Sunday, March 29, 2009

Good, Better, Best: Petit Robert Bistro, Needham

What does it mean if a bite of an apple tarte tatin makes one teary? And if a scoop of cassis sorbet makes one gasp with visions of eating gelato in Italy? And then, when the bill comes you laugh as you realize that the prices are so reasonable that you could actually come here again…with the kids!

Petit Robert Bistro in Needham is in a class all of its own for many reasons. The first is the food which is surprisingly fantastic for a restaurant in the suburbs. (That alone may be reason to celebrate!) Second, the prices, which have not been raised since 2005, make it possible to eat here without having to take out a loan. In fact until 5:00 p.m. Monday through Sunday they have a “lunch menu” that includes entrees like “Chicken Crepe” and “Filet of Sole” in addition to eggs, omelettes and soup…all averaging $8.00. Finally, and best of all for a FoodieMommy blog, their children’s menu is one of the best I have seen. It offers not only your typical hot dog, but items such as “burgerdog baguette” “petit steak frites” and “quart de poulet frites” (A quarter of a roast chicken). And did I mention that this place has white linen tablecloths?The irony-when friends of ours, parents to a 3 year old and 4 month old told us they had taken the kids to Petit Robert for dinner I laughed. “What were they thinking?” I told my husband. “Petit Robert is a high end restaurant that is reserved for birthday dinners and fancy nights out.” However, talking to the staff and looking over the menu helped me to understand how unique a restaurant this is for parents in particular. In fact, although the Needham restaurant is the 3rd Petit Robert (one is located in Kenmore Square and another is in the South End) it was the first to offer a children’s menu when it opened this past December. By offering really good food to parents and children, it is possible to save on the babysitter and still have a great night out with the kids.

This time, I will confess we went without our little boys. Invited by Petit Robert, I wasn’t fully convinced that we could fully enjoy (and, let’s be practical here, photograph) the food with the kids. Their bistro offers a wide range of dishes, from fish to chicken to liver. We began with a simple salad of field greens with shallot vinaigrette on the side. The best element was the panko coated goat cheese. The warmth of the goat cheese, with the crispness of the panko perfectly balanced and made the dish.

My main course was the sole, a perfect testament to the strengths of this restaurant. For $14.75, I had a deftly prepared enormous piece of sole, sauteed enough to create a crisp and savory edge while retaining the moistness and flavor of the fish. The potatoes were a buttery and creamy decadence. The side of carrots, green beans and onions were cooked just enough to be tender while still retaining their bite.

My husband had the steak frites which, to our surprise, was the weakest point of the evening. The steak was good, don’t get me wrong, but the sauce Bearnaise (a creamy tarragon) was overly acidic and gloppy. I prefered the Bordelaise, composed of a red wine reduction and mushrooms. The steak itself (which, honestly, despite recommendations from our waitress, FoodieDaddy ordered medium) was a bit chewy. The fries were clearly fried to order and while not the blistering darkness of Belgian fries, they were still salty, crisp and warm enough to be almost worth the calories.

For a side dish we tried the salsify and parsnip gratin. I had envisioned (well, dreamed) of root vegetables covered in sinful layers of cream and Gruyere in the more traditional style of France. Instead, and perhaps for the best, they arrived perfectly roasted and covered with a light layer of Parmesan.And now, the desserts. As soon as I saw Grand Marnier soufflé listed I grabbed the waitress (because, you know, it was likely that Petit Robert would have a sudden Wednesday evening mad dash for soufflés!) Ironically, it was a good decision as the soufflés are baked to order and need to be put in the oven 20 minutes in advance. And oh, it was so good-moist, delicate, with the burning warmth of Grand Marnier and the coolness of the crème anglaise.

As good as that was, the tarte tatin will be the reason I return again and again. The crust was excellent-buttery without being too rich and perfectly crisp. But it was the apples that made the night-somehow caramelized so deeply as to turn brown black, but still being sweet without being cloying. I loved each bite spread with the crème fraiche which added an herby note to the dish.

Finally, our waitress raved about the gelatos, made daily in a Paco Jet machine. This means that our cassis sorbet, tasted of pure fruit with a consistency like the most delicious frozen mousse you have eaten. The blood orange was so tangy as to be too bitter for my tastes, but I loved the citrus notes of the passion fruit.

Until we can afford to take the kids to Paris (heck to take them anywhere), we’ll be back with the kids soon.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Providence, Part 2, The Adult Version: The RISD Museum of Art and Angkor

I had such a wonderful day in Providence with the kids, that for the one day they were in daycare during my vacation, I decided to return. I started at the RISD Art Museum and felt just like a kid in a candy store. The building itself is beautiful, full of arched glass ceilings that let in muted natural light. What I loved most, though, was the opportunity to look at artwork by masters in a small, intimate and quiet space. They have art from Winslow Homer to Mark Rothko, Cezanne to Picasso, gorgeous sculptures by Rodin, beautiful Roman and Greek and Egyptian art works, beautiful textiles and costumes. I was in awe that such a collection existed so close by.

Winter in New England can also be trying for parents. So, when I heard that the Roger Williams Park offered botanical gardens, I couldn’t wait to go. And it was small but lovely. The two main greenhouses that are currently open are free from November to March and offer the chance to relax in 80 degree heat among beautiful plants. There were a number of children there-sketching the plants, watching the koi and enjoying the chance to see bamboos and cacti that only exist miles away.

I have only eaten Cambodian food a few times at Elephant Walk in Brookline. Though I have enjoyed the flavors, it is a bit too expensive for our current budget. Angkor at 333 Wickenden in Providence, however, offered the best of both worlds: food layered with tastes at reasonable prices. I started with the Natang (pictured at the top of the post), a rich mixture of pork and coconut milk. It is served with a crispy rice cake. It was good, though I preferred it with a bit of chili sauce to kick up the flavor. Next, I had a "medicinal soup", or Nam Yaa. The menu listed it as "noodle soup with ginger, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, chicken and shrimp." It was absolutely delicious. The noodles were a thin ramen style, but the best part was the incredible broth: it was layered with flavors and was both sweet, sour and creamy at the same time. Click here for a menu.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Providence, Part 1, With the Kids: The Children's Museum and 7 Stars Bakery

Like many parents, I am aware that my sons have a talent: they really only nap well at day care! On weekends and vacations, "nap time" means, as Raphael recently put it, "Exercise!" (He jumped around in his room for about 1 hour, while singing songs from the Wiggles.) As any overtired parent can understand, the combo of a day without a chance to rest, along with a cranky and fussy filled afternoon is a bit much.
So, when I realized that the kids and I were facing President's Day without plans, I realized that finally checking out the Providence Children's Museum came with a bonus: a guaranteed nap on the way home. The reality is that the day was a complete hit and I am excited about discovering this place. It is brightly lit, clean, and full of engaging activities for kids of all ages. At $7.50 a person (kids under 12 months are free) it is also relatively reasonable for a few hours of fun. It has two floors connected by a long ramp (making it wheelchair and stroller accessible, though a stroller is really unnecessary).
We spent most of our time in the “Little Woods” area, a fenced in space for kids under 4. It is beautiful-using color, light and design to create a true woods with a tree, mountain, and brook. My kids loved the slide, the see-saw, the puppets and dress up clothes. I loved how safe they were while they played. Outside the woods are even more rooms for pretend play: a construction site, a tienda, a ship, a mill and a farm (with a cow!). There are spaces for creative toys and building, too. There are also two large rooms for snack breaks.Downstairs there was a large Lite Bright, more fabulous play structures and an enormous warm room for water play (perfect for a gray February day-just bring a change of clothes.)
The museum isn’t huge and be forewarned, it can get crowded (even at 9:00 a.m.) but it was worth it.

By 11:30 we were starving. Although our lunch site wouldn’t impress nutritionists, we had a blast at The Seven Stars Bakery. The bakery actually has 2 locations. The one at 342 Broadway was less than 5 minutes away from the museum, though the second location on Hope Street is even more family friendly with a long communal table that is great for meeting new folks. Their bread is among the best that I have had and they offer any by the slice! Go and get a toasted slice of their cheese bread, their walnut-raisin, the olive or the semolina. My younger son and I shared 1 of their 3 sandwiches: a buffalo mozzarella with olive tapenade, roasted peppers and arugula. The sweet pastries were also wonderful and decadent offering scones, muffins, cookies in fabulous flavors. The atmosphere was warm and casual and offered enough distraction for my kids to be completely engaged and to eat well. Finally, while you are there, buy some coffee from New Harvest Coffee Roasters. A friend introduced me to it and it is just so good.

Seven Stars Bakery on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Joy of Restaurant Week at Toro

At the end of the night, we were hard pressed to choose among our favorites: was it the incredible crispness of the pork skin? Was it the way the tarragon perfectly complimented the sweet maple-infused carrots? How many jamon Serrano (dates wrapped in Spanish ham and stuffed with Cabrales blue cheese and marcona almonds!) is it acceptable to eat at one sitting? And how is it possible that anchovies could have such a bad reputation when the ones we ate were sweet, light and wonderful?

The list went on as we reviewed our fabulous meal at Toro, a Spanish-style Tapas restaurant in the South End. The food was excellent. The presentation was visually stunning. Best of all (and this is the reason to stop reading this blog and run to the phone), it is Restaurant Week and Toro is participating for the first time! This means two major bonuses: first, you can eat most of their menu for $33.00 a person which is slightly less expensive than normal. Second, and most importantly for parents who pay the babysitter by the hour: Toro is taking reservations (a typical Saturday night wait can be 2 hours!). Having wanted to go since it opened in 2005, I was not only happy to finally be able to go (without constantly looking at my watch), but to have a meal that was as good as expected.

During Restaurant Week (which is actually 2 weeks: 3/15 to 3/20 and 3/22 to 3/27) the great prices usually are accompanied by a limited range of options. (Click here for the full list of restaurants that are participating.) However, at Toro, you are able to order most of the tapas that they offer. As one of the best aspects of a tapas restaurant is the ability to try multiple dishes, I do recommend going with at least 2 other people. Finally, for people who want to eat at a restaurant owned by Ken Oringer, this is a far better option than La Verdad which I reviewed/critiqued here. Whereas La Verdad seems to focus on quick turnover (it is in the Fenway, after all), the cooking at Toro is focused on attention to detail in ingredients, preparation and presentation. The chef, Jamie Bissonnette (wearing glasses in the photo) just came on board in October and it is clearly a great direction for the restaurant.

Toro is different from other tapas place I had been to before in that it is more innovative and more complex. For example, the simple sounding Tortilla Espanola has incredibly thin sliced potatoes, which makes a far delicate version than I have had previously. The alioli (a garlicy mayonnaise of sorts) adds sharpness to the dish. What is listed as Gambas al Ajillo (or “Griddled garlic shrimp”) is actually a gorgeous ochre colored pile of shrimp sitting on a reduction of lobster stock infused with saffron. Those addictive dates were an example of how 4 good ingredients can create a fabulous whole. (We ate them so quickly that I forgot to take a picture!)

In addition to the dates, for our first bites (and the pinchos are literally small bites) we enjoyed the Bisbe de Porc or pork rillette (pate of sorts) on bread. This was followed by the Ventresca: Spanish tuna belly, tomato tapenade and celery leaves. In terms of our tapas, while the Ensalada del Otoo (Roasted beets, heirloom apples, arugula, cabrales and pistachio crumble) was beautiful; it didn’t stand out as unique compared to other dishes. The Vientre de Cerdo (Crispy pork belly with Chantennay carrots and smoked maple crumble) on the other hand was one of the stars of the evening (both are pictured at the top of this post). It was a phenomenal contrast of tastes: salty, sweet and herbal and textures.

Our tasting went on. We were all surprised by how much we liked the fried sweetbreads with a blood orange reduction. The tartness of the sauce contrasted with the richness of the perfectly fried, rich sweetbreads. The bocadillos were delicious little sandwiches with pickled red onions and a subtle heat from pepper. Although the presentation of the baby clams was great, we didn’t shovel them down like the other dishes. (I actually enjoyed the sausage in the dish as much if not more than the clams.)

In my piece on La Verdad I extolled the grilled corn. Well, the Toro version puts it to shame. Listed as Maiz Asado con Alioli y Queso Cotija, I actually preferred La Verdad’s preparation (they skip the alioli). However, as the key step is the grilling of the corn, Toro’s corn was much more caramelized, resulting in a far better dish.

And now, one of the best parts of the night: the Churros con chocolate. Yes, this is essentially the same dish that was almost inedible, despite 2 different visits, at La Verdad. But here, oh, here at Toro, the churros are as good as they get. Etherally light, airy and perfectly fried with a phenomenal dark chocolate sauce that is infused with the warmth of chili pepper.

So, call. Call NOW! Toro: Phone 617-536-4300. Located at 1704 Washington St, Boston, MA 02118.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Another Easy Meal: Slow Cooker Pot Roast

Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker by Beth Hensperger and Beth Kaufman remains my favorite source for good slow cooker recipes. The options are healthy, easy to make and, for the most part, quite tasty.

Although this isn't necessarily one of the healthier options, this dish is perfect for working parents. With less than 5 minutes of preparation on a Sunday morning, dinner for a few nights is ready. Also, the reality is that brisket or pot roast is frequently on sale these days. In fact the less expensive roasts, such as chuck, just add more taste (ok, fat!) to the dish. But I purchased mine for $2.99/pound!

I have made brisket a number of times through the years, usually starting by sauteing the brisket and then letting it simmer on the stove top for a few hours. But this recipe cuts the sauteing step completely. You simply rub paprika, salt and pepper on the brisket and throw it in the slow cooker with some vegetables. That was right after breakfast. By dinner, we all had a good meal with leftovers for the next day. As Raphael said, "I love meat!"

Skye's Braised Pot Roast with Vegetables adapted from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker

Note: By making it the night ahead, the flavor improves and you can skim off the fat.

1 tsp salt
1/4 to 1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp paprika (I used Hungarian sweet from Penzey's)
3 to 3 1/2 pounds boneless chuck roast, trimmed of fat and patted dry (I actually used a 4 pound brisket)
1 rib celery chopped
1 onion, cut in wedges
2-3 carrots, peeled and sliced
2-3 parsnips, peeled and sliced (optional, but kids often love the sweetness!)
4 potatoes, cut into 8 pieces (I used small red potatoes which fell apart, but were still good)
1 cup beef broth (I keep "Better than Bullion" in my refrigerator)

1. Mix salt, pepper and paprika. Rub it on all sides of the meat. Put the veggies into the slow cooker with the potatoes on top. Put the meat on top of the potatoes, and pour the broth over.

2. Cover and cook on low for 8 to 9 hours.

3. I usually let it cool for a while in the slow-cooker. I then take it out and put it in another pot. I cover it and cool it overnight in the frig. Then, the next day I skim off the chilled fat. I then cut the meat in slices and reheat it in the pot with the gravy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Second Time Has Some Charm: La Verdad, Boston

The first time we sent the cold, raw, oil-laden churros back. The waitress insisted that my passion fruit drink was supposed to taste sour, the beans were so salty that they were inedible and the shrimp were days old. To put it bluntly, that first meal at La Verdad in the Fenway area of Boston was one of the worst meals we have had. To make it worse, as any parent knows, the rarity and price of a good babysitter makes any date night one that you don't want to waste. Finally, reviews had been so positive that our expectations were high, perhaps too high.

However, based on a suggestion from someone on Chowhound, we called up and the managers offered to let us come again. This time, perhaps with a more realistic idea of what to expect, we had a far better meal.

First I will say that this is not going into the "family-friendly" category unless you want to take your kids to what is essentially a bar. Also, don't expect to find a parking spot, especially now that the House of Blues reopened next door.

That being said, my husband insists he would return again and again for the skirt steak. It was very good, incredibly moist and flavorful. In fact, I was so stumped by the flavor combo, that our waitress revealed the secret: it is marinated in a combination of soy sauce...and Coke! It is typically served with guacamole, but my cilantro averse husband was happy to see a substitution of avocado. When I did try the guacamole it was pretty standard and had a creamy texture that almost made us suspect mayonnaise...)And now for my favorite item of the night: the grilled corn. In fact, this stuff is so good that unless we can make a worthy version this summer I may also have to return. It wasn't that the corn itself was so good (after all it is still March). But it is grilled until the outside caramelizes and becomes sweet. It is then rolled in salty, creamy cotija cheese and then dusted with spicy, warm chile powder. Finally, a sprinkle of lime juice adds an acid note. It is fantastic.

We also decided to try the Mexican chopped salad. For all intensive purposes, it was pretty standard: chopped, cold vegetables with some creamy dressing. However, the odd success of the evening: the serving vessel which was a ridiculously good puffed corn chip of sorts.

This time my tacos (pictured at the top of the post) were also very good. La Verdad does offer unique flavor combinations which are wrapped in small corn tortillas. While I liked the fish tacos on the first visit, I much prefer grilled fish rather than batter fried. So, I tried 3 new ones this time, all recommended by our waitress. My least favorite was the chile relleno or stuffed chile in a tortilla. It was too heavy and the "fry" taste dominated more than anything else. However, this time the carnitas (roast pork) was delicious, rich and so good. Finally, my carne ansade consisted of the skirt steak but with sweet onions and the slow burn of arbol hot sauce. Another successful play on the steak taco.

Finally, we took a second chance on the churros, which are essentially Mexican donuts. While I never make fried food at home, it is not an unusual indulgence for us when we eat out. I recently raved about the fritelle at Dantes and so it isn't that fried food is an anthema to us. However, this time we still couldn't eat them! Again, the dominant taste was cold oil. They were cooked through but that didn't make up for the stale aftertaste. The waitress pointed out that Mexican food can be heavy, but to me that still didn't make up for what seemed like, at the end, a bad dessert.

La Verdad may be owned by Ken Oringer (also owner of Clio, Toro, etc.), but it still doesn't seem reflective of the quality of his cuisine. I would also be suspicious of all the "Best" and "Most Authentic" signs. However, if you are in the Fenway for a game, or want to eat a few good items for a decent price, it may still be worth a try.

La Verdad Taqueria Mexicana on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Snowy Day Pretzels

When we had a snow day and found ourselves with 12 hours to be together, pretzels seemed like a perfect activity. And my son who the day before had been a whirlwind of tantrums was a perfect companion. As any reader of this blog knows, we cook together frequently. What I loved about making pretzels with the 3 year old was how completely free it was for him to cook this time. He liked watching me form the dough into snakes and then making a somewhat lame attempt at shaping the snakes into pretzels. But it was once he realized that he could make any shape that he got more and more excited. And his experiments, some being about one inch long, were quite delicious!

While there are many recipes for pretzels that mostly consist of shaping bread dough into shapes and then baking, they miss true pretzel flavor. Pretzels need to be boiled, just like bagels. The recipe I used comes from what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite blogs: Smitten Kitchen. It may look complicated, especially if you aren't used to baking, but it really is quite easy. In fact the hardest part for me was trying to make pretzels that looked even remotely as good as on the Smitten blog! And, more importantly, when you eat one warm out of the oven, any fuss (or, in our case, piles of spilled flour) will be very worth it. The next time I make them I am going to use some white whole wheat flour (I like King Arthur brand) just to add some whole grains. I also made one calzone style and folded in some ricotta. It was very yummy.

Rather than retype the Smitten Kitchen recipe, just click here. Also, due to Raphael's egg allergy we eliminated the egg without any problem. The salt and sesame seeds still stuck on and the pretzels still turned out to be a lovely shade of brown.

My last suggestion-eat them while they are hot. They were good the next day, but they didn't even come close to triggering intense New York pretzel cart memories like the first few did.