go on a nice day, I cannot stand to wait for a table for more than 15 minutes.  So to circumvent my disability, we went early on a Saturday evening, arriving at 5:45pm to find a single unoccupied booth in the back.  Phew.

We started the evening with cocktails.  This is not our usual habit, but FC is known for their drinks list so we thought we’d throw caution to the wind and have some liquor.  It was a mistake.  Carlo ordered a blood orange martini with Charbay Blood Orange, Vodka, OJ, Campari, which he found overly bitter.  He liked my Spiced Pear made with Grey Goose Pear, Fresh Apple Juice, Ginger, which was reminiscent of cider and would have been more appropriate as a warm drink by the fire after a day of skiing.

Part of the problem was that we had barely made a dent in our drinks when (tasty) bread and the wine and appetizers showed up.  Spiced pear and short ribs just don’t mix.   I’ve been trying to promote (in my mind) the dissemination of half bottles of wine so we ordered the only red they had, which was a Guigal Gigondas Rhone.   It was very pleasant table wine, but probably should have been $23 for a bottle, not for a half bottle.  The appetizers were pretty good, nothing remarkable.  I got braised short ribs with turnip greens and sweet carrots and Carlo inexplicably ordered mac and cheese gnocchi with roasted tomato, sausage, and goat cheese.  I say inexplicably because it’s pretty clear that Carlo is not going to like baked gnocchi made in an American bistro in the South End.  I tried them too and they were okay but kind of mushy and covered in below average tomato sauce.

The atmosphere at Franklin Cafe is great. It’s casual with nice dim lighting, good background music, an attractive bar, friendly people, but it was increasingly evident throughout the evening that FC wanted to turn over as many tables as possible as quickly as possible.  Undoubtedly this is the goal for most restaurants, but some hide it better than others. I also felt significant pressure from all the beady-eyed staring diners-in-waiting that I had trouble enjoying my meal, which is another reason I do not like reservationless restaurants. Our waitress was amicable and not pushy, but our entrees came out as she was clearing the appetizers.   It was unpleasant to go from mac and cheese and short ribs to steak frites and roasted chicken so quickly.

Again, the food was decent.  The frites were good; the steak was slightly overcooked (granted Carlo thinks any steak that doesn’t moo is too done).  The Roquefort butter was tasty.  The roast chicken I ordered was a strange choice.  I am not sure I have ever ordered chicken in a restaurant, but nothing else on the menu excited me and I thought grapes and chicken sounded like a strange combination.  They were.  Not exactly bad, but there was no relationship between them.  It reminded me of something my parents would make in an effort to get me to eat more fruits and vegetables.  We also ordered brussel sprouts for a side; they were good.

Here is where things took a turn for the worse.  At this point in the evening, I realized just how sick and twisted this world can be.  What happened is this:  I asked for the dessert menu, and the seemingly friendly waitress revealed her true colors.  She said, without a flicker of remorse, ‘we don’t have dessert.’  What the hell kind of “restaurant” does not serve dessert?  When I walked into the Franklin Cafe, an American bistro, I had dreams of bread pudding and fruit crisps with homemade ice cream.  Maybe even something with Meyer lemon in it?  But instead, they left us high and dry, a bit empty and sad and wondering where to go.

Luckily, we were very close to the South End Buttery, a cafe and now restaurant, known for their cupcakes and for the fact that their name has the word ‘buttery’ in it.  The new cozy-looking restaurant would not let us in for desserts-only so we sat in the empty closing cafe and shared the only cupcake available, the Red Velvet with Cream Cheese frosting.  It was spectacular.  Of course we were still reeling from the catastrophe back at FC, so maybe we were under the influence of oppression, but it was a really good cupcake.  The cream cheese frosting contrasted beautifully with the bite of vinegar in the cake.  So not all was lost in the evening.

Though the Franklin Cafe had a nice atmosphere and decent food, I think that we will be more likely to return to the Buttery for cupcakes and maybe dinner than we will be to the long waits and rushed dessertless service of the FC.

Franklin Cafe on Urbanspoon

We didn’t know much about the Oishii in the South End before our dinner there over the weekend. We had been to the Oishii in Chestnut Hill, a very satisfying experience, and were expecting something along those lines with a bit more of that South End chic. We had a $200 gift certificate and were feeling quite confident that this tidy sum would stuff our swelling bellies with enough fish to slip us into mercury-induced comas. Little did we know.

Taro, broccoli, sweet potato, eggplant, and uni tempura (1 piece each)

2 pieces foie gras w/black truffle sushi, 2 pieces sea urchin sushi, 2 pieces freshwater unagi sushi

Appetizer of raw salmon and sliced strawberries in a watermelon sauce

Kobe Beef with red wine pear maki

White Tiger Maki

Sockeye Salmon covered Maki

Molten chocolate cake

A $35 bottle of Spanish Verdejo

________________________________

$275

I’ll start from the top. The tempura was tasty, but not noticeably different than the tempura I could get at any number of lower priced sushi restaurants. The sushi pieces were similarly uninspired. To be fair, the foie gras pieces were$15 each and certainly contributed disproportionately to the heavy bill, but they also didn’t impress. Sushi rice with a thin sheet of foie gras and a slice of black truffle. No seasoning (needed a little salt), no sauce. Meh. Certainly not worth $7.50 a bite. The unagi and sea urchin were good, but again, didn’t stand out from other cheaper versions. Same goes for the Sockeye Salmon and the White Tiger (Though I will say that I was having an incredibly difficult time tasting the fish all night. This could be due to the fact that Liz made me walk half hour to get there and the -5 degree windchill may have frozen my tastebuds) . The Kobe Beef with red wine pear maki was a waste of money, that is unless you really want to pay $30 for a mouthful of julienne pear. Maybe you do. Maybe you love pear, and paying more for it makes it taste all the better. I only like pear, so I was disappointed. Which brings us to the molten chocolate cake. This one’s our bad. Who orders a molten chocolate cake in a sushi restaurant? The waitress even had the audacity to commend us on our ridiculous selection. To justify our selection, I must give credit to the menu designers at Oishii for a clever little marketing ploy for which we certainly fell. The menu said that we would have to wait 15 minutes for the molten chocolate cake. Paradoxically, this has the effect of exciting the diner… Oooooo, you mean I’ll have to wait extra long for my food? That must mean it’s going to be extra good. The kitchen must have to temporarily shut down so the line cooks can concentrate on all the components of my complicated and time-intensive dish. We would have continued to operate under this delusion had our molten chocolate cake not arrived in 3 minutes, and so obviously been microwaved. There was a thin layer of not so warm crust surrounding a completely soupy and occasionally scorching hot interior. Nothing screams microwave like the totally unbalanced distribution of heat.

So in sum, we will not return to Oishii in the South End. One caveat. It may very well be that I am not sufficiently familiar with sushi to be able to discern its relative quality from establishment to establishment. It could be that what tastes good to me in Chestnut Hill is of a lesser quality or conception than what tastes good to me in the South End, and that I’m not just paying for the neighborhood. But here’s what I do know. O Ya in the leather district is a lot better than Oishii. A lot better. And the price tag on a dinner for two at O Ya is only marginally higher. So if you’re in Boston and looking to pay $250 + for a great sushi dinner, you’d be a fool to go to Oishii instead of O Ya. Skip buying the second Starbucks latte for a week and you’ll have saved the difference.

Oishii Boston on Urbanspoon

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.