Saturday, February 16, 2008

Chez Henri

This past week, I ended up visiting a couple restaurants that have been around for a time but that I just had not visited before. Both places have received accolades so I was excited to visit them. I previously discussed my pleasant experiences at Harvest and now I want to expound upon my dinner at Chez Henri. Another impressive dining experience.

Chef Paul O'Connell opened Chez Henri, a French restaurant with a Latin twist, in 1994. Chef O'Connell previously worked with several of Boston's top chefs, including Lydia Shire at the Parker House Hotel, Jasper White at Restaurant Jasper, Chris Schlesinger at the East Coast Grill and with Todd English as opening sous chef at Olives in Charlestown. Paul is also committed to many charities such as Greater Boston Food Bank, Taste of the NFL, The Farm School and the Super Hunger Brunch. Chez Henri has an excellent reputation and has received numerous awards.

This past Tuesday, I attended a press tasting at Chez Henri. It is easy to find Chez Henri, located just off Massachusetts Avenue between Harvard and Porter Squares. Though on street parking is a little more difficult to find. I was lucky enough though to find a space quite close by.

As I was a bit early, I sat at the bar and had a drink. The bar area is small, with about ten seats at the bar and a few small tables, but supposed to be very popular and there is a specific bar menu. On the bar menu, the Pressed Cuban Sandwich is famed throughout the city. The bar would be very busy later that evening. Certainly seems a great spot to grab a drink and a quick bite.

They have a full bar with a list of specialty cocktails, all about $7 each. This is probably $2-3 cheaper than you would find in many other Boston restaurants. I tried a Shiver, which is made of Campari, Grapefruit and Eau De Vie of Douglas Fir. Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon created Eau De Vie of Douglas Fir, an infusion of the springtime buds of Douglas fir into clear brandy which is then re-distilled and re-infused with more buds. Finally it is strained and bottled. I had never had it before so wanted to try it. The Shiver was certainly a unique drink, with some bitterness and a definite taste of woodsy pine. I enjoyed it though it is probably not the type of drink you could have all evening. It is more an interesting diversion, something to break up the usual cocktail monotony. Give it a try and see what you think.

When the time arrived, we were seated in the small dining room by the windows looking out onto the street. The dining room presents an intimate bistro feel with subdued red lights, funky glass light shades and intriguing artwork. I learned that Chef O'Connell's wife created all of the artwork in the restaurant. It is not a pretentious place by any means. It has a neighborhood feel, a casual place where you will feel comfortable.

While waiting for our food to arrive, we received a large bread basket with big slices of a rustic loaf. We then received a procession of appetizers, some served family style, so that we could taste several different items. Appetizers run $11-15, except for the Foie Gras at $19. Their Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with a Petite Sweet Plantain, Belgian Waffle and Pink Peppercorn Maple Syrup certainly sounds enticing.

Our first appetizer was Scallop Ceviche with Passion Fruit, very thinly sliced pieces of scallops with a citrus flavor and small pieces of passion fruit. I am a big fan of Ceviche and very much enjoyed this dish. It was simply made, letting the fresh scallops dominate and the citrus complementing rather than overwhelming. A very promising start to our dinner.

Next, we received a plate of Foraged Mushroom Truffle Risotto. Almost seemed like they were reading my mind and hitting on some of my favorites as I am also a big fan of Risotto. This was certainly an excellent example of Risotto, creamy with just the right amount of substance to the Risotto. Though I am not a big mushroom fan, that did not stop me from finishing this savory dish. The Risotto had a nice smoky and earthy taste to it and everyone else seemed to enjoy it very much as well.

We then moved onto a couple of appetizers from their bar menu. First up was the Cuban Style Chicken Empanadas, a small flaky pastry filled with chicken and spices. It came with a type of salsa for dipping. This was a good empanada with a tasty filling. Next were the Shrimp Fritters with Guava Barbecue and Chipotle Aioli. This reminded me of a puffy donut hole. These were very good, light with a more subtle shrimp flavor. It would have been quite easy to sit at the bar and pop a whole bunch of these into my mouth. Lastly, we had a Grilled Shrimp atop Toasted Garlic, Smoked Tomato & Jalepeno. This was ok but nothing special.

We were able to choose our own entree which was not an easy decision. Tuna au Poivre, Trio of Duck, Wood Grilled Sirloin. Seared Sea Scallops. There were only about eight choices on the menu but at least half of them interested me. Entrees run about $25-30.

In the end, I chose the Seared Sea Scallops with Poblano Braised Oxtail, Sofrito, Coconut Polenta Cake, and Hearts of Palm Salad ($29). I received four very large Scallops, seared just right, atop quite a large portion of braised oxtail. The Polenta was in the middle of the plate, topped by the salad. The Scallops were tender and tasty. There were large pieces of oxtail, and not just thin shreds of meat. It was also very tender and flavorful. Some of the best oxtail I can remembering having. The Polenta impressed me as well, especially as I love coconut. The coconut flavor was mild but definitely noticeable and made an excellent Polenta. This entree was delicious and I would definitely recommend it.

Some of the others with me ordered the Wood Grilled Sirloin with Horseradish Frites, the Trio of Duck (Seared Breast, Crispy Liver and Confit), the Layered Crepes (a vegetarian option), and the Red Snapper. Everyone seemed to very much enjoy their meals. All of the dishes were well presented and the food was plentiful. The Trio of Duck especially looked enticing to me.

During dinner, we were served three different wines, one white and two reds. Their wine list has an interesting diversity, more than just the French wines you might expect. Their wines include those from Spain, Italy, South Africa, New Zealand, California, and Austria. There are a fair share of wines in the $30-40 range.

We began with a 2006 Hopler Gruner Veltliner from Austria ($40). A light yellow wine with mild citrus notes. Crisp and smooth. It went well with the Ceviche. We next moved on to what I think was a Pinot Noir, though I never saw the bottle. It was good, a fruity wine with some character. Later, we moved on to the 2003 Monte Negro, Ribera Del Duero, Spain ($32). This Tempranillo based wine had spice, smoke and dark fruits. It actually paired well with my oxtail. I like Spanish wines very much and this was a good example of such.

For dessert, we received several different ones, family style, to taste and savor. They included a Spiced Mexican Chocolate Torte, Caramel Apple Napolean, Tangerine Flan, Black Forest Cake and a Passion Fruit Tart. Desserts cost $8 each.

My favorite of the desserts was the Caramel Apple Napolean with Phyllo Crisps, Caramel Parfait and Cider Poached Apples. Just the right combination of flavors and textures. Creamy, crunchy with the delicious flavors of apple and caramel, a great combination. The Chocolate Torte and Cake were also quite tasty with their own intriguing flavor combinations. Everything was certainly fresh and the combination of ingredients in each dessert just worked well together. The Passion Fruit Tart was tasty, a nice interplay of tropical fruit tastes including some coconut. The Tangerine Flan was ok, though it did not stand out to me.

Service, as expected, was excellent. I did take some time to check out the other tables though and service appeared to be good all around too. Servers were courteous and not overbearing. Prices are generally reasonable for the quantity and quality of the food. And if you are more on a budget, you can always just eat off the bar menu. The cuisine is creative, very tasty and an interesting fusion of French and Latin flavors.

Overall, this was an impressive dining experience. I understand now all the good press that the restaurant receives and those accolades are well deserved. I will definitely return there soon to try some of their other dishes and I heartily recommend this place to everyone.

I should also mention that Chez Henri will be participating in Boston's Winter Restaurant Week, March 9-14 and March 16-21, 2008. They will have a three course Prix Fixe menu for $33.08. Make reservations early. It would be a good time to check them out.

Chez Henri
One Shepard Street
Cambridge, MA
Phone: 617-354-8980

Chez Henri in Cambridge

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