Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Craigie on Main - Cambridge

There’s something to be said for dining alone. It’s a chance to collect your thoughts, focus on the food, and usually catch up on a little reading. However, light reading was the least of my concerns when I was seated at a high top in the bar of Craigie on Main. I was there for a tasting menu and to see the brilliance that had garnered Chef Tony Maws the title of Boston’s Best Chef and one of America’s Best New Chefs from Food and Wine, but first a little background. Prior to arriving in Massachusetts, I had never heard of Tony Maws or Craigie on Main, but after an adamant recommendation from Mr. Gaertner, I made the first reservation possible. Now you know why I was perched on a bar chair at 5:30 on a Sunday evening.


To ease the pain of such an early dinner, I tried to take full advantage of the well reviewed bar at Craigie on Main.

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The Merchant’s Wife was a cocktail made with watermelon shrub, ethereal, dolin dry, angostura, and basil. Watermelon may seem like an odd choice for early October, but it was perfect for the last throes of an Indian summer.


Before I could finish my drink a trio of amuse preparations was brought to my table.
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According to my menu, this plate consisted of squid noodles, house-cured Portuguese sardine, and a smoked bluefish rillette.

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Starting with the squid, these tender, chilled noodles were coated with sweet nuoc cham and toasted garlic. While I was hoping for a touch of chili heat from the nuoc cham, I could have eaten an entire bowl of these squid noodles.

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Moving to the cured sardine, it was evident that the kitchen at Craigie on Main can cure fish with the best of them. This sardine was just salty enough and the buttermilk dressing at the bottom of the bowl played a nice tangy foil.

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Not for the faint of heart, the smoked bluefish rillette had a thick, fishy taste that was only accentuated by the hackleback caviar. This was big, bold, pungent and eaten with great satisfaction.


The second course kept in the same fish centric vein with a plate of black bass sashimi.

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Served with apple, watermelon radish, and jalapeno, this black bass was tender and meaty with just a subtle oiliness.

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Although the slightly sweet sauce was a nice addition, the real highlight was the textural contrast of black bass and the crunch of the apple.


It was with the third course that Craigie on Main began to show why they chose a pig for their logo.
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House-cured guanciale wrapped harpooned swordfish with fresh rock shrimp, barley couscous, fingerling potatoes, and salt cod-daikon broth. Despite looking like a busy plate, all the components worked quite well together. While the swordfish may have bore a resemblance to a slice of pork loin, it had a meaty, unique flavor that, compared to the black bass and bluefish, did taste more like pork than fish.

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The couscous and rock shrimp were just as well prepared as the swordfish albeit with a slightly salty tail. Aside from the porky swordfish, what didn’t make sense to me was the role of the daikon. I realize it was a part of the broth, but the two daikon rolls seemed tacked on.


The lone soup on the tasting menu came in the form of a soup of Long Island Cheese pumpkin.

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On its own, this soup was buttery rich and creamy that, for some reason, reminded me of chicken tikka masala.

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However, the real star of the bowl was a small grilled cheese sandwich. Modeled after Chef Maws’ favorite London market grilled cheese, this two cheese and pork belly sandwich was a decadent monstrosity. When the buttered, toasted bread was combined with the soup and the two cheeses, I think the pork belly was overkill. It was all delicious, but still too much.


Playing the role of a pasta course was a plate of house-made pumpkin macaroni.
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Rounding out the plate component’s was kid goat confit, charred tomato, and sweet potato.
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I rarely see pumpkin pasta, but this was exceedingly tender with a subtle, earthy sweetness.

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As rare as pumpkin pasta, goat is a personal favorite and this meltingly tender goat confit was a sterling example of the meat. I wouldn’t have imagined that goat and sweet potato work together so well, but they were a dynamic duo in this dish.


Apparently the guanciale from the swordfish and pork belly from the pumpkin soup was too little pork as the next course was a plate of grilled pork belly.

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This plate was a feast for the senses, the grill marks, the heady pork aroma, and the taste. Actually, while the pork was quite well seasoned, the belly was dry and overcooked.

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Even with the ample maitake mushroom, pork broth, and pears, the dryness of the pork still shone through with every bite.

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Outside of the pork belly, the rest of the dish was sweet and very reminiscent of sugar cured country ham, especially the broth.


The last of the savory plates arrived in the form of a spice-crusted venison leg.

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Back in perfectly cooked form, this venison was achingly tender with just a touch of cinnamon with each bite.

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Complimenting the slight gaminess of the venison were the earthy flavors of venison sausage, autumn olive coulis, and matsutake mushrooms.


Before diving headfirst into the sweetness of the dessert course, I was eased in with a plate of celery and green apple sorbet.
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Stracciatella cheese and candied celery are not what I would consider dessert ingredients,

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but this plate of tart and salty ingredients made me reconsider my definition of dessert flavors.


Taking my tastebuds for a whirlwind conclusion, my waitress next arrived with a plate of sassafras poached pears.

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Surrounded by concord grapes, graham cracker, chevre ice cream, and raspberry syrup, this was akin to a deconstructed pie.

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The pears, full of rich sassafras, when combined with the raspberry syrup and a bit of graham cracker made for a beautiful four note chord of flavors.


Finishing the meal was a palette cleansing yogurt foam with carrot granite.
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Rich as mascarpone cheese, the foam was the perfect vehicle for the bright taste of ginger and the biggest carrot flavor I’ve ever tasted.


At this point, I was ready to roll out of my chair and find a cab to take me back to Boston, but there was one more tiny plate to come.

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Caramel macaroons, they were as well made and delicious as they looked. Each bit size piece began with a flush of chocolate and ended with just a touch of salinity, magic.


If there’s one thing I take from each tasting menu, degustation, chef’s menu, etc, that I try, it’s what I was told by my good friend and current CIA student, Frank told me; "Always get the tasting menu, you put yourself in the chef’s hands." I may have distorted the wording over the years, but the idea remains the same, a tasting menu is a chance for a chef to showcase his talents and for the diner to be taken on a gustatory thrill ride. After my experience with Tony Maw’s tasting menu at Craigie on Main, I can understand why he has earned so much acclaim. Outside of an overcooked pork belly, each dish was artfully prepared and composed. I still think that the pork belly in the soup’s cheese sandwich was unnecessary but it was damn tasty. To think, were it not for Bill’s suggestion, I would have aimlessly wandering Boston’s culinary landscape; it pays to have friends who appreciate good food.

Craigie on Main Address & Information

853 Main St, Cambridge, MA 02139 // 617.497.5511 // Craigie on Main Website // Craigie on Main Menu // Craigie on Main Reservations


Craigie On Main on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hei La Moon - Boston

Given enough time, I will almost always end up in the Chinese part of town. This most recent trip to Boston was no exception. After dinner at Hungry Mother and a late night at a popular but appalling sports bar turn disco on the water, I was up the next morning and looking for something to eat. I had hoped to join Alex and Sarah for brunch before they headed back to New York but they left earlier than I expected. So I was on my own. Following my natural instincts, I did a quick google search and then hailed a cab for a ride to Chinatown for dim sum at Hei La Moon.


Conspicuously seated at my table for one, I sat waiting for the first of the carts to roll my way. Hungry and impatient, I ordered the first thing off the first cart.

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I’ve always had mixed feelings about Ha Cheung Fun (or Shrimp Crepe, or Rice Noodle Roll, whatever you call it). The noodles are wide, slick, and mess waiting to happen. These rolls were no exception with extra sticky dough. The shrimp were overdone but the sweet soy topping helped make it a satisfying start.


Next was a fried take on one of my favorite dim sum ingredients, bean curd skin.
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Deep-fried and stuffed with finely ground shrimp, it’s a departure from my usual steamed version.
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Oddly dry and oily on the outside, there was plenty of shrimp inside with a few peas and a bit of crunchy celery for textural contrast.


A constant fixture at any dim sum meal, an order of pai guat or steamed pork spareribs was a necessity.
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While these spareribs were quite meaty and well cooked, the sweet flavor caught me off guard.

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I did miss the usual pepper and black bean seasonings, but this odd sweetness had its own charm.


My current dim sum dish favorite was next, seen juk guen or bean curd rolls.
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Dried out and oily on top with a fully congealed sauce beneath, these rolls were full of pork and shrimp but missing the crunch of vegetables that I’ve come to love.

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Despite the meaty filling, these rolls had a neutral flavor, not that bad but not that great either.


Siumai, the dimsum staple was bound to make an appearance.
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Fresh from the cart, these dumplings had a pleasant greasiness that coated your lips. The texture was rougher than I expected, a departure from the smooth, almost pureed pork that you usually see.


Even though I was dining alone, I simply couldn’t pass up an order of fung jao.
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Like the bean curd rolls, these chicken feet were anchored in a gelatinous sauce that only added compounded the sweetness of the feet. Much like the pork spare ribs, I was waiting for just a tiny touch of pepper heat to break the sweetness but it never came.


Saving the most important for last, the ultimate dim sum litmus test of har gao was the final dish.

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From an especially thick wrapper to an extremely starchy filling, these har gao were like most dishes I tried at Hei La Moon, different but good.
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Much like the suimai filling, the shrimp and bamboo shoots were roughly chopped but well cooked.


With the har gao, this dim sum lunch came to an end. After paying my bill, I had ample time to wander to a museum and reflect on my experience at Hei La Moon. Being one person, I did the best I could to try a variety of dishes but there were many stones left unturned, but from what I did try, I was quite satisfied with the results. There did seem to be a trend of extra sweetness with many of the dishes and the usual additions of black beans and jalapeno peppers were conspicuously absent. Even with that omission, the somewhat rustic textures of the dumplings and rolls were appealing and, outside of a few dry rolls and one or two overcooked shrimp, it was another successful dim sum lunch. I don’t think that Hei La Moon will rival anything I’ve had at Fung’s Kitchen, but it’s still a fine choice for a Sunday morning in Boston.

Hei La Moon Address & Information

88 Beach St, Boston, MA 02111 // 617.338.8813


Hei la Moon on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hungry Mother - Boston

For better or for worse, I am a child of the south. Right away that carries enough connotations to fill a book, but I’ll stick to the more familiar context of food. As most people know, food in this part of the country is a way of life. From the slave tended barbeque pits of the antebellum south to the modern day country buffet, there’s a good chance that any conversation here will likely touch on the topic of food. While this obsession, when compounded by an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, does carry the ever-growing side effect of an ever-growing waistline, it also creates burnt out taste buds. For as much the idea of a quality home-style southern meal appeals to me, the glut of mediocre to poor southern buffet and home-style restaurants has left me searching for anything and everything but the food of my home state and region. With that in mind, it’s no small amount of irony that after travelling some 1500 miles from Jackson to Boston, I had caught a cab to Cambridge to sit at the bar at Hungry Mother.


Why Hungry Mother? Why did I come all the way to Boston to eat high end southern cuisine? One reason is that the good people of Chowhound raved about it, another reason is that my buddy Tom, a spokesman for and proponent of Boston if I ever saw one, recommended it to me, and the last and maybe the most important is that it was the first restaurant that took my reservation on that Saturday afternoon.


Having made reservations for four, I thought it would be best to arrive early and wait for Alex, Sarah, and Ben at the bar. Normally this would be time to catch up on twitter but a tidy selection of inventive cocktails constructed with house made ingredients kept that to a minimum. I was already two cocktail masterpieces deep when Alex and Sarah arrived with the news that Ben had bailed for dinner; no worries, it was more for the three of us.


Like so many southern meals, this one began with a little bit of pimento cheese.

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Working to improve the usual mix of grated cheddar, mayonnaise, and canned pimentos, this pimento cheese was made with smoked cheddar and chevre and it had the tartness and smokiness to prove it.

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Having been spoiled by my favorite local pimento cheese, I was a little disappointed to find Hungry Mother’s version missing any porcine goodness but the exceptionally juicy pimentos buoyed my spirits.


Taking another shot at the “To Tide You Over” section of the menu, the smoked beef tongue canapé was next.

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When cooked well, tongue is one of the most tender and beefiest cuts of the cow and this canapé was a fine example of the breed.
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Served with Dijon and Robinson Family Swiss on a baguette, this sweet and moist mini sandwich was a tease. I can only imagine what sort of sensory overload a full size example would be.


Ever since I put my name on a pig from La Quercia, I’ve had a mild obsession with trying all their products. The small plate of prosciutto Americano was no exception.

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Basically a plate of cured ham, preserves, and crackers, this plate was the perfect way to introduce Alex & Sarah to La Quercia.

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I’m still not quite sure which preserves were served on this plate. The menu said peach but the waitress said apple.

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Regardless of which fruit it was, the preserves complimented the nutty prosciutto and everyone happily cleared the plate.


At this point, everyone’s main course arrived along with a duo of side dishes. First was the Anson grits with Hungry Mother tasso and cheddar.

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Ever toothsome, these Anson grits were a true ambassador for the south and while the tasso may not have had the smokiness of Donald Link tasso, they still made for a fine blend of grits, pork, and cheese.


Biting my tongue in worry and anticipation, I held my breath when the skillet cornbread was introduced to the table.

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With the first bite my fears melted away. The cornbread had a thick crust you can only get from a ripping hot skillet and the taste was just a bit salty. When combined with the sweetness of the sorghum butter, it was homespun magic. In retrospect, I really wish I had ordered a side of collard greens too.


Since orders of pimento cheese, grits, and cornbread had already been brought to the table, it seemed only natural that my entrée would be an order of the smoked bbq pork shoulder.

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At this point you would expect a rant about how only southerners know true bbq, but I’m sorry to disappoint. Once a person realizes that bbq does not mean hotdogs and hamburgers on a grill, the sky is the limit and the people at Hungry Mother have enjoyed that epiphany.

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I’ve enjoyed my fair share of good, bad and terrible bbq, but this pulled pork was something else. Far from the half brown plates I found in North Carolina, this pork was light on the smoke but heavy on the richness. The exterior had a delightfully desiccated crunch that was replaced by the unctuous texture of well-cooked pork shoulder.

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As for the slaw and hushpuppies, this Lexington slaw was red, crispy, and spicy while its sauce was a dynamite compliment to the pork. Taking a different approach than the cornbread, the hushpuppies were crisp yet tender, sweet yet spicy, a delightful duo of dichotomies.


In the end, the three of us were devastated. We did our best to finish it all but we came up short. Shortly after, while entertaining the idea of dessert and more cocktails, I couldn’t help but wonder. Is this what it takes? After so much subpar kitschy southern shit at home, when I have a pining for high quality southern fare, do I really need to book a flight to Boston? Have the Yankees beaten the south at its own game? The answer, I think, is no. I don’t believe Hungry Mother beats out the best that the south has to offer, but it comes alarmingly close. I have to admit I had my doubts about Hungry Mother and southern cuisine in Boston but after one night, I’m a true believer. Hungry Mother may not be the best, but they’re giving the south a run for its money. In the end, I’m just happy to see my home cuisine done so well and that even this far north, people can appreciate and get a taste of real southern cooking.

Hungry Mother Address & Information

233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave, Cambridge, MA 02141 // 617.499.0090 // Hungry Mother Website // Hungry Mother Menu // Hungry Mother Reservations

Hungry Mother on Urbanspoon