Monday, May 31, 2010

temple bar the doors

I found myself starting the evening off at Temple Bar on Friday and again on Saturday. I used to love it here when I lived down the street; for the past year or so, under the leadership of Michael Scelfo, the quality and creativity have increased to the point that I'm legitimately disappointed I can't actually get here again before I leave.

The first drink I tried, A Little Taste of Cambridge Grey Goose Pears, Canton Ginger, Fresh Lemon ($10), was perfect at the end of a hot, humid day -- it had enough of the ginger kick to offset the sweetness of the drink overall. It went wonderfully with the Sesame Tuna Tartare, Togarashi Aioli, Avocado, Wakame Seaweed Salad, & House Kettle Chips ($13), nothing innovative but rather a well-executed rendition of the classic, with cubes of ruby-red tuna and silky avocado piled on the seaweed, and the chips adding a nice starchy crunch. Even better were the Espresso & Fig-Glazed "St. Louis" Ribs, Smoky Espresso Syrup, Creamy Slaw ($9), which came with five meaty ribs, the meat all but falling off the bones, and the glaze nicely balanced between bitter and sweet. The bartender recommended this dish and I was glad he did; he also made me what is thus far the best Sazerac ($8) I've ever had to accompany the dish.

We stuck to the bar and appetizer menu both nights, and the dish of the night the second night had to be the Red Wine Braised Colorado Lamb Shoulder, Crispy Fried Olives, Crostini ($9) from the appetizers. This was fantastically flavorful and, in fact, a large portion over a smoky, chunky tomato sauce, with the fried black and green olives giving a salty punch and crunch to play off the tender meat. The Blue Hill Bay Mussels, House Made Merquez Sausage, Herbed Tomato Broth, Grilled Bread ($10) showed up as a huge bowl of plump, not-too-large mussels, but the merguez was the star, seasoned forcefully but not with an overly heavy hand, and not so spicy or smoky that it overwhelmed the mussels.

I used to come to this place for a casual night out just down the street; my standbys were the calamari, the burger, the Caesar salad, and the fondue. Happily, all of these things are still on the menu, but tweaked. Having sampled the new items the chef has brought to the restaurant, I bet these are even better than they were before, and I wish I still lived close enough that I could drop in on a lazy Tuesday night when I don't feel like cooking.

Friday, May 28, 2010

mes amies, chez henri

The service in the bar at Chez Henri tonight was really off, which is a massive letdown. Yes, today was Commencement, but unless one has a particularly progressive parental relationship, the bar at Chez Henri is not where one celebrates such an event, so it wasn't due to excessive celebratory crowds. On a Thursday night, though, there's no reason there should have been only one bartender in charge of the bar and the tables, particularly when every seat was filled and they were three-deep at the bar; we waited long enough for someone to take our cards that Godot could have shown up first and we'd have been less surprised. That said, I'm still glad that I dragged my girlfriends there for our first girls' night out of Reunion weekend. They all lived in the Quad but never went to CH in college; I, on the other hand, found every excuse I could to eat in the bar there both during school and after, when I lived right up the street.

And on that front, Chez Henri did not disappoint. The Rhum Cocktail Marilene, 8 Year Old Haitian Rum, Muddled Lime & Angostura Bitters Shaken & Served on Ice (all cocktails $9) is new since I was last there (in...2006? 2007? Eep) and a fantastic way to start the evening (especially since yesterday's CF of a workday and nine-hour drive did not end with a drink). The Periodista, Triple Sec, Apricot Brandy, Rum, Lime Juice, Shaken and Served with a Twist of Lime also stood the test of time. After that, the girls and I moved to a bottle of rosé on special, and were more than well served. (In fact, one of our foursome arrived late, having had to wait for her babysitter (read: husband) to get home, and when her water didn't arrive in a timely fashion, was comped her glass of wine, totally unnecessarily -- it was a grand gesture.)

We also managed to sample the Chicken Empanadas ($7) and Vegetable Pinchos ($8) to start. The pinchos were skewers of grilled okra, red onion, red bell pepper, mushroom, and squash, with a dressing halfway between crema and tzatziki -- and were delicious (thank goodness for the okra, which I love). The empanadas are three small, but perfectly executed, examples to a plate, with a mango-black bean salsa and a salsa fresca to accompany. I had to have my truly beloved Duck Tamale on Spinach Salad, Warm Bacon and Mustard Dressing ($11). This is one of my favorite dishes of all time -- actually the first dish I ate when I last returned from France, because nothing else would bridge the gap from the food in Paris to back home in Portland, ME, at the time. Big chunks of crispy/fatty bacon and a spicy dressing set off the confit of duck packed into the soft masa ... OK, I kind of want to go back and have it again tomorrow. The Grilled Homemade Chorizo over scallion mashed potato ($8) was another star of the evening. I'm kind of just sad we didn't make it to the conch fritters.

Yes, we were crammed into the door corner all night long and the service was ridiculously off-kilter (we easily would have gotten another round if anyone had asked instead of just dropping our check after clearing our plates, and we had to ask several times for forks for our main course rounds after the first ones were cleared with the apps), but I will come back to Chez Henri for their drinks and that freaking amazing duck tamale as long as I'm able to visit Harvard Square ... and I hope that will be for a good, long time.

Friday, May 07, 2010

rusticoh my goodness

I have to admit that I didn't anticipate great things from Rustico last night, given the ups and downs of previous reviews, and the fact that I was going with a party of nine at 10 p.m. on a Friday. I figured, sure, there'd be some beers, some burgers, some pizzas, and everyone would be in a post-Iron Man 2 good mood so it wouldn't really matter if things were kind of meh.

I'm more than happy to say I was wrong. Rustico performed, and performed well.

One of the dishes of the night would have to have been the first special we tried, an asparagus and burrata bruschetta ($12). The young asparagus had just enough of a char on them to highlight the creamy, delicate cheese; other people must have taken a chance on this, too, as we tried to get two orders and instead got only one, the last of the night. We also had two starter pizzas (Roasted Mushroom, mushroom cream, goat cheese, sauteed spinach [$14] and Duck Confit and Cracklins, brie and sautéed onions [$16]) shared amongst the group -- both solid presentations from the pizza oven, with great flavors, and perhaps just a bit too much of a crust-to-topping ratio.

The Grilled Dry-Aged Cheddar Burger, toasted brioche, red wine - shallot aioli, malted fries ($12) is a burger that could have been designed specifically for the birthday boy. Good thing, too, as he had accidentally left his wallet at home and was thus prohibited from trying any of the many beers available (the primary reason he chose the spot, although also it was mere minutes from the theatre). Of course, after the starters, he had to bring half the enormous, juicy, perfectly-cooked sandwich home, along with the pile of excellent fries. Slightly less than half, actually, because hands kept snaking over to steal them when he wasn't looking -- but for once, I was not among the fry purloiners! No; that's because I was one of the three at table who ordered the special, Soft-Shell Crabs, avocado purée, cucumber salad, and shoestring potatoes ($27). At just under twice what I've been paying around town for a single soft-shell as an appetizer, these were two beautiful, meaty specimens, caught at 4 p.m. that day (our server immediately informed us*), perfectly fried with just enough crunch but not too much batter, allowing the flavor of the crabs to shine through. The shoestrings were more like matchsticks, but that was fine with me -- crunchy, salty, and just barely potato-y, they were essentially another element of crispiness to play off the softness of the puree, cucumber bites, and crabmeat.

Another member of the party couldn't resist the Grilled Bone-In Pork Chop, chorizo fried rice, cherry compote ($22). This massive portion (much of which accompanied her home as well) was described by our friend Gennaro as having "no right to be that tender and delicious" and I think he has half a mind to ask how they're brining that chop to keep it that way. The cherry was not too sweet, collaborating with instead of fighting the heat and spice of the other flavors on the plate. Gennaro described his own Half-Chicken Two Ways, creamy fregola & spring pea stew, herb chicken jus ($18) as far exceeding his expectations, a huge (I'm sensing a theme here) half-chicken that was juicy and full of spring-herb flavors -- although none of us could determine what the "two ways" were.

Probably the weakest dish was the Spinach and Ricotta Canelloni, creamy walnut sauce, confit shrimp & herb salad ($18). I didn't taste this, but it was deemed by those who did to be not bad, just underwhelming: filling a bit on the bland side, and the diner who ordered it didn't care for the texture of the shrimp, which also were very gently flavored. Nothing made this dish jump to life, and compared to the others on the table, it just felt lackluster.

I know I'm supposed to talk about the beer now, but honestly, I have no idea what beers people ordered and what they thought of them; for the most part, people were too busy talking about the food -- and other topics, of course, like how all the Louboutins the costumers put on Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie made us dislike her even more than usual** -- to comment too heavily on the libations.

Since this was a birthday celebration, there was dessert: Red Velvet Cheesecake, whipped cream, chocolate covered pretzels ($8). A rich yet light concoction from Buzz across the street, it was exactly right to end the meal, and the evening.

I'm not in that part of Alexandria that often, but I can say with confidence that I'll be back at Rustico, and before Iron Man 3 is out, for sure.

*I was reminded just how much of a neighborhood spot this is by our server's interactions with us -- or maybe it was just his personality. As you might have gathered, this was a table of self-professed sci-fi/comic book geeks, and at one point the topic of the Tauntaun sleeping bag came up. Because he was in earshot, our server dove right into the conversation. It wasn't at all unpleasant, just a bit unanticipated, as was the cartoon cow he drew on the take-out container for the burger (alas, no piggy on the pork chop's box).

**Unabashedly girly geek-out. No shoes or movie stars were harmed in the writing of this review.