Monday, March 24, 2014

Fairsted Kitchen a Homey Addition to Brookline Dining Scene

Open since last fall, Fairsted Kitchen is one of a number of restaurants (along with Tim Maslow’s much-ballyhooed Ribelle and Barcelona Wine Bar) that have re-vitalized what was once a relatively stagnant Washington Square neighborhood dining scene. Don’t let the eatery’s cozy, charming interior fool you – the cuisine that’s coming out of this kitchen is some of the most innovative, exciting fare in the Boston area.

The restaurant’s ambience is quaint, resembling a small antique home and seating only 47 customers. A small bar greets patrons who push their way through curtains, while most are seated a little too tightly together and dine communally against the dining room walls, which are painted and papered in gold and turquoise colors. Pendants hanging from the ceiling add to the New England charm of the place, which is evident in lots of items at Fairsted, including an antique clear glass punch bowl used to playfully pour a cocktail filled with rum and black tea into small tea cups. Our waitress explains that all of the china and tableware have been discovered by the owner at local flea markets. Flea market-to-table dining, anyone? It goes to show that it’s casualness, and not pretentiousness, that Fairsted successfully aims for and achieves. One small quibble: the loud music seems out of place with the restaurant’s restrained vibe, and makes for somewhat challenging conversation.

Portions range from snacks and sides ($8), small (appetizers at $13), large (entrees from $19-$33), and table (family-style dining, including braised oxtail at $51 and chateaubriand at $85). Executive Chef W. Scott Osif’s cuisine is tinged with influences from across the globe. We start with a small tasting, the pig’s head lettuce wrap, which is a bona fide steal at $5 and far less ‘offal’ than the name suggests. The pork is breaded and fried into a crisp round with carrots, daikon, and cilantro. I’m guessing there’s harissa or a spice or some sort that is cooked into the fried meat, since it gives of an unexpected, sweat-inducing, yet welcomed burst of heat. I would have preferred that heat emanate from a sauce, if only to add some balance to the overall texture of the dish, which was a tad too dry to my liking. Other snacks were superb, starting with a nod to the French in the form of savory, deep-fried cod beignets, which possessed a crispy exterior brimming with a moist, white fish interior. The fritters swim in a pool of zesty, smoked tomato confict for dipping, and provide nice balance to the sweetness of the fried shell coating. Equally enticing is the Middle Eastern-inspired hummus – a light, bright, velvety chickpea spread that also incorporates unique ingredients such as pickled fennel and pine nuts for contrast in texture, all of which can be enjoyed atop thin, crunchy sourdough crostinis.

Small plates did not disappoint, either. The ricotta gnocchi were perfectly cooked al dente and duck confit added richness and a touch of saltiness that nicely balanced out the sweetness of the parmesan reggiano in which the pasta was melted. And just to demonstrate how Chef Osif routinely turns traditional foreign fare on its head, he even incorporates kohlrabi, a German turnip, into what is a traditionally Italian pasta dish. And you haven’t lived until you savor the delectable cumin-infused lamb ribs, tender, deeply-charred fleshes of meat that fall off of the bone, whose flavors are further enhanced when dipped in spicy vinegar sauce, a welcomed umami flavor from Asia.

An entrée of smoked duck is also good, if somewhat of a letdown, as the medium-rear cooked meat seemed a tad cold while the accompanying crispy potato pancake was excessively salty.

Dessert offerings are slim but worthy. A chocolate mousse is an airier alternative to denser versions I’ve sampled, but sadly, the cardamom-infused whipped cream added barely discernable traces of the spice I had hoped would counter the bitterness of the chocolate. Fortunately, in the absence of an espresso machine, a French press coffee provided a nice, personal touch.

Cocktails both innovative in name and ingredients adorn the menu. No Sleep Till Brookline , mixed with Bourbon Amaro Montenegro, lemon, sugar, and bitters, is a libation that would make the Beastie Boys proud, and in the fun spirit that Fairsted’s cocktail program emits, would keep anyone rockin’ on and on ‘till the break of dawn. So, too, would other concoctions that gleefully mix Spanish sherry and sweet vermouth over ice. The extensive wine selection is impressive, ranging from a Sparkling Malbec to more hidden jewels such as a 2009 Dignac Peljesac hailing from Croatia. Fairsted’s beer selection is equally enticing, including four beers on draft from Jack’s Abby Brewing based out of Framingham, which includes the Smoke and Dagger ($6), one of the smoked schwarzbiers that are now the drink du jour, as well as the Framinghammer, a Baltic porter. Other intriguing bottles include the potent Andescher Dunkel out of Germany and a St. Louis Cherry produced in Belgium.

While the service at Fairsted was good, I felt somewhat let down by the hype surrounding the staff’s exceptional level of hospitality. While Boston Globe food critic Devra First sang the restaurant’s praises in this regard, I ask you this: what hospitable host keeps its guests waiting nearly twenty minutes before taking a drink order, goes prolonged stretches without refilling water glasses, and then politely, yet prematurely ushers them out shortly after their meals have concluded so that another party may take their table?

Overall, I left Fairsted Kitchen more impressed with its globe-trotting, bold cuisine than with its service. It’s the food, and not the overly-hyped hospitality, that shines brightest and makes Fairsted a dining destination worth writing home about.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sea(food) of Changes at Mare

Stripping things down for simplicity’s sake often works wonders. Take, for instance, MTV’s 90’s Unplugged concert series, where the likes of electric rock and roll legends such as Eric Clapton and Nirvana’s song catalogues were scaled back into acoustic versions and transformed into something almost unrecognizable, even magical. Culinary transformations can work in a similar way when done properly. Mare, a longtime seafood-focused Italian restaurant staple in Boston’s North End, rebranded itself in 2012 into a full-blown oyster bar. Sure, there still exists a handful of intriguing pasta dishes such as parpadelle with wild boar, but it is seafood that dominates the menu. Gone are the neon-illuminated lights that once adorned Mare’s exterior, replaced with an ice-covered display of oysters and glass mirrors above the bar inscribed with daily oyster selections.

More often than not, the kitchen’s cuisine is good, sometime excellent. Starters are most intriguing, starting with a trio of crudos (yellowfin tuna, salmon, and kampachi, $16.99), which surprisingly comes out deconstructed in lieu of the more traditionally layered plating. While each fish was carelessly sliced into 3 pieces, they nicely benefitted from a touch of salt. Even better was the pizzetta di Mare ($17.99), a pizza that possessed an addictively crispy, cracker-like crust topped with fresh tomatine sauce. While the pie was not topped with any cheese, an abundance of grilled seafood – including calamari, shrimp and scallops – was heaped on. This pie would easily rival any of Mare’s North End neighborhood pizzerias, and has the table craving more slices.

Entrees were appealing, albeit inconsistent. The zuppa di Mare (market price) contained generous amounts of fish, including a half lobster, scallops, mussels, cockles, and clams in a light, spicy tomato broth. It was the perfect seafood comfort food on a chilly winter evening. Truffle crusted tuna ($27.99), however, while cooked perfectly rare, was poorly seasoned. The fish’s exterior lacked any hint of that alluring truffle flavor, and was excessively oversalted. If restraint is Mare’s new motto, then the kitchen’s salt application needs fine tuning. Grigliata di Pesce (grilled seafood of day – market price) featured lobsters on steroids, whose meat was tender and succulent. And lest we forget those oysters, the restaurant’s main attraction. We ordered a handful of different varieties, which were beautifully plated over ice and nicely shucked. With the exception of lone oyster selection that was offputtingly fishy and briny, the oysters were smooth and paired nicely with a trio of horseradish, cocktail, and soy sauces.

Creative cocktails infused with spirits ($11.99-$12.99), while potent, were inconsistent like the entrees. A Mare margherita made with Grand Marnier fared better, while an Old Cuban – an offshoot of a Mojito – was far too bitter.

Service, while amiable, lacked polish. A bread basket needs to be requested three times. While the leisurely pace of the meal is appreciated, there exist noticably prolonged stretches between courses.

Overall, Mare offers adequate service and cuisine. When your bill for two, however, exceeds $200, the realization kicks in that the restaurant fails to meet high expectations. Whereas Neptune Oyster delivers on its hype, Mare does not. It’s merely good, and in spite of all of the changes it has undergone to strip things down, perhaps Mare could now use some sprucing up.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Cook & Brown a Pleasant Dining Alternative

Cook & Brown Publick House, a New England-inspired version of a European gastropub, warrants a culinary excursion to Providence (well, East Providence, as Hope Street lies just a stone’s throw away from Pawtucket’s border). Chef/owner Nemo Bolin – whose impressive resume includes stints at Boston-based staples No. 9 Park, the now shuttered iconic spot Locke-Ober, and Craigie St. Bistro – has put together a thoughtful, if somewhat limited menu consisting of seasonal New England cuisine executed with European technique.

While Cook & Brown’s ambience strives for modern-chic, its minimalist interior seems a bit outdated. The restaurant is dimly lit with Ikea-like lights, with a bar that immediately welcomes customers and a small dining room to the right. Tall windows allow for people-watching along Hope Street. While an abstract pattern of brown wooden tiles on the ceiling strikingly resemble mismatched jigsaw puzzle pieces, the walls are practically bare, sans a couple of nondescript framed paintings.

The food, however, is relatively good, sometimes top notch, and other times inconsistent. First, the good – no, the superb: a bowl of piping hot smoked bluefish and potato fritters ($9), which possess an ultra-crispy exterior, and an interior so moist that you’d swear that these were creamy croquettes (surprise – they are dairy free!). These spherical-shaped fried balls are absolutely heavenly, packing the perfect contract of smokiness with subtle sweetness, and you’ll be reluctant to share them with others. Herb flatbread ($10) with caramelized onions, bacon lardons, and goat cheese is also tasty, once again providing a balanced contrast between sweet, tart, and salty flavors while the bread is nicely charred. The four-piece serving, however, is a bit small for the price, while the fritters present a much better value.

Entrees are also decent, if not nearly as strong. I gravitated towards my wife’s grilled Boyden Farms sirloin tip steak ($25), the meat served medium and nicely plated high in stacks, accompanied by cippolini onions, almond romesco, chimichurri vinaigrette, and crispy potato. Less successful was the grilled pork shoulder steak ($23). While the medium-cooked meat was quite moist due to it soaking in a littleneck clam broth, the fatness of the meat – which in fairness, our server warned us ahead of time about but whose purpose was to enhance the overall tenderness of the meat – was so excessive on one slice that it rendered the portion size to be less than desirable. In addition, the accompanying sides of beets (nicely cooked), leeks, oyster mushrooms, puffed rice, and charred citrus felt wildly out of synch with the meat, which would have been better paired with a starch such as the aforementioned crispy potato.

Fortunately, innovative desserts brought a satisfying conclusion to the meal, including a moist, non-dairy chevron cake with raspberries and a decadent Pot de crème – a rich, chocolate pudding studded with kumquat jam and house-made whipped cream, a chocolate lover’s dream.

Cook & Brown’s cocktail menu is well-regarded, and for good reason. The libations are complex, nicely balanced, and very potent. I enjoyed the Yerba Buena ($9), a refreshing starter consisting of agavales tequila, green chartreuse, cacao, carpano antica, and mole bitters. My wife’s C&B DTO (playfully stands for Daiquiri Time Out - $9) was subtly sweet, packed with diplimatico rum, lemonhart 151, lime, cinnamon, and velvet falerum. Later that evening, I felt compelled to order the Bartender’s Choice ($13) when contemplating a beverage to pair with my pork entrée, whereby you provide the bartender with your preference of liquor and or flavors. The bartender then mixes a surprise cocktail and arrives tableside to describe the drink’s ingredients in detail. Mine consisted of three different rums, including diplomatico, and a maple-infused liquor. Needless to say, it was slowly sipped given both its potency and unique layers of flavor.

Service was casual, yet highly commendable. A duo of jean-wearing servers was genuinely friendly, attentive, and informative, providing thoughtful recommendations that were also geared toward my wife’s dairy allergy.

Given its fine service, unique, if not always consistent cuisine, and its relatively affordable price points, Cook & Brown succeeds on the whole. I envision stopping at this establishment for those dreamy fritters paired with a stiff drink. If, however, I am frequenting Hope Street in the near future for a full-course dinner, I’ll be heading across the street to the superior European-inspired eatery, French bistro Chez Pascal.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

This Sangria Needs Seasoning

With a restaurant bearing the name of Sangria’s, one would expect a little spice to be infused into the otherwise ho-hum dining scene in downtown Attleboro. The timing is certainly right for this Spanish and Portuguese tapas-themed eatery to succeed, particularly given that its main competition only minutes north in Easton, Loco, has recently closed and will be re-opening early next year under new ownership and with uncertain expectations. It’s that spice, however, that Sangria’s shockingly lacks, both in terms of its cuisine and service, which could use lots of seasoning.

The restaurant’s interior aims for contemporary and intimate, yet strangely feels cold and unromantic for such a promising, open space. There are only a handful of actual tables, a few of which are situated by a large window overlooking Attleboro Center, another few tucked away in the rear, surrounding a more vibrant, illuminated bar wedged in between. High ceilings make for awful acoustics, leaving diners resorting to near-shouting, which quickly transforms into the full-fledged variety once a guitar-playing musician begins his ear-piercingly loud set right behind us.

Sangria’s menu looks appealing enough, with several tapas broken out by starch, cheese, vegetable, seafood and meat. Batatas Doce Fritta ($5) provide a promising start to the evening, a generous portion of hand-cut sweet potatoes fried with brown sugar and cinnamon. The spuds possess a crispy exterior and a piping hot interior. They are the Spanish take on addictive fried dough poppers that could easily pass for dessert.

But that is where the superlatives end. Sometimes a little more salt, pepper, or spices would transform a merely good dish into an exceptional one. Take, for instance, empanadas de atum ($7), pastries with a buttery, flakey exterior but filled with tuna that’s not quite as spicy as the menu suggests. Camarao Alhinho ($11) offer four plump, nicely pan-seared shrimp braised in white wine butter sauce, but the roasted garlic component of the sauce is barely discernible. Three mini flame-grilled chourico sliders ($8) are well cooked and have a nice char to the meat, but the accompanying caramelized onions and horseradish mayonnaise barely registered on the palate, while the Portuguese sausage lacked seasoning and heat. Polvo A Feira ($12) was the evening’s biggest disappointment. What sounded so intriguing – braised octopus, finished with cold-pressed olive oil and smoked paprika – was entirely bland, rendering the fish as mere pieces of rubber to be consumed. A delicious, gooey, custardy coconut flan drowning in caramel sauce demonstrated a flicker of the culinary heights Sangria’s aspires to ascend yet rarely manages to reach.

Fortunately, Sangria’s boasts an inventive cocktail menu highlighted by several house-made sangria selections. The house red and white varieties are available for either $7/glass or $21/bottle. I’d recommend splurging for a couple of dollars more to sample a pitcher of Cinco Frutas ($24), consisting of a sweet, potent, yet refreshing blend of red wine, Ruby Porto, Chambord liquer, orange and cranberry juices, blueberries, blackberries, and topped with champagne and Sprite.

Service borders on laughably bad for a restaurant promoting itself as a fine dining establishment. When our server asked if she could remove our dish, she prematurely removed a two-thirds finished pitcher of sangria. At the conclusion of our meal, while ordering dessert, she remarked that Jamaican coffee was available. How astonished I was, then, to discover a mug filled with tea and alcohol (our server seemed surprised at my astonishment, and when asked what it was, she didn’t quite know herself). Nor was the Jamaican concoction, whatever it was, properly removed from our final tab. Perhaps our server was on Jamaican time herself that evening. A complimentary shooter of white Port wasn’t enough to offset the scattershot service.

If you’re looking for tasty cocktails, Sangria’s is a serviceable destination. For an actual dining experience, however, I’d recommend either heading south to Providence’s Bacaro or north to Ken Orringer’s beloved Toro in Boston’s South End. Both restaurants’ cuisine and service as finely seasoned. Sangria’s could use some sprucing up.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Boston Foodies Should Head South to Providence’s North

In Devra First We Trust. At least, most of the time, when pondering which restaurants I’d like to dine at. A few weeks ago, the revered Boston Globe food critic caused shockwaves throughout the Foodie Blogosphere when she proclaimed that North – situated in obscure Luongo Square just outside of Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood – blew her mind. Paul’s Palate was excited to try North for himself on a quieter weekday evening and determine if Miss First’s assessment was accurate.

North’s ambience is interesting to say the least. Its dark interior has a nautical theme, as evidenced by thick, knotted ropes that flow from wall-to-ceiling, as if one walked into a small schooner vessel and its crew downing their grub. Paintings of nude pearl divers adorn the walls. Space here is also tight (only a half dozen tables stacked atop one another and a seating capacity of 30). But there are even more funky touches. 80’s rock music – including true Van Halen tunes before the band became more commercialized and Social Distortion – blares throughout the establishment. The bathroom features odd masks and even odder, indecipherable video collages, including one clip that reads “I hate turtles.” Tattooed, cordial servers attend to artsy clientele, several of whom don bifocals far larger than their heads allow. Behind the small bar up front lies a slurpee machine, which this evening boasts a cantaloupe flavor that will be mixed with rum and mint. It’s all very bohemian cool in a West Greenwich Village type of way.

The Asian-Cambodian influenced cuisine at North is almost as eccentric and fun as its atmosphere. The eatery opened last September and is run by three Johnson & Wales graduates, and you can taste the excitement of these young chefs via the bold flavors bursting from their dishes. The menu is very condensed (and is roughly the size of a tiny envelope), while selections are mostly limited to smaller, Chinese tapas options including Bowls and Plates to Share, Country Ham & Oysters, and Veg ($3-15). A couple of supersized entrees humorously labeled Very Big Things ($35-38) are served a giant, sizzling platter and can be shared by 2-4 people, while one dessert resides on the menu. While some might find the usage of ingredients redundant across dishes, such as cilantro, rice vinegar, and chilies, you can’t fault North’s owners for their joy in experimentation and creativity. Like a mad scientist placed in a kitchen setting, sometimes they fail, but more often than not, they achieve culinary greatness.

Take, for instance, the divine, instantly craveable Dan Dan noodles ($11), a dish influenced by New York’s beloved Momofuku restaurant chain, where one of North’s owners, James Mark, previously worked. The dish features Korean rice cakes – chewy, white tubes with just the right amount of crunch to them, tossed with even chewier rings of squid tentacles and smothered in a tender goat meat ragout enhanced by a hearty kick of black peppers and fermented chilies. It’s the must-have dish on North’s menu. Also noteworthy, if a bit less exciting ingredient-wise, is the Hot and Sour Chinese/American Bok Choy ($8), whose exterior strikes just the right balance between firm and soggy, is paired with crunchy puffed rice for crispy contrast, and packs subtle heat with fermented chilies and rice vinegar. I found the beautifully plated Burmese chickpea fritters ($10) lovely to both look at and consume. The fritters, to my surprise, were not fried, but rather, pan-seared, rendering the garbanzo beans’ texture more custardy than crunchy, and paired with delicious squash piccalilly, coriander, fennel, and a welcome touch of lime for acidity. It’s a complex, tasty dish.

Less successful offerings included Hidden Oysters, Crispy Fried, Ver 2.4 ($9), which consisted of three disappointingly lukewarm, somewhat dry Burmese pancakes containing celery, radish, pickled pepper, and only traces of the oyster, the supposed star of the plate. The friend pancakes were screaming for a dipping sauce, and a ginger-scallion version when provided upon request did wonders. Relatively spicy cucumber & Chino sausage ($11), while a refreshing counterpoint to the spicier, aforementioned dishes, was a mild letdown considering the lack of sausage (three small pieces) and the over-abundance of heavy rice that coincided with barely discernible hints of anchovy, scallion, chile, and mint.

Fortunately, dessert quickly revived my memory of what makes North shine brightest. The Mushi Pan ($8) melded a warmed, yogurt-infused griddle cake with uber-fresh, melt-in-your-mouth warmed blueberries and strawberries swimming in apple jam shiso, sorrel, and a dollop of crème fraiche. Paired with sweetened, strong Vietnamese coffee, this triumphant confection was a marvelous conclusion to the meal.

Service was relaxed yet polished, attentive yet not doting, and our server was extremely knowledgeable and gracious throughout the evening.

If you’re seeking a restaurant that possesses a unique atmosphere and cuisine, head south to North. While it’s not quite the mind-blowing experience as reported by Miss First, more often than not, it’s a culinary adventure worth taking.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Bergamot a Winning Addition to Somerville’s Restaurant Row

Somerville has long been recognized as a hub for fine dining. Bergamot, located at the outskirts of Inman Square, opened to near universal acclaim back in 2010 in the intimate space once occupied by EVOO (which now resides and thrives in its larger Kendall Square quarters). The eatery has also earned its way onto Boston Magazine’s annual list of Top 50 restaurants, in large part due to its progressive American cuisine and its top-notch service. When presented the opportunity to sample an abundance of Chef/co-owner Keith Pooler’s (formerly of Scampo, Excelsior, and Harvest) intriguing menu by way of an amazing Groupon special (seven course tasting for two at $75), Paul’s Palate couldn’t pass it up.

A complimentary amuse-bouche nicely opens the meal – a refreshing, juicy piece of melon topped with zucchini relish, its sweetness beautifully balanced by a subtly acidic dash of balsamic glaze. For such a small dish, it’s large in flavor and complex in technique, a harbinger of the meal to come. I’m admittedly anti-beet, usually finding the vegetable flavorless, but Bergamot spruces up, even re-invents how delicious it can be. They’re roasted here ($11), paired with less bitter, leafy escarole, orange-calaminta syrup, miniature Honshimeji mushrooms, pistachios for welcomed crunch, and a dreamy dollop of cream cheese. It’s a marvelous dish.

That’s not to say that there aren’t minor missteps along the way. While an appetizer of braised crimson carrots ($12), alongside black mission figs and a crispy chickpea flour crepe called socca are all delightful, accompanying Kamut (a khorasan wheat resembling rice) is a tad undercooked and tough, while an unappealing, bland spoonful of ricotta sitting atop the socca seems out of place. While Polish sausage is nicely smoked, the eggy/custard-like polenta over which it is served is completely offputting, although I think I understand and applaud Pooler’s attempt to execute a more sophisticated breakfast as dinner concept.

Fortunately, my memory is short and the list of menu offerings is long. I devour every last bite of the pan-seared Atlantic salmon ($27), masterfully prepared with a crisp exterior and a wonderfully moist, fleshy interior. The fish is innovatively paired with generous chunks of lobster, avocado, green beans, basil oil, and orange tomato vinaigrette. As the aforementioned beets made me a believer, this critic - who typically shies away from fish offerings when dining out - will be seeking out salmon more often. That’s the mark of a truly great restaurant: it pleasantly surprises you and smashes all pre-conceived notions about what food can be. A hearty bowl filled with long strings of tagliatelle, topped with melted mozzarella and sitting in a zesty tomato base with a medley of fresh vegetables, is also a winning, seasonal dish.

Pastry chef Stacy Mirabello’s confections confidently stand up against Pooler’s cuisine. A second, pre-dessert amuse-bouche consists of a refreshing, almost creamy mini scoop of red currant sorbet sitting atop shaved coconut. It’s delightful, and I want more, but am glad I save room for Mirabello’s chocolate bourbon bête noir ($10), essentially a rich, decadent flourless cake that’s paired with raspberry sorbet.

Bergamot’s inventive, expertly-crafted cocktails and extensive, award-winning wine list are not to be missed. The 1771 ($11) is a refreshing concoction of citadelle gin, orange curacao, rhubarb syrup, cardamom bitters, and sparkling wine, while the Beacon Fix ($10), with Reyka vodka, lemon, luxardo, and Bergamot-Rooisbos syrup is another subtly sweet winner. Wine Director Kai Gagnon’s selection – all of which is encased in a dual-zone refrigerator tucked behind the eatery’s bar, boasts an appealing number of varieties, including $12 glasses of a crisp, slightly peppery 2012 chenin blanc from France’s Loire Valley and a robust, fruity Italian 2011 Lambrusco di Modeno ‘Albone’ hailing from Tuscany.

A rotating wait staff will gladly cater to your every whim. Need a glass of water re-filled? No problem. “Would you like another slice of bread?” they happily inquire early on in the meal. “No more, thank you,” I wearily reply after ingesting a third slice topped with heavenly whipped mustard butter, even though deep down I’d like an entire loaf to myself. Each of our servers is attentive and incredibly meticulous about each dish’s ingredients (they recite these without missing a beat). Their level of hospitality not only demonstrates that they love the fun environment in which they work, but are enamored with the equally fun food that they serve their customers. When I ask one of our waiters if I could obtain information about that delightful Lambrusco wine I sampled earlier in the meal, he gladly writes it down and passionately describes its characteristics in more detail.

Given its relaxed ambience, playful and innovative fare, reasonable price point, and awe-inspiring service, Bergamot earns high praise from Paul’s Palate, though not likely as effusive as its professional, enthusiastic staff.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Pan E Vino Fails to Live Up to its Reputation

Pan E Vino (Italian for bread and wine) has been a reputable dining staple on Providence’s Federal Hill for just over a decade. It’s also recently earned Best Italian Restaurant accolades as voted by Rhode Island Monthly readers. On a stifling July 4th weekend evening, Paul’s Palate ventured down to the Hill to determine if this eatery lived up to its billing.

Compared to nearby restaurant gem Trattoria Zooma, Pan E Vino’s décor feels woefully outdated, with tacky Mediterranean-themed touched ranging from the unappealing yellow paint on the walls to the even more unappealing Italian-inspired music playing more loudly than one would like through overhead speakers. Even the indoor temperatures resembled the Mediterranean region, as the restaurant’s air condition system inadequately ventilated the back room in which our party was seated. The restaurant aims to establish a rustic, intimate ambience, but with its two small dining rooms and cramped tables, it’s less charming than one would have hoped.

The cuisine itself is hit or miss. A relatively modest portion of calamari fritti ($12) was traditionally served with tomatoes, hot peppers and white balsamic. The squid were far too bready in texture and lacked any hint of the peppers’ promised heat or seasoning.

Entrees fared a bit better, particularly the linguine alla far diavolo ($29), which consisted of a hearty portion of black squid ink pasta, lobster, and spicy San Marzano tomato sauce. The behemoth, 14 oz. bone-in veal chop parmiagiana ($27) was an impressive sight to behold, the Flintstone-sized meat evoking the envy of my dining companions. Breaded and pan-fried, and doused with a slab of melted mozzarella and ragu sauce, the veal was tender and well-executed, if not a tad underseasoned, while the dish would have benefitted from spaghetti in lieu of a handful of hollow short rigatoni pieces to better soak up the zesty sauce.

Sadly, desserts were a dud. A sinful sounding bourbon chocolate fudge cake ($8) was far too dense and dry, while the much heralded golden raising bread pudding ($8) – legendary, according to our server – was an outright disaster. Resembling kugel – a Jewish delicacy that is far tastier – this dish had an inadequately bruleed exterior and a dry, slightly custardy, and lukewarm interior. It seemed as if the dish was overcooked and then left unattended for several minutes prior to being served. Three small dollops of caramel and a smidge of whipped cream seemed to mock me from the plate, only exacerbating this confection’s epic failure.

Cocktails were the highlight of the evening, including a Spring Blossom ($10), which consisted of gluten free Cold River blueberry vodka, St. Germain elderflower liquer, and a wild hibiscus flower plopped into the libation’s center for visual effect. While a touch too sweet for my liking, it was refreshing and potent. A more traditional Campari and grapefruit ($8), served with soda over ice, was an equally enticing, bittersweet delight. Pan E Vino’s extensive, exclusively Italian wine list, which has earned Wine Spectator’s awards, was also impressive.

Service was scattershot. While our server displayed patience and generosity throughout the evening, there were extensive gaps where she went missing, most noticeably following her recommendation of a house special wine that did not arrive until halfway into my main course. Our waitress made no apologies when flagged down by our table about the delay, which represented a significant shift from Trattoria Zooma’s much more polished service, as evidenced by their removal of a slightly late-arriving glass of wine without me even inquiring about it.

Due to its mediocre service and cuisine, Paul’s Palate would rather get his Pan E Vino elsewhere on Federal Hill.