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Coppa’s Cornucopia

Hell, I already blew my wad regarding Coppa in a single Tweet. It went something like this: “I was among the 1st to write about @Jamiebiss’s way with offal, & when lesser fat-storers keel over, I’ll be the last.”

In 2005, I met Jamie Bissonnette for the 1st time in the lobby of a local cable TV station; due to an article I’d written for Stuff, we were there to discuss on air the nose-to-tail charcuterie with which he was just beginning to make a name for himself at Eastern Standard. I liked him immediately—a young, big, beefy, strawberry-blonde, tattooed up to here, with an equal taste for punk & pork.

Since then, I’ve proudly watched him kick oxtail & take names at KO Prime, Toro, & now Coppa, his joint venture with Ken Oringer. That I didn’t go for dinner is one of my deepest regrets following this particular trip to Beantown, because I tend to behave better at brunch.

Still, pal H & I did okay for relatively sober people.

Warm salt-cod crostini. Well, would ya look at that. I’m guessing, what a full cup of the stuff atop a whole piece of grilled toast?

The world’s most famous salt-cod spreads—Provençal brandade de morue, Venetian baccalà mantecato—can vary widely, from rough to creamy, via any combination of milk/cream, garlic/onion, potatoes, herbs, olive oil & lemon juice. This one let the fish do most of the talking—flaky, funky, but still very much itself given all it had been through: salting, drying, rinsing, toasting, broiling, I don’t know what all—enhanced by the crunchy chew of the bread.

Cauliflower marinated with thyme, shallots & sea salt. H & I didn’t know how brilliant we were, really, ordering this at the same time as the salt cod. ‘Twas the perfect foil: served cold & crisp, lightly tangy, simple & fresh.

Rabbit porchetta. Usually, coniglio in porchetta is a dish of rabbit stuffed & roasted in the manner of a whole pig; here, it’s served terrine-style with whole-grain mustard. Again, the emphasis is on the flavor of the meat itself, midly salty-sweet & cutting like butter.

Wood oven–roasted pig’s tail with mostarda glaze. Classic Bissonnette. The meat just slid off the bone in rich, tender, pungent chunks; the mostarda di frutta, which we were told was made from jars of “ghetto fruit salad,” was its ideal match, sharply bright & sticky-sweet.

We ended with a toasted Nutella-banana sandwich—perfectly fine, but hardly representative of Coppa’s repertoire. Next time, I’ll go for the gold—spaghetti alla carbonara with sea urchin; wood-fired pizza with burrata & chili oil; smoked beef tongue with anchovies & almonds (sigh). Until then, though, I’m glad I got to experience the place at its least chaotic; after all the reports of hour-plus waits, we walked right in on at noon on a sunny Sunday. Something to consider if you’ve been avoiding the crowds thus far.

Coppa on Urbanspoon

Myers + Chang: Dim Sum to Dispel Gloom

It was a gray, bitter Saturday afternoon, & I’d been cold & hungry a long time, when I walked into Myers + Chang with a twofold agenda: 1) to interview the ever-scintillating Christopher Myers for an upcoming piece in Stuff & 2) to thaw my bones & down dim sum with my pal T until my face fell off. I achieved it all with aplomb, if I do say so myself.

Of course, as Myers’s guest I can’t in good conscience call this a fair review. If you want a review uncomplicated by questions of special treatment, countless other bloggers have weighed in on Urbanspoon, Chowhounds have done their dissecting bit on the Boston board, & so on. Without trawling through them all, I’ve been in this business long enough to bet big bucks that the most glowing of them confirm the graciousness, talent & passion for excellence of the almost disgustingly golden couple that Myers & Chang are, separately & as such—that much has been well documented for going on a millennium—& that the most skeptical of them say things like “Go to Chinatown for the real thing” (granting that many of those same people will also add “in San Francisco”). I’ve also been in this business long enough to believe that graciousness, talent & passion for excellence are the real thing. Having dim sum at Myers + Chang is not like having dim sum at Winsor Dim Sum Cafe or Hei La Moon, nor should it be. It should be like having dim sum at Myers + Chang. And it is! In fact, it’s textbook Chang (with a nod to her exec chef Matthew Barros): vibrant, cheeky, highly personal.

Meanwhile, I don’t bite the hand that feeds me; in cases in which I’m a guest, if I haven’t enjoyed my experience, I keep my trap shut about it. In this case, I liked most everything; I adored many things. The latter I can present to you below in good conscience. So take this in the spirit in which it’s intended: not as an actual review but rather a likewise highly personal recap of one fine meal from the perspective of a food writer who wants you to know, if she were returning, say, this weekend, in disguise, what she’d order again.

Hakka eggplant. Not at all spicy, but rich, sticky & soulful.

Asian pickles. Part on fire, part on ice—a mixture as fresh & bright as fresh & bright can be, with the vegetables shining through the chilies & brine.

Pan-fried dumplings with shiitakes & Chinese greens. We also tried the lemony shrimp version, but these were my faves, from the glistening, thin dough to the filling, akin to that ofclassic leek or chive dumplings—slightly bitter, earthy-sour, oh-so-juicy.

Sweet potato fritters with Chinese sausage. The photo speaks to the crunchy exterior; inside is basically a warm, thick sweet potato puree, at the center of which is a daub of sausage that’s practically melting. Totally unexpected.

Fried oysters with fermented black beans, pickled bean sprouts & fresh herbs. Eat these the moment they arrive, because they won’t hold up long. But hot & fresh, they’re pungent little suckers, dripping with funk.

Tofu, celery & sesame salad. Crisp, cold & mild, this is quite the palate cleanser before dessert.

Lemon-ginger mousse with homemade fortune cookie. Because you do have to have dessert—it’s Chang’s world, after all. And this one, bursting with the zing of its namesake flavors to balance the almost puddinglike, dense creaminess, was easily one of the best 4 or 5 things I ate over the course of my 6-day reunion tour—

no small triumph given that I sampled more than 70 dishes. Burp & thank you.

Myers & Chang on Urbanspoon

A Doozy of Meze at Istanbul’lu

After wine o’clock, a place that doesn’t serve booze has to be pretty special for me to spend precious time eating there that could be spent drinking & eating somewhere else. Promising me Somerville Turkish café Istanbul’lu was just such a place, a couple of pals took me for dinner—& they were right; it’s lovely, with smiling service as open-hearted as the cooking is soul-warmingly homey & honest. Is it better than Brookline Family Restaurant or Sultan’s Kitchen? I haven’t been to either in some time, but assuming they’re as good as ever, & I might be mistaken in assuming they are, I’d be hard-pressed to rate one over the other; each has its own strengths. At BFR, for instance, there’s the lahmacun; at SK, the doner kebab. At Istanbul’lu, if we’d stopped at the warm, focaccia-like bread with what I believe is called acili ezme, or maybe biber salcazi (both are vibrant red-pepper spreads of the sort that abound in the Balkans, from avjar to lutenica)

& the remarkably expressive, funky & sour, yogurt-enriched, lamb-chunked soup called paca,

I wouldn’t have been happier.

What these & all the other appetizers we sampled revealed was the extraordinary way in which Levantine cookery milks so much flavor from plants as such—vegetables, legumes, nuts, herbs; fruits like pomegranates, lemons & olives (including the oil); spices like sumac—along with yogurt & fresh cheeses, while meat tends to play a lesser role. The overall profile of the cuisine is utterly luscious yet still fresh, sun-drenched with bright-tart accents.

For instance, under all those tomato slices (which really could have been worse given that it’s winter; at least they had a little juice) there was a meaty, zesty, simple salad of white beans & red onions.

There was haydari, a thick, mildly tangy strained-yogurt dip much like Middle Eastern labne.

And the famous imam biyaldi, eggplant stuffed with a mixture of onions, peppers & tomatoes, then baked; this wasn’t one of my favorites, however, as the eggplant was still a bit woody & stringy, a little bitter.

Borek stuffed with feta were also slightly disappointing, especially in light of my fond memories of the same dish at Sabur just across the street—the phyllo was flaccid, not crisp.

For that matter, the mucver—zucchini fritters with carrots & herbs—weren’t as crisp as they look either, but for me their softness was a plus, making for a sort of melted zucchini pudding in the mouth. (Not sure my pals agreed with me on that point, though.)

And if they’d been slightly hotter, mercimek kofte—red lentil cakes—would’ve been terrific: earthy & nutty, sprinkled with bits of tomato, green onion & parsley.

Groaning as we already were, we skipped entrees & went straight to dessert. Kadayif—essentially baklava made with shredded phyllo—was a little tough, but the flavor was textbook.

Of the 2 puddings we tried, the soothing sutlac—rice pudding (pictured)—was the bigger hit, the keskul (almond pudding) being rather bland.

In short, nearly everything had its flaws, its imprecisions—& yet, somehow, the whole was all the sweeter & more charming for them, the sum greater than its parts. Now if only they’d spike that sour-cherry juice with a little somethin somethin.

Istanbul'lu on Urbanspoon

Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar: Like Franklin Café, Only Different

Ha, these titles are funny ’cause they’re true. The original Franklin Café was a gastropub way before there was a word for such a thing. Now, its Fenway sibling Citizen is the latest word in such a thing. Piggy logo? Check. Piggy dishes? Check. Raw bar? Check. Raw bartender, too adorably young to know his ‘stache makes him look like Meathead from All in the Family? Check. Fernet on tap? Check. Wait…Fernet on tap?! Industry alert, check.

It’s all so of-the-moment it’d already be over, if David Dubois weren’t the sort of seasoned vet who knows how to make a good thing last. Since he is, he does, so it’s not. Over. It’s only just begun.

Granted, my own meal began with a misstep on my part. You know how sometimes a menu is so appealing, & everything sounds so good—like roast pork loin with cranberry beans, applesauce & melted cabbage; pig’s trotter schnitzel with smoked chickpeas & tartar sauce; or a fish & chips special wherein the fish appeared to be near-whole filets—that your brain starts to short-circuit & you wind up spastically ordering something accidental? So it was with peel & eat Old Bay shrimp—a classic, to be sure, done handsomely with a garlicky, spinach-&-tomatillo-based green sauce, but I wished I’d had the forethought to set the tone with something a bit more signature.

I got my act together after that via pungently salty-sweet, rosemary-whipped lardo with “breadsticks”—aka grilled crostini—which was so light & airy I could almost pretend I wasn’t eating entire spoonfuls of pure pork fat, especially since the bitterness of the accompanying dry-cured olives cut through it pleasingly.

There was, however, no pretending the giant carpetbagger steak wasn’t over the top—rare & juicy, topped with a fried oyster & served over spinach in a red-wine sauce.

It was a natural alongside a bottle of Robert Foley Franklin Cuvee, a soft, round, house-label Petit Sirah. What wasn’t so natural was the fact that pal T & I managed to follow it up a plate of sticky toffee pudding (unpictured), textbook except for the fact that it stood at least 6 inches high.

All of which goes to show why the draft Fernet is making such a splash; after a meal at Citizen, you & your digestive system are gonna need it.

Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Dirty Laundry List 2011: Every Single Thing I Tasted in Boston Tuesday-Sunday

Can you guess where I’ve been? Cocktails not included, ditto bread baskets.

oysters on the 1/2-shell (x4)
fried oyster sliders
pancetta-crusted broiled oysters
oyster stew
clam chowder (x2)
razor clams with bacon
lobster roll
cider doughnuts with caramel sauce
Caesar salad
antipasto salad
whipped lardo with crostini & olives
peel & eat Old Bay shrimp
carpetbagger steak
sticky toffee pudding
acili ezme
piyaz salat
paca
mercimek kofte
imam biyaldi
sigara borek
mucver
haydari
burma
keskul
sutlac
za’atar pita
tahini toast
oyster crackers
bay scallop crudo
buttermilk johnnycake with smoked trout tartare & caviar
anchovy & air-dried tuna on pork-fat toast
Neptunes on piggyback (big hint)
steamers
pulpitos alla plancha
smoked salmon & pork shank rillettes
yellowfin crostini with brandade
pepperoni pizza
spinach-ricotta arancino
chocolate-peanut butter bar
Asian pickle sampler
shrimp-jicama rolls with chili-peanut sauce
crispy spring rolls
fried oysters with fermented black bean sauce & pickled bean sprouts
green papaya slaw
5-spice grilled tofu bao
potstickers with shiitake mushrooms & Chinese greens
potstickers with lemony shrimp
tofu, sesame & celery salad
hakka eggplant
sweet potato fritters with Chinese sausage
lemon-ginger mousse with homemade fortune cookie
coconut cream pie with lime whipped cream
prosciutto-wrapped blackened tuna with queso fresco
pancetta-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese
grilled Caesar salad with corn salsa
grilled mixed mushrooms (yellowfoot, chanterelle, white trumpet) with tomato-ginger chutney
pan-seared scallops with foie gras, avocado & acorn squash puree, & sundried strawberry-arbol salsa
tequila-braised pork shanks with white corn polenta, smoked tomato grits, & fried chard
grilled swordfish with truffle risotto, pumpkin cream sauce & pumpkin salsa
pecan tart with black lava sea salt caramel
roasted pig’s tail with mostarda glaze
salt cod crostini
marinated cauliflower with thyme
rabbit “porchetta”
fish tacos
yuca gnocchi with green lamb ragù
crab-potato causa
lasagna (I woke up with it next to me; vague memories of the counter at Vinny’s Superette. Otherwise a mystery)
+ 1 banana

***Disgustingly full reports to come.***

Island Creek Oyster Bar: Like Great Bay, Only Different (UPDATED 6/12)

***Two reviews for the price of one!***

The first time I went to Island Creek Oyster Bar (report after the jump), it was relatively empty; though the buzz was loud among the city’s food geeks, it had yet to spread. On my return visit a year-plus later, the giant house was packed to the gills. Little else has changed, however: both Jeremy Sewall’s kitchen & the bar—where long-&-still-rising stars Tom Schlesinger-Giudelli & Jackson Cannon ply their trade—remain at the center of a tightly run, smooth-sailing ship.

And you bet said ship trawls for daily-caught seafood. As he served us an absolute stunner of an off-menu dish composed of fish charcuterie, Schlesinger-Giudelli waxed ever so poetic about the 300-lb. bluefin that had come in straight off the boat to produce, among many other things, the pastrami-cured slices pictured center. My stars, they were beautiful, almost literally melting in the mouth, rich but clear-flavored—only subtly pungent (if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, trust me, it isn’t). The fluke crudo on the right might have been outstanding on its own but couldn’t quite hold up to its neighbors—the leftmost item being a luscious tidbit of smoked steelhead trout over a walnut pesto–daubed rye cracker topped with an orange segment: funky, salty, sour-sweet.

I followed it with the signature dish of fresh pasta tossed with pieces of braised short rib, copious chunks of lobster, & maitake mushrooms, which served as the icing on the umami cake;

it’s a solid hit, elegant yet robust, though it too was overshadowed by the unexpected: a buttermilk biscuit half-hidden among the side dishes.

Golden-topped & flaky-layered throughout (no small order at its 3-inch height), then lightly drizzled in a gently spiced honey butter, it was just obscenely spot-on. No meal here should go without at least one.

Not should it go without at least a few moments in the company of Schlesinger-Giudelli, as gracious as he is extremely well versed in all things boozy.

Island Creek Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

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Dish of the Week: Mark Special, Charlie’s Front & Back Door, ABQ

Two joints in one—the cozy, family-oriented Front Door & the dark, boozy Back Door—Charlie’s opened 45 years ago (in 1966) & has remained my sentimental Albuquerque fave for about half that time. Is it the city’s 5-star best? I can’t honestly say it is, since the red & green chile are inconsistent—& red & green chile are, of course, the be-all-end-all of Southwestern & especially New Mexican cookery. But when they’re good, they’re great, & everything else rocks all the way out, from the chicken & jocoque (a type of sour cream) enchiladas

to the como se llama with Polish sausage & beans to the torta de huevo—a sort of frittata in red chile—to the Navajo taco & all the oddities in between, containing such incongruous stuff as pastrami, sauerkraut, & 1000 Island dressing.

Still, I met my match this week while in town for Thanksgiving: the Mark Special.

It starts with carnitas whose crisped chunks, like good barbecue, almost slide unctously apart rather than break up in strands. These are scattered across generous mounds of chopped fideos—think soupy, ultra-comfy Mexican spaghetti; cheese-smothered calabacitas—think succotash, here with squash & corn; quelites—think sauteed spinach; potatoes fried with onions; & of course frijoles. But don’t, as you eat it, think at all; just take giant forkfuls of everything, separately & mixed together, letting a rich bit of this enhance the flavor of a tangy bit of that, combining & contrasting until suddenly you find you’ve eaten nearly the whole thing. Then scoop up that last bite with a piece of 1 of the fried dough squares known as sopaipillas.

Then squeeze some honey from the bottle on the table into the rest of the pocket & munch until your eyeballs pop out.

If you’ve got another millimeter or two of space, snitch a little of your mom’s smoky, indeed practically blackened, chiles rellenos

or grab 1 more chip to dunk into the guacamole or the kill-you-softly salsa on the appetizer sampler. (I’m not such a fan of the queso, done Texas-style with Velveeta, though I realize it’s not illegit.)

Then take a nap & have kaleidoscopic nightmares about how on earth you’re going to stuff down turkey with all the trimmings the next day. Yes, do it all exactly like that. Such are holidays in the Land of Enchantment.

Charlie's Front & Back Door on Urbanspoon

The Style Icons of the 11th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament, 7/10/10

Home. Sweet. Home.

Click to enlarge, if you dare. My people are tough cookies.

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Girl3

Guy2

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Hail to the 11th Annual ONT Queen

***
With many, many thanks & much love to my official photographer, The Director, & Heidi Henderson, the ONT Queen of all-time

Product-testing a go-go: Eufala, Oklahoma’s own Ben Jack Larado Yellow Jack Mustard

While back home for the Okie Noodling Tournament, I found this in my mom’s pantry.

Yellow Jack
What I also found, upon tasting it, was that the Director & I wanted to put it on just about everything.

Part of the Rocking L-H Asparagus Farm’s line of Ben Jack Larado’s Gourmet Foods, which also includes barbecue sauces, meat rubs, dips, candied jalapeños, pickled asparagus & garlic, 8 other mustards & more (all available online), Rich & Robust Yellow Jack is Dijonesque, but with a sharper kick. (After all, even good old Grey Poupon contains fruit pectin & sugar, which I assume neutralize the vinegar & spices somewhat.)

I say get you some right quick; it’d be the bomb with grilled brats et al.

Dish of the Week 7/5–7/11: Catfish at the 11th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament

To catch up for last week: I do believe this picture says it all. More about my adventures at the annual wackfest in Paul’s Valley to come.

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