Monday, October 23, 2006

Bin 26 Enoteca - Boston, MA

26 Charles St
Boston, MA 02114
(617) 723-5939

Beacon Hill has never been my favorite neighborhood for food. Depending upon where in the neighborhood you go, and on what part of the week you happen to go there, parking, the lines , and service can be annoying -- or at least a challenge to be overcome. So, when I hear that my good friend and colleague, Pat Mitchell, had chosen Bin 26 for a small gathering and dinner, I brought my predisposition against Beacon Hill with me.

I must admit being pleasantly surprised. Bin 26 Enoteca is a new arrival on the Boston restaurant scene, having replaced Torch, at the same location. Torch was never all that impressive -- the layout and cuisine never quite worked for me. Bin 26 Enoteca is much different. "Enoteca" has been translated a few different ways -- the most common definition seems to be a special wine "library" or a place for people to meet to taste wine. From the outside, this "library" of sorts seems small. As you enter, you realize that the brother and sister team that created this place (more on that below) were actually pretty creative about using space. The layout is creative, with plenty of neat seating areas. The ambiance of the place is busy yet not noisy. Exciting yet soothing at the same time. The wine library concept is never far from view -- check out corkscrew coat hooks, for example.

We were seated in a seating section in the back -- which was a bit sheltered from the main area, which was only a few steps away. The shelter made the table feel more intimate while still allowing the hint of activity around the corner to be present.

Bin 26 is the latest creation of Babak and Azita Bina (-Seibel) -- who are the folks behind Lala Rokh, the long standing Beacon Hill haunt. I personally think the Enoteca is more creative. The food was simple, yet intriguing. The service was attentive -- if just a tad bit off. Our waiter was friendly, however, which made up for the few points of minor awkwardness. The wine list was interesting -- though only one port, a ten year Tawny, seemed to be available the evening we were there.

Either the (a) email links that are shown on the restaurant's web site don't work, or (b) the folks who read the emails really don't care to respond. Having not brought a menu with me after my meal, a few weeks ago, I had asked by email for a copy of the menu at Bin 26 so that I would be better able to present it on my blog. No response to this day.

Until I can grab a menu to further document our meals, you'll just have to navigate the menu on your own. Bon appetite!

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Fireplace Restaurant - Brookline, MA

1634 Beacon Street
Brookline, MA 02446.
(617) 975-1900

I dined at the Fireplace Restaurant in Brookline and found it to be a good spot for a nice meal. The restaurant is located at the corner of Beacon and Washington street and has an interesting and inviting exterior facade. Fireplace is certified as a "Green Restaurant" which means that it has committed to be environmentally friendly and make at least four environmental changes a year. I'm no expert on the green movement in general, but it all sounds good. Green certification aside, Fireplace gives the impression that it focuses on locally sourced produce and meats.

Calling itself a "New England Grill," the Fireplace has a menu that you would expect to see at a mid-to-upscale American restaurant, but with some interesting twists. The menu has the usual calamari and Caesar, but also offers a "Vegetarian Steak Frites" which is a portabella "steak " prepared with garlic puree and blue cheese. I wasn't in the mood to be teased by a fake steak, so I didn't try it. What I did sample was quite good. Our cheerful waitress offered us a list of specials. One such special, a salad with apples, caramelized pecans and blue cheese, which we ordered, was both refreshing and fulfilling. I also tried the "Rhode Island Style" fried calamari that was served with lemon aioli and a marinara sauce. I found the calamari to be quite boring, though I had a sufficient enough quantity of the fried products to suggest otherwise. My major contention with the calamari was that it wasn't what had been advertised. Rhode Island style calamari, generally speaking, is spicy and sauteed with peppers of some sort (often Calabrese or spicy cherry peppers). The calamari served by the Fireplace had no peppers and didn't contain any hint of spice. Disappointing.

The miss on the calamari was quickly forgotten as the the entrees were quite good. I sampled from two entrees, which had both been recommended by our waitress. The first was the pan seared duck breast which came coated with a blackberry glaze and was served alongside duck confit and green beans. I asked that the carrot mashed potatoes that were advertised be replaced with crispy french fries. The waitress and chef cheerfully complied. The second entree, the "Samuel Adams Marinated Pork Porterhouse" came served over a corn polenta with garlic spinach. The pork was fantastic -- well flavored, and with excellent accompaniments. I found it to be the signature dish.

The cocktails we ordered were pricey -- $10 for martinis and $9 for assorted other cocktails. The blueberry martini, which had been recommended, wasn't a very palatable drinks -- it came served with tiny bits of ice, much like a slushie -- not my favorite. The blueberry mojita was better, but not spectacular. After trying two of the signature cocktails, I finally settled on a Grey Goose and soda and found satisfaction in simplicity.

If you're in the neighborhood, and in the mood for pleasant service and good food, the Fireplace is a good option. Check times, because the kitchen closes at varying hours during the week -- from an early 10pm to 11pm on some nights.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Underbar - Boston, MA

275 Tremont St
Boston, MA 02116
(617) 292-7122

Underbar is perhaps one of Boston better dance clubs. The sound system, when installed in 2005, was reputed to be one of the better sound systems in town. I'd have to say that the sound is clean and powerful -- and contributes to a hot sound scene when the DJ is on queue. I've been to Underbar a dozen or so times -- and like it, but only to a point. Here are a few of my likes and dislikes:

Boston can be a pretty uptight town. Having fun seems antithetical to some of the Puritanical rules and mores that continue to pervade the city. Underbar and establishments like it are part of the push by many of the newer folks in town to change Boston's crusty demeanor. The music and scene are very different from the Boston of old: loud, active, and energetic. The crowd is pretty usually somewhat diverse too (though see a comment below) which adds to the atmosphere. During the World Cup, Underbar decorated the joint with flags from all of the World Cup countries while the go-go dancers, waitresses and bartenders wore shirts with the flags of the same. I've lived in Boston -- on and off -- since I was born here in the early 70s and I must admit that it's pretty cool to see that here in town. Maria, the manager, and Billy, a bartender along the main L-shaped bar at Underbar, round off my list of likes. Maria is always friendly and resolves any problems that arise with reservations, etc. Given the crowds that throng to the Underbar, that's not an easy job.

Staff at the Door / List Coordination
While the door staff and the coordination of VIP guest access are getting better, there's still a long way to go to perfect. Last weekend, I was invited to attend a vendor event at Underbar. The vendor had reserved two tables and invited me along with a few of my friends to their tables. As with all table reservations, the Underbar provides bottle service. At the end of the night, the vendor had spent more than $3,000 on drinks at the two tables for perhaps a total of 12 people. With that kind of pricetag, getting in to Underbar to access those tables shouldn't have been a big deal. My good friend and frequent partner in crime, Raj Banerjee (, was on the list of invited guests for the reserved tables. Despite being on the list and speaking with the bouncers at the doors several times, he waited for over 45 minutes to be let in the door. Raj had sent several text messages to me to ask me to provide assistance, but because I have Cingular (more on that in a subsequent post) cell reception at Underbar was nonexistent at our tables. Because he's a good friend, he stuck around to get in, but given the service level you expect when you host an event, our host and I were quite disappointed in the treatment Raj got. So, if you reserve a table or are hosting an event, make sure you designate a contact person at Underbar who can shepherd people who are on your list in to the tables should they arrive later than the pack.

Space, design and Layout
While part of the charm of the Underbar is its odd shape, that is also a weakness. The space doesn't flow very well -- and at peak crowds, it can be nearly impossible to access places only a few feet away. The design of the space itself -- in terms of interesting things to see is somewhat unimaginative. Layout and design aren't the only gripes I have, however. When you descend down to Underbar from Caprice, on most nights you can't help feeling that you've entered a locker room in which a sauna has gone awry. There is a steamy air about the place that one would think modern ventilation can deal with. Apparently not.

While the diversity of the crowd can be a major plus, there are nights where you get an infusion of, for lack of a better term, meatheads. I remember one night when I was with a group at a table that a particularly idiotic meathead wanted to pick a fight. While I can't say race played a role in his desire to pick a fight with me, I can't really find any other reason. He slammed himself into me as I tried to pass his group. Luckily, a much larger friend of mine approached this thug, and alerted him that much like the meathead, my group, too, had some muscle. So sad that these things happen -- but they do. That said, I'm not sure this comment is germane to just Underbar.

For a dance club in town, Underbar is one of your top bets. That's saying a lot about both Underbar and Boston.

Golden Temple - Brookline, MA

1651 Beacon St
Brookline, MA 02445
(617) 277-9722

Dining at the Golden Temple reminds me why I decided to start a blog. Last night, when I had a desire to try to spicy Szechuan food, I automatically thought of Chilli Garden in Medford. Then, I thought to myself, why not try something new. So, I dutifully jumped on google to search for good Chinese food in Boston. Having given up on the Zagat's guide as a consistent source of reviews for almost any kind of cuisine, I decided citysearch and google's own user reviews would point me in the right direction. After a few minutes of searching, I found my winner: Golden Temple in Brookline. According to the citysearch editorial review of the Golden Temple, "legions of gourmands claim there's no better Chinese cuisine in the area." The editors of citysearch added that Golden Temple was a "Brookline institution, serving award-winning Chinese fare." No better in the area? Award winning? Wow. Surely this place is a winner, I thought. (A side question I leave unanswered for now is who grants awards for Chinese food? Is there a ratings agency? If citysearch itself awarded Golden Temple an award would it suffice?)

The users of citysearch, or at least 43 of them as of last night, had given Golden Temple a rating of 9.6 overall, out of a possible 10. While some users commented that the food, was at best, "average" many wrote comments like "Golden Temple is simply the best place for Chinese." Google's own ratings provided similar encouragement, with 4 out of 5 stars given to the Golden Palace. With all of this positive encouragement, it was off to Golden Temple for my group.

We arrived at the restaurant around 10:00pm. Unlike most Boston dining establishments, Golden Temple is open late seven days a week and boasts a full menu and bar during its operating hours. A perfect spot, or so we thought. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a very friendly manager who offered to seat us in either the quiet dining section or the bar/club area. Since the dining area, which was clean, large, and well appointment, was empty, we opted for the bar area which had signs of life. The lights were turned fairly low, so it's hard to assess the decorations with certainty, but somewhere between odd and unusual seems to fit the bill. The assistance of the table candle would be required all evening for ordering and finding food items on the table.

Our waiter appeared fairly quickly after we were seated -- a good start, I thought. We ordered a Golden Temple Bowl and tap water was provided as a default. The drink arrived rather quickly -- the bar, which was visible from our seating area, seemed fairly empty. The waiter returned after a bit to take our food order.

The menu contains a long and assorted offering of Chinese food. While I was hoping to find the spicy Szechuan dishes, because I had lingering memories of the citysearch reviews, I did not exercise the caution I would have otherwise exhibited at seeing such oddities as sweet lemon chicken. The menu itself is many pages (think Cheesecake Factory) and offered a sampling of cuisines from around China. We ordered the Scallion Pancakes, the Crab Rangoon, the Moo shu Pork, and the Kung Pao Pork.

After our waiter left, we pondered about many things -- including the other diners, the lack of lighting and the bizarre music. You see, we were seated in the bar/club area where a DJ spins tunes. On this night, we were treated to an eclectic mix of Barry Manilow, Glen Frey (Heat is On from Beverly Hills Cop), and a full serving of elevator music while we waited. I can't say I expected greatness from the music, but found the selection so amazingly odd since there was a large male stationed at the DJ booth with a laptop and itunes "spinning" the music we were listening to. The music was disappointing at best, mind altering at worst.

Our food arrived in a speedy 35 minutes. Given that there were three other tables occupied by diners, I'm not sure the source of the delay. The restaurant advertises fresh ingredients and no MSG. Perhaps the fresh ingredients promise is delivered upon using a just in time inventory system? Our appetizers were poor at best -- the Scallion Pancakes were heavy and lacked the taste that is usually associated with that specialty. The Crab Rangoon, by contrast, was sweet. I sought to ask our waiter to delivery hot sauce or hot oil, but he had disappeared. I finally flagged down the manager, who had the hot sauce delivered for us rather quickly. The Crab Rangoon was merely edible after the infusion of hot sauce.

Our main courses arrived shortly after our plates were cleared. To my great sadness, the Moo shu pork was delivered with flour tortilla instead of the flour moo shoo wrappers (or pancakes) that normally accompany this dish. While tortillas are more durable than moo shoo pancakes (because they are thicker) the taste, texture and smell of the authentic pancake is critical to a good moo shu experience. Disappointed at first, I labored on to prepare my moo shoo dish. Plenty of moo shu filling was provided as was hoisin sauce. The Moo shu filling itself was acceptable and would have garnered a "B" grade had I judged it on its own. Alas, it was not alone. Having finished the moo shu, I moved on to the Kung Pao Chicken.

The Kung Pao arrived steaming hot with carrots, peanuts, scallions and a generous helping of celery. I usually use the Kung Pao as a barometer of a chef's abilities to produce authentic (or as close to authentic that I can judge) Szechuan (or Sichuan) cuisine. Celery in any Kung Pao dish is a chef's white flag to the diner that he or she can't really do the dish justice. Unfortunately, this dish was as bad as I had feared by this point and on par with the other substandard items we had tasted. According to Wikipedia, "a good westernized version of Kung Pao chicken should not be too oily. The sauce, a contrasting blend of fire and sweetness, should cling to the pieces of chicken and season the vegetables, but not coat the peanuts; there should be no pool of sauce on the bottom of the plate." I agree. This Kung Pao had failed by any meaure.

We left much of the food uneaten on the table. No doggie bag was necessary. I wish I could find something redeeming to say about the Golden Palace -- but except for the friendly manager and the incredibly clean automated bathrooms, I really can't. So, lesson learned: beware of food reviews on citysearch, and don't look for gold at the Golden Temple.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Dumpling Man - New York, NY

100 Saint Marks Pl
New York, NY 10009
Phone: (212) 505-2121

I like dumplings. There's no question in my head that they constitute one of the better forms of comfort foods designed by humans. Unlike pizza (another of my favorite comfort foods), however, dumplings are susceptible to being quite bad if not prepared and served properly. Some dumpling dough shells are not thick enough, other lack tasty fillings, and other just aren't served fresh enough (buffet dumplings, for example, are notoriously bad).

With visions of dumplings dancing in my head, I arrived at Dumpling Man in the East Village. Of course I must marvel at the sustainability of single food type restaurants in New York -- few other places in our suburban world have that luxury (see my related blog entry for Sarita's Mac & Cheese -- or S'MAC). Dumpling Man is a small little take out spot and has has two bar counters with 16 seats. Several members of the staff fold and stuff dumplings in a sushi-bar style area where all of their activities are open for the public to see. The restaurant is bright and clean -- with white and orange coloring. I later learned that the huge Chinese characters on the wall direct patrons to "eat dumplings."

We ordered assorted dumplings -- both steamed and fried, filled with vegetables, pork, chicken, and shrimp. We tossed in the beef dumpling special, which came only steamed, for good measure. We did not order any of the specialty dumplings that came in sauces, from hot to mild, on the theory that the dumplings should be tasted on their own during our first visit. I'll report back on how the other dumplings are in a future post.

The ordering process was easy -- and the male cashier was both polite and helpful, but not overly chatty. He seemed to harbor quiet amusement at the wonder of new patrons gazing into the store for the first time. We spent $ 29 for dumplings, two beers and two drinks for four people.

I was joined at the restaurant by my cousin and two friends, one of whom is up for partnership at a prestigious New York firm. He seemed to relish the beer in his hand as he recounted the stress of the partnership process, which he seemed to be handling quite well. Although he had already eaten, he promised to help us eat our ordered dumplings. Our dumplings arrived in about ten minutes -- enough time to polish off most of a bottle of Tsingtao.

The dumplings were good but not spectacular. They arrived hot -- and perfectly cooked. Dumplings are served in paper trays -- chopsticks and plastic forks were offered as tools. Knives would have been nice -- but they weren't provided in the serve yourself area and I didn't feel like getting up to ask the cashier.

While I prefer a somewhat thicker dough shell than the shell crafted by Dumpling Man, those of you who enjoy a medium thickness shell will surely enjoy the shells here. The ample supply of large bottles of Sriracha sauce added to the flavoring options for the dumplings. Several other dipping sauces were also available, including one called Dumpling Sauce.

My Dumpling Man experience was a good one -- it's a fun spot for a quick, simple -- and very Asian -- bite.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese - New York, NY

45 East 12th Street
New York, NY 10003
Phone: 212-358-7912, 212-358-7917

In one sentence: what a treat! We went to Sarita's Mac & Cheese on a Saturday early afternoon expecting to find really good macaroni and cheese. Why else would a restaurateur open a place with only one main feature if that feature wasn't absolutely spectacular, was my thought. Alas, Sarita's does not disappoint. I had a difficult time choosing which particular "flavor" of macaroni to sample, but finally settled upon the Masala Macaroni (listed as a special). I love Macaroni and have some expertise on Indian food, so I thought to myself what better dish to try. My friend ordered the "Garden (Lite)" which was advertised as containing cheddar, Parmesan, roasted cauliflower, portobello mushrooms, roasted garlic, broccoli and scallions. The lady at the cash register was friendly and quite helpful. The advertised sizes are Nosh, Major Munch, and Mongo. After being shown the sizes and keeping in mind my healthy appetite, I still chose Nosh, the smallest of the sizes, for $6.75. Perhaps alluding to by gently protruding belly, the lady helping me with my selection kidded me for not ordering a healthier portion -- which to me had seemed far too large.

Upon ordering, we found a spot in the small and somewhat crowded seating area (where, surprisingly, everyone who needed a seat found one) and settled in with our chosen sodas. Our order was delivered to our table by a different but equally friendly member of the restaurant staff. The orders come hot in cast iron skillets with handle protectors and wooden skillet pads. My Masala Macaroni was delicious -- a spicy blend (at least in comparison with non-masala enabled macaroni) of interesting flavors that remained true to the calling of good 'ole mac & cheese. My friend's Garden (Lite) mac & cheese, while still good, was less than captivating. It was a good blend, but lacked the flavor and excitement of the masala.

As we ate, we saw a constant flow of diners -- some, like us, coming to see the fascination of a new New York eatery focusing on the basics. "Is this like the PB&J place? No, that's a different owner."

I would have enjoyed having a greater selection of sides -- chips, fries, or beer and wine are not available. That said, as a spot for a quick and tasty bite, Sarita's is a good choice. Beware of take-out though. The novelty of the cuisine -- and the experience -- is lost when you get foil containers with the same stuff delivered home. I tried it, and promptly lowered my grade of Sarita's (which was an A- to a B+).

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Cielo - New York, NY

18 Little West 12th St
(Cross Street: Between Ninth Avenue and Washington Street)
New York, NY 10014, (212) 645-5700

We visited this meat packing district club on Saturday, October 7th. The creative design was interesting -- but the industrial design considerations are lacking at best (I'll explain later). Cielo has a capacity of approximately 250 (give or take). The cover charge that night was $20 (rumor has it that the better looking you are and the more aggressive you want to be with connections, the more likely you are to be comped or VIPed in the door) which we paid for the nearly ten people in our group. Cover charges at clubs are needed to (a) fund the entertainment the club provides for those who don't drink, (b) provide a good dose of revenue for the club, and (c) keep the undesirables out. I'm not a fan of cover charges in general, but most in our group didn't care about the imposition.

Getting back to the design of the place, I must admit some admiration for the integrated lighting tubes in the wall. Alternating white log type lights were placed adjacent to wall pieces that looked like wooden logs. When activated, the lights lit up to the music (see picture). That night, like most, house music was the flavor at Cielo with Tedd Patterson at the musical helm. I found the music somewhat monotonous - and hence the lighting got to me after a while. The industrial design of the place was quite poor. Because of the club's fairly small footprint, the designers placed steps leading down to a recessed dance floor sunken in the center of the club. The problem, of course, is that without step lighting in a very dark club, stairs become tools for mayhem. Two sets of steps -- placed far enough apart to be dangerous -- enhanced the poor industrial design. Worse yet, the path to the exit had large swaths of light colored flooring interrupted by occasional black borders -- the net effect being the perception of additional stairs that never materialized.

Around the perimeter of the central dance floor are reserved tables that are available with bottle service. Because of the tight quarters and abysmal service at the only bar (see below), I'd recommend table service if you must be at Cielo. There is an outside smoking garden in backyard. While I don't smoke, it was ironically refreshing to be amongst the smokers outside -- atleast there people respected personal space in a way unimaginable inside. Needless to say, having not reserved a table, we stood at the bar the entire evening (with two trips to the smoking den).

Design objections aside, my biggest gripe with Cielo was the service. Perhaps because I have grown intolerant of expensive drinks delivered with absolutely no nod to customer service. Our bartender was a guy named Danny. I introduced myself to him and placed our first order. We ordered standard drinks, which were satisfactory (Grey Goose and soda, Jack Daniels and coke, Campari and tonic were the few I remember ordering). My second round was ordered from a female bartender with significant attitude -- despite not being that busy, she had a continual sense of hurry. Her signature move was delivering bottled beers by slamming them onto the bar (which, 90% of the time caused beer to gush out of the bottles that were designed to contain them). At $10+ a drink, service should have been better.

Nightclubs are always designed to be high energy destinations to shake off one's desire to dance and move. I question the need to package any of the requisites of nightclubs with service that isn't welcoming. Perhaps it's just me. Thoughts?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Friends, friendster, and life.

I logged onto friendster today and noticed that a friend had deleted himself as one of my friendster friends. I logged in because I hadn't received a birthday alert from friendster about this particular friend and knowing that it was his birthday, I found it somewhat odd that the friendster computer hadn't spit out its generic blast email reminding me of it. I soon realized that the friendster computer that manages all of this data hadn't messed up at all. Indeed, it was my friend who had chosen to remove himself from my network of friendster friends.

Now, don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong in editing one's list of friends -- in culling the proverbial herd of friends -- either in life or online. But, this particular friend's action prompted me to wonder about our new online frontier. Much like email often fails to afford society the nuance of personal human interaction, our new online world dramatizes what perhaps is otherwise subtle and common human behavior. Take my friend's action to remove himself from my friendster circle: in life, this "removal" would most likely have taken place in the form of distancing oneself gradually -- perhaps not calling or writing as much as one might otherwise. Lacking any other option in the online world, my friend's deletion became a dramatic act. One day he was a friend, the next, he was gone.

I cannot yet opine on whether the lack of nuance that currently exists online is good or otherwise. Perhaps the gradual ebb of a friendship built over time is not desirable. Perhaps the dramatic punctuation that is afforded online is the better route. Or, perhaps, someday, we will have more online tools to simulate the nuance that does exist in real life. Maybe version 10.0 of Friendster will include a "Fade" button. Friendship in decline? Just hit the fade button and your picture will gray our over time, disappearing completely over the period of time you specify. Oh the possibilities...