Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Save Your Appetite and Savor These Restaurants

I'm constantly being asked where to go to eat. I'm not sure it's a good thing to be known as someone who has eaten at almost every restaurant in town but I'd like to take all the, er, investments I've made in dining out and put them to good use. Let me kick things off by providing a quick summary of a handful of restaurants I love and, in a nutshell, why. I will feature mostly Boston/Cambridge restaurants but whenever I travel, I will be sure to include restaurants I've visited there as well if they are noteworthy. In case you haven't figured it out, I love food and am not on a mission to tear apart a restaurant's food, service or ambiance (unless it is really bad). Instead, what I prefer to do is point out the best of the best so when you shell out your hard earned dollars, you know you'll be getting your money's worth.

Central Kitchen, 567 Mass. Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 617.491.5599
Central Kitchen is my favorite restaurant in the area. It is in Central Square so it's just a hop, skip and a jump from my place. What do I love about it? Delicious, consistent Mediterranean/American food. Every time I've gone (many times), I and whoever has come with me, LOVES the food. I prefer to sit at the bar. It's just more relaxed and frankly, I always find the service better and more attentive. Just grab a stool, greet the friendly bartenders and within minutes you can have some nice bread, olive oil and wine in front of you. Now you can relax, peruse the menu and see what others around you are eating. I often just order appetizers as opposed to an entrée (although they are amazing as well). That way you can try different things and share. They have everything from olives and oysters to cheese and a "back bar cure" (a special meat appetizer) to an always amazing soup of the day to brined pork chops and one of my personal favorites "brandade" (a whipped cod/mashed potato dish with olive tapenade on top - major comfort food - don't knock it 'til you try it). And don't forget dessert. Hands down, the best crème brullée this side of the pond.

Central Kitchen is not one of those restaurants you hear a lot about. I think it's because there is no celebrity chef and related fanfare. But trust me, it is one of the best and is always very busy. I'd much prefer to go to a place that packs them in based on consistency and word of mouth than a place that has a huge publicity machine behind it and a celebrity chef that makes an appearance maybe once a month. If you go on the weekend, make a reservation. I have popped in there and been told there is a 2-hour wait on a Saturday night. Of course you can always see if you can nab a seat at the bar. Again, best seat in the house.

UpStairs on the Square, 91 Winthrop Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge, 617.864.1933
I was heartbroken when, a few years ago, UpStairs at the Pudding, closed its doors. I had always loved the old world ambiance there as well as their lovely outdoor space that made you feel a million miles away from hectic Harvard Square. They decorated it so beautifully around the holidays. It was a place your mother would love (and mine did). Well, thankfully, the lovely ladies from UpStairs at the Pudding found a new home for their amazing food, impeccable service and fancy yet friendly and comfortable sensibility. UpStairs on the Square is just a few blocks from its original location, just above the well-known watering hole and restaurant, Grendel's Den (shame on them for swapping out the real fireplace with a fake one that doesn't even give off heat!).

Upstairs on the Square may even top UpStairs at the Pudding. When you walk in the door, you are always greeted warmly no matter what you are wearing or whether or not you have a reservation. You then have a choice of whether you want to eat downstairs (the more casual Monday Club Bar) or upstairs (the more formal but still not stuffy Soirée Dining Room). When I was there recently, the hostess (quirky cool co-owner Mary Catherine Deibel), bent over backwards to seat us at a great table with minimal people around us and offered to move us if we got too warm sitting near the fire. I felt like I was on a different planet since you just never get service like that anymore. You're lucky if hosts/hostesses acknowledge your existence let alone pamper you like that.

The decor is a little crazy but it's fun and I think contributes to keeping the place from feeling too formal. You'll see green and gold plaid walls (referred to hilariously as "bad girl plaid") and the "Zebra room" with raspberry walls and zebra patterned carpeting. It's out there but it's great. There are fireplaces on both floors (they are gas but very real looking and do give off a lot of heat). Whenever possible I try to get a table near the fireplace. It's soooo nice.

Okay, I guess I should talk about the food at some point, ha? It's all excellent and focuses on seasonal and local ingredients. From the down-home Grilled Cheese and Tomato soup (downstairs) to the Slow Baked Atlantic Cod with maple celery root purée and shallot vinaigrette (upstairs). The desserts are heavenly as well. I was there around the holidays and had "Buche de Noel," a traditional French Christmas cake that is decorated like a log with meringue "mushrooms." I mean where else can you order that?! Had to get it. It of course was delicious and the presentation was gorgeous.

Don't miss the cocktails either. They shake things up with some innovative drinks such as the Jackie O (Stoli O, Apricot Nectar, Lemon Juice, Creme de Cassis and Champagne) and the Femme Fatale (VEP Chartreuse, Hangar One Citron and Champagne). What is VEP Chartreuse you might ask (as I did). The bartender informed me that VEP Chartreuse is a 110 proof herbal liqueur made by monks and legend has it that only 3 people at a time know how to make it. You need to order one just based on that story alone, don’t you think?

They also now offer Afternoon Tea with both sweet and savory treats, Tuesday thru Saturday, 3 - 5pm. Click here to read my review.

Seoul Kitchen, 1759 Mass Ave, Porter Square, Cambridge
If you ever crave Bibim Bab (and who doesn't), Seoul Kitchen in Porter Square is the place to go. Bibim Bab is a classic Korean dish that comes in a very hot black stone pot. In it is rice, veggies, egg, steak (or you can opt for tofu, chicken or grilled eel instead). You mix the whole thing up with your chop sticks, add in some hot chili paste and go to town. What's cool is that this meal continues to cook and get even tastier as you eat it. Steam pours out of the bowl as you mix all your ingredients together with your chopsticks. They give you a spoon so you can scrape up the crispy rice from the bottom. I thought I was doing a good job until the owner came over and showed me how it's done. My sister and I watched in awe as she took my spoon, used her apron to grab the hot stone bowl and scraped every last bit of rice off the bottom. She didn't want me to miss out. At that point, I had no choice but to finish the entire thing (it would have been rude not to, right?).

Chez Henri, One Shepard Street, Near Harvard Square, Cambridge, 617.354.8980
7 words - Get the cuban sandwich and a mojito.
Chez Henri's entire menu is wonderful. It is French with a cuban flair, not something you'll easily find elsewhere. Everything on the menu is fantastic. But it is the almighty pressed Cuban Sandwich that brings me back. It is like no other I have ever eaten. They use a light crispy croissant-like bread and inside are classic Cuban Sandwich ingredients (pork, ham, swiss cheese, pickles) but oh, so much better. And you can ONLY order the cuban sandwich in the small bar area so go early or expect to wait (it'll be worth it, trust me). The Cuban Sandwich is immense so you can split it with a friend (otherwise they might be putting the paddles to your chest and yelling "Clear!"). The mojito is a nice, light perfect companion.

East Coast Grill, 1271 Cambridge Street, Inman Square, Cambridge, 617.491.6568
Chris Schlesinger, owner of East Coast Grill, is one of the "celebrity chefs" I actually think is the real deal. You can still find him in the restaurant running around and greeting folks. He has published many books on his expertise, grilling, but you won't find his mug constantly on the Food Network or talk show appearances. I think he'd rather be cooking frankly. And his dedication to cooking and grilling manifests itself in a consistently amazing seafood and bbq-oriented restaurant, which, although off the beaten track in Inman Square, is always packed.

East Coast Grill has two areas. The main restaurant area and the "Lava Lounge" area. In the main restaurant area you can order anything off the menu except the Pu Pu Platter (I’ll talk about that later), which can only be ordered in the Lava Lounge. Every night, Chris features fresh fish and shellfish from areas both local and remote. He lists where everything comes from so you can make an educated decision on your order (scallops from New Bedford, littlenecks from Wellfleet, oysters from Prince Edward Island, etc.). One of my favorite things they make are flash fried oysters. This appetizer features about a half dozen lightly fried oysters (still gooey in the middle – the only way to go), each on its own spoon in a bed of crunchy vegetables, Waldorf relish and house tartar sauce. Outstanding. Their ribs are also out of this world. The Xiao Jianmings Wetbones (don’t ask me what that means) can be ordered by the bone so make for a perfect appetizer.

If you get a chance to sit in the Lava Lounge, it's a lot of fun. They have a volcano on the wall and lights simulating lava oozing down the side. This is where you can order the so-called "Pu Pu Platter." Worlds better than any other Pu Pu Platter you've ever put down. It includes: Coconut Fried Shrimp, Hoisen Spareribs, Duck-Ginger Eggrolls, Grilled Sirloin Skewers, just to name a few things. Whatever you get at the East Coast Grill, make sure to order one of their fun, tropical cocktails, most of which come accessorized with a dolphin, monkey or mermaid hanging off the edge. Somehow they just make the drinks taste even better.

East Coast Grill also holds the hilarious Hell Night once a year where everything on the menu is scorchingly spicy. It’s actually held over 3 nights and is reservation only. This year it will be held January 23 – 25th. I have never been but have walked by when it’s going down and it looks like a blast – if you have the stomach for it. I unfortunately don’t.

Locke-Ober, 3 Winterplace, Downtown Crossing off Winter Street (I know - odd location), Boston, 617.542.1340
Locke-Ober is a Boston institution which, at one time, only allowed men to dine there believe it or not. In 2001, one of Boston's most beloved chefs, Lydia Shire, took over the kitchen. She has kept the classics like JFK's Lobster Stew and Broiled Boston Scrod with Crab on the menu but has added her own flair. Locke-Ober is yet another place where I prefer to eat at the bar. I always seem to have the same fantastic bartender, Carah. She's friendly without being in your face and mixes a mean Sidecar. For some reason the bar is never crowded so if you pop in on a whim, you can almost always get a seat. This is no typical bar food, mind you. We're talking foie gras, clams casino, escargot bourguignon, and mini lobster melts with fried ipswich clams (incidentally, my friend sheri and i are responsible for them now creating this appetizer for 2 instead of just 1 - unfortunately it's off the menu for the winter). Every appetizer is tastier than the rest and the old world ambiance is very relaxing. People do dress up to go there but I've never had anyone there give me the stink eye when I've walked in wearing jeans. Locke-Ober is a true oasis from Winter Street, a loud, heavily trafficked area full of retail stores and fast food joints.

Stay tuned for more reviews. I'll keep 'em coming.


Anonymous pacman said...

Thanks for sharing your favorites!

You can find my favorites at

I have been hearing about central kitchen from friends too, will definitely go try it out soon.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

Chez Henri has the best Cuban sandwich I have had anywhere. It is probably one of the best sandwiches of any kind that I have had in the Boston area.

11:03 AM  

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