Monday, July 31, 2006

The Tasting Menu Experience at Upstairs on the Square

Do you want to really spoil yourself and your dining companion? How about a world-class dining experience featuring 5 - 7 "tastings" (smaller plates) with layered, light flavors; surprising but perfect ingredient combinations and clean, sophisticated presentation? How about a night of savoring one of the best meals you'll ever have, in a gorgeous, eclectically-designed dining room with service that is second to none without a hint of pretentiousness? Recently I had the privilege of enjoying such an evening - at Upstairs on the Square.

I'm still thinking about what an all-around perfect evening it was and why more restaurants can't live up to their standards. They make it look so easy and effortless (which of course it isn't). All the hectic activity and hard work that probably goes on behind the scenes is invisible to the diner, as it should be but rarely ever is in most other establishments. So kudos to the warmest, friendliest restaurant partners you will ever meet - UotS' Mary-Catherine Deibel and Deborah Hughes. Their passion for food; positive, upbeat attitude; and laid-back sensibility permeate every facet of the restaurant from the food to the décor to the staff.

UotS is on Winthrop Street, a tiny road in Harvard Square tucked between JFK Street and Mt Auburn Street. Plans are underway to shut down the street to traffic and make it a pedestrian-only promenade with outdoor dining at UotS, Om and others. Something the Boston area needs more of!

There are 2 restaurants in UotS. Downstairs is the Monday Club Bar, a bit more casual in menu and ambiance, a place where you could easily find yourself becoming a "regular." Upstairs is the more formal Soirée Room (pictured above) where the Tasting Menu is offered. Feels more like a place to go for a special occasion, whether it be a birthday, job promotion or heck, maybe just a good hair day.

Our occasion was a birthday celebration and between the two of us, we were able to try everything on the Tasting Menu even though we opted for the 5-course menu instead of the 7. What a great way to eat out. Getting to try a little bit of so many different flavors - local produce, seasonal fish, varied preparations. And let's not forget about the wine pairings. Each "tasting" is paired with a different wine. This is an optional choice but I highly recommend it. (Unlike us, you don't actually have to try and keep up and drink all the wine in each course.) Wine Director Matt Reiser does not mess around. The man knows what he's doing. Trust his judgment. Anyone who can find a fabulous Hungarian dessert wine (Tokaji) clearly does his research.

Our first courses were Roasted Beets with Horseradish Panna Cotta, Arugula and Passion Fruit and Ravioli of Sweet English Peas with Smithfield Ham & Pecorino Romano. The Roasted Beet dish is zbsolutely gorgeous and what a combination of flavors. I am a passion fruit freak these days so to me, it's a success right out of the gate. But add the roasted beets (truly, people, beets are incredible if prepared right), the horseradish panna cotta (smooth with a kick - every roast beef sandwich should have some) and the arugula and you have an absolute winner. The Ravioli tasted like summer. The fresh whole peas in the pasta added texture you rarely taste in ravioli.

Next, we both savored the Slow-Baked Atlantic Cod with Hon-shimenji Mushrooms & Lemongrass. The mushrooms were very nutty, a nice companion to the cod. What I think I loved most about this dish was the serving "ceremony." We were each served our cod dish and then the waiter poured the broth into our dish from a small silver serving vessel. So civilized.

Pan Roasted & Braised Giannone Chicken with Native Spinach, Lovage & Aromatic Broth was the next course. The chicken was crispy on the outside, moist on the inside. The spinach was wilted but had plenty of substance and lots of flavor. The lovage was a first for me. It's an herb in the parsley family that tastes sort of like celery. Very crisp tasting.

The next course was our favorite - Wood-Charcoaled Lamb Sirloin with Pesto, Summer Panzanella (tomatoes, onions, etc.) & Lamb Jus. Wow. Whatever preconceived notions you may have about how lamb tastes go out the window when you bite into this dish. It tastes like amazing steak. So incredibly tender and cooked to perfection, medium-rare. Definitely order this dish even if you're not a lamb fan.

For dessert, we had the Artisanal Cheese Selection and Peach Tatin with Puff Pastry, Roasted Peaches & a Peach Creamsicle Shooter. I'm always a fan of cheese whether it be for the first or last course. I especially enjoyed a Vermont bleu cheese that was much milder than most bleus. The Peach Tatin dessert was great. The highlight was the Creamsicle Shooter which is a childhood favorite all grown up. Delicious.

Steven Brand is the young, wonderful chef who has developed this adventurous menu. A Marblehead native, Steve's previous experience included a stint at the world famous Jeans-Georges. In the words of UotS partner Mary-Catherine Deibel, "He is going to be a star." The night I dined there, he was in Spain, exploring all things culinary and trying to get into the impossible-to-get-into elBulli restaurant, home to Chef Ferran Adria, famous for developing the most cutting-edge food and dining experiences. Hope he got in and brings back some more great menu inspirations.

Upstairs on the Square
91 Winthrop Street, Harvard Square
Cambridge, MA
Tasting menus must be partaken by all diners at the table.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q: A Carnivore's Delight

Arlington is a low-key, family-oriented suburb of Boston that is not necessarily the place you would think of for some of the best ribs north of the Mason-Dixon line. But it is. Because it's the home of Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q, a small but wildly popular place way up on Mass Ave (yes, the same Mass Ave that runs from Roxbury through Back Bay and Cambridge).

On a recent steamy summer evening, I went with some friends and watched folks flood into the joint to wait in line, get their grub and bolt home with the best take-out ever or to try and snag a seat. Finding a place to sit is the trickiest part since there are only a few indoor tables, stools and outside tables. We opted to stick around and eat there which called for keeping an eagle eye out for an available table which we were lucky enough to spot outiside. The view is of Stop & Shop so it's not exactly scenic but having a place to hunker down with your hefty plate is a must.

Ordering at Blue Ribbon can be a bit stressful. There are SO many options and though the line can be long, it moves quickly so you need to be ready when you're up. You can practically read the minds of the people in back of you - "Hurry up! I want my ribs!" Can't say that I blame them. So I cheated a bit and ordered a combo plate so I really wouldn't have to decide. My plate consisted of Memphis Dry-Rubbed Barbecue Ribs and Texas Sliced Beef Brisket. It comes with corn bread and pickles along with two sides. I chose the Collard Greens and the Baked Beans. Blue Ribbon also has a number of barbecue sauces you can help yourself to that range from sweet to hot to chipotle flavored, the latter of which is my personal favorite. It's a sticky, messy, good ole time.

My friends were equally happy with their choices. Tom ordered the North Carolina Pulled Pork Sandwich which he claims is the best anywhere. Kemal opted for a combo as well - Memphis Ribs and Barbecued Chicken with Mashed Potatoes and Green Beans on the side. He was a big fan of the chicken. Just sitting with these guys and watching everyone around us indulge in their inner carnivore was a site to see. Great summer night out.

I've never had room for dessert but if you're smarter than I am and stop eating before you're completely stuffed, you might have room for Pecan Pie, Sweet Potato Pie or some Fruit Cobbler with Whipped Cream, all of which sound very tempting. Maybe next time I'll squeeze it in. Doubt it.

Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q also has a Newton location that is even smaller than this one. Just a few stools. Mostly a take-out business. If you live in the area and are in the market for take-out, you're in luck.

Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q
908 Massachusetts Ave, Arlington, 781.648.7427 (take out or eat in - seating for about 20 people inside max, 4 tables outside as well)
1375 Washington St, West Newton, 617.332.2583 (take out or eat in - only a few stools)

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Taste of Charleston - Shrimp & Grits, Sweet Tea, Hush Puppies & Peaches in Season

I took a trip recently to Charleston, South Carolina to visit my friend, Jen who was brave enough to live up here in Boston for a few years before heading back down south. Let me just tell you that the food in Charleston is outstanding and is worth the trip just for a bite into a fresh, juicy peach or a plate of shrimp and grits and some sweet tea. The cuisine in Charleston is referred to as "low country" - local fresh flavors with a mixture of African, European, Caribbean and Native American influences.

There are now direct flights from Boston to Charleston which makes for an easy, fun trip. I highly recommend a visit, particularly in the Spring when it just can't get warm enough fast enough after the long, grueling New England winter.

We started off our foodventure by heading straight from the airport to one of Charleston's favorites, Hominy Grill. As in many southern dining establishments, you are immediately asked if you would like some Sweet Tea (sweetened iced tea) instead of water. When in Rome... I can see why Southerner's poo poo any attempt at Northerners to make iced tea. We just don't make it nearly as good. In our defense, we're not in the practice of making it or drinking it every day like they are. The southern version is sweet but not too sweet and the perfect antidote to the heavy duty heat down there.

The Hominy Grill is charming. Homey and welcoming. A large chalkboard advertises the specials which feature items rarely seen up North. I ordered the Fried Shrimp with Hush Puppies and Cole Slaw. I didn't even know what a Hush Puppy was but I was determined to find out. Jen told me it was a fried cornbread kind of thing so I figured how could I go wrong. The shrimp were delicious which I would expect coming from one of the biggest shrimping towns in the country. They were very lightly fried. Not your typical batter either. Not oily at all. I could have eaten hundred of them. The Hush Puppies were great as well. Cornmeal is the hero of this treat, spiked with a little jalapeno and accompanied with a tartar sauce for dipping. Even the rice was fantastic. It had what I believe to be spicy andouille sausage in it. It was de-lish, y'all. Clearly I would order this dish again.

Jen ordered a Fried Green Tomato BLT - again not something you would see on a menu in Boston. The fried green tomatoes were lightly fried. I thought the sandwich was great but Jen, a more discriminating fried green tomato eater, thought the slices were a bit too thick. The pickled okra on the side was another new one I hadn't tried. Pretty tasty.

Well that was only lunch so we were pretty full and opted to skip dessert and save our appetites for what we knew would be many other food opportunities to come. I spent the afternoon hitting the shopping scene in Charleston before needing a break and a snack. Jen had given me the heads-up that there was a place called cupcakes specializing in - guess what - cupcakes. Since I've written about many other cupcake spots in New York and Boston, I figured I needed to hit this one. It's so good it warrants a separate blog entry which you can read about by clicking here.

That evening Jen suggested we try a diner near her house. I figured, great, I love diner food. But this was NOTHING like any other diner I had ever been to. As you can see from the white board listing out side dish and dessert options, this was a truly southern affair. Boulevard Diner is a no-frills joint with a line out the door. And for good reason. The food here is sensational. Comfort food at its finest. As I reviewed all the options, I had a slight anxiety attack. There were so many things I wanted to try I couldn't make a decision. The poor waitress came by at least 3 times before I could put a stake in the ground and pick something. I opted for the Fried Chicken (pictured at top of page) knowing this is yet another thing that southerners kick northerners butts at and also knowing that Jen was going to order the other dish that was on the top of my list, Shrimp and Grits. The fried chicken was sooo crispy and flavorful. I was in heaven. How DO they do it? Buttermilk is the answer I believe. It keeps the chicken really, really moist. I ordered the Speckled Butterbeans as my side because I had never had them. With the mashed potatoes and fried pickle on the side (another first), this made for the perfect meal.

The Shrimp and Grits Jen ordered truly rank in the Top 5 most delicious things I have ever eaten. Wow. Why grits has never caught on up here is beyond me. It's tragic frankly. They are so heavenly. Clearly they are not low-cal but what are you going to do. They are creamy, buttery and cheesy. A forkful of shrimp and grits and you will be a fan for life. I know I am. Bought some grits and brought them back home to try and recreate the heaven I had. They came out very well. My sister became addicted and took the leftovers home. Always a good sign.

While I was in Charleston, I also had the pleasure of going to the Farmers Market, one of my favorite things to do. Once again, you see a lot of things down there you won't see up here and the things that we do have are in season WAY earlier.
Peaches are clearly the hero of the Charleston Farmers Market. Did you know South Carolina grows more peaches than Georgia which most people assume is the top grower? It's kind of like Boston being more windy than the windy city itself, Chicago. There were so many varieties and the smell of each was more intoxicating than the next. Even though I knew they might get a little bumped around on the trip home, I had to take some with me. I knew it would be worth it. I packed up a mix of nectarines and peaches. Each required a napkin or else a lot of juice dripping down your chin.

One thing that really caught my eye were the Fresh Boiled Peanuts. They taste nothing like the peanuts you buy in the store. They are actually soft, more like a cooked bean. The ones I tried were boiled in salt but they also boil them in spices. They were very unusual tasting. Took me a minute to get used to the texture since I am programmed to think of peanuts as crunchy. You can picture a farmer in a straw hat, overalls and suspenders rocking on his porch eating these one after another. Highly addictive. Some other unusual items I saw were okra and green tomatoes. But everything we saw was at the peak of ripeness, not a bad fruit or vegetable to be seen.

Want to learn more about Charleston? Visit the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website.

Hominy Grill
207 Rutledge Ave
Charleston, SC

Boulevard Diner
409 Coleman Blvd
Charleston, SC

A Taste of Charleston, SC - More Cupcakes!

The battle of the best cupcakes in the US of A continues. First on the scene was the now-famous Magnolia's in New York. More recently, Cosmic Cupcakes in Watertown opened and is wowing Boston-area residents with their funky sea urchin cupcakes . Now, sweet little Charleston, South Carolina has pulled ahead of the pack with a cupcake establishment of its own, aptly named cupcake.

Cupcake Owner Kristin Kulke, a former marketing and sales executive, was inspired by Magnolia Bakery in New York and thought she'd bring the cupcake craze to Charleston. Unlike her competitors who feature cupcakes as well as other confections, her adorable shop sells cupcakes exclusively which makes you feel like they are getting the time and attention they deserve. And it shows. The cupcakes are the best I've had to date based on my sampling (who am I kidding. I ate every bite.) of two keepers - Red Velvet Chocolate w/ Cream Cheese Frosting and Coconut with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting. One of my pet peeves about cupcakes is that too much attention is paid to the frosting and very little to the actual cake. Kristin has hit the jackpot in both areas. The cakes are moist and the frosting is creamy but not too sweet or grainy. My personal favorite was the Coconut because I am a coconut nut. The Lemon Cream frosting which had coconut flakes in it was an ideal pairing. Kristin has a gift for pairing the right frosting with the right cake.

Cupcake is a real find. A little off the beaten path from the busy shopping area but a great reward once you get there. My only regret is that I don't live closer and can't try the other flavors. I'll have to ask my friend, Jen, to go once in awhile so I can live vicariously through her.

Cupcake offers 9 flavors each day out of her repertoire of about 20 different flavors. Just $2.75 each and $30.00 for a dozen wonders. A must stop if you visit Charleston.

433 King Street
Charleston, South Carolina

Friday, July 14, 2006

Fresh Clams? Make Bea's Clamcakes!

Clams (steamers) on left. Quahogs on right.

Last weekend, I went to my Mother's house well prepared. What does that mean? Well, I assumed that my brother who lives next door to my Mom would be going clamming and I wanted to be ready to bring some home. So I left my house with a little cooler hoping I'd be filling it up with clams for the return trip. My plan paid off. My brother had just dug some amazing clams on Cape Cod. So before I left, I put some ice in the cooler, loaded it up with clams, threw it over my shoulder and hopped on the train back to Beantown.

When I got home, I thought about steaming the clams but all the sudden I had a craving for my mother's Clamcakes which are stellar. No clam shack can compare. Not Woodman's. Nobody. So I quickly called her up and asked her for the recipe. I had never made them myself before but I was up for the challenge. Turns out they're pretty easy. You just have to steam the clams first, chop them up and then prepare the batter for frying. I recommend serving them with an ear of corn and a cold beer. They're fantastic. I hope you try them. Let me know if you do. Enjoy! And thanks for the clams, Dick. They were sweet and delicious as always.

Note: If you're not fortunate enough to have a family member who goes clamming every weekend (and I'm sure very few of you do), I recommend the next best thing - visiting your local fish market. New Deal in Cambridge is top notch.

• About 17 clams (steamers) or quahogs
• 2 cups flour
• 2 tsp baking powder
• 1 tsp salt
• A dash of pepper
• A dash of paprika
• 1 tbsp butter, softened
• 2 eggs
• 3/4 cup clam juice
• 1/4 milk

How to:
1. Steam the clams in water. Be sure to have enough water in the pan to reserve 3/4 cup of clam juice to put in the batter.
2. When the clams are done, remove the "necks" (the black thing attached to the neck of the clam) and chop the clams into small pieces.
3. Beat 2 eggs.
4. Add clam juice and milk
5. Mix in chopped clams, flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, paprika and butter.
6. Put vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pan or a deep fryer. Ensure there's enough oil to cover the fritters but be sure to leave at least 3 inches from the top as the oil will rise when you drop in the batter.
7. Put a teaspoon full of batter per clamcake into hot vegetable oil. You'll know the oil is ready when you flick a bit of water in the heated oil and it sizzles.
8. After a few minutes, turn the clamcake and see if it has browned. If not, turn back. Both sides should be brown.
9. Work in batches. You can usually cook 3 - 4 clamcakes at a time.
10. Remove from oil when done and lightly salt.
11. Eat as is or squeeze a little lemon on top. You can even serve a tartar dipping sauce on the side but I don't think they need it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Home for the Holy Ghost Fiesta, an East Taunton tradition

Marinated pork. Linguica sandwiches. Bacalhau (salt cod w/ vinegar and spices). Meat on the Stick. Malasadas (homemade fried dough w/ sugar). For well over 50 years, hundreds of people have gathered at the 3-day Fiesta in East Taunton, MA, to enjoy these Portuguese specialties, have a beer, listen to music, socialize and play some classic carnival games. A few brave souls even hop on a rickety ride for a hair raising (literally - my pony tail was horizontal according to my sister) adventure.

Last weekend, I returned home for my umpteenth year at the Fiesta with my family and as always, we had a great time. There's something very comforting about returning to a place you've been a million times, eating the comfort food you've eaten your whole life and hanging out with the people who've known you since birth.

On arrival, we made a beeline for the the Marinated Pork window. Just $3.00 for this amazing sandwich. The pork just falls apart and the Portuguese roll it's on is fresh and soft but substantial enough to hold the sandwich together and keep it from getting soggy. I think this year's batch was the best ever. So delicious. My sister opted for the linguica sandwich, also a huge crowd pleaser. Her sandwich had a little more kick but I preferred mine.

After we washed our sandwiches down with a nice cold beer, we took a break to hit the arcades. Let's see...I lost at Whack-a-Mole but won the game where you squirt water in the clown's mouth until the balloon bursts. I love those games. Good old fashioned fun.

I tried to avoid the one amusement park ride that you know is not safe but my brother bullied me into it. It was called the Twister and you sit in a cup with a rope strapped around you (oh that will keep me secure if something goes wrong). There's a wheel in the middle and the more you spin it the faster you go around. You would think the ride would be wimpy but what can I say, I screamed - a lot. A total blast though.
After I staggered off the ride, we decided it was time for dessert and headed inside Holy Ghost Hall for the malasadas. Just $1.50 each. While they are no where near as good as the ones my Mom makes, they did the trick. We were happy.

Before we headed out, we listened to the band sing some traditional Portuguese songs and watched an old couple dance like they were still 25. Watching them warmed our hearts and left us feeling happy to have ventured out to the fiesta once again this year and feeling certain we'd return next year.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Mission Figs w/ Goat Cheese, Honey & Rosemary

Mission figs just started popping up at the grocery store and I couldn't be happier. Such amazing flavor and texture packed into these beautiful bite-size fruits. I really think that figs should be called "the forbidden fruit" because they're so good, somehow you feel like they should be really bad for you. But that's thankfully not the case here. Figs are fat free and high in fiber and potassium! They combine so well with so many different things, from cheese and nuts to pork and steak dishes. Figs seem to be more popular in European countries like Portugal and Spain. When I visited Portugal, figs were plentiful — and I was thankful. Be European! Branch out and go buy some while you have a chance and experiment with them. There's nothing quite like them.

I'm continuing on my simple summer snack trend with this heavenly appetizer - Mission Figs stuffed with goat cheese blended with honey and minced fresh rosemary. You can eat it as is, skewer the figs and grill them, or warm them in the oven. Either way, you're in for a treat.

6 - 12 Mission figs (they should give a little when you touch them but not be too squishy)
2 tablespoons goat cheese
1 tablespoon honey
1/8 tsp minced fresh rosemary

How to:
• Mix the goat cheese, honey and minced rosemary together with a spoon until blended (don't overblend, just mix until the ingredients are combined).
• Make a small hole in the wide end of the fig.
• Either pipe in the goat cheese mix with a pastry bag or just spoon it in with a 1/8-tsp measuring spoon.
• Eat as is or place on the grill for about 5 minuters or in the oven at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Serve with nuts and a nice glass of white wine or sangria.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Great Summer Snack - Grilled Shrimp & Guacamole

When the humidity kicks in, heavy meals are definitely out. All you want is a nice fresh snack and maybe a cool Corona with a lime to wash it all down. Here's a quick, simple snack that is high in protein (shrimp) and provides the "good fat" we need (avocado). Grilling the avocado gives it a nice smoky flavor not typically found in guacamole. I have a feeling I'll be making this a lot this summer.

If you're like me and don't have outdoor space for a nice grill, no worries. Just use a cast iron stove or panini pan to grill your shrimp and avocado.

For the Guacomole

• 1 avocado, sliced in half, pit removed (leave in skin while grilling)
• Olive oil, lemon and salt (just enough to lightly coat the avocado)

How to:
1. Coat the inside of the avocado lightly with olive oil, lemon juice & salt.
2. Grill insides down for about 4 - 5 minutes.
3. Remove avocado flesh and mix together with minced garlic and a little more lemon juice to taste. Leave the avocado a little chunky so it has some texture to it.

For the Shrimp

• 3/4 lb. shrimp, shelled (devein if large)
• 1 tsp olive oil
• Fresh lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
• 1/4 tsp paprika
• 1/4 tsp garlic salt
• 1/4 tsp oregano
• 1/4 tsp lemon peel
• 1/4 tsp red pepper
• Fresh ground pepper to taste

How to:
1. Mix the olive oil and lemon juice in a bowl.
2. Add in seasonings and shrimp.
3. Cook shrimp on grill. Or coat a hot pan coated with olive oil and cook shrimp at high heat. Either way, it shouldn't take more than 3 - 4 minutes each side. When they're pink, they're done.

Serve shrimp and avocado with some nice blue corn chips and a nice frosty brew. Happy summer!