Sunday, May 17, 2015

Gracie’s Delivers Royal Treatment


Gracie’s, located in the heart of downtown Providence on Washington Street (situated next to another venerable eatery, Birch), and almost universally recognized as the city’s go-to special occasion restaurant, indeed makes good on its sterling reputation. From the very moment you enter this fine dining establishment, to the moment you depart, Gracie’s kitchen and staff go above and beyond to ensure that its customers leave satisfied after experiencing inspired, well executed cuisine and first-rate hospitality.

 Take my suggestion, arrive a few minutes prior to your reservation, and head straight to the bar. There you will find an award-winning mixologist whose seriousness in her craft is evident from the moment we lay eyes on spray bottles, flasks and droppers used to create her cocktails. She’s like a mad scientist conducting a lab experiment, and I’m gladly offering myself as the guinea pig by way of an immensely enjoyable concoction both sweet and spicy, a blend of lychee and habanero bitters over a large ice cube that is set ablaze for extra smokiness.

 The ambience here is romantic, yet relaxed. We’re seated with another couple at a large, comfortable, horseshoe-shaped table with cushy maroon seats, and a white tablecloth covered in star-shaped confetti. Stars also artfully adorn the walls. Our genial server arrives, and upon announcing that someone at our table is celebrating a special occasion, brings out a complimentary bottle of Spanish cava. Three complimentary, unique and tasty amuse bouche peppered throughout our meal - including scallops with kimchee, basil and lemon sorbet, and miniature pomegranate macaroons – are thoughtful gestures that do not go unnoticed. A fresh bread basket featuring eye-opening varieties such as sourdough sesame and red pepper focaccia is quickly devoured and readily made available for re-devouring. With its gracious service, it’s as if Gracie’s is openly welcoming us as new stars to join the restaurant‘s own star-themed constellation.

 Customers can select from 3-course ($45), 5 course ($80), and for ravenous diners, 7 ($95) and 9 ($110) course prix fixe menus (3 generously portioned courses will more than suffice). For appetizers, a Middle-Eastern inspired roasted beet salad is actually exciting, spruced up with labneh, dukkah and harissa for spice with a touch of honey for sweet contrast. A more hearty, less traditional version Russet potato gnocchi includes tender braised rabbit, English peas, mushrooms, and provolone, the pasta cooked perfectly.

 Entrees do not disappoint, starting with Gracie’s Rigatoni Campanaro, which consists of large chunks of sweet and spicy sausage blended with fresh plum tomato. Crescent Farms duck breast was nicely prepared medium rare, and included tasty sides of bok choy, maitake mushrooms, and soy beans. While I found the meat’s seasoning a tad oversalted, sweetness for kumquats nicely cut into the saltiness.

 Desserts are also highly innovative, including a chocolate blondie, a decadent chocolate concoction topped with confit apricot, sesame and puffed rice bark providing a crunchy textual contrast, whipped white chocolate, and a small dollop of unique, heavenly, refreshing ginger pistachio ice cream. It’s a dish that manages to be complex yet simple all at once, and I had to scrape every last morsel off of my plate.

 After we stepped into our car, we noticed that a complimentary pack of homemade chocolate chip cookies had been left by Gracie’s valet driver (which is also gratis). It was yet another in a long list of thoughtful gestures that while unnecessary, left us with a lasting impression. From it’s fun, masterful approach to food to its personable, polished staff, Gracie’s is a name that I won’t soon be forgetting, and one that should be synonymous with dining excellence.

 

               

 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

There’s Nothing Fishy about Hemenway’s


            Hemenway’s, located in downtown Providence on S. Main Street, not only features a captivating view of the Providence River and the city itself, but also extremely fresh, well-executed seafood and impeccable service. The restaurant is a popular, longtime dining staple that never seems to garner the headlines that the city’s Italian restaurants do. But make no mistake – this is one of Providence’s most enjoyable and reasonably priced dining experiences.

            The glass-enclosed, multi-level restaurant is enormous, with a massive bar sitting on the elevated top floor, while general seating is on the main lower floor. Blue and pink fluorescent lights shine across the room while murals of fishing vessels adorn the walls. The ambience is warm and inviting, and has old school appeal with a slightly modern feel. Given the space’s vaulted ceilings, one would expect awful acoustics, but conversation is easy. Large, visually appealing trays of stuffed lobster float by in droves, the wonderful aromas lingering as our stomachs growl.

            While the selection of fish is surprisingly slim and veers towards the traditional (salmon, schrod, swordfish), the quality of the fish is undeniably extraordinary. And it should be based on Hemenway’s partnership with local purveyor Foley Fish, out of New Bedford, which purchases one and two day fish in lieu of their competitors’ customary purchase of four day fish. Crab and lobster cakes ($15) are tender and packed with generous chunks of meat, nicely paired with a spicy chipotle aioli, small chunks of bacon and corn succotash. Even better are eight addictive, massive bacon and scallion wrapped scallops ($17) served with a spicy Asian slaw and soy ginger dipping sauce. A cup of Hemenway’s award-winning clam chowder ($6) is what New England chowda ought to be: rich, creamy, hearty, and packed to the gills with fish. Perfectly comforting on a chilly spring evening.

            Entrees also deliver, including (yet another) heaping portion of high grade, rare, sesame seared tuna ($31), accompanied by sriracha aioli, soy ginger sauce, sticky white rice, and seaweed salad. It may not be innovative given its simplicity, but it’s simply delicious. Also memorable is a seafood paella brimming with those incredibly plump scallops, swordfish, chorizo, clams, mussels, pimentos, and of course, saffron rice. It’s as solid a rendering of the classic Spanish dish that I’ve had in some time. A house special of spicy BBQ salmon accompanied by wonderfully caramelized Brussel sprouts with bacon showcases the kitchen’s willingness to extend itself creatively all the while perfectly executing on seasoning and technique.

            Desserts ($9) were solid, if not as strong as the preceding seafood. Hemenway’s Brulee Our Way featured a trio of cherry, chocolate, and coconut flavors (although our friends swore the last one was vanilla). A chocolate peanut butter trifle, while dense and rich, lacked distinct peanut butter flavor aside from a faint crunch at the bottom of the bowl. French press coffee was a welcomed gesture.

            Expect exceptional service at Hemenway’s, including a friendly, attentive waitstaff that always appears to be in synch with one another. They seamlessly tended to every unfilled water glass, finished plate, and dairy allergy. When my wife’s inquiry on the crab and lobster cakes was responded to, our server proactively proceeded to explain that their house balsamic also contained cheese and therefore should be substituted. He was engaging yet highly polished, knowledgeable of the entire menu, and confident and insightful with his recommendations, including a wildly inventive cocktail called the Smokey Mule ($11), a subtly sweet, smoky, spicy concoction consisting of lime and ginger infused Hammer & Sickle vodka, simply syrup, jalapeno, and scotch wash. My wife’s hibiscus bellini ($10) featuring Mionetto prosecco and jasmine liquer was also refreshing.

            Hemenway’s has also been recognized by Wine Spectator for its extensive, yet reasonably priced wine program, which featured almost two dozen glasses alone by the glass including a Louis Martini Cabernet ($10). Other values by the bottle include and Argentinian Don Rabolifo Malbec ($32), a Hayman & Hill Meritage (Monterey, CA, $30), and Napa’s Avalon Cabernet ($40). Wine connoisseurs willing to dole out a pretty penny can splurge for the renowned Caymus Special Edition Cab at $275.

            Given its prime location (and three hour complimentary garage valet parking!), well-executed fare, and exceptional service, Hemenway’s proved to be a surprise hit. A quick piece of advice for those who swear to dine exclusively on Federal Hill: don’t underestimate one of Providence’s premiere seafood establishments. There’s nothing fishy going on at Hemenway’s, and that is the highest compliment one can pay to a seafood restaurant of this caliber.    

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Waterman Grille Does East Side of Providence Proud


For innovative, reasonably priced cuisine in an intimate, historic setting, check out the East Side of Providence. No, not East Providence, but the east side of the city, which proudly boasts what just might be one of its least heralded fine dining establishments. Waterman Grille rightfully deserves your attention and recognition. Located in an old gatehouse overlooking the Seekonk River, Executive Chef Tim McGrath serves up seasonal, locally produced comfort food – much of which is wood-grilled – that delivers robust flavors at moderate price points. While waterfront dining is not an option this snowy winter evening, we feel right at home in the restaurant’s inviting, bustling, wood-scented dining room.

They say that a good bread basket is a harbinger of good things to come in a meal (or is it the way to one‘s stomach? I cannot remember which), and Waterman’s warm, airy slices rate highly, prepared earlier in the day at Providence’s Palmieri’s Bakery (as our server happily educates us), and laced with EVOO and a touch of sea salt. Our table begrudgingly refuses a second serving for fear of ruining our appetites. For starters, four crispy shrimp tacos ($11, also available in pork belly) are beautifully plated, soft flour tortillas in lieu of crispier tacos, while the shrimp themselves are well seasoned and seared just enough to pack that promised crunchy texture. Accompanying vegetable slaw and miso vinaigrette are refreshing, while sriracha aioli – which arrived in far too small a dipping dish – provided a welcomed, spicy counterpoint to the dish’s acidity. Point Judith calamari ($12) came in a heaping portion of nicely tempuraed, not too breaded, meaty octopus and banana peppers (the latter of which resembled fried pickle chips). My only complaint: a rather unique peppadew (a sweet, tangy pepper) aioli was faintly smeared on the plate, which like the sriracha before it, begged to be applied more liberally. Other appealing shareable plates I look forward to trying include tender harissa meatballs ($11), cornmeal-crusted oysters ($13), and an Irish-themed beef ‘n‘ biscuits ($11, featuring beef pastrami and hand-made caraway biscuits).

When a restaurant promotes its signature plates, my skepticism radar almost immediately goes off. Here, however, a chili-brined hanger steak ($25) is melt-in-your-mouth tender, perfectly cooked medium rear, and topped with roasted fennel chimichurri. While I’d hoped the meat would pack a bit more heat given the brine that encompassed it, it was flavorful nonetheless, elevated by its pairing with heavenly whipped Narragansett Creamery queso potatoes and sauteed spinach. Even better was the Duck Duo ($28), consisting of impeccably cooked pan-roasted duck and duck confit, some of the finest execution of the bird I’ve ever consumed. The meat was also wisely plated over addictive lemongrass rice. More impressively, in lieu of the kitchen’s attempt to transform the dish into a Thai offering by utilizing a red curry cream sauce, given my wife’s dairy restriction, they substituted it with an Asian-style sweet sauce that seemed like it was born to be paired with the duck – it was divine. Other promising entrees include the Maine Family Farms grass-fed burger ($15) topped with poblano-onion jam, butternut squash pickles and served on a buttery brioche bun, along with the Berkshire pork osso bucco ($25) served with an oddly captivating-sounding pretzel bread pudding.

Desserts (all $8) are also worth splurging for, and like much of Chef McGrath’s menu, are adventurous in nature. While the traditional fried apple pie was mildly disappointing (it reminded me too much of McDonald’s version, only spiked with tastier enhancements such as salted caramel and house-made vanilla ice cream), my Almond Joy was a perfectly de-constructed take on the revered candy bar – a decadent, warm gooey chocolate brownie laced with crushed almonds and topped not only with house-made coconut ice cream, but a hardened chocolate magic shell.

The lone disappointment of the evening was the middling quality of Waterman’s cocktail program. Concoctions that sounded promising (blood orange jalapeno margarita, $11 and a pomegranate mojito, $9) yielded unfavorable results (the former excessively sweet with no bite, the latter having barely any discernable pomegranate flavor). Where its cocktails faltered, however, the restaurant’s wine program excelled given both its extensive selection and tolerable markups. A Hahn Pinot Noir, for instance, comes in at $9.50/glass and a very manageable $33/bottle. For a more high-end, adventurous sip, try the Oberon Cabernet from Napa ($14/glass, $56/bottle). There are also roughly three dozen beers ($5-6/glass) available, including interesting local selections such as Narragansett Autocrat Coffee Milk Stout (out of Providence) and Foolproof Backyahd IPA (Pawtucket).

Our server was highly knowledgeable of the menu, polished, yet friendly, and prompt throughout the entire course. The restaurant‘s setting was casual, yet intimate. The cuisine was well executed, thoughtful, and contained innovative, bold flavors that left me wanting to try more. Haven’t heard of the Waterman Grille? My advice: take a stroll out to the East Side. This restaurant puts the fine in fine dining.

 

 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Amelia’s Puts the ‘Special’ in Special Occasion Dining

Fine dining in Stoughton? Yes, there is longtime Italian favorite LaStoria situated near the town’s center, but despite its consistently appealing cuisine, its interior and charm have lost their luster over the years. Recently, however, the answer to this question has shifted to a resounding and refreshingly surprising yes. In the space once inhabited by the antiquated Albert’s (largely reserved for an older crowd) and more recently, Greek eatery X&O, Amelia’s brings an excitement to Stoughton that is long overdue. With cuisine resembling a Northern Italian trattoria along with farm to table ingredients, the restaurant is run by the owners of Dedham’s well-regarded Sofia’s, and the same level of sophistication and attention to detail that can be experienced at the flagship site is on full display here.

The days of Albert’s stale atmosphere are long gone, only to be replaced with a spacious, sleek, contemporary layout accented by a dark, stylish mahogany finish. A stunning lounge area with plush sofas is located behind a large bar, vibrant and cozy all at once, as evidenced by reclaimed skip planed oak, stone walls, and an antique fireplace. This is what you envision a nice night out in the suburbs looking and feeling like. Also a nice touch: while the restaurant is clearly busy on a Friday evening, the hostess tells us to take as long as we’d like ordering drinks in the lounge and that our table would be waiting for us. A special occasion restaurant that also makes you feel, well…special.

The menu at Amelia’s is as accessible and inviting as its atmosphere. For starters, calamari fritti ($10) are delightfully chewy and coated with minimal breading which allows one to truly enjoy the fish itself, cooked with sweet chili sauce and mixed with banana peppers for a nice burst of heat. The result is one of the finest versions I’ve tasted in recent memory. Also noteworthy is a special of tuna tartare ($14), the fresh fish expertly sliced and nicely plated.

Entrees are equally strong, including exemplary seafood offerings, such as Wild Atlantic cod ($22), which I have always found too mildly a flavored fish. Here, however, the well-seasoned fish shines in creamed corn with smoked bacon, Graham cracker crumbs, and beurre blanc. Also well executed are beautifully seared, meaty sea scallops ($22), whose sweetness is punctuated by sweet corn risotto and accompanied by a lovely chilled green bean salad with charred heirloom tomato vinaigrette.

Pastas also rate highly, including the zesty Spaghetti ($23), in essence a glorified version of frutti di mare, featuring perfectly cooked al dente pasta packed with generous amounts of Scituate lobster, mussels, and shrimp topped with a light, spicy tomato sauce.

Wood-grilled items also impress, such as a massive portion of double-cut Australian lamb chops ($24), two hunks of meat playfully stacked atop one another and layered with a delectable, innovative pomegranate fig demi that nicely compliments, but does not overpower the lamb. While the au gratin potatoes were adequate, the dish would have benefitted from a touch of restraint, swapping out the heavier starch or a vegetable.

Desserts also impress, including a house-made molten chocolate lava cake that is well worth the ten minute wait as it is prepared. The cake’s moist, yet not too dense exterior breaks at the slightest tap of the fork, leading to an interior overflowing with rich, bittersweet chocolate. It’s simply decadent and rivals the best of any lava cakes I’ve tasted in either Boston or Providence.

Outside of an isolated, awkward moment in which our waitress (Camille, who I’d ask for over and over again) asked me about the preparation of a pork chop I had not ordered, service overall was relaxed, prompt, and attentive (example: my wife’s spilled martini resulted in her sighing what a long week it had been, prompting our waitress to immediately order her a new drink while wittily replying, “Think of this as the start to a great weekend”), as polished as one would expect for Boston, not the suburbs.

Cocktails are well crafted and potent, particularly a beverage blended with Maker’s Mark and Cointreau, a much stiffer version of a Mai Tai. There are over four dozen intriguing, yet reasonably priced wine selections available by the bottle, ranging across France, Italy, and Napa, while two dozen wines are also available by the glass ($6-14). You can enjoy a bottle of vibrant, light Angelina Reserve pinot noir at just $38, or be bold and splurge for a more robust flavored, pricier Caymus at $114.

At the conclusion of the evening, I remarked to our dining companions what a pleasant surprise Amelia’s was. Given its reasonable price points, superior service, and well executed cuisine, it’s just the fine dining establishment that Stoughton desperately needed. There, I said it: fine dining and Stoughton are indeed now synonymous.



Monday, October 20, 2014

This Foundry Not Yet on Solid Footing

They say that all good things come to those who wait. And that’s exactly what customers at The Foundry, An American Table & Bar – whose much-anticipated mid-September opening in Easton in the space previously occupied by popular tapas hotspot, LOCO) – will need: time and patience. Like many new restaurants, there are still several kinks to be worked out, primarily the restaurant’s service. With Foundry’s elevated price points in comparison to owner Neil Levine’s other popular pub Maguire’s across the street, one expects top-notch, polished service, and yet, this is surprisingly one of this establishment’s biggest pain points.

With its soft lighting, muted colors, and custom-made furniture, Levine’s intent is for Foundry to resemble what he calls a “…40s or 50s cocktail lounge.” Modern touches include a high-end audiovisual system and a lounge area consisting of a sleek, stainless steel bar with plush leather sofas. The restaurant seats up to fifty customers. When Foundry is at capacity, the location’s acoustics make for challenging conversation.

Levine describes his cuisine New American, and in most instances, Executive Chef Logan Powell’s (formerly of Smith and Wollensky’s and Blue Ginger) menu succeeds. Every menu item is made from scratch and the kitchen utilizes fresh, locally sourced ingredients. We forego a rather small, non-descript selection of entrees (labeled Supper) that range from swordfish, Bolognese, to a veal porterhouse, and decide to share a handful of more enticing appetizers (labeled Welcome), tapas-style. The mussels ($12), however - made with Vermont sausage, roasted fennel, and San Marzano tomatoes- are a major disappointment, with few of the shells closed and rendered inedible, a bad mussel here, and all tomato and no juicy broth with which to dunk crispy crostini chips there. While the short rib spring rolls are promoted as the signature menu item by the wait staff, the meat is a tad overcooked and dry, while the smoked gouda barely registers on the palate (accompanying sriracha aioli, however, adds nice heat, while creative Dijon mustard slaw provides a sweet, crispy contrast). The remainder of the dishes, however, shine, including sweet potato fries ($6), in essence fried potato wedges that are perfectly crisped and dunked into an addictive vanilla maple aioli. Also craveable are scallop ceviche tacos ($20) the seafood incredibly fresh and nicely seasoned with picked red onion, roasted corn, and avocado crema. Caribbean chicken wings ($10), whose recipe apparently originated from a Jamaican dishwasher employed by Levine, were also fantastic, tender meat slathered in Trenchtown sauce laced with spicy Jamaican jerk spice. There’s neither hesitation nor embarrassment in licking the delectable sauce from my fingers (although wet naps are thoughtfully made available up front).

Desserts (Sweets - $11) provided a satisfying conclusion to the evening. While heavier options such as the Chocolate Chip Cookie (a giant, warmed cookie served in a cast iron skillet topped with salted caramel ice cream and chocolate-covered pretzels) and Chocolate Casserole (chocolate cake modeled after Devil’s food cake recipe and filled with ganache) are more intriguing options on paper (and both very satisfying), it was actually the simpler local berries topped with honey that proved to be the most memorable dessert of the evening.

Cocktails are a bit pricey ($12) and yield mixed results. On one hand, there is the refreshing, sweet, potent Harvest, comprised of spiked cider and nutmeg, the perfect fall seasonal beverage. On the other, a promising Sakatini – blended with jalapeno sake and pineapple juices, is anything but, an unbalanced mess of All Spice with no sweetness. Our server fails just as miserably in her laughable description of the drink when asked about the ratio between the drink’s sweet and spicy flavors: “It’s like Sake served as a martini” (Thanks for the insight). There are thirty high-calibur, yet reasonably priced wine bottles available, including a smooth Smith & Hook cabernet. Levine shared with me that “…a $7-8 glass tastes like a $20 glass,” while more sophisticated varieties from Napa reach upwards of $90 a bottle.

Service, while prompt (water glasses swiftly filled, baguette rolls with yummy caramelized onion butter graciously provided) and friendly (when our waitress offered to add a fourth taco to a trio considering our party of four), was extremely scattershot. There were simply too many basic errors that one would expect a fine dining establishment would avoid. Our server seemed uncomfortable, even awkward at times (the Jamaican chicken wings story was painful to listen to), and was not at all knowledgeable of the menu. While my wife’s dairy allergy was accounted for when the crema accompanying our tacos was served on the side, the mussels were initially served with a slab of cheese cooked into the plate’s center, while the berries were first topped with gran marnier whipped cream. These mistakes, mind you, were quickly rectified and came with sincere apologies from both our server and Levine himself.

So perhaps patience is a virtue. After all, one month does not a fine dining establishment make. You root for someone like the charismatic Levine to succeed, and Easton demands a successful high-end eatery. But if Foundry’s service – which its elevated price points are predicated upon – does not rapidly improve, I’ll happily cross the street to Maguire’s, where I can grab a side of Levine’s famous honey hot tenders along with a warm Guinness on tap, for just a fraction of the cost. I’ll just have to wait and see if all good things come to Foundry in the weeks and months ahead.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cibo Matto is Crazy Good

Rapidly approaching its five-year anniversary, Cibo Matto is stronger than ever. Located in the space once occupied by a Bertucci’s on Route 106 in Mansfield, the restaurant has continually remained busy serving customers from nearby businesses, hotels, and a large industrial park.

The eatery’s ambience is warm and inviting, punctuated by walls painted in creamy brown hues. A sleek, bustling bar greets customers upon entry. On a lovely summer evening, we gravitate to the outdoor patio.

Owner Peter Kuplast is a Mansfield native and the enthusiasm and passion he brought to his restaurant when I first met him back in late 2009 have clearly been passed down to his entire staff. While the restaurant was buzzing with customers, servers did not miss a beat. Our waiter was highly knowledgeable of the menu, eager to share her recommendations, patient, genuinely engaging, prompt, yet unobtrusive. I was pleasantly surprised how seamless the evening went, a couple of broken wine glasses (quickly swept up) be damned.

Reasonably priced cocktails varied from seasonal (the berry mojito is a refreshing option) to oddly appealing (a jalapeno margarita is a sweet-tart, heaty treat jalapeno and dash-infused simple syrup, Tierras organic tequila, and a slice of jalapeno pepper for show). An extensive selection of Italian-Amercian wines included a nicely priced house red ($5) while a ripe, robust Meritage for $10 also presented a fine value.

Appetizers were highly appealing, including a large plate of meaty Duxbury mussels (although the roasted garlic broth in which they were served as underseasoned) and a highly impressive trio of baseball-sized arancini, whose crunchy exterior was perfectly breaded, while its spicy pork and cheese interior reveled in gooey goodness. The risotto balls were accompanied by a small saucer of warm, fresh tomato sauce as well as scallions, a whimsical presentation and fun take on grilled cheese and tomato soup.

Entrees also rated highly. While traditional veal marsala was slightly underwhelming in flavor, a special of tequila and lime marinated skirt steak ($32) with jasmine rice was lovely and complex in terms of contrasts in flavor. The tender beef was cooked perfectly medium rare and topped with sautéed roasted peppers as well as a dreamy slab of chipotle-lime butter. The dish came highly recommended, and was one of the better cuts of steak I’ve devoured in recent memory, one which would rival any prepared at more renowned, pricier establishments in Boston. Also noteworthy was the brick oven-roasted shrimp and scallop dish, abundant in juicy and nicely charred seafood. Accompanying crispy prosciutto added salty contrast and additional crunchy texture, while three-cheese tortellini laced with truffle-cream sauce was not overpoweringly heavy and perfectly prepared al dente.

The evening concluded on a sugary high note, including a rich, yet pillowy light key lime pie, while cannolis (2 per serving) featured wonderfully crunchy shells, were generously filled with sweet ricotta, with one end topped with chocolate chips, the other with freshly ground pistachio. These Italian-American babies are legit, and I’d gladly eat these versions in lieu of making the annual pilgrimage to Mike’s or Modern Pastry in Boston’s North End.

Owner Kuplast should be proud. Five years ago, he shared with me the origins of his new establishment’s name – crazy food served in a small, unpretentious setting. Cibo Matto more than lives up to its name, serving crazy-good Italian cuisine in an exceptionally friendly manner. I won’t lie: I went into the evening with the old Bertucci’s ingrained in my brain, but the restaurant surprised and even excited me on several levels, from its vast, but consistently executed menu to its polished service. Bertucci’s, be damned.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Is Grill 23 a Cut Above Rest of Boston Steakhhouses?

What do Morton’s, Capital Grille, Abe and Louie’s, Mooo all have in common? Steak and creamed spinach would be far too easy a response. Answer: they all allegedly aspire to live up to Grill 23’s gourmet greatness. Still going strong after its grand ushering into Boston’s fine dining scene over 30 years ago, Executive Chef Jay Murray’s establishment still serves up some of the most exceptional (and exceptionally pricey) cuts of beef in the city. What has distinguished this restaurant from its competitors, however, lies in its unique menu offerings that break away from traditional steakhouse fare.

While the cuisine continues to remain innovatively modern, Grill 23’s vast, yet outdated dining room screams for refurbishing. The mahogany panels, Corinthean columns, and tapestry-draped walls are no doubt impressive, but so Locke-Oberish circa 1983 (the revered Downtown Crossing restaurant whose interior and cuisine ultimately ran its course and has since closed). The vaulted ceiling for the massive space also makes for unbearably loud acoustics and are better suited for business meetings, not intimate dates (most couples are awkwardly seated side by side, divided by a small partition).

Back to the cuisine, though. Fresh bread baskets and prompt water-filling have always been considered pillars for a solid meal. Grill 23 knocks both elements out of the park. Cordial white-tuxedoed servers work effortlessly and in synch, polished and attentive while not overly intrusive. The bread basket is the finest I’ve sampled since Cambridge’s Bondir, consisting of an ultra-thin sheet of crispy cracker laced with red pepper and cheese, rye bread plush with sweet dates, and cheesy focaccia with a wonderfully fluffy interior and perfectly charred crust.

Cocktails are in my estimate overpriced ($15-$25), but admittedly, well crafted. We gravitate to more seasonal, refreshing options such as the Goombah Smash ($16), which contains a variety of rums (one of which was a housemade coconut rum) mixed with fresh pineapple juice, while spiked iced tea ($15) is a much more potent, upscale version of Snapple. There is also an eye-opening number of wine selections (roughly 1,500 bottles) from which to choose.

While steaks are always the order of the day at Grill 23, we ventured to sample the three course prix-fixe menu ($38) during Dine Out Boston week, one which veered away from the cow. A grilled wedge salad struck just the right balance between chewy and charred crispiness. Smoked bluefish pate was creamy and meaty, although I found the baby carrots and turnips superfluous and the toasts upon which the pate was spread rather limp. While the espresso brined chicken was tender, I barely detected a trace of espresso flavor, while the accompanying wild rice and peach pilaf was underseasoned. Short rib risotto, however, was incredibly hearty and comforting, if not a tad oversalted, the tender meat sliced razor thin into the risotto, which packed nice heat due to horseradish cream and charred scallion.

Desserts were different, decadent, and on the whole, enjoyable. While the ‘Candy Bar’ Brownie Sundae came with a rather small, non-descript brownie, far too chewy dabs of peanut nougat, and a barely discernible orange yogurt panna cotta, make no mistake: the toasted marshmallow ice cream topped with cocoa nib puree, with its incredibly light texture and subtly sweet flavor, was the star of the dish. More fluff, and less nutter, please. My wife, who has a dairy allergy, was allowed to order off menu and sampled a blackberry sorbet infused with fresh coconut, whose creamy texture resembled gelato, and which we agreed rivaled, if not surpassed her favorite chocolate version at Mistral.

While Grill 23 certainly has its flaws, they are easy to overlook when its kitchen continues to experiment with and largely succeed preparing dishes aside from steak. A steakhouse whose innovative menu manages to stay relatively fresh 30 years later? Rare, indeed.