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Boston Restaurant Blog -- February, 2008

Below are blog entries from February, 2008. Use the links in the left column to do a quick search of blog entries, or to see blog entries from other months. And feel free to use the "Comments" links under each blog entry to reply to us; your comments just might end up in our Boston restaurant blog! (Note: This page is part of our restaurant features section.)

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Friday, February 22, 2008
A Second Winter Trip to New York (and Connecticut)

When all is said and done, this winter will have included no fewer than three trips to New York City by me, all of which shape up to be different in many ways, but with at least one common thread: The search for interesting restaurants. And on the second of three trips that I took a few days ago, we found some real gems both in Connecticut and in Manhattan, as well as a couple of famous spots.

photo of Katz's Restaurant and Deli, Woodbridge, Connecticut My second New York trip began Saturday morning on Route 15, which we took through Connecticut on our way to the Big Apple. On the way, we stopped at a place called Katz's Restaurant and Deli in Woodbridge (right next to the tunnel through the mountain, a few miles from New Haven). Katz's looked much like a real New York deli, with a black and white tiled floor, tables with bench seats, and lots of retirees dining on huge sandwiches. And the place turned out to be nearly as good as some of the New York delis I have been to; the matzo ball soup had a terrific broth and a good-sized matzo ball, the hot corned beef sandwich had some really high-quality meat, the homemade potato pancake was tasty and not too greasy, and the French dip had lots of lean, tender roast beef along with a delicious cup of beef juice to go with it. Indeed, Katz's will probably replace Rein's in Vernon, CT as my stopping place for deli food on future trips to New York.

photo of Trinity Place, Manhattan, New York We arrived in Manhattan in the middle of the afternoon and relaxed for a few hours before taking the subway down to Lower Manhattan, where we had dinner at a charming old restaurant at Broadway and Cedar called Trinity Place. Situated in an old bank vault below street level, the atmosphere is cozy and romantic, with lots of mahogany, leather, and steel (including a huge bank vault door that sits at the entrance to the dining room). The food at Trinity Place, as least based on our one meal there, was a very nice mix of upscale pub grub and New American entrees. We tried the Kobe burger with cheese and red onion chutney (a bit dry, but very tasty) and the gorgonzola and hazelnut ravioli with brown butter and sage (delicious, though the portion was rather small). We washed down our meals with Chimay Blue and Chimay Red, which are two of my favorite beers and capped off a fun, memorable dining experience.

photo of P.J. Clarke's, Manhattan, New York After a late-night round of tea and cappuccino at Cafe Angelique in Greenwich Village, we headed back to Midtown East (also known as Turtle Bay) for the night. Sunday morning came around, and we stopped at Cafe Metro at 51st and Lexington for a quick breakfast, then headed to Rockefeller Center for awhile before returning to Midtown East for a late lunch at P.J. Clarke's on 3rd Avenue. P.J. Clarke's is a classic old restaurant and pub with dark wood everywhere, old photos on the walls, and a vibe that you only seem to get in historic New York pubs such as this one. We had some pretty decent food there, including a big bowl of chili that was overflowing with beef and beans, and a buffalo chicken sandwich that had an interesting (in a good way!) marinade. I also ordered something called bubble and squeak, which was a rectangular patty made out of potatoes, bacon, and cabbage. I loved P.J. Clarke's, as it felt like every square inch of this well-worn, historic place had a story to tell.

photo of Cascina, Manhattan, New York After leaving P.J. Clarke's, we took a short trip to Canal Street to look for bargains on various items, then headed back to Midtown East, where I took a long walk along 2nd and 3rd Avenues, taking mental notes of the many Irish pubs in the neighborhood (perhaps for my next trip to the city in early March). Then it was off to Hell's Kitchen where three of us had quite a special meal at Cascina, a Northern Italian restaurant on 9th Avenue near 45th Street. The atmosphere of Cascina made us felt like we were in Tuscany or Piemonte, with beautiful chandeliers, lots of dark wood and exposed brick, a raised section in the back that was cozy and inviting, and a wood-burning oven in the middle of the place. We started with a couple of excellent wines (Salvalai Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and Barbera d'Asti Caminata), moved on to a Caesar salad that was good but had an unusually strong fish taste, then started in on our entrees. Two of us tried the tagliatelle al ragu (homemade fettuccini with Bolognese sauce) while one of us went for the risotto del giorno (risotto with arborio rice). Both dishes were out of this world, with the tagliatelle's bolognese sauce being about the best I have had anywhere. For dessert, we had the tiramisu and biscotti, both of which were very nice, and very filling. We soon left Cascina, pledging that someday we would be back to this outstanding little restaurant.

photo of Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven, Connecticut It was time to leave New York on Monday morning, so we grabbed another quick bite at Cafe Metro, then headed out through Queens. While we were there, we stopped at Main Street Bagels in Flushing to get many bagels to bring back to Boston, then jumped onto the Hutchinson River Parkway and soon, the Merritt Parkway, all the way to New Haven. We couldn't pass by New Haven without stopping at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (also known as Pepe's). I had been to the original Pepe's next door (also known as The Spot), but had not been inside the main Pepe's, so we waited in line, eventually grabbing a table there. We ordered a large half pepperoni/half mushroom pizza, and it was just about as good as the pizza I had eaten at The Spot two years earlier, which is to say it was about the best pizza I have ever had. Their coal-fired thin-crust pizzas are works of art, and might only be surpassed by Grimaldi's in Brooklyn, in my opinion.

Just like that, another New York trip is behind me; but in a few days, I will be back in the Big Apple, this time probably hitting restaurants in Brooklyn and/or Queens, so keep checking back, as there will soon be another blog entry on restaurants in the New York City area.

Related Blog Entries: Connecticut restaurants, Manhattan restaurants, New York restaurants

Monday, February 18, 2008
Valentine's Day Dinner at the Elephant Walk, Cambridge

Valentine's Day can be hit-or-miss when it comes to restaurants, as some dining spots really pull out all the stops with special menus and super food, while others are loud, hectic, overpriced, and anything but romantic. Fortunately, our trip to the Elephant Walk in Cambridge for Valentine's Day was nowhere even close to being the latter. And while not everything was perfect there that night, our experience at this French-Cambodian restaurant was perhaps even better than we had expected.

We arrived at the Elephant Walk a few minutes later than our reservation was for, but were seated promptly in the back corner of one of the cozy basement rooms. they gave us the option of ordering off the regular menu or going with a fair and reasonable fixed price tasting menu. We did one of each option, and started out with a couple of appetizers. The wild mushroom soup with sherry and brown rice was wonderful, with a warm, exotic taste that was perfect for a cold winter night. The meaty pork spring rolls were just as good as the soup, though I gave a very slight nod to the soup. both of the entrees were terrific, though the center-cut sirloin was cooked rare instead of the requested medium, so it had to go back for a bit more cooking. The mee siem au poulet (chicken with egg, vegetables, and rice noodles) was perhaps the pick of the night, with fresh, healthy ingredients going perfectly with the hot spices mixed in. It was just a bit like Singapore noodles, though colored deep red from the hot spices rather than yellow from curry. We had very little room for dessert, but ended up trying the chocolate truffle cake (outstanding) and the creme caramel with pandan leaf (odd-tasting, but not bad, with flavors not unlike hazelnuts and red bean paste). Service overall was excellent, as our waitress was gregarious and funny, and seemed to be able to deal with the stress of handling so many tables that night.

I can see myself returning to the Elephant Walk again, and not just for a special occasion such as Valentine's Day. The food was outstanding at times and the prices weren't too bad for this type of place. There were several items on the menu that had my name written all over them, so perhaps I will be heading back there sooner rather than later. One can only hope...

If you want the address for the Elephant Walk, here it is: Elephant Walk, 2067 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02140. The phone number is (617) 492-6900.

Related Blog Entries: Cambridge restaurants, French restaurants, romantic restaurants

Thursday, February 14, 2008
Sunday Brunch at the Old Mill, Westminster, MA

Last weekend I went on a family brunch outing to the Old Mill, an historic restaurant in Westminster. I have been going to the Old Mill since I was maybe 5 years old, though I hadn't been to their brunch in several years. One reason for this is that we weren't very impressed by the food at their brunch buffet the last couple of times we went. I have been there for dinner a couple of times over the past few years, and found this to be as good as it ever was, but I wasn't sure what kind of quality we would encounter at the Sunday brunch buffet over the past weekend. Well, it turned out that on this day, at the very least, the food was as good as I remember it being when I was growing up. And this made us all pretty happy, since the colonial atmosphere at the Old Mill is something truly unique and special.

photo of the Old Mill, Westminster, Massachusetts We were brought to a table in the back room (or the side room, depending on which way you look at the place) that feels like a sun room, with an indoor garden along one wall and large windows affording views of the mill pond out front. As soon as the waitress took our drink orders, we were off, heading to the buffet table to grab everything from scrambled eggs to bacon to blueberry-filled pancakes to French toast to lasagna to corn fritters shaped like tennis balls to pecan rolls to carved roast beef and on and on and on. For me, the fruit and vegetable trays went largely unnoticed, but others helped themselves to a wide variety of the more healthy fare. None of us really had room for dessert, but we all did our part to get rid of their homemade pastries and sweets. Nearly everything at the buffet table was at least as good as I remember it being back in the old days, although the bacon was a bit undercooked and one of the dessert cakes tasted like it was as old as the restaurant itself.

After we finished eating, we wandered through the wonderful old building, stepping on creaky floorboards and standing in front of the roaring fire, before heading downstairs to their gift shop. I am generally not a big fan of gift shops, but the one at the Old Mill is quite nice, especially with all the nooks and crannies that come with being housed in a building that dates back to the 18th century. Once we finished with the gift shop, some of the group went back upstairs to feed the ducks that were standing on the frozen mill pond, while the rest of us reluctantly got into the car and headed on our way. I could have stayed out there all day, feeding the ducks, listening to the rushing water from the stream and waterfall, or simply wandering through the tree-shaded grounds, but that will be for another day. And based on our assessment of the food at the Old Mill's Sunday brunch, that day could be soon.

If you would like the address for the Old Mill, here it is: The 1761 Old Mill Restaurant, 69 State Road, Westminster, MA 01473. The phone number is (978) 874-5941.

Related Blog Entries: American restaurants, romantic restaurants

Sunday, February 10, 2008
Boston's Hidden Restaurants Turns Four!

It is hard to believe, but Boston's Hidden Restaurants site came into existence four years ago. It seems like yesterday that the site had only a handful of restaurants on it, along with some goofy clip art, cheesy advertising banners, buggy pulldown menus, and rather unusual color schemes. The odd colors may still exist, but the site has certainly changed in many ways, and is now one of the biggest restaurant sites in the Northeast, with about one million hits annually and more than 2,000 pages for readers to look at.

As Boston's Hidden Restaurants turns four years old, many changes are coming to the site right now. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the entire site is slowly being upgraded so that it is handheld-friendly, with simple, easy-to-read pages allowing folks with PDAs or cell phones to be able to enjoy our site while on the road. Another change that we are in the process of doing is making all of the pages on the site as streamlined as possible, so while other sites may have pages that are anywhere from 25 to 100 kilobytes in size, most of our pages will be between 6 and 10 kilobytes, making for faster loads on even the slowest systems (dial-up service, old browsers, old computers, etc.). Finally, we will soon have a brand new section within the site. What will be be? Well, you'll have to come back to find out, so keep checking back over the coming weeks!

Thanks again to all the viewers of Boston's Hidden Restaurants, as well as those who have helped make this site become what it is today. And to those who miss the really bad clip art on the site, maybe we will bring it back someday (but don't hold your breath!).

Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Great Views, Atmosphere at the Tavern at Quarry Hills, Quincy

A large group of us went to the Tavern at Quarry Hills, a country club restaurant in Quincy, a few weeks ago. We were blown away by the views from the restaurant, as it sits high above Boston, affording it sweeping vistas that have almost a Los Angeles-feel. And the inside of the place was nearly as nice, as its elegant, classy dining and bar areas made us feel like we were truly someplace special.

photo of the Tavern at Quarry Hills, Quincy, Massachusetts Do you sense that the term "and yet" is coming next? Well, if so, you are at least partly correct. The food at the Tavern at Quarry Hills, while mostly decent, was not up to par with similarly upscale restaurants in the Boston area, in my opinion. And a couple of dishes, including the grilled pizza, were downright disappointing; the pizza, for instance, was too doughy, and it was loaded with undercooked garlic that drowned out the flavor of the sauce. Other items ordered at the table were good to excellent, with the pork osso buco and the stuffed chicken perhaps being the best of the lot. The steak strips and frites were very good, and one of the other steak dishes was decent, though there was very little steak on the plate, frustrating the person who had ordered it.

Service at the Tavern was fair to middling, with the waitress disappearing for long stretches of time for no apparent reason. And a funny moment occurred when I asked the waitress why there was a huge torch lighting the sky from the other end of the hill. She looked at me with a straight face and said, "This is built on a dump. The torch burns off all the gas inside the hill." Suddenly, the classy, elegant feel to the place seemed to disappear and never returned.

The Tavern at Quarry Hills turned out to be an attractive spot with exceptional views and mostly good food at tolerable prices. The fact that they have outdoor dining in the warm weather is perhaps a reason to come back to this restaurant, as those views really can't be beat. But I can't say I am in a huge rush to come back to this restaurant. Perhaps I'll wait for the first warm day of the year to return, but until then, there are other restaurants I'll be looking to go to.

If you would like the address for the Tavern at Quarry Hills, here it is: The Tavern at Quarry Hills, 100 Quarry Hills Drive, Quincy, MA 02169. The phone number is (617) 689-1900.

Related Blog Entries: New American restaurants, Quincy restaurants

Friday, February 1, 2008
Romantic Dining Page Reminder

A very quick reminder about the Romantic Boston and New England Restaurants for Valentine's Day page that is within the Boston's Hidden Restaurants site. This page lists about 20 cozy, romantic restaurants all around Boston and beyond, including such terrific places as Euno in the North End, Tangierino in Charlestown, Pellino's in Marblehead, the Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield, and Mamma Luisa in Newport, RI.

If you have a favorite romantic restaurant that you would like to share with us, feel free to post a comment about it here. And have a Happy Valentine's Day!

Related Blog Entries: romantic restaurants