Tuesday, January 17, 2006

 

Mixed doubles at Toro

With temperatures dropping into the single digits, I am reluctant to go out for dinner. But David had had a long day and was eager for a little treat. The cozy room of Ken Oringer's newly opened Toro in Boston's South End seemed the perfect compromise, with a roaring fireplace and satisfying, yet innovative, tapas.

The dining room is small, just a dozen tables line the walls, and two communal "tables," really high bars in the middle. Another, more proper bar, offers more seating and drinking space. We walked in and the only spaces available were at the bars. So we perched across from two women already ensconced in mini-Kobe burgers and roasted brussel sprouts. The narrow table allowed us an intimate review of the menu. We were quite hungry so we started with the Pan con Tomate and Olive Oil (another menu with an eclectic mix of English and a foreign language -- in this case, Spanish). Crispy and rich with olive oil, but still light on the palate, just perfect to take the edge off while we perused the rest of the menu.

We consulted with our neighbors as to what to order, and decided to take their recommendation on to whom we should send the first official Random App of 2006. We departed a bit from our neighbors' choices and ordered the Lengua con Lentils as well as the Garbanzos with Chorizo. Smoked Duck Drumettes with Kumquat delighted our palates. But we took their recommendations to send the salt cod fritters, which they said was the best dish on the menu, to a table of three men and one woman. As the group had sauntered in, gregarious and laughing, they had the presence of locals dining at their favorite haunt.

The waiter brought over the dish, while David and I tried to watch without obviously staring. The waiter pointed at us and the group all turned to look, waving at us quizzically while we timidly waved back. Rafael, whose name we soon learned, walked over to introduce himself and thank us. He walked back to has table seemingly even more confused.

David and I returned to chatting with our table mates, who by this point were licking the chocolate dish from a spicy rendition of Churros y Chocolate (the name is forever embedded in my brain as the name of my Spanish I text book in high school). We discussed our favorite restaurants, as both Bonnie and Paula, our new friends, were both avid diners. Paula, a freelance architecture writer from New York has written about Boston Celebrity chefs and their homes. Bonnie produces her own line of jams which are also sold at Formaggio's Kitchen.

Since I couldn't eat the salt cod fritters myself, I decided to ask Rafael and his table how they enjoyed them. It turns out very much, and we also had a chance to clear the confusion. Rafael and his brother Ricardo thought, for sure, that one of them knew us, as they had never received a Random App. They were horribly embarrassed that they couldn't recall. After that issue was resolved we chatted a bit about Ricardo and Eliot's curtain business (which I would love to plug, but they did not give me their card), and Raphael's art (www.raphaeljaimesbranger.com). Mother Hercilia was visiting from Venezuela and was happily enjoying her sons' company and the Paella Valencia.

Pleasantly full after several small plates and some very nice and reasonably priced wine, we said farewell to the friendly staff and our new friends and emerged into the freezing Boston night. Who will get the next Random App, and where will it happen? Time will tell, but I welcome your suggestions.

Monday, January 02, 2006

 

Felice e Matto Anno Nuovo

So it falls to me to write up the second half of our New Year's double-apping, since Julia is off to Arizona and New Mexico for some top-secret talks about a cooking school.

When we last left off, we were watching the early fireworks over the Boston Common. Fireworks make me hungry, so we headed over to Via Matta for another glass of wine, another bite to eat, and as it turned out, another Random App.

Via Matta (doesn't that mean “Crazy Street”?) is a regional Italian restaurant by Michael “Radius” Schlow, whom we spotted briefly at the other end of the bar. There was a mixed crowd of revelers, many dressed up for even more exclusive events towards midnight. We settled at the bar and Patty cheerfully brought us glasses of Julia's usual Pinot Grigio and my not atypical Montalicino as we perused the menu and searched for likely App recipients.

The menu uses an entertaining mix of Italian and English words and grammar. I ordered “Tortelli with duck con zucca e rosmarino” because duck is one of my favorite things to eat, and because zucca is a word that, thanks to Roberto Begnini in Night on Earth, always makes me smile. It means pumpkin. Julia had a linguine with clams dish, and Patty kindly accommodated us with half orders of each. The pastas were both superb, but the tortelli was the clear winner – larger than expected chunks of duck with well-seasoned cubes of pumpkin complemented the tender dumplings in any language.

When the couple to our left paid their bill and headed for the door, I thought, whoever sits there next is getting a pleasant surprise tonight. When two fashionable women, mother and daughter, sat down, Julia looked at me and I looked back, and we called Patty over. It didn't take long to decide, they should get something sophisticated, something uncommon – the burrata, a sort of super fresh, almost premature mozzarella with cream, was the clear choice.

And it was well-received. Our grateful neighbors at the bar were actually neighbors of and regulars at Via Matta; they have the fortune of working nearby in fashionable shops and dropping in regularly. As you would expect at Via Matta, they were sophisticated travelers and had lived in Italy. We chatted about Random Apps and about the dangers of driving and skiing in Europe vs. New England.

That seemed like a fine finish to the year and we were about to leave when the kitchen sent out dessert, a delight called “Mascarporeos.” Brilliant in its simplicity and richness, the mascarporeo is a half-dozen dark chocolate biscuits and a demitasse cup full of a mascarpone cream mixture. This is what oreos hope to be reincarnated as, a sublime DIY sandwich cookie.

I hope we can all achieve this in the year ahead, to make something fresh and transcendent from what's around us. Happy new year.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

 

A New Year’s Eve Near Miss

Boston originated what is now a widespread phenomenon, “First Night” festivities on New Year's Eve. Shouldn't that be “Last Night?” No matter, from noon until midnight, across the city, there are film screenings, art shows, dance performances and music recitals. I took the #1 bus across the river into Boston to check it out.

After several hours of walking around and taking in some short films and ice sculptures, David and I needed a drink and a snack, so we ducked into Jer*Ne at the New Ritz Carlton, just across the street from the Boston Common.

The bar is cozy and warm with a great people-watching view both inside and outside. Byron the Manager ensured that we felt welcome and taken care of, fielding our many queries and requests as we parked ourselves for several hours.

After restoring ourselves with Crab Cakes and Champagne, we contemplated starting the New Year with a Random App of Kindness. The crab cake was large and dense with crabmeat, light on any filler. It sat atop an orange-saffron aioli, with a salad of spinach and orange segments. While we enjoyed it tremendously, we were not sure that it had universal appeal.

A gentleman sat down at a table in the window, set for 3 people. He ordered a round of drinks for himself and his companions that had yet to arrive. David and I began to peruse the menu… the shrimp and avocado quesadilla seemed the perfect Random App, who doesn't like quesadillas? The gentleman’s companions, two women, arrived before the drinks did. With barely a “hello,” they asked where the drinks were. We eavesdropped onto the ensuing banter; we knew they would be a fun group to send a random app.

We whispered to our friend Byron to send the shrimp quesadilla. He then passed the word onto their waitress (and, of course, a message to our waitress to put the dish on our bill), with the final request from us, that they should not know in advance. Somewhere in this game of “telephone,” the waitress understood that we did not want her to tell the diners ever who sent the random app. So when the waitress placed down the quesadilla, she said it was from a “Secret Santa.”

We watched with animated anticipation as to how they would react. A couple sitting at the next table also ordered the quesadilla, so we were feeling rather confident that we had made a good choice. One woman didn't touch it, the other examined it rather like a surgeon, peeling back the tortilla to peer at the filling. The gentleman announced that he was allergic to shrimp. Byron quickly swooped in, offering to exchange the quesadilla for something they could all enjoy, but the modest guests refused to look the gift app in the mouth.

This seemed a good opportunity to let Secret Santa remain secret, and let this random app fall through the cracks, but the wine had killed our poker faces, and they quickly realized that indeed it was us who sent the appetizer. We apologized for trying to kill them and they sent us a round of drinks. Our new friends work downtown together at Tello’s, a clothing store. The woman who did not want to eat was saving her appetite for the dinner her sons were preparing at home. God bless anybody who can get teenagers to cook for them!

David and I decided to order a quesadilla for ourselves – with chicken – to help wash down our next round of wine. The chicken was spicy from the melted pepper jack cheese. The quesadilla with thick and crunchy with a drizzle of sour cream on top and a fresh pico de gallo and guacamole on the side. A well executed, classic bar dish.

Some hours later, slightly high from the wine and the experience, we walked out into the chilly evening air. Snow had just begun to fall, and as we noticed the crowds swelling around the Boston Common, we realized we were just in time for the fireworks – a splendid display to cap off our evening.

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