Last Dispatch from Boston 2010: Bin 26 Enoteca, Brasserie Jo, & a few words about Poe’s Kitchen & Erbaluce
The definition of enoteca appears to be expanding even in Italy to cover a range of wine shops and bars, but as I’ve experienced them in Venice, Rome, Orvieto, Bologna, Parma & a few other cities & towns here & there, enoteche are predominantly rustic, woody neighborhood joints, serving local wines from barrels as well as by the bottle, plus simple, hearty snacks (which may be called cicchetti, spuntini, stuzzichini or various other names depending on the region).
Beacon Hill’s chic, streamlined boutique Bin 26 isn’t one of those. Though the menu’s indeed comprised of Italian small plates, it emphasizes modern elegance, while the ambitious wine list spans the globe—& both are priced accordingly. But they’re also a treat: interesting, smart & executed with more sprezzatura than self-seriousness. In fact, the latter isn’t just a list—it’s a veritable primer, packed with clever, user-frieindly tidbits like the following (click to enlarge):
Nice, right? Equally user-friendly from a tasting standpoint are a terrific range of offerings by the glass, quartino, half-bottle & bottle (granted, that very structure tends to facilitate an inflated price point), laden with underappreciated varietals like Insolia & Brachetto. And you can expect the same combination of warmth & precision from the food (although that doesn’t come as such a surprise to anyone who knows it’s owned by siblings Azita Bina-Seibel & Babak Bina of long-standing Persian rose Lala Rokh; I imagine, not having been there, the same is true of their latest, Bina Osteria, although again, the name is misleading, an osteria being by definition a humble place serving simple fare, not a gleaming Ritz-Carlton outlet where $30 lamb loin millefoglie is what’s for dinner).
Not that white anchovies need much caretaking—just a little quality olive oil & plenty of lemon juice to underscore their refreshing but mild sour tang, a revelation if your experience is limited to tins of tiny bones & salt.
More elaborate was the timbale of chilled crab & squid salad—light & clean on its own, a nifty surprise when combined with a bite of the warm polenta. The juxtaposition of cold & hot ingredients on the same plate is, I think, underrated—perhaps because it’s as often as not a mistake as a choice. But when it’s the latter—fresh chips & guacamole, pie à la mode—the effect is startlingly appealing.
Generous as it was, the portion of bruschetta with sauteed mushrooms, fontina & garlic I received was the the slightly unwieldy exception to the rule of precision here; at about half their thickness, the very crusty slices of bread would’ve been easier to chew, especially as the mushroom juices & cheese penetrated them a bit more deeply.
But the signature cocoa tagliatelle with porcini ragù was just as I remembered it from my first taste a few years ago: wonderful, less rich & more subtle than it looks, the bittersweetly earthy overtones of the pasta enhanced by a bare hint of nepitella, which tastes something like a hybrid of mint & sage.
If memory serves fairly well, then, I can also wholeheartedly recommend the carpaccio—traditional with aged parm, arugula & a lemon vinaigrette (sorry, “tarragon citronelle”)—as well as the spaghetti con frutti di mare in a light, spicy tomato sauce. But for lunch, just the pictured plates washed down with a couple of glasses of Brachetto d’Acqui—the irresistible strawberry soda pop of Italian wines—while seated at the bar on a sunny Tuesday afternoon overlooking Beacon St.
felt about as good & right &, hey, classy as I ever feel.
As compared, say, to how I felt when the Director, a crew of old Chowhound buddies & I stumbled into Brasserie Jo late 1 night, having already been chowing & hounding for, I lie not, 7 hours straight (more on that anon). But then, this stalwart in the Colonnade Hotel always was 1 of my favorite shelters in a shitstorm. Or in a literal one, for that matter. Or in a lull, for that matter; blowing from out of a raw chill into
& nibble on croque monsieurs & oysters in the off-hours—mid-afternoon, late night—had a way of making everything okay.
But nothing could right 7 hours’ worth of wrongs—unless it was doing so much more wrong we’d come out the other side into the bright light of rightness again. Worth a try, am I right (or wrong)?
So we tried, starting with what every meal at Brasserie Jo starts with—a warm, crusty baguette in a paper bag (so nice when that’s not just a travelogue cliché), served with butter & a mysterious but always welcome plate of crisply marinated, herbed carrots—
plus what my every meal here starts with: steak tartare.
I like my tartare either/or. Either it should be very pure—the barest amount of binder & seasoning to provide almost undetectable support to the raw beef in all its beefy rawness—or very tarted up, with lots & lots of mustard & egg yolk & capers & spices into which the meat can just about melt. B. Jo’s occupies the latter end of the spectrum—in fact, for the 1st time, I thought it overshot the mark, losing the raw savor altogether.
to the generously varied charcuterie plate (click to enlarge)—I vaguely recall a suprisingly piquant chicken liver pâté—& fries served in classic fashion, upright.
But again, the gist of this place has long, for me, inhered in nonchalance: you breeze in on a whim; you sip some Belgian ale or other; you graze on something impérative—escargots en cocotte, onion soupe gratinée, steak frites, salade niçoise, what have you—while soaking up the retro-Euro vibe; you breeze out casually contented, et voilà.
That we did. But we still failed. Turns out you *can’t* add 2 hours of debauchery to 7 hours of debauchery & come out smelling like anything close to a rose. In the immortal words of (to use her Chowhound moniker) yumyum the next morning: “I blame you.”
Me, I blame various others, including Brian Poe, chef of Poe’s Kitchen at The Rattlesnake, where those 1st 7 hours were frittered away. Because Poe & I have a working relationship that has turned into a friendship, & because those -ships meant that the food was on the house, it would be improper of me to review it in the usual manner. But it’s totally appropriate, I think, for me to praise the tireless charm & good nature of the gentleman himself, while assuring any Bostonian who still associates The ‘Snake with cut-rate culinary afterthoughts that Poe is hell-bent on winning (heh, I just typed “sinning”—that too) hearts & minds via a rip-roaring repertoire that, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum—chock-full of crunchies, creamies, chilies & other gut-gripping delights such as
the signature grilled cornbread with Hatch chilies, queso fresco & Guadalajara butter (which you will polish off with a spoon despite your better judgment)
chilled lobster with grilled avocado in black pepper–lavender crema
So don’t let the naysayers, who may be speaking from the experience of a collegiate margarita whirl-&-hurl 10 years ago, sway you—or me sway you, for that matter. Decide for yourself what you think of Poe’s ambitious doings (venison-brie tacos! burgers with lobster, foie gras & whiskey-cured bacon! grilled doughnuts with champagne foam!)—& do report back.
As for Erbaluce: it was one of those once-in-a-moon-made-of-green-cheese meals that I chose in advance to savor sans camera or critical-thinking cap—in part because the lovely-but-personal circumstances thereof were such that I didn’t want to skew them with my own agenda, in part because the chorus of raves about Charles Draghi’s handsomely intimate contemporary Italian spot in Bay Village is so sonorous that I knew there’d be little point in adding my own goofy pipsqueak (never mind the fact that Draghi has spoken for himself so intelligently right here on this blog).
Suffice it to say the food lives up to its renown—from lobster broth with whelks to an incroyable caul-&-speck-wrapped shad roe with roasted red pepper–pink peppercorn sugo to the signature rack of wild boar, roasted over walnut shells & served with Concord grape mosto—while Draghi lives up to his own reputation as a warm, smart, generous, deeply engaged chef-restaurateur. Kudos e basta.