Globeater - Grubbing around the Globe

Babes in Woodland, Brooklyn

We’d landed at Kennedy a mere 2 hours earlier, but that was already an hour & 59 minutes longer than I’d been prepared to wait for an East Coast oyster after so many months away. So as the Director & I wandered the streets near our borrowed apartment in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, I vowed to stop at the very 1st place we came across that advertised them.

Thus it was that we stumbled into Woodland, bustling, breezy & streamlined in light earthtones—like 50 other eateries within a 2-block radius. But no matter—so long as it served my babies on the half-shell, I didn’t care what sort of generic gastropubby grub it was hawking.

It was only after we grabbed stools & ordered drinks at the bar that I gave the rest of the menu more than a passing glance—& suddenly the oysters were the least of my cravings. There were pulled pig’s-head croquettes & steak fries with anchovy dip; there was a dandelion green–grilled apricot salad with rye bark & pickled-sunchoke vinaigrette & a stew of clams, crawfish & sausage with maple sap, cayenne & carrot frites. From lowbrow to high, it was all so admirably savvy. I had a good feeling about the place, sure to be confirmed by a quick Google on the old smartphone.

What I found, however, reminded me I was but a babe in these parts: the locals surrounding us, undoubtedly, knew the place had opened just weeks ago in the eye of a neighborhood battlestorm with all sorts of nasty racial overtones.

Had I known that much in advance, I might have kept walking (not that said ugliness was the restaurant’s doing, but still). However, now it was too late; I was hooked on my high hopes for the kitchen. And about that, at least, I was spot-on.

Forget the oysters. Oysters are oysters. So long as they’re properly shucked & on ice with lemon wedges, I’m happy. It was the smoked quail eggs we threw in on a whim that made my head swivel on its stalk: carefully cooked so the white was structured but the yolk still gooey, their delicacy only highlighted by the earthy tinge of wood fire. A slight hint of tartness too—maybe a drop of vinegar?

The clincher was the  board of green-olive semolina bread with what may be the best compound butter I’ve ever had. The server, we thought, said it was almond butter, but that didn’t seem quite right; the bartender insisted it was green-onion, which seemed flat-out wrong. It wasn’t exactly nutty, nor merely honeyed; its sweetness was subtle & complex, not least for the contrastive sprinkling of black sea salt on top…well, whatever it contained, it was addictive.

No less so on our return visit a few nights later, when the flavoring had changed—I want to say to saffron—along with the breads, this time golden-raisin semolina & dark-raisin rye, arriving alongside our “trapper’s snack”: a bit of excellent prosciutto & stinky cheese alongside housemade beef jerky that was perfectly tender-chewy, perfectly seasoned, perfectly jerky.

Fried whitebait: it’s the new, head-on, gobble-it-whole french fry, here served with radish remoulade that looked startlingly like strawberry yogurt but tasted like its zingy mayo-based self.

And late-spring sprightliness suffused an entrée of pulled rabbit braised in Riesling, tossed with fresh pasta, mirepoix & herbs, & finally flavored with a hint of licorice root.

Given Woodland’s farm-to-urban-table bent, it’s no surprise that the bar program hews to a certain earthy, carefully sourced sensibility: cocktails with loads of fresh fruit & herbs, funky boilermakers, draft cider, Long Island wine, etc. Just the stuff, in short, to take the edge off any remaining resident resentment.

Woodland on Urbanspoon

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

What to Eat in Bolzano, Alto Adige

When you’re in the capital of the northernmost province of Italy on the Austrian border (a/k/a Bozen, Südtirol), surrounded by architecture like this,

which is surrounded by landscape like this,

then you simply must surrender to the aura by gorging on a dizzifyng array of dumplings—be they ravioli filled with spinach & ricotta di bufala, sprinkled with the unique local cheese known as graukäse,

at Zum Kaiserkron, which looks like this,

or the robust bread or potato dumplings called knödel, flavored at Loacker Moccaria with spinach & curd cheese alongside lentil salad.

You will invariably snack on copious amounts of speck, the indigenous lightly smoked ham. It may be accompanied by a mousse of herbed local goat cheese, rhubarb-strawberry salad, & the hearty brown bread called vinschgauer, as at Loacker Moccaria,

or it may be lightly fried & rolled around an orb of fresh, creamy mozzarella.

If you are really lucky, it will be followed by tagliatelle flavored with the ubiquitous crunchy flatbread called Schüttelbrot, tossed with delicate veal ragù, morels & pfifferlings (chanterelles).

If you are really, really lucky, that will in turn be followed by Schüttelbrot-crusted lamb chops over the tenderest of knödel, evoking gnocchi.

That’s not at all guaranteed, since the above was part of a catered lunch in advance of the Wine Tasting Forum at the Castel Mareccio, a/k/a Schloss Maretsch.

But I can promise you’ll encounter many an equivalent all around town. Top it off with a piece of apfelkuchen, relatively light, not too sweet.

And we’ve only just begun; click here for my detailed discussion of these & other specialties on ZesterDaily.

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.

Whose Bright Idea Was This?

Oh, Moldovans. Here’s to adding fuel to the fire of political instability.

(Found in a Des Moines supermarket, 5/5/11)

Marcello’s Chophouse: I’m Sold (& Bought, & Paid For)

I go to Albuquerque for the sour-cream enchiladas, the sopaipillas dripping with honey, the Christmas (i.e., any dish with both red & green chile). I do not go for steak. Hell, I rarely go anywhere for steak. But I also hit the ‘Burque to visit my dad, and when a dad is turning 86, a dad gets what a dad wants—especially if he’s footing the bill.

And dear Dad wanted to celebrate with me, the Director, & his lovely platonic ladyfriend, on his dime, at Marcello’s Chophouse. So what kind of chow-whore would I be to say no?

Frankly, I expected a cut-rate high-desert version of your average, glittering, cosmopolitan cow palace. Instead I found an admirably indie, expectation-surpassing take on same. Sure, except for home-grown sparkling Gruet (& Montes from Chile’s Colchagua Valley, mainly because I fell in love with it on a visit last year upon discovering that they play Gregorian chants to lull the barrels in the cellar 18 hrs. a day), the wine list was mostly a California-centric snooze. But the food absolutely held its own.

Take the pan-seared foie gras over broiled polenta, pear compote & a port reduction—not that the accompaniments registered much below the perfect lobes, crisp on top, the interior so meltingly delicate that one could be forgiven for interpreting the fattiness of duck liver as purity. It’s just got, in some way, to be good for you, for your soul, even if the duck might beg to differ.

Although the pan-fried lump crabcake wasn’t as bursting with chunks of sweetness as the best versions are—particularly if eaten dockside somewhere along the eastern seaboard—a surprising amount of cayenne lent it a pleasant kick, balanced by lime-cilantro remoulade.

The chophouse salad was a lowlight, blander than it sounded. My guess is that the finer the chop, the more each bit gets lost in the water released by the fresh vegetables, especially if they’re present in far larger amounts than—let’s face it—the good stuff: salami, artichoke hearts, Kalamatas, garbanzos, toasted piñons & aged provolone.

But the grilled meats impressed in every way: rare, tender, simple, from the double-cut pork chop

to the Colorado lamb

to the petite filet mignon.

True to the standard steakhouse model of conspicuous consumption, the chops are all served à la carte, so ordering sides that cost as much as their weight in the burrito platters you could get down the street with all the fixings is a must. But that’s all part of the profligate fun, right?

And they were solid—traditional, comfortingly rich. From left: bright, crisp-tender buttered asparagus; creamed corn with bacon, green chile, & cornbread crumbs; truffled mac & cheese; 3-cheese potatoes au gratin (below)—although the lone freebie, a warm, soft loaf of butter-sweet, sundried-tomato-studded white bread, took the cake.

We did not take the cake for dessert; instead, the birthday boy opted for a deconstructed split with caramelized bananas; scoops of chocolate, vanilla & dulce de leche ice cream,; raspberry compote; cajeta (Mexican caramel sauce); chocolate syrup & cinammon-sugar-spiced pecans. Oh, & whipped cream. Again, not groundbreaking, but perfectly respectable from all angles.

Unlike our potguts afterward.

Marcello's Chophouse on Urbanspoon

The Soul of a Chef: Poe’s Kitchen at The Rattlesnake

The soul of a chef, to use Ruhlman’s phrase, is in many ways like that of a writer—shaped by the drive to create & to destroy in the process; swollen by success & punctured by failure; pulled this way by the desire to please, that way by the lust to kill, in still another direction by the exhausted wish to be left the hell alone with one’s tools & toys. Most chefs I know, like most writers, are cauldrons of ambivalence, bubbling with passion as the black smoke of bitterness curls ever upward.

But there are exceptions. Brian Poe of Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake is one of them. I’m sure he has his dark moments, but only a dogged optimist could walk into a collegiate, nacho-clogged watering hole with 20 years of notoriety behind it & class it up the way he has, maintaining his sunny sanity amid the skepticism that’s slow to dissolve. Straight up, over the past 2 years, Brian’s become a friend of mine. So you might be all the more doubtful about the dissolution of my own skepticism & its replacement by admiration, which I dare say peaked with my most recent visit. What to do? Keeping in mind that I’d have spared my pal any embarrassment by writing nothing at all if I’d been unimpressed, you’ll have to judge for yourself whether the Latin-inspired kitchen just keeps getting better & better. Do report back on your findings.

Actually, the prosciutto-wrapped, blackened tuna stuffed with queso fresco over creamed corn isn’t a new dish—it’s a signature of Poe’s extra-bold style. All 4 elements—salty cured ham; strong, oily, yet still clean-tasting fish; fresh white cheese; & sweet, rich puréed corn—hold their own, each complementing the other. The use of creamed corn as a sauce rather than a side strikes me as an idea whose time has come.

So does the pairing of pork with finfish rather than shellfish; by contrast, given jumbo sea scallops, Poe eschews the usual bacon or ham in favor of seared chunks of foie gras, & the flesh of both—one firm & clean, the other meltingly fatty; each sweet & delicate in its own way—marries surprisingly well. Combined with acorn squash puree & sundried strawberry–arbol chile salsa, along with sauteed greens & a dab of avocado cream, it begins to sound like a puzzle with one too many pieces—but it doesn’t taste that way; the fruity & funky notes are in harmony, the crispy & smooth textures likewise. When you think about it, this is the kind of balance among a multitude of ingredients achieved by a great salad, say a Cobb, after all. No reason it can’t happen on a hot plate.

The same could be said of this off-menu dish, in which Poe paired a hefty piece of cilantro-&-asiago-grilled swordfish with the truffle risotto, pumpkin cream sauce, chunky pumpkin salsa & fried chard that usually distinguish his Vermont quail tacos. The substitution made sense—the flavor of swordfish has more in common with poultry than with most other fish, really—though I can see how roast game bird works even better amid all those warm, earthy flavors. I tend to prefer risotto that’s a bit creamier than this was, but since it was layered directly over the sauce, its grainier quality worked, preventing too much of a mishmash.

Braised in tequila with chipotle & cascabel chiles, this giant pork shank—Poe’s portions are generous almost to a fault—may be my current fave, however.

Smoky & perfectly tender alongside an almost spoonable slice of polenta topped with smoked-tomato grits, it’s comfort food brought into focus by the touch of bitterness provided by more fried chard, the way a draft of cold air emphasizes how good it feels to be curled up under blankets (I think I stole that realization from Moby Dick’s Ishmael).

Unless my fave was the mixed grill of silk-skinned wild mushrooms in soy-ginger sauce with tomato-ginger chutney. Sheer umami shot through with brightness.

The biggest surprise, however, was the pecan tart with black lava sea salt caramel sauce & cinnamon-sugared vanilla ice cream. More like a sandie than a slice of pie, it was rich, buttery, nutty & creamy-sweet without being cloyingly gooey. I suspected dessert would be an afterthought here; I was wrong.

I know what you’re thinking: Sure, when the chef’s taking care of you, he’s personally guaranteeing everything’s just peachy. That may be so; I don’t know how the kitchen operates when Poe’s not around, because I don’t go unless he is, with the express purpose of seeing him. But he’s so kind-hearted & easy to get to know that you could give hands-on treatment a shot—literally: invite him out to the bar for a jigger of killer ghost-pepper tequila.

Soon enough, I bet, you’ll be back to shoot the shit—& he, in turn, will be keeping a characteristically enthusiastic eye on your table.

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.

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