Review: Vinland

1 May 2016

My trip to Maine was coming to a close, and the final night in Maine was spent in Portland. Now Portland has gained a strong reputation for becoming a food mecca — albeit not the same reputation as the city in Oregon that took its name from this place thanks to a coin-flip. But nevertheless this Portland is becoming a draw not just for New Englanders, but folks that want to see that the good produce found in Maine goes beyond the lobster.

As an extra surprise, my good friends Sybil and Simon Majumdar were coincidentally in town, so we caught up for some cocktails at the excellent Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box. Just time for 2 quick ones as I had a reservation to get to for dinner, as did they. So cool our travels converged at the same place at the exact same time, happens so rarely!

I saluted them on their special evening as I headed off in the mist for my dinner at the restaurant that’s getting a lot, a LOT of buzz in and out of the area — Vinland. They took localvore to the next level as the kitchen uses ONLY stuff they get in Maine. Even if that means no citrus, they use whey heavily as an acid replacement. In fact, what they do is using local substitutes for things most chefs take for granted. It’s a fabulous experiment, and I was keen to explore this concept.

I must apologise first of all for the poor quality of pictures this evening. Earlier in the day in the mist something happened to the camera and I think some moisture may have seeped into the lens, giving the focusing a total nightmare. I always take multiple photos of each item, but this evening the camera just refused to focus so many times — so the photos in this review are not doing the food justice. I apologise, especially to the kitchen here, since they put so much into this meal and these photos don’t do their hard work justice…

In any case, the evening begins as Chef David Levy serves the first snack, the salad toast.

01-salad toast

If any opener tells you how a night is going to go even before you eat it, it’s this. Clearly Chef is dedicated to his Maine-only concept, and that involves using ingredients that are less common, or used in different ways. Keep in mind that Maine has just entered spring. Nice little snack, then the first dish.

02-carrot soup

The hearty carrot makes for a good little soup, but once again something interesting. The lack of citrus in Maine gives Chef more limited options in adding acid into dishes, so he uses whey. Interesting, though the balance maybe needs a little more working in this dish. Then we have another snack, a beet chip.

03-beet chip

I love beets and thank goodness roots grow well in harsher climates. Nice taste. I also see they are going with the snack-dish-snack-dish progression, which is kind of nice, especially at a kitchen counter. Instead of the rapid-snacks-until-you-surrender tactic at places like Kadeau, this makes for more convivial dining. Nice to chat with the team too between courses. Next up, a fermented oat cake.

04-fermented oak cake

Interesting, again using different grains compared to other places, this has a strong texture, with the taste accentuated by shiitake. Went well with a Slovenian pinot gris (well, obviously the wines are not local…). The next snack surprised me when Chef Levy announced it — mangalica.

05-mangalica

Mmm, this was a tasty coppa made with mangalica. I was surprised there was mangalica in Maine and indeed — and we chatted a bit about issues regarding butchery and husbandry in Maine. It’s amazing how he’s managed to work through all this to have not just tonight’s menu, but to sustain a restaurant especially in the harsher season that comes with life in Maine. Then we go back to the sea and Maine’s bounty with a crab dish.

06-crab

Very nice, full of natural flavours here. Chef doesn’t try to overdo anything, letting the Jonah crab’s wonderful taste speak for itself with just minor additions. His use of seaweeds is excellent, one of the more under-used items especially in the US, with a wide variety of them with which to experiment. Then back to another snack, and this got a grin out of me.

07-lichen

Lichen. Very cool. I think you can see the Nordic influence here, from the restaurant’s name to how he uses ingredients that are forged by Maine’s environment — both good and challenging. You don’t see this often in US restaurants, but it works so well here in Maine. His time at Noma may have helped with guiding him here. Then we move on to the roasted lettuce.

08-roasted lettuce

Now this is one dish that the photo did no justice. Bad focus, bad lighting, and you don’t get the full effect of this. May not be photogenic, but it’s interesting and tasty, with some local cheddar that actually make this work. I am still kicking myself for the photos from this night…

I kept chatting with Chef Levy and you really see not just a dedication to his craft and concept, but also an inquisitive mind that wants not just to be continually challenged by Maine but for him to challenge Maine itself. It’s like, “bring it on” and I’ll still craft a workable, excellent tasting menu. This is the type of inventiveness — on such a daily basis — that makes me like this place. It’ll be rougher than most tasting menus because of issue of sourcing, but it’s really one that lets the chef shine or flop. So far he’s shining.

We slide back to another snack and it suddenly feels like I’m back in the Nordics as we get some harðfiskur of all things!

09-hardfiskur

This is a nice rendition of the Icelandic dried fish, though the butter added a little more for people who are less familiar with this dish. We stay in the water with the next dish, hake.

10-hake

Nice little fish done well, with some early spring corn and kelp to add to the overall flavour. Then back to the snack with the dehydrated scallop.

11-dried scallop

A nice bit, though not as flavourful as the version Chef Evan Hennessey does at the amazing Stages at One Washington in Dover, New Hampshire. Then more from the wonderful ocean bounty, this time monkfish.

12-monkfish

Once again sorry for the bad focus! Solidly cooked and meaty, the kelp being a wonderful addition. I love the usage of sea vegetables and fungi in the cooking here, really brings out the earth and ocean to the cooking. This has been a fun and tasty evening so far, and we’re still going!

13-mussels

The next snack was some mussels, as good as you see. Nice and plump. Then we get to the meats, first up focuses on local beef.

14-raw beef

Mmm, nice raw minced beef, full of flavour. A touch of horseradish, this did not need the ubiquitous raw egg at all. Excellent. Then a cute little chicken skin snack…

15-chicken skin

I actually really like the way the snacks are in-between dishes as a segue between items. It’s more interesting than the parade-o-snacks you get everywhere. Then we get to the last savoury dish, the smoked capocollo.

16-smoked capocollo

Really sorry for the bad pix here. Again, an interesting taste of one of my favourite pigs, accented by a herbed lardo. The hen-of-the-woods was a nice addition. This was a rather long tasting menu, but I was sad it was drawing to a close…

I chatted with Chef and his sous a bit more as the night went on before we reached desserts, talking the industry, ingredients and places in Europe he’s staged in. Plenty of wine, this was a wonderful evening, and next up was a panna cotta…

17-seaweed panna cotta

Once again sorry about the poor focus! White always gives this thing a problem. But a cute start, especially the seaweed. Next up, the custard.

18-parsnip tumeric custard

This focuses on parsnip — which works so well with dessert, like at Stages at One Washington a few days ago — with a nice tumeric touch. Then we have the final dessert, the blueberry semifreddo.

19-blueberry semifreddo

A nice close, adding that bit of fruit acid that is so hard to find here. You wonder why Nordic cuisine uses berries so frequently — it’s the lack of citrus. You take things for granted until you work within certain constraints, and that’s what makes this evening more challenging and interesting than usual. Wow, that was some tasting menu.

I was done with the food and was just having an after-dinner drink when my friends Simon and Sybil were heading back to their place, so I invited them to join me here for a drink. We ended up staying for hours, having a wonderful evening of drinking and conversation, and we enticed them enough for them to book dinner for the next night.

I think the two of them enjoyed the dinner they had sitting in the same spot the next day as I languished at BWI due to a booking boo-boo…

At the end, I was happy and think the experiment worked, that these local substitutes worked well and filled all the holes successfully. Could things have been better with other non-Maine ingredients? At some points, honestly yes. But the point of this restaurant is to feature Maine in a box, and it successfully did that.

Innovative yet tasty, and a wonderful team in addition. It’s a pleasure to spend so much time in this place not just to eat, but also to enjoy every aspect of this evening. Highly recommended!

Vinland
593 Congress Street
Portland, Maine

Surf & Turf Maine Style…

30 April 2016

After yesterday’s debacle in Bangor at the rather poor Timber Kitchen and Bar, I was just not in a great mood. In fact, my stomach was fighting me all night — probably thanks to that utterly undercooked poor piece of beef… Sooner I forget that place the better…

Thank goodness things like this helped. This was a view from Castine, which is on a small peninsula jutting into the Atlantic. What a beautiful view… I hugged the coast this beautiful sunny day and enjoyed the view, and eventually rolled into the town of Belfast for today’s stop.

It was mid-afternoon so I thought about doing an early dinner since I had no lunch. I was just waiting for my visit to Young’s Lobster Pound to have some — you guessed it — lobster. You go in, order from the huge live tank, and they throw whatever you want into the cooker Some order lobster, some order clams, some order mussels, whatever it is, the aroma is truly saliva-inducing.

Belfast - 01

I waited the 20 or so minutes as the lobster cooked and enjoyed this view…now this is nearly priceless and perfect. After the 20 minutes I went and grabbed my lobster. Since I was staying at a motel next door, I decided to just take this with me, so I can devour this in the privacy of my own room.

I tend to destroy these things when I eat them, and have been using my rather strong teeth to crack lobster shells since I was 8 years old, so I rather do this without folks staring at me! I got to my room and unpacked and…oh, the aroma of fresh-cooked lobster is just wonderful…

lobster 1

Isn’t this just bliss? Ever part of this beast was juicy, from the meaty tail to the rich legs, from the dense claws to the sublime innards. What a treat… There was nothing left but shell after I was done…

To be very honest I planned ahead and got a second one. When in Maine, right?

This evening ended very well indeed…

And to explain this blog entry’s title, that was the surf side of Maine, and the turf side was to come for a late lunch the next day. I got up very early at the break of dawn and enjoyed the slow drive down the coast, stopping off at some historic cemeteries along the way. From visiting the grave of some of our Founding Fathers to playing with a baby fox chilling out in another, it was a fun morning.

Some slow traffic on the historic (but 2-lane) US-1 all the way towards Portland and I rolled into town just as the weather turned. It had been beautiful and unseasonably warm for days, but the mist rolled in as I got to Portland. So the best lunch idea? BBQ. Yes, BBQ in Maine.

I headed to the well-regarded Salvage BBQ and ordered and enjoyed a beer. Just as I finished the pint the food was ready, so I headed out and checked into my hotel. The food was mixed. Lots of food, but they also served as breakfast for the next day before my flight out of Maine. First up, the chouriço.

chorizo

They chose the Portuguese spelling but it tasted nothing like it. This was actually not very good to be honest, the contents a bit off. This is disappointing….

ribs

But the ribs, which were slightly over-done at the end, was interesting. It was on the sweet side, but the flavour actually worked pretty good. But the best bits?

brisket

Yep, the brisket. Usually not a great brisket fan, but these were excellent. I wish it was all brisket. I managed to finish the brisket and most of the ribs for lunch, leaving most of the sausages for breakfast tomorrow (which I actually abandoned to be honest). The turf side was a bit of a hit-and-miss, but the brisket here is excellent.

I was a little sad my short Main adventure was near an end, but all to end in a spectacular way here in Portland the last evening — which will be chronicled in the next entry. But the surf-and-turf? Worked good.

But still, nothing beats that lobster. No need butter. No need utensils. No need anything except my teeth and my cut-up hands. Now that is pure joy…

Young’s Lobster Pound
2 Fairview Street
Belfast, Maine

Salvage BBQ
919 Congress Street
Portland, Maine

Review: Timber Kitchen and Bar

29 April 2016

After last night’s amazing tasting menu at Stages at One Washington, I headed back up to Maine full of energy. I had a very, very long day trekking through Maine, including quite a bit of hiking in Augusta. I was tired but happy when I drifted into Bangor, and having skipped lunch I was hoping for a nice dinner.

I couldn’t find much online to be honest, and the only place that looked interesting that was not connected to a casino was a place called Timber Kitchen and Bar. They have a no reservation policy which I didn’t quite care for, but let’s see what happens this Friday early evening.

Apparently there was a circus across the street so parking was a mess, as was traffic. Throw in some protestors and you got a bit of unnecessary chaos. I got there and it seemed more like a bar, and it was already busy with people glammed up. Geez, am I in the right place? They seated me at the sort-of chef’s counter and I tried to chill out with a cocktail.

I ordered my dinner and hoped for a good meal. Cocktail wasn’t bad, but then my lobster bisque arrived — with no utensils.

1-bisque

Then the runner actually THREW the spoon onto the wooden plank. Huh? Goodness, I know you’re in a rush but that is a total NO-NO! And as you can see, it’s already grown a pretty thick skin on top. It was nothing special beneath the skin either, but it did its job. I could not say how fresh this is, but it’ll do.

Maybe the next starter will be better; however, when it arrived my heart sank a little…

2-oysters

Baked oysters. It seems way overbaked, as most of the lips have melted into the shell as you can see — as well as a good part of the meat. Not sure why there was a mutilated citrus on the plate either… And of course, the oysters were not shucked right; in fact, 1 of them was just not shucked at all. I had to shuck it there basically… stupid price for 4 bad oysters…

I was losing any hope of this being a good dinner. They really oversold the beef two ways for the main, which I went with, and that was a mistake…you make mistakes when you’re tired and hungry…

3a-beef

This looked okay at first, but then I noticed why was the tenderloin partly mutilated? As if the kitchen had cut deep into it to see the temperature. Well, I had ordered medium rare, but this was borderline blue in the middle. I was too tired and impatient to say something at this stage, so I just ate it; seems whoever decided to cook this has it at a completely wrong temperature setting. Imagine a low-temperature, quick cook of beef. Ugh… Plus it was bland and boring, as was the shortrib — which, of course, was overcooked and sawdust-y… Sigh…

I actually ended up abandoning this dinner and asked for the bill. I pointed out a few things to my server, about the poorly-cooked meats and the runner tossing utensils, and he was unhappy and wanted to comp me something, but I was one foot out the door already. I just don’t want to see this place again.

This for me is exactly what not to do to be a serious restaurant. You spend so much money glamming the place up, fancy website, extensive cocktail menu. If you want to be a bar, be a bar. If you want to be a lounge, be a lounge. When you try to do all that in one space and not have a super strong kitchen to defend that decision, it does not work! At least this place has the huge space for this failed experiment, unlike the utterly disastrous Orsay in Jacksonville

This place came so very close to be the worst meal of 2016 so far. Not quite, after the disasters in Buffalo last week, but it’s close. It was so bad I ended up getting half a Subway sandwich at a gas station later in the evening…that bad…

Avoid. Just avoid.

Timber Kitchen and Bar
22 Bass Park Boulevard
Bangor, Maine

Review #2: Stages at One Washington

28 April 2016

I find the car rental rules so annoying sometimes. This is why this morning I left Boston’s North Station by train and went through New Hampshire, including the town of Dover, to arrive at the beautiful city of Portland, Maine — only to hop into a rental and drive straight south. I had to stop off in northern Massachusetts quickly — meaning I’m basically driving back to where I started… Then I made my way to Dover for a dining experience I have been anticipating for months.

After last night’s rubbish experience at the previously reliable Craigie on Main, I was keen to get things back on track, and nowhere could that happen best as at Dover’s absolutely amazing Stages at One Washington. My first visit here last year provided one of the year’s most memorable meals, and I knew I would come back to this place time and time again.

I got to the restaurant and was seated at the counter, where a group of 4 was enjoying their tasting menus already. As I enjoyed a cocktail, quickly catching up with Chef-extraordinaire Evan Hennessey, I decided to do the big tasting. And as I suspected, Chef decided to go off-script a little from what was on the printed menu. This should be fun!

Chef and his sous chef also had to run the different tasting menu for the other four diners, but they managed very well as they always. Last time, remember, it was just Chef, so I know they have the ability to juggle this challenging dinner. And soon enough, a French chardonnay was poured, and the first dish appeared, and I smiled.

01-carrots

Nope, not what you think it is. This is a carrot dish! It’s a cute play on the classic beef tartar dish, with the egg a gooey carrot surprise too. Excellent carrot too, so a nice and fun start! Next up something I could smell during prep, a dish focused on mushrooms.

02-mushrooms

Mmm, these were terrific, especially the king trumpets. The “soil” that was made with rye brought even more earthiness to this combination, all going well with a Chilean pinot noir pairing. Excellent! I am so glad I took this detour today!

Enjoyed a bit more of that pinot noir as I awaited the third dish, and wow…

03-beets

These beautiful beets were fabulous, retaining a nice crunchy but not hard-to-eat texture. Gotta be careful as they are so spherical and not soft you may accidentally push them off the plate! The glazing was fabulous, bringing out the natural beet flavours. And the mint was a surprise. Chef Hennessey is a stickler for herb usage, and he grows them himself and these had a very distinct bite unlike most of the mint you buy elsewhere. Fabulous!

So far it’s been a parade of vegetables, all good local stuff from New England. If there was a restaurant that did their ingredients proud, it’s this. If it doesn’t need messin’ with, why mess with it, right? Next up was more local vegetables in a beautifully-plated dish.

04-cabbage-rutabaga

The focus of this dish are the much-maligned (but I love them) rutabagas, as well as dried cabbage. You may imagine this being bland, but far from it. The items are all well-seasoned and the herbal additions really carried more complexity than you’d imagine from this. And I really like rutabaga!

We finally get something meat for the next dish, and goodness this looks fantastic…

05-musquée de Provence

These dumplings are filled with an heirlook pumpkin called musquée de Provence, and it has a warm and rich flavour — which works so well with that goose prosciutto I remember so well from my previous visit. A gorgeous dish, amazing flavours. The next dish moved onto seafood.

06-cusk-uni

Cusk is something you don’t see often on menus, and I’m always glad to get them. This was topped with some dehydrated sea urchin, and it’s amazing how quickly the flavour explodes out of them once they get into your mouth; it works like a magical version of grated cheese! Don’t discount the kohlrabi on the side either, I love all of these roots! Fish had wonderful texture and flavour, and that urchin…mmm…

I was smiling ear to ear at this point and as the other diners had finished and departed, the conversation with the two became more detailed. Love this dedication to ingredients and how to get the best out of them, not just to “cook for cooking sake” that so many chefs are guilty of these days (I blame TV frankly). And then the next dish appeared, focused on the duck.

07-duck

This duck was nice and tasty, full of flavour. Now perhaps the grain on top didn’t quite work for me, some may like the contrasting texture. But the duck was wonderful. A bit more wine, and sadly we moved onto the final savoury course for the night — the pork.

08-pork

It’s actually a porridge using local grains! The pork was amazingly rich, and I could have kept shovelling this into my mouth all night! Lovely rich and strong finish!

Then a little bit of a break before we move into the next phase of the dinner. And here it comes, the cheese course.

09-goat cheese

Of course Chef has a surprise, and this is actually dehydrated goat cheese. Again, like the urchin, the flavour just explode in your mouth. I love this. Then we move into the sweets, first with a sweet potato cracker.

10-sweet potato

Tasty on its own, but the vanilla on the side was just delicious. Could have licked the plate here. Then the first of the main desserts, and again Chef uses the brilliant vegetables at his disposal.

11-parsnip

This was focused on parsnips — more awesome root vegetables! Tasty, not too sweet, with several different takes of parsnip used here. I was just sad this meal was coming to an end! And the final item indeed arrived.

12-chocolate-herbs

Chocolate and herbs, a perfect ending. The marshmallow was certainly cute, and far better than the metaphoric flødebolle at Atera. A fabulous close.

The team looked tired and I was the only diner left, so I didn’t want to hang around too long. So I had a coffee and headed out soon after, thanking them for another awesome evening. This clearly showed last time was no fluke, and it’s already near the top of 2016 for me. Chef Hennessey is a rare talent who really knows his ingredients and how to bring the best out of them. He is not bothered by PR and media and showing off; he’s there to deliver a dish a diner will like, a dish where the ingredients rule with their natural flavours with his skills providing a supporting role. A humble chef who shows true respect for his ingredients.

I very highly recommend this place to everyone. It’s not as hard to get to as you think, as Dover is linked by train to Boston several times a day and the restaurant is a 10-minute stroll from the train station. It’s more than worth a trip here. I know I will be making my way back here time and time again.

Stages at One Washington
1 Washington Street, Suite 325
Dover, New Hampshire

Review: Craigie on Main

27 April 2016

I had an interesting day in Boston and Quincy, and was certainly glad to see the weather improve. What was supposed to be a busy day turned out not, as my meeting (reason for the short trip to Boston) was cancelled. Oh well, I just get to enjoy a city I like a lot, so… Instead of checking out new places, I decided for this second and last dinner in Beantown to revisit a place I’ve not been in years.

Tonight’s destination was the venerable and trailblazing Craigie on Main. Its innovation and popularity really put Boston back on the foodie map years ago, thanks to the imagination and skills of Tony Maws. I’m glad to see his restaurant empire expanding, and that’s why I headed back to the always-good Craigie despite my general annoyance with the Cambridge side of the Charles…

I was sat at the chef’s counter during an already very busy Wednesday night. Actually it seemed a little chaotic to be honest. Took a bit to get the menu and so forth, and the server seemed a bit confused — and was over-explaining things at points and telling me there were nothing off the menu tonight; however, I heard other diners being offered specials. Sigh…

I ordered and enjoyed my cocktail, though it took quite a while to arrive to be honest — way after the amuse. This place is still ridiculously popular, and it was already slammed at 6.30pm. As I worked on my cocktail my starter came, and I looked a bit confused…

1-pig tail

I’ve had the crispy fried pigs tails here before, but this didn’t quite look the same. Frankly I didn’t anticipate a mountain of distraction on top of them… And it didn’t taste that good. It had a very sticky, sweet feel about it, far more than the balanced version before. For what little meat was on the bones, it was nothing special. Of course that mountain of fried unfortunates just taunted me…

Oh well. I couldn’t get my server’s attention for another drink for a long time, and it was frustrating. The place is turning into a bit of a shitshow tonight, when it’s busy but chaotic in a bad way. There seems to be a disconnection between staff, even in the kitchen. I won’t repeat some of the things I overheard from the kitchen crew between each other, but they seemed confused by items on the menu. Perhaps too many changes, especially items they added for Passover?

In any case, it took ages to get my server’s attention for wine, and of course it took ages to come out, far after my main course arrived.

2-pork

I actually ordered a similar dish as my previous visit years ago, pork in three ways. Sorry for the bad photo, but it’s probably for the best. A clearer photo would put more of you off even more. The guy sitting next to me stared at my dish, telling me he ordered the same thing. He eyes betrayed his thoughts…

Look at this. The “charred rabe” was soggy and looks like something you throw out of the bottom of the fridge having started to rot. The rib portion was so overcooked it was charred to the bone throughout. The sausage was undercooked, and tasted very questionable. And the belly? Huh? Lucky I didn’t take a better photo, it was the MOST DISGUSTING piece I have ever seen. It looked more like a chunk of pork butt. There was nearly no meat, and it was just horrible fat, with no other flavours.

I basically abandoned most of this dish and when the guy sitting next to me got his dish, I just gasped. HE GOT WHAT I WANTED! His rabe looked charred. His sausage looked cooked. His rib looked good. HIS BELLY LOOKED LIKE BELLY! UGH!

I was so unhappy at this point I gave up. This was ridiculous. I mentioned this to the staff and the manager took it off the bill, but I REALLY HATE THAT. Why can’t I just have food done right, at least nominally, which I would more than happily pay for, and not get into this situation? I left beyond unhappy, and it’s safe to say I will never step foot into this restaurant again.

What that kitchen was trying to pass off to me is just ridiculous. If it was coming out bad, they should have REDONE the dish instead of sending out this horrible mess. I am SO GLAD my photo did not focus, because it would show the true horror of this dish.

Oh, Boston, what a horrible way to close this part of the trip. And what was one of the most reliable places to go in the East Coast is now stunningly bad. I don’t care if this was an anomaly, the anomaly happened to me. How they decided to bring that main course out is beyond me, and any chef that plated and sent this out should be embarrassed. Sorry. This, along with the confused and slow service, ensures something.

I’m never coming back.

Craigie on Main
853 Main Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts

PS: The fact their “social media team” reached out to try to “resolve” this brought back bad memories of the Graham Elliot mess in Chicago a few years back. Frankly, if restaurants put more attention into their food and service instead of their social media presence things would go far, far better.

Review #2: Taberna de Haro

26 April 2016

I flew into a stormy Boston from a drizzly Buffalo and it was a rough trek in. I’m fine with turbulance (I actually like it), but people were going nuts during the approach into Logan. Bloody amateurs… But the weather sucked, it was already the afternoon and it takes a bit of time to fight usual Boston insane traffic, and I was looking forward to a nice dinner at one of my favourite places in town, Taberna de Haro.

I usually refuse to eat Spanish food in the US, because they tend to be “Spanish” food. Only a handful of places I trust, and one of them is Taberna de Haro. My previous meal here was fantastic, and I was looking forward to this evening.

So nice they remembered me too. I enjoyed some nice sherry all night, as Chef/Owner Deborah Hansen has a special passion for them, which is good because I love drinking them. A lovely selection that you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the country under one roof. Enjoyed it as I ordered a series of tapas to start the evening.

First to arrive was something I very, very rarely order even in Europe — patatas bravas.

1-patatas bravas

I generally hate normal potato, but this was done very well, a nice bite to it. I prefer these things spicy since otherwise it’s just bloody potato… Next up was something I really love from this kitchen, orejas a la plancha.

2-orejas

Nothing as good as grilled pigs ears, one of the most misunderstood and wasted parts of a pig. Lovely, just the right texture here. Frankly after that disaster last night at Buffalo’s The Black Sheep and those rather awful ears (what a bloody waste!), this was pure heaven! Then the third item, something else I rarely order.

3-albondigas de bacalao

These fried cod balls are excellent, full of bacalao goodness. I usually choose meat-based albóndigas but this was a nice, fried change. I was smiling now, and ordered more sherry as I looked over the menu on what’s next. So many things I wanted to eat, but this being Tuesday night, it is suckling pig night, so I went with it.

More sherry, and a comped treat of a very busy pa amb oli

4-Pa amb oli

Delicious! Then the tapa I ordered as a side arrived first.

5-artichofas

Very nice artichokes, this will go well with the pork, which arrived quickly…

6a-cochinillo

I have to say this was probably the weak dish of the night. It was good, but I really wanted this to be a spectacular item, with glorious crispy skin and juicy meat. Good, but not great. My anticipation was a bit too high I guess. But it’s a voluminous item, so that’s the closer on the food.

I ended up staying quite a bit longer with a liquid dessert — of a flight of sherries. Then I shifted to the bar to chat with the awesome server from my previous visit and enjoyed a few brandys before heading off for the Green and Red trains back to my hotel.

Taberna de Haro is a fabulous place to enjoy an evening of food, drink and convivial company. Friendly people make this a fabulous place to hang out, but the food is what brings people back. And the sherries make people smile. This will always be a place I stop by whenever I am in Boston.

Taberna de Haro
999 Beacon Street
Brookline, Massachusetts

A Tale of Two Lakes and Two Very Different Food Cities…

23-25 April 2016

After a busy few days in NYC I headed for a weekend break…probably not where you’d think. I hopped onto a flight early on Saturday for Buffalo. Yes, Buffalo. A weekend of cemetery hiking…yes, it is hiking, if you see how hilly and big the terrain is. I probably hiked over 25 miles in the few days over the hilly terrains in Buffalo and Rochester and everywhere between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

In any case, all of it required feeding. Trips like this is why I like OpenTable — you can just deal with all the bookings quickly without being on the phone, being put on hold, and trying to explain how to spell (and pronounce) your last name. Just so much quicker, especially when you are running around everywhere.

I had got to Buffalo and had a long afternoon in the beautiful Forest Lawn, where POTUS Millard Fillmore and many others are buried. A few hours of trekking there got me hungry, having skipped lunch. I had booked at one of Buffalo’s institutions of fine dining, Rue Franklin. Unfortunately I’ve heard mixed reviews about this place, especially in more recent times, but the menu seemed very ambitious so I was more than happy to have a go.

At first everything was good, and the service extremely attentive. I made my choice, though there was quite a lot of oversell on the day’s special — which I went for. Maybe my hunger got the better of me here, but… In any case, I had also pre-ordered the wines for the meal as I finished my cocktail. And of course, my dish arrived with no wine…

RueF-1-escargot terrine

This is the spring “snail stew” with peas, which was interesting for me as they are two of my favourite ingredients. However, they were rather bland; the peas were undercooked with the shoots very stringy (poorly chosen). And of course, I had to wave around like a madman for over a minnute to get the attention of the staff who were just standing and chatting. Finally got my wine…sigh…

I hoped things would improve and of course, my entree arrived sans vin once again…and I had to once again wave like a madman to get it. This is basic! And when I looked at my main course, the special which they totally over-promoted, my heart sank.

RueF-2-ribeye

I was told this ribeye was “well-marbled” but frankly a bottle-width huck of fat is bloody poor trimming. Just to push the weight up? Look at that thing, nearly the width of a beer can, pure fat. The steak was a bit overcooked but I wasn’t worried at this point about temperature — this was just an obese cow. Not about the marbling, but they just didn’t trim this thing right. By the time I fought to the centre with the meat, it was overcooked and dry. I like a bit of fat on my ribeyes certainly, but this was ridiculous.

And of course the service at this point was non-existant. I was so ticked off by this point even though I asked for them to box the steak I left it on the table. I guess they can use that huge huck of fat for cooking purposes… And it took ages to get the bill as well. I left utterly frustrated…it’s gotta get better, Buffalo…

The next day I made my way to Rochester, and the afternoon I had a long hike at the very hilly Mount Hope. Some of it was just crazy hazardous where I had to use my hands up the slopes, but that’s half the fun. I decided to do this late in the afternoon as rain was forecast for tomorrow (when I had planned to do this). This would be a death trap in the rain…

Having skipped lunch again, I was hungry for dinner. After last night’s disaster in Buffalo, I didn’t expect much better in Rochester. I had chosen a place called The Revelry, and I worried the minute I got near the door — full of drunks smoking outside, and the music blasting inside was audible outside. Shit, is this a restaurant or a bar?

Thank goodness the tiny dining area somehow was not as loud, even though the many drunks yelling this Sunday early evening was not condusive to a nice dinner. I ordered, not expecting much, and just enjoyed my cocktail in peace. And the early items came…

4-cracklins

The pork cracklins were done very well, still cracking and nicely seasoned.

1-deviled eggs

The deviled eggs were fantastic, the beet really added something interesting to these little morsels of goodness. I was actually impressed and now I feel far more happy about this meal. After another cocktail order the next snack appeared, the chicken fried oysters.

2-fried oysters

These were also done pretty well, easy to eat. I can snack on these all day. So far this is far better than anything last night and I’m actually enjoying this far more than the Atera tasting menu back in NYC a few days earlier. Then the “main” was the last item, the jambalaya.

3-jambalaya

This was very tasty, with a nice helping of sausage in the well-cooked rice. I was already pretty full so I was happy with this serving. Very nice! I enjoyed a last cocktail and a coffee while trying to tune out the increasingly loud drunks at the bar in the other section…

I headed out pretty happy, as this was the best meal of this segment of the trip by miles. They just need to figure out whether they are for food or drink, as the noise and antics may be off-putting to diners…

Unfortunately I had overdone it a bit and I woke up quite sore the next day, so I took if far easier this Monday as I slowly made my way back to Buffalo, as I was flying out the next day there. After that disaster at Rue Franklin I was worried about my next booking, Black Sheep. People rave about this place, but I walked in cautious. I skipped lunch again (this is turning into a trend), so I was hungry.

I sat down and enjoyed a nice cocktail in the cool little space and tried to relax after a few long days. And damn, my legs are sore, my lower back is sore… I ordered, though enquiring about the portion sizes as I noticed the sizes are far bigger here for a “small plate” than anywhere else. Some fabulous dishes they had that are large specials were for more than 2 people, so that’s why I was curious…

Enjoying a cocktail, the first snack arrived and it was some pork liver deviled eggs.

BlackSheep-1-deviled eggs

These were excellent, as good as those from last night. I love the creativity people are doing with deviled eggs these days, and this really had the strength of pork liver. Excellent! I relaxed and enjoyed my cocktail until the second plate arrived, and my heart kind of sank…

BlackSheep-2-pigs ears

These were fried pigs ears. Huh? The amount of breading on this made it look like a dish of whitebait… All I tasted were the breading, as the pieces were cut so bloody thin. They look thick because it’s all breading! And they probably boiled the living hell out of it to make it soft, which DEFEATS THE PURPOSE of the dish. How I miss Rx in Wilmington, North Carolina just about now… Oh, this was a huge ol’ miss. And it was a huge plate too, which worried me…

I switched to wine for my main course — which sadly took me waving like a madman ONCE AGAIN to get the attention of the staff (who were chatting amongst themselves and NOT looking) — and when it arrived my heart didn’t sink, it fluttered. Just to give you an example, here is my beet side…

BlackSheep-4-beet

Yeah. The portion size is a little crazy, and look at this smoked pork chop…

BlackSheep-3-pork chop

Yeah…this is pretty nuts innit? It was 2 inches thick — which you can’t see from this perspective. I’ve never seen a non-steakhouse serve this big of a chop before. It was pretty good, smoked well, though a little sweet. But the thickness of it made it hard to cook, and the centre was a little dried out. It’s smoked, it didn’t need that much cooking. A so-so plate, but I had to take it with me. About half of the bloody thing…

I headed out happier than I was after Rue Franklin certainly, but there was just some disconnect I’m having with Buffalo. The service was all over the place too, and often I could not get the server’s attention despite him just chatting with his colleagues. They just refused to look at the diners to see if anyone needed something! Poor front-of-house training here certainly, seems like a city-wide problem.

In any case, this was my 3-day stint in this part of Upstate New York, and I can’t say it has been a food success. Rochester certainly won over Buffalo, by many country miles. If all I ate up here were deviled eggs I’d be happy, but frankly despite skipping lunch all 3 days and hiking long distances I probably put on 5 pounds and clogged my aorta by an additional 20% thanks to those 2 Buffalo dinners. Something tells me I won’t be back, or else I’d end up live-tweeting an aortic dissection…

Rue Franklin
341 Franklin Street
Buffalo, New York

The Revelry
1290 University Avenue
Rochester, New York

Black Sheep
367 Connecticut Street
Buffalo, New York