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Long Trip Report from a Seattle Chowhound

Tom Armitage | Nov 18, 2011 10:30 AM

Thanks to all the help I got from a wonderful group of Boston area Chowhounds (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/810596), my wife and I had many interesting and delicious meals during a recent trip. Because of pure laziness and sleeping in, I wasn’t able to use the breakfast recommendations, but they are in my file for my next trip to Boston. Here’s my report of the places where my wife and I ate.

After arriving in Boston on Sunday night, we ate dinner at RendezVous in Central Square before driving to Providence, RI. We had the Sunday prix fixe menu with three courses for $38. To start things off, I told our waiter that my preference for cocktails runs to savory and herbal concoctions, and left it to the bartender to fix me something. He prepared a twist on a classic Manhattan that combined rye, red vermouth, amaro, and a few drops of orange flower water. Very nice. For appetizers, we had a ceviche of Rhode Island fluke with grapefruit, chili, radishes, and mint that was a marvel of contrasting but beautifully balanced flavors. (The chef/owner, Steve Johnson, grows the mint and bird’s eye chili on the rooftop.) We also had some perfectly grilled plump Portuguese sardines. I started the bluefish tasting that I had planned for this trip with the bluefish filet with charmoula, spicy cucumber salad, and gingery jasmine rice. The bluefish was cooked perfectly and the overall dish was very successful and thoroughly enjoyable. My wife ordered the Moroccan spiced roast chicken which we both agreed was not as good as the other dishes we’d had. Not bad, just not great. For desert, I ordered the lemon-buttermilk pudding with huckleberry sauce. The pudding was a marvel – sort of a pudding on the bottom and a soufflé on top, with wonderful flavor. All in all, I left very impressed with RendezVous.

On Monday and Tuesday, we were in Providence, RI. We drove back to the Boston area on Tuesday night and had dinner at Oleana. This was an exceptionally wonderful experience with respect to both the food and the service. After discussing some of the items on the menu that most interested my wife and me, we left ourselves in the hands of Chef Ana Sortun to provide us with a sampling of tastes and matching wines. We had 12 food items and 9 wines in all. There wasn’t a bad dish in the lot and it’s truly hard to pick any particular stand-outs, but I’ll mention the tuna kibbeh, octopus and crispy Brussels sprouts, spinach falafel, fried mussels, hot peppers & Turkish tarator sauce, Vermont quail kebob with baharat spice, and the pistachio pot de creme. The interesting and creative flavors were very balanced and the preparations uniformly well-executed. The spicing was dead on, not in any way over the top or over-done. The wine selection was extraordinary. Not only were all the wines selected interesting and well made, including a Lebanese blend of cinsault and cabernet sauvignon, but they were beautifully matched with the food, something that often doesn’t happen in my experience with house-selected wine pairings. Our server, Shelly, was one of the best servers I’ve ever experienced. She was extraordinarily knowledgeable about both the food and the wine, and her attention to the pacing of the meal and our needs was perfect. All in all, this was one of those “complete” experiences that made a very deep and lasting impression. I’ll definitely return to Oleana.

On Wednesday, while my wife was giving her lectures at Children’s Hospital, I had lunch at Mu Lan. Since there are several good Taiwanese restaurants in Seattle, I had hoped to get some help from the waitresses to guide me towards some unusual specialties, but they were not at all helpful. I decided to have one of the lunch specials – octopus with dry bean curd. The octopus, dried bean curd, and leeks were all finely julienned, and accompanied by a mild sauce. This wasn’t a particularly dramatic plate of food, but the subtle flavors grew on me, and the more I tasted it, the more enthusiastic I got. There wasn’t anything left on plate when I finished. Before I left, I ordered the smoked duck Taiwanese style to go. When I got into my car, I decided I should have a taste, and immediately declared it delicious. Again, the flavor was subtle, but thoroughly enchanting and addicting. I’d be happy to return here for another meal, hopefully with a larger group so I could sample more things.

On Wednesday night, a group from Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston hosted a dinner from my wife at Legal Sea Foods – Chestnut Hill, and I tagged along. The clam chowder was good, but the rest of the meal was not. They somehow managed to overcook my bluefish which, given its oiliness, isn’t easy to do.

On Thursday we had lunch at Area Four. I loved this place. We started with a puttanesca pizza which was nicely made. The spicy winter pickles and the roasted cauliflower with peppered almonds and smoked paprika vinaigrette were both fabulous. We fought over the small dishes of each. However, neither my wife nor I was crazy about the chicken liver crostini, which had an overbearing flavor that I didn’t make note at the time and unfortunately now can’t remember (sherry? madeira?). Back on the positive side of the ledger, the mustard-crusted “Skippy” Chatham bluefish with salsa verde was the best of the three versions of bluefish I had on this trip, even better than the very good bluefish I had at RendezVous. It was perfectly cooked in the wood-burning oven, slightly smoky, very moist, and totally delicious.

For Thursday dinner at Cragie on Main, we started with some cocktails. My wife had a classic Negroni (her go-to favorite) and I had a Northern Lights. Then my waiter convinced me I needed to try a Never Setter, made with Szechuan-infused Plymouth gin, Aperol, maple-sugar simple syrup, lemon juice, and Barolo Chinato. What a great cocktail! For appetizers, we had a ragout of local forest mushrooms, veal tongue confit and Morcilla sausage and also a selection of house-made terrines. Both were very good, but since I love both tongue and blood sausage, the ragout especially won me over. For our main course, we shared the confit and roasted pig’s head which was decadently rich and graced with sinfully wonderful mahogany-colored crisp skin that I couldn’t stop savoring (soft moans and eye-rolling). For desert we had a bittersweet chocolate mousse tart and sassafras poached pears. My waiter convinced me that I needed something to go with the chocolate tart, and appeared with an Old Fashioned made with 23-year-old Ron Zacapa rum, Xocolati mole bitters, and Elemakule tiki bitters. Oh my! The only issue I have with Cragie is one of value, which always comes into play when I get the bill. The food was great, the cocktails were great, the wine (Bembibre 100% Mencia from Bierzo) was great, and the service was great. But, as good as it all was, was it worth the price? Probably, but I’m not totally sure.

On Friday, we wanted to go to the Museum of Fine Art and so tried to find a restaurant that wasn’t too far away for lunch. We wound up at Eastern Standard, which proved to be a delightful surprise. First, I had the most amazing cocktail of the trip, Zahra, made with mezcal infused with a harissa-like blend of bell pepper, two kinds of Mexican chilies, cinnamon, cardamom, and allspice, tequila, the house-made sour mix made with lemon, lime, and egg white, cream, agave nectar infused with medjool dates, and a whole egg. The rim of the glass was dusted with finely ground Hawaiian red sea salt. I’m not usually fond of sweet cocktails, but this wasn’t overly sweet, and what sweetness there was, was balanced by the spices and other flavors. We had a selection of four good oysters, following which my wife ordered the lobster BLT, and I ordered the lunch special, seared scallops. The lobster BLT was good, although not up to Neptune standards. My scallops, on the other hand, were wonderful. The service was fantastic. We were graciously and efficiently taken care of both by our very competent waiter and the wine manager who checked in on us from time to time.

On Friday night, we went to O-Ya, which I’ve already posted about separately.

Our final meal, lunch on Saturday, was at the always reliable and always wonderful Neptune Oyster. We started with a wide selection of East Coast oysters. My favorites were the Moon Shoal from Barnstable, MA, the East Beach Blonde from Charlestown, RI, the Bees River from Eastham, MA, and the Glidden Point from Darmariscotta, ME. We then moved on to two old favorites, the fried Ipswich clams and the lobster roll (without the roll). A very nice way to end our trip.

That’s the report. Thanks again for all the great suggestions, Boston Chowhounds. I’ve already got a good start on other places that I couldn’t squeeze into the schedule for this last trip, but want to try on my next trip, which will probably be next April.

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