Saturday, December 26, 2009

Some Quick Bites for under $10

One of the myths of great food is that you can't eat well for less. Some of my favorite restaurants have delicious food that is incredibly inexpensive. The Brookline/Brighton area is great for cheap eats. At JoJo TaiPei you can get dishes filled with tofu or soup. At Pho Viet's at the Super 88, you can buy a delicious banh mi or sandwich filled with meat and vegetables on a french bread roll.
At Dorado Taco and Cemitas in Brookline, there are wonderful fish tacos (pictured above)-each for under $3.00! On my first trip I tried a grilled swordfish taco, as well as a lightly battered "Dorado" or pollock. Each generous piece of fish was served with toppings that really made the taco. In the case of the swordfish it came with tomatillo and avocado salsa, while the Dorado was served with salsa fresca and smoky chipotle crema. I also asked for a side of pickled onions that added a delightful sweetness to these. Served in two small overlapping corn tortillas, two tacos alone made for a filling lunch.

For a completely different experience, if you are in Beacon Hill, don't overlook Villa Mexico, located in a Grampy's Gas Station of all places.
The owner is from Puebla, Mexico and for under $8.00 you can enjoy two moist, filling tamales or corn turnovers.

The Diesel Cafe in Somerville is my hand's-down favorite cafe when I need to get work done. The atmosphere is friendly, there are many tables and fantastic coffee. However, although they serve sandwiches and have baked goods, I often begin my day with a filling crepe from Mr. Crepe. While Mr. Crepe won't get my award for friendliest service, the crepes are thick, savory pancakes wrapped around fresh ingredients.
My favorite (which costs $9.25) is the "Super Spinach." It is filled with spinach, scallions, cilantro, black olives, tomatoes and jack cheese. I can both justify that it is healthy and be full for a few meals.

For more of my favorites-check out the "Dining with Kids" Section of my favorite food finds.

Dorado Tacos and Cemitas, 401 Harvard Street, Brookline, 617-566-2100
Villa Mexico, 296 Cambridge Street, Boston, 617-957-0725
Diesel Cafe, 257 Elm Street, 617-629-8717
Mr. Crepe, 51 Davis Square, Somerville, 617-623-0661

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Height of Sashimi at the Uni Sashimi Bar at the Eliot Hotel

A dish can be wonderful. But there is something about a singular bite that is, if anything, even more memorable. I love that moment when I realize that the taste, the texture and the experience of one mouthful is unlike any other that I have had before. Having heard so many positive reviews of the Uni Sashimi Bar at the Eliot Hotel, my expectations were high for the creations of Chef Chris Chung. I was also thrilled to be invited by the restaurant to join the authors of two other Boston Food blogs, The Food Monkey and One Food Guy, as well as Linh Tran Brincat from the Improper Bostonian. And in fact, these dining companions added much to the meal. We laughed as we deconstructed each and ever morsel as only a bunch of food loving individuals could do. By focusing so intensely on each dish, it made it that much more possible to enjoy Chef Chung’s gift with food and the spectacular ingredients that he has to work with. Ultimately the meal was as much a gastronomic delight as an education in food, sushi and Japanese ingredients.

Uni is unique for a few reasons. First, its small subterranean space gives the illusion of being a private dining room, exclusive to the few that can find it. Second, the fish is truly the best that is possible. This means that certain fish are flown in directly from Japan and are rarely seen on sushi menus. Finally, although you can eat the fish plain in the form of sashimi, Chef Chung prefers to layer garnishes and sauces in unexpected ways. While my group debated the extent to which you could still retain and appreciate such glorious pieces of fish, we all agreed that the preparation of each dish was outstanding.

The bartender sent out a Shisho Bourbon Smash as drink. The floral scent of the basil-like shisho leaves combined beautifully with the smooth bourbon and complimented the dishes that followed.

We began with “Anago Tempura.” This consisted of a shirred egg that had been scrambled with butter, yogurt and fleur de sel until it was barely cooked, then placed back into an egg shell. It was comfort food at its best, and I had to restrain myself from not devouring it without sharing it with my companions.

It was served with salt water eel that had been perfectly fried and was then dusted with a light coating of green tea salt. This was the first of many examples of how a simple garnish, the salt, brought out the flavors of the fish.

This was followed by one of the highlights of the night, and one of the signature dishes of the restaurant: a dramatic presentation of Uni. Uni, or sea urchin, had been freshly gathered from Maine. It was served on Tairagai or Japenese pan shell, a chewy fish reminiscent of clams or scallops. It was topped with a salty combination of XO (or dried fish) sauce, myoga (the bud of a ginger plant) and garlic sauce sauce.

I have never quite understood the attention given to Uni, but here, this time, I got it. The XO sauce stood up to the unctuous, smooth and rich taste of the urchin. You could feel a sigh around the table as we stared at the empty shell, hoping, some how that more uni would miraculously appear.

Next, we had “Rock Shrimp Tempura." This salty, sweet, crunchy combination was addictive. The coating was light, but barely covered the shrimp so that the freshness of the seafood still was dominant. We also had one more tempura of Seasonal Vegetables that was brightened by a miso aioli.

A chilled bowl of “Tuna Ceviche” came swimming in a creamy, spicy broth of coconut milk, chilis and lemongrass and topped with fried ginger. I reached for spoonfuls of this broth repeatedly, divinely cloaking morsels of perfect tuna. The sauce would be a perfect foil for most anything-chicken, pork or even shrimp.

However, two of my favorite dishes were still to come. First, was a “Scottish Salmon,” pictured at the top of this post. What arrived were glorious wedges of salmon, coated in a “Chinese black bean tapenade.” At the end of the meal I asked the Chef how he made this delicious salty-sweet topping. He was willing to share that he used Chinese fermented black beans that were mixed with fresh ginger and garlic. I have only had black bean sauce that has been sauteed on high heat. This, preparation was savory and perfect for the richness of the salmon.

Another unforgettable preparation was the Ainame. I had never tried Japanese greenling (or heard of it for that matter!). Flown in from Japan that morning, it was a light white fish.

It was topped with shiso, an Asian pear puree, romesco and benetade (a Japenese microgreen.) Not only was the dish visually stunning but together the fruit and citrus contrasted beautifully.

Our last of Chef Chung’s creations was “Houbou”, another fish that I had never encountered before. Also known as Japanese Sea Robin, this tender fish was topped with candied yuzu kosho (a citrus fruit), radishes and myoga.

As wonderful as these preparations were, Chef Chung kindly sent out a plate of sashimi so that we could taste each fish at its purest level. A study in tones of cream and white, we were treated to tastes of amberjack, sea bream, pan shell, greenling and the huobou.

Tasting each fish, independent of its garnishes, made it possible to appreciate the freshness, the careful carving of the fish and the range of textures that are so easily obscured at other sushi restaurants.

Born in Hawaii, raised in Macao and having cooked throughout the country, Chef Chung clearly enjoys incorporating styles and tastes from many places. If you would like the pleasure of enjoying Chef Chris Chung’s innovative cuisine you have three options. First, if you are so lucky, he can come to your house to prepare a meal. A more affordable option, but one that will require your patience, is to wait until he opens AKA, a new French Bistro/Sushi bar. It will be located in Lincoln and he plans to open it this March with Christian Touche. Or, race out to Uni while he is still the head chef.

Uni Sashimi Bar at the Eliot Hotel, 270 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, 617-536-7200

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From Bean to Bar: Taza Chocolate, Somerville

I have detailed my love of Taza Chocolate many times on this blog, but I recently had an experience that allowed me to get closer to the source of my obsession. About once a year, the Taza factory opens its doors for an open house. And, like many other people, I lined up by 10 to get into my own version of Charlie's Chocolate Factory. Located in a warehouse on the Cambridge/Somerville version, the only idea that such a place would exist is the lush smell of roasting chocolate that greets you at the door.

Inside was a mob scene of sorts as people clamored for tastes of hot chocolate, chocolate bars and chocolate nibs. I began with a tour that was led by one of Taza's founders, Larry Slotnick. Taza is one of 20 "bean to bar" chocolate factories in the United States.
As Larry explained to us, Taza gets deliveries of organic cacao beans directly from La Red Guacanejo. This cooperative in the Domincan Republic is paid by Taza to ensure that workers receive fair pay, while the cooperative, in turn, provides Taza with excellent cacao beans. The dried beans are delivered to Taza where they are roasted in a Birth Sirocco roaster from Italy. Next, they are "winnowed" as the cacao bean is separated from the shell. Finally, the nibs are ground into cocaoa liquor on stone grinders from Mexico. This careful drying and roasting in large part contributes to the uniquely fruity flavor that is a trademark of Taza chocolates.
This is the key to my love of Taza chocolates: while their chocolate bars are ground again to create your typical smooth consistency, I am a fan of their "Mexicanos." These bars are kept rough, giving them a nutty, nubbly and crackly taste that I adore. Regardless of the grinding, Taza adds sugar, which varies depending on the style of chocolate. For example, the "60%" bar has 60% chocolate and 40% sugar. In addition, other ingredients are added such as guajillo chile, salt and almonds or Cinnamon. Finally, the chocolate is tempered and molded. Each bar is then packaged by hand to be devoured by hungry people like me.
After our tour, we had one more chance to try our the chocolates, before making our choice of purchases. The good news for those of you that missed the tour? First, you can purchase many of these chocolates at local stores. Russos in Watertown has a particularly strong selection. Second, the Taza website offers a chance to buy directly from the factory and to view a "Virtual Tour."

I commend Taza for many things: for their commitment to supporting people at the source of the beans in the Dominican, for the range of ways they are "green", for their organic chocolate, and most of all, for their fantastic chocolate. It is not cheap, but it is very much worth it.

Taza Chocolate, 561 Windsor Street, Somerville MA, 617-623-0804

Friday, December 11, 2009

A FoodieMommy True Find: Picco, Boston

There are so many wonderful restaurants in the South End, but parking can make it a challenging place to eat when you have you have two hungry toddlers in the car. However, when we found ourselves in Boston a weekday morning, we took advantage of the chance to visit Picco. We had been there once...about 3 years ago and remember having great pizza. However, this new visit reminded us of what a perfect place it is for fabulous pizza and for bringing the kids.

We began with a "Garden Salad." On the menu it was listed as a plate of mesclun greens. However, what arrived was a glorious plate of mixed herbs and leafy greens.
My son who barely eats more than mac and cheese, dug in, declaring it "the best salad he has ever had!"

My husband tried small plates of two different pasta specials. Sous Chef Tony Lawrence made two versions of homemade ravioli. One was filled with sugar pumpkin and was served with browned butter.
I have had this dish many times, but this one was particularly well done, tasting of fresh pumpkin instead of an overly sweetened pie in a shell. The other was a unique combo of almonds and ricotta. My favorite twist: it was topped with small shavings of roasted cauliflower.
Together it was an absolutely addictive sweet, salty, tender combination. It was a wonderful plate.

The pizza was just as memorable. The dough is made over days, using the "slow-fermentation style" and is then baked in a custom-made incredibly hot oven.
For my son, watching the pizza bake was great entertainment while we waited. The crust is blistered on the bottom, but is also wonderfully chewy and thick. The toppings range from simple to more complex. My son ate the "Margherita" which had tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella and is pictured at the top of this post. The tomato sauce was perfectly acidic rather than being too sweet. I loved my "Alsatian" which was topped with sauteed onions, shallots, garlic, sour cream, thick slices of sweet, smoky bacon and gruyere. It was rich, textured and fabulous.
I was too full to eat dessert, instead enjoying a cup of George Howell coffee. However, my son got a bowl of chocolate ice cream, while I tried a few samples before taking home a cup of pistachio. Each ice cream is churned at Picco. Vietnamese Cinnamon created a particularly spicy twist on ice cream and would be perfect with bittersweet hot fudge. The vanilla was good, though a bit sweet for my taste. Ironically, the deep chocolate was almost too sour, even for me. However the pistachio (delightfully white rather than lime green), was nutty and well done.

Picco offers other items such as mac and cheese made with taleggio and gruyere, grilled panini and an adult ice cream sundae with Belgium Lambic poured over vanilla ice cream.

Picco isn't cheap. The large margherita was $19 and the small Alsatian was $13. However, you are paying for superior ingredients, local food and hand crafted food that tastes fantastic. It is just casual enough to bring the kids, while the food is so good, that it feels like a true treat. For us, the commute means that we may not be able to be regulars, I dare say it is my new favorite pizza.

Picco, 513 Tremont St., Boston, 617-927-0066

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Seaport Staycation, Part 2: Family Friendly Meals at Aura & Flour

As part of the Seaport-Family Friendly Friday package, you and your family can enjoy a meal Aura and to try the cuisine of Chef Rachel Klein. (You can enjoy the Family Friendly meals each Friday, regardless of whether you stay at the Seaport. For more photos and details on our past experiences click here or here. Note, too, that the Seaport Hotel and Aura treated us to our stay there and our meal at Aura.) After we checked out the Seaport's pool, it was a treat to then head downstairs for dinner.
The food was as good as it as been on our two other dining experiences. This time my favorite part of the meal was the grapefruit pulp that accompanied a perfectly cooked salmon.
It added the acidity of any citrus, with a touch of sweetness. It also balanced the richness of the parsnip puree and chamomile beurre blanc. In fact, it was so good, that I may have to try this combination at home.
My husband's chicken was done well, but I couldn't get enough of the side dish: mini brussel sprouts that were tossed with plump gnocchi and a shallot cream sauce.
As always our kids ate their share of chicken tenders, fresh carrots and peas, and noodles with a delicious homemade tomato sauce. The restaurant (or Chef Rachel as my son now calls her) inspires me when they take the courage to serve carrots, barely steamed and whole.
So frequently restaurants over-cook the carrots in hopes that children will enjoy them. My kids prefer the texture and tastes of these.

Our desserts were the best we have had at the family friendly nights. One of the highlights for our boys are the enormous bowls of berries. My husband's favorite was the rosemary apple tart that was served with an apple cider reduction.
I fell for the mini-pumpkin tart with crisp, spiced pecans. So often pumpkin pies are a sweet homogeneous plate of pumpkin on pie dough. The nuts made the dish infinitely more interesting and delicious.
As always, my boys loved the chance to play with blocks, to interact with other kids and to draw while we finished our meal in the adjacent room, all key elements of Aura's Family Dining. However, this night had an additional special treat as it was also a fund-raiser for ReadBoston. This organization is a not-for profit that addresses early literacy in Boston schools and aims to have all children reading by third grade. This meant that Curious George (one of my sons' heroes) was there to dole out hugs, while we were able to add to our Curious George collection and contribute to ReadBoston.

The next morning, part of the package includes a trip to the Children's Museum. While we could have had breakfast at the Seaport, we chose to go to one of our all time favorites: Flour, located just behind the Children's Museum.
One son was smitten with a blueberry muffin top, while the other shared delectable French toast (made with their foccacia), and a cranberry muffin that was full of berries. I loved the pumpkin seeds that graced my pumpkin muffin, as well as their tender egg sandwiches with a dijon sauce. The meal helped us to have energy to tackle the Children's Museum despite limited sleep the night before.

Finally-Aura is offering two special events this month: today, on Friday, December 4th will be a Hanukkah meal, while on December 18th it will be a Christmas themed evening. Just check their website for more details or click HERE to see the calender of events.

Aura, Family Friendly Nights at the Seaport Hotel, 1 Seaport Lane, Boston, 617-385-4300
Flour, 12 Farnsworth Street, at Fort Point in South Boston, 617-338-4333

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Weekend Treat & Staycation: A Night at the Seaport Hotel

Having grown up in the Boston area, I never spent a night in a town that I enjoy so much. And as a parent of young boys, we have only spent a few nights vacationing together. So, when the Seaport Hotel in Boston offered to let us try one of their rooms as part of the "Family Fridays" hotel package we happily agreed.

There were so many aspects of the hotel that we enjoyed. First, maybe I haven't lived it up, but I was smitten from the moment I realized that valet parking was included as part of the package. This meant that when we arrived in a driving rainstorm with a car filled with a inconceivable amount of items for one night, we could all walk right in and still find our luggage in our room. My sons adored the fact that they walked in and were immediately treated to the Seaport's treasure chest. In a small room is a mini-library of books and a chest filled with Matchbox cars and stuffed animals-all perfect novelties for a night away from more familiar toys. The staff was gracious throughout our stay, and as tipping is included, I didn't have to keep looking in my wallet to acknowledge their kindness.
The room itself was a decent size for a family, even though it was which means a bit crowded once we added a crib, 2 toddlers running around, and enough books and toys for a week. Our little boys loved that they could watch the airplanes, boats and cars from the window. I loved the view of the ICA, the Moakley Courthouse and the Boston Harbor.
Another of our favorite parts of the Hotel was the gorgeous pool that is part of the Wave Health and Fitness club. It has an open ceiling so that you can swim under the stars. It was heated enough for the boys to enjoy it and for me to do a few laps. There is also a workout room with classes and cardio equipment, but we were too exhausted to try it out. I did, though, enjoy the steam room the next morning. Ultimately it is a relaxing health club in a hotel.
The beds themselves were heavenly, and though we didn't get a chance to take advantage of it, the room comes with a menu to order your pillow!

In terms of food, we ate so well at our stay, that I will include this in my next post. So, stay tuned...

Finally, I also appreciated the "Green" elements of the Seaport, which they have titled, "Seaport Saves." For us, this meant knowing that the hotel used green "cleaning" for the building.

The reality is that this overnight, which includes dinner at Aura, access to the gym and tickets to the Children's Museum would cost approximately $275.00, which is far from everyone's budget these days. However, I would highly recommend this night for two groups. First, if you are a family who can't afford to fly anywhere, this was a perfect "StayCation." The location is pretty perfect as it is walking distance from the ICA, Children's Museum and Chinatown while being close to the Aquarium. And ultimately, you can quickly feel like you have taken a trip without the hassle of traveling too far. In addition, if you are a family that is visiting Boston, this package can be a wonderful chance to check out a great city.

Seaport Hotel, Boston, 1 Seaport Lane, 1-800-440-3318