Globeater - Grubbing around the Globe

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

(more…)

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):

B26winelist
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.

B26anchovies

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.

B26salad
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.

B26bruschetta

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.

B26pasta
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.
B26

felt about as good & right &, hey, classy as I ever feel.

Bin 26 Enoteca on Urbanspoon

***
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

Brasseriejorest18 here

to loll around at the warmly lit Art Deco bar (preferably unoccupied by lovey-dovey yuppie scum!)
Brasseriejorest05

& 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—
BJbaguette BJcarrots

plus what my every meal here starts with: steak tartare.

BJtartare

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.

The rest mostly went by in a blur, from the standard-issue tarte flambée w/ onions, bacon & herbs
BJtarte

to the generously varied charcuterie plate (click to enlarge)—I vaguely recall a suprisingly piquant chicken liver pâté—& fries served in classic fashion, upright.

BJcharcuterie
BJfries

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.”

Brasserie Jo at the Colonnade Hotel on Urbanspoon

***
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

PKcornbreadthe signature grilled cornbread with Hatch chilies, queso fresco & Guadalajara butter (which you will polish off with a spoon despite your better judgment)
PKlobsterspoons
chilled lobster with grilled avocado in black pepper–lavender crema

PKdessertnachos&, groan-grin-groan, dessert nachos: cinnamon sugar–dusted chips, with cheesecake, berries, chocolate sauce & whipped cream.

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.

Rattlesnake Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

***
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.

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

Dish of the Week: Prune-Stuffed Gnocchi, No. 9 Park

Last week, for the 1st time since the series launched in the fall, I didn’t name a Dish of the Week. It wasn’t for lack of nominees, believe you me. On the contrary, the embarrassment if not downright mortification of riches we encountered during the Bacchanalia that was our jaunt to Boston left me feeling all but helpless to choose. The same goes for this week, really; I could close my eyes & throw a dart at this post on Russell House Tavern or this one on Neptune Oyster, for instance, & come up with a winning candidate.

So I’ve decided to beg the question a bit by featuring not a new dish but a true classic. There isn’t a serious diner in the city who isn’t familiar with this longtime signature of Barbara Lynch’s powerhouse dining destination No. 9 Park (of which more to come)—& who, I wager, wouldn’t include it on a list of Boston’s all-time greatest dishes (along, perhaps, with pizza from the original Pizzeria Regina, Clio’s lobster & sea urchin cassolette, Oleana’s fried mussels with hot peppers & tarator sauce, oysters in black bean sauce at Peach Farm & so on).

And on May 3, 2010, the prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras, vin santo & toasted almonds proved every bit as extraordinary as it did the 1st time I tried it some 8 or 9 years ago,

N9Pgnocchi
as impossibly luscious in flavor as it is uncannily silken, almost delicate, texturally.

Famous as this luxury item is, however, not a lot of people seem to know it’s actually inspired by a humble snack from Fruili–Venezia Giulia: gnocchi di prugne can be found throughout the streets of Trieste, the cuisine & architecture of which strikingly reflects its Austro-Hungarian legacy. Pulling one out of a paper bag from a bakery & biting into it in a sunny piazza one morning a decade ago in that remarkable city remains among my dearest & most revelatory (not to mention stickiest) culinary experiences—so the chance to relive it, albeit in decidedly more extravagant fashion, at No. 9 Park is always a thrill.

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.
NOfriedclams

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
RHlobsterpot2

& the butcher’s choice pizza.

RHpizza

RHpizza2
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.
RHserranoham

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),

RHcharcuterie

RHpate

& 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
RHegg2

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).

RHpasta2
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.
RHlamb

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,
RHshrimp RHwellington

but somehow managed to shove down a bite of the highly textured, nicely tart semolina-yogurt cake with basil.

RHsemolinacake
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

Dirty Laundry List Con’t.: Every Other Single Thing I Tasted on My Trip to Boston (+ a Shout Out to the Chefs I Missed on This Merry-Go-Round)

Of course I’ll be flashing some photos & spilling my guts out (almost literally at this point) to provide specifics in the next few weeks—but just to finish the really rather appallingly gluttonous nonsense that started here:


gjetost

aged edam…
mimolette…
…w/ crackers
horseradish-leek cheese spread w/ French bread
grilled cipolline & mushrooms
marinated cucumber salad
oysters on the half-shell (again)
oyster crackers (again)
fried clams w/ tartar sauce
hamachi tartare w/ mint kimchi, cucumber & lime (again)
grilled calamari salad
vitello tonnato sandwich w/ fries
braised baby octopus w/ acini di pepe
charcuterie board
serrano ham on toasts w/ honey-torched manchego
chilled lobster pot w/ potato-chorizo aioli & crushed corn crumbs
crispy soft poached egg on brioche w/ pancetta
pizza w/ smoked lamb belly, fontina & mushrooms
salt & pepper shrimp w/ Tabasco aioli
baked pasta w fontina, peas & grilled ramps
braised lamb shank w/ smoked lamb breast & black lentils
carmenere x2
Gran Sasso Pecorino Terre di Chieti (a totally new-to-me Italian white) x2
brut rosé
vinho verde x2
lambrusco
Campari
sauvignon blanc
Westport Rivers rosé
meritage x2
cappuccino x2

Thanks for the above to Deluca’s Market, Neptune Oyster, Poe’s Kitchen & Russell House Tavern—& to all who make me feel so loved & appreciated in Boston. You know who you are, family/friends/chefs/bartenders/servers; you’re already missed.

And as for you, Myers + Chang, Jamie Bissonnette of Coppa, & dear José Duarte of Taranta—I’ll see you, or at least your food, next time.

Dirty Laundry List: Every Single Thing I’ve Tasted in Boston Since My Arrival on Saturday

In case my people back in Denver were wondering where I’ve been at:

oyster crackers
oysters on the 1/2 shell
cornbread w/ scallops, rhubarb mostarda & caviar
hamachi w/ mint kimchi, cucumber & lime
blue marlin crudo
mussels in red curry
striped bass with suckling pig hash & sauteed squid
softshell crabs with tuna tartare
bread w/ white bean spread
mixed greens w/ shaved grana padano
lobster broth w/ whelks
morels sauteed w/ ramps
spaghi w/ sea urchin & bottarga
fettuccine w/ rabbit
gnocchi all’amatriciana
wild boar w/ Concord grape mosto
fig-apricot gelato
wildflower honey panna cotta
lobster spoons w/ avocado & black pepper-lavender essence
grilled cornbread w/ Guadalajara butter & Hatch chiles
grilled artichokes w/ freeze-dried corn-crab dip
baked brie empanada w/ morel vinaigrette
scallop tacos
chicken tacos
fish tacos
dessert nachos w/ cheesecake & berries
steak tartare
charcuterie
french fries
French bread w/ butter
pickled carrots
tarte flambée
Caesar salad w/ shrimp
salad jardinière w/quail egg & green goddess
artichoke en barigoule
prune gnocchi w/foie gras
nairagi sashimi w/green garlic & truffle vinaigrette
tautog w/ fingerlings & cepes
guinea hen w/ foie en crepinette & black trumpets
black olive clafoutis w/ vanilla ice cream & Meyer lemon sorbet
marinated white anchovies
crab-squid salad w/ polenta
cocoa tagliatelle w/ porcini
mushroom, garlic & fontina bruschetta
prosecco x2
vinho verde x2
lambrusco rosso
soave x3
amari x3
Campari x4
sauvignon blanc x3
rosé x2
fino sherry
Veuve Cliquot demi-sec
gruner-veltliner
insolia-grecanico blend
pinot noir
muscadet
brachetto d’acqui
aglianico

…& I’ve still got a day & a half to go. Thanks, Neptune Oyster, Erbaluce, Poe’s Kitchen, Brasserie Jo, Russell House Tavern, No. 9 Park, Bin 26 & places yet to be foreseen!

UPDATE: List continues & concludes here.

The Scoop Series: Erbaluce Maestro Charles Draghi’s Got Sauce

Renowned Boston restaurateur Christopher Myers wasn’t the only one who held forth with wit & feeling during a recent round of interviews for a forthcoming piece for Boston’s Stuff Magazine. Like Myers, the light that makes Boston’s acclaimed Erbaluce so bright, Charles Draghi, has a literary background—& it showed so stirringly in his detailed description of the innovative sauce techniques he uses in his contemporary Italian kitchen that I implored him, too, to allow me to publish here what I couldn’t use for the piece. Also like Myers, he graciously agreed.

Chuck_kitchen1 from the Erbaluce website

Again, be ye a Rocky Roller, Beantownie, or anyone in between, the man has something prismatic to say TO YOU as an inquiring cook &/or back-of-house voyeur. Heed.

***

On Eschewing Butter & Cream

I used to work in kitchens where butter was abused beyond belief. I was a sous chef at [a turn-of-the-millennium Back Bay hot spot], where we would go through approximately 20 pounds of butter a night—all used to thicken sauces. My position on the line was as saucier—& from tasting those sauces repeatedly every night, I went home feeling ill & internally beaten up after every shift. When I had worked in New York, before Ambrosia, I had worked with chefs who were using butter very sparingly, & I never felt that sort of pain from their food.

When I opened Marcuccio’s in the North End immediately after leaving [hot spot X], I started cooking Italian food they way I was raised with it: very little butter, used only where it made sense. I found that the less butter I used, the better & clearer the flavors of the vegetables, herbs, fish & meat became. I soon got to the point where I was not using butter or cream at all (except in desserts like panna cotta, of course).

On the flip side of that coin, I also found that all of my ingredients had to be immaculately fresh, because there was no place to hide older or inferior ingredients without the heavy saucing. I often use pork fat or duck fat (which is actually very healthy for you & reduces bad cholesterol), various high quality olive oils, walnut oil, expeller-pressed corn oil, etc. My omission of butter (which many consider to be a crime of omission) is not about health, or doing something that is better environmentally—although those are worthy considerations. My only concern as a chef is flavor. I am driven to get haunting, captivating & indicative flavors from all of my ingredients and from each of my dishes, and I find this much easier to achieve without the muddying sensation of butter-laden sauces.

I may be alone in this belief among chefs (as almost every other chef I’ve ever met swears by large amounts of beurre monté in virtually every dish) but I have legions of dining fans who love the way my food tastes & the feeling of being pleasantly sated after a meal without the food hangovers or indigestion they normally experience.

On Succos, Sugos, Sughettos, Leccos & Mostos
I have sauces based on vegetables [which Draghi calls succos—Denved.]—using the roasted jus from things like peppers, red onions, and white eggplant, reduced with their natural pectins as thickeners to add body. I have meat-based sauces [sugos & sughettos], which are really a variation on roasting jus, combined with acidity from fermented juices & housemade vinegars & the rendered fats of the meats, which add richness—like my salmon vinagrette [lecco] made from rendered salmon belly oil & bits of caramelized salmon meat, emulsified together with fermented gold beet juice to make a sauce for sole filets. [Here’s where I melt into a puddle of want]

The genesis of mostos was in my desire to come up with a fruit-based sauce to add to my vegetable- & meat-based sauces. [Note: mosto, or must, is technically unfermented juice fresh-pressed for winemaking; as Draghi explains, “I am using the term loosely, as I do all of my sauce styles, because there isn’t an exact term for much of what I’m doing.”] When classic sauces are made from fruits, the fruit is always cooked with sugar, making the sauce sweet and somewhat old & overcooked in taste. But if you just used pureed fresh fruit, with no added sugar, the sauce would oxidize & the flavor of the fruit would die quickly.

Boar
rack of wild boar with Concord grape mosto, from Erbaluce’s website

So I thought to use the natural yeasts of the fruit to eat their sugars, & to create heady, intoxicating aromas from the fruit (much like those you sense when going through a winery that practices open-barrel fermentation). In terms of the process, it’s simply like making wine. I use organic, sometimes wild fruit to obtain wild yeast strains; crush the fruit, sometimes adding herb branches for flavor, aroma, & tannins; then I run the fermented fruit through a food mill to get an intensely aromatic, pulpy fruit puree. On occasion, I strain the puree to get a fine sauce, to which I add the pan drippings of whatever meat the sauce will accompany. But the fruits I crush are only lightly fermented; I don’t intend to produce alcohol as anything other than a flavor preservative & aroma enhancer. (Don’t forget, the second that fruit is crushed, it begins to ferment from the yeast on its skin, so all musts are at least slightly fermented, no matter how freshly they’ve been crushed from their host fruits.)

These mostos can be as intensely aromatic as perfumes, with startlingly strong fruit flavors, tricking the diner into thinking the taste will finish sweet, only to leave a very dry tannic bite on the palate. They’re similar to the wines they drink along with their dishes. I remembered that my family in Piemonte, when they roasted a pheasant or rabbit, would use the skins from the wine caps of the wines they were fermenting, along with a little olive oil, to add flavor to the meat, & so I’ve tried to capture that traditional taste combination.

***
So Draghi’s reviving the most vital & honest aspect of nouvelle cuisine—its emphasis on essence—while substituting its more precious tendencies for the rustic make-do smarts of cucina povera. Mwah, eh?

The Scoop Series: What’s Eating Ace Restaurateur Christopher Myers

While working on an upcoming article for Boston’s Stuff Magazine, I got to exchanging words with Boston’s own gastronomic Midas, Christopher Myers, who 1st struck gold with legendary destination Radius & now glitters with his lovely lady, the equally brilliant Joanne Chang of celebrated bakery Flour, at funky Asian hot spot Myers + Chang.

Rsz_myerschang_022_1236375112
How cute is this? From M+C’s website

As full of passionate insight as the extremely erudite, fellow former PhD candidate in literature is on the subject of the American dining scene, I couldn’t let his wise musings languish in a private e-mail. With his blessings, then, I’m sharing everything I couldn’t use for the article with you—Denverites, Bostonians, & anyone interested in postmodern prandial philosphy of the intensely personal kind.

***

On Sustainability
Sustainability. The Movie. I mean the trend. If you’re not thinking about it, you’re not thinking. Or caring. Or more than likely existing on the planet. We—& apparently everyone else—are looking to make every decision a touchstone for environmental friendliness. Whatever that means. From our to-go packaging to the hand dryers we use in the bathroom (Flour has one that saves thousands of trees annually, so “they”say) to our cleaning products to the origin of our food to the composting that we do behind Myers+Chang….

But we’re still confused about what we’re doing; every day we question ourselves. A brief digression. When we were investigating our takeout packaging for M+C we did a lot of research. Exhaustive? (I don’t know, I was beat!) Yet at the end of the day, you know what the most environmentally friendly product would have been? Styrofoam. STYROFOAM!!! Why? Sure, it’ll take a zazazillion years to decompose but it requires the least amount of energy to make. It’s a wash. But it—styrofoam—apparently has the worst PR man on the planet so everyone thinks styrofoam sucks. Even the paper companies that we were engaging in these chats were astonished or embarrassed. So, if we’re still not sure who won the “paper or plastic” argument—& I’m not—then who can say if we’re doing enough or if we’re doing what’s right? I remember when I was in grad school, first going to Bread & Circus, the original one on Prospect St. in Cambridge—damn if that query didn’t flummox me every time! Both, I’d say! What did I figure? I could use both bags & not buy plastic inserts for my trashcans! So, I was saving myself some money, the bags were made already, they were giving them away….win/win, right?

I’m sure there are about 10 miscalculations in my judgment. My digression has a point. Paper or plastic? That quandary is really basic math compared with the sustainable seafood issue—the sustainable anything issue. Salmon are way more complicated! Grouper off of South Carolina? Way dicier!! There are too many ifs in that equation to even begin to consider here. Where’s your chocolate from?, Jo hears every day. Is it sourced from environmentally friendly cacao forests? Is it local (e.g. Taza)? If it were me? “Arrrgggghhh!!! I’m trying to make an effing cookie here, kids!!! I’m not raping the Amazon!!!” Thankfully, I rarely field the queries! And so it goes (a nod to our departed friend Vonnegut).

So, in short, the trend? If I were to sum it up? Thinking & caring. Believe me, for business, small or large, to add consideration of others, the environment, into the equation—not as an advertising point or marketing tag, but just because it’s right to do & inevitable—is more than a trend, it’s a movement. It’s here to stay & to be improved upon. I’m sure you’ve seen the documentary The Corporation. Big business is sociopathic. Little business needn’t be….But you have to look at it from every different direction or you’re not really doing anything.

If we had just listened to our older brothers and sisters from the ’60s, we could have avoided this, perhaps….A few more words on sustainability: Life must exist outside the locavore bubble. The last thing New England needs is to be more insular. [Ditto the Rockies—Denved.] At some point there has to be a larger set of values to choose from than simply an arbitrarily drawn carbon footprint. There has to be. We must believe in a world, or create one, that allows for decisions to be set against a backdrop of color, humor, innovation, mystery, excitement, flavor, & romance. I love Duxbury oysters as much as the next guy, but come on!!!!??? Every day?

On Facial Hair
The one trend that won’t go away is our young staff’s aversion to shaving! Beards. THEY’RE EVERYWHERE! It’s like being surrounded by Manson, the Unabomber, & the exploding-shoe guy all day long! The scragglier, the better, apparently.

On the Era of the Small Plate
The small plate is here to stay. I think it’s wise & fun & shows America’s typical openness to other cultures. We grew up on a Western European plating model [a.k.a. service à la russe]. The meal was there on the plate. That’s what mom put in front of us & that’s what the rarified French & Continental restaurants did, the ones that began our restaurant explosion years ago. But look around the world: very few cultures eat that way or present food to the table that way.
I think small plates introduce more of a helter-skelter atmosphere to the table—to further the Manson theme—reaching over, passing food around, it’s far more chaotic. And it makes for far more chat about food than ever before, because everyone at the table is typically eating the same things & therefore sharing common ground for discussion. Used to be you got fish, I got meat. One bite was shared. A few yums. That was that. Let’s talk about the kids or work. Now, it’s an exhaustive sharing of flavor values, balance, comparisons with similar dishes down the road. It’s great. Sorta. What is regrettable about this, for me? In many cases IT’S THE ONLY THING PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT. Not politics, not religion, not the environment, not sex, not sports. It’s maddening, this food obsession….Casual is not yielding ground. Ever. Which saddens me greatly. Casual often means noisy. Noisy always means nonromantic. Barely conversational. That’s why I got into this biz—to create atmosphere. Much harder to do when all anyone wants is to eat. To dine? Methinks it’s a verb that might go the way of the dodo.

***

Ever about to rock, Mr. Myers—I salute thee.