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uhockey reviews Boston 06/03-06/07 - Craigie, Neptune, O-ya, L'Espalier, ICOB, Mistral, No 9 Park, and lots more.

First of all, thanks to all the great Boston hounds for their recommendations. As usual this site proves to be an invaluable resource for traveling well, dining well, and meeting fantastic people.

These reviews are my thoughts - I'm not a "pro," just a guy who likes to write and loves to eat. The blog is a hobby and my posts both there and here are intended only to help others enjoy similar great experiences (or to avoid the rare disaster.)

Reviews will be slow in coming as I tend to be wordy/thorough and also have to work. C'est la vie.

http://uhockey.blogspot.com

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  1. For my first post, a roundup of all the ancillary eats on the trip.

    Stops included: Modern Pastry Shop, Mike's Pastry, Japonaise, South End Buttery, Flour, LA Burdick, Galleria Umberto, Pizzeria Regina, Mixx, JP Licks, Toscanini's.

    Full text below, pictures in the blog.

    http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2011/06/b...

    Prior to early 2011 it seemed as though Boston would never quite top my ever growing list of places to visit; an incredibly historic city with a culture quite unlike any other it was a place I knew I wanted to see someday, but one way or another it never quite achieved “destination” status until my profession made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – the 2011 Endocrine Society Conference at the Boston Convention Center. With CME as the backdrop and literally hundreds of lectures distributed across the four day conference I knew the days would be long and full of education and networking, but seeing as how the conference did not see fit to serve meals (meals I’d have avoided anyhow) I also knew that this would prove a great opportunity to explore Boston’s culinary scene; and with the conference/travel/hotel paid for well in advance and nearly six months to plan explore I did with 12 restaurant meals and 11 experiences I’d qualify as “ancillary eats” in between.

    Beginning first with my snacks, the list spread over the course of five days and included destinations ranging from Cambridge to the South End, pastries of American, French, Japanese, and Italian heritage, ice cream and “Fro-Yo” both, hot chocolate, plus the North End’s elder statesmen of both pizza and arancini – to say the least I cast my net wide and with the added benefit of a local tour guide for my first day the only thing holding me back was stomach capacity, something I thankfully have a lot of.

    Beginning first with the pastries, my very first taste of Boston was not a cream pie or a lobster tail, but rather something more rustic from the ironically named Modern Pastry Shop, a full-service cash-only family owned Italian bakery just down Hanover Street from the more famous Mike’s Pastry. Strongly recommended by national publications and respected palates alike it was with good fortune that I arrived mere moments after they opened their doors and with shelves fully stocked I asked the pleasant young clerk what she recommended – an question to which I received nearly a bakers dozen suggestions from her and one overwhelming suggestion for the Sfogliatella from an elderly couple sitting down to enjoy their pastries with coffee and a newspaper Knowing at this point that my first day in town would entail no less than eight stops (it actually turned out to be nine) culminating with a ten-course tasting at Craigie on Main I decided the better part of valor was to heed my elders advice in addition to the two standards by which I judge an Italian bakery.

    With my selections boxed and bowed despite the fact that I ordered my options to dine-in I parked myself at a seat nearest the window and while the world walked by dressed in Bruins Yellow and Black I indulged, first on an authentic filled to order Sicilian Cannoli. True to form and filled just prior to service as they are in Italy my bite was greeted with an excellent crack as the buttery pastry gave way to sweet, slightly textural, and entirely delicious ricotta filling. Not to be outdone, my second selection was a traditional Italian Baba highly recommended by the clerk. Opting for the vanilla custard filled version with a cherry on top this dish was the antithesis to the sweet and crunchy cannoli with the light sponge heavily laden with rum and Strega providing a boozy herbal tone mellowed by the sweet cream. To put it lightly both options, the options by which I judge the quality of an Italian bakery, were textbook.

    Moving next to the sfogliatella I really didn’t know what to expect; sure I’d heard of the Neapolitan classic but in all honesty I’m not sure I’d ever even seen one in person let alone tasted one. Served warm and appearing somewhat akin to a croissant but at least thrice as dense this traditional Italian pastry was indeed layered and flaky, but what was inside was quite unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. Reportedly made with “yellow cream” and semolina and featuring a mouth-feel somewhere between mascarpone and ricotta with hints of lemon, orange, and cinnamon this nicely nuance treat was surprisingly light on the stomach despite its considerable heft and additionally – well – it was fantastic, just like everything at Modern Pastry Shop and well deserving of the glowing recommendations.

    Having already mentioned Modern’s more famous competition, Mike’s Pastry, another morning would see me visit this North End favorite in a state of flux. Having heard of slightly rude service dissuading some while slightly stale pastries turned off others my plan was to arrive early – before the crowds had time to wear on the staff and while all was fresh – and while the latter was a success the customer service aspect was foiled by a pair of issues, namely a broken air conditioner and the city of Boston jack hammering the sidewalk out front in order to pour a new one (apparently unannounced to the owners.) With the service prompt yet gruff as the owners and clerks wondered aloud how anyone was even going to be able to see they were open let alone enter the shop once the pouring began my order was placed quickly and $17 later I was seated at the table enjoying breakfast with more treats for later boxed to go.

    Having already noted my standards two of my selections were no surprise to anyone – the first a Rhum baba nearly 1.5x the size of that at Modern and while equally flawless in texture and creamy balance so boozy that I’d be surprised if it contained less than a shot and a half of rum in addition to the Strega – to be fair it was delicious and quite similar to some of the best I had in France, but at the same time it likely would have been better served after 8am. In addition to the Baba, my other breakfast choice was something novel – a delicacy titled “Boston Bocconotti,” essentially a cream puff masquerading as a Boston Cream pie…or perhaps a portable Boston Cream pie – but either way a lovely balance of sweet vanilla cream housed in a crunchy pate a choux style shell and dipped in semisweet chocolate with a white chocolate drizzle.

    Turning toward my second standard bearer, and certainly Mike’s most famous item, I must say that with more than a dozen options there was no way I could simply select one Cannoli and in the end I opted for three. Well aware of the fact that Mike’s Cannoli’s were pre-filled as opposed to the a la minute style served at Modern my expectations were appropriately tempered – especially as I waited nearly 2 hours after ordering to enjoy mine – but in the end I came away duly impressed both by the flavors and the textures which, while not as crisp as Modern, were still better than 95% of my previous cannoli experiences. With my choices including chocolate cream dipped in chocolate chip, ricotta with hazelnut, and peanut butter mascarpone I will note that given the wetness of ricotta this was certainly the least crisp of the trio and for those looking for a traditional cannoli (with ricotta) the better choice would certainly be Modern – but for those looking for more interesting options you could do a whole lot worse than Mike’s – especially if you arrive early enough to skip the line.

    Another pastry stop (actually two) during my 110 hours in Boston would be to Japonaise – first the location on Beacon and subsequently the spot on Commonwealth when the first was sold out of our desired items. Having heard great things about both their Almond Croissant and Azuki Cream (and with my dining companions sporting a groupon) our order was straight forward enough with 2 croissants and 4 creams packed and ready within minutes by a pleasant young Californian looking girl…selling largely French pastries…with a Japanese touch.

    Beginning first with the croissant – according to some the best Almond version in Boston – all I can say is “really?” Perhaps it was our timing (around 3pm and not eaten until nearly 6pm) or perhaps I was spoiled by my recent trip to Paris, but whatever the reason I was simply unimpressed. With the exterior appropriately crisp and buttery, the “almond butter cream” interior was more like a wet layer of artificially flavored paste that although sweet and tasty enough entirely bogged down the pastry. Fairing better, perhaps due to lesser experience and expectation, was the Azuki Cream – another flaky croissant-style creation this time filled with mashed sweetened red beans and whipped cream. Again quite hefty with the filling – in this case expectedly – weighing down the pastry I actually really enjoyed the savory aspects of this creation and particularly the way the slightly coarse texture married with the impressively light cream.

    Continuing on the topic of bakeries and staying on the South End one of my morning stops en route to the conference would lead me by South End Buttery, a spot I’d noted on my morning run the day prior and on review of their website later that day seemed well worth the visit., especially given the early opening hours, focus on “organic, all natural, locally raised and grown ingredients as much as possible” and coffee from Equator.

    Entering the shop to the sounds of Radiohead’s “The Bends” and the smells of cinnamon, vanilla, and coffee this was the first bakery of the trip that smelled (to me) like a bakery and although decidedly hipster and aloof, the clerks proved quite helpful and pleasant in gathering my selections, bagging them up, and at the same time putting together a variety of espressos and foamy coffees for other patrons. With the bill paid and a long walk ahead of me a quick stop for pictures was requisite and afterwards I ate some while I walked and saved the rest for later – nothing like an Endocrinologist enjoying a butterscotch scone during a lecture on inpatient blood glucose management – and a superlative scone it was dense and biscuit-like without being dry and absolutely loaded with pockets of butter juxtaposing toothache inducing pools of caramelized butterscotch.

    Not to be outdone by the scone, additional options from South End included a dense and moist Sweet Potato Walnut Blondie with hints of cinnamon and vanilla plus just the right amount of sweetness, an almond croissant that was a bit too doughy on the interior but nicely Frangipane nuanced and perfectly golden on the exterior, and finally the best Pecan Sticky Bun I’ve had in quite some time – still slightly warm and gooey in some areas while crunchy and caramelized in others with ample notes of butter and pecan throughout.

    For my final pastries of Bean Town I eschewed the detractors and my own feelings about multi-store “chains” and given its close proximity to the conference center opted to visit Flour Bakery and Café on Farnsworth near the Children’s Museum. Again arriving shortly after the doors opened on a Saturday my first impression of Flour was that it felt corporate – like a regional Panera with its polished fast paced service and seats filled with both families and business folk alike. With this idea noted, my next impressions were of the goods themselves as I stood aside assessing the options while patron after patron moved with the ebb and flow of the line.

    With selections made and coffee poured, a somewhat astringent fair trade blend I wouldn’t particularly recommend, I found a seat and began first with my traditional choice – an Almond Croissant that would turn out to be not only the most authentic I’d taste in Boston, but also the best with a golden shell that shattered on mastication and a fluffy interior lightly sweetened and subtly kissed with Frangipane. While perhaps not as good as the “average” in Paris, this warm bite was amongst the five best I’ve had to date in the United States, though admittedly the fact that it had just emerged from the oven may have had something to do with that.

    For my other options, one eaten en route back to the center and the other eaten during a lecture later, I selected Flour’s much revered “weekend only” sticky bun and a hefty chunk of their admittedly unattractive Chocolate banana bread pudding. Beginning first with the sticky bun – my best advice would be to get extra napkins and a fork if you’re going to go at it warm. Dense, soft, and buried under a mountain of salty caramel and crunchy walnuts the most impressive characteristic was actually that something so sweet could also be subtle with yeasty notes balancing the butter and the toasty walnuts preventing the caramel from being cloying.

    With the first two options so good it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to the bread pudding – my favorite style of dessert – but unfortunately it would be a bit of a letdown. Bearing in mind that this particular iteration was pre-made and served cold when I generally prefer my bread pudding hot from the oven, the biggest issue in my disappointment was actually that the chocolate was too dark for the quality of the bananas and the bread too absorbent for the amount of cream – in other words, I might as well have been eating a dense chocolate cake as opposed to bread pudding made with chocolate and bananas. Now, keep in mind that for a chocolate cake this was a pretty darned good one – it just wasn’t what I expected when I ordered bread pudding.

    Moving past bakeries – at least to an extent – another famous space to make my not-so-short-list in Boston was LA Burdick, largely for their renowned hot chocolate, but also for what a friend told me was the best Cannele he’d experienced outside of Europe. Featuring what they describe to be only the best imported and local ingredients and located not far from Harvard’s campus in Cambridge my senses were ignited the moment I entered the door – wall to wall chocolates and candies, dark woods and subtle music, and a friendly young man offering me a delightful fig and port-wine chocolate. Already contented a mere minute in the door I proceeded to browse the myriad selections before progressing to the back of the store where I was again greeted warmly and after a few moments decision (alas, the single source hot chocolates cannot be ordered as a single-shot tasting) I took a seat and waited for my selections to arrive.

    Beginning first with the pastry, an authentic Cannelé Bordelais prepared in a traditional beeswax pan, the texture was spot on with the exterior caramelized and crunchy and the interior lightly tinged with rum, vanilla, and what seemed to be a light note of lavender. A tad pricey at $2 I will note that although excellent they were not the best I’ve had stateside – but a top five contender to be sure. Moving on to the main event and unable to settle on a single choice, my hot chocolate selections included one demi service of Dark with a dusting of vanilla and one of White with a touch of nutmeg – both exceedingly decadent, rich, and complex – both the pure essence of their respective chocolates blended with rich steamed milk – and both rivaling the best hot chocolates I’ve tasted both in America and at Jacques Genin in Paris.

    With sweets well covered both by the bakeries and a variety of desserts during proper breakfasts, lunches, and dinners another focus of my visit to the North End was Italian savories from two of Boston’s most storied locales, Galleria Umberto and the original Regina Pizzeria. Beginning first, as I did, with Galleria Umberto – to say there are few places like this left in the United States is an understatement and to be completely honest, if you aren’t looking for it there is a fairly good chance you’ll walk right past it without even knowing it is there…and that would be a damned shame.

    Deceptively large given it’s demure exterior, Galleria Umberto seems the sort of place that could have existed in 1911 the same way it exists in 2011 (minus the Pepsi cooler) and with doors opening “around 11:00am” (actually 10:40 on the day I visited) there is no doubt this is a spot for the locals as a small line formed within minutes and everyone in line was not only older than fifty, but also a known friend of the clerks. Assuming my place perhaps ten deep in the line and listening to the chatter both in front of and behind me it seemed the “can’t miss” items consisted of the Pizza, the Panzarotti, and the Arancini (already recommended to me by many others despite my overall distaste for beef) but on reaching the front of the line and seeing the considerable size of each option I decided the better part of valor was to select two and with the modest tab paid ($4.56 cash) I took a seat with nearly a pound of food on a silver tray.

    Seated amongst the hustle and bustle of the line soon snaking out the door my first bite was the pizza and unfortunately it was precisely what I expected – a doughy Sicilian style pie with slightly burnt cheese and admittedly nicely flavored sauce. While certainly better than the pie at L&B in Brooklyn, it was almost immediately that I wished I’d opted for the Panzarotti instead – it turns out that save for DiFara’s I’m just not a Sicilian style guy. Moving next to the Arancini, a golden orb approximately the size of a tennis ball, it was then that I realized why Umberto garnered so much hype amongst “foodies” – this was dirt cheap street food done well. Part creamy rice, part creamy cheese, a small pocket of nicely seasoned ground beef, and unexpected green peas lending some sweetness – entirely excellent and a great appetizer for what would follow at Regina.

    Admitting my gluttony, the meal following my “appetizer” at Umberto would itself serve as an appetizer to lunch at Neptune Oyster, but now traveling with two Bostonian guides my visit to Pizzeria Regina would allow greater sampling; always a plus when it comes to pizza. Arriving earlier than my dining partners and browsing the premises of the establishment that proudly wears its 1926 origins on its sleeve I had to admit it was bigger than I expected, but the hustle and bustle was precisely as billed with patrons entering or exiting nearly every minute. Sitting on a bench while I waited I was grateful to hear the wait was short (“5 minutes for a table, go park the car” in a perfect Boston accent that tickled me greatly) and when my colleagues arrived the wait was zero and we were seated immediately.

    With the Bruins the hot topic of the day at many of the tables around us and the restaurant seemingly full of locals as opposed to tourists it was no time before a waitress, abrupt but pleasant enough, dropped off menus and took our orders for drinks – water for myself and cola plus tea for the others – and after a moment of browsing decisions were made to order two pizzas, one plus a single ingredient and the other minus two ingredients (yet we were charged more for it than the loaded as they refused to simply take ingredients off and instead charged the price for a plain plus the desired toppings.

    )

    Having noted the rather old-school style of service I will note that water remained full throughout the meal and although smiles and pleasantries did not abound, I certainly didn’t find the service any worse than expected for a bustling pizza parlor and within twenty minutes our two pies landed on the table hot and bubbling – the first a combination of Mushrooms, Onions, and Green Peppers over top a thin (requested “well done”) crust with plenty of crunch, spicy tomato sauce, and briny mozzarella. While certainly not my style with the onions and peppers the slice I did try was quite good and I particularly enjoyed the crust – crispier than New York style, yet appropriately yeasty.

    For the other pizza my choice was the Fior Di latte Pomodoro with added Artichoke hearts and although I really wish I’d have asked for my crust well done, the toppings and balance of mild Fior de Latte with fresh torn basil and sliced tomatoes in addition to the sauce was tremendous, particularly in areas where the cow’s milk mozzarella pooled to form creamy pockets only serving to highlight the quality of the toppings. Was it the best pizza I ever had – certainly not, but it was quite good and I imagine that had I ordered the Pomodoro with a well done crust it could’ve been stellar.

    Rounding out the supplementary bites of Boston were three frozen treats – one a frozen yogurt shop recommended by my dining partners from Regina and the others Boston institutions. Beginning first with the Fro-yo, I have to admit that in general it is not my go-to, but when I was told of this locations Japanese spin including fruit and yogurt “caviar” I was intrigued and the location en route to Japonaise was quite convenient.

    With the store largely unadorned save for tables, soft serve machines, and a long bar of toppings near the register and featuring a pump-it-yourself 40-cents an ounce selection of ten rotating flavors there really is not much to say about the store itself and the attitude of the attendant was slightly warmer than the fro-yo; but with that said, the flavors that Mixx is turning out are actually quite impressive and although I found the texture to be a tad more “icy” and less creamy than that of Pinkberry, my small sampling of tangy cheesecake and smooth and slightly savory Taro topped with yogurt “caviar” bubbles was well worth the per ounce price.

    A second frosty dessert in Boston would be provided by local chain JP Licks, specifically the location on Newbury as I made my way towards Fenway for the Sox and A’s. With the line surprisingly short despite the warm weather and droves of teens shopping the surrounding stores it was with great delight first of all that the soundtrack was sporting Interpol, and second that the young lady behind the counter was generous with the samples. Having already noted my fondness for ice cream over frozen yogurt I will note that amongst my favorite bites was a creamy peanut butter soft serve, a tangy margarita sorbet, and fresh banana oreo – plus the two flavors I ended up ordering; Myer’s Rum Raisin and Maple Butter Walnut – the first intense and boozy and the second smooth and sweet. While admittedly not the creamiest or subtle ice creams on the planet – as a matter of fact, their overall degree of sweetness is amongst the most intense I’ve ever tasted – I really liked the uniqueness of these two options and the service was nearly as sweet as the product.

    Rounding out the list – perhaps Boston’s most famous location for ice cream and a spot the New York Times once named “the best ice cream in the world,” I knew a visit to Toscanini’s was requisite for the trip and thankfully a dinner at Craigie on Main provided the opportunity by placing me literally right next door. With the line out the door both when I arrived at Craigie and when I left nearly two and a half hours later the expectations were high and thankfully they were met.

    Having already noted the space to be full by simply walking past, the thing that struck me next was how large the space was when I finally made it in the door – never before had I seen an ice cream parlor stating a maximum capacity of over 100 patrons, let alone one so full. With plenty of time to browse the big board and pleasant servers abound my tastes for this evening included the mildly bitter Earl Grey and (obviously) Buckeye – both lovely and spot on to their namesake flavors – plus my eventual decision of a $4.50 small bowl with one half filled with Burnt Caramel and the other half featuring Grape Nut Raisin.

    Beginning first with the Grape Nut – all I can say is you have to taste it to believe it. Somewhere between Humphry Slocombe’s Secret Breakfast and Momofuku Milk Bar’s Cereal Milk in flavor and the very essence of Grape Nut’s cereal left to sit in heavy cream too long this was exactly my style of ice cream – not too sweet, nicely nuanced, and entirely unique. Equally unique, my second choice of Burnt Caramel would represent an ice cream so famous that a magazine article posted on the wall told of its accidental creation and although a bit over the top in sweetness I definitely understood the hype as the gelato-dense concoction was a perfect recreation of the flavor imparted to crème brulee by the torch – if I were to return I’d definitely consider pairing it with a fruit sorbet as I can only imagine this would be heavenly.

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    Neptune Oyster
    63 Salem St Ste 1, Boston, MA 02113

    Mike's Pastry
    300 Hanover St, Boston, MA

    Modern Pastry
    257 Hanover St, Boston, MA

    Burdick's
    Cambridge, MA, Cambridge, MA

    South End Buttery
    314 Shawmut Avenue, Boston, MA 02118

    Flour Bakery + Cafe
    12 Farnsworth St, Boston, MA

    Craigie on Main
    853 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02139

    9 Replies
    1. re: uhockey

      Given how many visitors solicit free advice here and don't demonstrate the courtesy of the most cursory follow-up, it seems quite ungracious to complain about your very detailed report here. Thanks for taking the extraordinary effort!

      But given the occasion of your visit was the Endocrine Society Conference, I fully expect to see sweetbreads, tripe, kidneys, marrow, Rocky Mountain oysters, and/or some kind of livers among your follow-up posts.

      http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

      1. re: MC Slim JB

        ....no kidneys, Rino's tripe was boss, I prefer my oysters from the sea, and the fatty liver of a duck will make many appearances. :-)

        Your reviews and blog were quite helpful in planning, fyi - so thanks for that.

        http://uhockey.blogspot.com

      2. re: uhockey

        You already put me in a virtual food coma, and these were just the snacks? A wonderful read. Looking forward to the savoury after I burn off some of these virtual calories and take a nap!

        1. re: uhockey

          Such a great thread.

          If you don't mind my asking, what is the deal about beef? You just don't like it?

          And also, wine? You are treatin yourself to these amazing meals and don't do wine ever? Not even a glass?

          Thanks again! I'm going to Le Comptoir in Paris tomorrow and your reviews have inspired me to write up a detailed report.

          1. re: tamerlanenj

            With regard to wine - I don't know, its just something I've never gotten into. I'll drink a bit of rose or a sweet dessert wine from time to time, but it is nothing I generally opt to order. With that noted, if someplace offers a unique cocktail I'll occasionally order one - I did at L'Espalier.

            Regarding beef my feeling is that if it is included in a long tasting menu - say a single bite of Wagyu or a truly unique cut like the 60 day aged Wagyu Strip I had at Roberta's in Brooklyn - then that is fine, but in general "beef is beef" to me no matter how you dress it up and if I'm only getting 5-6 courses in a tasting I'd MUCH rather substitute something interesting.

            Have fun at Le Comptoir - it didn't make our list when we went in April, but that didn't stop us from racking up 26 Michelin Stars in 9 days. :-)

            http://uhockey.blogspot.com

            -----
            L'Espalier
            774 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02199

            1. re: tamerlanenj

              If you have a party of three, the Le Comptoir's best table is a three top in the window.

              1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                Who asked you?

                :-)

                Hope all is well - and, I'm pretty sure it was you who recommended O-Ya, so thanks for that!

                http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                1. re: uhockey

                  Let me know where you will be working,
                  S

                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                    Still up in the air - sent you an e-mail yesterday though. Hope all is well.

                    http://uhockey.blogspot.com

          2. I also enjoyed hearing about his trip; if it was too long for some people they can always skim it. Just a note about Mikes Pastry you can always get the plain filled to order which in my opinion is the only way to go. I also like Maria's pastry on the edge of the northend and the greenway

            1 Reply
            1. Neptune Oyster:

              Full review in blog, text below:

              http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2011/06/n...

              I’m just going to come right out and say it – the hour plus wait at Neptune Oyster (even at lunch) did not make a whole lot of sense to me. Sure the oft raved restaurant has a fanciful location in the touristy North End, sure the seafood is fresh and somewhat uniquely presented, and without a doubt the place is too small for its popularity – but really, is it THAT much better than the rest of Boston’s oyster bars and purveyors of fresh seafood? Well, for my first true sit-down meal in Boston that is exactly what I aimed to find out and joined by two locals who had been there a number of times I can only say I’m glad we had appetizer pizzas at Regina before braving the nearly 80 minute out the door line.

              Owned and operated by Jeff Nance and featuring a mere 44 seats including the raw bar my first impression on entering Neptune was probably the first impression everyone has – sardines – as in “packed in there like sardines;” to say the least this place is a tight squeeze. With that consideration noted, my second thought on walking past each diner en route to our table was “that looks good – that too – oh, and what is that;” in other words, the product they are putting on the table looks outstanding even from afar and the restaurant smells nothing like an “oyster shack” but rather like the upscale bistro that it is – a bistro of bivalves if you will.

              With the paper menu already perused during our long wait it would be a short time before our server, a pleasant young man with an astounding knowledge of the myriad types of raw oysters and other seafood combinations on the menu, would arrive at our table with glasses of ice water. Not an enormous fan of raw oysters myself but pleasantly seated with a direct view into the kitchen I listened as the province, flavor profile, and texture of each oyster was described and within moments one of my co-diners had selected a half dozen that would arrive shucked on ice and by then the rest of our order was decided and we were left with perhaps a twenty minute wait during which beverages never reached less than 1/3 empty.

              Noting already that service was extraordinary throughout our meal, I will note that the small kitchen’s pacing was unfortunately less so – an issue for myself particularly as I ordered a warm appetizer and warm main course with both delivered simultaneously leading to a conundrum as to which would suffer from the air conditioner blowing directly over our heads. While our server noted that this “shouldn’t have happened” even as he delivered the food and tried to make up for it by granting our request for a sample of the a la minute clam chowder it unfortunately did happen and the thin milky lacking both salinity and texture really did not make up for a lukewarm $25 main course.

              With my co-diners having already visited Neptune a number of times in the past one of them decided to try something new while the other opted for his tried and true; the first a Vitello Tonnato sandwich with roasted veal, tuna tartare, cucumber salad, and spicy wasabi mustard and the second a plate of seared Georges Bank Scallops with Braised Pork Shank, Sienna Farms Root Vegetables, Brussels Sprouts, and Chanterelles. Graciously allowed to taste a couple bites of each I’ll note that despite my feelings about veal/beef in general, the Vitello was actually much more like a creamy and subtle tuna tartare sandwich than veal – as a matter of fact, if anything the veal mostly served to make the standard tuna seem more textural and fatty; toro-esque if you will and while I personally feel a heftier bread would have helped, it was still quite good. Moving on to the scallops – they were almost so good that they made me regret my order as the caramelized scallops married perfectly with the slightly sweet pork while the root vegetable and chanterelle combination did likewise with the caramelized Brussels.

              For my selections, save for the timing issue alluded to above, the flavors at Neptune Oyster remained spot on for both appetizer and main course – the first, the house special Neptunes on Piggyback. Described as “Crispy Oysters, Berkshire Pig, Golden Raisin Confiture, Pistachio Aioli” and served beneath greens and atop toast these lovely plump oysters arrived perfectly crisp on the exterior and briny and sweet within. Paired with the tasty shredded pork beneath, sweet raisins, and a splash of acid from the aioli I personally could have done with more oyster and less bread considering the price, but all things being equal this was a surf n’ turf combination done quite right.

              For my main course – well, I simply couldn’t resist the hype; especially after we’d waited for so long and it seemed everyone in the place was ordering one. Described simply as “Maine Lobster Roll with toasted roll, hot with butter, fries” and checking in at $25 all I can say is that the parts I was able to eat hot were everything you’d expect from hot buttered lobster – no more and no less. Ample in portion and with the bread nearly saturated with butter while still holding its form I only wish more places in Boston served their lobster rolls in the manner as opposed to cold with Mayonnaise. Was it worth $25? Probably not, especially as I was not wowed by the fries – but it was quite tasty and prepared perfectly with a great meat to bun ratio and plenty of butter.

              With the check divided and paid our exit from Neptune would be almost precisely one hour after we entered the door and even then the wait time for those leaving their name at the door remained “an hour to an hour and a half” and all things being equal I’d say the experience and food was worth the wait at least once – but looking back in retrospect on my trip if I were a local I’d probably not return anytime soon unless I lived in the neighborhood given the quality, size, convenience, and reservations system of their new competition near Fenway – Island Creek Oyster Bar.

              -----
              Neptune Oyster
              63 Salem St Ste 1, Boston, MA 02113

              5 Replies
              1. re: uhockey

                terrific descriptions, mike. this will be so helpful in guiding other visitors. I must say, I was so surprised at the flavor choices you made at JPLicks, because the maple walnut and rum raisin are my 2 personal favs(maybe i wrote about them in some previous long-ago post that your photographic memory scooped up?!)

                your Mike's Pastry comments were particularly helpful because i have been, i guess, wrongly deriding them 100% over the years, yet it seems there are a few good items.
                And now I'll have to visit the South End Buttery. That's great that you did make it to Rino's and I'll look forw to hearing more about it.

                Thanks again for taking the time for the detailed report; you certainly saved me the time it would take to report on those Fri. experiences and your bec fin always makes for a pleasurable and educative commentary!

                1. re: opinionatedchef

                  Rino's was the deal of the century - it is an absolute must for those who can make it during lunch when they're not crazy busy. This means you! :-)

                  Thanks for showing me around and for all your helpful posts here on the Boston board!

                  http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                  1. re: uhockey

                    mike, once i know what to order other than tripe (NOT) we will be heading over, so do tell us.

                2. re: uhockey

                  Thanks for the great reports! Looking forward to reading the rest. The lines at Neptune seem to be getting longer. We haven't been for over a year due to this reason alone, and that one can reserve at icob. I do feel neptune is better overall, but I just don't think it's worth the wait anymore.

                  Re: regina: I always think that with the pizzas there, 'less is more'. I've been underwhelmed whenever guests have insisted on having multi-topping pizzas which often make the dough a bit soggy, but the simple ones are great.

                  tb

                  1. re: uhockey

                    funny, haven't been to neptune since icob opened....

                  2. Craigie on Main:

                    Full text below, photos in the blog:

                    http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2011/06/c...

                    Walking in to Craigie on Main I must admit I was hesitant; as a matter of fact, for the sake of full disclosure I’ll note that until Chef Tony Maws won the Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast one month earlier I’d been ignoring suggestions to add Craigie to my agenda largely because the menu simply seemed too much like everything else trendy out there these days – offal this, local-regional that, and nose-to-tail porkcentricity. Rarely one to question trusted palates in the cities I visit it was in fact the Beard Award (and particularly who he beat out) that forced me to reconsider my decision and after a week or so of watching the restaurant’s social media feed I decided to give it a go – a quick e-mail to the restaurant assured me that the tasting menu could be ordered by a solo, that they’d avoid a main course of beef or veal, and that a printed copy of the menu could certainly be made available at the meals end; with a full day of sightseeing already scheduled I opted for 7pm and I arrived right on cue.

                    Greeted at the door by two young ladies, including one I could only assume to be the dining room manager as I later saw her doing everything from delivering plates to taking orders to hanging coats as the place got increasingly more busy, my reservation was confirmed and my bags checked before I was led to a nice (but poorly lit as the sun went down) two-top along the wall. With the room mostly heavy woods and brick plus some off white wallpaper juxtaposing the white tablecloths and quality service ware I actually liked the feel of Craigie save for one thing – the music which when combined with the open kitchen and room full of graduates, families, and parties was one of the loudest I’ve ever experienced.

                    Seated for approximately 5 minutes before Joseph, my captain for the evening, would arrive my water was filled (and kept nearly filled to the brim throughout) and a menu was delivered by a young woman. With the menu divided into a la carte options, a six course, and a ten course I asked a few questions (largely to make sure that the main course was not beef and that a copy could be provided) and Joseph explained to me that the way the ten course worked was he would ask if there was anything I really liked and/or didn’t want and the chef would craft it from there; thinking this sounded ideal and noting my likes and dislikes I opted for the ten course and things were underway. With the two-top next to me notably requesting the six course (hard not to eavesdrop when everyone is yelling over the din of the room) and the table of six to my left opting for the ten course I will note that although the restaurant was busy service was quite good throughout and descriptions of each dish were detailed – but save for a couple of items it really didn’t seem like the tasting was tailored at all.

                    Eschewing the custom of amuses and canapés first (more on this later) my meal would begin with cold bread and colder butter to go with my water. Arriving in a basket theoretically covered with a towel to retain heat, the chilly collection of carbohydrates consisted of two pieces each of sourdough, demi-baguette, and cereal bread – all decent, the cereal bordering on good, but none memorable and all done a disservice by the mundane unsalted butter.

                    For my first course of the night (little did I know that at Craigie the “ten course” is actually only seven courses as they count the palate cleanser, sorbet, and amuse as part of the tasting) the item listed as the “amuse” on my later printed menu was noted as Three Seafood Preparations: Tartare of Citrus Cured Halibut with Sea Trout Roe, Squid Noodles with Nuac Cham Vinaigrette and Crispy Garlic, and Smoked Sablefish Rillettes with Hackleback Caviar. Served as three single bites in a sectioned porcelain dish and progressing left to right in terms of complexity and depth of flavor I will note that each taste was flavorful and interesting, particularly the squid, but none were anything new or novel and the singular theme of fish and brine did not really do much to prime the palate for other tastes or textures.

                    Arriving literally on the heels of my amuse, the second course was listed on my printed menu to be Yellowfin Tuna, but from my pictures, notes, and memory the Salad of Scallop Sashimi with Pickled Mango and Red Onion Salad, Avocado-Lovage Puree was certainly not tuna – nor was the it for either of the tables neighboring mine. Again no more than a bite in terms of overall size, this second course was certainly more interesting than the amuses with the flawless mollusk sliced linearly into two creamy rounds and paired delicately with soured mangos and sweetened onions. Texturally complex and utilizing the lovage’s bitter qualities to touch all parts of the palate this was a dish designed to be an amuse both in size and in scope.

                    At this point keeping pace with the surrounding tables receiving the same dishes, course three would feature Line-Caught Striped Bass with Iraqi Beet Stew, Fresh Florida Rock Shrimp and Farro Verde and upping the ante both in size and in flavor this course was a knockout. Beginning first with the bass; the flesh tender and moist due to olive oil poaching and the skin crispy from a kiss of the pan I can sincerely say it was perfect – one of the best slices of bass I’ve ever had. Paired with sweet shrimp, smoky cubed beets, and a locally sourced toothsome green spelt this would prove to be my second favorite savory of the night.

                    Plate number four would be the only place where my tasting differed from the six course to my right and one of two places where it would diverge from those to my left (yes, that means the “six course” turned out to be 9 of the 10 I received as part of the ten course – though I will say the couple was celebrating an anniversary and were clearly known to the house.) With the table to the right lingering over the bass and that to my left receiving a whole family style hamachi collar to share, my plate would include Crispy Tempura of Soft-Shelled Crab with House made Cole Slaw, Preserved Lemon, Pickled Peppers, and Squid Ink Anchoiade – a dish I see has subsequently been added to the a la carte menu. With the soft-shell nicely prepared in panko but relatively par for season and the amalgam of slaw, lemon, and peppers tasty but rather benign the high point of this dish for myself was actually the black anchoiade with the potent flavors of anchovies and garlic serving a nice foil to the sweetness of the crab.

                    Described as “the pasta course,” dish five included the House Made Rye Flour Straccetti paired with a Ragout of Ham, Peekytoe Crab, and Mousseron Mushroom, but in all reality it might as well have been described as “wet noodles with ham puree” because that was truly all you could taste and although it tasted fine, I’d have much preferred something a little more subtle, or perhaps just an order of the rigatoni with chicken confit and chicken liver mousse from the a la carte.

                    My sixth item of the tasting menu would be a successful venture into the seemingly decreased number of offal courses compared to previous menus and although the couple to my right sent more than half back because they did not enjoy the texture, I personally found the Braised Veal Sweetbreads with Hom Shimeji Mushroom, Bok Choy, Hakurei Turnip, Ramp Kimchee and Almond Butter to be the most successful course of the evening. Delicate, creamy, and approximately the size of a jumbo egg with a nicely crisped exterior the gland itself needs no further description – it was applause worthy. What made this plate so successful from my vantage, however, was the Asian theme imparted by fibrous mushrooms, melting bok choy, and an interesting turnip something like a water chestnut bathed in a broth both sweet and savory, smooth and acidic all at the same time – the best use of the night’s bread service was actually mopping this plate clean.

                    For my final savory, myself now one course ahead of the table of six who was enjoying another shared course of chicken in place of the sweetbreads, course seven would be Vermont Pork Three Ways with Spice Crusted Rib, Grilled Belly, and Morcilla with Sorrel Coulis, Pea Tendrils, Radish, and Grilled Ramps. Large in portion and more so in flavor with protein plated to the left and vegetables to the right this is one situation where I can say the vegetables save for the tasty crispy ramps were extraneous save for visual contrast and appeal; the star here was invariably the swine and each of the three presentations (literally) brought something different to the plate. Beginning first with the rib – smoky, rich, and fibrous, next the belly – crisp skin and fatty supple flesh, finally the blood sausage – bold, heterogeneous, and full of spice – it is no wonder Maws’ kitchen is decorated entirely in shapes of the pig, he clearly has a great love for it and understands its preparation thoroughly.

                    Still somewhat perplexed by course six (little did I know the amuses were included actually making the pork course seven) being announced as my “final savory” in a ten course progression, my next dish featured Pink Grapefruit Campari Sorbet and Champagne Foam – a bitter little bite I could have certainly done without, and all the more frustrating when I realized this palate cleanser was actually course eight.

                    “For your dessert course – Bourbon Pecan Ice Cream Tart with Sea Salt, Smoked Mexican Chocolate Sauce and Bacon Pecan Crust” said my server mere moments on the heels of the sorbet and with that I was offered coffee (declined) and left to enjoy what would actually be a pretty remarkable dessert. Served essentially as a long thin sliver of buttery boozed up ice cream studded with candied pecans atop a savory crust and beneath a ribbon of salty chocolate ganache the tart itself was great but what really put it over the top was a smear and a dollop of chipotle and cinnamon spiced chocolate that added a whole other layer of complexity by bringing the other flavors to an peak on the palate.

                    For my tenth course of the night I was presented a rather innocuous “Greek Yogurt Foam with Red Beet and Blood Orange Granite” – slightly tangy, a bit earthy, and plenty citrus I certainly preferred it to the sorbet. Along with this course my captain would present to my table for only perhaps the third or fourth time of the evening and when he asked me how everything had went I simply stated “it was alright” and when he asked “just alright?” I inquired as to why the six course and ten course were so similar both in length and composition to which he confirmed my suspicion that the table next to me were “friends of the house.”

                    With the room still loud but starting to fade as the hour approached 9:30 the check was delivered along with two small macarons described as “Chocolate Almond Tobacco” and although their dry texture was not ideal the flavor was certainly intriguing. Also delivered with the check was a comment card, something I always take the time to fill out whether good or bad but especially in this case as it came with check-boxes a long note from Chef Maws requesting feedback. Of course, since Joseph had also forgotten to pass along word of my desire for a printed menu I had a good fifteen minutes to fill out the card and as such became rather wordy – mostly praise but also noting that while some dishes shined others disappointed, especially in the setting of a “ten course menu” when four courses could have been served as amuses or palate cleansers rather than proper courses.

                    Having now been up for nearly twenty hours I settled my bill and with menu in hand I made my way to the door where my bags were gathered and within moments I found myself in a cab en route for the South End. Having spent a good portion of the day eating I most certainly was not hungry, but at the same time I also wasn’t terribly satisfied with my visit to Craigie on Main either. Sure some of the courses were good – as a matter of fact, some were excellent – but for $150+ I tend to expect more from a Beard Award winning chef…and when I returned home to Ohio perhaps I found out just what I should have expected and received in the form of an apology and offer from Marjorie Maws stating “…ff course we're upset that you weren't blown away by our food. Here's a possible explanation (but definitely not an excuse.). You came in at a time when there are lots of out of town visitors who are here for one of the many graduations in the area. We learned a few years ago that many of these diners were not as adventurous as our local crowd and so we made the menu a little more "normal" for a couple of weeks. We do, however, still have several "funky" preparations available and our servers are instructed to ask where each party is on the "funk scale." It sounds like that may not have happened in your case and, if that's true, we are terribly sorry. May I offer you a gift certificate for a return visit to Craigie so that you can enjoy our full range of our selections? Again our apologies and we really appreciate your feedback. We can't wait to cook for you again!”

                    I’ll also note that since that visit the online description detailing the “Ultimate Craigie Experience” has been truncated from ten to eight courses while the sample menu itself still lists the same ten courses I received. While I can't say my first visit to Craigie on Main was my best in Boston all things being equal I'd definitely be willing to give anyplace that classy a second chance and on my next visit to the North East I shall.

                    -----
                    Craigie on Main
                    853 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02139

                    11 Replies
                    1. re: uhockey

                      mike, what do you think provided the smoke in the "smoked mexican chocolate sauce"? did it taste smoky? i'm having a hard time imagining the smoking of chocolate; wondering if maybe smoked salt gives it some smokiness.....

                      1. re: opinionatedchef

                        My thought would be, possibly, the addition of some "liquid smoke" or as you said, smoking the sea salt. There was clearly a chipotle type spice in it, as well, which can come off as smoky.

                        http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                        1. re: uhockey

                          If by "liquid smoke" you mean Liquid Smoke, the bottled commercial product, I'm going to say, no way in hell Maws would ever go near that stuff.

                          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                          1. re: MC Slim JB

                            I was thinking of a house made version, actually. I agree that if anything Craigie certainly doesn't seem the sort of place to use a product like that (nor should anyone.)

                            http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                            1. re: MC Slim JB

                              Why? All it is is smoke particulate captured in water.

                              1. re: jgg13

                                I agree. I bought a bottle of Wright's (which is pretty decent) in order to replicate Laurent Tourondel's BLT steak sauce. A little goes a very long way but when used judiciously it's a nice trick.

                                1. re: T.Clark

                                  Exactly right on the 'judicious use'. But yeah, outside of BBQ snobbery (which I tend to agree with in most cases), I don't get the hate on liquid smoke. Too many people think it's an artificial additive.

                              2. re: MC Slim JB

                                Alton Brown has an episode on making your own liquid smoke. Although I never got around to doing it, it changed the way I look at the bottled product.

                                1. re: Parsnipity

                                  Considering what Achatz does in many dishes at Alinea and cocktails at Aviary I'm rather certain a "smoking gun" can be used to add myriad smoke tones and flavors to pretty much anything.

                                  http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                          2. re: uhockey

                            Craigie is one of my favorites in Boston. That said, I think their tasting menu is more "experimental" and more often in flux than comparably priced tasting menus at other outstanding high-end Boston restaurants and thus always has some misses as well as some true hits. I would entertain at Menton, but Craigie is more exciting. In particular, their handling of lovage and sweetbreads are consistently fantastic (lovage turns up in all sorts of intruiging ways at Craigie, including sometimes in a soda). If it were less expensive, I would have a tasting at Craigie more often, but with those expectations in mind I would have been very satisfied to have been wowed by two savory courses, as long as everything else was also good without being great.

                            -----
                            Menton
                            354 Congress St, Boston, MA 02210

                            1. re: lipoff

                              To an extent I agree, but for a similar price point I had 19 courses at O-Ya and 18 of them were the kind of thing that made you stand up and bow to the sushi san and/or kitchen. Plus, I could hear myself think.

                              http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                          3. Thanks for the reviews uhockey. I'm trying to eat less and living vicariously through posts like these. Sorry that you didn;'t try Maria's Pastry which I find the best of the triumvirate especially for their sfoliatelle. The canneles at Canto6 are my favorites and a bargain at 3 for $1 (much smaller than Burdicks) Agree on almond croissants here. The pale compare to the smallest patisserie in France but some here are tasty, just different. I will need to try SE Buttery. I've avoided it based on comments from a former (possibly disguntled) employee.

                            -----
                            Maria's Pastry Shop
                            46 Cross St, Boston, MA 02129

                            Burdick's
                            Cambridge, MA, Cambridge, MA