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.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Broadway Bistro Worthy of Mild Applause

Sophisticated cuisine at a reasonable price on Broadway? Say it ain’t so, Broadway Joe! Indeed it is, if you’re dining on Broadway on Providence’s Federal Hill. Broadway Bistro is a quaint little restaurant with large culinary ambitions that manages to keep your wallet intact. Think $15-20 entrees and you’ll easily be able to splurge for that cannoli you’re craving on nearby Atwells Ave (while desserts are not offered here, complimentary, dense chocolate truffles are).

The bistro’s attempt at an intimate atmosphere is partially successful. On one hand, there are brightly illuminated white bulb trees along with walls painted in dark red hues, while on the other, the remainder of the dining room’s lighting is ultra-dim while music blares ultra-loud. Fortunately, servers are prompt, generally knowledgeable of the menu, and genuinely friendly. To take your mind off of the music, well-crafted Painkillers - a fruity cocktail that is a staple of the Caribbean - are a welcomed option, infused with housemade pineapple rum and topped with a dusting of nutmeg. They’re potent and refreshing, almost bringing me back to a beach on Barbados.

Starters ($7-9) bring mixed results, including a rather bland fruit salad with cantaloupe and walnuts (others, however, at the table, rave about it) and a chicken taco that was unquestionably bland and whose meat was overcooked and dry. No quiero mas, por favor, I felt compelled to tell our server after this failed attempt. Much better was the ceviche, which contained an abundance of plump, fresh seafood laced with just the right amount of seasoning and acidity from the citrus juice. Tender ribs marinated in orange-soy sauce and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds fell right off the bone and were served atop grits – Southern-themed cuisine at its finger-licking finest.

Entrees were equally mixed. While paella contained a generous portion of chorizo and shrimp, I found the rice too pasty and the dish itself woefully under-seasoned, one which could have benefitted from a touch of salt. My vermicelli noodle dish, however, was the clear-cut winner of the evening, featuring fried oysters and cilantro.

While Broadway Bistro isn’t the runaway culinary hit I predicted it would be, given its pristine location (far enough away from busy Atwells Ave but within walking distance), its unique small restaurant charm, and highly affordable menu, this establishment should have a long, productive run alongside Providence’s Restaurant Row.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Not Your Average Run of the Mill Cuisine at Mill’s Tavern

One expects greatness at Mill’s Tavern, one of Providence’s most revered dining spots located alongside Brown University. Chef Edward Bolus’s thoughtful, innovative approach to his cuisine certainly seems to match the neighborhood’s academic, presitigious vibe. Like Brown’s Ivy League-educated students, Bolus has lofty aspirations for his menu. Take, for instance, his modern, whimsical interpretation of foie gras ($21), the goose liver’s flavors elevated by chocolate ancho shortbread, candied bacon crumble, pickled citrus sorbet, and mango chili leather. Similar to Brown’s rigid admissions criteria, unambitious, unadventurous dining candidates need not apply for this unique dining experience.

Mill’s Tavern is situated in the historic Pilgrim Mills Building. While the restaurants is only 12 years young, its interior, like the food, is sophisticated, resembling a centuries-old tavern with its red brick walls, vaulted casement ceiling, dark woods, and linen tablecloths. If you can, snag a quieter, more romantic table alongside the giant floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking bustling N. Main Street. An elongated bar sits to the left, while a wood burning oven blazes in the open kitchen towards the back.

Oh, and that wood burning oven so happens to produce a mean pizza pie. The wood fired pizza ($18) is served with an herbed citrus ricotta base, arugula, braised duck, balsamic fig glaze, and a sunny side duck egg. The pizza is wonderfully charred, and possesses a fine balance between sweet and tart flavors by way of the fig glaze and ricotta, and whose texture is enhanced by the egg’s creaminess. I stated weeks ago that nearby Bacaro’s wood-fired pie reigned supreme in Providence, but I now stand corrected: Mill’s Tavern’s complex version closely rivals it. Equally memorable was an appetizer of braised littleneck clams ($18) in smoked tomato and Naragansett lager broth packed with grilled chorizo and sweet onions. Our waiter strongly endorsed this dish, suggesting it was a crowd favorite and menu staple since the restaurant’s inception, and he did not steer us wrong. The clams were clean, luscious, and meaty, the chorizo tender and spicy, while the garlic bread served alongside the bowl was quickly used to sop up what proved to be a zesty, comforting, addictive broth.

Entrees were solid, if not nearly as spectacular as the preceding small plates. Less successful was the lemongrass glazed Long Island duck breast ($28). While the duck was featured as one of the eatery’s wood-fired entrees, I barely detected a trace of crackle or smokiness to the meat that one would come to expect. Nor did I find the meat, which admittedly was perfectly cooked medium rare and tender, to be all that well seasoned, as the accompanying mango-papaya salsa’s dry, canned corn-like texture was bland. The plate would have greatly benefitted from a sauce of some sort (perhaps that terrific balsamic fig glaze?). A side of unique yucca tater tots, however, was exceptional, with their crispy exterior and warm, gooey, slightly sweet interior. The finest entrée of the evening was once again a customer favorite/longtime menu staple: the 12 oz. soy-brined pork chop, a cut of meat so massive that it was playfully presented in two strips served upright. A luscious grilled peach compote and peach mustard barbecue sauce demonstrated Bolus’s expertise in utilizing seasonal ingredients, and they wonderfully complimented the tender meat, once again cooked to perfection.

Desserts were a bit uneven. A warmed Veronha chocolate cake ($10) was slightly overcooked. While seasonal sorbet offered refreshing, interesting flavors such as coconut and strawberry hibiscus, other flavors were less successful, such as mango and the excessively icy key lime pie. Things rebounded nicely with the lovely, airy blueberry crumb cake, served with white-chocolate cremeux, yuzu caramel, and crème freche ice cream, which, just like the aforementioned duck pizza, struck just the right balance between sweet and tart.

Mill’s Tavern’s cocktail program ($12) is as sophisticated as its fare. While a coconut mojito and a Just Peachy (orange vodka, peach, cointreau, pineapple and lemon juice) are light and refreshing, more adventurous libations are worth trying. Same Difference was a sweet, smoky blend of blackberry-infused tequila, port, and lime and lemon juice, while She’s a Knockout was just that: an intoxicatingly semi-sweet, sweat-inducing mix of bourbon, Gosling’s rum, Cointreau, lime and pineapple juice, punctuated by bright red habanero bitters. This is a complex, stiff, and well-balanced drink. The establishment’s wine program extends from California to Italy to France. A glass of Belle Glos “Melomi” Pinot Noir ($13) from Central Coast has robust fruit flavors and a smooth, velvety finish, pairing perfectly with that unforgettable duck pizza.

Sadly, however, it’s our mediocre service that prevented us from having a truly great dining experience and that also prohibits me from providing Mill’s Tavern with a ringing endorsement. Service began promisingly enough, with our waiter amicably providing recommendations while demonstrating a deep understanding of the menu selections along with the restaurant’s history. When we ordered our pizza, my wife – who has a dairy allergy - had asked if a slice of the pizza could be prepared without cheese, which our waiter swiftly confirm could be accommodated. After a prolonged period of time that elapsed after our orders were taken, and only moments before our appetizers arrived, he stated that the kitchen cooked the ricotta into the pizza’s base, and that my wife’s request could not in fact be accommodated. The timing was terrible, and after we politely voiced our displeasure, we noticed a dramatic shift in our waiter’s demeanor the rest of the evening. He suddenly seemed unengaged and inattentive. A second round of cocktails were late arriving with nary an apology (aside from our waiter stating that the bar was behind that evening) while cappuccinos were served far ahead of our desserts’ arrival. It’s unfortunate that such a lovely (and yes, expensive) dining experience at Mill’s Tavern could be sabotaged by lackluster service that does not match the quality of its cuisine.

Overall, I’d gladly return to sample several other exciting options on Chef Bolus’s menu (Melon gazpacho? Braised shortribs soaked in Port wine? Yes, please.). It’s the uneven service, however, that gives me pause to venture there anytime soon. While Mills’s Tavern graduates with ease, it fails to do so at the top of its culinary class.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Bacaro Boasts Finest Italian Cuisine in Providence

Take my advice: bypass the Hill (Federal) and head straight to the river to experience the finest Italian cuisine in all of Providence (yes, even exceeding the renowned Al Forno). Tucked away just outside of downtown Providence, adjacent to Brown University along the waterfront, Bacaro offers a treasure-trove of pleasures, from its extensive (admittedly exhaustive – hint: the menu is best enjoyed with larger groups) list of wines, cheeses, meats, and Italian tapas, its relaxed, yet polished service, to its tranquil, romantic al fresco small patio setting.

Sure, there are ties to the aforementioned Al Forno here, namely with its two prominent former employees, Chef Brian Kingsford and co-owner Jennifer Matta. And yes, there is that famous wood grilled pizza, here served up as an appetizer serving 2-4 people (but at Bacaro, it is graciously served with a cheeseless section to accommodate my wife’s dairy allergy – Al Forno pretentiously denied this request years back). But that is where the similarities end. Bacaro’s name originates from the Venetian word Bacari, which signifies a wine bar for friends to father for a quick bite and glass of wine. The restaurant therefore poses as an Enoteca (Italian wine bar), Salumeria (cured meats), and Cicchetteria (Italian tapas). There is also a sense of playful fun at Bacaro – take, for instance, that nifty checkbox menu from which customers can select their tapas! – that is lacking at the stuffier Al Forno. In lieu of Al Forno’s formal, if somewhat slightly outdated ambience that features a romantically lit interior shining over prim white tablecloths, Bacaro is housed inside a converted shipping building. Its first level consists of a bar to the left, a small, boisterous seating area to the right (so much so, that I’d recommend the patio on a nice spring/summer evening), and a lively, deli counter-style salumeria towards the back, where customers can either order or view the preparation of cured meats and cheeses. The second level offers more romantic views of the water and city skyline, along with an open kitchen.

Back to the food, most all of which is wonderful, starting with the razor-thin, nicely charred grilled pizza which is thrown into a wood oven that sends wafts of intense smoky aromas outside to our table. We order a pie topped with caramelized onions and goat cheese ($24), and it quickly evaporates from the plate. It’s sweet, tart, and fantastic, and I dare you to find a superior slice (outside of Al Forno’s) in all of Rhode Island (deepest apologies to you Caserta enthusiasts). We split a pasta entrée of tagliatelle with crab, uni, and lobster broth ($30). While the crab and uni barely register (making the dish a bit pricey for my taste), the pasta itself is the star. It’s fresh and addictive, given the kitchen’s innovative approach to infuse the noodles with the lobster stock. Like the pizza preceding it, the pasta quickly disappears from plain sight. Smaller sides are satisfying, including prosciutto di parma ($7), a generous portion of salt-cured ham that would have benefitted from any accompanying sauce or acid (spicy mustard, balsamic vinegar, honey) to pair with our complimentary bread. An assortment of olives ($6) featured spicy and mild varieties, while wood grilled figs layered with honey were homey, light, and downright delightful to pop into one’s mouth.

The cicchetti were consistently well executed. Starting with richer plates, the pan seared duck breast ($7) served on toasted, buttery brioche with rhubarb jam created salty-sweet harmony, while the crispy glazed pork belly ($7) was pure fatty goodness, from its moist, chewy interior to its crackling, sticky-sweet exterior. Although I could barely distinguish the different flavors amongst a trio of pan seared sausage, ($7), the meat was nicely smoked and tender, nonetheless. The lone misfire of the evening was the wood grilled ‘piatina’ ($7), grilled flatbread with chickpea puree, Jerusalem artichoke chips, smoked capsicum, and crispy parsley. I found the texture of the overly-crispy chips residing atop the crispy flatbread to be both heavy and repetitive, while the puree was bland and whose flavor was slightly offputting. Fortunately, the majority of the cicchetti were big hits at our table, showcased by arancini ($6), miniature breaded and fried risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella, which despite their creamy interior, did not fall into the trappings of most versions. These balls were surprisingly light and oil-free.

Be sure to save room for desserts, many of which are made to order and require customers to order at the beginning of their meals. Bacaro’s version of an ice cream sandwich is anything but traditional. Layered between two homemade chocolate brownies is homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream (here, white, not green, in appearance, and possessing a subtle, non-overpowering mint flavor). The sinful salted chocolate caramel tart ($14) consists of chocolate pastry filled with dulce de leche, topped with dark chocolate filling and sea salt. It’s rich, but not dense, and perfectly balances sweet with salty. Other desserts I wasn’t able to sample, but for which I’d gladly return: grappa scented custard filled bombolini ($10), little warm doughnuts filled with custard and topped with wildflower honey and toasted almonds. For anyone who has ever sampled Chef Kingsford’s wood grilled tarts at Al Forno, the seasonal strawberry and rhubarb (for two - $18) also seems enticing.

Cocktails are well balanced, if not nearly as complex as Bacaro’s cuisine. Housemade sangria is decent enough, although not nearly as tart as I would have liked. There are several Italian inspired cocktails, my favorite being the potent, refreshing Italian bellini martini, which included a splash of peach puree and lots of peach vodka, inspired by and with a nod to the bellinis prepared at Venice’s world-famous Harry’s Bar.

Service was exceptional. Our waiter was highly knowledgeable of the lengthy menu (no doubt an impressive feat), spot on with several recommendations, amiable, and created a leisurely pacing to the meal to accommodate the wide array of tapas that were ordered. Our table truly wished our evening on the patio would never end.

Given its exceptional food, service, and setting, Bacaro ranks amongst the very best restaurants in Rhode Island. It also ranks amongst one of my all-time favorite dining experiences. When a restaurant makes it difficult for you to leave, yet leaves you wanting to return for more, that’s the sign of a truly special dining spot. Outside of Italy, there may not be a better ‘bacari’ to nibble on small bites and sip on fine wine with friends.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This Empire Truly Strikes Back

Big Night Entertainment Group follows a simply philosophy with its restaurants – go big in both atmosphere and cuisine – or go home. Like Back Bay’s Red Lantern and MGM Grand Foxwood’s Shrine restaurants before it, Empire delivers on both fronts. Conveniently located on South Boston’s Waterfront, this eatery provided one of the most enjoyable dining experiences I’ve had in quite some time. In all honesty, I was struck by how consistently good everything was.

Starting with Empire’s modern, hip ambience. Yes, there’s the obligatory (yet really, really cool) expansive, illuminated bar, complete with light techno music, cushy lounge seating, and scantily clad, affable bartenders who craft potent fruity cocktails. It’s been said that if one looks closely enough, a celebrity or two may be spotted. Yes, there are lots of well-groomed diners either viewing others or waiting to be seen themselves. Empire’s atmosphere also playfully nods to Asia, particularly with its large dining room resembling an open dim sum hall that can likely be seen only blocks away in nearby Chinatown. Several smaller, private dining rooms extend to the back.

The Asian-inspired cuisine is consistently very good, sometimes stellar. Most dishes are thoughtfully served in half portions as well as larger ones, the perfect way to share several tapas-style with groups. Singapore street noodles (bowl is $25 and large enough to feed four; a large bowl is $44) include thin pasta with shrimp, scallops, and pork, along with a Madra curry spice that supplies a welcomed touch of hear. A hot app includes nicely seared chicken & mushroom dumplings (eight piece $12, 16 piece at $22), that possess chewy texture and just the right amount of crunch. Fried starters include a large assortment of Empire tempura vegetables ($15) that feature nicely battered onions, broccoli, and even sweet potato, accompanied by unique white miso aioli and citrus ponzu sauce for dipping pleasure (I prefer the latter for its acidity), along with steamed, slightly salted edamame.

Lobster and crab rangoons (6 piece $16, 12 piece $30) are so beautifully fried and presented that you may not want to bite into them. If you do, however, you’ll be handsomely rewarded by the mixture of meat with cream cheese along with an innovative topping of sweet soy molasses and Chinese plumb sauce, intended to be the restaurant’s riff on traditional duck sauce. My lone complaint: had the server not identified the lobster from the crab, I would have had difficulty differentiating between the flavors of the fish (again, delicious nonetheless). Eight sushi come with the Red Dragon roll ($18), consisting of blue fin tuna, daikon sprouts, sake, and red chili miso that lends the dish its heat. One dish that surprisingly had the entire table fawning over it, wishing we had ordered an entire tureen – was the addictive Bin’s Hot & Sour Soup ($8 individual, $27 for the tureen), which contained mushrooms, tofu, pork broth, white pepper and chili sesame oil – all of which provided the perfect blend of heat, acidity and warm comfort.

Well-prepared cocktails were a nice complement to the wonderful food. A pineapple mai tai for 2 ($24) is nothing more than your traditional beverage, only with lots more liquor and playfully served in a frozen pineapple. For the more adventurous drinker, the rye tai ($14) is a must as well. Lighter drinks also fare well, including the peartini ($14) mixed with pear sake and rum, while the refreshing Coco Dojo ($13) includes coconut, pear sake, pineapple, and soda. A group of four women celebrating their friend’s 50th birthday tackle the rightfully named Big Kahuna ($68), consisting of grey goose punch served in a mammoth watermelon (dry ice makes for an eye-opening presentation) along with watermelon juice, mint and ginger.

Non-traditional desserts are also first rate, including the most popular menu option according to our server, a chocolate macadamia nut tart ($11). What sounds pedestrian proves to be quite the opposite: six miniature slices of dense, buttery chocolate drizzled with brown butter caramel and with sweet chili cooked into the tart to provide subtle bite. Equally decadent are the ethereal, gooey sticky toffee donuts along with a special of fried apricot dumplings paired with creamy raspberry sorbet.

Servers are knowledgeable, gracious, and prompt, while the meal’s methodical pacing across several dishes was pitch-perfect.

Empire delivers exceptional atmosphere, service, and cuisine. I followed Big Night Entertainment Group’s motto to a T, with one exception – I went big (on food), but after such a wonderful dining experience, begrudgingly went home.