Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting wine and food items that are upcoming. **********************************************************
1) From family-run restaurants with well-kept secrets to some of Somerville’s newest and hottest eateries, East Somerville’s restaurant corridor has some of the city’s most authentic flavors and hidden gems. On Tuesday, September 16, from 6pm-9:30pm, a ticket to the East Broadway Foodie Crawl will give diners exclusive access to more than a dozen area restaurants representing five continents for tastings of food and a glimpse of the experience at each.

The East Broadway Business District is home to some of the city’s best restaurants, trademarked by the authentic food that each serves. The Foodie Crawl invites participants directly inside each participating restaurant for a walking and tasting neighborhood tour that sets it apart from other food events and festivals. The experience includes the sights and smells of Ethiopia, the tastes of El Salvador and the colors of Haiti. New to the tour this year is dynamo La Brasa, which serves food anchored in the neighborhood’s cultural roots

This year’s event will also include the newly-completed East Somerville streetscape, allowing for outdoor seating and music while enjoying the crawl. This crawl leads more than 1,000 people to East Somerville deliciousness each year, and includes not only tasty bites but also entertainment along the way.

All proceeds benefit East Somerville Main Streets, which is committed to building a safe, sustainable and prosperous multicultural community by developing a vibrant businesses district at the neighborhood’s heart.

Tickets for the Foodie Crawl are on sale now. You can buy them for $20 online and $25 at the door if there are still tickets available. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit: www.eastsomervillemainstreets.org. The event has a rain date of September 17th.

2) Joslin Diabetes Center, the world's largest diabetes research and clinical care organization, will celebrate with “ritmos de salud” at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter on Friday, September 26, from 6pm-10pm, to benefit its Latino Diabetes Initiative.

Guests will enjoy an evening filled with upbeat Latin rhythms from Alexander el Cantante as well as a performance by Boston’s own “Salsa y Control” Dance Company; guests will be encouraged to join in on the dance floor. A fabulous array of food will be provided by some of Boston’s most renowned Chefs, led by our culinary chair – Chef Jose Duarte of Taranta.

Diabetes is a disease of epidemic proportions across all populations, affecting certain racial/ethnic groups in even greater numbers. National data demonstrates that Latinos have a two-fold increase in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to the Caucasian population. Joslin Diabetes Center’s Latino Diabetes Initiative (LDI) strives to improve the lives of Latinos affected by diabetes, or at risk for the disease, through culturally oriented patient care, education, outreach and research, as well as working to find a cure.

Tickets ($75) can be purchased by calling 617. 309.2512 or emailing Meghan.Mongeau@joslin.harvard.edu

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blue Ox in Lynn: Excellent Neighborhood Spot

I don't have a valid excuse. I should have done it years ago but, for no specific reason, it didn't happen until recently. Friends advised me to do it, and I read very positive comments in the press, but it just didn't motivate me sufficiently. However, after doing it once, I know that I must do it again, and then again. And I am here to urge others to do the same.

What did I finally do? I dined at The Blue Ox in Lynn, which describes itself as "an upscale casual neighborhood restaurant" that "offers an approachable American menu."

The Blue Ox, which opened in 2009, is owned by Chef Matt O'Neil, a Swampscott native, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He has previously worked at such restaurants as Prezza and No. 9 Park, and eventually decided to strike out on his own and open his own restaurant. The Blue Ox has received lots of positive press, and I know a number of people who have dined there and raved about their experiences. Most recently, Chef O'Neil and the team at the Blue Ox were the 2014 Champions of Boston Magazine's Battle of the Burger, and had also been the 2013 Champions. When I dined there a couple weeks ago, I realized what I have been missing for the past five years.

On a Thursday evening, at almost 7pm, the restaurant was quite busy, and somewhat noisy. The restaurant is divided into two sections, the main room with a dining section and bar, and a second dining room. We sat in the main room, at a table next to the front window, which gave us a bit more privacy than some of the other tables. Though loud, the noise level wasn't oppressive and we were still able to have a normal conversation. It is more just a lot of energy, especially in the bar area. It definitely has a nice, neighborhood feel, a place to stop after work, for a night out with friends, or just for a good dinner.

The Beverage Director, Charles Gaeta, has created an interesting drinks list, including wine, beer, and craft cocktails. The wine list has about 16 wines by the glass ($8-$13), and the bottle list has plenty of diversity and many bottles under $50. There are some lower mark-ups on wines over $50 and wine lovers should appreciate the variety of wines that are available. There are plenty of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon choices, but you will also find wines made from Peccorino, Assyrtiko, Muller-Thurgau, Zweigelt, and Kadarka. If you need a recommendation, Charles will help you select a wine to accompany your dinner. There are about 30 beers available ($3.50-$15), 6 on draft, with plenty of local choices

Their cocktail list is intriguing and definitely a compelling reason to check out the restaurant. They have about 16 House Cocktails (reasonably priced at $11 each), broken down into four groups. First, there are Locally Distilled which are all cocktails using spirits distilled in Massachusetts. A great way to support some worthy local companies. Second, there are the Wonders of the Agave Plant, cocktails using Tequila or Mezcal. Third, there are a couple Classic cocktails, onto which the restaurant has put their own spin. Finally, they have a couple Barrel-Aged cocktails. With all of these choices, I knew I needed to check out several of the cocktails.

I began with a Barrel-Aged Manhattan, which was aged in oak for about two months, and you can notice the large, square ice cube in the glass which means the drink won't get diluted as quickly as it would with regular ice cubes. The Manhattan was smooth and complex, with an added depth to it which is probably attributable to its aging. I would have been satisfied to sit at the bar and sip these all evening.

The Tonight's Today cocktail is made with Ethereal gin, Manzanilla sherry, grapefruit liqueur, lemon oil, rosemary, and a touch of sparkling rose in a Muscat “showered” glass. Though I am not usually a gin guy, this was a tasty cocktail with lots of herbal notes but also hints of brininess from the sherry. Definitely a nice summer drink.

The North Country Old Fashioned is created from house infused bacon bourbon, VT maple syrup, and Ox maple bitters. It was nicely balanced, with mild flavors of bacon and maple, neither overwhelming the other, or the drink. The Sibling Rivalry has Bully Boy vodka, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, St-Germain, lemon, and rhubarb bitters. It has a clean, smooth flavor with hints of sweetness and a kick of ginger. The Dark n' Stormy is made with house-spiced Old Monk 7 Year rum, Fever Tree ginger beer, and lime. It has a strong ginger flavor, enhanced by intriguing spice notes.

The restaurant is open for dinner from Tuesday to Sunday. Their Dinner Menu is relatively small, but with plenty which should interest any customer. I like the fact they have not tried to create a monstrosity of a menu, with dozens upon dozens of choices. You will find Appetizers (8 choices, $6-$16), Soup & Salad (4 choices, $10-$11, with extras), Burgers (3 choices, $13-$16); Pasta (3 choices, $22-$24), Entrees (5 choices, $22-$25), and Sides (6 choices, $6-$7). They also have a Gluten Free menu. On the evening I dined, there were a few different Specials too.

Of the Appetizers, I had to check out the Fried Maitland Mountain Farm Pickles ($9), with grilled lemon & thyme aioli and aged balsamic. When fried pickles are done well, they can be delicious, but far too often they end up as limp and soggy. So, it would be a good test of the kitchen to see whether these fried pickles were worthy or not, and they passed with flying colors. Maitland Mountain Farm is an organic, urban farm in Salem, MA, well known for their pickles. The fried pickles had a tasty, clean and crunchy coating over a crisp and flavorful pickle. A nice way to begin our dinner.

One of the Special Appetizers was Chicken Wings, which had initially been rubbed with Cajun seasoning and then cold smoked in whiskey barrels. Afterwards, they were battered, fried and tossed in a house made honey hot sauce. Finally, they were covered with a Great Hill Blue Cheese & tarragon dressing, sliced scallion, and black sesame seeds. Fortunately they give you wet naps as these are messy, and you'll be sure to devour them. The smoky spice of these wings was excellent, and it was a crunchy bite to the tender, moist meat inside. The sesame seeds added an extra crunch and the dressing helped to cut the spice. If they are a Special again, be sure to order some.

The Spicy Tuna Tartare ($16) is probably their signature Appetizer, and they mix the tuna with cucumber, cilantro, scallion, lemon juice, EVOO and their homemade chili sauce. They then place chive cream atop their house made aged potato chips, and place the tartare atop it. It had a very nice taste to it, well balanced though personally I would have liked a bit more spicy heat to it. The potato chip added a salty crunch and I thought that was a nice addition to this dish.


The Classic Caesar Salad ($10), with crisp romaine hearts, garlicky croutons, Ox Caesar dressing, & Parmigiano and the Pear Salad ($10), with roasted hazelnuts, goat cheese, and maple vinaigrette, both used very fresh ingredients. The cheese were stars in both salads.

Another Special was this Duck Breast dish. The duck was cured for a week in a coriander, fennel, brown sugar cure and then cold smoked for an hour. I love duck and this was a compelling dish, with slices of perfectly cooked duck with some interesting herbal notes and hints of sweetness.

Charles, the Beverage Director, recommended a California Zinfandel with the duck. Though a number of people recommend this same pairing, I have often found Zinfandel to be too big and tannic for duck but I was willing to take Charles' recommendation. The 2009 Canard Vineyard Zinfandel ($75/bottle) was excellent, and worked very well with the duck. It was smooth, with restrained tannins, nice black fruit flavors and spicy accents. It isn't your typical Zinfandel and Charles was dead on in his pairing suggestion. And as the Canard generally retails for $45, the wine has a low markup as well, making it a good value too.

As for Entrees, one of the Specials was a Grilled Swordfish, which was topped by a Napa cabbage slaw and served with a crispy Kurobuta pork and Maitland Mountain Farm red onion & parmesan risotto cake. The Swordfish was tender and meaty, enhanced by a cucumber and Champagne vinaigrette sauce. A delicious piece of seafood, and the risottto cake was also tasty, with a nice exterior crunch and a flavorful interior.

The Blue Ox Burgers ($16) comes with two ¼ lb. burgers stuffed with gorgonzola dolce and topped with applewood smoked bacon, tomato, lettuce, grilled lemon & thyme aioli. The burgers come with herb French fries though I asked them to substitute their hand cut potato chips. All of their burgers are made from Prime beef and are hand packed each day, which also means there is limited availability. The burgers were juicy, with a strong gorgonzola taste, which also oozed out once you bit into the burger. For blue cheese lovers, this is an impressive burger. The brioche buns are fresh and work well with these burgers, actually helping to add a little sweetness to balance the tang of the cheese. And the potato chips were crisp and addictive. An excellent dish of comfort food.

For dessert, the Sticky Toffee Pudding ($10), with toffee caramel sauce, whipped cream, and caramel sea salt ice cream is a good choice. The moist pudding "cake" went well with the sauce and ice cream, and it wasn't too heavy. It was perfect for two of us to share after everything else we had already eaten.

Our server, Matthew, did an excellent job and I have spoken to others who have been served by Matthew and also raved about his performance. The food and drinks are excellent, and I like the neighborhood vibe of the restaurant. I know understand why so many people have recommended this place to me, and I will be sure to return soon. I have absolutely no excuse now. I give The Blue Ox my hearty recommendation.

Have you dined at The Blue Ox? What are your thoughts?

(Disclaimer: I received a media comp for this dinner. Please be advised I was under no obligation to actually review this restaurant and if I chose to review it, I was under no obligation to say anything specific, whether positive or negative, about my experience. All of this content was solely at my discretion. I will be returning to the restaurant soon, on my own dime, and will definitely report back on any differences I encounter.)

The Blue Ox on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

New MA Seafood Program: But What About Farmed Shellfish?

I'm fortunate to live in Massachusetts, where local seafood is available, from Island Creek Oysters to Nantucket Bay Scallops, from Lobster to Cod. Right now, a flood of tourists are visiting Massachusetts, checking out places like Rockport, Hyannis and Provincetown. Many of those tourists will enjoy the bounty of the waters of Massachusetts, fresh and local seafood prepared in a myriad of ways, from lobster rolls to fried clams. Everyone has their favorite spot to find such seafood treasures, and it is our good fortune to have so many tasty choices.

In the near future, Massachusetts seafood is hopefully going to receive a large boost in publicity, making it well known across the country, as well as helping to boost our local fishing industry. Hopefully it will also lead to more Massachusetts residents eating seafood more frequently. And why is this so? Because the the Massachusetts legislature and Governor Deval Patrick have recently enacted H.R. 4377, Promoting Economic Growth Across the Commonwealth, which has created a new Seafood Marketing Program

Back in 2010, the legislature established a Special Commission on Seafood Marketing to determine whether a marketing program for Massachusetts seafood would have merit. Their report was issued in July 2013 and concluded that it would be worthy to create a marketing program for wild-caught seafood landed in Massachusetts. The conclusions of this report eventually led, in December 2013, to the filing of Bill S.1979 by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who also served on the Special Commission, to enact such a program. This bill was so popular it garnered twenty-three bi-partisan, co-sponsors.

The value of the Massachusetts seafood industry should not be underestimated. The Commission found that the value of landings in 2011 was $571 Million, second nationally only to Alaska. The industry also employs over 11,000 people, with secondary employment of over 11,000 people as well. Unfortunately, the Massachusetts fishing industry is facing significant problems, especially due to large reductions in catch limits. Something needs to be done to assist the industry, to protect our fishermen and boost the economy.

Senator Bruce Tarr stated, “The people that depend on our commercial fisheries are fighting every day for survival against monumental challenges, and our state needs to play an active role in promoting the value and consumption of their harvest.” A noble sentiment, worthy of our efforts. And Representative James Cantwell, a co-sponsor of the Bill, stated, “A properly organized seafood marketing program will both promote the health benefits of eating seafood and brand our Massachusetts harvested products, so Massachusetts Fresh Seafood will be as recognized and sought after as Florida Oranges, Vermont Maple Syrup, Georgia Peaches, and Napa Valley Wine.” The multiple objectives of this program will help in many ways.

The press release on this new marketing program sets forth its numerous goals:
- Increasing the public’s knowledge about the health benefits of eating seafood and the economic importance of the Commonwealth’s fishing industry;
- Educating the public on fisheries resources, management and commercial fishing to build consumer confidence;
- Creating name recognition and increasing consumer demand and preference for Commonwealth seafood products;
- Stabilizing market prices through the promotion of the Commonwealth seafood products in low consumer demand or when the supply of said products is high;
- Developing a variety of promotional and educational tools and strategies to achieve the program’s purpose and objectives; and
- Identifying a range of sources and mechanisms to fund program activities and to increase the scope of program outreach to the public and other stakeholders.

Now that the bill has passed, the Governor will appoint a team of twelve people to recommend a strategy to market Massachusetts seafood. This team is supposed to consist of a diverse group, including four commercial fishermen, one lobsterman, one scallop fishery representative, one shellfish industry representative, one seafood wholesaler, one retailer, one seafood restaurateur and two people from fishing advocacy groups. It is undetermined when this group will be appointed, and then how long they will be provided to produce their recommendations.

Importantly, funding is dependent on how much the legislature will appropriate for this marketing program. That is obviously a vital step, and hopefully, with the bi-partisan popularity of this bill, the legislature will appropriate a sufficient amount of funding to accomplish its goals. We are moving forward in a very positive direction, and don't want a lack of sufficient funding to grind that progress to a halt, or even a crawl. It is hoped that sometime next year, our seafood might started being labeled as "Massachusetts Harvested," and that people across the country will come to understand the value of that label.

I hope this Seafood Marketing Program succeeds as it will be beneficial in many ways, and not just to the local seafood industry. It will help educate consumers as well on the benefits of seafood consumption, and we definitely need plenty of more positive press for seafood. That education should spread across the country, and not just remain localized. It should also help the financial well-being of our troubled fishing industry. My only issue with this new marketing program is that it concerns only wild-caught seafood, and ignores Massachusetts aquaculture.

Though ignored, Massachusetts aquaculture will still benefit in some ways through the marketing program as it will be promoting the consumption of all seafood, noting its myriad health benefits. The more positive that consumers view seafood, the better for all fisheries, whether wild or farmed. The problem is that farmed seafood will not be allowed to bear the "Massachusetts Harvested" label and benefit from that positive branding. I believe the majority of Massachusetts aquaculture is worthy of such a label.

The majority of aquaculture within Massachusetts involves shellfish, from oysters to quahogs. Grown in Massachusetts waters, this shellfish aquaculture reflects the "merroir," a taste of location, of our waters just as much as wild-caught shellfish. Each particular area of the Massachusetts coastal waters has its own individual characteristics, from temperature to salinity, which affects the growth of all seafood, whether wild or farmed. Why shouldn't farmed shellfish be labeled as "Massachusetts Harvested" when those waters are so crucial to their development? I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be so labeled.

As an example, when consumers enjoy Massachusetts oysters, they seek out different kinds, from different locations on the coast, but don't care whether those oysters are farmed or wild. They see all oysters as local Massachusetts products, as it should be. Island Creek Oysters may be farmed but they are still commonly seen as a Massachusetts product. It is the location of those oysters, not whether they are wild or farmed, which provides the most important element of their taste.

Let us hope that the committee eventually expands their parameters and decides to include at least some forms of aquaculture, especially shellfish. It too is worthy of a Massachusetts Harvested label.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rant: Revisiting Restaurants & Updated Reviews

It's true that new restaurants get the lion share of publicity from food writers and restaurant reviewers. In fact, there often is a rush to be the first to review a new spot, though prior etiquette meant reviewers often waited three months or so before reviewing a new restaurant. However, what about those restaurants which have been around at least for a couple years? Don't they deserve publicity too? Shouldn't reviewers update their old reviews to ensure those reviews are still valid?

Restaurants that have been around should not be ignored by reviewers (or customers for that matter). Plenty of consumers still want to know whether they are worthy spots or not. And a four year old review may no longer be valid. Restaurants can change, sometimes drastically, from year to year. In addition, reviewing older spots may help differentiate a reviewer from everyone else who is only reviewing new places.

This issue has come to my mind lately due to a few different matters. First, I give kudos to the Boston Globe for their recent review that revisited two restaurants, Bergamot and Ten Tables, providing an updated status of both spots. It seems this will become a regular aspect of their restaurant reviewing, occasionally revisiting older spots, and that is a great idea.

Second, during my recent trip to Las Vegas, I dined at two restaurants which I had previously visited five years ago. I've re-reviewed both spots, and was pleased to learn that the quality at both restaurants had not diminished. In fact, one of the spots, Abriya Raku, actually seemed to be even better. Five years could have brought so many different changes, whether negative or positive, so I thought it was warranted to revisit those spots and see what time had wrought.    

Third, later this week, I'll be reviewing the Blue Ox in Lynn, a restaurant that opened five years ago. Even though it is located only a couple towns over from me, I'd never been there before until recently. It isn't a new restaurant so likely won't come onto the radar of many reviewers, but it is a place worthy of review. It received lots of positive press when it opened, but most of the reviews are a few years old. Maybe it is time those reviews were updated. I enjoy checking out new restaurants, but I appreciate visiting established spots.

So, restaurant reviewers and food writers, do you review older restaurants too, or revisit a place you previously reviewed? If not, why not?

Readers, do you want to read updated reviews of older, established restaurants? If not, why not?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Puritan & Co.: Alsatian Wine Advice

The wines of Alsace, mainly white and produced from grapes such as Gewurtztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sylvaner and more. As I've said repeatedly before, Alsatian wines are generally not on the radar of the average consumer but they should be. They can often provide excellent value and taste. They are enjoyable while young but can also age well. They can provide a sense of history, as well as showcase state of the art wine making. At their most basic though, they are delicious.

You can read some background info on Alsatian wines here, and also check out my prior Alsatian wine reviews. From those articles, you will quickly see that I am a fan of Alsatian wines. How about you?

Recently, I attended a media dinner at Puritan & Co., showcasing eight wines from Alsace. This was my first visit to Puritan, and definitely won't be my last. I enjoyed the food and found the wines to be compelling. In addition, there was plenty of fun and interesting conversation, providing some additional insight into Alsace.

Dinner began with a couple shared appetizers, including Clothbound Cheddar Gougeres, which were filled with gooey, melted cheese.

The Scallop Tartare, sitting in lettuce cups, were fresh and clean, with bright citrus flavors. Alsatian white wines and seafood often make an excellent pairing.

Our vinous sampling began with Cremant d'Alsace, sparkling wine to set the mood while also pairing well with our food. The 2011 Albert Mann Cremant d'Alsace Brut ($22), made by a Biodynamic producer, is a blend of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. With a beautiful golden color, it had flavors of green apple and lemon with brioche highlights. It was elegant and clean, with a pleasing finish. My preference though was the NV Willm Cremant d'Alsace Blanc de Noirs Brut ($16) which is made of 100% Pinot Noir. This Cremant was creamy and smooth, with bright fruit flavors of apple and citrus. It too was elegant and clean, though lacking the toastiness of the Albert Mann. Your preference will depend on the style of sparkling wine you like best.

"Pinot Blanc and egg dishes go very well together. It also goes well with herbs."

For our first course, I chose the Wild Mushrooms & Farm Egg, which is made with arugula, garlic and smoked brioche. This was an umami-rich dish, the type of dish that makes you want to lick the plate clean, or use bread to sop up all the sauce and egg yolk.

I also have to give special kudos to the Rolls at Puritan, which are topped by a bit of salt and have such a great, buttery texture. They are addictive and it would have been simple to devour a half-dozen or more. It is also the type of roll that is ideal for sopping up your dish, so it was ideal for the mushrooms & egg plate.

The 2012 Willy Gisselbrecht Pinot Blanc ($12) is an excellent value wine, which was slow fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. It was fresh and fruity, with delicious apple and melon flavors, and enough character to elevate it above overly simple wines. An easy drinking wine, this would be great on its own or paired with light dishes, from eggs (like this dish) to seafood. The 2012 Mader Riesling ($17) is a Biodynamic wine made from 100% Riesling. It is dry and lean, with pleasant fruit flavors and a mineral backbone. It is the type of Riesling that I most enjoy, and it too goes well on its own, or with light food dishes.

"Pork is the national vegetable of Alsace."

Though I had a choice of a Pork Chop, I opted instead for the Pan-Seared Striped Bass, with a radish tomatillo and panisse. It was an excellent choice, and I had no regrets. The bass had a perfect sear, adding a bit of crunch to the sweet, flaky white fish below. It is fish cooked this well which would turn almost any person into a seafood lover. The dish is on their regular menu and I heartily recommend it. The panisse, kind of fried chickpea croutons, were also tasty and intriguing.

The 2011 Sipp Mack Pinot Gris ($20) is from another Biodynamic producer, and this wine was aged on the lees for 4 months. It was a compelling with, with crisp acidity, delicious melon and pear flavors and a subtle earthiness. Complex, with a lengthy finish, I was very much impressed with this wine and it is again an excellent value. The 2007 Becker Riesling Grand Cru Froehn ($25) is from an organic winery which is not certified Biodynamic yet. It has prominent lemon and lime flavors, accented by a mild petrol taste and a hint of sweetness.

After our entree, we enjoyed a cheese course, including Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Sevre Et Belle Bucherondin and Herve Mona Pyrenees Brebis.

"The more it stinks, the better it goes with Gewurztraminer."

This quote refers to cheese, and I haven't done any independent research yet to verify whether it is true or not, but it sounds like a fascinating experiment. We enjoyed a 2011 Hugel et Fils Gewurztraminer ($24) with our cheese course, and it seemed to be a very typical Gewurtz, with intriguing spice and herbal aromatics and flavors. It paired well with the cheese. We also savored the
2001 Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Friedrich Emile Vendanges Tardives ($75),  a wine that hasn't been produced again since this vintage. Mildly sweet, with plenty of acidity to balance it, there were pleasant flavors of green apple, citrus and honey.

Consumers, pay attention! Alsatian wines are some of the best wines you probably know little about so seek them out at your local wine stores and restaurants. They won't stress your wallet so give them a chance.