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.