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November 29, 2009

The Clam Box

The Clam Box - Ipswich, Massachusetts Dominic Armato

With the Boston winter rapidly approaching, we've been looking for excuses to get out of the house, trying to enjoy a little bit of crisp, clear weather before the nastiness sets in and we're relegated to the living room for a few months. Of course, having only just barely arrived, I'm still trying to acclimate myself to the food scene and learn a bit about the local specialties. So on a sunny, late November afternoon, it was time for an educational road trip. Good fried clams are something I've been anxious to try in a region that's known for them, and though the coast is dotted with little fried seafood shacks, one place pops up time and time again in discussions of which is most beloved.

Concerns that The Clam Box might be hard to spot proved unfounded. Situated at a nook in the winding, tree-lined Route 133 in Ipswich, about an hour north of the city, you come around a bend only to discover that you're pointed directly at the building, for which the term "box" couldn't be more appropriate. It's cute, outside and in, where nautical kitsch, unsurprisingly, rules the interior. Though there are a few generic items like cheeseburgers and chicken fingers to be found, this is a place where fried seafood is king. The list is extensive -- clams (strips and native), scallops, shrimp, calamari, haddock and oysters, in various plate, box and roll combinations, as well as specials and a few non-fried seafood items. But I saw in the menu a chance to take a crack at three local specialties, so we didn't stray too far off the beaten path. And without further ado, I wade into a minefield of local controversies.

Clam ChowderDominic Armato

First on my educational tour of New England specialties, a big ol' cup of clam chowder. When I'm not teaching my kid to say it like Freddy Quimby, I've been trying to sample this one whenever possible. Though it's the sort of thing that I'm sure seems obvious to the natives, what struck me the most about the clam chowders I've sampled here is their consistency. I'm used to those heavy, creamy, viscous concoctions that seem to define New England clam chowder everywhere except for New England -- so much so that I was quite taken aback, when I first arrived, at how thin much of the local fare is. The Clam Box's chowder is no exception, a soup thin enough that the chunks of clam and potato settle at the bottom leaving nothing but a lightly sweet cream at the top. Between this and a couple of other versions I've tasted, I see the wisdom in the tradition. For starters, it helps the clam to come through when you aren't sucking on cream pudding (though perhaps the use of substandard clams elsewhere is partly to blame for the proliferation of the thick stuff). But more importantly, it ends up being surprisingly light and -- dare I say -- refreshing for a cream soup, easy to eat and a much better balance of flavors. Clam Box's chowder wasn't knocking my socks off, but I dug it -- light and sweet and teeming with fresh clam flavor, it wasn't fancy, but it tasted more of its namesake critter than just about everything I've had outside of the region. It's official. I'm a convert to the thin stuff.

Lobster RollDominic Armato

Up next, the venerable lobster roll. Reading about lobster rolls online reminds me a lot of the Italian Beef debates back in Chicago. It's a relatively minimal foodstuff that inspires rabid devotion, and while there are plenty of enthusiasts that enjoy the minor variations that can be found around the region, there are also a great many who feel that a "proper" lobster roll is defined by an absurdly narrow set of criteria, and anything that strays just isn't the real thing. In any case, The Clam Box's version is, to date, the most stripped-down version I've had. Lightly toasted split roll, a pile of lobster meat that's been just barely kissed with mayonnaise, and I might have detected a sliver or two of celery, though I wouldn't swear to it. It was delicious, though I'm not sure how much there is to say other than, hey, the lobster was fresh and tender. And though I realize I'm probably setting myself up as a target for the purists, I have to say that having tried a couple of other lobster rolls that were "dressed up" a touch (more on this shortly), while I appreciate the roadside simplicity of a roll like this, for $15+ I prefer some other versions that some might consider blasphemous.

Fried Big Belly Clams & ScallopsDominic Armato

And then, on to the main event... though, actually, this was the first to be consumed. Fried seafood waits for no man, especially when it's the house specialty. I went for the clam and scallop combo, making a special request for the "big bellies" that, fortunately, were available that day (they aren't always). Here, I'm wondering if it was a matter of heightened expectations, but I was a little let down. On the plus side, and really most importantly, this was some deliciously fresh seafood. Both clams and scallops were juicy and succulent and not the least bit over-fried -- such a common pitfall. Where I felt they were a little lacking, actually, was in the coating. Thing is, it wasn't crisp. At all, really. If anything, it seemed a little soggy in places. Now, I'm cognizant of the fact that fried foods sometimes need to be consumed IMMEDIATELY before their quality drops off a cliff, but I doubt that was the case here. From the time I picked them up at the counter to the time they hit my mouth, it couldn't have been more than 90 seconds, so if I missed peak awesome, that means the Clam Box's fried coating decays faster than the top quark. And the joint was hopping, meaning that I doubt they were held for any length of time (if they even do that, which seems unlikely). An off day, perhaps. I'd be curious to know. Whether I'll be able to find out before they close for the winter in two weeks is doubtful. But it left me somewhat disappointed, despite the plate's very good points.

My education continues, and it was nice to get a triple dose of local fare in one spot. The Clam Box is awfully charming, in a cheesy kind of way. And it's clear they're trying to go the extra mile. Sadly, there are many, many miles between our home and the Clam Box, making it unlikely that I'll make the trip often. Truly life-altering fried seafood may have done the trick, but it's tough to justify two and a half hours of driving for anything that's short of spectacular. On this particular day, much as I enjoyed our lunch, it wasn't quite there.

The Clam Box
246 High Street
Ipswich, MA 01938
Call for hours, closed on December 14th for the winter, reopening in February

November 26, 2009

Keeping It Simple

Potatoes, Broccoli, Stuffing, Turkey Dominic Armato

We were unable to spend Thanksgiving with family this year, so we decided to keep it simple. Some roasted potatoes with bacon and sage, my father's pureed broccoli with an obscene amount of butter, cream and parmesan cheese, a no-frills stuffing, and a roasted turkey breast with gravy. Still enough to feed 2-3 more people than we had, but that's kind of the point, huh?

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody... hope yours is happy and delicious!

November 24, 2009

Tabled For Discussion

Mortadella Sandwich Dominic Armato

New favorite lunchtime sandwich:

Mortadella with Asiago, Roasted Garlic Jam and Hot Chinese Mustard.

Currently awesome, but I'm thinking it's a crispy fruit or vegetable away from being perfect. Whaddya think? Thin slices of Honeycrisp apple? A handful of arugula? Maybe some shredded fresh basil? I'm open to suggestions.

UPDATE : I ended up trying both apple and Asian pear, with and without arugula. Pickled onion held some momentary fascination, but I think that'd be a little to sharp for this sandwich. Anyway, I think the arugula was key, and I preferred the Asian pear to the Honeycrisp (thanks, Zyfsv!). The Honeycrisp was a bit of a scene stealer. The Asian pear, though, gave that bit of crunch, a subtle bit of fruitiness, and it blended right in.

Now we'll see how many of these I can eat for lunch before I get sick of 'em.

November 22, 2009


Polish Sausage Dominic Armato

Since my Chicago-related culinary shames seem to be a bit of a theme lately, I thought I'd address another. It's often stated that Chicago is home to more Poles than any other city in the world with the exception of Warsaw. This has always struck me as a dubious claim, but true or not, the meme's longevity is undoubtedly due to the fact that there is one heckuva massive Polish population in Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago. I didn't leave town until I was 18, and then I tacked on six more years after returning from the West Coast.

And yet, until this time last year, I'd never eaten in a Polish restaurant.

Don't ask. I have no idea how it happened. I couldn't be more embarrassed by it, but there it is. Then, while sitting around in Baltimore, I start reading all about Smak-Tak, an LTH darling (and now Great Neighborhood Restaurant) that's looking kind of swoon-worthy. I could handle the shame no longer. So last December, on New Year's Eve Eve, I stopped in for a meat and potatoes feast that absolutely rocked. It rocked so much that I had to add an 11th honorable mention to my Deliciousness of 2008, which I'd already written thinking that I was in the clear on the evening of December 29th. Except my photos were terrible. So I vowed to return to eat and shoot again, and that opportunity finally presented itself last month.

Mushroom SoupDominic Armato

Elston Avenue, one of the lesser-appreciated of Chicago's radial streets, goes a lot further out than most people think. Almost to Superdawg, in fact. And it's almost near Elston's terminus, in Jefferson park, where Smak-Tak is located. It's a little storefront that has almost kind of a ski chalet meets country kitchen vibe, with light wood paneling, vinyl placemats with old-timey illustrations of fruit, a rather grand fireplace and hordes of decorations appropriate to the nearest holiday. Well, and the massive Coca-Cola emblazoned cooler in the corner from which you can just grab your beverage of choice. It's a casual joint. A really warm, friendly joint. And the look of the place couldn't be more appropriate for what comes out of the kitchen, which makes you rethink using "meat and potatoes" as a pejorative.

Beet BorschtDominic Armato

In case the opening didn't make it clear, I don't know my Polish food at all. I mean, I'm familiar with the broad strokes. I've had pierogi here and there, sampled some sausages... I'm down with the sauerkraut. I certainly don't know the finer points. But you don't have to know your Polish to know a good soup, and every soup I've tasted at Smak-Tak has been a joy. There's something really honest about soup, warm and comforting, but good soup is so hard to come by. It's always based on a lousy stock, complicated with muddy flavors, creamed into oblivion. But here, they're simple and clean and delicious. The mushroom soup isn't a mélange of exotic mushrooms. It seems like it could have been made with the button variety. But it's full of flavor, really nice, and based on a clean, delicious stock. I'm a sucker for beet borscht, and Smak-Tak has one of my favorite iterations. It isn't overly sweet -- more slightly sour than anything -- but very simple, tasting like the fresh vegetable with a aromatic hit of fresh dill. A soup that blew my mind a little bit was the cucumber soup, which is really something special. Cucumber soup, to me, is something served cold. Not so here. Though it's billed as "cucumber soup", it's actually a Polish pickle soup, made with a beef stock and shredded dill pickles, carrot, celery and potato, a bit of sour cream and fresh dill to finish. It wasn't my soup last December, and if I'd had more than a spoonful, it would've made the Deliciousness of 2008 rather than the pierogi. I had a hard time pulling the trigger on one bite, but the fact that I thought about it hopefully says something. I couldn't wait to have a bowl of my own on this pass. Sadly, it wasn't on the menu this time around. But it's one of the best soups I've had in recent memory. When it comes to restaurants with so much good stuff, I always hesitate to label anything a must-have, but I'll do so here. If it's on the menu, get it.

PierogiDominic Armato

Naturally, pierogi can be found in abundance, and this was the dish that actually did snare my honorable mention last year. Maybe I've just never had good pierogi, I don't know. It wouldn't surprise me. My pierogi experience isn't exactly extensive. But these were a real eye-opener for me, a far cry from the dense, leaden lumps to which I'm accustomed. Make no mistake, this is a dough, not a wrapper. But despite its body, it's light and delicious and easy to consume in mass quantity. I enjoyed the sweet pierogi, even if I couldn't get excited about them. There were a number of fruit fillings, not overly sweet, kind of tart, actually, but I could take them or leave them. The savory ones, however, were incredibly good, drowning in butter and served with fresh sour cream. There were potato and cheese pierogi, a finely ground and lightly seasoned meat version, and a sauerkraut and mushroom -- probably my favorite of the three -- that was surprisingly mellow for a sauerkraut concoction. This much food probably shouldn't disappear as quickly as it did. But while I never quite understood the devotion before, now I get it. These are some dynamite dumplings.

Hungarian Style PancakeDominic Armato

Less flashy, though perfectly enjoyable, was the "Grilled Sausage in Old Polish Style," which was as notable for its perfect preparation as for its flavor. Looking at the photo, you can see... carefully scored, beautifully browned, taken right to the edge of being crisped too much... seems a small detail, but it made it particularly nice. Served with potatoes and a huge pile of sauerkraut, it's a very enjoyable dish that I hesitate to recommend only because there are so many other routes I'd go first. I felt similarly about the potato pancakes, which would have been notably good anywhere else, but got lost among other killer dishes. The stuffed cabbage rolls, too, were tasty if not a standout dish. Slathered in a light tomatoey sauce and filled with a moist, finely ground meat filling, they were surprisingly delicate. Undoubtedly good, but not an attention-grabber for me in this company. There's no denying the comfort factor, even if they didn't rock me.

Stuffed Cabbage RollsDominic Armato

Dishes that did rock me, and in no small measure, started with the Hungarian Style Pancake. It starts out as a massive plate-sized potato pancake which is then folded over a rich, meaty goulash before being trimmed with an obscene amount of sour cream. This is just hearty upon hearty upon hearty, but what sets it apart from typically clumsy meat and potatoes dishes is the incredible amount of care that typifies everything I've had at Smak-Tak. It starts with that thick potato pancake that's moist and buttery, but has been griddled to a perfect crisp, particularly along the edges. The goulash is wonderful, with a deep but clean flavor that makes it feel more sophisticated than a simple meat stew, and the sour cream is light and fresh. On my first visit, this was almost my favorite of the entrees, eclipsed only by a regular special that happened to be on the menu that day.

Hunter StewDominic Armato

If you have even the slightest love in your heart for liver and onions, the chicken liver and onion special is another absolute must, and the fact that it's a regular special that appears 3-4 times a week is a very good thing. My father, whose dish I tasted on the first pass, is a big sucker for liver and onions, and though it killed me to stop at two bites, I figured I'd better, lest I end up having to extract his fork from the back of my hand. They're a killer blend of tender and crispy, served mostly whole, having broken down a bit in the pan, with crisped edges that add a ton of texture. They're cooked and mixed up with strands of sweet, caramelized onion that are left with just enough body to, again, help maintain some texture in a dish that wouldn't otherwise have a lot of it. Though I've had some pretty stellar calf's liver with onions in Venice, where it's one of the city's signature dishes, I feel pretty comfortable calling this the best instance of chicken liver and onions I've ever tasted. This is definitely one of those litmus test dishes. If you don't like Smak-Tak's liver and onions, it just isn't your thing.

Potato PancakesDominic Armato

Rounding out the favorites was a dish that I've now had twice and am still trying to get my head around a little bit, partly because it wasn't at all what I expected. Perhaps I bring too much baggage to the term "stew", but I think of a wet and meaty concoction that could be consumed with a fork, but which probably requires a spoon for all of the juicy, saucy stuff. The hunter stew, however, isn't the least bit saucy. It arrives as a huge pile of cabbage, seasoned and cooked with small chunks of diced veal, sausage and potato. It almost has a bit of a sauerkraut vibe, but just barely. There's some sourness, but this isn't a pungent dish. Rather, it comes across as smoky and deeply flavored, more of a bold vegetable dish with meat than a meat dish (though the meat is present, and in abundance). It was unexpected, unlike any dish I'd previously tasted, and I found it very, very compelling.

If you're just looking at the photos, you don't need me to tell you that this is big, hearty, meaty fare that's served in quantity. But big and meaty is so often abused that it's surprising to come across a restaurant that produces this kind of food with such skill and care, balancing flavors, paying careful attention to textures, and even bringing a surprisingly delicate touch to dishes that, on the whole, are anything but. I'd read all about Smak-Tak before trying it. I expected it to be good. And yet, I was still surprised by just how good it was. I was a little troubled by the fact that on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, ours was the only table occupied. I was more troubled when multiple reports of similarly empty dining rooms emerged recently. I can see why people might look at the menu and wonder why they need to travel across town for this. I know that if I'd seen it online without hearing what I did, I never would have given Smak-Tak a second thought. So if you check out their menu and think the same, I urge you, please, get in there. It's a special little restaurant, and it'd be a damn shame if it doesn't survive.

5961 North Elston Avenue
Chicago, IL 60646
Mon - Sun11:00 AM - 9:00 PM

November 13, 2009


Scallop Ceviche with Orange and Parsley Dominic Armato

In his restaurant blog for L2O (which, incidentally, is a really exceptional behind the scenes look at running a fine dining restaurant, both the fascinating and the absurd), Laurent Gras mentions how everybody asks him, "Why Chicago?" It's an unfortunate reminder that too many people still haven't gotten the memo that we serve more than steak and pizza. And I hate to even mention it, because there's no sense in preserving a long-undeserved reputation by having a chip on your shoulder. But still, there's been a little too much "A seafood-focused fine dining restaurant? In Chicago??? Why, I think I'm getting the vapors!" going around. That bit of annoyance aside, it is nice to see that Chicago can now boast what was even somewhat consciously conceived as a response to Le Bernardin, and that it's gotten what has been, for the most part, very positive national attention that avoids the "fish restaurant in cowtown" conceit.

If you've been paying attention, you don't need me to give you the book on L2O (but I will, of course). Highly-lauded chef whose resume reads like a who's who of French heavyweights with Michelin hardware is lured away from the coasts by a Chicago restaurateur to fill a specific gap in the local dining scene by creating an uncompromising fish-focused fine dining restaurant. Esquire names it the best new restaurant of 2008, the James Beard Foundation considers following suit by making it a short list nominee for the same, and Frank Bruni even stops in to swoon a little bit. All of which raises the terrifying question, giving the unfortunate timing of its launch, of whether such a welcome addition to the scene will manage to survive. These aren't exactly heady times for places that are making dishes with gold leaf and shiso flowers flown in from Japan. Quick preview? I both hope and think it will.

Halibut Cheek with Tomato ConcasséDominic Armato

The good news is that they didn't seem to be hurting when we stopped in, with every visible seat filled on a Wednesday night. Housed in the old Ambria space, you have to trundle through the old school lobby of the Belden-Stratford, squeeze through a narrow, unmarked door and navigate a forest of ebony columns to locate the dining room. A little dramatic, sure, but there's a part of me that enjoys it when fine dining restaurants don't pretend not to be ridiculous. It's a cool room that's dim and very modern and has a bit of a contemporary Japanese feel to it, which makes sense given how heavy of an influence Japanese cuisine is on the menu. In fact, there are two traditional tatami rooms off to the side that serve a special menu unique to them. Each table is also hit with a bright overhead spot which is, I'm a little embarrassed to admit, one of my favorite qualities in a restaurant these days, for reasons that should be obvious.

Fluke with Umeboshi VinaigretteDominic Armato

The basic menu is a four course prix fixe, and in addition to the kaiseki menu served in the tatami rooms, there are two tasting options, a 12-course seasonal menu and what Gras calls his Tête à Tête: an eight course tasting where each plate features two very minimally presented ingredients that are supposed to create an unusually harmonious whole. And while the concept of the Tête à Tête was intriguing, it's hard not to do a basic seasonal menu on your first pass, so we did. Though not exclusively of the sea, there's no doubt that this is fish-focused fare, right down to the glossary (yes, the glossary) of Japanese fish terms that accompanies your menu (apparently there are some pretentions I could do without). Gras is French by birth and training, and that's clearly where the menu is rooted, but it works in a horde of Japanese influences in both low and high-tech manner. Browsing through Gras' blog, it's impressive how much MG hardware has made its way into L2O's kitchen. Even more impressive is how casually much of it is integrated, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Tuna TartareDominic Armato

I'm not one to make a big deal out of bread service, but L2O's really is exceptional, providing six or seven selections in miniature form that are baked twice during the evening's service. What's more, though it seems a touch unnecessary, the butter is churned in-house, and it's delicious. Though it was tempting to make a meal of the bread, we managed to keep our consumption at reasonable levels (they only had to refill the butter dish once!) until the first dish hit the table, which was a bay scallop ceviche amuse with orange and parsley. It was clean little sweet and acidic shot, very heavy on the orange, that got us rolling nicely. This was followed in short order by another amuse, this one a clear shout out to Gras' roots on the French Riviera. A tender and flaky bit of halibut cheek, swimming in olive oil, was topped with a sliver of green olive and a dollop of tomato concassé. Given the ceviche's spiritual origins, I won't talk about this being an East-West setup for an East-West menu, though that interplay of bright, clean acid and more grounded, midrange flavors was certainly a little bit of foreshadowing.

Tofu with Miso BouillonDominic Armato

The menu's first official dish was the first of two raw seafood preparations, a fluke sashimi in an iridescent umeboshi vinaigrette with what appeared to be some type of dried seaweed, crispy fried garlic slices and a light grating of zest from some sudachi, a limelike Japanese citrus fruit. Umeboshi, for those who may not be familiar with it, is a type of pickled Japanese plum, but don't let that fool you into thinking there was anything sweet going on here. Umeboshi is incredibly sour, very salty and pungent, and a big surprise the first time you taste it. This dish was no exception. And between the puckering vinaigrette and garlicky garnish, I was a little surprised that the fluke held its own, but it absolutely did, that clean, fresh flavor somehow cutting through the noise. A good start.

Smoked Salmon with Earl GreyDominic Armato

There's little better than when a dish rekindles my love for something I thought I'd grown tired of, and our second course was exactly that. I've almost completely given up on ordering raw tuna. In sushi bars, it's almost always a flavorless slab of fish-textured protein. When served as the ubiquitous tuna tartare, it's usually slathered with so much gunk that it's impossible to taste the fish (which, come to think of it, isn't so bad since it's almost always a flavorless pile of minced, fish-textured protein). These days, I only order raw tuna at places where it's guaranteed to be spectacular. And then only if I can get some otoro or something with a little fat on it for cryin' out loud. Our second course, however, reminded me that I can't stay mad at raw tuna. "Pristine" is so overused. What's more pristine than pristine? Immaculate, I suppose, though that's not much less of a cliché. In any case, we're talking full-on biblical-style immaculate diced tuna here, topped with a green he referred to as crystal ice lettuce, and MG-looking beads of soy, dashi and olive oil emulsions. On top, more tuna that had been frozen and sent through a Hawaiian ice shaver (no joke), topping ice cold with ice ice cold. This was a beautiful example of molecular gastronomy's positive legacy, a completely traditional collection of flavors put through the technical wringer and turned into something special. I loved this dish.

Scallop with Caramelized CauliflowerDominic Armato

Our third course, though less striking, was quite lovely in its own right. Another Japanese-focused dish, it started with an exceptionally light and creamy block of house-made tofu, which was topped with itogaki (think shaved bonito, but a less aggressively flavored version made with bluefin tuna) and shiso blossoms, and sat in what was termed a miso "bouillon". That the tofu was so delicate dictated that the other components would be as well, making the more refined itogaki a thoughtful substitution rather than a merely pretentious one (though I'm not certain the same can be said of the imported shiso blossoms). The miso bouillon was similarly mellow, avoiding the sweet trap and letting the tofu come through, as it should if you're going to go to the trouble of making it yourself.

Robata-Yaki Coho SalmonDominic Armato

The smoked salmon, even if I found some of its accompaniments a little silly, stopped me dead in my tracks. The ginger gelée tasted more of gelée than ginger, which is to say it didn't taste of much at all, and though I thought the sea trout roe a lovely companion to the fish, the fact that we were presented with a single egg was flat-out comical (look carefully -- if you turn your head and catch the light just right, you might see it!). But the dish had a heart of gold, three slivers of buttery smoked salmon more jaw-dropping than anything I tasted at Russ & Daughters, crusted with a touch of Earl Grey tea and sitting next to a perfectly crisped crouton for texture. Absolutely dynamite.

Peekytoe Crab with Foie Gras EmulsionDominic Armato

It's tough to have a scallop with caramelized cauliflower and not think of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and that may very well have been the intention. And though this was one stunner of a scallop, I'm not sure that sauvignon blanc-passionfruit-vanilla will be usurping caper-raisin as my favorite sauce for this particular pairing, but an excellent dish nonetheless. Our first truly substantial piece of fish was my sole disappointment of the evening. Robota-yaki (Japanese wood-grilled) Coho salmon with breakfast radishes, watermelon radishes and a ginger-beef bouillon, though beautifully prepared, was just far too subtle for my tastes. Balanced, yes, and it's nice to see radishes featured so prominently and so well, but to me it just played a little flat.

Halibut with Corn and ChorizoDominic Armato

The next dish was anything but. I don't think I was influenced by my joy over once again seeing foie gras on Chicago's menus, but it couldn't have hurt. The thought that not long ago this would have been contraband is simultaneously maddening and hilarious. Peekytoe crab was poached in butter and almost lost in a sea of foamy foie gras emulsion. The flavor was explosive and decadent, and the light, frothy texture of the foie gras emulsion took something that might have ordinarily steamrolled the delicate crab, and instead turned it into a supporting flavor that maintained its luxurious decadence without completely stealing the spotlight. This was one of the best uses of foie gras I've seen in a long time, a powerfully flavorful dish, and probably my favorite of the evening.

Pork Belly with Truffle JusDominic Armato

The next dish's flavors went off into left field a little bit, pulling corn and chorizo into a menu that had been almost exclusively French and Japanese up until then. The centerpiece was a slab of butter-poached halibut sitting in a bowl of creamy corn that acted as though it set out to become a custard and stopped halfway. Swirled into the corn emulsion was a splash of olive oil and a subtly but distinctly-flavored chorizo broth, and hidden in the bottom were a few stalks of white asparagus. On top were discs of chorizo gelée and a thin bread crisp. While the texture of the bread was certainly appreciated, I'm not sure that the gelée really had anything to contribute other than appearances. But as for the rest, while I'm ordinarily a little leery of any preparation that takes the teeth out of an inherently potent ingredient like chorizo, it really worked well and helped keep the focus on what was, unsurprisingly, a beautiful piece of fish.

Yellowtail Shabu ShabuDominic Armato

Shockingly, L2O does, in fact, serve a non-aquatic protein from time to time. And while we weren't fortunate enough to be treated to the Miyazaki Wagyu (no surprise -- it's a $75 supplement for a 3-ounce portion on the prix fixe menu), pork belly hasn't yet gone the way of raw tuna for me, and I'm always happy to see a chunk of it land on my plate. Here, it was doused with a truffle jus and bracketed by potatoes, a thin sliver on the left and a caramelized Yukon gold on the right that was stuffed Twinkie-style with a creamy pureed potato filling. Though the flavors were straightforward and spot on, I confess that I'm unsure of how I feel about the pork belly. It was significantly firmer -- perhaps even bordering on tough -- than convention would dictate. I'd consider it a possible error, but a little reading around reveals that I'm not the only one to have been caught off-guard by the texture. A kitchen like this doesn't habitually botch their dishes, so I'm forced to conclude that it was completely intentional. I'm not seeking fork-tender pork belly monoculture. But I'm not convinced this wasn't a little tougher than it should have been. When handling the flatware without launching it becomes a challenge, I'm thinking there's an error of either conception or execution in there somewhere.

Chocolate Ganache with SoyDominic Armato

Our savory cooldown course required something of an apparatus, which looked like the Architectural Digest version of a chalice, holding hot chicken broth and set behind a board with sliced hamachi, mushroom, napa and shiso leaf. When a small bowl of goma-su was set in front of the fish, my suspicion morped into expectation, and later confirmation when I inadvertently blurted out, "Shabu Shabu," to which our server replied, "That's right," though it couldn't have been more obvious at that point what was going on. Sadly, though I adore shabu shabu, I felt this was a weak dish. the goma-su felt flat to me, and I'm not convinced that the fish was improved by a trip through the hot broth, no matter how brief. But that was some dynamite hamachi.

Kaffir Lime with Coconut CloudDominic Armato

Desserts were fast and furious, starting with a dark chocolate and olive oil ganache with a touch of soy sauce (the size of a large marble, since the photo gives no sense of perspective). I'm unsure whether the soy was worked into the ganache or constituted the powder on top, but the flavor was subtly and unmistakably there. I doubt Gras is the first to accent chocolate with soy sauce, mostly because it seems so obvious, in retrospect, that soy's saltiness and dark caramel flavor would pair well. It made for a delicious and slightly unconventional bit. Next, a kaffir lime foam hid a small pile of diced pineapple beneath, and was crowned with a coconut "cloud", which was a light and airy crisp that melted away into nothingness after an initial crunch. It was refreshing and delicious and an excellent use of edgy tech.

Raspberry with Yuzu-Honey ConsomméDominic Armato

The third dessert, for somebody who likes light and refreshing desserts like me, was a total showstopper, even if it was a bigger production than it needed to be. Raspberries and slivers of lemon confit sat next to a quenelle of unsweetened mascarpone sorbet, atop of which was a crisp ribbon of white chocolate. Our server then produced a vial with a small, golden log inside -- some manner of honey and yuzu gelée that had been coated with gold leaf. He poured a similarly composed broth of yuzu and honey into the vial and shook it, dissolving the log and leaving a gold-flecked broth which was poured around the dessert. The flavors were dynamite, the honey taking the edge off the yuzu's punch, which in turn cut the richness of the mascarpone... I loved it. But gold leaf always strikes me as a little ridiculous, even within a fine dining context, and I'm not sure what the whole "magical dissolving log" thing accomplished that simply pouring a broth wouldn't have other than giving the server something to do and calling your attention to the fact that they were using gold leaf. I don't mind a little showmanship at this level, but I like to think it's somehow meaningful from a culinary standpoint, even if just barely.

Praline SouffléDominic Armato

Gras then sent us off with some more traditional tastes of his birthplace, starting with a praline soufflé with vanilla, Frangelico and dark rum. This was a textbook preparation, light and moist and airy with a slightly crusty top, the sauce drizzled into a hole in the center so that the soufflé could soak it in. Mignardises included a little treat I'd read about but am embarrassed to admit I'd never tasted. Canelés are little (in this case, golf ball-sized) custards, poured into molds that look like elongated Bundt cake pans and baked until the outer edges turn a crisp, deep brown with a heavy caramelized flavor, while the interior remains pale and moist. It's a delightful textural and flavor contrast that I'm pleased to have finally tasted. And before our departure, a perfectly crisp/moist/gooey macaroon of the coffee and chocolate persuasion arrived to see us off.

CaneléDominic Armato

Though I knew the name, I knew little of Gras' cuisine before sitting down to dinner. On one hand, given how pervasive the Japanese influence was on this menu -- about half of the dishes put uniquely Japanese flavors front and center -- I was a little surprised that I couldn't find any reference to him spending any length of time cooking in Japan. But upon further reflection, I suppose I shouldn't be. There's little on display in the way of Japanese technique. Rather, these dishes are those of someone who has fallen in love with Japanese flavors and worked them into his own style, in this case that of a French background with a healthy dose of MG. Gras' use of MG, however, is fairly restrained, as it goes. Oh, he has the toys. Reading through the L2O blog, you can only envision Rich Melman sitting there, shaking his head as invoices for dehydrators, Pavaillers, freeze-dryers, cold-smokers, Hawaiian ice shavers, Gastrovacs, rotary evaporators, etc. go flying by at breakneck speed. But this isn't the "pay attention to me!" MG of some of his contemporaries. There's some flash, but there's also a lot of restraint, and I suspect this approach is more indicative of the future of zany kitchen technology.

Coffee and Chocolate MacaroonDominic Armato

Which sort of segues into the final thought I was left with as we pulled away from the Belden-Stratford. Between the state of the world economy, the booming popularity of humble, snout-to-tail, locally-sourced cuisine, and the propagation of chefs who could do more upscale work but choose to keep things simple and casual, there are many who believe that fine dining is going or should go the way of the dinosaur. I confess, in the current climate, it's a little weird to research a restaurant that's flying in tiny boxes of microgreens from Japan and spending a fortune on the kind of technology that would make any mad scientist worth his salt green with envy. It just seems so at odds with today's culinary scene in so many ways. But here's a chef who's taking that spare-no-expense opportunity and doing some really wonderful things with it, and I find myself thinking about how unfortunate it would be if L2O didn't make it. Fact is, this was one of the most exciting meals I've had in recent memory, and despite L2O's youth I found it more compelling and delicious than all of Chicago's other fine dining options with the exception of Alinea, and that, perhaps, only because Alinea is such an incredibly unique experience that it's hard to even judge it in a traditional fine dining context. This is cuisine that could not be replicated without a big budget and the accompanying big price tag, and if it were to quietly slip away I'm convinced that something would be lost. Not something inherently greater or more noble -- I don't subscribe to the theory that fine dining is somehow the pinnacle of food, or even slightly more worthy than any other style of cuisine -- but something that's simply irreplaceable in any other context. I guess what I'm trying to say is that when people say there's something wrong with fine dining, I'm forced to recognize that dining doesn't get much more fine than L2O, and believe me, there's nothing wrong with L2O.

2300 North Lincoln Park West
Chicago, IL 60614
Sun - Mon, Wed - Thu6:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat6:00 PM - 11:00 PM

November 10, 2009


Potato and Shaved Cauliflower Salad Dominic Armato

One of the great shames of my departure from Chicago was that I never quite managed to get to Avec. Here you've got a place that's pretty much universally beloved, side project of Paul Kahan, one of Chicago's most respected heavy hitters, kitchen run by James Beard shortlister Koren Grieveson, food that even the hardcore food nerds were swooning over despite the trendy setting... how did I never set foot in there, exactly? When you visit home, especially when you haven't been in nearly a year, it's incredibly difficult to hit anything other than the old haunts. But for Avec, I managed to tear myself away.

Chorizo-Stuffed Medjool DatesDominic Armato

The place is a box. Literally. It's like a giant box, with wooden paneling on both walls, floor and ceiling going all the way to the back of the restaurant. It's a cool effect. It's sharp, modern, Scandinavian-looking. I suspect it's intended to evoke a wine cask, since Avec is, first and foremost, supposed to be a wine bar. Angular wooden tables, angular wooden benches... the counter along one wall a rare stretch of stainless. All of which means that Avec is LOUD. This is a bright, boisterous and dense place, packed shoulder-to-shoulder even on a Monday night. But even so, though they don't take reservations and the crowd was three deep at the host's stand, we managed to nab two seats at the bar within ten minutes. The wine list is extensive and the menu is focused on small plates with Mediterranean flavors, but it's clear we're not talking anything strictly traditional, here. So we told the fellow taking our order to bring us a quartino of something he liked, and we set to picking out dishes that looked good.

Saffron-Marinated Chicken ThighDominic Armato

The salads looked unusually compelling, so we opted to try one of them, and though the farro salad with peppers, rutabaga, crowder peas and fried egg sounded mighty compelling, our fellow steered us instead towards the potato and shaved cauliflower with haricots vert, sundried tomatoes and anchovy vinaigrette. It turned out to be as straightforward as it sounds, notable for the fact that everything was done so crisply. Boiled potatoes, green beans, slivers of onion, vinaigrette -- this has the signature of every mediocre potluck-style salad you've ever had. But it was pulled off with unusual precision, everything blanched to the point of just barely losing rawness while maintaining every last bit of crisp freshness, sundried tomatoes that hadn't been sitting in an oil slick and a bright vinaigrette with a touch of anchovy funk that brought out the veggies without blowing them away. I can't say it's something I'm in a big hurry to have again, but for what it was, it was an excellent specimen.

Pappardelle with Braised DuckDominic Armato

Next up were the chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with smoked bacon, which is apparently Avec code for "enormous chorizo meatballs with token amounts of date and bacon". This is not a complaint, though anybody looking for a fruit-centric dish might accuse them of false advertising. They were smoky and rather spicy, completely blowing out my ladylove on the first bite (not that she's a yardstick by which to be judged when it comes to spice tolerance). So I got the lion's share of the dates/meatballs and promptly demolished them, right down to every bit of the sweet, intense tomato and piquillo pepper sauce in which they were lounging. After years of chicken aversion, chicken thighs have become one of my go-to proteins as of late, so I found myself unable to pass on the saffron-marinated chicken thigh, served here with a pungent cabbage agrodolce, roasted mushrooms, a tuft of frisée and a caraway and crème fraîche vinaigrette. The chicken was moist and succulent, yes, but a theme was emerging here, one where every included ingredient was largely unadulterated and singing its name... loudly.

Crispy Sweetbreads with Roasted BeetsDominic Armato

Here, we broke and went for a big plate, simply because it looked too good to resist. I'm a tough sell when it comes to pasta that isn't pretty darn traditional. It's not that I'm not open to interpretation and wild variation. It's just that I've learned to be disappointed most of the time. Pasta's simple for a reason, and if you're going to complicate things you'd better know what you're doing. And Grieveson does. The pappardelle was rolled a little thick for my tastes, almost coming across as having the body of a big Asian noodle rather than the delicate game accompaniment I've come to expect from one of my more favored pastas, but I really couldn't fault this one, with shredded braised duck and chunks of duck liver, rapini for a little vegetable, and the unconventional use of orange zest and mint as brightening accents. Heck, they even managed to stir in a good deal of mascarpone -- a practice that usually just results in a gloopy mess -- and keep me happy. The whole thing could stand to be a little less wet, I think, but the flavors are there and they're big and they're extremely enjoyable.

Pear Tart with Olive Oil Ice CreamDominic Armato

Here, we almost packed it in before opting for one more small plate, spurred on by the fact that the fellow sitting to our left happened to have chosen the dish that was on the bubble. We went for the offal, crispy sweetbreads atop giant, crunchy croutons, stacked with slices of roasted beets and watercress and smothered in a goat cheese bechamel. Subtle this one wasn't, but I'm glad we got it. The sweetbreads were great, crisp and meaty and not -- as they so often are -- fried into oblivion in an attempt to make them palatable for those who are offally suspicious. Sweet beets, fresh greens, and croutons with enough body to stand up to one incredibly rich and creamy sauce that pulled up just short of being too much, I think. Any more and it would have obliterated the rest of the plate, and I've no doubt there are those who'd love to see just as much again dumped over the top, but for me it was just creamy and tangy enough to make me feel a little guilty about how much of it there was while rendering me unable to complain about it.

Chocolate CrispsDominic Armato

Desserts were perfectly nice, if not as exciting as their savory counterparts. A pear tart had a delicious, flaky crust but its central fruit wasn't as prominent a feature as I would have preferred. The olive oil ice cream on top, however, was a killer scoop, unusually dense, wet and custardy. Chocolate crisps were no great gustatory revelation, but presented themselves in an unusually delightful manner. Arriving in both milk and dark varieties, the chocolate had been tempered just so, making it stiff and brittle, so that pieces would break off with a satisfying snap. It had also been combined with some manner of wafer-thin crispy flakes, making these sort of the haute version of a crunch bar. I enjoyed them far, far more than I'd expected I would.

Though my reaction was tempered, I think, by the fact that my expectations had been built impossibly high, this was nonetheless a really wonderful meal, and I absolutely understand why Avec is so beloved. She's not the fanciest girl at the ball, but she's confident and she has a little spunk and a lot of soul. This is a formula we're seeing a lot more of now, but of course, Avec has already been doing it for a while. These are great ingredients, put together in an honest, rustic and still creative fashion, and though the dishes aren't terribly refined, the execution is tack-sharp, so their big flavors stay distinct and don't get muddy. This is definitely one of those places where I'd love to have the opportunity to sit down and walk my way straight down the menu, tasting everything there. Next time I'll bring more dining companions.

615 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60661
Sun - Thu3:30 PM - 12:00 AM3:30 PM - 1:00 AM
Fri - Sat3:30 PM - 1:00 AM3:30 PM - 2:00 AM

November 05, 2009

Craigie on Main

Squid Noodles, Lobster with Vinaigrette, Brandade Fritter Dominic Armato

And now, a Boston restaurant that didn't disappoint.

Craigie on Main had been sitting at the top of my hit list before our arrival, when I did a little browsing to see what we'd have to look forward to in our new town. And as anybody who's spending time reading a food blog no doubt knows, when you do enough of these searches, you develop habits for parsing the information you read -- who's knowledgeable, who isn't, whether something this guy likes will appeal to you, etc. Almost every restaurant has its detractors, if for no other reason than because it doesn't have any detractors. Universal acclaim is rare, but that's what Craigie on Main seemed to inspire. So I was, no doubt, quite anxious to stop by.

Bigeye Tuna SashimiDominic Armato

Craigie on Main and its head chefly person, the highly-decorated Tony Maws, like to refer to their cuisine as "refined rusticity". And while I found our meal far more refined than rustic, I think I understand what they're getting at. Craigie on Main is one of the new breed of restaurant that's highly dogmatic about local, organic, sustainable, etc. -- all of the things that I respect, but don't particularly want to hear about unless the food's good. Restaurants like this, whether they're walking or merely talking, are a dime a dozen these days. What's far less common is to find one that takes those "Hey, we just got this from that farm over there" sensibilities and applies them to very crisp, highly refined cuisine. In that sense, Craigie on Main walks the line. Their ingredient acquisition is old-timey, but what they do with those ingredients is anything but. The room is cozy and homey and a little rustic, and every seat offers a view of the gleaming, modern, starkly white open kitchen. Many of the roots are traditional French, but the food is... well, here's what we had.

Herb-Marinated ScallopDominic Armato

The evening's ten course tasting menu (of course we went blowout style) was kicked off with an amuse trio, and the level of refinement of which this kitchen is capable was immediately evident. All three tastes were meticulously crafted, beautifully plated and intensely flavored -- and intentionally or not, seemed to thematically span three continents, to boot. Finely julienned squid noodles that had been dressed with nuoc cham and fried shallot were a textural delight, and despite their Eastern influences almost struck me as slightly creamy. A sliver of chilled lobster with a lime vinaigrette and chaotically-shaped rice cracker evoked, to me, the ceviches of South America. The France and Italy of old Europe were on display with the third bite, a crisp on the outside creamy on the inside brandade fritter with a midnight black squid ink anchoiade that provided a much-appreciated dirty funk to go along with the brandade's light creaminess. What can I say? I have a weakness for the defensive mechanisms of cephalopods.

Pork Belly TortelliniDominic Armato

Next up was a bit of raw seafood, a slice of bigeye tuna with a myriad of accompaniments that nonetheless flowed beautifully. Topped with a small salad of red onion and shiso, sitting atop slivered avocado and dressed with a harissa rose vinaigrette, it played far less busy than it looked and demonstrated that you can throw a horde of ingredients at raw fish without getting clumsy about it. Our third dish struck me as the weak link of the evening, and that's a compliment. Sea scallops were marinated with a number of herbs, skewered, grilled and plated with charred pineapple, yuzu, a green olive puree, crispy ginger and a pile of some manner of microgreen. Perhaps the pineapple was a little strong. It just didn't feel quite as crisp as the rest of the menu. But it was still undeniably delicious, and I could not have been more appreciative of the fact that the scallops' coral was left intact. That you don't see that more frequently is a source of endless frustration to me, and it did not go unappreciated.

Spiced Pork RibDominic Armato

Our next dish was pork belly tortellini with squash blossoms and summer squash jus. And given the ingredient list, those who read this blog with any regularity won't be the least bit shocked that this was my favorite of the evening, but I assure you, it's not for the reasons you think. The braised pork belly filling was actually rather muted, clearly in a supporting role. The squash blossoms were lovely, to be sure. But what captivated me was the summer squash jus. And part of the reason it captivated me so was that it seems such an unlikely object of my affection. I always think of summer squash as an unexciting throwaway ingredient on a menu -- the stuff that gets sliced and thrown on the plate with your meat, or the boring anchor of a ratatouille. But the jus was just so bold and flavorful and unashamedly Summer Squash that I completely forgot it was a pork dish until midway through. I mean, really... when's the last time summer squash stole the show from pork belly?

Veal Two WaysDominic Armato

There was no muting the smoked pork rib that followed, however, as it was big and meaty and right there in the center of the dish. It was the dish, heavily spiced with a blend I won't begin to try to decipher, hit with crispy garlic and shallots and sitting atop a smear of huitlacoche. This was one of those Trojan horse of refinement kind of dishes, with which you could fool a bar food junkie into getting excited about something that was actually a complex balancing act of flavors. It was a brash, sweet, smoky, dig in kind of dish and my ladylove declared it her favorite of the evening. When some meat and potatoes fanatic (decidedly not my ladylove) says he doesn't go in for that froo-froo stuff, this is the dish you give him a taste of and dare him not to eat the rest.

Peanut Butter ParfaitDominic Armato

And with that, the pendulum swung back to full-on French, providing us with veal two ways. Succulent, silken cheeks were drowning (in a good way) in intensely reduced veal stock, while roasted sweetbreads -- fresh and light and barely registering as offal -- sat atop an assortment of roasted vegetables, mushrooms, and an eggplant puree. It was pure, traditional meaty decadence, beautifully done. Of course, a dish that meaty carries with it a government-mandated cooling-off period, so the next offering (not pictured) was a panna cotta flavored with jasmine and rooibos teas, and topped with toasted rice syrup and candied citrus zest. It was a clean, cool, fresh and delicious transition to the more intense desserts.

Macerated Summer FruitsDominic Armato

The practice of serving two different desserts to a couple is one fraught with peril. On one hand, it's always fun to be able to taste more dishes. On the other hand, if your company pulls the short straw and lands the lame dessert, the temptation to refuse the plate swap can run dangerously high. Thankfully, this was one of those perfect evenings where we both felt that we got the better end of the deal. Which isn't to say I didn't love her dessert, a peanut butter "parfait" that I put that in quotes only because I'm not entirely sure what the peanut butter component -- sandwiched between the two cookies -- was, precisely. It played a little like ice cream, but was unusually airy, light and dry. Peanut butter is so dominant a flavor that I thought it smart of them to dial it back a bit, and the filling wasn't overly strong. The big star, however, was the banana foam, a light but very wet banana modification that I'm having difficulty describing but no difficulty calling fantastic. It was one of those mind-bending "that flavor isn't supposed to feel like THAT" treatments, but handled effectively rather than as a novelty.

And while I dig the heavier desserts, my heart is usually with ones like the one I received, a pile of stunningly beautiful macerated Summer fruits (note -- peeled grape), with yogurt sorbet and peach tea soda. The sorbet may have been completely unsweetened, there more for its gentle sourness and creaminess than anything else, and the soda had some significant effervescence, providing a nice tingly effect on top of its flavor. And just in case we weren't quite ready to let the meal go (I wasn't), we received a small glass of rhubarb and hibiscus tea mousse with yogurt foam to finish.

The word that springs to mind is delightful. It was just an absolutely delightful meal from top to bottom, full of intense flavors, beautiful combinations and little surprises that were handled with such thought and care that they didn't seem the least bit gratuitous. What makes it doubly impressive is that Maws purportedly creates these complex menus daily based on what arrives in his kitchen that morning. A sure hand and keen imagination are guiding this kitchen, and one gets the sense that Maws could rock the fine dining scene if he so desired. But really, there's no reason for that. Seeing the restaurant, tasting his food, reading his writing -- you get the sense that he's exactly where he wants to be. And I hope to be there again very soon, myself.

Craigie on Main
853 Main Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
Tue - Thu5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Sun5:00 PM - 10:00 PM

November 03, 2009

51 Lincoln

Cambodian Style Mussels Dominic Armato


We're going to save the Power Rankings for Monday, and in the interim, I'm going to take the opportunity to knock a few restaurants out of the massive backlog I've been accumulating. We have some Boston spots, a trip to Chicago, a couple of old San Francisco stops I never got around to writing up... but first, something a little closer to home.

Tomato Jam (?)Dominic Armato

A little while back, whilst my father was in town for a couple of days and looking to treat my ladylove and myself to a casual little dinner out on the town, we decided to explore some of the local offerings and fell into 51 Lincoln. It's been getting some rather complimentary press, a warm, laid-back and yet creative suburban joint with a chef who makes his own pastas and cures his own pork. The menu online certainly looked promising, some nice combinations, a mix of flavors, but nothing that got too far off the beaten path. So we opted to pass on the big city and see what Newton Highlands had to offer. The vibe's great. It's homey, dim (as you might have guessed from the photo quality) and cozy, but it's got a little energy. The kind of place that's great to have around the corner when you want to fall in for a nice dinner out. Provided the food's good, of course.

Caesar Salad with BurrataDominic Armato

We got off to a great start, and though I don't like to spend too much time on little freebies, I nonetheless feel compelled to call out the slightly spicy and sweet tomato jam that accompanied our bread. It was swimming in a dish with a good olive oil, and the tomato flavor just exploded. Yeah, it's a bread dip, but it made a great first impression. Though the menu gets around geographically, we all ended up going Italian(ish) for our starters, my ladylove with a classic Caesar and the fellas with pastas, which are available either as entrees or true primi. This first full pass at the menu was... less exciting... but still entirely enjoyable.

Scallop PappardelleDominic Armato

My ladylove's Caesar -- well, okay, there's nothing at all Italian about a Caesar salad, but its twist was that it came with a large piece of burrata atop a giant crouton, thereby barely maintaining our thematic integrity. What's to say? It was a decent Caesar. Not especially creamy, probably a disappointment to traditionalists but well-executed. The burrata, I thought, was okay. Not nearly as fresh and creamy as I might've hoped. Though good burrata is incredibly hard to come by and I'd have a hard time faulting them for this acquisition. My pasta, a pappardelle with scallops and a number of other ingredients that slip my mind at the moment, was enjoyable in a neo-Italian sort of way, even for this pasta traditionalist. The pappardelle could have had more body and the whole plate was a little busy, but these are minor complaints. Well-balanced flavors, well-cooked scallops, and a well-received dish.

Rigatoni BologneseDominic Armato

The rigatoni Bolognese, for which they're apparently famed, elicited something more of an "eh..." response. It was a fairly mellow version, containing -- I'm guessing -- some veal and/or pork. It was more wet than oily, which I don't consider a good thing. But again, the flavor was solid and layered and about the only significant complaint I can make is that the pasta was a little ways on the limp side of acceptable, to my tastes. Italians aren't turning in their graves, but they're a little restless. in any case, a solid dish, even if one that I'd be reluctant to hang my hat on as a signature dish.

Polenta FriesDominic Armato

Another dish for which they're known, however, is entirely worthy of the praise. The polenta fries, thick batons of creamy cornmeal fried up inside a crisp shell and accompanied by a parmesan and truffle dip, were salty and hot and delicious. They'd be dangerous if there were more of them, and the fact that they arrived in between our first and second courses only put the focus on them that much more. They disappeared in about 30 seconds. It was also about this time that the kitchen opted to send out a little sample for us, an amuse portion of their Cambodian style mussels appetizer, with lemongrass, chiles, lime and a touch of coconut milk. On this front, I was considerably less enthused. The flavors were on point, but they were weak, making it seem like the kind of Asian lite dish intended not to offend with the kind of explosive flavors that typically come out of Southeast Asia. If the regular dish is served with a pool of the broth and a little bread, it might come across differently. I can't say. But in this format, it just fell flat.

Swordfish with SunchokesDominic Armato

My entree was a grilled swordfish with risotto, shaved sunchokes and a sort of lemon compote. The fish was on, crusty and nicely seasoned and the sunchokes were on, providing a nice textural contrast. The risotto was less exciting, coming across as somewhat watery and bland, wanting for both flavor and salt, which is not what you need when supporting a grilled piece of fish and a very subtly flavored vegetable. The whole dish was saved by the delicious lemon compote, which was aggressively sweet and sour and provided some bright zip that the rest of the dish desperately needed. Sadly, potent as it was, there wasn't nearly enough of it -- more of an indictment of how much needed brightening than the compote itself. There was a good dish in here. It just had issues.

Salmon with Soy Mirin ReductionDominic Armato

My father's entree couldn't have been more simple, a piece of roast chicken with mashed potatoes, asparagus and a chicken jus which I didn't taste but he rather enjoyed. My ladylove's entree, however, had me annoyed from the get-go. Before I rant, I'll supply two caveats, that she was entirely pleased with her dish (in fact, it was the second time she'd ordered it, having visited for a business dinner earlier), and that on a technical level, I'm not sure I can fault the dish. But what we're talking about is a piece of salmon with a soy and mirin reduction atop julienned vegetables and rice. I mean, do we really need another version of this dish? Especially one that could not be more firmly planted right in the middle of the box? This isn't roast chicken. It isn't some timeless classic that you don't mess with. This is a dish that has catered wedding written all over it. I took one bite and thought to myself, "Really? Are you trying to further the stereotype that suburban restaurants serve boring, dumbed-down cuisine?" And it's a timid, underpowered version to boot. Sadly, it's one of the few dishes that seems to have survived the menu's seasonal transition, which indicates it might be a permanent fixture. Too bad. It's a waste of menu space.

Dessert involved some lovely sorbet and a disappointing crème brûlée. The latter looked perfectly fine, but its crust had mostly lost its crunch and the crème beneath was much warmer than it should have been, indicating that it probably sat in the kitchen for a while after being torched. Disappointing.

I came away a little puzzled by 51 Lincoln's acclaim. Some rather educated food folk have said some very nice things, but our only tack-sharp dishes of the evening were a side and a bread dip. And though execution might have accounted for some of it, this was smack-dab in the middle of the dinner hour on a Friday night, so it seems unlikely that it was a matter of the B Team not quite firing on all cylinders. This wasn't a bad meal by any stretch of the imagination. It's just that a lot of things were... fine. Suffice it to say that 41 Lincoln didn't do much to dispel that suburban restaurant stereotype. I didn’t see any compelling reason to travel for it, and if you live in the area, the only reason I can think of not to drive into the city is to save yourself 20-30 minutes in either direction. And that's not enough.

51 Lincoln
51 Lincoln Street
Newton Highlands, MA 02461
Mon - Sun5:00 PM - 10:00 PM