Saturday, April 30, 2011

Don't Miss the Dessert At Asana

There isn't much more relaxing then leaving a gorgeous hotel room to emerge down an elevator at your dinner table. During my stay at the Mandarin Oriental, I took advantage of Asana, located right in the hotel and directly on Boylston Street.
I was intrigued by Asana after trying Chef Nelson Paz's chocolate lollipops at the Taste of Boston event in March. Inevitably, then, I began by meal by checking out the dessert menu. And my dessert, a riff on lemon meringue pie was my favorite dish of the night. It consisted of sable crumbles, basil pearls and a lemon confit. What arrived was a wonderful lemon semi-freddo, sitting aside a perfectly browned meringue swirl, a fabulous lemon confit and tiny orbs of basil. It was a delicate end to my meal. (Just days later I had another, and equally delightful Chef Paz creation at the Taste of the Back Bay. This time, the dessert played on strawberry shortcake. Chef Paz also took the time to reveal that the strawberry orbs were made by combining fresh strawberry juice with alginate to create this lovely, caviar like bubbles.)My favorite savory dish of the night, ironically, was one was sent out as a treat from the current Chef, Executive Sous Chef Damian Zedower. It was a perfectly cooked butter poached lobster, draped in orange segments and set in a pool of butternut squash puree. Alongside were slivers of radish and baby arugula. I have always been a purist when it comes to lobster. But the Chef had me charmed here. The butter made the lobster even more tender. And then, ironically, the sweet and creamy puree helped to balance the richness of the seafood. Finally, the arugula and oranges provided enough of a tart contrast to give depth of flavor.
Instead of your standard bread and butter, Asana started the meal off a bit oddly with a dip of smoked tomato and leek puree on bread. I was a bit perplexed by the pickled cucumbers and never quite fell in love with the dip or the breads.
However, I loved my two plump Island Creek oysters, as lush and sweet as I remember from my meal at Lineage in Brookline.
My main dish was Apple Cider Braised Berkshire Pork Shank. It came served over grits with baby carrots, cipollini onions and mustard greens. I heard the next waiter explain that it was very rich....after I had ordered it...And he was right. The shank was big enough for a Flintstone. Combined with incredibly buttery grits and the gravy, the dish was almost impossibly heavy. That being said the meat was tender and literally falling off the bone. I loved the carrots and greens and ate a few bits of the shank. But at the end, most of it ended up in a doggie bag.
For a special treat, you can also try the Chef's Table. In a private room, adjacent to the kitchen you can have a the Asana cooks create a meals for two or more people while you can take in scenes of the kitchen.

As for me, I look forward to more dessert from Chef Paz

Asana at the Mandarin Oriental, 776 Boylston Street, Boston, 617-535-7841

Thursday, April 28, 2011

More Serenity at the Mandarin Oriental Spa and Fitness Center

When I planned my staycation in Boston, a spa was my first priority. And I chose the Mandarin Oriental for just this reason. Ironically, the good news is that you don't have to be a guest at the hotel to use the spa facilities. However, but if you are a hotel guest you can use the facilities as long as they are open.
(photo from the Mandarin Oriental)
I have been spoiled in terms of spas. Last year I fell in love with the spa at the Iberostar Tucan in Playa del Carmen. And years ago I went hiking with a friend and we spent the day at the incredible Fairmont Hotel in Banff Springs, repleat with mineral hot springs. But the Mandarin Oriental is far closer and was lovely in its own right.

While there were no mineral hot springs at the Mandarin Oriental, they did have a huge spa area. I was welcomed with a steaming hot towel that had been enhanced with wonderful mineral oils and in minutes I had settled into the spa experience. In the separate women's area is the "Crystal Steam Room" with lights that change color, giving the impression of a night sky. The hot tub was so deep that you could do laps in it. And then there was the shower which had 4 buttons that imitate the rhythm and sounds of, say, a rain forest. There is also a space to relax, with comfy chairs, magazines, fresh fruit, almonds and bottled water.
(Photo from the Mandarin Oriental)
The highlight, for me, though, was the massage I had from Emily. It was, hands down, the best I have ever had. I was always skeptical of getting a massage, but this time I walked out feeling my bones and muscles sigh deeply. The 60 minute, "Oriental Essence" massage was the perfect amount of time for me to both relax and to enjoy the rest of the spa.
The spa was directly connected to the fitness center. I loved the luxury of being able to roll down from my lovely hotel room directly to the gym. And, better still each machine had its own personal TV, movie channels, bottled water and fresh fruit.
Such are the joys of working out at the Fitness Center at the Mandarin Oriental. It is for guests and residents alone, but is certainly a compelling benefit of staying at the hotel. The gym is made up of 3 rooms, one for free weights, one for aerobic machines.
But my favorite was the third room that had Lulumon yoga mats and was perfect for a yoga session.
Finally, if you are hungry, you can eat at the adjacent spa restaurant and take a break from the world outside. I didn't get a chance to do so on this visit, but it is one more thing on my list to do when I return.

The Spa at the Mandarin Oriental, Mandarin Oriental, Boylston Street, Boston, 61-535-8888

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Serenity at the Mandarin Oriental in Boston

Writing at my desk, nibbling on chocolates and watching the world walk down the Boston streets, it was almost too easy to forget the stress in my life. And then I had a massage and for a few hours, I truly escaped.
Without the time or money to jet away to the beaches of Mexico this year, I set my eyes on a local place that I could relax. Remembering last year's Staycation at the Seaport Hotel, I decided to create another local vacation here in Boston. But this time the kids would stay with their dad and I would whisk over to a spa. A few Google searches later and the Mandarin Oriental, located right on Boylston Street, quickly jumped to the top of my list of great local spas. Then, thanks to the generosity of the hotel, they offered me a price that made me grab a room and run over.
Truth be told, it was the most relaxing 24 hours I have had in a very, very long time. My room, number 631, allowed me to look down Fairfield Street and watch people meandering on Newbury and Boylston Streets. It even offered glimpses of the sailboast on the Charles. The floor to ceiling windows let in light and made it tempting to never leave the room. There were other touches that I appreciated: the double table was genius, allowing me to write and store my papers. The beautiful bed was graced with cozy linens from neighboring Frette. I chose to skip going on-line (the better to relax), but Wi-Fi was available, as was a great big TV and a wide range of DVDs.
Second to my writing couch, though, my favorite was the glorious bathroom with a deep tub and beautiful shower. I also loved the Blood Orange soaps, shampoos and conditioners from Red Flower. I took advantage of being able to walk right downstairs to dine at Asana (more in an upcoming post) and to frequent the spa and fitness facilities (next post, don't worry!).
(photo care of the Mandarin Oriental)
The next morning, I cozied up on the couch, enjoying the pleasure of the complimentary New York Times and Boston Globe. While I was disappointed that there wasn't the now standard Keurig coffeemaker in the room, Starbucks was right outside.
I loved the breakfast that was delivered right to my room: a large bowl of Bircher's Muesli covered in fresh berries. I hadn't tried this before, and the dish was far more delicious than the description (cold oatmeal) sounds!
Overall it was clear to me that the Mandarin Oriental is about attention to detail. There was artwork throughout the hotel from David Hockney, Frank Stella, Robert Sieglman, Micahel Mazer and others. It created a sense of beauty without being ostentatious. In fact, that was another thing I loved about the hotel: it never felt pretentious. The soft colors, the fabrics and lighting all lent a calm throughout the hotel.

The staff was not only kind, but they took care of me, even when I wasn't quite aware of it. For a working single mom it was pretty heavenly.
The hotel is certainly convenient. I hadn't explored the Back Bay in years. I walked down Newbury and even across and over to the South End. I am not much of a shopper but I liked the idea that if I wanted to buy a book, pick up some make up or get more yoga gear I could do so without going outside as the hotel is connected to the Prudential Center.
A few last notes: parking is extra at $45.00 for 24 hours. On that note, let's be honest: the Mandarin Oriental is neither inexpensive nor in everyone's budget. But if, as life would be, you need to treat yourself alone or with someone else, I can't recommend it highly enough. I, for one, am already trying to figure out how to get back!

Mandarin Oriental, 776 Boylston Street, Boston 617-535-8888

Monday, April 25, 2011

Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation Boston, 2011

On Thursday, April 14th, The Annual Taste of the Nation/Share Our Strength Event took place at the Hynes Convention Center. As I wrote about here, this event is another opportunity, like Taste of the Back Bay to try wonderful dishes and contribute to a fundraiser.

My favorites bites of this event?
From Erbaluce: Salmon Cured with Fresh Rosemary and Orange Zest and Served with Pink Peppercorns on Treviso Radicchio
From Craigie on Main: PB and J Hobnob Cookie with House Made Plum Jam
From the South End Buttery: I loved their Spicy Chai Shakes (vanilla ice cream and their own Chai blended together), though they also had yummy Signature Chocolate Cupcakes with Coffee and Mocha Frosting

From Neptune Oyster: 3 wonderful oysters: Kusshi from the West Coast, Peter's Point from Dennis and Mayflower Point from Onset.
From Whole Foods: Smoked Smelts and Sardines with Pearl River Caviar and Salmon Roe
From Taza Chocolates: A few new yummy flavors: Orange, ginger and a chiptole chili chocolate (though the salty almond remains my favorite!)

From Clink: Chef Margate prepared Baby Octopus with Salsa Verde and Torched Salmon with Cucumbers and Shisho
From Hammersley's Bistro: Chef Hammersley cooked Grilled Duck with Spring Vegetables, chickpeas and wheatberriesFrom Gargoyles (and soon to open his own restaurant), Chef Jason Santos created a Lychee Orange Blossom Sorbet that was served with coconut foam and lavender milk. The catch: The Chef encouraged you to start with a "Buzz Bud" or the bud of the sancho chili plant.
From Taranta: Lamb Tamalito that were incredibly tender as they were made with fresh corn (rather than masa)

And, without a picture, but so good: From Rialto: Salt Cod on Crisp Potato Chips with Spring Vegetable Salad

Other great bites included...From Abbey Park: Tuna Tartare with a Mango Miso Vinegreette and Toasted Sesame

From Kickass Cupcakes, many, many cupcakes.

From L'Espalier: Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Sweet and Sour Rhubarb Foam

From The Blue Room: Gougeres with Saussison Sec, Fig Jam and Vermont Butter and Cheese Goat Cheese
From Athans Bakery: Ouzo Truffles and Baklava

From Cambridge Culinary School: A range of pastreis and orecchiette with spring Ramps and Sweet Peas in a Lemony Mint Pesto Garnished with Pancetta Chips

From the Oak Bar: The Copley Serenade with Organic Gin, fresh lime juice, fresh mint, raspberries and ginger ale.

From 606 Congress, Chef Gracia made a light asparagus foam that was unique.

For more information, ways to donate to Share our Strength and more details about upcoming events, just click here.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Savoring Time at The Butcher Shop

My most civilized meals have been in Paris. I don't think I have romanticized that experience. Instead, I think that lunch there is meant to be far slower than our bite and run culture. Or perhaps it is because I have been there on vacation, able to sit and write or watch people walk by.
I recently, though, had a similarly delightful experience at The Butcher Shop in the South End. I have eaten at Sportello and interviewed Barbara Lynch. And I love her cookbook, Stir. However, I haven't eaten at a number of her restaurants such as at Number 9 Park, Menton, or The Butcher Shop. I decided to change that, arriving at the Butcher Shop at the sedate hour of 11:00 am and, for most of my lunch, was the only diner present, content to enjoy the quiet.All aspects of my meal were delicious. It began with two breads: a wonderful house made whole grain soda bread, as well as baguette slices from Hi-Rise Bakery in Cambridge. Accompanying them was a perfect duo: butter with fleur de sel and raw honey from the Champlain Valley in Vermont. As my server Steve explained to me, The Butcher Shop chose the honey for its low protein content, giving it a particular smoothness. I followed his advice and was soon swooning over the butter, salt, and honey spread on the soda bread. I could have eaten just that and been happy.
Luckily though, he steered me to a lovely trio of house made pate and terrines. I began by nibbling on a bacon wrapped Pate de Campagne of pork. Next was a duck liver mousse with sweet wine gelee. And, finally, a Lamb rillette. Nestled on the dish were pickled onions, cornichons, whole grain mustard and a fig puree. The pate was appropriately coarse. The bacon added a wonderful smokiness to the earthy pate and was wonderful with the fig. The lamb rillette had an almost chewy texture and was lovely with the mustard. My favorite, though, was the creamy and silken mousse that was delightful with the gelee.

Since this was my civilized lunch out, I was please that Steve suggested a perfect wine pairing; A Heinrich Red. It is an Austrian wine from 2008, that consisted of 3 grapes: Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch and St. Laurent. It was lush and reminded me of berries.
And then, because sometimes life happens this way Steve brought me the ultimate treat: a trio of cheeses for dessert. First, I tried a bite of Delice de Bourgogne. A cow's milk cheese from France, it was tart, creamy and as rich as butter. Spread on the bread with the house made Greengage plum preserve, it was as good a dessert as I can think of. Next, the Tomme from Twig Farm. This resembled a nutty chedddar and was wonderful on its own or with more of the raw honey. Finally, Queso Azul de Valdon from Spain. Typically I don't love blue cheeses. Often their pungency masks the rest of the cheese. But this time, following Steve's recommendation I spread it on the yeasty baguette with the honey. And it exploded in my mouth-salty and sweet.

I finished with an espresso, content and planning to return.

The Butcher Shop, 552 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, 617-423-4800