Saturday, May 31, 2008

You've been very patient...

So I'm back in the city after a very lovely vacation. I had a crazy week at work, which precluded much dining-out/fun activity for the past few days-- hence the silence on my part. But things are about to pick up on the food front over the next week or so, so watch this space for upcoming reviews and reports!

I haven't forgotten about you, I promise...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Vacation part IV: Spectacular Italian at Alta Strada

For my last vacation meal, I chose Alta Strada, Michael Schlow's suburban outpost in Wellesley. I had been there once before and had remembered that it was very good, so I was excited to be back.

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.

The dining room, sparsely populated

Bar area with chalkboard menus

My two trusty dining companions-- Mom and Dad-- left the wine ordering to me. I selected a 2005 Trebbiano, which turned out to be a bit more tannic than I had remembered the last time I had a Trebbiano (if I had been blindfolded I would have thought it was a red wine). But I anticipated it would pair well with food, a prophecy that ultimately did come true. My only gripe with the wine service was that Alta Strada has stemless glasses. It's a touch that I think is meant to make the wine more informal and accessible, but I just find it less enjoyable than traditional stemware. I find that a lot of the wine drinking experience for me has to do with good glassware, so the stemless glasses just don't cut it for me.

Trebbiano, with b-league glassware

We placed our order, and almost immediately bread was brought to our table. It was a cross-section of a hearty white loaf, cut into four rippable chunks. It was accompanied by a dish of fine, fruity, tasty olive oil for dipping. The bread itself had a good crust and a chewy interior. Really, really good with the olive oil, and even better with part of my meal... read on for that. I also sprinkled it with some of the salt and pepper in the cute little wells on the table.

Awesome, awesome bread

Salt and pepper. If you're wondering, they did remove and replace this at the end of the meal.

My mom and dad had ordered an appetizer, and while we were happy munching on the bread, it was taking quite a while for the app to appear. Graciously, a captain brought over a complimentary amuse bouche to tide us over during the wait. It was small teacups of spring vegetable soup, with a mint pistou dotting the top. The soup was hearty, with crisp-tender vegetables and wheat berries at the bottom. The only slightly off flavor was the mint pistou. I like mint in desserts but not really in savory food. But I definitely appreciated the gesture.

Free soup!

My parents' appetizer arrived shortly after the soup. They had ordered Mamma Zecca's eggplant, which was, to be frank, eggplant parm. Don't get me wrong-- I took a taste, and it was spectacularly delicious. The tomato sauce was especially flavorful, with bits of vegetables creating a toothsome texture.

Eggplant parm by any other name...

...would be Mamma Zecca's masterpiece

Once the eggplant was gone, our entrees arrived in a reasonable amount of time. First came the three antipasti selections that made up my meal. A small dish of broccolini was cooked with garlic and chiles. It was crunchy and enjoyable, but I actually discerned absolutely no heat or spice from the chiles... weird.

Tame broccolini

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.

Asparagus under parmesan blanket

Finally, the show-stopper: fresh homemade ricotta with sage. This is Schlow's signature; they make their ricotta in-house, and it tastes just unbelievably fresh. This dish of cheese came drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sage, and accompanied by grilled toast. I eagerly polished off the dish of cheese, pairing it with the bread from earlier as well as the toast. Incredible.

The house specialty

Close up on cheeeeeeeese

I was very pleased with my order, but how did my parents do? My dad had ordered cheese ravioli. It was a reasonably-sized dish but not over-ample. I took a taste of a raviolo, and while the tomato sauce was incredibly flavorful (I think the same recipe as in Mamma Zecca's eggplant), the pasta was undercooked (not just al dente, but undercooked). My dad also wished there were more sauce. I think that undersaucing is an "authentic" Italian thing, but he noted that some of the pasta ended up completely dry, definitely not a good thing, especially if it's undercooked to begin with.

Pasta! With cheese inside!

My mom had selected the spaghetti with tuna, pine nuts, golden raisins, and olives. This was a much more generous portion than my dad's ravioli, but that ended up not necessarily being a good thing. At first my mom couldn't find the tuna-- I pointed out that it was flaked in the sauce-- but once she did locate it, she persisted in noting that there was an "off flavor" in the dish. Finally, it was determined that that flavor was the olives. Now, my mom doesn't like olives, so I can't blame Alta Strada for that-- any dish with olives invariably tastes like olives, so as my mom admitted later, she probably just made the wrong choice. She did like the golden raisins in the sauce, though, which is a big step for a former raisin-eschewer like my mom.

Spaghettini, with, yes, tuna AND olives

Unfortunately, one of the negatives about Alta Strada is they don't really have a comprehensive dessert menu. There are only four choices written on one of the chalkboards above the bar, and one of those offerings is biscotti. None of them appealed, so we requested the check and planned to get dessert elsewhere. I wish Alta Strada would put some thought into a REAL dessert menu-- with such top quality food, I bet the desserts could be spectacular.

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

Vacation part III: Finale, the holy grail

After a just-okay dinner at Sel de la Terre, I was hungry and ready for dessert. We left the restaurant and walked a few hundred yards down the mall to our destination: Finale. Finale is one of my favorite places on earth-- it's a dessert restaurant with a couple locations in Boston (including one in Harvard Square, my old haunt). I had been waiting for this moment ever since the last time I ate at Finale, which was the last time I visited home, several months ago.

The exterior of the Natick Mall location

The restaurant was fairly empty, so we were seated immediately. On the way in, I grabbed a dessert sample from a tray on the counter. It was a small cup of chocolate cake layered with three kinds of chocolate mousse, and it was a delicious pick-me-up to tide me over until my real dessert arrived. We all knew exactly what we wanted, so with only a cursory glance at the menu (force of habit), we were ready to order.

Chocolate mousse freebie

Our bubbly, friendly waitress took our orders and brought my dad's coffee ASAP. We sat and chatted while the desserts were prepared.

Illy coffee, only the best

One of the coolest parts about Finale is that they mount a large mirror over the dessert-assembly counter, so you can see all the ingredients and the plating as it takes place. As you might imagine, this is enthralling theater for me. I chose a seat that had a great view of the mirror, so I watched as the chef plated our desserts and the other orders coming in. Note: if you are prone to orderer's remorse-- that is, realizing you actually wanted something different after you place your order-- don't watch the mirror. Everything at Finale looks great, so while your dessert will be incredible, all the others will be too...

The mirror displaying the assembly counter

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 action

I 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

Both of us polished off our desserts in record time. I couldn't get enough, and my mom, a chocoholic, couldn't either. If I could eat nothing but Finale desserts all day, I would be happy. Sick and fat, but happy.



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

If I haven't made it clear by now, I love Finale. It's a great concept, which began as Harvard Business School project, believe it or not. And although their desserts aren't cheap (a plated dessert like the ones we had will run you about $10), it's a great place to come when you just want dessert. That may seem like an obvious and stupid statement, but as a dessert lover, I often want to go out and just get dessert, and while that pisses most restaurants off, Finale is made for that sort of thing (although it's worth noting that they also serve light savory food). It's also a great place to take a date-- classy and upscale, but in the overall scheme of things, much more affordable than a comparably fancy meal (a final tab for a couple on a date with two full desserts and coffee will still run under $40).

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.

Vacation part II: Nothin' special at Sel de la Terre

After a grueling day of shopping at the Natick Mall, my mother, father, and I convened for dinner at Sel de la Terre, a French restaurant in the newly-finished (and highly posh) Natick Collection.

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.

Gorgeous crabcakes

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

...Dessert interlude...

After dinner last night, and after dinner tonight, my mother and I took a trip to one of my favorite places in the world: Dairy Queen. There is no DQ in Manhattan, so when I come home, I try to eat as much of it as possible. A small cup of chocolate-vanilla swirl will get the job done every time. So, so, SO earth-shatteringly, tongue-dancingly delicious.

It needs no introduction

If Dairy Queen were a real restaurant, I would give it a million Offset Spatulas.

Life with Food and Drink goes on vacation! First stop: Oishii

This being a delightful and much-needed three-day weekend, I took the opportunity to go home to visit my parents. "Home" (i.e., the place where I grew up) is Sudbury, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. I got in yesterday evening, and I requested one of my favorite places for dinner: Oishii Too Sushi Bar.

Oishii Sushi has another location in Brookline, closer to Boston, but this tiny sushi bar is all our own. It recently underwent a renovation, resulting in a restaurant that is much more comfortable than it used to be.

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 bar

Oishii 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.