All noms considered: Tico

6 Mar

On its website, Tico in Boston’s Back Bay is described as “a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” I think a more apt description would be “place that tries really hard to seem like it’s not taking itself too seriously.”

Tico Boston

The bar area at Tico. Photo courtesy of the restaurant's website.

Here’s an example. On Saturday night, my friend and I walked into Tico a few minutes past six. When we walked in, at least half of the tables in the dining room were empty. “Great!” I thought, “Well get right in.” When we requested a table for two from the hostess, she told us they were all booked, but directed us to the packed bar area.

We walk back to the crowded bar area, awkwardly trying not to put our backsides too near to those seated at tables around the bar while dodging dish-laden servers. It seemed strange that there wasn’t one two spot available when the large dining room was so empty. So my friend pulls out an iPhone, whips out the Open Table app, and discovers that there are plenty of reservations for two available at 6:30, in just a few minutes.

So we made reservations online while inside the restaurant itself, ordered drinks, and prepared to wait 15 minutes for our table.  The cocktail list was surprisingly small (about 3 or 4). Considering the vast tequila menu, it seemed like a squandered opportunity. I got a caipirinha and my guest got a tequila and grapefruit juice concoction. Both cocktails were good, but the $14 price tag was a bit steep considering these drinks weren’t particularly complicated.

At 6:30 we sauntered over to the hostess for the second time.  She was a bit flummoxed as she checked the electronic reservation list and, lo and behold, the name and reservation appeared. She was pleasant enough but didn’t make eye contact with us as she quickly scuttled us off to another hostess who showed us to our seats.

Despite the inauspicious start with the front house staff, our server was fantastic–personable and attentive without being overbearing. Our table was situated right in front of the open kitchen, so I had a great view of the action. We both had the house margarita (on the rocks with salt) with dinner—which was very good—not to sweet, smooth, and well made–for a much more reasonable $10.

Tico’s menu is derived from Spain, Mexico, and South America, which is quite a few cuisines to cover under one roof. But Tico is able to bundle those cuisines because of their loose interpretation, mainly a variety of seafood dishes, lots of chiles and avocados, plenty of  grilled meats, and of course, a plethora of tequila.

Careful not to label them tapas, Tico’s small plates are the main attraction. The few entrees on the menu didn’t seem very imaginative, so we skipped those altogether in favor of greater selection and more adventurous combinations on the small plates list.

The first bite was off the  “a la plancha” or grilled menu. We ordered quail in a mango and chile sauce. The bird itself was not very flavorful—and the bigger pieces were a smidge overdone. The chile mango sauce was good—started sweet and then caught up to your nerve endings with a sharp heat. 2/5 noms.

Brussels sprouts with bacon, kumquats, mint and jalapenos were second. Let me preface this by saying that I love grilled Brussels sprouts (if you are dubious of this vegetable, please try them grilled). I thought the sprouts were a bit underdone (a little tough to get through) but the crispy leaves were delicious—that is until the liquid they were served in bogged down the leaves and made the whole thing a bit soggy. 2/5 noms

The lobster and avocado tacos came next. Though the lobster meat was tender and sweet, I didn’t find the dish on the whole very flavorful. I would have preferred to have my beloved baja taco at Olecito for about $3 rather than the $12 lobster rendition at Tico. My dinner partner disagreed and enjoyed it more than I did, though we both agreed the taco needed some crunchy texture to break up the creamy avocado and dense lobster. 2/5 noms.

The crispy fried manchego cheese with spicy pomegranate honey sauce was excellent. It reminded me of the fried cheese with honey at Dali, but I have to admit this was better. Fried perfectly with a coating of crispy breadcrumbs sweet and slightly vineagary sauce was the perfect accompaniment. 4/5 noms

The best dish of the night was the chorizo risotto. Now, I’m a chorizo girl. I love pig in almost all its forms, but I consider the smoky, spicy chorizo a work of high art in meat form. The best chorizo I’ve ever had is the Chorizo a la Sidra at Taberna de Haro that comes braised in sparkling cider.  But this risotto was also wonderful–cheesy (but not overly so), spicy, but not hot–it was delicious. Though it wasn’t as creamy as a true risotto, I would have appreciated that as a main course. 4/5 noms

We did order the tuna tartar, though it was never delivered (they did take it off the bill when we pointed this out), which worked out fine in the end because those few extra bites might have pushed me over the edge from comfortably satisfied to engorged.

Neither of us were inspired by the desserts, so we went for the cheese plate that was very well done. Aside from a nutty Mahon, the three of the four cheeses were locally produced, including a Cashel blue, a Fiddlehead tomme, and a fourth kind that was very good though I’m unable to remember the name. It was served with thinly sliced green apple, Marcona almonds, and drizzled with honey all over. And our server made sure we had plenty of bread. Though I enjoyed all four cheeses, I thought it was curious that all were cow’s milk. 3/5 noms.

Including two drinks each, dinner cost about $130 total for two (including tip). So not a cheap night out, but not the most expensive meal I’ve ever slapped my AMEX down for.  All noms considered, this Tico experience was a 3/5 noms (considering context of price range and the expectations that come with fine-er dinning).

If you don’t usually go for authentic tapas or  Mexican, this might be a good place to explore if you’re looking for something a little different from the norm. But if you enjoy Spanish tapas regularly or are a Mexican cuisine purist, you probably won’t be wowed by Tico.

Now is the winter of our (vegetal) discontent

4 Jan Vegetannual

January. The post-holiday doldrums when snow ceases to be beautiful (think gray. Or worse, yellow), and it’s just tool damn dark and cold to much else than curl up in a blanket and dream of June.

It’s tempting to have a January attitude when it comes to our food too. There aren’t the colorful, fresh fruits and vegetables of summer and fall—at least not here in New England. Instead, we’re left with celeriac—a vegetable that inspires most people to run towards square tomatoes and Chilean raspberries at their local grocery.

But people who pooh-pooh eating by the calendar forget that a local, seasonal diet isn’t a new trend—it’s simply how humans ate up until about WW II. And there are a few things we still do consume on a seasonal basis, for example pumpkin pie, cranberries, and egg nog.

It’s not that these things are impossible to obtain during the rest of the year. It’s just our attitude about these foods are substantially different from others. For some reason we’ve decided we can restrict pumpkin to the fall time, but fresh tomatoes are a necessity all throughout the year.

As Barbara Kingsolver pointed out, we can re-imagine our diets so that all foods are viewed as seasonal treats to be enjoyed when they’re freshest and best. And not just because seasonal eaters are righteous or masochistic, but because winter tomatoes are terrible (mealy and tasteless) and heirlooms are the farmers’ market in July are worth the wait. But let me be clear: although I don’t buy fresh tomatoes out of season, I certainly make use of tomato sauce, tomato paste, ketchup (of course), and tomatoes packed in oil (which are lovely on sandwiches).

So wintertime doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to three months of meat and potatoes. It makes sense that we crave heartier, heavier meals when it’s below freezing and pitch-black at 4:30 in the afternoon. So I do cook more pasta, potatoes, and soups in the winter. But I manage to work in plenty of flavor, vegetables, and variety.

Here are some of the resources I use to help me cook both seasonally and scrumptiously throughout the year.

Books, blogs, and recipes

Simply Organic

  • Orange, beet, and olive salad
  • Sweet and sour cabbage with smoked pork chops
  • Creamy cauliflower and pasta

Simply in Season

  • Black bean and sweet potato burritos
  • Creamy potato soup
  • Maple glazed parsnips

Seasonal eating resources

Don’t forget! The Somerville Winter Farmers’ Market starts this Saturday, Jan. 8, from 10 am – 2 pm at the Armory.

Beast of the East: Pork Turducken

29 Nov

About a year ago, I was lounging off my post-Thanksgiving tryptophan coma in front of the TV, half-consciously watching Paula Dean drawl on about turducken, when I had a genuine stroke of genius: why not make a turducken, but with…pig?

It seemed to me like the next logical step in the evolution of the meat-on-meat-on-meat concept. If three layers of fowl are good, wouldn’t three layers of pig be better? Yes, some of the cache of the turducken is that it uses three different animals. But I thought that pig, being so versatile (and tasty), could hold its own.

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I’ve never cooked a regular turducken; it doesn’t appeal to me. Perhaps because of all the deboning, perhaps because it begins with “turd”—I don’t know. All I knew back then was that this was a porcine experimentation that had to come to fruition.

The perfect opportunity to try this out presented itself just before Thanksgiving this year. With ten of my girlfriends coming over for mid-week dinner, I thought a giant log of pork would be the perfect accompaniment to the wine and gossip.

If that seems incongruous, then you obviously don’t know my friends. Although they’re all wicked smaht, attractive super hot ladies in their 20s and 30s, they are not the type of girls to order only the salad with a side of non-fat, low-cal, gluten free, dairy-free dressing.

Oh no. These girls like to eat things that normal people like to eat. Like bacon. (Except my one vegetarian friend, who makes up for that mortal sin in myriad other ways. For example, with her Grampy’s margarita recipe.)

Moving along…it was a risk to makes something that a) not only I have never cooked but b) something that no one has ever cooked the centerpiece of a 10-person dinner. But I’m not one to shy away from a challenge. Plus if I had an epic fail on my hands, I’d still have a good story to tell and the number to Wings Over Somerville at my disposal (PSA–they’re open until 2 am on Fridays and Saturdays).

Luckily it was a success. That or my friends were too polite to tell me otherwise.

Here’s the recipe if any of you dare attempt it:

Step one: make cornbread sausage stuffing. I used this Whole Foods recipe as a base ( I used a cherry apple sausage that I bought there) but added dried cranberries and some butter to the mix to keep it moist. And more delicious. I also used store bought cornbread and made the stuffing the night beforehand to save time.

Step two: season inside and outside of butterflied pork tenderloin with salt and pepper. Spread cooked stuffing on the inside of tenderloin. The one here is a little over two pounds, and I had the butcher butterfly it for me. I haven’t taken any of  Savenor’s butchering classes yet, so I figured I’d leave it in the hands of the professionals. Roll pork loin like a Little Debbie snack.

Step three: Baconize. I used uncured thick cut bacon. Notice how the edges overlap? It should be looking like a meat version of a Bûche de Noël by now.

Step four: Cook for 15 minutes at 400 degrees in a cast iron pan. Turn down oven to 350 and cook for another 30-35 minutes.

Step five: Let rest for 10 minutes. Consume.

You may be wondering why I didn’t use a whole pig. After all, turducken uses whole animals, right? There were a few caveats to using a whole animal, one being cost, the other being that a whole pig wasn’t going to fit in my oven. Besides, the true beauty of pork is in its diversity: sausage, ham, bacon, chops, belly, etc. Which means the pork turducken can be reconfigured a 1000 times over.

What’s your riff?

P.S. I’ve been struggling with what to name this. Pork turducken is a good descriptor, but a it’s bit misleading considering there’s no chicken, duck, or turkey involved. I would love to appropriate the name for Craigie on Main‘s pork belly dish (Pork Three Ways) but I wouldn’t dare tread on that legacy. By the way, if you’ve never had that. Go. Now. Probably the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.

Anyway, leave a comment if you have a suggestion for the name. Thanks!

Behold! The Doughnut-Muffin

21 Oct

It is glorious in our eyes.

I like a good mashup–Thai burritos, most John Legend songs, and even bagel bites are okay (especially in a late-night pinch). But Sherman Cafe has presented us with a modern marvel of the breakfast world–the doughnut-muffin.

Its basically a cinnamon-crusted cider doughnut, but slightly denser and with delicious crust. I’m not exactly sure how this is achieved, but I’m guessing copious amounts of butter or deep fryer are involved. The cinnamon crust is quite thick—not a dusting of cinnamon but more of a slathering. The inside has a soft, moist vanilla-y crumb that’s flecked with nutmeg and perhaps allspice.

It’s the closest thing to a freshly made doughnut that you’ll get this side of a farm stand.

I have only seen the doughnut-muffin on weekends; whether this is by design or coincidence I do not know. But I would suggest enjoying it while sitting down with your coffee. Sherman Cafe has notoriously slow service, but at 10 am on a Saturday, where are you going so fast anyhow?

P.S.

I finally bought an external hard drive, so now I can start uploading more video and more photos as the disk space was running out on my poor little Macbook :(

Sophisticated Simplicity at Journeyman

5 Oct

Last Friday, my friend Amy and I were sending each other texts about what to do that night. It went something like:

what do you want to do?

I dunno. I’m hungry. want dinner?

Sure. where do you want to go?

Uh…

And then I remembered that Journeyman had just opened up right in my neighborhood. However, the restaurant seemed  a bit mysterious. Supposedly it was located in a rough looking alley somewhere between the Independent and Ronnarong. I pass by that area almost daily, and there was no signage screaming “coming soon!” In fact, there were hardly signs of anything at all–except for a discreet, almost hidden metal sign with the name “Journeyman” punched through the sheet. But you had to be looking for it to notice it at all.

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Photo credits: from Journeyman’s facebook page. Accredited to Ry Strohm-Herman.

Anyway, Friday was a drizzly, cold night. Both Amy and I were tired from the work week, and wildest thing on the night’s agenda was a bottle of wine. We stepped into the restaurant and were taken with the modern interior. But understand, it wasn’t modern in the industrial sense; it was more like a well-designed website: lots of active white space. Home hewn but uncluttered

When we cheerfully responded to the manager that we didn’t have reservations, she looked a bit nervous—they had only just started to take walk-ins. It hadn’t occurred to me that reservations weren’t just a suggestion. Luckily, Amy and I got the last seat in house.

We were presented with several different menus printed on heavy brown paper and secured with a binder clip. There were two different tasting menus: vegetarian and omnivore and you could choose a three, five, or seven course tasting menu for each. We both chose the five course menu and decided to share a bottle of Prosecco. Though, they did have a bottle of French “cidre” on the drink menu which I will indulge in when I return. I’m always impressed when a restaurant not only has a cider other than Magner’s (oh please) but has branched out into French or English ciders as well.

Anyway, to start off we were each presented with an amuse bouche. Mine was a tiny, homemade English muffin with “lardo.” Perhaps they fear that diners will hear “lard” and get grossed out. I, however, would get really excited even if it were presented as “pork fat.” Amy, who is a vegetarian, got something else, but I was reveling in the muffin-fat combination melting in my mouth to really pay too much attention.

Later on we were surprised to learn that the amuse bouche was not part of the tasting menu, but an extra taste. Actually we received two more small bites as compliments of the chefs. One was this gorgeous cucumber gin gel that was slightly fizzy. Now, I don’t do gin. Not since I had an incident with it about 10 years ago. (okay, I might have thrown it up out my nose.) But, this was smooth, not burning or acrid at all. Make me a gin cocktail like that, and you might have a convert.

My courses included an autumn salad with greens harvested from Journeyman’s Giant Wall of Window Boxes, white fish with raspberry spaghetti squash, and pork rillettes accompanied by a perfectly fried cube of creamy potato. The main course was a crispy, melty pork belly. Yes, more animal fat.

But it wasn’t overwhelming or greasy–the portions of each course are small and are well orchestrated within the meal as a whole. And there was delicious homemade bread and butter (dusted with flaky sea salt) on the table throughout dinner.

Dessert #1 (yes, there was a second one) was a savory-sweet brown butter apple concoction. The second dessert (again, compliments of the chefs) was a sweet yet light as air caramel foam.

The service was very good. Our server was attentive, earnest, and had a great rapport with us. Each dish was explained in detail (which I like because I like to see how many distinct ingredients I can taste) but without a whiff of pretentiousness. Likewise, the presentation of each course was intentionally designed, but unfussy.

After we had finished the last of the Prosecco and had nothing left to do but lick the dessert plates, we both sighed contentedly–satisfied but not uncomfortably full, pleased with the variety of flavors and textures we had the good fortune to experience, and comforted by the fact that a peaceful sleep was (literally) just around the corner.

With a menu that changes weekly, there’s 52 reasons each year to go back.

Fluff Licking Contest at Fluff Fest

27 Sep

I present this with no other commentary.

Boule vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?

22 Sep

I’ve been cooking since I was about 12. Baking, however, is a recent addition to my culinary skills. Sure, I’ve thrown together many a boxed cake (including the boob cake I made in college in honor of a friend’s breast reduction), but I’ve never been one to hold steadfast to exact measurements. Or to operate an infernal flour sifter, for that matter.

Dough, larva stage.

Baking bread seemed like such a bother—an alchemy of time, patience, skill–and musty smelling yeast. But then I discovered the book “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” a little over a year ago.

Five minutes a day? That can’t be that bad. So I tried it, and the results were good–not great but good. And it was easy. The secret is to mix all the ingredients together and let it sit over night. So basically the yeast does all the kneading for you.

Looks good on the shelf, too.

I made some basic French breads, olive oil bread, and pizza dough—I was happy enough. I tried the brioche recipe too, but couldn’t even come close to Canto 6’s perfectly puffy, layered, sweet brioche buns. Plus it seemed ludicrous to try to recreate such perfection when the bakery was literally steps from my door. Now I live in Somerville and although there are two very fine coffee shops with delicious breakfast treats within a short walk from my apartment,  alas their baked goods can’t touch Canto 6.

I would recommend this book to any novice bread baker. It’s a good introduction to things like yeast, exact measurements, and baking stones. It’s generally unfussy and the recipes are forgiving enough to encourage a notoriously impatient person such as myself.

But after a while, I was left wanting a little more from my baked goods, especially in the texture department. A few months ago, I picked up “The Modern Baker” by Nick Malgieri. I baked the espresso banana muffins and chocolate chip cookies with great success (measured by how fast my coworkers consumed them). These are straightforward recipes: stir ingredients, place, cook. I was ready to move on to something more challenging.

But baguettes? Mix, knead, wait 15 minutes, knead, wait two hours, knead wait one hour—holy crap! This recipe needed the precision of a surgeon and the patience of someone who, well, had all day to do this. Which is what I had this Sunday, so I decided to go for it.

I followed the directions to the letter, except for the shape. I realized too far into the recipe (oh about three hours or so) that the baguettes requited a special pan, so I decided to go with boules and place them on my baking stone—a technique I learned in “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.”

Right out of the oven, the boules crackle as they cool.

Despite the stopping and starting (which really wasn’t too bad—I started a new knitting project and folded my laundry in between dough spankings), it wasn’t that annoying. I just set the timer and attended to the dough baby when beckoned. Besides, this bread was freaking awesome.

The texture was perfect—slightly moist with regular spaced air pockets on the inside, and a firm crust that shattered when you bit into it. So worth it.

I made four boules and froze two. I have no idea if they’ll be okay thawed, but there’s only one way to find out.

Oh, and I enjoyed this fresh out of the oven with a generous spread of Plugra butter. Seemed fittin.’

I may be ready to tackle brioche afterall…

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