Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Craigie on Main

Craigie on Main is a high-end restaurant in Cambridge, on the same level as L’Espalier or Number 9 Park, but its Central Square location, wide-open kitchen, blackboard listing featured ingredients for the evening, and warm atmosphere give it a much cozier, intimate feeling as if you were dinner guests in someone's home. Craigie on main was one of the first of Boston’s “locavore” restaurants and arguably set this trend- similar restaurants have started popping up over the past few years, and local bars have been remaking themselves into gastro pubs featuring high end dishes crafted from local seasonal ingredients.

            Long before trying Craigie on Main, I had a chance to sample their food at Boston's Taste of the Nation, an event run by share our strength and whose proceeds go toward fighting childhood hunger. I attend taste of the nation every year, and always mean to try some of the participating restaurants. However, I've usually forget most because there is just so much going and when the food is prepared in mass quantities in advance it's difficult for any one restaurant to stand out. Craigie on Main was the exception for me each year for a couple of reasons:
1.                    They are located at the very front of the room and are the first table you see when you walk in.
2.                    The owner (an older gentleman) runs the booth each year, hands out his card and personally invites as many people as he can to come try the restaurant.
I have since been to Craigie several times for brunch and dinner, tried tasting menus, al a carte options, and tasted the award winning burger. All were excellent, but this review will focus on a recent dinner ordered from all a la carte options.
We arrived at 9pm for a 9:30 reservation, hoping to be seated early. The place was packed and Chef Tony Maws was stationed at the front of the open kitchen, plating food himself, and overseeing each of the dishes before they were delivered to their tables. Despite the crowd, we were offered a high top seat right away in the bar area and had a chance to chat with some of the other guests about what they had ordered. One of the bartenders waited on us, was very knowledgeable about the food and wine, and gave us some excellent recommendations.
We started with an amuse bouche, and chose meat and fish from the meat, fish, vegetable option. The fish was swordfish pastrami and the meat cured ham, each on crisp cracker. Both were delicious, although the swordfish was the more creative of the two. 
The second course included appetizers of grilled octopus and cheese pumpkin soup with a grilled cheese and pork belly sandwich. The octopus was seared perfectly with just the smallest bit of char, and had a consistency more like lobster than the chewy texture octopus or squid can sometimes have. We asked about the preparation, and our server explained it was brined overnight, and then poached in olive oil and thyme for 18 hours before being grilled. The soup and sandwich were equally good, hearty and flavorful; they each worked well on their own or with the sandwich dipped in the soup. The pork belly was crisp and sliced thin like bacon. It was excellent in the sandwich and although they didn’t skimp, I wished there was a little bit more.


            For entries we chose the chicken sausage stuffed chicken with Vidalia onions, chanterelle mushrooms and potatoes, and the venison cooked two ways – sausage, and a leg-cooked sous vide to a perfect medium rare. We enjoyed both, but the winning dish was the roasted bone marrow, which was served in the bone with sides of sea salt and toasted bread. The marrow spread onto the toast like butter and reminded me a bit of fois gras, but even more rich and decadent (if possible). 

The final course, dessert, was a bittersweet chocolate mousse tart and the chocolate mint affogato. The tart was the sweeter of the two, with bits of chocolate malt, salted butterscotch sauce, and a white chocolate-miso ice cream. The affogato was not quite as sweet, but just as good – it came with a rum sauce and espresso poured over the top. We were both stuffed at this point, and I normally don’t eat more than a few bites of dessert, but somehow we managed to clean our plates and practically crawled to the car.

            I would go back to Craigie for the bone marrow alone, but there were quite a few menu items I would have liked to try (fried clams are at the top of the list). Although it’s expensive, I’m hoping to make it back soon enough that the menu won’t have changed too much!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Tiffany's Dynamite Confections

          Tiffany’s Dynamite Confections is a bakery featuring custom cakes, cupcakes, cake balls, and chocolate covered treats (pretzels, fruits, Oreos etc. ) available by order. As a new business, Dynamite Confections is currently custom order only, but will eventually include baking and cake decorating classes and a special Paws for a Cause cupcake with 25% of sales donated to benefit the Mansfield animal shelter.

          I was lucky enough to receive a holiday sampler pack as a Christmas gift last year, and they were all delicious. The sampler included the following:
  • A cinnamon cupcake with cream cheese frosting (my favorite)
  • A hot chocolate cupcake with a marshmallow center and chocolate whipped cream frosting. This cupcake actually tasted like hot chocolate, and a little bit like a S’more.
  • A peppermint cupcake with peppermint buttercream frosting. This was white cake with just a hint a of mint flavor, and a creamy minty frosting.
  • A gingerbread cupcake with powdered sugar topping, which reminded me of the gingerbread men I made as a kid at Christmas time, but lighter and fluffier.  
          I've also enjoyed the Valentine's cupcake sampler complete with cocktail-inspired flavors like strawberry daiquiri, irish car bomb, pina coloda, and tons of other great flavors!

          The latest this holiday season are the Thanksgiving cupcake-cake (which I'll be bringing to dinner on Thursday) and mini peppermint cake balls!

          I have tried many cupcake shops in Boston, and found most too sweet, too dry, not fresh, etc. Lulu's is my favorite (see their review) and I would put Dynamite Confections on the same level. I’ve also sampled some of the cake pops and custom cakes, and been impressed by both the flavor and creative designs.

* All photos courtesy of Tiffany Travers

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Product Review: Delallo Instant Polenta

One of my favorite dishes, which I often order when dining out, is creamy polenta with some type of braised meat. I’ve never attempted anything like this at home, but when I saw the directions on the Delallo Instant Polenta box (boil water and stir in polenta), I thought I could at least handle the polenta. Unfortunately, it did not come out as I’d hoped. 

                After following the directions on the box, the polenta was lumpy and nothing like the creamy kind I’ve had in restaurants. I tasted it, hoping it would be good despite the texture, and was disappointed again by how bland it was. I reread the box, saw that it said salt to taste and serve with butter and cheese, so I started with some salt. This helped, but the polenta still didn’t taste quite right. I added a lot more salt and pepper, and started stirring in butter a little at a time. The butter made it taste much more like restaurant polenta (no surprise) but at this point the texture was worse because I’d let it sit too long. I turned the stove back on, stirred in a little milk, and topped it with some parmesan cheese. I ate it with roast chicken (done with olive oil and rotisserie spice in an oven bag) and while it was a slight improvement over the instant rice I usually eat with chicken, it was definitely did not live up to my expectations. 

                Since I’ve never cooked polenta before, I love to get some opinions on this one. Is good instant polenta just not possible or did I do something wrong?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Spanish Pavillion

I found myself with some time to kill on a recent trip to NY / NJ; tapas was the most appealing option within walking distance so I decided to try the Spanish Pavilion. With no idea what to expect, I walked in around 3pm planning to sit at the bar for a late lunch. I took it as good sign that the place was packed (even better, when I realized they were locals who all seemed to know each other and the staff). Everyone was friendly and nice, and I chatted with them a bit before deciding on my order. 

I started with the white bean stew and was pleasantly surprised when it arrived. For $4 this was a meal in itself; it came in a huge bowl, and was filled with chunks of chorizo and braised pork. The combination of beans and pork worked very well together, and the stew came with plenty of bread for dipping. Not expecting it to be so large, I asked the bartender to pack half so I’d have room to try the other tapas I’d ordered. The clams with piquillo peppers and chorizo came next. This was also a large bowl, not quite as filling as the stew, but still much bigger than the tapas I’m used to. It was a challenge, but I ate all of clams so I wouldn’t be taking seafood to go. They were delicious, cooked perfectly in a spicy broth, and came with more large chunks of chorizo. My final course was a ham and cheese plate and at this point I was stuffed, but tried one piece each before taking the rest to go. All of my leftovers made a great snack before heading into the city for a concert and late dinner. At $30 including tip, this seemed like a steal - two meals worth of excellent food plus my caffeine for the day (coffee and diet coke). I’m not sure when I’ll find myself in Newark NJ again, but if I do I will definitely go back. 

Spanish Pavillion on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 15, 2011

LuLu's Sweet Shoppe

In honor of National Cupcake Day, this post is dedicated to my favorite cupcake place of all time – Lulu’s in the North End. Since the cupcake craze began a couple of years ago, I’ve tried almost every bakery and cupcake shop I’ve come across in search of the perfect red velvet. Lulu’s wins, hands down! The red velvet cupcake is the most moist and flavorful I’ve ever tasted, and is always fresh no matter what time I’ve gone. The cream cheese frosting goes with the red velvet perfectly, does not have too sugary or too strong of a cream cheese flavor, and has just the right frosting-to-cake ratio. For awhile I was on a kick where I went every day, and because even I can’t eat red velvet every day I have branched out and tried some of the other flavors.

Some of my favorites include: 

·         Red Velvet: no further explanation needed
·         Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough: Chocolate chip cookie cake with cookie dough frosting
·         Nutella: a dark chocolate cupcake with a nutella center
·         Lulu: The signature, a high end version of a hostess cupcake

And of course the list to try: 

·         Salted Caramel
·         S’mores
·         Oreo
·         Red Velvet Cheesecake

Happy cupcake day, now go eat some cupcakes!

See my favorite dishes at this restaurant on Tasted Menu Lulu's Sweet Shoppe on Urbanspoon

New Haven Taco Trucks

New Haven CT is known for some famous pizza places (which of course I've tried) but I prefer the taco trucks – a somewhat hidden gem popular with the locals and area college students, and a location just off the highway on Long Wharf that makes them a great spot for drivers passing through on the way to NY/NJ.  I have been twice now, and tried a sampling of tacos and empanadas from each of the trucks. Everything was delicious and fresh, and by far the most authentic Mexican food I’ve had in the northeast.

Prices vary by truck, but most tacos are $1-$1.50 and other items including empanadas, quesadillas and burritos are in the $2-$7 range. The meat is cooked to order and choices include basics like steak, chicken, and pork as well as some more adventurous options like beef head, beef tongue, and conch.  Toppings also vary slightly by truck but the tacos are generally served on warm tortillas with chopped onions, cilantro, a side of fresh lime, and several different types of hot sauce (optional).

After trying the taco trucks the first time, I tried several Mexican places in Boston (high end, casual, even a food truck) and nothing compared. After a couple of months and trying them a second time, I've accepted the fact that I probably won't and decided to just make them a regular stop on anytime I drive from Boston to NY!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Product Review: Mexicoke

     For several years, I’ve heard about Mexican coke and that it’s different from coke in the US because it’s made with real cane sugar instead of corn syrup. I was skeptical, but while in Manhattan this weekend I had the opportunity to try an authentic Mexicoke (it comes in a glass bottle and the label is partially in Spanish). I surprised to find that it actually did taste different; it was more naturally sweet than any coke I’ve tasted and reminded me a little of the imported sodas I’ve had in Boston’s north end. There isn’t much more to say because coke is coke, but it was definitely the best coke I’ve ever had and is worth trying if you have a chance!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Product Review: Trader Joe's La Fondue

     Growing up, fondue was a New Year’s Eve tradition and probably the only time we ate it. Every year my mom would dig the set out of the closet, and prepare multi-course dinners of cheese and meat fondue with a variety of dipping sauces. The cheese was always my favorite and when I got older, I started buying prepackaged fondue from the grocery store, heating it up in a saucepan, and sitting in front of the stove while dipping bread directly into the pan. After doing this a few times, I decided that scrubbing hardened cheese off my pans just wasn’t worth the effort and stopped making fondue at home. 

     That was until this past weekend when I discovered Trader Joe’s cheese fondue, in a microwaveable cardboard container. I bought several, certain I would like it, and not even bothering to try just one first. I ate it the next night with chunks of French bread, and it was everything I hoped it would be! It heated up in five minutes in the microwave, was cheesy and delicious, and when I was done the only dish I had to scrub was my fork. If not for the calories, (one container which I easily could have finished is about 1000), I could eat this almost every day!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Product Review: Frontera Kitchen's Key Lime Cilantro Taco Skillet Sauce


     Because I don’t always have the patience to cook meals from scratch (especially after a long day at work), I often buy what look like quick and easy versions of gourmet items. Some taste great and others aren’t worth it, so this post will be the first in a series of product reviews to help my fellow foodies out.
     I used the skillet sauce to make shrimp tacos, trying to find a happy medium between soggy takeout and the more elaborate preparation detailed in my 11/12 weekend recap post. These took about 10 minutes to make and achieved just that!  I bought a pound of shrimp that had been peeled and deveined, and cooked them in a skillet with one packet of the sauce. I diced some avocado and tomatoes while the shrimp cooked, spooned all of the ingredients into soft tortillas when they were done, and topped them with jarred with pineapple mango salsa and a hint of fresh lime juice and cilantro. The dish was very good (although not the same as the version from scratch), and when heating up the leftovers I found the lime and cilantro were unnecessary since the flavors are already so strong in the sauce. The sauce also had a kick to it, but wasn't overly spicy. It was much better than any of the taco kits I've tried (which usually have just the powdered mixes) and I decided I would make these again and try some of the other skillet sauce varieties.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Snappy Sushi

I have always put sushi in Boston into three categories:

  • High-end places like Oya and Oishii with ingredients like truffles, fois gras, and caviar
  • The next level down/typical Back Bay sushi restaurant – I used to consider these over-priced, trendy, and all the same but have recently started to rethink this
  • The smaller places with good quality sushi at a reasonable price
Snappy Sushi is one of my favorites in the third category. They have two locations (Newbury Street and Davis Square), and serve exclusively brown rice sushi. The Newbury Street location used to offer sushi by the piece for $1, and although the prices have increased, they are still very affordable.

The menu includes all of the basics (maki, nigiri, and sashimi) as well as some specialty rolls and appetizers. Some of my favorites include the tuna tartare (spicy tuna layered on top of fresh avocado and tempura flakes), avocado salad (mixed with crab, cucumber, fish roe, and spicy mayo), and the tuna gone wild roll (torched white tuna on top of an avocado / cucumber roll with flying fish roe and sauce similar to eel sauce). They will also torch any of their standard sushi on request, a preparation I had previously only seen at very high-end places. 

The Newbury Street location has been one of my regular spots for sushi for several years now (especially since they’ve expanded), but I just recently tried the Davis location for the first time. The menu seemed to be the same and I ordered some basic rolls along with the usual tuna tartare and was not disappointed. 

Tuna Tartare

Spicy Scallop Tempura and Tuna Avocado Rolls

See my favorite dishes at this restaurant on Tasted Menu Snappy Sushi on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Grafton Street

I went to Grafton Street in Harvard Square for drinks after work with some friends and expected a typical pub menu. When I arrived, I was surprised to see a good-sized list of wines by the glass including several American, French, Spanish, and Italian options. I also noticed an extensive beer list but didn’t pay much attention until I was already sipping my glass of montepulciano. When I looked more closely, I was excited to see the draft list included Rapscallion, a local beer and my current drink obsession which I've had a hard time finding. I made a mental note to return, since I  only planned to have one drink. 

My friends and I decided to share some apps and were equally impressed by the food menu, which included typical pub fare as well as some more gourmet options (pork belly, tuna tartare, truffle fries, duck breast, etc.) . We tried the braised pork belly with apples and cheddar polenta, and the cheese plate with apricot honey, walnuts, and toasted brioche. While the pork belly was not the best I’ve ever had (it lacked the crispy skin), it was very good especially for the price and bar location. 

Two apps for three people was a decent amount of food, but we were in the mood for dessert and decided to try the chocolate chip cookie sundae based on the bartender’s recommendation. It was huge, warm, and delicious, and I easily polished off half the cookie in minutes!  I’m not sure I’d make the trip to Harvard Square again solely based on the food (in all fairness it's sometimes hard to get me out of back bay), but if I was meeting friends in the area (or craving Rapscallion), I’d choose it over any other pub.
See my favorite dishes at this restaurant on Tasted Menu Grafton Street Pub & Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 21, 2011


Piattini is an Italian tapas and wine bar on Newbury Street. It’s a different type of Italian than what you’d find in the North End; it's more upscale and (for lack of a better word) more Newbury Street.  I’ve heard criticisms of Piattini (and similar places) for not being as good as the North End.  I don’t these are fair comparisons; it’s a different thing.  I would compare Piattini to Ivy, my go to spot for Italian tapas until they closed about a year ago. My friends and I were disappointed when Ivy closed, but agreed that over the years it had gone downhill. We tried Piattini recently because the concept seemed similar, but had low expectations. We were pleasantly surprised and agreed it was much better than Ivy at its best. 

The menu includes a mix of hot and cold tapas and entrees, each with numbers corresponding to pairings on the wine list. I went with two other people and we opted to share a bottle of the house red wine (Montepulciano) and five tapas. Our server let us sample the wine before ordering the bottle and gave us recommendations for some of the most popular tapas (mostly pasta dishes). 

After some discussion, we settled on the mixed olives and cheeses, prosciutto wrapped mozzarella, eggplant with mozzarella and truffle cream sauce, spicy calamari, and grilled Italian sausage. Each of us had a different favorite, which was a good sign. I loved the eggplant – it came breaded and fried, and was served in a tower layered with smoked mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. The whole thing was topped in the truffle cream sauce, which was delicious and not too heavy. My friends’ favorites were the Italian sausage with roasted red peppers and peas, and the pan-seared calamari in a spicy tomato sauce with olives, capers, and tomatoes. The portions were good sized and we had just enough food to be satisfied but not too full for dessert. 

We ordered the tiramisu and black forest cake, and one of our two complaints for the night was that our server forgot the black forest cake. We weren’t charged for it and had plenty to eat, so we never mentioned it. The second complaint was that there was no bar and we had planned to arrive early and have a few drinks. However, when we arrived 10-15 minutes before our reservation time we were seated and served wine right away. Aside from these two minor flaws, the meal was excellent and we all agreed we’d go back. Piattini is one of the better options on Newbury Street, the food is tastier than most and it’s not nearly as overpriced. Dinner and drinks for three people came to just over $100. 

Pan-Seared spicy calamari

Eggplant with smoked mozzarella and truffle cream sauce

Mixed olives and cheeses

Prosciutto wrapped mozzarella

Italian sausage with roasted red peppers and peas

See my favorite dishes at this restaurant on Tasted Menu Piattini on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 18, 2011

El Triunfo

I was craving shrimp tacos after this weekend’s came out so well, but too lazy to walk across the street to Shaw’s in the rain. I decided to try El Triunfo, knowing only that they delivered and had once left a stack of menus in my building’s lobby. The menu didn’t include shrimp tacos, but I saw the cilantro shrimp with beans, rice, and corn tortillas and decided to make my own. I asked for guacamole and was told it was included, which was unusual but a great sign. 

Delivery took forty minutes, which is about average for Back Bay. The dish was loaded with baby shrimp and included fajita vegetables, black beans, rice, guacamole, and pic de gallo. I was a little disappointed there were only two tortillas, but the dish was not intended to be make-your-own tacos so I don’t fault them for it. I loaded the two tortillas as full as I could make them, and ate the remaining shrimp, rice, and vegetables separately. It was good, but not especially hot or fresh given the 40-minute delivery time. It definitely had potential and I decided I would try them again but eat there next time. I looked them up online and learned they also have a location in the north end near my office.  I’m hoping they’ll make the list of regular lunch spots and provide an alternative to Q’Doba, which is where I usually go for my lunchtime taco fix. 

The dish as it came
Makeshift shrimp taco with guacamole

See my favorite dishes at this restaurant on Tasted Menu El Triunfo on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Troquet is an upscale French restaurant overlooking the Boston Common. It’s on the same level as L’Espalier or No 9 Park, but is a little less pricy and has more of a bistro feel. I tried it years ago when they first opened, and had been meaning to go back for a while. Last night I happened to be out in the area and decided to give it a try. We walked in around 9pm on a Wednesday night, and were seated promptly at a table for two by the window with an amazing view of the common.

What I remembered most from my last visit was the wine list - Troquet is known for an extensive list of wines by the glass intended to pair with the food. I was excited to try the wine now that I know a little more about food and wine pairing and I was not disappointed! The list included at least 50 varieties by the glass and was a good mix of French, Italian, Spanish, and American. The wines were all available in two or four-ounce pours for pairing, and each item on the dinner menu included a range of numbers corresponding to several glasses of wine. Any of the glasses within the range would pair well with the food.

We shared the Duck Confit Salad as an appetizer, which according to the menu came with a brioche crouton, smoked bacon, soft duck egg, and truffle vinaigrette. As soon as it arrived, I immediately thought it was a play on eggs benedict (thank you Top Chef for teaching me to notice these things)! The brioche crouton resembled an English muffin, was lightly toasted, and acted as the base for the dish. The second layer included duck confit and mixed greens, and it was all topped with a soft duck egg. Once the egg broke, the yolk mixed with the vinaigrette and bacon on the plate creating the hollandaise-like component of the dish. The flavors worked well together, all of the ingredients were prepared perfectly, and the duck confit was slightly crispy but still very tender and flavorful. I ordered a glass of pinot noir from the recommended pairings, and it went well with duck and without overpowering it. 

I ordered the roasted suckling pig as my main course, which was served three ways. The first was pork leg with crispy skin paired with spicy grits; it was extremely tender and tasted almost like pork belly. The ratio of crisp skin and the melt in your mouth layer of fat just above the meat was perfect, and made this my favorite preparation. The second was roast pork loin with carrots and a pork jus, and the third was a pork roulade with smoky BBQ sauce and celery root coleslaw. All three were excellent, and although each of the three preparations were very different the sides and sauces brought all of the flavors together. I tried the Tempranillo based on the server’s recommendation and the spiciness worked well, bringing out some of the spiciness of the dish. 

Dessert was the sticky toffee pudding with pineapple and rum ice cream. This was delicious, but I was so full I could barely eat more than a few bites. I did have room for the salted caramel that came with the check - a dark chocolate filled with a liquid, salted caramel center.

The meal at Troquet was the best I’ve had in a while, and I definitely plan to return soon.

See my favorite dishes at this restaurant on Tasted Menu Troquet on Urbanspoon