Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ferrara's Kitchen + Bar (Boston, MA)

Some of the better meals of my life have been in Boston, including the best I'd ever had prior to going to Bouchon Bistro at Mamma Maria in North Square, and now I've been fortunate enough to add another hit to the list.  Ferrara's Kitchen + Bar, located a short walk from the Haymarket MBTA stop on the Green Line, and just down the street from the famous Neptune Oyster Bar, is but one of many fine examples of Italian cuisine in Boston's North End, but there are a few things that set them apart.

The first thing that drew my dinner companion and I to Ferrara's was its open front; they have a large bay window that opens out onto Salem St., and in nice weather they open it up and allow the place to breathe a bit, a feature that I thoroughly enjoy.  Upon entering, I noticed that, while it was not bright inside by any means, it was not so dim as to nearly require a flashlight to even read the menu, a trend that I cannot stand.  It was, in fact, perfectly lit, allowing a good view of the entire dining room and bar, where we sat, but without any glaring lights.  Behind the bar are a pair of flat screen televisions, which offered a chance to watch Peyton Manning kick his little brother's butt all over the field; always an enjoyable experience.

Our bartender was friendly, knew at least a bit about beer and was happy to engage with us without ever becoming, in my mind, overly intrusive or omnipresent.  Speaking of beer, they had only a few options on tap, including a Sam Adams seasonal and the Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, which had just been added.  Since there was nothing new or exciting, we both went with the Dogfish.

As for food, the kitchen kept up well with the positive impression the layout and bartender had given initially.  I ordered the Spaghetti Carbonara, among my favorite dishes in the world, and my date
Spaghetti Carbonara served in a stainless pan
ordered the Gnocchi alla Sorrentina.  We both thoroughly enjoyed our meals, which were prepared very well, but there were a couple critiques that I had.  My Carbonara was delicious, though the menu describes it as being in a cream sauce; I do not know if that means they actually used cream in the preparation, or if they are simply describing the sauce as creamy.  It tasted right, and felt right, as an egg and cheese only sauce, and at least the bartender knew that a proper Carbonara lacks cream, but it is something that I am left wondering about.  The pasta was perfect, and the flavor and texture of the sauce was spectacular, with the taste of the Parmesan (not sure if it was actual Parmiggiano-Reggiano or if it was the impostor we usually find here in the USA, but the menu says Parmesan) and some garlic coming through beautifully.  The pancetta was delicious, but served in very large chunks, which was unwieldy; I like my pancetta cubed to about one centimeter, because it keeps a better texture that way I have found, but that is about my only real critique of this dish.

The gnocchi in my date's dish were sublime, perfect little pillows, with just enough density that they felt substantial but not nearly so much that they felt heavy.  The mozzarella in the dish was solid, but nothing amazing, though it worked well in combination with the sauce and the gnocchi.  The sauce itself was a little sweet for me, so when I first tasted it, with just the gnocchi and no cheese, I was not super thrilled.  After adding some mozzarella, I enjoyed it more, as the salt of the cheese did help balance the sweetness of the sauce, but if you are not going to have cheese in every bite (which you will not with this dish) then that is not a saving grace.

The last thing to say about the food is that I must comment on how they serve it, supposedly in the dish it was cooked in.  While I highly doubt this, as the pan mine was served in was far too clean along the sides to have really cooked such a messy meal (trust me, I've been trying for a while now to make a proper version; I'm at about a D+ right now, passing but nothing to be proud of), but it looks neat.  It is a gimmick, but sometimes gimmicks work, and I must say, I really liked this one.  The price was ridiculously reasonable as well; before tip, we were at $39, which for two entrees and two beers is insanely cheap in this neighborhood, especially when the food is so good.  Admittedly, we did get the two cheapest entrees, but that was purely accidental, as they just happened to be what we wanted.  I would have gladly paid significantly more for the same meal, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the check.  All in all, I highly recommend Ferrara's, and I will absolutely consider a return, though with the incredible breadth of options in the North End, it may be hard to justify not trying something else.


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Monday, September 9, 2013

The Front Room (Portland, ME)

I have previously discussed my affinity for The Corner Room, and in that review I mentioned having had brunch once at its sister restaurant The Front Room, which was very good.  This morning, I had brunch there again, this time with a couple of my siblings and their significant others, The Front Room being one of a rare group of restaurants that offer a brunch menu every day.  Once again I enjoyed myself, though it fell short of my memory of just how good the shrimp and grits with poached eggs I ate all those years ago (back in 2008) was; this could well be because of the natural tendency to inflate memorable experiences over time, whether good for bad, but I suspect it was just a better meal that time.

Today I went with poached eggs again, but this time they topped homemade corned beef hash, with an English muffin on the side.  I love corned beef hash almost as much as I do grits, and I honestly love it in all forms, including the stuff from a can (I know, I am pathetic, but if you griddle that up so it's crispy and a little burnt, it is just flat out delicious, especially with some maple syrup mixed in after cooking), so when I see it on a menu, it is very difficult for me to avoid making it my order.  This was legitimately homemade, no cans here, and it was really enjoyable, but it could easily have ended up better if there had just been a few alterations.  The beef was flavorful, but a little stringy, with a pulled pork like look and feel.  The potatoes, which are the key part of any hash in my opinion, were far too soft, which led to a very homogeneous mouth feel when combined with the essentially pulled beef.  Add in the poached eggs and all you have is soft, soft, soft; my teeth barely felt needed until I got to the English muffin (which was...well, an English muffin; may have been a Thomas', may have been homemade, but it did not have anything distinguishing about it).  The best part of the meal was absolutely the poached eggs, which were just right, with the shape, consistency (firm but pliant exterior, super runny interior), and flavor you want out of poached eggs that are clearly fresh.

As I said, I ate here with a couple of my siblings, including my sister who works at another one of Portland's upscale restaurants, and her boyfriend, who is a cook at the same establishment.  Among the things that came up multiple times this past weekend as I visited was the owner of the "Room" restaurants, Harding Lee Smith, who has recently been the subject of two scathing articles in The Bollard, a local independent publication in Portland.  See below for the links.  These articles allege verbal, physical, and emotional abuse of employees in both public and private, while acknowledging the continued patronage of Smith's now four restaurants (including the newly opened Boone's Fish House and Oyster Bar) by people who can find nothing positive to say about Smith as a human being.  Personally, I feel that every story has two sides, and I have a very hard time giving much credence to the articles in The Bollard because of the clear intent of the author; while every story may well be true, it is hard not to be skeptical of much of the issues because of the clear axe-grinding nature of the stories.  I've put the link to another article, this one in the Maine Sunday Telegram (aka the Portland Press Herald) from a few months ago, that is much more complimentary, though it does not give much mention to the negative allegations The Bollard focuses on.  I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but my one interaction with the man, when he was working the antipasti bar at The Corner Room my first time there, was incredibly positive and I really enjoyed the brief time my sister and I spent talking to him, not to mention the unanticipated free cheese he added to our order without any reason to do so other than that he seemed to think we'd like it, and of course the accompanying good will that comes from such actions.

July 1 Article from The Bollard
September 2 Article from The Bollard
June 2 Article from the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald


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