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.

Hugo's on Urbanspoon

Advertisements
In de middle of nowhere

In de middle of nowhere

The best places to eat seem to be the restaurants that are just starting to gain attention. The hyped and the celebrated might sit on their laurels a bit, but a place like In de Wulf, with a young talented chef and one michelin star, has everything to prove and it shows. This was my favorite meal of our trip. The food itself compared with both Hof Van Cleve (I actually preferred it here to Hof Van Cleve) and Oud Sluis, but the atmosphere won me over. This is a food retreat. The restaurant is in a revamped farmhouse which also houses 10 guest rooms – it’sdifficult to find, tucked away in the rolling hills of southern Belgium (very close to the border of France) and there is nothing to do here but lounge around the grounds, take walks or bike rides through the countryside, and eat excellent food. What more could you want? Maybe, maybe, a TV in the room (there are none). But there is free wireless for the technology-dependent.  Our reservation was at 7 so we descended the staircase at the appropriate time and were greeted by the concierge who invited us to have a seat in the lounge  for a drink- a lovely room with a view into the kitchen, low wood tables and comfy chairs and sofas.  A waiter came by shortly after and took our drink orders, suggesting their special aperitif, their version of a Picon,which was outstanding. Then, to our surprise, a waitress began bringing out assorted amuse bouches. It was a great experience to be lounging on couches with our drinks and snacking on these tasty bites. A smart way to build excitement for the meal while creating a relaxed environment. Here is what we got:

whole whelks, whelk mayonnaise

Never had a whelk before our trip but they are popular in the Benelux. Clam like, but thicker. And this was no Hellman’s mayo, not greasy at all and about as refreshing as any kind of mayonnaise can be.

picon

This was their version of a picon, a classic French aperitif that is usually made with wine. This version was a mixture of gin, vodka, manderine napoleon, and lemon and lime juice, over crushed ice with a mint foam. It is now my favorite drink. I’ve tried to have several bartenders in Boston recreate it but no luck so far. I will keep trying. And trying. Until I die of liver failure.

pork two ways

pork two ways

On the left we have a pig’s trotter cracker with mimolette and on the right a pork rind crisp with honeyvinegar. There was so much piggy flavor even in the thin veneer of trotter on the cracker.

marinated sardine, green apple, North Sea crab, sorrel

The Belgians know what to do with fish, and the chef here is no different. Throw some peculiar incarnation of green apple on it and call it a night. Very good.

marinated mackerel, herb pastille

The sorbet-like pastille was a nice contrast with the chewy fish and the crispy chip. At this point we were escorted into the main dining room for the last amuse bouche…

vegetables, herbs and flowers, Keiemtaler cheese

This dish can’t be pulled off unless everything on the plate is the highest quality. Luckily they plucked all this from their garden and the cheese was from a local valley. Light, airy, crusty bread with butter and salted rendered pork fat.

100_0168

razor clam, cucumber, seaweed

I love razor clams. They have the texture of squid, very chewy but a much stronger fishy flavor. Many of the dishes at In de Wulf were nothing more than perfectly cooked fresh fish with light and interesting vegetable accompaniments.

egg yolk, chorizo chip, in pork broth
peas, rucola, egg yolk, and broth of lard

This dish was almost perfect. The only problem was the gooey yolk mixing with the broth. The resulting texture was a bit off-putting but it didn’t matter cause it tasted so damn good.

North Sea crab, courgette "Zwartemolen", tagetes

Another great example of an incredibly fresh fish dish with smart complimentary flavors.

Ray, cauliflower, hazelnut butter, capers of elderberry, jus of ray

The fish and the accompaniments began to get richer as the courses passed.

lobster and mashed potatoes
Eastern sheldt lobster, buttermilk mashed potatoes

Hands down the best dish of our vacation. This is the kind of cooking that more fine dining restaurants should start doing. Focus all the energy and creativity and technique into creating dishes with fewer dimensions, each of which blows your effin’ mind. My socks were on fire this was so good.

Eastern sheldt eel, green celery, jus of eel and honeymead

The procession of increasingly rich fish dishes continued with the fatty, oily, eel. This was probably our least favorite dish of the night, but only because we were already kind of eeled out from the Netherlands. The celery cut the fat nicely, though.

sweetbreads
sweetbreads, pickled vegetables

Lamb was originally on the menu but the waiter informed us that the chef was not happy with the quality of the meat delivered that day. Fair enough. We were happy to eat sweetbreads which were perfectly cooked and went well with the pickled vegetables. The only problem here was that pickled vegetables will seriously affect the taste of your wine. To the point where it might be a bad idea to include them in a dish.

pigeon
Pigeon from Steenvorde, red beet, jus of cherries

The Belgian pigeon party continued at In de Wulf – hopefully they’re not getting these suckers off the churches in Brussels. Perfectly cooked and seasoned. This marked the end of the main courses and we (surprise surprise) opted for the cheese before dessert. The cheeses came with an assortment of delightful fruit relishes and jams.

cheese accompaniments
cheese accompaniments

And then began the desserts. Thankfully, all these desserts were of the fruity and refreshing sort. Nothing heavy.

Raspberry, fresh cheese, star anise, chervil, kriek beer

Oddly phallic.

rice pudding, marigold, honey

This picture sucks but there was steam from liquid nitrogen pouring off this dish. It was an interesting take on rice pudding, almost had the consistency of a crumbled rice cake.

Sorrel, lemon balm, mint, green strawberry

The meal ended with some tasty chocolate bites, and then we headed back up to our cozy room to indulge our food comas. I fully expect In de Wulf to start getting more and more attention over the next couple of years and strongly recommend a trip before that happens. If not, the chef will start writing books, only sporadically visit the kitchen and begin marketing a line of frozen lobster and potato dinners. Hurry.

“There are only two animals in the world with bones in their ‘sex’ ” our waiter noted. Welcome to Hof Van Cleve, where the endless array of delicious food is eclipsed only by the fact that you will cut some of it up with a knife made from whale penis. Hof Van Cleve is currently ranked 26th in the San Pellegrino list of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Liz and I made a special detour to the remote town of Kruishoutem on our trip to the Benelux this summer to cross it off our list. Through a misunderstanding on the part of my esteemed dining partner, we arrived half hour before the restaurant opened, and were faced with the prospect of either extending our cab ride through rural Belgium or walking around the deserted dirt roads and corn fields that surround the restaurant’s grounds. We chose the latter and in the process built up a healthy appetite which still proved no match for the amount of food we’d be served.  Both our stomachs would bend and break by the end of our 5+ hour meal. A couple more courses and my fat would have grown around and into the bottom of my seat cushion, requiring forcible removal by crane. That said, this was an unbelievably good restaurant. Heavy on the seafood, but still with a wide variety of flavors, textures, and preparations. Certainly up there with the best restaurants we’ve been to, though it didn’t have the playful element with the food that would really put it at the top.

It seems customary in nice Belgian restaurants to trot out a series of amuse bouches before the meal begins. Here they are:

braised oxtail spring roll, plum sauce, sardines on toast

braised oxtail spring roll, plum sauce, sardines on toast

herring, green apple

herring, green apple

..

(abalone) sashimi, beef sashimi, seaweed cracker, wasabi sorbet, fruit

(abalone) sashimi, beef sashimi, seaweed cracker, wasabi sorbet, fruit

frog leg, herb broth, cous cous

frog leg, herb broth, cous cous

The frog leg may have been the best bite of the night

crab, grapefuit sorbet, pea puree

crab, grapefuit sorbet, pea puree

The amuse bouches had already sated our appetites and it was hard to believe the main meal had not yet started. With some concern for our cholesterol and livers, we pressed on. The menu was in French and Flemish – I’ll include the French as it appeared and then explain what it is to the best of my ability (or to the best of babelfish’s ability)

langoustine, cucumber fettucine, avocado, watercress gelee

Langoustine "Guilvinec" cresson/concombre/avocat

Several langoustines covered with cucumber fettucine, avocado, and some kind of watercress gelee. I didn’t notice until now but it kind of looks like  a face. Several of the main dishes also came with a side dish. This came with a side of what seemed to be pork consomme (not pictured).

Maquereau "Lisette"

Maquereau "Lisette" coriand/tomate/ couteau de mer

Mackerel four ways with coriander, tomato, and razor clams. This came with a side of crab prepared two ways with an avocado mousse. See below.

side of crab

side of crab

Calamares

Calamares yuzu/dashi/algues

This was the least successful dish of the night. Squid with yuzu, dashi, and seaweed. The complimentary flavors worked well but squid seems to be impermeable to flavor. So what you’re left with is an ordinary piece of squid with a nice sauce on top, as opposed to the rest of the fish on the menu which were fleshy and porous enough to absorb whatever they happened to be in. Although it did come with a tasty soup of cockels and mussels on the side.

Homard de L'Escaut De L'Est

Homard de L'Escaut De L'Est choux-fleurs de Malines/ cepes/ belotta

Lobster with cauliflower puree, egg, mushrooms and ham.

Cabillaud Danois

Cabillaud Danois jeunes poireaux/brandade/ crabe royal

Danish cod with leeks, brandade (a puree of salt cod, oil and milk), and crab. Came with a side of what seemed to be lightly battered and fried baby shrimp and a zuchini flower chip.

Veau Sous la Mere "Correze"

Veau Sous la Mere "Correze" estragon/petits-pois/girolles

Veal with tarragon, peas, chanterelles and roast potatoes. And of course, the whale penis knife we used to cut it up.

Whale dick cutlery

Whale dick cutlery

At this point we were already very full, but when the nice waiter came by to ask if we’d like cheese before dessert we just didn’t want to disappoint him. Lucky for us this was hands down the best cheese plate we’ve had anywhere.

cheese party

cheese party

There was another tier of cheese that you can’t see in the picture. We tried 12 of them.

cheese party

cheese party

Everything was delicious. Unfortunately, due to the fact that cheese plates come at the end of the meal, after a lot of eating and drinking, we can never remember a thing about any of the cheeses.

mojito

mojito

….and the food just did not stop coming

Fruit plate

Fruit plate

This was an assortment of interesting and refreshing  fruit preparations. Frozen little pearls of fruit on jellied fruit with some kind of fruit puree.

Fraises

Fraises menthe/ chocolat "Ivoire"/ prosecco

Strawberries with mint, white chocolate and prosecco

Banane

Banane fruits de la passion/ citron vert/ mascarpone

This dessert was outstanding. It came with a chocolate madeline that was so good I just had to force it down my throat.

too drunk and full to remember

too drunk and full to remember

But I think it was some kind of play on fruit, yogurt and granola.

white chocolate truffle with pistachio

white chocolate truffle with pistachio

At this point we were getting scared. Would this meal ever end?

donuts!

donuts!

Then things just got ridiculously  out of hand with the dessert wagon. In case we hadn’t had enough out came our waiter with a cart of pastries, cakes, madelines, truffles, macaroons and who knows what else. Realizing this would probably be my only trip to Hof Van Cleve in my lifetime I endured some more gastrointestinal pain to choke down a delicious eclair, a madeline, and some kind of apple glazed donut.  I’m not proud of it, but it had to happen. Years of being raised by Italian women has instilled in me the principal of “never decline what you are offered”.

are you serious?

are you serious?

Hof Van Cleve is definitely worth the trip if you are within several hours driving distance of Waregem (Amsterdam, London, Brussels, Paris). We stayed at the St Janshof Hotel, a perectly serviceable hotel a short taxi ride away. It was the perfect way to kick off our vacation.

Welcome to French Laundry. May we hang your soiled-from-anticipation pants up to dry in the garden?

100_0349

Liz and I went out to Napa Valley with Liz’s brother and sister-in-law this past weekend to drink some wine and eat some food. We secured a reservation for 4 exactly 2 months ago from  Saturday, May 16th. If you google “french laundry reservation” you will be met with a slew of websites and blog posts devoted to the difficulties inherent in getting a reservation. First of all, you need to call at 10am pacific time (when the restaurant opens) exactly two months before the day that you would like to go. The websites will tell you that even doing this probably won’t be enough as the line will be busy. Some suggest you need to go there in person. There is even a service for which you can pay to have a particular individual get the reservation for you! Such is the desire and perceived difficulty of getting a seat at what is widely considered the best restaurant in the country. I say “perceived” because I am not so sure how much to buy into this.  Liz and I started calling with two phones the moment the clock struck 10am, got through after about a minute,  and had the option of several seatings. I feel like if you do that and you have a window of a couple of days that you are willing to go, you should have no problem. Especially now since it’s star is starting to fade a bit and other US restaurants are considered as good if not better.

To the meal. Everything was delicious, with the standouts being the Oysters and Pearls (Liz said it was her all time favorite bite of food), the Butter-Poached Lobster, the Black Bass, and the Yogurt Sherbet. The service was amazing – the courses were paced well, and our server was fun and informative. The environment in the restaurant was a little stuffy. No music playing so it was a little awkward at first with lots of tables whispering. But it loosened up after a while, presumably as a function of drunkenness. There were two menu options, the Chef’s Tasting or the vegetarian tasting. The waiter strongly urged us to go with the Chef’s Tasting absent any strict vegetarians, and I think that’s a wise move. For the same price ($240) you better have some strong philosophical aversion to meat to go with the vegetarian menu. The menu was 9 courses with four of those courses having two options to choose from. The Foie Gras and the Kuroge Beef courses carried supplemental charges.

salmon tartare

Amuse bouche of salmon tartare with some kind of whipped cheese hiding in the nether-regions of a chive cornet.

Oysters and Pearls“Oysters and Pearls”:  Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and California Sturgeon Caviar

hearts of peach saladSalad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm: French Laundry Garden Radish, Cucumber, Perilla and Navel Orange

foie grasMoulard Duck Foie Gras in Terrine: Green Grapes, Cutting Celery, Compressed Endive and Black Truffle

black bassSauteed Fillet of Atlantic Black Bass: Garlic Scapes, Carrots, Artichokes and Barigoule Emulsion

tuna tartareTartare of Japanese Bluefin Tuna: Beech Mushrooms, Gengko Nuts, Broccollini and Bonito

lobster knuckleSweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Mitts”: Potato “Mille Feuille”, Golden Corn, Fava Beans, and Pickled Ramps

pork bellyFricassee of Salmon Creek Farms Pork Belly: “Garnitures de Petit Pois a la Francaise”

kuroge beefSirloin of Kuroge Beef from Shiga: White Asparagus, Pine Nuts, Tulare Cherries, Mizuna and Ginger Sauce

cheeseManchester: Cauliflower, Pumpkin Seeds, Zante Currants and Parsley Shoots

yogurt sorbetAndante Dairy Yogurt Sherbet: Oatmeal “Sable” and Royal Blenheim Apricot

chocolate“Gateau au Chocolat Avec Bavarois Praline”: Caramelized Gros Michel Bananas and Hazelnut Sorbet

parfait“Parfait au Cintron”: Candied Lemon, Biscotti Tuile and Lemon Snow

So, what do I think? French Laundry is definitely one of the best restaurants we’ve been to, probably top 5. Was it worth the price? No, I don’t think so. Not considering what you could get elsewhere for the same price or less. Eating there reminded me of what Ezra Klein wrote about Per Se over at the IFA. “It wasn’t going far enough. It wasn’t inventing anything, or surprising you.” There were no duds at French Laundry. Every dish was delicious and beautiful. But there were no jaw-dropping moments either, except of course when the bill showed up. There was nothing playful about the experience. No whimsy. And dammit, if I’m going to plan a trip around a restaurant and pay that much to eat there, I want some f’ing whimsy. The difference between an incredibly fresh ingredient prepared perfectly and a really incredibly fresh ingredient prepared super-duper perfectly does not merit tacking hundreds of dollars onto the bill. There are other places I could go. Eating the Tour at Alinea in Chicago is like French Laundry meets Cirque du Soleil. And cheaper.

That said, it was a great experience. Yountville and the surrounding wine country is a beautiful setting and must be taken into account if you like to travel for restaurants. While Alinea is a better restuarant, I’d rather take a trip to Napa than Chicago.

French Laundry on Urbanspoon

Bina Osteria is ripe for stereotyping and prejudgment.  Between its trendy white interior and close proximity to the Sports Club LA, one is bound to think this place is going to be high on price and low on quality.  Add that to its claim to be an Italian restaurant, and Carlo and I, though curious, were planning on avoiding it, at least for a while.  But much to our surprise, my mother-in-law said she wanted to try it for her Mother’s Day dinner, and that’s how we ended up there on Saturday night.  Even more to our surprise, we were really impressed by the food.

The meal started with a frizzante red wine and a brief scuffle over whether we should get the 14-course tasting menu or order a la carte.  My father-in-law was adamantly against the tasting menu, which meant my mother-in-law insisted that we order it.  Being Mother’s Day, my mother-in-law prevailed and we embarked on what turned out to be a long, delicious meal.

More on the wine before I start on the food.  The wine I just mentioned was a 2006 Castello di Luzzano Oltrepo Pavese Bonarda from Lombardia, which was the perfect apperitivo.  It was mildly fruity, mildly frizzante, but unlike Brachetto (the other sparkling red that has been popping up in restaurants all over the place), it was dry, and not too expensive at $42/bottle even in a restaurant. 100_0222

For the meal we drank a 2006 Statti Gaglioppo, a calabrese wine in honor of my calabrese mother-in-law, which was also inexpensive at $46/bottle.  Initially it tasted and smelled a lot like banana candy, but it mellowed out and became a drinkable floral wine.  It’s nice to see wines from far-flung parts of Italy making it onto menus and it’s also nice to see that even the less expensive wines at Bina have been selected carefully.

Now onto the tasting menu.  Most, though not all, of the dishes were smaller versions of existing menu items.  We started with rustic country bread accompanied by lard and sea salt followed by two amuses bouches: an oyster with cherry gelee served in the shell (see below) and a spoonful of ricotta, salt and oil and a little shot of fizzy grappa cream.  A nice start to the meal.  The oyster tasted like real cherries and oysters, a combination I have never experienced.  I thought the ricotta was a perfect combination of creamy and salty, though I was told by my Italian compatriots that they’ve had better.  The grappa fizz was reminiscent of cream soda with a kick.

100_0223

Our appetizer was called Seriola Marinata, which consisted of CleanFish yellowtail, pinenut confit, avocado, and peppercress.  The nice piece of fish on top of fresh avocado on top of a sheen of spicy/oily, almost arrabiata-like, sauce was delicious and different.

The Seriola was followed by THREE, yes THREE, pasta courses, and unbelievably, the table liked all of them, hardly complaining at all.  The first was perfectly prepared fresh gnocchi with calamari, clams, chorizo, and Meyer lemon confit.  The gnocchi were light and chewy, and the seafood balanced well with the spicy chorizo.  We voted on our favorites at the end of the meal and this one got the most mentions, a shocking revelation coming from my never-pleased-by-restaurant-pasta Italian family-in-law.  The gnocchi was followed by two “Spaghetti alla Carbonara” with house-made pancetta, slow cooked hen egg, and pecorino foam and two braised rabbit  tortellinis.   And for the final pasta course, we had Risotto with crispy sweetbreads, morel mushrooms, and aspargus. The house-made fresh pastas were excellent in both pasta dishes, as were the accoutrements, and the risotto was perfectly cooked al dente with lovely fresh morels and asparagus.  Though I think three good-sized pasta courses in a tasting menu might be a mistake, we loved every bite of them.

Onto the fish/seafood courses.  The first one was Atlantic Halibut coated with smoked potato ragu, beet pearls, and watercress (see below).  Carlo said this was his favorite.  I was losing steam at this point.  The potato cream was delicious and balanced nicely with the sweet beets.  Our other sea-faring course was Lobster with Lardo, garden salad gazpacho, picked ramps, and Clear Flour croutons.  This was my least-favorite dish of the evening.  The lobster was a little rubbery/stringy and I just wasn’t hungry anymore, meaning that I was only interested in eating really superlative food.  Carlo ate mine for me, so it wasn’t bad, just least favorite in a great meal.

100_0248

Two more savory courses:  Foie Gras with English pea puree and morel mushrooms and Vermont Lamb with baby artichoke, taggiasca olives and Piquillo peppers.  I thought both of these dishes were excellent, which is impressive, because I was so full and tired at this point and I didn’t want to eat anything else.  The foie gras was silky and the peas were bright green and flavorful.  The lamb was perfectly cooked, moist and tender, and the accompaniments were very nice.  I just couldn’t eat them.

But that didn’t mean I was not up for our THREE, yes THREE, desserts.  The first was Moscato d’Asti Mousse with orange sorbet, honey cream, and sumac meringue served in a champagne flute.  Wow, I am going to replace root beer and vanilla ice cream with Moscato and orange sherbert from now on (see below).  This was really good and refreshing.  Next we had “Composition of Rhubarb” with a lemony butter cookie, rhubarb sorbet, lemon meringue, and candied elderflower.  Another beautiful, refreshing delicious dessert.  And finally we had the obligatory tiramisu, which was basically mascarpone cream and chocolate gelato on top of some coffee cookies.  I ignored the cookies, which were a little too crunchy to eat easily and stuck to the creamy stuff, which were both rich and delicious.  My in-laws tittered about how it wasn’t really tiramisu while they licked their plates clean.

100_0256

And then we rolled ourselves home, full and looking forward to going back to Bina, but perhaps for the four-course prix-fixe menu next time.

The only real drawback to the meal was its four-hour duration.  Yes, we did order 14 courses of food and should expect to sit there for a good chunk of time.  But there were long lulls between all of the courses, which was nice in the beginning when we were getting warmed up, but as we got fuller, drunker and more tired, we grew a little impatient and disinterested in the food.  We attribute this to the restaurant being fairly new and unaccustomed to customers who take them up on the tasting menu.  This will undoubtedly improve as more and more Bostonians take notice of this great new addition to the city’s fine-dining repertoire.

BiNA Osteria on Urbanspoon

During the 4 month span when Liz and I temporarily suspended our blogging, we visited a handful of restaurants that I would be reluctant to write about in full but I thought deserved  a brief comment.

In early December, Liz and I spent a long weekend in Maine for our birthdays…

Hugo’s in Portland, ME.  We were totally impressed by Hugo’s. Got the 12 course chef’s menu (you need to order this ahead of time – there is  also an 8 course blind tasting offered without pre-notification) and it was as good as if not better than the best tasting menus we’ve had in Boston (no.9, L’espalier, Craigie, Salts, Clio).  The chef, Rob Evans, is formerly of French Laundry and it shows. Innovative and  tasty, but in a comfortable, laid back setting. It’s a shame it’s so far away, but if you make a trip to Portland you really shouldn’t miss it. We did not try Fore Street, the other well known fine-dining restaurant in Portland, so I can’t recommend one over the other. Here is what we had:

Amuse:
SNACK TRAY (fried cracklins and other homemade chips)
OYSTER, beet, horseradish
COD RAVIOLI, fresh sage
WILD PIGEON CONSOMME, squash and foie gras agnolotti      (AWESOME)
Prosecco, De Faveri, NV, Veneto

1st
“CEASAR SALAD” coddled farm egg, iceburg leaves, white anchovies, bottarga
Pinot Grigio, Marco Felluga, Montgris, 2007, Collio

2nd
LOBSTER CARPACCIO, fine herbs, puffed spice rice, meyer lemon mousse   (ALSO AWESOME)
Pinot Blanc, Hopler, 2006, Burgenland, Austria

3rd
PAN SEARED MAINE SEA SCALLOP, truffle butter, sunchoke, preserved lemon, fried capers
Soave Classico, Inama, 2005, Veneto

4th
ATLANTIC HAKE “BOUILLABAISSE” aged chorizo, egg battered croutons, saffron & tabasco     (STILL AWESOME)
The Villager White, Oyster River Winegrowers, NV

5th
Mulled Cider & Calvados Ice

6th
SMOKED FOIE GRAS, acorn squash, kumquat, toasted brioche       (…..AWESOME)
Reisling Spatlese, Leitz, 2006, Rheingau

7th
BREEZY HILL FARM GLAZED PORK BELLY, pumpkin gnocchi, maple, quince and rutabaga mostarda        (Liz hit a wall here so I had double meat portions. AWESOME)
Syrah, Clos Mimi, Petite Rousse, 2005, California

8th
BEEF, BEEF, AND BEEF, horseradish-potato puree, charred onion, white miso
Cabernet Sauvignon, Tahbilk, 1999, Australia

9th
SHELBURNE FARMS AGED CHEDDAR PARFAIT green apple marmalade, allagash beer buggles, pumpernickel
Cotes de Gascogne, Dom La Hitaire, 2004

10th
LEMON SORBET FLOAT WITH THYME SODA              (again. AWESOME)

11th
RUM ROASTED PINEAPPLE, ginger cream, tamarind caramel, coconut sorbet, warm pound cake
Late Harvet Gewurztraminer, Aresti, 2006

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Duck Fat in Portland, ME.  Same owners as Hugo’s. The fries are SICK. So outrageously delicious. Sandwiches were solid (mostly of the pressed panini variety with some higher end ingredients e.g. duck confit) as well as the shakes. We went here for lunch on the same day as Hugo’s. It was a good day. There’s also a very cool food bookstore close by, Rabelais Books (and they have a blog too) . I highly recommend taking the time to sift through it.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Arrows in Ogonquit, ME.  We had been wanting to go to Arrows for several years now so we knew we were going to try it out if in the area, but were concerned about the recent bad reviews it had been receiving. Chowhounders were making claims of its decline ever since the owners expanded the franchise and opened up a new place in Beverly, MA, called SummerWinter. This being our first time to Arrows we can’t speak to its quality relative to the past, but we were happy with our meal and I remember being particularly charmed by the setting. Very attractive structure and grounds.  Definitely several steps above the White Barn Inn in nearby Kennebunk, ME in terms of food, and several steps below in pretentiousness (i.e. you won’t pee your pants a little at Arrows if your fork clinks too loudly on your plate).

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Carlo and I were lucky enough to receive as wedding presents several gift certificates to our favorite Boston fine dining establishment, No. 9 Park. Instead of making them last, we decided to go all out and have one big, but cheap, wine-paired tasting menu to celebrate President’s Day (thanks Abe!).

Carlo started out the celebration with a cocktail called the Dharma Bum, a new addition to No. 9’s superlative drinks menu. Carlo chose this drink not because he is a Jack Kerouac fan, but because he is a Lost fan with tunnel vision and thought this must be an homage to the Dharma Initiative. It wasn’t but it was a brilliant combination of rum, lime juice, and cardamom.

We made the mistake of checking out the sample tasting menu on No. 9’s website, and though we knew it was just a sample, we had high hopes of receiving a turnip veloute and escargot pot au feu with pork belly followed by liquid chocolate with pistachio pain perdu. Alas, as we well knew, the menu was different, though no less exciting:

Peekytoe Crab Salad, pickled Island Creek oyster, cauliflower panna cotta, creme fraiche

Peekytoe Crab Salad, pickled Island Creek oyster, cauliflower panna cotta, creme fraiche

Unfortunately, we have not gotten over our embarrassment of taking pictures in restaurants so you’re stuck with flashless photos from a cell phone. On the left is the crab salad and on the right is the cauliflower panna cotta, which was by the far the most interesting thing we ate all night. It looked like flan but tasted like fresh cauliflower. The dish was paired with NV Nino Franco Prosecco “Rustico”.

Local Codfish, brandade, chorizo, cabbage

Local Codfish, brandade, chorizo, cabbage

Carlo and I practically licked our plates at the end of this round. Those little black chunks are chewy bites of chorizo and the sauce, though not heavy, tasted like chorizo flavored butter…in other words, it was really good. The skin on the cod was crispy and delicious and the brandade tasted almost like mashed potatoes. This was paired with a 2007 Domaine de la Petite Cassagne Costieres de Nimes Rose. I am not afraid to admit that I like rose wines and this one was really delicious. It was almost like dry strawberry juice and, based on a little internet research, is pretty affordable at about $10/bottle.

Grilled Leek Agnolotti, Bouchot mussels, razor clams, saffron

Grilled Leek Agnolotti, Bouchot mussels, razor clams, saffron

Though it had a lot of potential, this was our least favorite dish. I don’t love leeks, and Carlo, of course, thought the pasta was cut unevenly and this affected the consistency of the texture throughout each agnolotto. We both cleaned our plates, so it obviously wasn’t offensive, just not as good as all the rest. It was paired with a 2005 Corte Sant’ Alda Soave “Vigne di Mezzane.”

Prune Stuffed Gnocchi, seared foie gras, toasted almonds, Vin Santo

Prune Stuffed Gnocchi, seared foie gras, toasted almonds, Vin Santo

At this point in the meal, guests can choose whether to add an additional supplement or to move on with the tasting menu. There are always two options, the one you see above and then some variation on foie gras. Considering we were there to celebrate, we decided to get one of each of the supplements. The prune stuffed gnocchi is No. 9 Park’s signature dish, always on the menu. I don’t like it. I find it to be too sweet and creamy for pasta. Carlo enjoys it so he got this one and I got the other. This was paired with a 2005 Bastianich Tocai “Plus.” It’s great to see Friulian wines on Boston menus, but it’s unfortunate that it’s usually a Bastianich of some variation. This is not a cheap wine ($50+ per bottle). The Bastianich’s are famous and can charge a premium for it, but there are many good Friulian options out there, tocai and others, at a quarter of the price.

Terrine of Foie Gras, pistachio, grapefruit, grains of paradise

Terrine of Foie Gras, pistachio, grapefruit, grains of paradise

Yum yum yum. I love foie gras in any form, especially when I’m paying for it with a gift certificate. This one was served over a grapefruit gel with a little pistachio cracker on the side. The grains of paradise were all piled into one little corner and were hard to spread around, making the seasoning too overpowering in that corner and underseasoned in the other corners. That said, the grapefruit/foie gras combination was delicious so I just cut the grains off and spread the grapefruit onto the terrine. It was served with a 2006 Domaine du Traginer Banyuls Blanc.

Roasted Duck Breast, baby turnips, sesame, honey

Roasted Duck Breast, baby turnips, sesame, honey

My memory starts to get a little foggy at this point in the evening. I remember really liking the sesame/honey paste. The duck was moist and fatty in a good way. The wine, a 2006 Heinrich Blaufrankisch from Austria, was everything a red wine should be, at least a red wine I want to drink. It was purpley red and tasted like dark cherries and wasn’t too tannic.

Prime Sirloin, short rib ragu, vegetable blanquette, Perigord truffle

Prime Sirloin, short rib ragu, vegetable blanquette, Perigord truffle

The tasting menu really starts to lose me at this point. I can down a dozen plates of pasta, but when I’m no longer hungry, red meat just doesn’t do it for me. I’m ready for cheese and chocolate. I still ate everything and enjoyed it, but I did not enjoy it as much as it probably deserved. It was served with the 2005 Chateau la Caminade Cahors, which was good but I was too in love with the previous wine to get excited about it.

Cheese

Cheese

Cheese Accompaniments

Cheese Accompaniments

I’d lie if I said I knew what cheese we ate. There was one that was really chalky and one that was really creamy and one that was dark blue…they were all really good and it’s fun that No. 9 let’s you try as many as you want. It was served with little toasts and golden raisins and grapes and honey.

Grapefruit, ginger, apple

Grapefruit, ginger, apple

This was our palate cleanser, which was tasty, but nothing exciting. The best part was that the apples were Honeycrisp, which are only available at the grocery store for a few months in the fall, but are categorically the best apples in the world (after English Russets).

Chocolate & Hazelnut Gateau, chocolate ganache, marasca cherries

Chocolate & Hazelnut Gateau, chocolate ganache, marasca cherries

Though we had really been looking forward to the pistachio pain perdu, this was a pretty good substitute. The cake was a hazelnut cream on top of a chocolate wafer. On the upper left is the chocolate ganache, which I could have eaten on its own, and then a little chewy sour marasca cherry, the original maraschino cherry (very different from the ones in the jar). This was served with an increasingly ubiquitous (as it should be) Brachetto d’Acqui.

All in all, our marathon meal was a fun way to celebrate President’s Day. It’s hard to justify spending this kind of money on a meal in any economic climate, least of all this one, but we were more than happy to do it with the gift certificate. And if you’re going to splurge on a fine dining experience in Boston, No. 9 is the place to do it.
No. 9 Park on Urbanspoon