Globeater - Grubbing around the Globe

Dish of the Week: Eggplant & Tofu Bánh Mì (& then some) at Strip-T’s, Boston

Technically, it’s in Watertown. Historically, Strip-T’s was your basic neighborhood hash house—long-standing, fiercely local—but its future is unfolding as a local-boy-makes-good game-changer involving the owner’s son, a David Chang protégé by the name of Tim Maslow. And truthfully, I was led there by culinary Pied Piper MC Slim JB last week—but there’s not a chance in a million I’ll encounter a dish as satisfying as this one in the next few days. Behold the eggplant bánh mì.

What a category-defying thing of beauty. Layered on a crusty-chewy, locally baked baguette were spears of Japanese eggplant roasted to a near-spreadable goo & squares of now-crisply golden, now-pillowy tofu; though garnished in classic Vietnamese fashion with pickled carrots & cilantro plus a smear of spicy mayo, the sandwich as a whole triggered a cascade of sensations that seemed to come out of nowhere. Its combinatory powers were its own.

And the duo that followed was very nearly its equal. Roasted cauliflower’s verging on cliché these days, but Maslow could single-handedly pull it back from the brink. Both his technique & his creative process were beyond me: How did he brown the cauliflower so deeply & evenly while upholding its essential cruciferocity? How did these unlikely ingredients come together so seamlessly? But they did: smooth & smoky chorizo puree, salty crumbled cotija, & sharp, bright pickled red onion somehow made thoroughly savory sense.

Likewise cut from whole cloth, a special of pickled, fried mussels topped with deceptively airy, cool dollops of coconut mousse & accompanied by lightly charred stalks of asparagus & green onion had buoyancy & zing to spare. One can imagine Maslow nodding ever so slightly to the New England classic of fried shellfish with tartar sauce on the one hand & Southeast Asian seafood curries on the other, but his imagination transcends his influences.

With one seeming exception: interestingly, the only slight disappointment was also the least original dish. It came almost as a relief to Neptune Oyster’s #1 fan (that would be me) that what appeared to be an homage to Michael Serpa’s buttermilk johnnycake with smoked trout tartare, honey butter & caviar didn’t quite achieve the same multilayered harmonies. The johnnycake, here made with blue corn & figs, was just too dense & sweet for its topping of sliced, delicately smoked rainbow trout with crème fraîche & trout roe; neither flavors nor textures were fully integrated.

Still, at this level of unabashed playfulness, the guy’s allowed an oops or two. I’d say run don’t walk, but you’ll have to drive or take a bus, then wait around a while for a table. Worth it. (There’s a liquor store on the corner, & the front seat of a car doubles as a perfectly acceptable barstool.)

Strip-T's on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Braised Pork Buns at JoJo TaiPei, Boston

So much & so little has changed since I left my dear adopted hometown 5 years ago for rockier, mile-higher climes. Return visits to Boston never fail to yield delightful surprise after delightful surprise, & this one was especially fruitful—every other thing I stuck in my mouth could qualify as Dish of the Week (as you’ll see in posts to come). For sheer hidden gemminess, though, I’ve got to hand it to JoJo TaiPei.

Back at the turn of the millennium, when I lived there, Allston was—to put it mildly—no great culinary shakes. But what a difference a decade makes, eh? On a drive-by tour, pal MC Slim JB pointed out all the Burmese & Afghani & Korean & Pakistani joints that would’ve eased so much grad-student agony had they existed then, in place of the sticky dives & greasy pizza parlors. Among them, this lovely little Taiwanese storefront honored me with a farewell meal to remember.

I knew what I’d be having before I even got through the door, thanks to a chalkboard marked with the daily special: rabbit with chestnuts. That’s it on the left: a clay pot chock-full of bone-on bunny chunks & soft, chewy whole chestnuts, strewn with scallion tops, fresh ginger slices, dried chilies & star anise in just enough of your classic brown stirfry gravy to recast the usually delicate meat into something darker & richer without blurring its essence.

But I also knew I’d be having something else, & the options on the long menu nearly broke my heart for lack of time & gut space. Salty duck with “special sauce” & roasted beef-scallion pancake. Three-cup cuttlefish & pork-stuffed eggplant. White-turnip pastries &, of course, all the dumplings you could shake your rump at. Finally, I closed my eyes & pointed to something called “braised pork with steamed bun tops with peanut powder.” What I got, pictured on the right, were like nothing I’ve ever quite tasted before.

Beautifully moist & robust shredded meat in a spongy steamed bun is one thing—easy to come by, easy to crave. But these played a whole new ballgame—or bao-game—with the inclusion of crushed peanuts & a mysterious garnish of sauteed, chopped dark greens that utterly transformed the humble little pockets into things of multifaceted grandeur, at once tart & sweet—if they weren’t sprinkled with both vinegar & sugar I’ll eat crow (especially if prepared by JoJo).

So there you go. So entranced was I by the whole experience that I wound up craning my neck around the room to see what I could get to go—& bingo. Ever had mofongo?

Well, the fried or boiled & mashed mound of green plantains served in various Latin American contexts looks like this—& so, almost exactly, did the beglazed cylinder I saw on the table behind me. My server called it “bamboo-cap rice pudding” (which turns out to be a thing); I called it mine. Granted, it didn’t look as pretty in its takeout form. Nor was it quite as intriguing as the preceding dishes, bite for bite. Once you got past the crunchy browned exterior, it was pretty much a monochrome of broth-enriched sticky rice in a sweet & spicy tomato-based sauce.

Still, I’ve not only got no regrets, I’ve got a jo-jones for the place right this second.

Jo Jo Taipei on Urbanspoon

Peking Duck & more (& more, & more) at China King, Boston

This, in a head-on, crackling mahogany nutshell, is what brought me & my old Chowhound crew in to China King, based on a rave from critic-ever-in-the-know MC Slim JB.

And this is what kept us there, long after the other diners had disappeared into the neon-smeared Chinatown night: toothy, slurpy, deeply saucy Shanghainese chow mein with shredded pork;

crisp-bottomed potstickers that slid down with only the slightest jaw work & weighted with perfect, juice-squirting little spheres of more ground pork;

thick yet bouncy—more flaky than eggy—wedges of scallion pancake;

soup dumplings filled with, you guessed it, more pork, compliments of the patient-&-sweet-as-could-be house;

& then some, including snappy gailan (Chinese broccoli) & brothy bok choy.

Still, the centerpiece was just that: an imperial succession of duck parts in all their gilded forms—

from the ribbons of browned skin, glistening with mouth-filling oils—the fatty bits melting practically on contact—& wrapped with smears of hoisin & stalks of fresh green onion in crêpe-thin pancakes boasting just the right amount of satisfying chew

 

to the meat shredded fine & tossed with crisp-tender bean threads, carrots & scallions in an authoritatively simple stirfry

to the…oh wait. To the palate-cleansing soup with its carcass-based broth, I’d say, except we’d already stuffed ourselves so silly we didn’t actually make it to the final course; that went home with the others as takeout.

‘Twas well over a decade ago that I first dug for ducky treasure at King Fung Garden; that the former owners are leading new expeditions to glory, with as much aplomb as ever, at their latest haunt is solid proof of that most comforting of adages, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

China King on Urbanspoon

Face Time with Anna & Alois Matscher of Zum Löwen Restaurant, Tesimo, Italy

It’s not every day one gets not only to dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant but take espresso with the chef & sommelier afterward. In my experience, in fact, it’s been not a single day. Until this June, when I traveled to Alto Adige/Südtirol for the inaugural Festival del Gusto Alto Adige. It was my job (someone’s got to do it) to explore the foodways of Italy’s northernmost province—whose proximity to, & centuries of rule under the empires of, Austria is manifest in every aspect of life from the architecture to the official German-Italian bilingualism to, of course, the cuisine—which I heard billed, more or less accurately, as Alpine-Mediterranean.

Granted, the designation applies more obviously to the contemporary upper end of the dining scale, where “outside” (i.e. invading Italian) influences are incorporated more easily, with more relish. (That’s true anywhere: few are the true barbecue pits of the American Deep South, for instance, that have added, say, Thai ingredients to their repertoires, whereas Asian fusion has flourished in modern urban kitchens for decades.) Overall, during my time in the Südtirol, I ate far more knödel (potato- or bread-based dumplings) & strudel than I did ravioli & gelato. But restaurants like Zum Löwen exemplified the remarkable potential for hybridization.

That much was suggested by the setting itself, all crumbling centuries-old charm on the outside

& minimalist yet warm pop touches throughout the stone-walled interior.

But the proof was in the food & wine pairings of owners Anna & Alois Matscher—a self-trained chef & sommelier, respectively, whose allegiance to regional tradition was only highlighted by the framework of exquisite technique.

There’s a time for reviewing & a time for pure show-&-tell. This here’s the latter.

AL FRESCO HORS D’OEUVRES RECEPTION

Phyllo “spring rolls” stuffed with graukäse—a pungent, fresh local cheese made from skimmed, soured milk

Horseradish knödel in chilled beet consommé

“Carbonara” of cuttlefish, white asparagus & fried speck “brittle” (Come on!)

BREAD BASKET

Italy makes some fantastic refined-flour breads—focaccia & ciabatta come to mind—but it’s not known for darker stuff like rye, & varied bread baskets aren’t common. (In most trattorias, the pane e coperto—basically a cover charge that includes cold, unsalted white bread—is traditional.) This region is an exception, reveling at every turn in herbed, seeded loaves & rolls. Zum Löwen’s basket was accompanied by a quenelle of luscious, robust schweinefat—compound butter flavored with pork fat & specks of, yes, the lightly smoked ham called speck, as well as a whipped-sweet swirl of ricotta cream.

ANTIPASTO

Beef tartare was a wonder, since the marshmallow-sized, arancino-like mound was coated in schüttelbrot (thick cracker) crumbs & lightly fried without compromising the integrity of the raw interior. Set atop mustard sauce & a precarious tower of pickled pfifferlings (chanterelles) layered with potato chips, it struck a swoony balance between richness, acidity, & spice.

PRIMO PIATTO

Only shaved schüttelbrot croutons & the use of quark rather than ricotta as filling shook these origami-gorgeous tortelloni over tomato compote & flecks of basil from their Italian roots.

SECONDI PIATTI

By contrast, deconstructed knödel skewed toward the other side of the Alps in tender, near-melting slices that alternated with spoonfuls of wine-dark venison ragù & ultra-subtle mushroom foam.

Over marinated, roasted peppers & potatoes, braised local agnello proved an exceedingly gentle relation to Colorado lamb.

DOLCE

Pie-spiced apple compote filled crinklingly delicate pastry pouches garnished with walnut foam & accompanied by ginger ice cream.

As if that weren’t more than enough, the meal ended with confections—

& the aforementioned powwow with the rock stars themselves.

I was especially curious about Alois’s wholly European, mostly Italian, largely local wine list. While a Michelin-starred restaurant can hardly ignore the likes of Bordeaux & Burgundy, Piedmont & Tuscany, Zum Löwen makes an impressive commitment to supporting Alto Adigean wineries (not that they’re anything to sniff at, reputation-wise). Over the course of the evening, we’d drunk a Manni Nössing Müller Thurgau, a Colterenzio Chardonnay, a Franz Gojer–Glögglhof St. Magdalener—redolent of wet dirt, ripe tomatoes & cherries—& a chocolate-tinged, long-lasting Muri-Gries Lagrein Riserva.

Acknowledging that “sometimes locals want to see Californian & Australian wines” for the sake of novelty, Alois explained that if he hasn’t personally visited a given winery, he won’t sell its products. Fair enough. I also asked him about the fact that although they seemed terroir-driven, 100% varietals were so much more common than blends in these parts—St. Magdalener, typically a Schiava- (aka Vernatsch-)dominant blend with a touch of Lagrein, being the exception. (Understandably compared to Beaujolais, it’s light enough to warrant chilling in compensation for the lack of structure, according to Alois, but it’s also bright enough to inspire loyalty in South Tyroleans, for whom the varietal & the blends it yields constitute the everyday go-tos.) His answer (to quote our translator): “Because the vineyards are so small, you can get very intimate with the planting.” In other words, you can micromanage the varietal beforehand rather than tinkering with percentages afterwards.

In any case, the regional emphasis comes naturally insofar as Anna walks the talk of her chefly contemporaries worldwide, leading the way for her husband with a microlocal & hyperseasonal menu that changes every few days. Had I been dining a la carte, oh, how I’d have loved to try the sweetbread cappuccino, the cheese dumplings over rhubarb ragù, the curried tripe.

I guess there had better be a next time.

Neptune Oyster: The Everlasting Shout-Out (UPDATED 7/2012)

***Adding on to my last post; the old one begins with the next trio of asterisks.

Neptune’s long been the clown car of North End eateries, but these days the emphasis is on “clown,” with goofballs galore spilling in & out merely to check the “Ben-Affleck-sat-here” box on their tourists’ to-do lists. The Director got hilariously livid watching one woman attempting to impress a date by choking down raw oysters with more cocktail sauce than there was meat.

But I can’t really gripe too much that our place has become everybody’s place—it’s as deserving as ever, from the extremely patient servers to the ultra-talented kitchen helmed by Michael Serpa. The fried clams are still up there among the best on either the South or North Shore;

the sandwich-mounted take on vitello tonnato—which replaces the tuna-mayo sauce of the original with tartare & spicy mustard cream—still a startling treat;

& the sweet nothings Serpa sends out for a poor old fanatic like me still fantastic—behold “eggs & eggs,” combining the creamiest, most precisely cooked omelet the Director & I have ever had with a dollop of caviar. (Chef, if you’re reading this, he’s too embarrassed to ask how you did it. Call me maybe?)

Of course, after a year-plus away from my favorite haunt in all this world, there was plenty on the menu that was new to me, albeit fitting the classic Neptune mold—veering from the wispiest delicacy to the funkiest concoction.

At the ethereal end of the spectrum, this bronzino crudo with lemon yogurt, parsley & gray sea salt was like eating the sighs of the lovelorn. Take that, sadsacks.

At the bold end, take this pair of appetizers:

On the left, perfectly tender calamari braised in a robust combo of tomatoes, broccoli rabe, green olives, and banana peppers; on the right, one of the highest, lightest highlights of 2 highlit meals: yellowfin tartare enriched with avocado & citrus aioli atop a slice of locally baked baguette. So much messy fun.

Also beautifully realized was an entree of seared scallops and duck confit atop crumbled blue cheese, caramelized brussels sprout leaves & a smear of pear butter. If that sounds over the top, you’re clearly a Neptune newbie—its great gift to gastronomy is remarkable balance among ingredients that shouldn’t work together but always do.

As a Buddhist, my mother likes to say that there is no such thing as home except in the here & now. I beg to differ. For me, Neptune Oyster is home.

 

***
Have I mentioned how I adore Neptune Oyster like no other restaurant on earth? Oh, I have? Well, it’s always worth reiterating. Over the course of 6 years, despite 2 kitchen shake-ups & the sort of explosive popularity that usually leads almost as soon as it begins to backlashes & downslides, owner Jeff Nace has kept his head & remained true to his vision of a seafood bar extraordinare—low-key & intimate in feel (no small thanks to loyal, smart, affable servers like Dan & Vinny), yet inimitably bold in its culinary approach (realized with aplomb by head chef MIchael Serpa & crew, busting their chops all day every day in a kitchen the size of a large couch).

That said, I’ve been lavishing praise on Neptune so often for so long—in print, in person, in-ternet—that there’s not much more I can possibly say. Just take it from an original regular: go in the off-hours between lunch & dinner; stay as long as you can; & eat & drink as much as you’re able. With the strongly recommended assistance of equally voracious, boozy & appreciative chums, following a round of oysters, your meal might go something like this:

crudo of bay scallop so firm yet so paradoxically tender as only scallops can be, pink & white as peaches & cream, you’d be forgiven for fantasizing you’re eating chunks of human baby;

brioche toast rubbed with pork fat, topped with white anchovies & slivers of air-dried tuna, then sprinkled with diced pineapple (such startling combos, which jar the brain but mesmerize the palate & raise the bar on contrasting flavor profiles, have always been the kitchen’s forté);

yellowfin tartare on a baguette slice spread with roast tomato jam & dunked into a pool of warm brandade—you know, the emulsion of salt cod with olive oil, milk or cream, & sometimes garlic that’s like the chocolate to fresh tuna’s peanut butter;

OMG johnnycake—aka a flapjack of cornmeal & buttermilk that’s griddled to a crisp (look at that symmetrically charred edge!) yet fluffy within, topped with a cylinder of smoked trout–honey butter—you read that right—in turn topped with a dollop of Little Pearl roe, which OMG softens & spreads over the surface to yield what’s basically a fishy dessert, OMG take that!;

Serpa’s signature dish, “Neptunes on piggyback”: fried oysters & pulled pork. With golden raisin jam & pistachio aioli. On toast. An edible roller coaster that starts on your tongue & ends in your belly;

a little something unexpected which by the time we got I was too muddled to get the full scoop on, but it was basically a layered patty of braised pork shank & smoked salmon spiked with “some sort of mustard dressing,” per Serpa via Twitter—he can’t quite remember either, which goes to show the value of becoming a regular (here or anywhere): you get to be a guinea pig (who sometimes even gets to eat guinea pig, but that’s another story, involving another area chef, that I was long ago sworn to secrecy on). The point is if I’d been presented the dish in a void, I’d have known it was Neptune’s, the pairing of meat & fish being its most obvious hallmark. If you want to get a clear sense of what the place is all about, dishes based on such pairings are a must;

Wellfleet littlenecks steamed in Vermentino, garlic & parsley—a few such simple, subtle, soothingly aromatic selections are always sprinkled among the more provocative concoctions, filling the bill when I’m not up for a blowout, which is never;

& a salad of grilled octopus with chorizo, green apple, shaved fennel, & mâche in citrus vinagirette of which I have no photo & almost no memory.

So I compensated for the oversight by returning 2 days later—straight from brunch at Coppa—for the Sunday special of fish tacos.

Sigh. Until next time, old friend.

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Boston 2010: No. 9 Park—Confession & Luxurious Penance

***Note to readers: After my epic jaunts to Chile & Boston this spring, I’ve got loads to show & tell—but rest assured I haven’t abandoned Denver! New posts on the local dining scene to come too.***

I have a confession to make that may ring scandalous to those who knew me back in Boston: in all my years of covering the dining scene there, I never ate a meal in the dining room at Barbara Lynch’s French-Italian institution No. 9 Park. Sure, I scarfed my share of eats at the bar, being among the early aficionados of the cocktail program started by then–bar manager John Gertsen (now running Drink, a more recent outpost of the Lynch empire). But I’d never had the full No. 9 experience until just a couple of weeks ago.

And what an experience it is.

Due to the ever-changing nature of the business, the tip-top tier of dining in Boston—as in most cities—includes only a handful of destinations that have been there for more than a few years: L’Espalier, Hamersley’s Bistro & Ken Oringer’s Clio all come to mind. And so does this subdued gem at the edge of the Common & the foot of the State House. How Lynch, like Oringer, manages to spread herself so frankly thin between a number of properties yet maintain such extraordinary quality at her flagship is anybody’s guess—her one-time boss Todd English couldn’t do it, that’s for sure—but I suspect it requires some combination of the knack for nurturing talent & tough, tight oversight.

In any case, the difference between running by rote & running smoothly is made clear here. No one at No. 9, FOH or BOH, seems to be operating on autopilot, no matter how long-established their routines may be; dedication to service & sharp attention to culinary detail are invariable. It’s incumbent upon the diner to dedicate him- or herself to attentiveness in kind; the critique most often leveled at this restaurant & many like it—that you pay out the nose for portions that barely pass your lips before they gone—is thus, I think, way off-base. If you’re using all 5 senses to take them in to the extent the food itself asks you to, you won’t leave wanting, physically or psychically. (Then again, if you must leave groaning to feel you got your wallet’s worth, just keep tearing into the French country rolls; the bread guy will wordlessly keep them coming—with excellent room-temp European butter, of course.)

Take the salade jardinière, artichoke en barigoule & nairagi (striped marlin) sashimi (not to mention the signature prune-stuffed gnocchi, already covered here).

N9Psalade
N9Partichoke

N9Psashimi
Now, I’m really no firm believer in the idea that less is more (see: TAG); if there’s anything this blog as a whole goes to show, it’s that I can & all-too-often do put it away with reckless abandon. And at $19 a pop, the above appetizers indeed constitute a whole lot less for a whole lot more in the most mundane sense. But just look at them. There isn’t a tendril out of place, not a single ingredient that hasn’t been presented with the utmost care—from the radish slices so thin they’re translucent & the fresh green peas returned to their pod to the sculpted artichoke heart to the light-golden slivers of garlic. Of course, all that precision down to the last granule wouldn’t matter a whit if the granules themselves didn’t approach similar perfection in flavor. But they do. And when something’s near-perfect, 1 bite is enough—if, again, you’re taking it in complete consciousness & with all your heart. If, say, you spear that quail egg to watch the yolk spill out over the scraping of Green Goddess dressing, then swirl the single fiddlehead into the mixture before biting crisply into it. Or if you follow a morsel of the tender-as-butter heart with another of the carciofo fritto (creamily batter-fried artichoke) with a dip in the punchy salsa verde, comparing, contrasting. Or if you let that raw marlin (see here for another superb marlin crudo) just melt on your tongue for a moment, appreciating how its clean tang is only highlighted by just the tiniest touch of truffle vinaigrette & green garlic.

Not every dish warrants quite that much concentration. The pan-roasted tautog (a local white-fleshed wrasse), for instance,
N9Ptautog

though a lovely piece of fish, might actually—I never thought I’d say this—have been cut a little smaller to pinpoint its sea-delicacy, played against by earthy accompaniments—a spoonful of veal jus, thick fingerling coins & meaty porcini. A couple of bites in, I “got” it—criminy, was the kitchen at No. 9 Park actually teaching me, gimme gimme me, a lesson in the value of appreciation in the now over anticipation of the next? For the duration of the meal, at least, yes.

On the other end of the spectrum from the simply prepared tautog were the complex, rich guinea hen with foie en crépinette (essentially a liver sausage), cauliflower & black trumpets

N9Pguineahen
& the (badly photographed; mea culpa) grilled pork belly with curls of fried skin, escargots & parsnips.
N9Pbelly

So much (but never too much) going on in both cases: the crisped, the glazed & the unctuous; the sweet & the pungent; the root & the flesh. For all the thrilling bells & whistles (that’s right, pork rinds!), it was the actually the meat of the hen that most caught my tongue: if I said it tasted pink, would I be understood in the deeply contented way intended—not, obviously, undercooked but rather rosy, spunkier than chicken, exactly like that of a fowl that scratches around in thickets & scrub?

I’d been sure I was going to end with a cheese plate—enthralled as I was whenever the cart rolled past us with all those wedges of blue-green & wheels of old gold & cylinders of wrinkled silver-gray from, no exaggeration, 1 of the world’s greatest cheese retailers in Cambridge—until the last moment, when the thought of black olive clafoutis with vanilla ice cream & Meyer lemon sorbet suddenly sounded so soul-soothing & palate-cleansing all at once.

N9Pclafoutis
And so it was; the fruit (which olives are, don’t forget—probably candied vanilla-poached here) adding a darker tang to the still warm, crunch-lidded custard than the more traditional cherries would have, enhanced by the garnish of port reduction but lightened by the scoops, especially of lemon.

Throughout it all, our server, Abby, young as she was, was a true pro—not just well-trained in terms of timing & graciousness but showing real talent in her ease with & enthusiasm about wine pairings.
N9Psweets
The bill comes with gelatine di frutta & bite-size chocolate sandwich cookies.

Look, in the end, I’m not saying anything new about No. 9 Park here—just once more, with feeling. But that the place should inspire such feeling 12 years after opening its doors, in someone whose personal preferences & prejudices lead her to come-what-may places far more than gourmet landmarks, hopefully says a whole lot, unexpected or not.

No. 9 Park on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Boston 2010: Neptune Oyster’s Michael Serpa Is David Nevins’ & My Love Child

The Director & I have an understanding that the Chowhound part of my heart belongs to David Nevins. The original chef of Neptune Oyster left Boston at roughly the same time I did to open Osetra Sono in Connecticut, leaving in turn a void for the place I’d call my own that no place since has ever filled.

Upon our first return to my old stomping (sometimes slurping, sometimes lurching) grounds in the North End a couple of years ago, I feared Neptune itself couldn’t quite fill it anymore; Nevins replacement Nate Nagy’s cooking, though technically every bit as proficient, just wasn’t, well, Nevins’ cooking. Upon our second a year later, Nagy’d come into his intelligent own, & Neptune felt exactly like home again.

And yet with the installment of Michael Serpa in the kitchen still another year hence, I suddenly got the weird magical sense that Nevins was back home where he belonged, at Neptune with me, in the form of our spiritual love child. Serpa may have “parents” & “a life” & his own way of doing things, but he’s got our twinned soul. I could see it, feel it, taste it in every bite I took on our, er, 3rd & 4th back-to-back return visits.

And there were a whole, whole, whole lot of bites.

Like the grandaddy of all New England oysters, Wellfleets, at 1 o’clock, followed clockwise by Summersides & Kusshis (which are hot these days, though I have to admit I prefer the similar but sweeter Kumamotos), plus the oyster crackers I can never stop popping no matter how much grub lies ahead.

NOoysters2
Or the incredible welcome home I got in the form of diced scallops atop cornbread so dense & honeyed it was almost blondie-like, along with rhubarb mostarda & caviar—a dish in the classic Neptune style, composed of startling, intensely luscious juxtapositions.
NOscallops

Lighter & less classically Neptunian but no less satisfying was another off-menu amuse derived from an on-menu appetizer: generous slices of hamachi with bright mint kimchi, cucumber, lime & spiced sea salt,

NOhamachi
which we liked so much we tried it in the form of tartare upon our return.
NOhamachi2

Crudo specials change constantly, but if you hurry, you might yet catch the blue marlin tartare with sweet pea yogurt, mint & olive oil. Raw marlin tastes raw in the figurative as much as the literal sense: raw, deep & elemental. It’s eye-opening.
NOmarlincrudo

To say that the PEI mussels in red curry broth didn’t trump my all-time favorite mussel preparation at Neptune—basically an extravagant robiola-shellfish soup from 3 years back—isn’t to say it isn’t delicious, with cashews adding an unexpected flourish.

NOmussels

Many a meal here with the Director has been entirely & happily composed of appetizers. But when I found out he was a softshell crab virgin, there was no way I was going to let the opportunity to pop that particular crustacaean-based cherry & turn him into an ooh softshell crab lovah pass.

Sure enough, he should’ve gotten a room with what was basically an insane crab sandwich, thickly stuffed with tuna tartare & in turn sandwiched between mounds of avocado salad. The 1 bite I managed to swipe practically from between his lips was pure creamy-crunchy luxury, though. Take that, Double Down.

NOsoftshell

And as long as he was going all the way, I figured I might as well indulge in roasted striped bass over suckling pig hash & sauteed squid. Again, classic Neptune, the wildly original combination of fish & meat, the smart balance between creamy elements & fresh herbs—undeniably rich but never merely rich.

NOstripedbass
Which, speaking of calamari, brings me to another atypically simple special: grilled calamari salad. In less capable hands it might have been boring; in Serpa’s, the squid, tossed in black olive vinaigrette, just melted with complex flavor.
NOcalamari

Much as the menu changes, there are a few signatures without a taste of which no trip to Neptune—hell, no trip to Boston—is complete. This time I had to revisit the vitello tonnato sandwich.

NOvitello

On the one hand, every time I have the two-hander composed of brioche piled high with roast veal, tuna tartare, cucumber salad & spicy mustard—accompanied by mwah! perfect crispy fries—I kinda can’t help but wonder what it would be like slathered with the traditional sauce, essentially a tuna-anchovy-caper mayo; on the other hand, I appreciate how damned inspired the modern update is. I just happen to be slavishly fond of creamy shit.

Like the highly pickled housemade tartar sauce that comes with the fried Ipswich clams. Of the 20 or so orders I’ve had over the course of Neptune’s 5 years in business, they’ve never been anything but expert, equal parts greaseless, well-seasoned breading to funky-sweet clam.
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Looking at the photos, I’m practically tearing up. I already can’t wait to go back to see what my boy Serpa will come up with next! Couldn’t be a prouder imaginary mama.

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Boston 2010: The Makings of a Neo-Classic—Russell House Tavern

Diamond in the rough: that’s been the position of chef Michael Scelfo for years. From the North Street Grille to The Good Life to Temple Bar, he was the bright—& occasionally, if circumstances allowed, downright brilliant—spot against some rather dull backdrops.

At Russell House Tavern, he’s finally landed in the showease setting he deserves. Open only a few weeks, the subterranean dining room already feels like the right place at the right time—urbane yet convivial with its high ceilings, low warm lighting, clean lines, & sleek gleaming wood & marble surfaces. And the menu is just the right thing for the right place at the right time: running from New England raw bar to wine bar to gastropub & back again, the spectrum as a whole is characteristically Scelfo’s: as playful, colorful, & robust as contemporary American cuisine can get without sacrificing refinement.

Cases in point: the chilled lobster pot
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& the butcher’s choice pizza.

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We were advised to thoroughly mix the contents of the former to get the full effect: not only fresh lobster meat but also brunoise diced potatoes, chorizo aioli & crunchy cornbread crumbs. I’m one of those weirdos who considers lobster overrated as an in-the-shell delicacy & underrated as a team player, & this dish proves my point deliciously, the crustacean’s creamy sea-sweetness combining so well with the salty & earthy aspects of the rest. If you think about it—shellfish, corn, potatoes, sausage—it’s essentially an inspired mini–lobster bake.

As for the pizza—oh, the pizza. Atop an unusual, almost layered & flaky crust—less like classic pizza dough & more like a pâte brisée or something—were fontina, mushrooms (cremini? porcini?), & crispy chunks of, be still my engorged heart, smoked, cured lamb belly. Irresistibly bold, the smoky tinges kept it from seeming overly rich.

And that’s really the key to the style of all my favorite chefs ever, from David Nevins, José Duarte, Ana Sortun & Jamie Bissonnette back east to Frank Bonanno, Scott Parker & Pete List in Denver (to name just a few)—no one would call their cooking subtle, but no one can deny how carefully they balance the strong flavors they favor.

So the serrano ham—grilled, I think—is accented with pickled pears & manchego bruléed with honey.
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And so the charcuterie board smartly varies from salami & house-cured duck ham to a distinctly spicy, prosciutto-wrapped pâté de campagne, pork rillettes & some of the best chicken liver spread, sweetened with marsala, I’ve ever had. Put it on toast with the honeyed fig jam (top left),

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& it all goes down like a PB&J.

A round of brioche surrounded by pecorino aioli & topped with a breaded, perfectly poached egg & bits of pancetta
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might well have been too luscious for more than a bite or two if not for the chiffonade of greens that gave the dish a refreshing, bitter edge.

Ditto the fresh peas & grilled ramps in the hearth-baked pasta (conchiglie with fontina & breadcrumbs).

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It was great to see so much Colorado lamb on Boston menus; the Director’s slow-braised shank with smoked lamb breast & stewed black lentils was great, period. As dark as it looks in the photo, that’s how it tasted—deep, dark & soulful.
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Scelfo’s take on Chinese salt-&-pepper shrimp was also terrific—heavier than the standard, but rightly, IMO, given that he uses especially sweet, plump Laughing Birds & pairs them with Tabasco aioli.

I was too painfully full to even try the short rib Wellington,
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but somehow managed to shove down a bite of the highly textured, nicely tart semolina-yogurt cake with basil.

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As an early proponent of Scelfo’s, I’m just so damn glad to see him making his mark so with such confidence, grace & pizzazz.

Russell House Tavern on Urbanspoon

Call it Itale, call it Chily: Pasta e Vino, Valparaiso

Occupying a sliver of coastline & the hillside beyond, all bar-lined beaches & rickety funiculars, ultracolorful Valparaiso reminded me a lot of the funkier villages along the Mediterranean coast of Italy—your Positanos, your Camoglis—only a little more urban & a little more rural at the same time, what with a downtown strip on the 1 hand &, on the other, a cacaphony of stray dogs barking & roosters crowing all the livelong day.

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So the fact that one of the city’s best-loved restaurants, Pasta e Vino, happens to be Italian—but for the all-Chilean wine list, that is—seems fully well & good.

Minimalist as the tiny space is, constantly packed from the dining room

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to the kitchen itself,

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the vibrant, luscious food is anything but, starting with an excellent bread basket filled with herbed ciabatta & carta di musica–like flatbread
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& an amuse of sesame-honey chorizo.

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Each dish being beyond critique, the captioned pics thereof should say it all:

gorgeous salmon & reineta carpaccio with capers, cress & lemon juice
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shrimp with merquén (smoked ground chiles) & crostini

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cream-sauced phyllo stuffed with red peppers,

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in turn stuffed with shrimp & goat cheese
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fettuccine with smoked ham & lemon-Sauvignon Blanc cream

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fettuccine with crudo ham, walnuts & honey in a parmesan sauce
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squid-ink pappardelle with frutti di mare in white wine

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& what was probably my favorite, the strikingly innovative squid-ink ravioli over spinach & cream, stuffed with smoked salmon, & topped with queso fresco & curry, of all things,
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cooked until it was almost dry—more a heady spice mash than a sauce.

I was so stuffed I couldn’t see straight, & even so I kept lusting after all my group of 5 had neither table space nor gut room for: gnocchi with king crab, shrimp & caviar; fettuccine with mozzarella, roquefort & mushrooms; ravioli with parmesan, wedge clams & white wine…sigh. There’s my review: just sigh.

Bob’s Pig Shop, Pauls Valley, OK: THE COOLEST PLACE ON EARTH?

We at Denveater grew up in big bad Oklahoma.

Like megamesmerizers The Flaming Lips, like notorious Normanite & owner of great gourmet shop Forward Foods’ Wampus (whom you may have met here), like doc-directing dynamo Bradley Beesley & spell-casting yarn-spinner

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Phil Henderson—

fisheries biologist & proprietor for the past 3 decades plus of the beloved 76-year-old BBQ pitstop Bob’s Pig Shop—I grew up in the Sooner State.

Unlike them, though, I can’t take any credit for the global phenom that the Okie Noodling Tournament has become since its inception in 2000.

That said, this year, for the 1st time, I’m at least attending the bare-handed catfishing contest founded by Beesley & Henderson, scored in spirit by the Lips & rounded out by a Wampus-sponsored catfish cookoff.

The noodlers were off in a cloud of dust—or a spray of murk, I guess—as of 7pm CST this eve to go sticking their fists down the faces of ancient aquatic beasties, & they’ll be due at the weigh-in in Bob’s parking lot by no later than 7pm tomorrow (last year’s piscine prizewinner was nearly 65 lbs.).

Until then, I’ll be stuffing my own face in the museum of major mementos & cracker-ass curios (in the positive sense) that is the Pig Shop dining room.

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no relation

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look familiar? see way above & below
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While the noodlers are flailing all over Lake Eufaula (or wherever their secret holes are), & the toddlers are flocking & gawking ’round the catfish-&-human-filled demo tank, & the cookoff contestants are grilling up to their gills, I’ll be chowing down on

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the marinated & chopped Pig Sandwich

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with red pepper–spiked pickle relish & some of the best table sauce I’ve ever tasted (catch the splotch at the bottom)—a vinegary variation on Phil’s great-uncle’s sweeter original—plus satisfyingly soupy, lightly spiced beans on the side;

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hand-cut, skin-on, perfectly crisped fries coated in Phil’s own special blend of seasonings;

& lordy knows what all else I’ve yet to try—the babybacks? the tamales with chili (does not equal chile)? the prime rib on house-baked sourdough? a bowlful of that table sauce I’d lap up in a patch of sunlight like a kitten? (kittenfish?) in a flash?

Tune in this weekend to find out. (UPDATE: More about Bob’s here!)

Bob's Pig Shop on Urbanspoon