Monday, March 27, 2017

Rant: Two Restaurant Reviews, One Failure

Two reviews, in different local periodicals, of the same new restaurant. Both written by experienced and knowledgeable reviewers. However, one of those reviews succeeds while the other fails. Why is that the case?

To me, there are four primary elements that every professional restaurant review should address, including food, drink, price and service. There are numerous secondary aspects that can be addressed as well, such as the restaurant's size, decor, ambiance, parking availability, etc. If a review ignores one of the four primary elements, then I feel it has failed in its execution, omitting significant information that many potential customers would like to know. Such an omission does a disservice to both the potential customer and the restaurant.  

Of the four primary elements, one seems to be ignored the most, despite its importance to many diners. I've raised this issue before but it bears repeating as it remains a problem. A number of restaurants reviews ignore a restaurant's drink program, even when that element is a vital aspect of the restaurant's concept. That is a clear failure and professional reviewers should know better than to ignore such an important element.

This is the reason why one of the two reviews I recently read failed. It failed to discuss the restaurant's drinks program, even though it plays a significant role in the restaurant. And this restaurant has some unique elements to its drinks program, highlighted by the other reviewer, which would entice a number of potential customers to check out the restaurant. That information should have been in the failed review too.  

Many restaurants invest much time and effort into developing their drink lists and bar programs. They may bring in experts, sommeliers, mixologists and more, to help design those programs. They may be rightfully proud about their accomplishments, and it becomes a significant reason why diners will patronize their establishment. Potential customers might seek out a restaurant because of its tequila bar or whiskey list, their natural wines or Sake menu. When reading a restaurant review, they want to read about the food but many also want to learn about the drinks program.

Consider the example of a Japanese izakaya. The literal meaning of izakaya is a “sit-down-Sake-shop,” though it now generally refers to a Japanese bar that serves any type of alcohol, not just Sake, and also food to accompany that alcohol. Izakayas originated during the Edo period (1603-1867 AD) when Sake vendors began to provide tables and seats for their patrons, and eventually started serving food with the Sake samples. Thus, in an izakaya, their alcohol and food are both significant and warrant discussion in any professional review. Failure to do so ignores an important aspect of the izakaya's concept.

Diners can sometimes spend more on their alcohol than their food so that alone would point to its significance. Other diners specifically seek out restaurants with specific drink programs, such as a well curated wine list. Lovers of spirits may seek out a restaurant with a large and/or unique selection of their favorite spirit. They want to read a restaurant review and learn about what drinks it has to offer, and whether it has something to entice them or not.

Restaurant reviewers, please don't ignore a restaurant's drinks program. It is significant information that should be within your review, and will better help your readers decide whether they want to patronize that restaurant or not.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
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1) On Thursday, March 23rd, Chef/Owner Michael Schlow, Chef de Cuisine Brendan Pelley, and the Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar team will host a special, five-course wine dinner, featuring Greek wines from Fantis Imports.

The evening will include a cocktail meet and greet at 6:30 p.m. followed by a sit-down dinner at 7 p.m. The five-course meal will feature off-menu spring dishes paired with Fantis Imports wines and conversation with Niko Mavreas about Greek wine varietals. I've long been a fan of Greek wines and you really should drink them as well.

Though the menu hasn't been finalized yet, you might see intriguing dishes such as Octopus Terrine, Lobster Tail Souvlaki or Green Garlic Pita.

Cost: Tickets are $75 plus tax and gratuity
For Reservations, please call (617) 422-0008.

2) On April 5, NF Northeast (Neurofibromatosis Northeast) will celebrate the NF community and its supporters with their 18th annual Table for TEN charitable dining event in Boston. With honorary co-chairpersons Dan Andelman, host of myTV38’s “Phantom Gourmet,” and Donato Frattaroli, Jr., proprietor of il Molo restaurant in the North End, headlining this unrivaled evening, supporters will dine at some of the city’s top restaurants before closing out their night at a decadent dessert reception with live entertainment and an auction hosted at the newly renovated University of Massachusetts Club. Frattaroli is the second generation in his family to serve as honorary co-chair of the event, with his father, Donato Frattaroli, Sr., having held the title in 2011.

Groups of ten guests will arrive at their respective restaurant at 6:00pm on Wednesday, April 5, and will indulge in a specially created three-course menu paired with wine. Participating restaurants in this year’s Table for TEN event include, but are not limited to: Artu; Da Vinci Ristorante; Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen; Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse; il Molo; La Motta’s; Legal Sea Foods (Park Square); Lucca (Back Bay & North End); Ocean Prime; Parker’s Restaurant; Post 390; Scampo; Serafina; State Street Provisions; Strega Waterfront; The Smoke Shop; The Tip Tap Room; Top of the Hub; Tresca; and, Union Oyster House.

At 8:00pm, supporters are invited to continue the festivities at the official after-party at the University of Massachusetts Club. At this dessert reception, Montilio’s Baking Company will provide sweet treats and revelers will enjoy music entertainment by Ancient Mysteries featuring Kevin McKelvey and Ben Buttrick. Additionally, there are raffles, a silent auction and a live auction with honorary co-chairperson, Dan Andelman, serving as guest auctioneer.

Neurofibromatosis (NF) is a prevalent genetic disorder of the nervous system that causes tumors to form on the nerves anywhere in or on the body at any time. Proceeds from Table for TEN will fund scientific research at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital as well as provide support to the NF clinics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. Research will help find the cure for NF, a genetic disorder that can cause learning disabilities, seizures, brain tumors, deafness, vision impairment and cancer. Additionally Table for TEN will help to create awareness about NF which affects more people than cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy combined, yet is a little known disorder. Over the years, incredible strides in research development have been made bringing us one step closer to a cure.

For more information on the Table for TEN event and to reserve online, please visit: www.nfincne.org.
Tables for ten are available beginning at $1,000 and individual tickets at a table may be reserved for $100 per person.
Sponsorships are also available by contacting NF Northeast’s Diana Flahive at 781.272.9936 or dflahive@nfincne.org.

3) On Monday, March 27, from 6pm-10pm, join the MRA and Massachusetts Chefs in the fight to end child hunger. Hosted at Davio’s Foxborough, the evening will feature a multi-course tasting dinner menu with wine pairings in support of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. In addition to the Chef/CEO Steve DiFillippo of Davio’s, chefs from the following local restaurants in Foxborough will be preparing the menu for the evening: Scorpion Bar, Tavolino, Skipjack’s, Twenty8 Food&Spirits and CBS Scene.

Share Our Strength began in the basement of a rowhouse on Capitol Hill in 1984, in response to the ‘84-‘85 famine in Ethiopia. Brother and sister Bill and Debbie Shore started the organization with the belief that everyone has a strength to share in the global fight against hunger and poverty, and that in these shared strengths lie sustainable solutions. Today we focus these strengths on making No Kid Hungry a reality in America.

Cost: Tickets for the event are $125 per guest (excluding gratuity) and include a cocktail reception followed by a five-course tasting menu with wine pairings.
Tickets are required and can be purchased by visiting https://cookingmattersdaviosfox.eventbrite.com

4) Chef de Cuisine Alex Saenz and the BISq team invite guests to join them on Sunday, March 26, from 10:30am to 3pm, for a special island time-themed pop-up brunch. For the third installment of BISq’s, monthly pop-up brunch series, the restaurant will be transporting Bostonians to warmer weather by way of its island time brunch this Sunday. The brunch will feature a tropical a la carte menu, signature cocktails, and live reggae music.

Although subject to change, the menu will likely include:
Conch salad
Lechón
Cuban "Ropa vieja"
Goat curry
"Mais moulu"
Sancocho
"Moros y cristianos"
Pancakes with rum bananas and smoked maple

To make reservations, please call (617) 714-3693.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Gre.co: Gyros & Loukoumades For The Win

"Gyro, pronounced “GAEE-ro” in English and “GHEE-ro” in Greek comes from the Greek word “gheereezo,” which means to turn. As mentioned above, it’s a stacked rotating pile of thinly sliced meat, either lamb, pork, beef, or some combination thereof, with latter-day renditions that include chicken and even fish. As the tightly packed stack roasts upright, the layers meld together and the grill person manning the gyro rotisserie cuts of paper-thin slices, which he or she fixes in a pita wrap with tomatoes, raw red onions, parsley or lettuce, Greek yogurt or tzatziki, and sometimes fried potatoes and a sprinkling of paprika or cayenne pepper."
--Chef Diane Kochilas in History of Gyro, an Ancient Greek Street Food

Newbury Street has seen the recent opening of a fast casual restaurant worthy of much attention, one bringing delicious, freshly made, inexpensive and compelling Greek street food. Gre.Co (meaning Greece & Company) is the latest venture from Demetri Tsolakis, who is also a Partner at Committee (one of my favorite restaurants) and Cafeteria. With General Manager Stefanos Ougrinis and Executive Chef Alkis Sheri, the Gre.co team is creating tasty Gyros and Loukoumades and I'm impressed with the results.

I am so proud to introduce a truly Greek concept that is truly fresh and can satisfy life on the go,” says Owner Demetri Tsolakis.The ancient Greeks knew that great memories were made and lively conversations were sparked when people gathered around delicious food and drink. Fast forward to 2017, where people are starved for time, but still have a craving for the rich, flavorful recipes of Greece. With Gre.Co there is now a place that unites the old world with the new and allows today’s fast-moving generation to enjoy the authentic food they love—minus the wait.”

So far, I've dined at Gre.co twice, once as a media guest and once on my own, and I'll certainly be returning on a regular basis. In a recent rant, We Need More Specialized Restaurants, I stated how I wished to see more restaurants with limited menus, which specialize in one or a few items. Gre.co actually meets that desire, having a small menu, concentrating on two main items, Gyros and Loukoumades. With that specialization, they are able to concentrate on creating fresh, quality products. And as everything is made to order, they can also cater to some of your preferences.


"The gyro as we know it more or less today first arrived in Greece in 1922,.."
--Chef Diane Kochilas in History of Gyro, an Ancient Greek Street Food

Upon entering Gre.co for the first time, I was initially struck by the alluring aromas of the kitchen, which is open, allowing you to watch everything they make as well as ensuring the wonderful smells of their cooking permeate the restaurant. It is a small place, with a long table in the middle that seats about eight people, a few "booths" on one wall, and some counter seating near the front window. When the weather improves, they will also have patio seating, which will be a great place this summer to sit and dine. On both occasions when I was at the restaurant, much of the seating was taken and they did a significant take-out business. Gre.co's popularity was quite evident.

Gre.Co prepares its foods fresh each day, using a number of local meat purveyors, including Savenor's Market. They marinate all their meats for about 24 hours, using their own house-made marinades. They also use some locally sourced produce from Eva’s Garden and other nearby farms.

They even make their own Hot Sauce, using Greek Florina peppers, and it is spicy and flavorful. It can be a nice addition to your Gyro.

After the meats have been properly marinated, they are then thinly sliced and carefully placed onto the rotisserie. On another visit, I watched as they used a potato slicer to cut their fries, placing the whole, skin-on potato into the machine, pulling a lever, and having the potato slices ready for frying. They aren't hiding anything here.

These are the rotisserie meats ready for slicing for the gyros and will excite any carnivore. This presents a compelling vision for customers who might be indecisive.

The Pitas are cooked on the grill, ensuring they are fresh and hot. For a bread lover like me, these pitas are excellent and I could use them for almost any sandwich.

To accompany their food, Gre.co even offers numerous unique Greek beverages, and I'm sure most of you have never tasted many of these drinks before. Try a Frappe (traditional Greek iced coffee), Epsa (available in lime, lemonade of sour cherry), Mastiqua (Mastiha flavored sparkling water that aids in digestion), or Ouzon Soda (ouzo flavored soda). I've become a fan of their Tuvunu Greek Mountain Tea, which is made from Sideritis, an indigenous perennial. The tea is flavored with brown cane sugar, wild blossom honey, and fresh squeezed lemon juice. It was delicious, with only a mild sweetness, and pleasing tea notes and an herbal backbone. It is refreshing and you could easily drink can after can without feeling bloated or overwhelmed by sugar as you can be with soda. Next time, I need to try some of the other Greek drinks.

"There is actually a National Gyro Day and it is August 31st."
--Chef Diane Kochilas in History of Gyro, an Ancient Greek Street Food

The food menu is dominated by six different types of Gyros, all which are served in a warm pita with tomatoes, onions and hand-cut potatoes. The six Gyros (priced $8-$9) include the Classic Pork (with tzatziki), Classic Lamb (with tomato jam), Classic Chicken (with honey mustard), Classic Loukaniko (pork and leek sausage with mustard sauce), Classic Bifteki (ground beef with spicy whipped feta) and Classic Veggie (seasonal squash fritter with yogurt sauce). As everything is made to order, you can also customize your own Gyro, choosing your own protein and sauce combination. The Lamb and Pork are very popular, but it varies dependent on any specific day.

As a slight variation, you can also have a Salad ($9.50) or Plate ($10), selecting your own protein and sauce combination, and each also comes with pita bread. The Plate also comes with a side. You can order a salad on its own, including the Horiatiki ($8), Cretan ($6.50) and Mykonian ($7.50). There are also a small number of Soup & Sides, such as Avgolemono (egg lemon soup) and Greek Slaw.    

The Classic Lamb was packed with plentiful meat, which was tender and flavorful, and the tomato jam added nice acidity and a little sweetness to the gyro. The addition of the salty fries also enhanced the gyro. Overall, the gyro was good-sized, tasty, fresh and well balanced. Highly recommended.

The Classic Bifteki also had plenty of meat, basically a hearty burger, with the spicy whipped feta that added heat and creaminess to the gyro. The acidity of tomatoes helped with the creaminess and the fries added that saltiness too. It might not be a traditional burger, but certainly was a tasty alternative.

Though I didn't have any of the salads, I saw several that others ordered and they looked excellent, filled with plenty of fresh vegetables.

As for Sides, you can order the Dips with Pita ($2), selecting Tzatziki, Spicy Whipped Feta or Charred Eggplant. Above is the Spicy Whipped Feta, which has hot peppers mixed into the salty feta, and you receive plenty which you can smear on slices of warm pita. A fine afternoon or evening snack.

The Gre.co Fries ($3), hand-cut potatoes with feta, are addictive. The crisp fries, with a fluffy interior, are enhanced by the salty, creaminess of the feta. I think more restaurants should consider topping their fries with feta.

The Zucchini Chips ($3) are another compelling snack, and I've previously enjoyed them at Committee. I'm not usually a zucchini lover, but these thinly sliced, fried chips will persuade even the skeptic. And they are healthy than many other chips.

"The French have their beignets, Americans have doughnuts, but Greeks have loukoumades, round dough fritters drizzled with Greek honey and sprinkled with cinnamon."
--Chef Diane Kochilas

Gre.co's second specialization are their Loukoumades ($5.00-$6.50 for nine), basically Greek donuts. They come in five different flavors, and you can also customize your own as well. Their flavors include: Classic (Greek honey, walnuts and cinnamon), Yaya’s (hazelnut praline, oreo cookies, powdered sugar), Papou’s (mastiha crème, pistachios), Tasos (dark chocolate, coconut flakes) and Golpho (caramel, almonds, sea salt). It's worth stopping by Gre.co just for the loukoumades, anytime you have an urge for something sweet.

The Classic Loukoumades ($5) begins with a light donut hole, with a crisp exterior and the light, fluffy interior, are topped with a sweet and compelling mix of Greek honey, walnuts, and cinnamon. It's easy to devour one after another until you find the box is empty. The walnuts add a nice crunch to the donuts and the cinnamon is a nice addition to the sweet honey.

For the chocolate lovers, the Tasos Loukoumades will satisfy, with the rich dark chocolate and crunchy coconut flakes.

The Golpho Loukoumades ($6) have that tasty sweet & salty combination, with the addition of the thinly sliced almond pieces.

Of the three Loukoumades I tried, I liked the Classic the best, but enjoyed all three and could easily eat any of them again. Probably just depends on your preferences at any specific time, such as if you are in a chocolate mood or not.

In one corner of the restaurant, they also sell a small variety of Greek-made products, from olive oil to pasta sauce, from candy to honey. This section may expand in the future, and Gre.co may also start selling their hot sauce.

You'll even find Tasos, their mascot, for sale.

Gre.co has only been open for a short time but it is already impressive with its fresh, delicious, quality food. Service is relatively quick, with everyone working as a well-oiled machine to put together your made-to-order gyros and loukoumades. It is great they have chosen to concentrate on a small menu of items, and there is still something for almost everyone's taste. I'm sure their patio will be packed this summer. And maybe I'll see you there.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Rant: Another Reminder--Eat More Seafood!

Eat More Seafood! Eat More Seafood! Eat More Seafood! Eat More Seafood! Eat More Seafood! 

Yes, I've said this repeatedly before, in multiple posts over the years. And it continues to bear repeating as many Americans still haven't stepped up as much as needed. Seafood consumption will significantly lessen your chances of dying from the leading cause of death in the U.S. That's a powerful reason why you should consume more seafood.

The Seafood Expo North America is in full swing, having started yesterday and it will end tomorrow. Once again, I'm walking its myriad aisles, exploring the various booths, tasting samples of seafood, learning about seafood issues, and much more. I'll be writing about my experiences at the Expo in the near future but wanted to begin my coverage with the most important issue, trying to convince more Americans to eat more seafood.

Annual seafood consumption had been on a depressing decline during recent years, with seven years of constant decline, down to 14.5 pounds in 2013. In 2014, there was a tiny increase, to 14.6 pounds, but the best news came in 2015 when annual consumption actually increased nearly a pound to 15.5 pounds. Is this an anomaly or the sign of a positive new trend?  The problem is that this amount still falls short of the recommendations of the USDA and many other bodies who state that Americans should consume at least 26 pounds of seafood each year, essentially meaning you should eat seafood twice a week. How do we get Americans to eat over 10 pounds more seafood each year?

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the leading cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease, killing over 614,000 people each year. We all have had family and friends who have died from heart disease, and we should be doing what we can to reduce our own chances of acquiring heart disease. Do you want to die prematurely, leaving your loved ones without your presence? Do you want to die from heart disease when you could have adopted a small lifestyle change which might have saved you?

Seafood consumption is a significant key to reducing your chances of heart disease. Since the 1970s, over 20,000 research studies have been conducted on the health benefits of seafood and they have concluded that eating seafood twice a week can reduce your chance of dying from heart disease by about 36%. You won't find another single food that has been scientifically proven to reduce heart disease so much. Low seafood consumption is blamed for 84,000 deaths in the U.S. and 1.4 million globally. Besides helping to reduce heart disease, research has also been providing growing evidence of the health benefits to the brain and bones as well as against cancers and inflammatory diseases.  Eating more seafood is such a simple change to your lifestyle and it can bring so many health benefits.

If we want this positive trend to continue, we need to continue to find ways to persuade people, overcoming their objections, to eat seafood more frequently. More outreach is needed. We need more positive articles in the media espousing the health benefits of eating seafood. We need to overcome the obstacles that prevent people from consuming more seafood, such as its high cost and the difficulties many people have cooking seafood at home. It's a formidable goal, but it can be accomplished. You owe it to yourself, and your family, to eat more seafood and benefit your health.

In the Boston area, we are fortunate that we have seen a recent surge of new seafood restaurants, which can help us reach our annual goal of 26 pounds of seafood. Consider places such as Island Creek Oyster Bar (with a second location newly opened in Burlington), Row 34, Select Oyster Bar, Il Molo, Saltie Girl, Luke's Lobster, and Haley.Henry. There are numerous other seafood restaurants which have been around for longer too. You can also go to the retail location of Red's Best at the Boston Public Market to purchase seafood meals or fresh fish which you can prepare at home.

Step up your game and eat more seafood. Try to consume seafood at least twice a week. Seafood is delicious, can be prepared in a myriad of ways, and is extremely healthy. So what's stopping you from reaching your seafood consumption goal?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Mezcal Amarás Cupreata Joven: An Intriguing Mezcal From a Rare Agave

Mescal is a Mexican spirit, strong and pungent, and is made from the milk of the Maguey plant or cactus. He who has not indulged in a tipple of Mescal with a garniture of salt, has missed something the native Californian will tell you, and he is right. Mescal, however, has the same effect upon the average American as ordinary firewater upon an Apache Indian. With a load of it he is liable to run amuck at any moment and vermilionize a whole city.
--Los Angeles Herald, August 6, 1888

I have a fondness for Mezcal, that Mexican spirit which is often made by small families using traditional techniques. You can read some of my previous Mezcal articles, such as Mezcal & Beyond, Mezcal Bars in the Boston Area, Amuleto Mexican Table, Mezcal Vago & "A Slap To The Face", and Rant: 400 Rabbits Say "Drink More Mezcal". While perusing the shelves at The Wine Press, I noticed a Mezcal brand that was new to me, Mezcal Amarás, and Aaron, one of the owners of the shop, highly recommended the Mezcal Amarás Cupreata Joven to me so I bought a bottle.

Back in 2010, Mezcal Amaras was originally founded in Mexico as Mezcal Amores by a group of friends who developed a passion for Mezcal. The U.S. Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) opposed the name of the brand so they changed it to Mezcal Amaras for import into the U.S. In Spanish, the term "Amarás" means "you will love."

They are dedicated to sustainability and their website states: "Mezcal Amarás works only with sustainably cultivated agaves as part of their commitment to ensuring the long term preservation of the species and its biodiversity. Mezcal Amarás also plants ten agaves for each agave used in order to generate work in the community and maintain sustainability over the long term." There is plenty of discussion about agave sustainability in the mezcal community and paying attention to this significant issue is vital to the continued existence of the mezcal industry.

Besides ecological sustainability, Mezcal Amarás is also dedicated to the economic sustainability of the mezcal business, and their site also states: "To further support the communities, Mezcal Amarás reinvests 15% of their gross profits to improve ecological, economic and social sustainability in the mezcal producing regions where the companies works."  In addition, "The compensation for everyone who works in the manufacturing process of Mezcal Amarás, including agave producers, jimadores and distillery workers, is at least 20% higher than the local average." Very worthy objectives.

As for the Mezcal Amarás Cupreata Joven, it is produced in the village of Mazatlán, in the state of Guerrero, and its Master Mezcalero is Don Faustino Robledo. It is made from 100% Cupreata Agave, also known as Papalote, which is a rare plant found in Guerrero on certain mountain slopes in the Rio Balsas basin. This agave generally takes about 13 years to mature and is said to provide a vegetal profile to its mezcal. Once the agave is harvested, it is cooked for about five days in a conical stone oven, fueled by sustainable red oak logs. A mechanical shredder is then use and the juice is then fermented in small ayacahuite wooden vats. It will then be double distilled in copper pot stills.

I found this to be an intriguing Mezcal, with a complex melange of aromas and flavors. On the nose, you'll find hints of citrus and forest notes while on the palate, there is a complex blend of vegetal elements, some tropical fruit notes, and spice hints, with a mild smokiness primarily on the finish. Each sip brings new flavors to your palate and you'll love spending time slowly sipping and enjoying all you will find in this Mezcal. Highly recommended.

You can pick up at bottle at The Wine Press, though if you can't make it there, the Mezcal is imported by Anchor Distilling so you can also obtain it from any wine shop that deals with Anchor.