Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Terrace @ Aragosta

I hope everyone had wonderful Memorial Day Weekend! Mine was pretty tame and thankfully felt as long as it was. There was some major relaxation happening (spa day! + reading in the park), just a hint of productivity (loads of laundry + a few errands) coupled with some amazing eats (Backyard BBQ, dinner at Citizen Public House) but best of all, here in New England we were finally able to welcome summer weather. I'll have a post up in a few days, but for now enjoy my recap of last weeks patio party....On Wednesday evening I visited one of Boston's newest waterfront dining destinations, Aragosta Bar & Bistro located in The Fairmont Battery Wharf. Aragosta replaces the former hotel restaurant Sensing, completely revitalizing the outdoor space with tables overlooking picturesque Boston Harbor and plush couches surrounding cozy firepits. Deep brown wicker patio furniture combined with rust colored umbrellas and fabrics set the scene as bloggers trickled into a private tasting of Chef David Daniels contemporary Italian cuisine and specialty Italian themed cocktails. Making a lasting first impression is an especially inventive cocktail, starting off sweet and finishing with a punch the Yellow Pepper Limoncello Sour pairs the classic Italian liquor with vodka, agave nectar, lemon juice and fresh chive. Also up for sampling was their well poured Moscow Mule starring Grey Goose Vodka with pureed ginger, freshly squeezed lime juice and club soda. More traditional is the Mule, great for those who can appreciate a strong bite from the fresh ginger. Platters of Hand Crafted Salumi, Caponata, Hot Cherry Peppers & Crusty Bread were waiting for us upon arrival. Along with some loaves of soft and chewy bread accompanied by olives in olive oil. I didn't hesitate to dig right in. Shortly after, the Tartufo Fries cooked in duck fat and truffle oil swept us off our feet. The Lobster & Truffle Crostini with a white bean puree is definitely an appetizer I would recommend, boasting thick chunks of succulent lobster accented by luxurious earthy truffle in every bite. The sweet velvety Lobster Bisque was inviting and comforting, even when sipped on a warm summer evening. Aragosta is Italian for lobster and living up to its namesake it certainly was. The Sautéed Calamari Salad served with baby arugula, San Marzano tomato, balsamic and an olive tapenade would be an excellent start to a summer meal, the variety of flavors in this dish highlighting the cool toothsome squid. The evening only went uphill from here. Our waitress was more than happy to take additional drink orders, so a few of us chose the intriguing Settana Cinque described on the menu as the Italian version of the “French 75”; a cocktail that “hits with remarkable precision”, it combines Aperol liquor shaken with freshly squeezed lemon juice and prosecco.Somehow I missed sampling the Braised Veal & Pancetta Meatballs with soft polenta and arugula, but they sure looked good. Once the appetizer bites were through, plate after plate of small entree portions were delivered. We ooed and aahed our way through the delectable homemade pasta courses and stuffed ourselves even more with a heartier New England seafood dish and a Pork entree after that. I couldn't believe how much food we tasted! Pappardelle Bolognese, Veal Cheek & Ox Tail Ragu, Porcini Powder. The thick coils of pappardelle pasta were exquisite, the flavorful ragu of shredded veal cheek and ox tail accompanied a melty hunk of brie cheese. This felt like a winter time entree to me, probably because I always crave a thick hearty Bolognese when it's cold out. That's not to discourage if you were in the mood, the components still hold up on a warm summer evening. Orecchiette, Broccoli Rabe, Pancetta, Capers, Preserved Lemon. Now this is one that beckons summer on a patio to me, definitely the pasta entree I am craving the most and would order upon my return. Bursting with salty, lemony flavors, those little pockets of perfectly shaped orecchiette delicately cradled the pancetta and capers, the crisp broccoli rabe rounding out the dish. Gnocchi, Slow Cooked Lamb Shoulder, Rosemary Citrus Jus, Asparagus. A thoughtful pairing is gnocchi with lamb and asparagus, as opposed to just plain old gnocchi, this dish steps it up. The dense cushions of potato pasta get coated in a thick creamy cheese sauce and a dusting of breadcrumbs, while the entire dish relishes the potent rosemary citrus jus. Lobster Ravioli, Wilted Pea Greens, Fennel Pollen, Cauliflower , Truffle. (Well, there was Cauliflower accompanying this ravioli at one point.) There's that heavenly lobster and truffle combination again. The lobster filling was good but I'd personally go for the Crostini appetizer or the bisque over this to get my lobster fix. However, the menu should only benefit from this dressed up Italian staple as it is a dish that has lasting mass appeal. Seared Tuna, Roasted Fennel, Marcona Almonds, Golden Raisin Puree. Each piece of sushi grade tuna came perfectly seared on the edges. When paired with bites of the candied marcona almonds, sweet golden raisin puree as well the contrasting bite of fennel, it worked well. PT Farms Pork Chop, Fontina, Pancetta, Algre Dolce Peppers. A well cooked pork chop comes coated in melted fontina cheese, with more of that intensely firm and salty pancetta.Somewhere in between all this I ordered a glass of Prosecco, happily sipping it in the comfy confines of the terrace couches with good company, as the sun went down and the cooler night air set in. The tasting wrapped up with a Marscapone Ice Cream accompanying a golden raisin filled tart dusted with powdered sugar. The ice cream stole the show. Each dish with its own unique flair offered a beautiful presentation using fresh seasonal ingredients. I would also like to note that while this tasting was complimentary, the price points clock in with first courses between $10-15, pasta entrees start at $17 and seafood entrees average around $30.It's not often that the North End sees a new restaurant opening, much less a waterfront destination. Seems the new spots are always popping up in Cambridge, Back Bay, the South End, or Liberty Wharf (everywhere but here, basically) so we deserve this one! I have a strong inclination to return to the terrace already! Sipping cocktails and watching the sunset over the harbor never really gets old. Visit Aragosta just steps from The North End's Hanover Street at Three Battery Wharf.
Aragosta Bar + Bistro on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Finale Craft Beer Tasting

Ever since I returned home from New Orleans on Monday night I've had a slew of non-stop weekday events and dinners. Luckily, I took Tuesday off from work in advance so I could have a day to breath / unpack / upload photos before going at it again. On Tuesday evening I met my friend Michelle at Coolidge Corner in Brookline to attend a Craft Beer Tasting Event at Finale Desserterie & Bakery. Hosted by their pastry chef Nicole Cody and Craft Brewers beer expert Erika Soucy, these ladies did a fantastic job of planning the pairings and leading us through the tasting; which showcased five flavored craft beers each with a decadent pastry. They encouraged us to taste the dessert first, then sip beer and vise versa. Switching up the order surprises the palate and allows you to determine which order you like better with which pair. My favorite just so happened to be the first pairing of Lindeman’s Peche with a fresh Seasonal Fruit Tart. I love Lindeman's Framboise, but I had no idea they made a peach flavor! This light and fruity beer balanced nicely with the richness of the tahitian vanilla and bavarian cream in the tart. The next paring was an 8% alcohol, full bodied Bosteel’s Tripel Karmeliet which enhanced the very simple, cold and custardy Crème Brulee. The third pairing introduced me to a beer I can't wait to try again, a Wells Banana Bread which is a traditional ale from England. The bready mouthfeel and prevalent banana notes complimented the Bavarian cream, yellow cake and semi sweet chocolate icing in the Boston Cream Pie. The Schneider Aventinus Eisbock delivered a strong (12% alcohol) Germain ale with a hint of clove and spiciness. The Chocolate Symphony Squares offered three layers of sweet mousse to stand up to the beer with a Dark Chocolate first, followed by a white chocolate and finally a milk chocolate mousse. For the final round we tasted Atwater Vanilla Java Porter. It was lighter than I expected - a well rounded porter that was smooth and easy to drink. The pairing with the rich, flourless Dark Chocolate Decadence worked out well. I was actually pretty full at this point!
The event was well organized; with the pairings evenly paced and passionately spoken about. I enjoyed the exposure to some unconventional craft beers and who can argue with dessert for dinner?! Finale Coolidge Corner holds different tasting events on certain Tuesday evenings throughout the summer. If you are interested, check out the schedule for details about upcoming happenings.
Finale Coolidge Corner on Urbanspoon

Special thanks to Mindy Valone at CM Communications for the warm welcome and of course Michelle for inviting me as her guest!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dinners in The French Quarter

With so many different restaurants to choose from and a slew of recommendations passed our way, the toughest decision of vacationing in New Orleans proved choosing where to eat dinner. Assuming they are all pretty fantastic, we probably couldn't have gone wrong had we chosen any one of the 20 spots on our list. It seems everyone from co-workers to cab drivers had a "must visit" spot and there was no way we could make each and every one (unlike our list of must visit bars.) Should you ever be faced with similar decisions upon planning a visit, I would highly recommend both Irene’s Cuisine and NOLA, respectively, our Friday and Saturday night dinner destinations.
After the days excursions we’d venture back to the Ritz to re-group and freshen up. Dinner was a necessary first stop before the Bourbon Street craze. It was a welcome respite; a time to linger over good food, bottles of wine and lots of laughs in a more relaxed yet formal atmosphere. (Formal in comparison to Hand Grenades and Hurricanes, relaxed in the sense that we’re not at a loud, rowdy bar - you catch my drift.)Irene’s offers lust worthy Creole-Italian cuisine in an old warehouse that underwent a transformation into a romantic setting housing multiple dining rooms with an antique-esque aura. It is highly regarded by the locals, and while you have to venture slightly off the beaten path it is still within the safe confines of the French Quarter at 539 Phillips St. It is definitely worth a trip and worth the wait. They do not take reservations and we were told to show up and hour and a half before we wanted to eat. The wait time (even though upon arrival were told 45 minutes) was closer to the hour and fifteen minute mark. We put our name in and ventured to a neighboring dive bar called Flanagan’s where we enjoyed some pre-dinner brews, a Miller High Life for me! Once we returned we were seated in one of the dimly lit dining rooms, offering a cozy table amongst the ever bustling scene. With smells of garlicky seafood wafting, a bottle of Pinot Noir already being poured and immediately being served a complementary Bruschetta, I knew we were in for an excellent meal. The bruschetta just slightly toasted with the warm fluffy bread quality still intact was topped with gooey melted mozzarella cheese and thick slices of tomatoes accented by fresh basil. This proved an exciting bread (if you can even call it that) course, starting the meal of on a high-note after such a long wait. A delightful appetizer came in the form of a Soft Shell Crab, the crustacean was skillfully fried in a light batter, the immediate texture beholding an airy crispiness giving way to sweet succulent crab meat. For my entrée I ordered the San Francisco style Cioppino ($23). Upon being served a huge oval bowl beholding shellfish bathing in a most luscious, velvety smooth saffron scented fennel infused tomato broth; I’d just about died and went to heaven.
From the plump gulf shrimp, to the well-executed mussels, the briny clams to the flaky fish, all of it was just a-m-azing. I can’t forget to mention those slices of ciabatta bread, achieving the not overly hard and abrasive but just crispy enough while remaining slightly soft texture. Seriously, this meal was perfect. Dessert saw a luxurious Crème Brulee and a rich Chocolate Hazelnut Torte in a vanilla raspberry cream sauce. The next evening we enjoyed a highly anticipated dinner at NOLA, one of Emeril Lagasse's restaurants located in the heart of the French Quarter on 534 St Louis Street. Thankfully, NOLA takes reservations and we were seated promptly upon arrival for ours at 8pm. The famous chef is known for his "New" New Orleans style of cooking which is essentially Creole cuisine with Contemporary American twists. The decor is in line with the cuisine, emitting touches of historic French Quarter elegance with an upscale modern industrial feel. Weathered brick walls surround high arched windows and dark gray pipes span the ceiling, serving to separate areas of the large refined warehouse space. A brightly lit open kitchen lines the far perimeter. A giant chalkboard menu boasting a list of cocktails in bold colors is tastefully eye catching set against a brick wall in the center of the room. Speaking of cocktails, I couldn't pass up the Sazerac which is a local New Orelans variation of an Old Fashioned, often referred to as the oldest known cocktail in America! Made with cognac, rye whiskey, absinthe and peychaud bitters - the Sazerac is seriously strong and provided an excellent apertif! With our meal we drank a bottle of (unphotographed) Rose wine but unfortunatley it didn't impress us. It was lacking any real depth and variety to it. The shared appetizer among us were the Wood Oven Roasted Escargot Rockefeller ($12) with herbsaint, parmesan and herb bread crumbs. This was my first time trying Escargot, the chewy morsels weren't at all intimidating allthough I think that had a lot to do with the flavorful preparation and the fact that they were oven roasted. It was something about grabbing a snail from its shell that had turned me off in the past, but I'd eat Rockefeller style snails anyday! My entree of Grilled Atlantic Salmon ($28) came over a bed of black bean and sweet corn succotash mingling in a chimuchuri butter sauce with a tomatillo salsa. The succotash is essentially what sold me on the dish over the more traditonal orders of Shrimp n Grits or Gumbo. (Which I tasted - and they were excellent.)
A unique preparation made this otherise ordinary fish truly stand out. The salmon was grilled perfectly, displaying a nice char topped generously with what I think were dried onions. Their unexpected crunch added a welcome contrast to the soft flaky fish and flavorful succotash. Desserts were not to be missed! We enjoyed the Strawberry and Pistachio Bombe ($8) which was a creamy pistachio ice cream shell encasing a pink strawberry sorbet over a thick strawberry compote and sprinkled with toasted pistachios. But the clear winner in the dessert category was the Peanut Butter and Chocolate Cheesecake ($7) with Oreo crumbles, raspberry compote and chocolate drizzle.NOLA being the more expensive choice and Irene's proving a longer wait, still our experiences at both these vastly different establishments were superb. From the service with waitstaff who went above and beyond, to the perfectly prepared appetizers and well executed flavorful entrees, to the expertly crafted cocktails and the extensive wine lists. I will fondly remember these dinners in New Orleans not only for the amazing food that lingers on my mind but also the fantastic company. The nights were still young, even we didn't know how young at the time...and so it goes.....
Irene's Cuisine on UrbanspoonNOLA Restaurant on Urbanspoon