Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dante — Enjoy the View

Dante, a relatively new dining spot in Cambridge, offers some of the best "eye candy" in town. Not only does it provide outdoor seating with some of the best views of Boston and the Charles River (much of the indoor seating has great views as well), but it also serves up some of the most attractive and whimsical dishes that inspire you to take a moment and admire them before diving in.

For dinner, we decided to order all appetizers instead of entrées for two reasons: a) so we could try and share a bunch of things; and b) because the entrées were a little pricey for what we had in mind that evening.

I have read a couple of reviews that say the menu items are too whimsical and hard to understand. I say those writers need to relax. The menu is fun and perfectly easy to understand. One side of the menu is all "tasting" size appetizers and the other side is dedicated to salads and entrées. It ain't rocket science. Seems Chef Dante de Magistris does not take himself too seriously which is a plus in my book.
They group the appetizers into 3 categories:
"play pen" - twists on classics like the New England clambake and escargot
"raw" - oysters, tuna tartar, etc.
"pasta" - self explanatory

Perhaps it's this "play pen" category that gets under people's skin but whatever. Lighten up people.

I started off with the Escargot. The dish it was served in was classic. The preparation was anything but. The escargot were bathed in truffle-whipped potato spuma, candied lemon and garlicky crumbs. It was absolutely amazing. Luckily I only had to share one because everyone at the table had "Ew. Snails." written all over their faces. As my mother always says "Mais Para Mim!" (more for me).

My friend, Brian (who made it clear he wanted to be credited in this review after I omitted him from my Toro review), ordered the Mini Lobster Clambake which included an andouille sausage corn dog, roasted lobster, local clams with a fennel reduction. He enjoyed it but when I prodded him for specifics, his response was simply "Good. Small." But trust me, if he didn't like it, we would have heard about it all night. He neglected to share so we'll have to trust his judgment.

From the "raw" menu, Kristie and Jeff ordered the Flash Seared Tuna and the Mediterranean Tuna Tartar. The Flash Seared Tuna was prepared with egg white frittata, sesame seaweed, avocado and baby greens. A really nice combination of flavors and textures as you can imagine from the list. Definitely give this one a try. The Tuna Tartar was served with capers, olives, arugula, olive oil and an artichoke chip - a Mediterranean party in your mouth.

We ordered two of the pasta appetizers. The first was the Handmade Spaghetti "a la Guitarra," prepared with Maine crab, guanciale (similar to Italian pancetta), sweet peas and lemony crumbs. Aside from the Escargot, that may have been my favorite dish of the evening. I loved the lightness of the crab and lemony crumbs combined with the smoky but not overwhelming taste of the guanciale. It inspired me to make a similar dish a few nights later. The second pasta we ordered was the Potato Gnocchi, with gorgonzola dolce, roasted peaches, speck (smoked Italian ham) and pistachio pesto. I think the words "This peach is outstanding" came out of minimalistic food commentator Brian. I liked the change from the traditional pine nut pesto to the pistachio. And how can you go wrong with gorgonzola dolce, a wonderful complement to the peaches. Great pastas. Order them both.

The dessert may have been the highlight of the night - Beignets sprinkled with confectioners sugar served with 4 dipping sauces - chocolate, raspberry, anise/licorice and apricot. First of all, the presentation was beautiful (see picture above). And the beignets were served warm - a HUGE plus. The dipping sauces were delicious (we allowed for double-dipping they were so good). The crowd favorite was to dip in chocolate then raspberry. Least favorite was the anise/licorice-flavored sauce but it was tasty and gave the dish the nod to Italy it needed.

In terms of cocktails, they offer many creative options. I had the Passion Fruit Sangria which was refreshing and could be dangerous because it goes down quite easily. Highly recommend. They also offer many Italian classics such as Prosecco, Belinis and Campari Grapefruit. Ask for a cocktail menu so you can peruse the options.

I have to say that the service was really slow although our waitress and the busboys were very friendly. In fact (and to me this redeemed any lapse in service), they brought these warm, fuzzy wraps out for the ladies because it was a chilly evening. How amazing is that?! I was freezing so having the wrap really enabled me to relax, enjoy myself and gaze across the river at the stunning city view.

Royal Sonesta Hotel (across from the Cambridgeside Galleria Mall)
40 Edwin Land Boulevard
Cambridge, 617-497-4200
Open for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Clear Flour Bread - Ooh La La

I lived in Aix-en-Provence, France for about 5 months when I was in college and ever since then have been keeping an eye out for a place that makes Pain au Chocolat (chocolate croissants) that live up to the mini warm, flaky ones I used to buy right from a bodega-like open window on my way to or from class. Well, so far I have had no luck. However, today I had one that comes close, right in Brookline, at Clear Flour Bread. While the croissant was not warm, it was very flaky and the bittersweet chocolate inside was of the highest quality (the French wouldn't have it any other way). So needless to say, this was a delightful discovery. But this was just the tip of the iceberg of the wonderful assortment of baked delights that come out of this small, wonderful European bakery.

Clear Flour is a bit tucked away, off Comm Ave. in Brookline but you'd never know it. There's always a line to get in which is partially due to the fact that the place is tiny inside and only holds about 4 - 5 people at a time. But it's also due to the fact that this bakery is amazing. One step inside and you'll be smitten. There are breads of every size and shape (braided, baguettes, country loaves, etc.) as well as tarts, cookies, sticky buns and other guilty pleasures. It is the closest thing that I have seen to the types of bakeries you see in France on practically every corner (those people know how to live).

In addition to the Pain au Chocolat, I sampled an Almond Macaroon, a Sticky Bun with Walnuts, and a Roasted Tomato Quiche (Heck, it was Sunday, we decided it was okay to be bad). The Macaroon was perfect. A little crisp on the outside, slightly gooey on the inside. The Sticky Bun was very buttery, not too sticky, and ordering one with walnuts is a must (they sell them without but what's the point). The Roasted Tomato Quiche was the pièce de résistance in my opinion. They use grueyére cheese in the crust so that it doesn't get soggy. The roasted tomatoes were stellar, so much flavor and they didn't make the quiche watery in the least which often happens. The quiche custard was very fluffy, almost more like the best scrambled eggs you've ever had than a typical quiche. The crust was perfectly crisp and flaky. An absolute winner all around. They offer the quiche in a full-size (serves about 5) as well as individual size portion.

I think it is very difficult to capture the French bakery experience in America, partly because there is such a high turnover of bread and pastries in France that their baked goods are almost always still warm out of the oven which you cannot beat. However, Clear Flour does a wonderful job. I look forward to returning to try another thing I have not been able to find here in the U.S. - a light, crispy baguette. An authentic French baguette is so light that you can easily eat through at least half of it just walking down the street. Baguettes here are much heavier and denser. But maybe I will be presently surprised at what Clear Flour has to offer. I look forward to finding out. In the meantime, I am happy to have discovered the most amazing homemade quiche I have ever had. If you're in the neighborhood, I highly recommend stopping in for one. Heat it up or eat it cold. Delicious either way.

Clear Flour Bread
178 Thorndike Street, Brookline, MA

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A Venezuelan Cooking Lesson

I have learned quite a bit about Venezuelan food from my friend Carla. I've been eager to learn how to make some of the dishes and was lucky enough to get a cooking lesson from her Mom, Anamelia, on her recent trip to the U.S. Anamelia and her husband, Raul had a restaurant for 3 years in Venezuela called CIBUS Arepas Gourmet. They had a very successful restaurant and fiercely loyal customers but the toll of running a restaurant 7 days a week made them redirect their entrepreneurial ambitions into a tea business which is also doing very well. This couple is so incredibly warm and friendly, I'm sure they could make any venture succeed.

When I arrived at Carla's apartment, the place already smelled heavenly. Anamelia was working away on three different dishes without breaking a sweat or seeming the least bit stressed. Bea, my Mom, accompanied me since she is an avid cook herself and wanted to learn something new. We both decided to watch and participate where possible instead of taking frantic notes. I figured it was more important to really watch Anamelia in action since there are always nuances to regional cooking that can't be learned just from a recipe. I knew I could always gather the recipes later. It was difficult to take it all in but there's one thing in common I find in all regional cooking - it's a labor of love. They're not usually complicated recipes but they take the kind of time and TLC you put into cooking for someone you really care about. These recipes are not created by some hot celebrity chef. They come from generations and generations of famililes who prepared these meals with great love for their families.

I learned how to make 3 stellar dishes that day that are true comfort foods, Venezuelan style: Tostones (doubled fried plantains), Carne Mechada (shredded beef with tomato sauce), and Asado Negro (marinated bottom round steak with panela, brown sugar). Anamelia was kind enough to offer to share the Asado Negro recipe with me and all of you. Not sure any of us will be able recreate the dish like she makes it but we can give it our best effort.


• 1 bottom round steak (about 2 lbs)
• 12 garlic cloves
• 1/2 cup soy sauce
• 4 tbs vegetable oil
• 5 tbs brown sugar or Panela (the Venezuelan version of brown sugar)
• 6 onions
• 2 green bell peppers

How to:
• Mix 4 minced garlic cloves with soy sauce. Rub the steak all over and let marinate for a few hours or overnight in the fridge. Take out of the fridge about 1 hr before cooking.
• In a big pot, heat the oil and 5 tbs of brown sugar (or Venezuelan panela available at Christina's spice shop and Latin specialty stores) until it melts and forms a dark caramel.
• Add the steak and let it sear on all sides (careful not to burn the sugar).
• Meanwhile add the onions, 8 cloves of garlic and the green peppers to a food processor until is all chopped finely and blended well.
• Add this mix to the seared steak and add 2 cups of water. Stir and let simmer for about 2 hrs until meat is tender.
• Take the steak out of the pot and let rest a few minutes. Slice crosswise and add back to the sauce for about 15 minutes.
• Add salt and pepper to taste.

Traditionally the Asado Negro is served with white rice and plantains. Fantastic comfort food.

Thanks so much to Anamelia and Carla for giving me a bird's eye view into Venezuelan culture and food. It was a truly memorable experience for both me and Bea. Next time we'll host and share Portuguese recipes.

Enjoy the recipe, everyone!