Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Viva Fresh Pasta Company (Northampton, MA)

It's not often that I get excited by Italian restaurants anymore, as they all tend to kind of run together; some pasta, some Marsala, some's all fine, but it's nothing special.  But, every once in a while, you find a place that just does things a cut above, and Viva Fresh Pasta Company, a longtime staple of downtown Northampton, is one of those places.

As the name suggests, Viva (typically just known as Fresh Pasta Company; in fact, despite the giant sign over the door saying "VIVA" I did not actually know it was part of the restaurant's name until recently) focuses on providing fresh, house made pastas, while offering Italian and other European/Mediterranean inspired cuisine.  The menu is limited, offering just a handful of appetizers, entrees and "tapas" plates, but they also have a "create your own" section, where you can pick from ten or so pastas (including stuffed), a dozen sauces, and several add ons such as vegetables and proteins.  The entrees that include pasta also allow you to pick which type you want.

The restaurant itself is split between a small upstairs with approximately ten tables and a small bar, and a slightly larger downstairs, with probably twice as much room.  It is simply decorated, well lit, but not glaringly bright by any means, and it is comfortable for anything from a dinner date to a business lunch or for grabbing a bite to eat with family or friends.  The wait staff is friendly and attentive, and even though my date and I were the only people in the downstairs for the majority of our meal, it never seemed like we had been forgotten.

I had the Carbonara, a classic Italian preparation that involves crispy Pancetta (a personal favorite of mine), cream, sauteed onions, Parmesan cheese (not sure if they use real Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it would certainly not shock me if they do), pepper and, most importantly, a whole egg that is mixed into the pasta and sauce at the last second.  I had this with linguine, which is not traditional, but I really enjoy a well made linguine and think that it works well with cheesier, clingy sauces like carbonara.  It was perfectly prepared, with a creamy sauce that clung to the pasta beautifully, with a strong flavor of the cheese, and a texture that can only come from expertly mixing in the egg so that it does not really cook until it is incorporated, so it is more like a sauce Hollandaise than an actual cooked egg.  The pancetta, of which there were small cubes about 1cm in size, was crispy on the exterior and delightfully chewy inside, with a saltiness and savoriness that just warmed my pork loving heart.  It did not seem like a huge amount of food when it came out, but it was so incredibly rich that I could not even finish it, and ended up taking a small amount home, which served nicely as a late night snack later that evening.  The girl I was having dinner with had the same result, as her Sweet Potato Ravioli was also rich enough that she ended up taking home about five of the dozen or so ravioli it came with.

As I said before, it is hard to excite me with Italian food, but Viva Fresh Pasta Company does it, and while it had been a while since I had been there before this most recent trip, I suspect I will be going back soon.  They are vegetarian friendly for you non-carnivorous types, though not remotely vegan friendly (that's okay with me, veganism is just wrong) and they are highly recommended regardless of your gustatory preferences.


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Monday, May 20, 2013

Gohyang (Hadley, MA)

Gohyang, located on Route 9 in Hadley, MA, is a small Korean restaurant and grocery serving some pretty decent food from a reasonably wide menu.  The quality of the food does not quite match that of my personal favorite, Manna House, but the menu is much more varied, and they have beer!  Not much beer, but still, it's there; that's an improvement over Manna House at this point.  After planning on hitting Dirty Truth for some food and drinks the other night with my friend Sean, we had to detour back to his place in Hadley to feed his (ridiculously adorable and allergenic) kitten, and decided instead to just go to Gohyang instead of heading back to Northampton.  It turned out to be a good decision.

We ordered a ton of food, with the theory that we'd have plenty of leftovers to take home for lunch the next day.  This turned out to be wrong, as I left with enough for a very small lunch or a moderate snack the next day, and Sean was nice enough to not split the small remaining portion.  We started out with a couple appetizers, the pa jeon (scallion pancake) and some dumplings, which I can't recall the name of.  The scallion pancake was fantastic, crispy on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside; they do this better than most places I have been, to be sure, and they serve it with a mild soy based sauce that does not have a ton of flavor but doesn't take anything away either.  The dumplings were fine, nothing special, and bordering on boring; they certainly do not match up to those of Manna House, but they are not the same variety.  I think it was a pork based filling, and this was the part that was really bland, and required a sauce that was much more interesting than that which was served with it and the pancake.

For the main courses, we went with kalbi (galbi), bibim bap, and ojing oh bokum, the latter two being my favorite Korean dishes.  The kalbi was great, fatty, succulent, and salty, and is a very well done dish.  I love that they do not trim all the fat off the meat before cooking it, as you get a much richer beef flavor than if you cut it all off; after all, fat is flavor.  The bibim bap, which had some grilled pieces of chicken, was good, nothing super special; the best part was the crispy rice that came from the bottom hot kettle like dish it was served in.  Again, Manna House does a better job, but this was perfectly acceptable.  The ojing oh bokum was disappointing, but still tasty; the squid was overcooked and rubbery, the sauce was weak and barely spicy, and the vegetables were limp and lifeless.  It is not among their best offerings. 

I know this makes it seem like we had a bad meal; we didn't!  It was actually a really good, really tasty dinner, and we ate a ton.  It is just that I tend to compare my meals to the best of the same variety, and this does not match up to the better Korean restaurants I have been to.  I enjoy going to Gohyang, but it is simply not as good Manna House.  They do do a couple things better, including the pa jeon, and they offer far more banchan (the small dishes that come with every meal) than Manna House, with much greater variety.  This is, like most Korean joints, vegetarian friendly.  They also offer the option of a more traditional seating, with short legged tables and pillows on which to sit.  Among the beers offered are a few Berkshire Brewing Company 22oz bottles, along with some other, more mass produced options. 


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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Night Kitchen (Montague Center, Montague, MA) and Berkshire Brewing Company River Ale

****This Restaurant Has Closed****

The Night Kitchen, currently the Town of Montague's only upscale restaurant following the closing of Turners Falls' Ristorante DiPaolo, was a mixed bag for me.  I went with family to celebrate my step-grandmother's 80th birthday, and there were some great moments, and some things that really fell short for me.  They do get extra credit for naming themselves after the Maurice Sendak book In the Night Kitchen; Sendak was one of my favorites as a child, and though I don't specifically recall reading that book, Where the Wild Things Are will forever be on top of my list of great children's books.

As far as ambiance, the restaurant does well; it is located on the bank of a small, as best I can tell unnamed river that runs along Greenfield Rd in Montague Center, and is nicely decorated in a rustic sort of way.  It is not too dark, though the lights definitely dimmed from when I arrived at 7:00pm to when we all departed at 9:00pm, to just on the edge of where I would have thought they were too dark.  The kitchen is visible from the majority of the dining room, something which some people like, though quite honestly, unless I am eating sushi I don't really care about. 

Parsnip, Leek and Potato Soup with arugula oil and smoke paprika
The meal started with some appetizers, including the Parsnip, Potato and Leek Soup for me, and the table sharing the Grilled Flatbread with Green Olives and Broiled Parmesan Polenta.  The soup, served with an "arugula oil & smoked paprika," was nice looking, and the bright green oil was laid out attractively on top of a porridgy looking bowl of moderately creamy, slightly grainy soup.  The graininess is not actually a negative for me, as I feel that it adds some texture to the soup, but I can imagine that other people may not have as positive a reaction to that.  The soup tasted fine, a solid average offering with a strong parsnip flavor, but I did not really taste the leeks at all, which was disappointing, since they are among my favorite vegetables, and the potato was a background note at best.  I've made better myself, but since they don't offer any other soups at this time, it's not a terrible option, though I tend to object to ordering things that I can make as well or better than a restaurant. 

The polenta was flat out disappointing, served in a tiny cast iron "skillet" with garlic mushrooms and mozzarella.  The polenta itself was flavorless, thick and with a cement-like consistency.  I've made better, my mother has made better, and any Italian who ate it would probably take it as a personal insult.  All in all, one of the worst items I have ever had in a fine-dining establishment; stay away.  The flatbread, on the other hand, was spectacular.  With white Spanish anchovies and some gruyere melted on top, it was salty and savory, as well as a tiny bit sweet from some caramelized onions.  This was a great, simple, but elegant appetizer that any restaurant would be proud of, and I am still kind of regretting not grabbing another piece of it.

Entrées were also a mixed result, as I loved my dish, but my step-dad and his mother felt that theirs were served a little cooler than they should be.  In fact, my step-grandmother sent her dish, the Seared Duck Breast, back to be re-warmed.  When it returned, she very much enjoyed it.  My step-dad's Grilled Bistro Steak, which he ordered medium, was on the medium-rare side of that, which was fine with me when I tasted it, and I thought it was both well cooked and tasted great.  My mother had the Grilled Pork Rib Chop, a bone in chop stuffed with black mission figs; it was decent, better than I expected (though I must admit that I expect poor results anytime someone orders a pork chop at a restaurant, as they typically overcook them horribly; it's why I enjoy the pork chops at Hope and Olive so much), but still not as juicy as I'd have liked, though it certainly tasted good. 

My entrée was solid, a Potato Crusted Arctic Char, served with an orange and radish slaw and
Potato Crusted Arctic Char with orange radish slaw and horseradish crème
horseradish crème, with lentils and kale on the side.  The lentils were not particularly interesting, though they were nicely cooked, with just a little al dente bite to them.  The kale was also perfectly cooked, so the leaves were still bright and crisp, with a vinegar-y sauce that had some sweetness to it; it was absolutely delicious, the kind of side that goes well with almost anything, and is a pretty decent argument for those crazy "Eat More Kale" people.  The fish was very good, though not as good as the kale; it was cooked decently well, but not perfect, and the potato crust slipped off it pretty easily while cutting into it.  The fish itself was a little overly flaky (slightly overcooked, but not horribly), and the crust had some nice flavor to it.  All in all, I would label this as a fine, but not wonderful, dish, and next time I would go with the steak or possibly Braised Chicken with Fennel and Capers.

Salted Caramel Pudding
The highlight of the night was, by far, the dessert.  I have expressed several times my dislike for super sweet desserts, but there were three options that drew my eye:  the Warm Maple Almond Bundt Cake with a strawberry rhubarb compote; the Rum Soaked Pineapple Upside Down Cake; and the Salted Caramel Pudding with candied walnuts.  I asked the waiter who came over to take our order what he suggested, and he said the pudding, so that's what I went with.  It was one of the best desserts I have ever had in my entire life, a thick, heavy, sweet and salty pudding with large walnut chunks and some whipped cream on top.  The caramel/salt combination is about as good as it gets, but this was done much, much better than normal, so that the salt was clearly evident in every bite without ever overwhelming the caramel, but also providing enough of a savory note that even when all the components were eaten together the caramel, candied walnuts and whipped cream did not have too much sweetness.  I hate walnuts, and I loved them in this dish; they were perfectly done, just on the edge of becoming soft so that they did not shatter when bitten into, but avoiding that soggy feeling that many candied nuts get.  The whipped cream was even above average, clearly homemade.  I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Service was...interesting.  Our waitress was friendly enough, but a little blah; she did not seem to have any kind of actual personality.  Now, I'm not saying I want wait staff to be super effervescent, but my lord, be more than a soft spoken automaton!  Timidity is a poor trait in a service industry, and I hope it was just that she was new, but she could not even muster much more than a "they're both really good" when I asked if she recommended the Char versus the Trout.  The waiter who took our dessert order was much, much better, a strong personality without overdoing it.  The waitress that my step-grandmother spoke to when she sent back her entrée was similarly good, apologizing profusely and immediately taking the dish back to be re-done, but never seemed to be overwhelmed by anything.  She may have been a manager of some sort, because I don't believe I ever saw her actually taking orders from anyone.

All in all, this was a fine meal, one that was better than anything else you could find in Montague, but not really equal to the food you would find at Hope and Olive or at several places in Northampton, Brattleboro or even Sunderland.  I would go back for two reasons:  one, the deck outside is perfect for a summer date; and two, for that salted caramel.  The prices are not unreasonable, but for the same money, I think you can do better.


With my dinner I had a glass of the Berkshire Brewing Company River Ale, a mediocre, at best, beer that I will never have again.  I am a fan of BBC, with the Lost Sailor IPA, Drayman's Porter, and Steel Rail Pale Ale all personal favorites of mine, but this was just a poor beer.  Their website says it has a "slight" sweetness, but it's really more of a whack you over the head amount of sweet.  It is a high alcohol beer at 7%, and its saving grace is that it does not taste like it has that much booze; that said, I cannot in good conscience recommend this, as it is simply a more expensive, darker version of Bud Light Platinum.  Stay away, and try one of the other three I listed instead.


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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sierra Nevada/Dogfish Head Rhizing Bines

It is rare that in a business as competitive as craft brewing that two companies would come together to create a product, but in this case, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and Dogfish Head Brewery put that aside to brew a really fantastic IPA.  Though they do not really compete for the same market--Sierra Nevada is a west coast brewery that typically does not factor in when discussions of the best breweries come about, while the east coast Dogfish is a frequent visitor to the top of those types of lists and tends to be a craft beer drinker's company--it is still a remarkable testimony to the camaraderie and sense of family that exists within this industry, where a man like Sam Calagione, who as the founder of Dogfish Head is at the forefront of his industry, is thrilled to come together with another pioneering company in this way.  Having collaborated once before, on 2009's Life & Limb, the two joined each other once again to make Rhizing Bines, released in February 2013.

Served in a 22oz bottle with a very cool looking label designed with vines curling down from the top, and the words "Rhizing Bines" twisting together underneath and the logos of the two companies on either side.  It pours a light, crisp amber color, with a massive frothy head that never seems to dissipate.  Tasting it, you get an instant hit of hops, bitter yet smooth, with a slight fruitiness and very slight citrus notes.  It drinks much easier than its 8% ABV would suggest, and until looking it up I did not realize it was such a high alcohol beer. I drank it while eating some smoked port loin, and it really worked well, which jives with Dogfish Head's recommendations for barbecued meats.  It was light enough that it did not overwhelm the light and subtle smokiness of the pork, but it also held up well to the stronger tastes of the mustard and Roquefort that the pork was served with.  I can see this as being similar to the Chimay Blue Cap Grande Reserve for me, in that it is a versatile option with food.

At $12 a bottle, this is not a cheap beer, and while I didn't buy it this time, I absolutely would in the future; it is among the better options that Dogfish Head has put out, and is definitely among my favorite IPAs, holding up well to even the iconic 90 Minute IPA.  I highly recommend it if you can find it, and if you want some, you should start looking now, because I suspect that like most collaborations, this will be a limited release.


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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Curtis' All American Barbeque (Putney, VT)

I love barbeque; always have, always will.  It is unpretentious, seemingly simple food that tends to
"The 9th Wonder of the World"
involve a lot of pork, a lot of spices, and more food than a reasonable person should ever eat in one sitting, and that seeming simplicity falls away as you eat it; it is often, in fact, tremendously complex.  Curtis' All American Barbeque, in tiny Putney, VT, is a fine example of open pit barbeque, a concept that few people are used to in the north.  The meat is smoked first, then put over the open wood fire,where it caramelizes and finishes cooking, adding something just short of a char to the exterior.

Curtis does ribs and chickens, and while the ribs are damn good, the chicken is sublime.  It is not often that a person like me, who craves good pork, would choose chicken instead, but I have at Curtis'.  After all, good ribs aren't that difficult to find, or even make; great chicken though, is a true rarity, something that you can't find many places.  The skin becomes a little crispy, though not the glass-like crunch of a fried chicken.  A little smoky, tender, and surprisingly moist, it is the best chicken I have ever eaten that wasn't thrown into a vat of hot oil.  The ribs have a little smokiness to them as well, and aren't quite the fall off the bone tender that you would find in Kansas City or St. Louis style ribs, but Curtis' method, like the man himself, is from Georgia, and there's some more tooth to the meat.  I actually like this, as texture is important to me, but I have some friends who have tried it and don't love his food for that reason.  It is therefore important to go to Curtis' with the understanding that this is not North Carolina, Missouri, or Tennessee barbeque; it is entirely different.

Curtis himself, finishing a dozen or so slabs under the supervision of his pig CJ
Sauce places a huge role at Curtis', another issue for some purists, who believe that sauce should barely be involved, if at all, in good barbeque, and that the meat should speak for itself.  Well, the meat does speak for itself here, but the sauce adds to that and enhances it, with two options to choose from, a simple mild or a tangier hot.  The mild is a little sweet, with some vinegar coming through, but it's primarily a ketchup based sauce.  The hot is essentially the same, but with, obviously, more heat, and thus less sweetness, or at least the sweetness is masked by that extra heat.  It's not that hot, not even enough to give your mouth much of a burn, but it's more interesting than the mild.  It's good on everything from the ribs to the chicken to the sweet yams.

My gigantic lunch; loaded potato and "small" side of collards
This trip, I went with the loaded pork stuffed baked potato, a mountain of food that is truly scrumptious, improvable only by adding some chicken to it, though maybe that would just be too much.  A potato cooked over the wood fire wrapped in foil, it is perfectly tender without completely falling apart, split open and filled with shredded pork and topped with sour cream, chives, (real) bacon bits, shredded Vermont cheddar cheese (only the best), mushrooms, and barbeque sauce.  There isn't much to say about this other than YUM!  I added a small (a relative term) side of collards, which were fantastic.  Cooked so that the leaves are soft and the cores still with a little crunch, the collards are great as well, with bits of crispy lardon mixed in.  Normally collards are cooked until they are essentially mush, which can taste good, but again, that texture thing keeps popping up; I like a little bite, and the textural differences between the leaves, cores, and lardon is exactly where you see that complexity that I mentioned earlier.  With a bottle of water, I was out about $18.50, which isn't cheap, but well worth both the price and the 45 minute drive.

Curtis' is great for more than just its food; Curtis himself is an incredibly friendly, jovial man, who
CJ "supervising" Curtis
clearly enjoys himself and his work, spending time talking to his customers, his three (at least) dogs, and of course, his pet pig.  CJ is a gigantically fat fellow, who bears more of a resemblance to a wild boar, tusks and all, than to the pigs we eat, and he is the successor to Curtis' old pet Isabelle, who he had for 13 years; the joke he tells is that he assures the pig that he only cooks chicken, a joke he tells with relish and a hearty chuckle each and every time.
CJ eating a carrot Curtis gave my friend to feed him
Curtis' is only open seasonally, from about April to late October, and seating is available inside a large covered pavilion or at a variety of umbrella covered and open picnic tables.  Today there was a pretty decent guitarist playing and singing, which added some decent ambiance, but you're not coming here for elegance.  It is down home, legitimately good southern comfort food, and I do feel comfortable when I leave.  Make sure you bring cash, as Curtis' does not take cards or checks.  They sell some merchandise on both their website and on site, including bottles of their own sauce.  This is one of my favorite place to go, and the best barbeque I've found north of the Mason-Dixon line, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The covered seating

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