A New Show in Town

Pizza Romana

I wonder how many people out there are like me: when my birthday comes around (or within 4 months…) my mind immediately turns to restaurants.  Rather than thinking about holes in my summer wardrobe or dropping hints about my need for a new iPod, I go online and search for the location of my birthday dinner.  This year, while I was well underway with making my June 22nd reservation, my husband pre-empted me with a surprise the week before — a dinner and birthday gift rolled up into one.

He took me, and two friends, to Stir — Barbara Lynch’s new venture in the South End.  Not only did we eat a great meal, but we watched it being cooked in front of us by two of Ms. Lynch’s skilled chefs.  The concept is straightforward and brilliant: each class is based on a different cookbook, selected from one of the many stacked on the bookshelves on one wall of the cozy kitchen.  Two talents from the Barbara Lynch Gruppo choose 3 or more recipes from the cookbook to demonstrate and serve to the guests, who number no greater than nine.  My birthday dinner, based on The River Cottage Meat Book, consisted of french fries, charcuterie (cured meats, salami, and pork rillettes), sweetbreads with bacon and fava beans, and crispy pork belly with apple sauce.  It was not to be believed.  Of course, the entire meal is paired with excellent wines by the course, and a copy of the cookbook is yours to keep.  I left Stir that night with a smile from ear to ear and a book called Meat under my arm.


My mother’s birthday followed closely behind mine, and I borrowed RJ’s wonderful idea.  For Mom, the cookbook du jour was A16: Food + Wine, named for the famed San Francisco restaurant.  Nate Appleman, the chef/owner of A16, was recently named Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation and ranked as one of Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs 2009.  The featured recipes included pizzas (bianco – with green olives, parmesan and chili oil; Romana – with tomatoes, anchovies and oregano; and margherita – with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes); halibut with a preserved meyer lemon, caper and pistachio crust and a side of delicious kale; and chocolate budino, the most heavenly chocolate-on-chocolate tart I’ve ever tasted, topped with olive oil and sea salt.


What is so lovely about Stir is that it feels like a dinner party among friends.  They only allow 8-9 people at a time, and the chefs encourage questions and dialogue as they cook their way through the menu.  Of the people around the table at my mom’s birthday dinner, half were repeat attendees (one guy was on his fourth visit) and the rest was my family.  It felt very familiar and casual, despite the decadent food and wine.

There’s also a tactile element I really enjoy – at my first Stir experience they passed around raw pork belly so we could feel the skin before the cooking process made it crunchy like candy, and the other night we handled pizza dough at different stages of rise so we could understand the results of proofing and kneading.

IMG_0024Best of all, however, is the staff.  In June, we met Molly, the executive sous chef at Stir, and Jericha, one of the butchers at the Butcher Shop.  This month, Molly was again regaling us with her fun tales of culinary school but stationed just to my left was none other than Barbara Lynch!   I can’t tell you what a treat it was to watch and learn from this master chef.  She forced the elastic pizza dough into submission, loosed handfuls of kosher salt with abandon, and divulged some of her favorite places to eat in Boston/Cambridge: Oleana, Hungry Mother, and Sel de la Terre (plus Cambridge One and Upper Crust for pizza).  Personally, I must confess that my favorite place to eat in Boston is Stir.  The experience is unique, unpredictable, and fun – it would be perfect for a first date if it weren’t so gosh darn expensive.  While you’re saving up, however, consider buying the book, due out in the fall, to tide you over: STIR: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition.  While I haven’t seen it, I would bet the farm that it is fabulous, and will be appearing soon on the shelves at my house.

Chocolate Budino

California Cuisine

napa-bouchon-cardAs RJ and I toured Northern California, we often saw restaurants described as “California cuisine”.  For us New England folk, that means avocados.  A Californian sandwich in Boston could translate to any number of possible combinations but must include avocado and maybe sprouts but no red meat.  A California sushi roll has crabstick and avocado and sometimes cucumber.  Guess what lies in a fan atop a Californian salad?  Yup. The Haas.

Though I didn’t think that every dish we ate in California would be avocado-based,  my non-green-eating husband thought cuisine in California was suspect as best.  I knew, however, that Napa would not disappoint.  As you saw in my last post, I eased him into it with Calistoga barbecue.  Then I hit him with the fine dining.  Our first stop was Redd, which came highly recommended.  I started with hamachi sashimi which was melt-in-your-mouth tender, with touch of a great gingery sauce.  The fish sat on a rice, edamame, and seaweed salad mixture – tasted good but I could have done without the rice which seemed unnecessary.  Our other starter was the gnocchi pancetta carbonara with poached egg which was out of this world – creamy, rich and decadent beyond compare!  Neighbors had the tasting menu which looked so good – perfect portion sizes and a great variety.

Duck at Redd

Our dinners were the NY steak and the duck breast.  I was blown away by the duck breast – perfectly cooked, with a wonderful vegetable accompaniment (chard and wild mushrooms, I think), over gizzard polenta.  A couple bites of the steak were a bit chewy, but the fantastic sauce was redeeming and the fingerling potatoes were a treat.  What really made the meal for us, however, was the wine pairings.  Jason, the sommelier, was phenomenal.  He hooked us up with wines from the by-the-glass list for each dish — certainly the way to go, given our diverse choices.  I was really impressed with the Foxglove chardonnay with the gnocchi and the great Whetstone pinot that came with the duck.  Highly recommended!!

Steak at Redd

Blue Cheese ChipsThe next day we stopped in at the Rutherford Grill for lunch.  The fish sandwich was good, but we were both unhealthily infatuated with the Pont Reyes Blue Cheese covered potato chips.  Unadulterated sinful goodness.  When we had finished the chips there was still a good amount of the luxurious cheese left on the bottom of the bowl.  As RJ and I were poised above the dish, both contemplating sticking our fingers in to swipe up the excess, our kind server came by and offered us more of the homemade potato chips.  Accepted!

Bouchon-appsThough we had planned on going to Market restaurant in St. Helena that Sunday night, followed by fried chicken night at Ad Hoc, RJ convinced me that we did not have time on Monday to stop for dinner before proceeding to Tahoe.  As I am mildly obsessed with the man, I was not about to leave Napa without having eaten at one of Thomas Keller‘s restaurants.  Thus, we tramped over to Bouchon and demanded a reservation.  Not really – but close!  Thankfully, they had a last minute cancellation and we were in.  The meal was spectacular.  We began with bread served with a choice of butter or warm white bean puree.  They also gave us some citrus-marinated olives to tide us over.  I had the oysters, which ranged from piquant and briny to lucious and creamy.

Bouchon Roast ChickenFor dinner, we ordered the pinnacle of bistro foods: a perfectly-cooked steak frites with maitre d’hotel butter for RJ and a roast chicken half au jus for me.  I have never eaten chicken so good before in my life – sorry Gordon!  I could have taken swigs of that jus out of a juice glass it was so delicious.  It was resting on a pea and bacon mixture that perfectly summed up the character of the dish – rustic, flavorful and familiar.  If I could have fit another ounce in my stomach, I would have had the profiteroles with chocolate sauce, but ’twas not to be.  Even RJ was astounded when he saw a man stand up from a table behind me, walk to the kitchen, and return with a second basket of fries – who could eat that many?!?  I turned to look and whom should I see but THOMAS KELLER!  Wearing a jean shirt and carrying fries to his table, the Man himself was eating right behind me.  I nearly kissed him but for the chicken-greasy mug I wore!  Total satisfaction at Bouchon.Bouchon Steak Frites

I cannot close this post without a mention of our San Francisco eats as well.  We had our biggest splurge meal at Gary Danko – one of the most difficult reservations to obtain in SF, at least that’s what they tell me.  RJ and I both ate four courses — for me: Dungeoness crab salad, branzini, bison filet and cheese.  For RJ: rock shrimp and lobster risotto, porcini-dusted scallops with pea puree, filet mignon and a trio of creme brulees of considerable size (coffee, chocolate, vanilla bean).  Great wine, port and scotch were imbibed by all…  We also dined at Zuni Cafe — I had heard so many raves about the signature chicken that I simply had to partake!  I am sorry to say that I was disappointed.  The dish did not hold a candle to either Boston’s Hammersley’s Bistro or Napa’s Bouchon, plus we had to wait over an hour for it to arrive (stated on the menu, but really — is that necessary?).  The meat was cooked perfectly, but the skin wasn’t all that crispy and we didn’t think there was any stand-out flavor to the chicken except perhaps salt.  That being said, RJ’s cheese risotto was amazing and kept us satisfied for about 45 minutes of the chicken wait.

All in all, we left the state loving California Cuisine, whatever that is!

Ringing in the New Year

Short Rib and White PolentaNew Year’s Eve has never been my type of holiday.  For one thing, I have a pathetic inability to stay up past eleven o’clock at night, let alone into the wee hours of the next morning.  My weakness is only compounded when copious amounts of champagne are part of the equation.  I also live in New England, and don’t particularly like driving, walking, or even standing around in icy sub-zero temperatures, and New Year’s activities here generally involve some combination of the three.  

Despite my reluctance, I have been rather adventurous in the past — skiing in the French Alps, hiking to the top of an isolated cow hill in Vermont, and revelling with hundreds of international bohemians on a beach in the Virgin Islands.  And some of those times, I even stayed up until midnight…  My plan this year was to just stay home with my new husband: drink some fine bubbly, maybe watch the ball drop, maybe just watch a movie.  Honestly, it wasn’t all that important to me to participate in some blow-out party.  Then a friend of mine said that dreaded line: “Oh, you are so married.”  Kiss of death for a 26 year old.  So to appease everyone and to convince myself (however briefly) that I am not a complete dud, I decided to find something to do on the last evening of 2008.

Since the one thing I do love about New Year’s (and life in general) is the champagne, I began from that premise.  What goes with champagne?  Good food!  So after a good deal of scouring for last minute reservations, we finally decided upon a restaurant in Groton, Massachusetts called Gibbet Hill, which was having a special New Year’s Eve tasting menu, complete with the bubbles I so crave.  

In tribute to one of the first New Year’s Eves in a long while that I have remained awake and coherent until 2 AM, I thought I would give a review of the delicious meal I enjoyed at Gibbet Hill with my mother-in-law, brother-in-law, their significant others, and RJ.

Our meal began with an amuse bouche of beet pannacotta and pork pate with house-made pickles:

Amuse Bouche

The beet bite was a lovely blend of textures, and quite beautiful to look at.  The pannacotta was a bright pink!  It was unfortunately a bit unwieldy – we all had trouble keeping the beet disk and the pannacotta layer together from the plate to our mouth.  The pork pate was rough and country – in a good way – and the pickles added a lovely counterpoint to the rich and meaty slice.

Tuna App

For the appetizers, we had three takers of the celery root and chestnut veloute with cranberry syrup, one order of “orange-cured” tuna sashimi, and one beef short rib with polenta.The only disappointment here was the tuna.  Though the fish was very fresh and had a wonderfully smooth, melting texture, the flavors just weren’t there.  I think salt was the primary missing ingredient, but I also felt that the orange segments were not really in flavor harmony with the tuna.  Worse than the orange, though was the celery hearts on which the tuna lay.  I put crunchy celery in my canned tuna salad, but not with my fine sashimi – yuk!

Celery Root and Chestnut Soup

The soup was very rich and had a nutty, almost woodsy taste to it – the cranberry was immediately overshadowed by the thick and creamy bisque.

Short RibThe big hit of this course was the short rib.  RJ, of course, was the one to order the beef appetizer – “it’s a steak house – I’m going to eat the steak. Twice.”  This was one of the best preparations of short rib I’ve seen in a while.  The interior of the rib was perfectly cooked and seemed to dissolve on the tongue.  However, it appeared that the rib had also been broiled right before serving, resulting in a crispy and crunchy exterior with a welcome bite.  The polenta was creamy and cheesy and converted RJ to a new starch product.


For dinner, RJ split the Chateaubriand for 2 with his mom’s boyfriend, Roger.  It was served sliced up, alongside roasted cipollini onions, pommes Anna (pan-roasted potatoes) and a marrow bone.  Sorry for the picture – the boys had already attacked it!  As you can see, the steak was overcooked (they ordered it medium-rare).  The onions and potatoes were delicious, as was the “sauce rouge” served alongside.  But overcooked steak at a steak house??  A sin like no other!ddddd


On the upside, the sirloin that RJ’s brother Brian and his girlfriend Erica split was perfectly cooked as ordered.  This entree was great because the meat itself was fabulous.  I guess RJ has a point about ordering beef at a steakhouse…

Pork confit

The rest of us ordered the Confit of Lucky 7 Farms Pork with roasted loin, lentils du puy, chanterelles and root vegetables.  I guess the roasted loin was in the saucy mixture to the left (or perhaps they were referring to the confit, which may have been made of loin).  On this dish I was divided – right down the middle, actually!  On the left was a rich, stewy mix of pork belly, chanterelle mushrooms, root vegetables and butter.  Ohhhhh, was there ever butter!  That sauce was I-want-to-take-a-bath-in-it good.  Or, as RJ would say, “If they made a toothpaste of that sauce, I’d brush my teeth with it.”  Wordsmith it as you will, but that was some pork goodness.  On the right side of the plate, however, was a dry particle-board textured square of pork confit, topped with a slice of crispy skin, and the least flavorful lentils I have ever tasted.  I love lentils, and these just tasted bland – as if they hadn’t been seasoned at all.  

Apple tart

Since it was a prix fixe, I ordered dessert – even though I did not have a square centimeter of space left in my stomach after the pork!  The tart, from what I was able to taste, was really good – light and airy puff pastry with a good ratio of pastry to apples.  

Over all, I did like Gibbet Hill.  I think they did a good job with creating the menu, which did not incorporate any of their regular offerings (save the signature chocolate cake).  The restaurant is also very globally conscious – the ingredients are often organic, free-range, or heirloom products, and the freshness really shines through.  I think that RJ’s point is a good one – though he meant it in more of a self-serving way, since his diet mostly comprises Beef 24/7 – it is always smart to order according to a restaurant’s strengths.  While the tuna wasn’t great at this restaurant on a farm, the beef dishes were excellent.  As for the champagne…I have another rule.  Never settle for the free glass of “champagne” on New Year’s.  Nine times out of ten, you’ll get a sweet prosecco, or an overly-bubbled cava.  Spring for a great bottle of French champagne – that will get anyone into the celebration mood!