Asta: Skip It!

Corby Kummer’s recent review of Art+Science in Boston Magazine described it as the best indication of what’s happening now in the Boston food world and was enthusiastic.  Since we had gone a month or so ago and not been particularly impressed (save for two dishes which were commendable), I should have known better when I read his comment that last year it was Asta that held that honor.  I remembered that it had gotten good reviews and thought that it would be a good candidate for our we-have-to-go-out-to-eat-from-time-to-time list.  On a Saturday night, the few tables took until past 8 to fill so perhaps we just don’t keep our ears close enough to the ground.  The food was arty in the extreme according to today’s fashion (I’m willing to tolerate that), the flavors mild and uninteresting, and the value near rock bottom.  Here are the details.

The  menu was prix fixe with a choice of three, five, or eight courses.  As you can see, having given up the ability to select paricularly appealing dishes, you are also left virtually in the dark about how the ingredients are prepared.  As we always order as many things as possible, we decided on one three-course and one five-course dinner supplemented with the seared foie gras.


The amuse bouche seemed a good omen even if straightforward: fava beans with pickled radish.


The cauliflower risotto was among the best of the dishes, nice balance of cauliflower, raisins and anchovies.


The lentil salad was mostly kale.  If you look very closely, you’ll spot a few lentils hiding in the crevices.  The flavor was strictly kale, however, even if fresh and appealing.


The “cod, fennel, olive” was again straightforward: nothing innovative here.  And not about to fill you up.


The most curious dish of the evening was the “egg, foie gras puree, ramps.”  There was indeed a small poached egg under the greens!  We were told by the server that the dish included “lamb-cetta, like pancetta but from lamb” (the slender slices standing up on the left). So I guess I have to rack that up as a first but, again, nothing to write home about.


So, at last we came to the foie gras which the kitchen had kindly agreed to serve on two plates.  A reasonable portion, expertly cooked, but it had cooled off considerably by the time it reached us.  The lime puree had very little lime flavor and the chili even less but the plate looked pretty!


Next we had the “lamb, spring onions, potato” and “beef stew, egg noodles” served simultaneously.  The lamb was properly dark pink and the onion nicely charred.  In all, a highly commendable dish and the best of the evening.


The beef stew, however, was a total disaster.  The very thick house-made noodles were seriously undercooked and the stew itself was as boring as could be.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a beef stew, even in a diner, without some pearl onions and carrots to give it some visual interest.  The nasturtium leaves seemed to be more a disguise than a garnish.


The desserts were well-done, a milk toast with chocolate, and a semifreddo with freeze-dried strawberries.  (I need to look for that on Amazon!)  Since we’re not fans of restaurant desserts, these perfectly satisfactory ones did little to boost our spirits which were pretty low at this point.



So, let’s turn to the value question.  Aside from the $29 for two glasses of average wine, we paid $186 (with tip).  Was it a good idea to select the three-course menu?  Well, if we allocate $10 for the dessert (certainly adequate on an a la carte basis), the the lentil salad and beef stew were each $20 dishes.  I doubt that anyone could stay in business trying to sell a kale salad for $20, or that particular botch of a beef stew for $20.  So, no, not a good idea; a particularly costly error.

Am I an aging, cantankerous curmudgeon.  Perhaps.  But I’m looking forward to what I consider the proof that this was a much-too-expensive dinner for what was delivered: next weekend, we’ll shop for a blow-out meal at home; $100 for ingredients, $100 for wine, and we’ll have $15 left to go to Bartley’s the next night.

La Morra COS Wine Dinner

We’re very partial to La Morra on Beacon Street in Brookline but we need a special incentive to go because it’s so far away.  Their wine dinners are just that so we were there for this menu:


Sorry to say, as usual when the first course came, I was so hungry and anxious to eat it that I forgot to take the picture!  But it was a delight and Josh explained how it was done: quite the same as curing gravlax except with the addition of spices and fennel ground in the food processor. The tuna was very light and we thought it was probably hamachi.

I managed to photograph everything else, so here’s the octopus on cous cous, unbelievably tender.  Josh said he decided that the dates were a mistake and he left them out!


The fusilli was very al dente but with distinct heat and was accompanied by the best wine of the night. ($31 less 10% for a case) Love those bread crumbs on pasta!


I had foolishly not had high hopes for the boar but it was terrific and we decided that it was definitely time to cook that polenta we’ve had in the pantry forever. Note how small this particular “boar” must have been!


We had a wonderful conversation with Debbie M. who had done a month in Sicily solo including two weeks of Italian lessons!


Goings on at HOME

For those who aren’t familiar with the reference, it’s to the neon sign I’ve had in my living room window for the past 35 years.  You’ll see the same design on some of our plates, made in Paris for us some fifteen years ago.


For our joint birthday celebration in early February, we needed a good vegetarian lunch dish.  Once we remembered the quiche shop in Saint Jean de Luz that everybody loved, it was a no-brainer.  But, believe it or not, we’d never made a quiche so we had to practice up for the grand occasion, one short and one tall:


We decided we couldn’t be without Joanne Chang’s latest book from her bakery “Flour” and I went ahead with the brioche-based sticky buns.  Deb thought they were awful because they had too much goo.  I’m still puzzling over what it could possibly mean to say “too much goo.”


We were enraptured many years ago when the Babbo cookbook came out to discover the recipe for lamb tartare which I’d raved about at the restaurant.  Of course, Mario had to add a mint pesto to go along with the tartare itself.


Finally, we’ve been focussed on dumplings as the result of a cookbook I got out of the library.  It took two tries but we had the best pork and chive dumplings in memory.  So good, that when we finished our ample portions we went into the kitchen again and made some more!  This particular batch was made with store-bought skins which were too thick so we slimmed them down with the pasta machine; worked perfectly!



Retrospectively: Guy Savoy in Paris in January

At the risk of leaving the impression that we often dine at three-star restaurants, I want to recap our meal at Guy Savoy in Paris during our trip in January.  It was the first time in a long while that we’d left a high-end restaurant with the feeling that we’d really experienced something extraordinary.

Although we actually didn’t order beyond making it clear that we wanted the famous artichoke soup and the oysters in snow, here’s the prix fixe menu:





The amuse bouche was a tiny serving of a wonderful pea soup; I don’t remember what the garnish was. Perhaps a radish on some pesto-topped toast.


It was immediately clear upon seeing and tasting the artichoke soup why this had become a signature dish of Guy Savoy.  The truffles were certainly a significant part of it!


I think I’m right when I identify the next two photos as the “tourteau et toutes les couleurs de betterrave.”  A tourteau is an oil cake (the white ball).



We were really looking forward to the oysters and weren’t disappointed.


As you would expect, the rolls were magnificent and made even better by the truffled butter (you have to do something with the crumbs of truffle left over from slicing!).


Our main course was the supreme de volaille de Bresse, another of Savoy’s signature dishes.


We are not big dessert fans (at least in fancy restaurants—pastry chefs seem to need to go over-the-top in order to be recognized, and we just want something tasty).  So I’ll pare down the four desserts to just this one.


I think it’s important to relate that Savoy himself was very much in evidence: he came out to greet us shortly after we were seated and then, to our amazement, again near the end of the meal.  Of course, our French was not up to having a real conversation but we let him know how pleased we were with our meal.

When we left the restaurant, located in a very fancy part of the 16th arrondissement just east of the Arc de Triumphe, we were delighted to find that Savoy had opened a little hole-in-the-wall oyster bar directly across the street.


I’m standing beside the window through which passers-by can obtain oysters to go.  Because we were equipped back at the apartment with oyster knife and glove, we went home with eight premium oysters at a price that won’t be exceeded in my lifetime ($6 each) and a box that beats anything I’ve ever seen (but then I don’t shop in places where the whole point is walking out with a posh shopping bag).



The oysters were HUGE (and delicious)!


To wrap up: we arrived in Paris on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the whole city was clothed in “Je suis Charlie” signs.  Here’s a scene outside the Centre Pompidou:


And here’s the cover of Charlie Hebdo which came out just after the incident. Parisians were standing in long lines to purchase it and, although it was said that the print run was two million, we were unable to buy one.


A total blowout: Eleven Madison Park

We’d been hearing about  Eleven Madison Park for over a decade and we even went in about five years ago for a cocktail.  But a few years ago they changed their format: no more a la carte but rather a single tasting menu for the upscale price of $195 per person (today: $225).  An article at the time in the NYTimes wondered whether that format would fly, even in Manhattan.  But it did, with the Times’ highest four-star rating and three Michelin stars.  Prompted by Pete Wells’s review, we finally decided we’d give it a try.  Bottom line: pass it up.  Nonetheless, we enjoyed much of it and here is our report.

We made a reservation for the opening hour (noon) and arrived a few minutes past the hour.  The staff was still gathered for the daily briefing so we were asked to sit at the bar until it was concluded.  We were seated after about ten minutes at a lovely table against the rear wall with no one around us (arrow).



The menu (which we were given only after the meal was concluded) doesn’t reproduce well so click on the link!

The first course was a savory black and white cookie containing cheddar cheese; they were in a white box tied with string which was on the table when we sat down.  I didn’t take a picture but, except for the yellowish filling, it looked just like the dessert cookies which I did photograph:


The second course was morel custard with trout roe and borage flowers.  The custard was delicious and a wonderful start to the meal.  I certainly couldn’t distinguish the trout roe from the ikura we have on a weekly basis.


As the third course we were served fresh “english peas” (probably actually flown in from England) sitting in a buffalo yogurt sauce.  I doubt that I could have identified the source of the yogurt.


Course four: smoked daikon with lettuce and radishes.  This one was a real puzzle: my first impression was apple!


The overall theme of the meal was “riffing on classic New York cuisine” and this was the first dish which seemed solidly in that category.  It was called “Eggs Benedict” with the tiny english muffin, ham and caviar.  The white blob was a stand-in for hollandaise, of course — I’m afraid I can’t remember what it tasted like.IMG_0452

We were told that the radish with pike and rose was something that had been devised in that past day or two to take advantage of the arrival of spring; it seems that the only fresh vegetable available from local farms was radishes!  An awfully nice presentation, though.



Next came the foie gras course.  We were asked whether we wanted seared foie gras or the more french terrine and we initially both said the seared, which is the way we always prepare it at home. But then the error was quickly caught: we weren’t here for what we already know but for new presentations, so we quickly changed the order to one of each.

The seared foie gras was certainly not the presentation we do at home (usually warmed sour cherry preserves) but it was a generous portion (for a tasting menu) and perfectly seared.



The marinated foie gras terrine (underneath the tuile) was tasty but in no way exceptional.



Accompanying the foie gras we were served some rolls and butter.  The rolls were a dream: puff pastry (as in a croissant) but in a round roll shape.  The butter on the left was 80% duck fat and, when I asked what spices were incorporated, it turned out that the duck fat was from the roasting of the duck course (to come) and the spices used in roasting has permeated the fat.


The next course, called “Carrot Tartare with Rye Bread and Condiments”, was the first bit of theater associated with the meal. A line cook appeared, attached the meat grinder to the table, and explained that this carrot tartare was a riff on the popularity of steak tartare in NY restaurants of the turn of the twentieth century.  The three very-bright-orange (and peeled) carrots were inserted in the grinder with expected result.  All in all, much more theater than food.




Onward to the much more impressive butter-poached lobster with dandelion and ginger.IMG_0460


And then back again to theater!  This time a pig’s bladder in which a single asparagus spear was being poached.  The line cook carefully basted the bladder with the juice in the pan.  Thanks!


Of course, we could understand the connection of asparagus to spring and even imagine that early asparagus must fetch a considerable premium at the local greenmarket, but this is taking cost-of-goods-sold to an extreme!



The only other choice on the menu (beyond the preparation of the foie gras course) was between duck and veal and we were not allowed to select our usual one-of-each.  Since duck is a serious favorite (we eat much more duck than chicken) and we’re pretty stuck on veal rib chops, we opted for the duck which was brought to the table for inspection.  Very pretty, especially with the lavender sticking out of the cavity.


The serving of duck itself was mighty pretty and very tasty but not so out-of-the-ordinary.IMG_0471


We now skip two stunningly inappropriate dishes intended to be the “cheese course”: a crock of farmer’s cheese (with an elaborate pedigree) which was as bland as farmer’s cheese must be; and a small glass bottle of “whey” (the by-product from making the farmer’s cheese), equally bland.

Which brings us to the poached strawberry with vanilla sorbet and elderflower.  Well, OK, but we seem to be running out of steam.



I’m also omitting here the chocolate-covered pretzel with sea salt which was not really up to the designation “course.”  Rather an amuse bouche.

So, finally, the dessert course: a repeat of the black-and-white cookie theme with which we started, this time with a lemon verbena filling.


So, it’s a wrap after three and a half hours.  We ordered (and consumed) one each of the recommended wine flights but were mostly disappointed at the thirty-or-so completely undistinguished wines we were served.  The only memorable ones were a red from Austria and a mead from Tuscany.

We finished off the weekend with a tour of the Woolworth Building, a 1913 gem which was the tallest building in the world until the Empire State in 1932.


Finally, we’re food blogging again!

This was originally the blog of the HILR hard-core foodies so the older posts reflect that. We frown on the notion of food as medicine so you won’t find anything here about so-called “healthy food.” (All food is inherently healthy consumed in moderation.)  Let’s take it away!

This is a diner? (in Queens no less!)

We just came back from our last trip to NYC before heading off to Italy and Greece for the summer (blog here) but, before that, I have to report on a most unlikely find: the M. Wells diner located next to the Hunter’s Point stop on the 7 train in Queens. Here’s the outside:

The inside is about what you’d expect except for a decidedly modern-day hippie aspect:

The food is an amazing cross between retro diner fare updated for a foodie aesthetic and far-out variations on the familiar. We had two items which we are determined to reproduce at home and which we highly commend to your attention. The first was escargots on a marrow bone split lengthwise–absolutely brilliant:

Here’s a half-eaten view which gives a better idea about what’s going on:

The second item, equally compelling, was a “gravlax pie” with creme fraiche (the puff-pastry contains cubed potatoes heavily seasoned with dill):

We suggest that you hurry right over! Second best: ask me how I’m coming getting Fred the butcher to supply me with the marrow bones.

[I found out about M. Wells via Sam Sifton’s review in the Times; there’s an audio feature and a slideshow as well!]

Popcorn Salt

Here’s a hard-core post! Those of you inclined to pop your own popcorn or fry your own nuts in peanut oil know that using table salt just doesn’t provide the same eating experience you get from popcorn or nuts which are salted with very finely ground salt crystals. What you want is “popcorn salt” available from Morton Salt here. It comes in pallets of 12 small packages for $17 a pallet. You’ll find that they make terrific presents.

Ginger Cookies

More ginger! If you’ve enjoyed the ginger cookies sold at Dean & Deluca in SoHo (update: as of May, they’re gone; replaced by some ginger-molasses cookie I couldn’t bear to try; sorry!), then you know how delighted I was to find a recipe which more-or-less duplicates them. They’ve got a really strong ginger molasses flavor and can be made either soft and chewy (my favorite) or crisp. The recipe is here.

The dough is soft and easy to work with:

Roll one-inch balls in raw sugar:

and bake until soft or until crisp:

More Market: Ginger Margarita!

I’ve been following up the recent visit to Jean-Georges’s Market restaurant in the W Hotel by duplicating his Ginger Margarita. This is not hard since the recipe is easily available online and here. I’m not a cocktail person with the exception of margaritas made with fresh lime juice (which means, in most cases, made at home). This variant is the best ever!