Saturday, May 31, 2008
I haven't forgotten about you, I promise...
Monday, May 26, 2008
We arrived on Sunday evening to find the dining room less than half full. It's decorated in a somewhat eclectic style-- lots of hard woods, bare light bulbs hanging in artful style from the walls, and curved acoustical panels on the ceiling. The bar is inviting and stretches the length of one wall, terminating in the open kitchen at the end of the room. I faced the kitchen, naturally, so I could watch what was going on.
Salt and pepper. If you're wondering, they did remove and replace this at the end of the meal.
...would be Mamma Zecca's masterpiece
For another vegetable selection, I chose roasted asparagus with parmesan. This was a really high-quality veg; there was that savory caramelized flavor that comes from roasting or grilling asparagus, which I love. There was also a significant amount of asparagus in the dish, something I appreciated. The parmesan was good but I didn't feel it added much to the plate overall.
Close up on cheeeeeeeese
Alta Strada is definitely not cheap, but the quality of food was some of the best I've had in a long time. It's a convivial atmosphere (as they say) with attentive service, and I would eagerly return if I lived anywhere nearby. Even though my parents' dishes were perhaps not as up to snuff as they would have liked, I feel justified in awarding Alta Strada four out of five Offset Spatulas.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
The exterior of the Natick Mall location
Chocolate mousse freebie
Illy coffee, only the best
It wasn't long before our desserts arrived. Mom ordered one of Finale's signature desserts, the molten chocolate cake. It comes as a personal-sized chocolate cake, accompanied by candied almonds and a pool of dark chocolate sauce. Usually, there is a scoop of espresso gelato as well, but my mom requested it sans ice cream.
Cake topped with a flurry of powdered sugar
Once the cake was punctured, the liquid center began oozing out. I stole a small taste, and let me tell you, if you like chocolate cake, it doesn't get any better than this. The creamy, silky interior combined with the slight sugary crunch of the cakey exterior-- pure heaven.
Molten center in actionI ordered one of my favorite desserts on their menu, the fresh fruit sampler. Part of the reason why I like it is it doesn't make me feel sick after eating it (this is a fault of my stomach, not a fault of Finale, let's be clear about that), but it's also just plain delicious. The sampler comes as a display of fresh fruit around a pecan tuile cup holding two scoops vanilla gelato. You can request any other flavor of gelato or sorbet, but I love their vanilla-- it's Ciao Bella and incredibly yummy. I also asked for extra berries, which they gave me-- and charged for (Finale does have some weird pricing policies sometimes...).
Fruit, ice cream, and cookie: all three major food groups
The fruit was sweet and fresh and tangy, everything fruit should be-- I even ate the grapefruit segments, and I don't like grapefruit. But the ice cream is the centerpiece of the dish, and it was cold, creamy and satisfying. The pecan tuile is like a huge, nutty florentine cookie, and it's anchored to the plate with a dollop of pastry cream, which acts as a surprise bonus rewardfor getting to the bottom of the cup.
You can see the vanilla bean flecks in the gelato-- and the creative chocolate garnish
Once finished, we paid our bill and left, passing the pastry case full of other tempting delights on the way out. The cupcakes, in particular, are noteworthy here. If I hadn't just eaten an enormous dessert, I might have gotten one.
A jewel box of edible goodies
The chocolate cake with white frosting is incredibly good
Sure, I could comment on the restaurant's decor-- a crisp color scheme of black and red-- and the fact that their water tastes extra good (well, it DOES). Sure, I could note the friendly and prompt service and the ample room between tables. Sure, I could also mention the somewhat bizarre and incomprehensible pricing schemes they often concoct... and the fact that it's tough to get a table in some of the locations at prime times of night. But none of that really matters. Finale makes incredible, earth-shatteringly delicious desserts. It's one of the few places I actually miss since moving to Manhattan, and it's the type of restaurant I want to own myself some day. I would go there every day if I could. For these reasons, I deem Finale my first and highly distinguished five Offset Spatula restaurant.
The exterior, with a woman who is not my mother
My mom and I were there about ten minutes early. While I expected them to make us wait in the inviting bar area, they seated our incomplete party without a problem. That's something that is increasingly uncommon in Manhattan, so I appreciated the gesture.
The nice bar area, where we did not wait
While we waited for my dad to arrive, we looked over the menu. I had a hard time deciding what to eat; there wasn't anything that truly jumped out at me. The waiter came and went several times, encouraging us to look over the wine list. Since both my mom and dad were driving and I didn't necessarily want to be drinking solo, we declined the wine. Once our waiter realized he wouldn't be getting maximum value out of our table, the obsequiously friendly service became just a tiny bit icier. Nothing major, just subtly perceptible.
My dad arrived and we put in our order. I looked out over the restaurant, which was decorated in a French peasant-country style-- very comfortably done. There was a large birthday party in the back area that got going while we were dining; the staff separated the party by drawing a large curtain across the back, which was a good solution for both the party and the rest of the diners.
Since this was a French restaurant, I was looking forward to the bread basket. I saw bread baskets on several other tables, and I was seriously hungry, so after we placed our order I eagerly waited for it appear. And waited. And waited a bit more... And then a runner arrived bearing three plates of food, which he set down on our table. Unfortunately, they didn't belong to us. He was somewhat perturbed but whisked them away. Close behind him was another runner bearing my mother's salad. As he set the salad down, I asked him for a bread basket. He obliged, and when my mom was halfway through her appetizer, the bread arrived.
Bush league bread basket
The waiter placed a small dish of softened butter on the table and then unveiled the bread-- literally, as it had been covered by the folded napkin to keep it warm. He unwrapped the top folds as though he were unswaddling a baby. Inside the napkin-blanket were four kinds of thinly sliced bread. The slices were warm, and I was excited.
There are four kinds of bread in there. Really.
I chose something that looked like peasant multigrain. While I expected a warm, soft piece, it was actually somewhat toasted. I'm not sure how I felt about that at the time; it was pretty good, although usually in restaurants I want soft bread, not toast. I spread that piece with the softened butter (well done for softening the butter! Extra points for that) and sprinkled some salt on top, freshly ground from the salt grinder (also very cool).
Multigrain bread, softened butter, and fresh salt
As the bread cooled, the toasted-ness became decidedly less yummy. Ever have cold toast? Yeah, not so good. I tried bits of the other three kinds of bread. One, which I thought was raisin bread, was actually olive bread. Not great. Then my mother encouraged me to try a slice of the third kind-- she said it was a white with "an interesting spice." I tried it and nearly spat it out-- it was fennel seeds and roasted garlic. I HATE fennel seeds and all things that taste of licorice. Eew. Finally, I tried the fourth kind, which was standard crusty white bread. That was okay, but still on cold-toast-status. Overall, a disappointing bread basket, especially after I had to ask for it specially.
My mom tucked into her salad. It was described as a salad of "Pea tendrils, English peas and orange supremes with house smoked trout and barley; lemon thyme vinaigrette." The ingredients looked fresh, and the smoked trout lent an interesting touch. It was fairly reasonably sized for an appetizer salad, and my mom thought it was very well done.
Something is fishy in this salad...
Once the salad was gone, the dish and our silverware were cleared and the entrees arrived shortly after. My dad had ordered pork tenderloin, which came with spaetzle and two types of beans. Because he's "not a bean guy" (his description, not mine), he requested a small green salad instead of the beans, and the kitchen obliged.
Pork with beanless green salad
After he took a few bites, Dad said the pork was "just okay." He said there wasn't much sauce in the dish, so there wasn't much flavor. But by the time we were done with the dinner, he said the dish had improved much-- the first few bites he had taken were "just the wrong bites." The sauce drizzled on top of the remaining slices of pork lent the necessary savory flavor.
For her entree, my mother selected the crabcakes, another generously-sized dish from the appetizer column of the menu. This came with two plump, golden-brown cakes atop an asparagus puree and a rhubarb caramel. She really liked both the sauces, and happily ate the cakes. For what it's worth, the plate was also beautifully composed.
For my part, I got--wait for it-- a mixed green salad. My mom warned me that the standard appetizer size was very small, so I asked for an entree size, if possible-- just some extra greens would be good. The salad arrived and was a fairly large pile of greens, with a few slices of cucumber, a half-dozen tiny slivers of red onion and a tangle of fried carrot. The lemon-thyme vinagrette came in an adorable creamer on the side, as requested.
Mixed greens with a fried-carrot topper
The greens were very standard. The only interesting part of the salad were the fried carrots-- they were simultaneously crunchy and chewy, as you might expect a fried carrot to be if you thought about it at all. The dressing was creamy and flavorful, but after the salad was gone, I was still pretty damn hungry. But that was a good thing-- I was saving room for dessert. Not at Sel de la Terre, although I assume their desserts are very good, but in a different sort of place. Stay tuned for more news on that...
I did make a visit to the bathroom, which was an incredibly soothing place. It felt like someone's home, which I'm sure was the point. Nicely done.
I could totally take a shower in here.
Sel de la Terre is a very expensive restaurant, although they didn't charge us any more for an extra-large salad and they also didn't charge for my mom's two club sodas. But when you're paying those prices (entrees hovered around the mid-high $20s/low $30s, and this is suburban Massachusetts), you expect spectacular food. There were too many lapses of service for it to be a real special-occasion restaurant, and while the food was good, it wasn't outstanding. Plus, the bread basket was a real let-down. As a result, Sel de la Terre clocks in at two Offset Spatulas.
Friday, May 23, 2008
It needs no introduction
The somewhat unassuming entrance
The space is very small, but what used to be a room crammed with tables shoved against one another is now a darkened, serene restaurant with large tables offering ample elbow room. We wondered how they could have afforded to take away so many tables. Unfortunately, I sort of know the answer to that question: Oishii sushi is very, very good, but it is also very, very pricey, and that's coming from someone who lives in Manhattan.
One of the sushi chefs, hard at work behind the barOishii gives each table one set of laminated menus. They have a system where you circle what you want on the menu using a provided grease pencil, which makes it so that your order is always right. Genius! I knew exactly what I wanted, and my mother and father selected their dishes. We were on our way.
No confusion here...They brought over our drinks first. I went with tap water; my mother ordered Perrier, which they served in a classy wine glass. My dad ordered a diet Coke, which came in a tall, elegant, and...thin glass. Maybe this is part of their cost-cutting plan.
Itty-bitty little bit of diet Coke
Soon, they brought over my first selection: a small green salad. I love the ginger salad dressing at Japanese restaurants, so I almost always opt for the green salad. This salad was certainly small, and it came in a beautiful little bowl (all the ceramics at Oishii are really beautiful), but it was exceedingly difficult to eat. The salad was cut into basically one large chunk, so you couldn't lift it out of the bowl without everything falling everywhere. Eventually, I pretty much dumped the salad onto another plate and ate it as best I could. Once I got the hang of it, it was delicious. Oishii didn't disappoint.
Green salad... you can see the head of lettuce hiding under there
My other selection, a seaweed salad, was hot on the heels of the green salad, leaving me with two dishes while, momentarily, my parents had none. This seaweed salad was ample, gleaming, and vibrantly green. I didn't end up getting to the seaweed until after I had finished my veggies and sampled the other offerings on the table (read below), but when I did, it was fresh and delicious, with a delightful tang. THIS is what I wanted when I ordered seaweed salad at Tao!
Greens, but a different type of greens
My mom had ordered broiled eggplant, another delicious Japanese appetizer. Oishii makes this very, very well. It comes in small chunks of eggplant surrounding a pile of field greens. There's some sort of creamy or mayonnaise-based dressing on top of the eggplant and a bit on top of the greens. I'm not sure I really want to know what's in that dressing, because it's too good. I stole a few pieces of this eggplant and dug into the greens in the middle. The eggplant was silky with a bit of broiled char, and the creaminess of the dressing makes the whole piece just melt in your mouth. Mmmmm.
Eggplant, transformed into DELICIOUSNESS
My dad had ordered pork Gyoza for his dinner. It was a small order, but he said he wasn't hungry. I didn't try any of it (obviously), but he polished off the small dumplings and declared them the perfect thing for a not-that-hungry dinner.
Pork parcels with glossy dipping sauce
Finally, my mom's sushi arrived. She had ordered a soft shell crab roll, an Alaskan roll (with salmon), and a sweet potato tempura roll. Oishii is famous for its sushi-- it's well known in the area for being some of the freshest and highest-quality around. I tried a few of the sweet potato tempura rolls; while the potato was slightly undercooked and thus a bit too hard, the nori and the rice were delectable. My stomach won't tolerate sushi in quantity, but the few bites were just enough for me to get the delicious flavor of Oishii.
Soft shell crab in the back, Alaskan in the middle, sweet potato in front, with a dollop of pickled ginger
Soon, our table was nothing but a graveyard of empty plates.
Nothing but memories
Our servers allowed us to linger for a while, which was somewhat counterintuitive because all of the few tables in the restaurant were full. But after a while reclining with our bellies distended, we asked for the check and paid. The final awesome part of Oishii is the check comes with my favorite kind of mint, those things that look like M&Ms but instead of just chocolate inside there's a mint center with a tiny bit of chocolate under the candy shell. You know what I mean? Whenever I encounter them in restaurants, if there's an unguarded bowl I always take an inappropriately large fistfull of them. Sad, but true.
So where does Oishii come down in the overall scheme of my dining life? It's not in Manhattan, true, but it's definitely a place I like to return to again and again. The food is incredible. The atmosphere is much improved, and while the service isn't so much a selling point, it definitely doesn't detract from the experience. For all this, and basically just for the pure deliciousness that is Oishii, I award this Sudbury institution four Offset Spatulas.