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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.22.07

Weekend in New England

Travel


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For a variety of reasons, I keep finding myself in Boston. I have been there to visit historic sites, to catch a plane to another destination (Icelandair doesn’t fly directly from Chicago to Reykjavík), for business, and more recently, because I now have friends there.

On my first trip to Boston, I managed to knock off all the “expected” foods—Italian in Boston’s North End, lobster rolls downtown, clam chowder at Legal Seafood (served at every presidential inauguration since 1981). Good stuff. I loved it all. But I also enjoy a little variety. Fortunately, New England has plenty of that, as well. Here are a few discoveries from recent visits.

Elephant Walk was the first Cambodian restaurant in the United States, and it has come to be considered one of the best restaurants in Boston (and in its other two locations: Cambridge, and Waltham). Mother and daughter chef team, Longteine and Nadsa de Monteiro, wow clients with delectable Cambodian and French cuisine (a natural combination, given the years of French colonial rule in Cambodia).

Appetizers of flavorful, soy-glazed grilled salmon and fresh, crisp Cambodian spring rolls were a delight. Next, I tried the Somiah Machou, a bright, garlicky shrimp soup flavored with mint and lime. The Amok Royal, a spicy, custard-like dish packed with seafood, was more luxurious than the simple fish amok that had been my favorite dish in Cambodia, but it still transported me. Sampling my friends dinners, I was also impressed by the Poulet à la Citronelle, which combined sliced chicken breast with lemongrass, red bell peppers, and scallions, and a duck confit/seared breast combo. For dessert, French was clearly the way to go. We divided a hazelnut mousse and Le Péché au Chocolate, a rich chocolate truffle cake served with raspberry coulis. Both were good, but the chocolate was transcendant.

I didn’t know until after I ate at Rendezvous that it had just (October 2007) been named by Gourmet Magazine as one of the best farm-to-table restaurants in the U.S., but when I found out, I wasn’t at all surprised. The passion and commitment of chef-owner Steve Johnson is clearly evident in his demeanor as he walks through his Cambridge restaurant, greeting customers. It is even more obvious on the menu—and on the plate.

Passing appetizers, I had the opportunity to sample the light, perfect potato gnocchi with Maine crab, chanterelles, corn, and cherry tomatoes; splendid seared sea scallops with orange-saffron aioli and fennel powder; a sensational ragout of foraged mushrooms with truffled corn risotto; and a refreshing salad of nectarines, sylvetta (a member of the arugula family), Serrano ham, balsamic vinegar, mint, and pistachios. Everything was bright, flavorful, and fresh.

Roast chicken with preserved lemon, couscous, sherry, almonds and honey was served with a side of red and golden beets. The chicken was excellent, with a delicately crispy skin and moist, well-seasoned meat. We didn’t split the main courses, but I did get to try the intensely flavorful braised pork and veal meatballs with toasted orecchiette, Tuscan kale, and piave cheese, and Gascon-style duck 3 ways: grilled breast, confit leg, and country sausage.

I was advised by one of my friends that desserts were not Rendezvous’s strong suit, and, wanting to end on a positive note, I took her advice. However, we were impressed with the carefully selected list of dessert wines. It was a splendid meal—and one more reason to look forward to another trip to Boston.

Casablanca was another fun discovery. Also in Cambridge, near Harvard Square, this charming downstairs establishment is one of the area’s older restaurants. The handsome interior combines North African touches and colors with murals from the movie that gave the spot its name. The food is, not too surprisingly, Mediterranean, but is not limited to Morocco. My Turkish meze plate brought muhammara (a spread made with puréed grilled red peppers and walnuts), carrot salad with olives, yellow lentil Santorínis (another delightful veggie puree, this one of lentils and spices). This was served with fabulous, thin crisp bread brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds and herbs. Sari’s lamb was a perfect little marinated lamb steak, charcoal grilled and served with charred tomatoes, spicy Greek garlic-yogurt, grilled pita. I want to go back for the fig and blue cheese tart with baby arugula and toasted walnuts—as well as about a dozen other menu items.

That is, of course, hardly an exhaustive list of restaurants in the Boston-Cambridge area, but if you’re just there for a weekend, it offers an alternative to lobster rolls and clam chowder. Another alternative is to pick up food and have a picnic. My top recommendation here is Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge. This is one of those places where you immediately want to look for an apartment nearby so you can shop here every day. The place is packed wall to wall with the most exquisite foods from everywhere. There are mountains of imported cheeses; rows of fabulous sausages; honeys, spices, teas, and coffees from around the world, and fresh fruit and veggies from local farmers. Olives, sauces, antipasti, biscotti, oils and vinegars, pastas, breads, seafood, and more make this relatively small shop a paradise for food lovers.

And for your sweet tooth, stop in at L.A. Burdick (in Cambridge and in Walpole, NH), where handmade chocolates are almost too beautiful to eat. Chocolates are flavored with everything from orange and rose petals to Earl Grey tea and figs. Burdick has its whimsical side, too, with chocolate penguins (filled with whipped lemon ganache) and chocolate mice, with different fillings for the dark, milk, and white mice.

One thing that delights me about the East Coast is that things are much closer together than they are anywhere west of the original Thirteen Colonies. In the time and distance it takes to drive from the northwest suburbs to Chicago, you can have crossed a couple of states out East. A friend suggested dining in Maine, which would be about an hour drive from Boston. New Hampshire is even closer—between Boston and Maine, in fact. How could I resist. (Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are fairly nearby, as well. Maybe next trip.)

Of course, as long as you’re near the coast, clam, oyster, and lobster places are very much in evidence. But there are other delights. In Portsmouth, NH, we stopped at the Flatbread Company, a restaurant specializing in all-natural pizzas cooked in “primitive, wood-fired clay ovens.” The centerpiece of the restaurant, which also has locations in Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts, is the great, clay ovens where the pizzas are cooked. One might say there is an open kitchen, but in reality it’s more like all diners get to eat at the kitchen table. The ovens and cooks take up one very large corner of the high-ceilinged room, and tables are simply ranged around the rest of the room, at varying distances from the ovens. As a result, not only did we get to see our pizza being made, we got to interact with the cook.

The only starter is salad—organic mesclun and lettuces with ginger-tamari vinaigrette. And there are only eight varieties of pizza. The dough for all varieties is made with organically grown wheat and spring water, with added wheat germ. There are vegetarian and vegan options, and nitrite-free pepperoni, homemade sausage, or free-range chicken, for those who want meat. Half the pizzas have tomato sauce, half don’t. We opted for the Portsmouth Community Flatbread, which was topped with caramelized onions, mushrooms, garlic oil, mozzarella, Parmesan, and herbs. Wow. What an unbelievable pizza. Even if we hadn’t seen it put into the oven, we could taste the smokiness of the wood fire. The crust was thin, crisp, and perfect, and the toppings were sensational. This is definitely a place to seek out if you’re near any of their locations.

The restaurant my friend had wanted to try in Maine turned out to be the only disappointment of the trip. It’s not that it wasn’t good, it’s just that it fell so far sort of the hype—and the price point. Arrows, in Ogunquit, ME, is touted as being an almost unparalleled restaurant with a focus on locally grown produce. In fact, they grow most of their own produce right on the property, and a stroll through the gardens is a pleasant part of the visit. The literature and many reviews talk endlessly about how they churn their own butter, buy local products, and create exquisite delicacies. Well, that’s certainly what they aim for, but perhaps they got derailed at some point.

We were offered imported waters, imported butters, imported cheeses, which struck us as odd in a place that built its reputation on buying local. The only thing that seemed to really capture their stated intent was a small salad of garden herbs that garnished my appetizer. Everything else was pretty disappointing. A strudel of wood grilled leeks lacked flavor and was our first clue that this restaurant doesn’t know much about pastry. The “corn fritter” was a two-inch section of corn on the cob dipped in batter and fried; clever idea, but the corn was flavorless and the batter wasn’t any better than that at a decent state fair. The house-cured meats my friend ordered weren’t bad, with the duck pastrami and house made prosciutto being the best of their charcuterie, but the sausages were not outstanding. Of course, we would probably have been less critical if the appetizers hadn’t cost more than main courses at most other restaurants.

Halibut prepared three ways was flavorless, and the three ways were hard to tell apart (which shouldn’t be the case when one way is poached, one is sautéed, and one is roasted). The beef tenderloin offered excellent-quality meat, but in a sauce that was far too reduced and had become gummy. When it came to dessert, we decided to split the caramel tasting, and found that there was little caramel flavor in most of the items, and the included garden apple tarte tatin was another example of the failure of their pastry chef (if they have one). Only the chewy lemon verbena caramels were really good—but not good enough to salvage the meal. All was topped off by a cup of insipid coffee. By this time, my friend and I were having so much fun commenting on shortcomings of food and wait staff that we were still having a good time.

So if you’re visiting New England, there are lots of places to enjoy, and at least one disappointing and over-priced place to avoid. With all those historical bits thrown in—Freedom Trail, Old North Church, Concord, and so on—plus the gorgeous scenery (rocky coastline, rolling hills, forests), you may not want to wait until a business trip takes you there.

2 Comments on "Weekend in New England"

Liz Clauser

Wow. I live in Boston and couldn’t disagree with you more. Elephant Walk is incredibly over-hyped and without a doubt has served me and others some of the worst food I’ve ever been asked to pay for. Casablanca, while it once was good, is an outpost for those who prefer a scene to a place with substance. As for Arrows, I don’t know how much hype you had heard about it - a factor which would influence the ultimate impresssion, and I agree that the price point and imported waters and butter options can be off-putting. That said, I’ve eaten there several times, and a couple that I know to be of very high standards and good taste had there wedding there, and this restaurant has never been short of outstanding.



Cynthia

Well, that’s the thing about food. Everyone brings something different to it, and with different backgrounds and expectations, plus differences within a restaurant on different nights, one’s best option is to read more than one review and then, if one has the time and money, find out for oneself. As for the experience I brought to some of the places, I had been to Cambodia shortly before eating at Elephant Walk, and had been to Morocco shortly before eating at Casablanca, so the familiarity of tastes delighted me, as they were still vivid from my travels. However, since I was dining, in both places, with a table full of serious foodies (Boston natives all), none of whom shared my travel experiences, but who rejoiced in their dinners, I felt that my long-term dining experience was more at play than mere nostalgia.

As for Arrows, again, I was with a group of serious foodies, and we all had the same reaction — with some actually reacting more strongly than I. One woman even wrote a long letter to the establishment, she was so disappointed by the meal. Maybe it was a bad night, but the fact that their reaction to my friend’s letter was more along the lines of “you’re ignorant” rather than “so sorry you had a bad night” didn’t endear them to us.

All that said, I have over the years known restaurants that I dearly loved and would have thought could do no wrong seriously disappoint someone to whom I’d made a recommendation. But, as with all food writers, all I can report is my experience. As they ads say, your mileage may vary.



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