Merrill & Co. – For Your Next Dining Spree

May 2nd, 2014

www.merrillandcoboston.com

Location: Boston, MA

The Foodie: Recommends

Thinking that this was some new retail clothing chain selling hearty American outdoor-wear (sounds like it should be, right?), I came into Merrill & Co. looking for sturdy shorts but came out with my stomach stuffed full rather than my cargo pockets.

The South End spot, which opened in March, is a bit of a collab-o between the restaurant group behind Bin 26, Lala Rohk, and JM Curley and talent from the latter of the three joints.

Their funky menu spans Asian-influences, American comfort classics and fruits de mer. The offerings are organized as follows:

  • Raw Bar – oysters, shrimp, and ceviche
  • “Jump Offs” – bar snacks
  • “Lil’ Guys” – plates designed for sharing but many large enough to be enjoyed by one hungry Northeastern student. Largest section of the menu, so I guess that playing nice with your food is encouraged here.
  • “Big Boys” – even a Tufts frat boy couldn’t handle something like a “Big Ass Bone-In Ribeye” with lardo and beef butter on his own. These guys are meant for splitting.

Let me lay it down for you in more detail – retail style.

AISLE ONE

We started the meal off with a nice dish of artichokes, king trumpet mushrooms, and queso fresco. Very rustic flavor and an inventive dish. Plus One for Merrill.

AISLE TWO

Next, we moved on to the octopus with kimchi, pimento, and burnt onion. The tentacle was cooked well with the right mix of tenderness, seasoning, and char. The ‘pus went better with the sauce of pimento/onion than the pickled stuff, which was more of a palate cleanser. Overall, a well-conceived dish. Another point for Merrill.

AISLE THREE

The classic progression of a refined French meal: artichokes, octopus, then mac et fromage. Merrill’s take on a classic dish included a light and airy parmesan-cheddar sauce over some nice little elbows and bread crumbs. Refreshing to not have a mac ‘n cheese that hit my gullet like a ton of bricks. In the end though, I was hoping for a little more flavor from this bad boy – maybe some funkier cheese like Gruyere and some added kick from some chives? Minus a point for Merrill.

Mac Attack

AISLE FOUR

Awwwwwwww yeah. Sliders. Juicy frickin’ sliders. Special sauce. Pickles. Melty Cheese. Delicious. Perfection. Making the Top 10 Burgers in Boston List this year. I’m certain. The guys here must have ripped a page out of the JM Curley burger handbook (currently the #3 burger in the area by my count) with this one. A home run for Merrill & the whole damn company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHECK OUT

Finally, the drink spread here is pretty decent too – I sipped a tasty Devotion Belgian Pale from Lost Abbey (CA). Though not my thang – they also have a large selection of sherry.

This was a fun night of shopping for my tongue, teeth, nose, and innards. We all enjoyed the meal. Though the menu is a little helter-skelter without really hitting on a core theme, the food coming out of the kitchen is quite respectable and worthy of your time and money.

 — ESPECIALLY THE SLIDERS!!! — 

Commonwealth – Wiggling Into Multiple Mealtimes

April 18th, 2014

http://commonwealthcambridge.com/

Location: Cambridge, MA

The Foodie: Recommends

Restaurants usually come to occupy a certain space within ourselves – we file the place away in our gullet and food funnels within our brain (yes, that is a term from the field of neuroscience). You know, there is that part of us that wants:

…this type of food

…at that time of day

…with those people

…and for that price tag.

Let me illustrate.

  • Olecito: A quick meal when I have cash in my pocket, a long ride ahead of me, and a hankering for pork and spices on my tongue.
  • Bronwyn: Beers and pretzels with friends any night, weekend dinner with anyone, or the Bronburger…alone.
  • A4: Friday night dinner, good red wine and a movie with me’lady – meow.
  • Ribelle: When I know my schedule 3 weeks ahead of time, I want to be guaranteed a memorable meal, and I just got paid a boatload of $$$
  • Simon’s: Triple medium cubano latte. Every single Friday.

Commonwealth is starting to wiggle its way into my subconscious in a way that has them coming top of mind at multiple mealtimes.

For example:

Sunday Brunch: With a spacious, chill, sunny vibe and a wicked fun menu filled with sinful fat-laden things and good coffee – there is not much more to think about when considering Commonwealth for an 11:30am double meal.

ORDER THIS: “Ginormous Sticky Bun with Crispy Bacon” – Serves 4, but can easily be eaten by a single hung-over glutton.

ORDER THIS: “The Dirty Jersey” – Yeah, it’s a ham, egg, ‘n cheese sandwich…but on steroids. Super delicate bun, baller ham, gooey egg, and pimpin’ queso. Homefries on the side are actually amazing.

Weekday Lunch:  Starting at about 12:15 every weekday, a small army of tech geeks, high-powered consultants, pharma phriends, and INTP software engineers descend upon the luncheonettes and café cars of Kendall Square for their midday intake. Without disclosing which one of those suspects I am, I have found myself flocking here with the rest of the crowd for some lunching.

ORDER THIS: “Pork Belly Banh Mi” – A respectable take on the epic BLT sandwich from the East.

Oh, and I’ll have you know that I do eat my veggies in addition to large quantities of pig and carbs.

That’s right folks – Commonwealth has just the thing for you on that front too. Think spinach and strawberry salad, lush green salad with watermelon radish, asparagus and faro, and a beet/goat cheese salad with pistachio pesto and dill. Bounty of the earth.

Randomly, they also have an insanely good oatmeal raisin cookie. So they also occupy the “snack time” part of my brain too.

So – if you have empty spaces in your meal schedule – I’d recommend you hit up Commonwealth, stat.

State Park – Tobacco Onions & Shuffleboard Lure, But Foodie Unimpressed

April 1st, 2014

http://statepark.is/

Location: Cambridge, MA

The Foodie Says: Cosi-Cosi

I will resist all temptations to reference a popular cartoon featuring a dude named Cartman.

I will descend into a faux dive bar engineered by the good people over at the Cambridge mainstay restaurant Hungry Mother.

I will select “Gin & Juice” by Snoop Dogg from the Jukebox and order these things from the menu:

TOBACCO ONIONS – Best tasting dish we ordered, served in an ashtray (and no, there is no real tobacco in these to my knowledge)

Most Appetizing Ashtray Contents I've Ever Seen...

FRIED PICKLED OKRA – An appetizer that always sounds fun and tasty but manages to be a bit of a let-down everywhere.

Ehhh...

FRIED CHICKEN – By New England standards, not bad. By U.S. standards, not good.

I've Had Better...

I will review the beer menu and see four respectable yet unexciting brews on tap, wishing I was at Cambridge Brewing Company or Meadhall instead.  I will search for other good beers and see pricey “top shelf” bottles stretching up to $40 a piece – no thanks. I will briefly contemplate a ‘gansett or a high life and order something from Smuttynose.

I will be moderately enjoying myself at this point, but not raving about the food and bev. scene here so far.

I will glance over at the pool table and check out the pinball machines and shuffleboard table. As cool as shuffleboard is (and looks) I will remember why I never play bar games – overcrowded, and perennially plagued by the village douchebags. Pass.

I will pick at the remnants of tobacco onions, sip something brewed by Harpoon, and want to like it here…unique joint, helmed by some pro chefs, a person can feel cool here…etc. etc.

In the end though, I will conclude that State Park is best enjoyed for tobacco onions and getting wasted on cheap beer. I would have enjoyed drinking here more about seven years ago, but probably would have felt the same way about the grub. Sorry guys.

In a few hashtags: #tobaccoonions #narragansett #shuffleboard #notfordinner #beersnobsdrinkelsewhere

Asta – Current Crush.

March 1st, 2014

www.astaboston.com

Location: Boston, MA

The Foodie: Strongly Recommends

So where does a Boston-based food nerd go for culinary romance on Valentine’s day? Why, Asta of course.

Chef Alex Crabb and co-owner Shish offer a value prop to the discriminating diner that reads like a brick house: 36-24-36, what a winning hand…

36: Chef Crabb spent time as a stagiaire at Noma, Rene Redzepi’s Copenhagen-based restaurant that pretty much took the reigns from El Bulli as #1 restaurant in the world.

24: An uber-local, constantly changing, seasonal nightly tasting menu that will give you things you’ve never tasted before in a 3, 5, or 8-course format (with amuse bouche and small bites putting parentheses around the meal).

36: Very sophisticated wine program, chefs tables overlooking an open kitchen (ballsy, I like it), and absolutely no ‘tude to which I bow given the price tag and location.

Their menu reads like some innovative new form of haiku. Here’s what they were serving for $70 on V-day:

cauliflower

bottarga, anchovy

monk fish

roasted brussel sprouts

bacon broth

braised celery

black garlic gnocchi

chicken skin

beef

hearty winter leaves

chestnut

black cocoa pavlova

passion fruit, olive oil

Glance on for Pictures of Food (many readers will just skip to here and leave this page to make reservations):

cauliflower

beef.

monkfish.

pavlova.

My Favorite Dish: Delicately browned cauliflower over cauliflower puree with wonderful slight touches of the sea. The opener. Incredibly refreshing and refined. Had me at first bite. Loved the classy touch of bottarga.

Second Favorite Dish: The beef. Very nice slices of medium-rare filet with a super-interesting chestnut jus drizzled over them.

Other Highlights:

  • A perfectly-seared monkfish.
  • The most vibrantly green brussel sprouts I’ve ever seen in a restaurant.
  • Black garlic gnocchi that tasted so soft and fresh they might as well have been made on the way to our table from the kitchen or right under my eyes as I stole a glance around the place.
  • Delightful pavlova dessert that resembled a cracked egg – man the passion fruit crème on that plate will haunt my dreams for years.

A meal that made this geek’s glasses steam up. Chef Crabb’s cooking ranges from simple pleasures to subtly refined hints of genius. A nice mix of skill that puts this restaurant on par with places churning out creative New England-ish contemporary American upscale foodstuffs – think Bondir, T.W. Food, Puritan & Co., and Ten Tables.

I think I’m in love.

East by Northeast – Pork Belly ‘n Noodles, But Something’s Missing

February 9th, 2014

http://exnecambridge.com/

Location: Cambridge, MA

The Foodie Says: Cosi-Cosi

Long gone are the days when the only Asian restaurant around was the neighborhood Chinese American restaurant serving things like beef + broccoli, chicken and water chestnuts, and pork dumplings.

These days in the ‘Ville, the ‘Bridge, the Bean and beyond it’s all about the ramen, pork belly everything, dim sum, and scallion pancake sandwiches with *gasp* cheese in them.  Plus we’ve got sushi a million ways, Thai curries and banh mi, Vietnamese pho, and shabu shabu.

Indeed, there has been an explosion of excellent food from the East up here in our corner of the Northeast – some of my favorites include Yume Wo Katare, Mei Mei Food Truck, Hei La Moon, Sweet Ginger, O Ya, and of course the H-Mart Food Court.

So along comes ExNE – and no it’s not some hip new indie music festival. It is a tiny nouveau pan-Asian restaurant in Inman Square serving dishes in “small plate” format under these headings:

  • Small Bites
  • Vegetables
  • Breads and Dumplings
  • Noodles
  • Sweet

We ate the following dishes, listed in order of enjoyment level (1=best dish, 4= worst dish)

1. Red braised pork belly and kale stew, xo sauce, garlicky pickled cabbage.

2. Crispy pork belly sandwich, apple, sweet bean sauce, steamed mantou bread.
3. Scallion pancake sandwich, braised beef cheeks, roasted garlic chili sauce
4. Pork ragout, marinated radish, napa cabbage, chili vinegar

WHAT EXNE DOES WELL: These guys are really on top of their noodle game. The short rice noodles and thick cut wheat noodles were both absolutely delicious and house-made. They also do great things with pork belly and incorporate a few smooth moves into the dining experience with an amuse bouche, nightly specials, and a mini-cookie with your bill.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: At the end of the meal, I ended up feeling like these guys were putting out pretty inconsistent food. If you stick to stuff with pork belly in it you’ll be in good shape, but the scallion pancakes were burnt and lacking in flavor while the pork ragout with thick noodles was just a strange flavor combo. I was also a bit irritated by the “small plate” format and steep price tag given the quality of what we were getting.

It may be that I’m coming off of a recent trip to Momofoku Noodle Bar in NYC. Or it could be that Boston just has a lot of amazing Asian food and the bar is pretty high. But eating at East by Northeast was a little bit of a letdown [cue the sad music].

In the meantime, I turn my gaze onward in the direction of the next big innovations in the world of dumplings, noodle soups, and pork meat – while still making time for my local spot churning out that moo shu and fried rice with a smile.

Coppa – Where Cured Pork Neck Meets Fennel Pollen

January 24th, 2014

www.coppaboston.com

Location: Boston, MA

The Foodie: Strongly Recommends

According to the authoritative source on cured Italian meat, Prosciuttopedia (no joke), coppa is derived from a hock of pork neck and is dried according to a secret blend of tradition and spices.

The Coppa I’m talking about here is brought to you by Chefs Ken Oringer & Jamie Bissonette and is carefully formulated to be:

  • One part neighborhood wine bar
  • One part salumeria
  • One part wood-fired pizzeria
  • One part fine Italian dining

Indeed, this intimate enoteca and more is tucked away in the South End and keeps a relatively low profile despite churning out some eye-poppingly well-curated culinary delights, like what we ordered:

Fennel Pollen

=========================================================

HOUSE MADE PASTA

Castagna Campanelle con Coniglio  $18/$27

Little bell chestnut pasta, rabbit, kabocha squash, cranberries, bianco sardo

WOOD FIRED PIZZA

Salsiccia   $16

Tomato, pork sausage, ricotta, roasted onion and fennel pollen

==========================================================

Coniglio

When scanning menus, my eyes immediately shoot laser beams at descriptors that hint at things like rabbit, oxtail, wild boar, beef short rib, pork belly, game birds, mutton – all the stuff your average medieval kitchen would have served.

So true to my form, I zeroed-in on the fancy-sounding Castagna Campanelle con Coniglio which was utterly fantastic. The chestnut pasta was unique and earthy, the rabbit succulent (probably braised), the squash finely diced into little cubes, and the cranberries creatively sliced paper-thin as if through a mandolin slicer (meaning the raw berries were not too overwhelming). All was adorned with an extremely flavorful sheep’s milk cheese from Sardegna. A fitting winter menu item. Take a bow, Coppa.

The sausage pizza was another dish dressed to impress. Delicious perfectly-fired pizza dough served as a fitting platter for a delicate mix of ground sausage, ricotta, good tomato sauce, and…fennel pollen? That was a new one for me – I zoned out thinking about the poor schmuck collecting pollen floating through the fennel fields to deliver for hungry hungry hipsters dining at South End restaurants. But it added a little complexity for the Foodie which was appreciated.

As a bonus, I can sound like a real douchebag when I tell people I ate fennel pollen.

In summary, Coppa is a solid establishment that has altered my worldview of Italian dining in Boston (which has had it’s rougher moments). Foodie-approved.

City Snapshot – How to Eat Mainly Pork and Beer in New York City

January 11th, 2014

In this weekender post on life in Manhattan, I tell readers how to stock up on two specific foods groups that are quite dear to all foodies: Specialty Pig Products and Fine Ale.

Saturday Dinner. At Momofoku Noodle Bar.

Order the Momofuku Ramen, a hearty bowl of steaming noodles packed with pork belly, tender pork shoulder and a poached egg. Definitely one of the top ramen bowls I’ve consumed.Perfect for a frigid night in “the city.”

Sits well in the stomach after eating an order of brisket buns topped with horseradish, pickled onion and cucumber. Goes well with one of the craft beers being poured by noodle bar. Feels good when followed-up with Lucky Charms soft serve inspired by Momofoku Milk Bar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday Drink. At Flatiron Beer Hall.

This cavernous bier haus recently opened and actually churns out some tasty house beer ranging from a crisp, refreshing IPA to seasonal ales, a pilsner, a blonde, and an oatmeal stout. You’ll find their beers to be fresh and almost too drinkable. Flatiron Hall proudly advertises a $40 per head Superbowl Party and their establishment being featured in a Playboy Style Guide.

Sunday Brunch. At Resto.

Dude. The bacon. Ohhhh the bacon. Is it the best bacon I’ve ever had? Quite possibly. Do I occasionally find myself zoning out and dreaming about it? Definitely. Resto’s bacon is a thick slab of pork belly that causes all other thinner varieties to wither and flee. Did I order the bacon with house-made sausage patties to boot? Yup. Bomb Dig. P.S. I love restaurants that are attached to high-end butcher shops.

Bacon Bliss

Top 5 of ’13

January 8th, 2014

I assume it’s not too late for another “Best of 2013” list?  This food blogger is not afraid to be that guy who is still saying Happy New Year into mid-February…

Each year, I force myself to pick the top five meals that I’ve eaten in Boston (see the 2011 list, see the 2012 list).

2013 was an interesting year. A flood of new openings, a few trips to some old-school Boston favorites, and trips outside of the great city on a hill *gasp*

This year, I was touched deepest by: upscale inventive Italiano a la Tim Maslow, the mob-friendly Santarpio’s (can’t believe I’d never tried it), a French restaurant worthy of hosting the J Hova himself, sausages twenty ways, and crazy expensive Italian fare that’s worth it.

So, in summary, I pay tribute to good Italian (and Italian-ish) food in Boston, a nice swag at German cuisine, and one of the signature French restaurants in town. See my full reviews via the links below.

And yes, these are in order of the extent to which these spots knocked my socks off where 1=delightfully awesome and 5=also equals delightfully awesome.

  1. Ribelle
  2. Santarpio’s
  3. L’Espalier
  4. Bronwyn
  5. Giulia

Honorable mentions:  Other solid eats this year were found at the following newcomers to the area:

International News: This year I traveled far and wide searching for excellent food – my voyages taking me to both Peru and Iceland.

If I expanded my Top 5 list outside of Boston, Astrid y Gaston in Lima would be #1, and eating baller hot dogs and whale meat in Reykyavik would dominate other spots on this coveted list. But I stay true to my Beantown bias – for this list at least.

Boston Resolution Restaurants 2014

December 29th, 2013

Each year at about this time, I sit around sipping scotch, eating roasted chestnuts, smoking my pipe, and scrawling lists for the year ahead.

When the plumes of smoke clear and I come to – a list of 16 restaurants emerge that I have on my food horizon. What this means is that these dining spots have piqued my interest in some way and WILL be sampled within the next year.

I also take a moment to reminisce about  how well I did with my resolutions from the previous year. Turns out I did pretty well in 2013, which became a blur of impressive restaurants from Giulia to Bronwyn to Ribelle. Other notable spots I hit up included Cinquecento, Tavern Road, Spoke Wine Bar, Santarpio’s, Bon Me, and Belly Wine Bar.

All totaled – I made it to 9 of my 16 resolution restaurants for the year. Not bad. Now, without further ado, I lay down my list for 2014. It’s gonna be one exciting year, dear readers. Strap in.

  1. Asta | After the Globe’s Devra First crowned Alex Crabb best chef of the year, the hype meter on this spot reached an all-time high. It’s my #1 spot to try in 2014.
  2. Sarma | As a long-time fan of Ana Sortun (of Oleana and Sofra fame) – I’m utterly pumped to try her latest restaurant in Somerville.
  3. Row 34 | The team behind Island Creek Oyster Bar brings Boston a “workingman’s oyster bar.” Though more like a “struggling yuppie’s” shellfish paradise, I am psyched to get in on the action.
  4. Commonwealth | Kendall Square gets another great restaurant. Someone they call Chef Nookie has opened a spot with an unpretentious locavore menu that includes things like oysters, good fish, steak, and venison. I’m in.
  5. State Park | Yet another second venture from a successful Boston-area restaurant, this time from Hungry Mother. Southern-inspired comfort dining in a chill setting. Giddy up.
  6. Merrill & Co. | It just leaked out that a culinary team including kitchen leadership from JM Curley will be opening a new restaurant in 2014. I’ll be there.
  7. Alden & Harlow | The former Casablanca spot gets reincarnated in Harvard Square. The food lineup looks promising.
  8. Oishii | This upscale sushi joint will be on my list for the third year running.
  9. East By Northeast | I’m real into the revitalized Asian cuisine movement of recent years and have been wanting to add this spot to my food research in this area.
  10. Lone Star Taco Bar | Good Mexican food is hard to come by around Boston. Lone Star is one of the fortunate few to sling good tacos. Count me in, hombre. 
  11. Whisk | I’ve heard several positive murmurs and rumblings about this pop-up spot in recent years, and have my heart set on trying the latest location in the North End.
  12. Boston Chops | A baller red meat paradise with a burger hidden on the brunch menu. Intrigue.
  13. Ten Tables JP | Been here twice before and loved every minute of it. I’m coming back for the burger.
  14. Vee Vee | This Contemporary American joint has appeared on this list  before and needs some serious attention from this Foodie.
  15. Coppa | In this corner, Oringer. In the other corner, Bissonnette. This solid Italian enoteca has been around since 2009 and was established by two of Boston’s best chefs.
  16. KO Pies | Australian meat pies are in my fortune for 2014.

Pennypackers Porchetta Is Pure Poetry. Period.

December 24th, 2013

www.pennypackersfinefoods.com

Location: Somerville, MA, Design Center (Boston Seaport), and Roaming Elsewhere

The Foodie: Strongly Recommends

Following-up my last post on large quantities of meat between two slices of bread, I bring you Pennypackers, home of the best sandwich I’ve eaten around Boston all f*ing year.

A few definitions here to get you started:

Pennypackers: An establishment committed to bringing you mostly sandwiches through a variety of delivery mechanisms:

  1. A perma-truck stationed at the Design Center at the Xsection of Tide St. and Northern Ave. in South Boston (seaport area). Open M-F 10:30 – 3PM.
  2. A roaming truck that serves other parts of Boston – maybe even your neighborhood street corner.
  3. A brick-and-mortar locale in Magoun Sq. Somerville with a few tables and a large ass kitchen.

Porchetta: An Italian culinary tradition, porchetta is a skin-on slab of pork belly wrapped around a trimmed center-cut pork loin and seasoned with herbs, fennel, and citrus. Done properly, the process of creating this masterpiece is a time-consuming endeavor that requires primary assembly before resting 1-2 days in a fridge, and then slow-roasting in the oven. So good I plan to name my first-born child after it.

Now, let me describe to you the combination of both items described above. What you read below is not a poem, it is just centered for emphasis. The poetry is all in the food my friends.

I'm Naming My Baby Girl Porchetta Jean

Pennypackers served you a Porchetta sandwich in Magoun Square.

It cost you $8.

Though Penny packs different accouterments around their porchetta-wich from time-to-time, this beast of a sandwich was served to YOU between two super-soft slices of soft Italian ciabatta-style bread. You had yours with pickled fennel.

The look on your face during the first oral encounter with this sandwich must have been comparable to the heroin addict’s expression after shooting up that next dose.

[Eyes rolling back into their sockets, mouth agape, body slouching back]

You continue to devour the sandwich, finding all sorts of treasures buried between the ciabatta and fennel: succulent morsels of melt-in-your mouth seasoned pork meat, crunchy bits of pork skin, and the odd chunk of delightful pork fat.

Soon you are finished. It feels sad. You promise yourself that you will return.

You salute the chefs and wish them well in their endeavors.

Walking out the door, you told yourself this was the best sandwich you’d eaten around Boston all year. You were right.