Dinner at T.W. Food.

http://twfoodrestaurant.com/

For the second year in a row, Keith and I ended up at Cambridge’s T.W. Food for my birthday dinner.  When the restaurant opened in 2007, it seemed to be on all of the local — and some national — “Don’t Miss” lists, making it something of a culinary darling.  It was the descriptions of Chef Tim Wiechmann’s menu that compelled me to make it my birthday stop last year, and it was the memory of that meal that made me want to repeat the experience.

tw-food-11Like last year, Keith and I opted to do the seven course grand tasting ($69.00) — which in a sense is misleading, as the meal is bookended with extra desserts on one side and an amuse bouche on the other.  (For the record, the tasting is also offered with a wine pairing; that meal is an additional $39.00.)

We received two different amuses: the first was a light egg salad on a circle of toasted brioche, the second was a turnip-ginger mousse on another circle; this one was of puff pastry.  Normally, I favor anything involving a puff pastry; while I will say the mousse was silky in texture and subtle in flavor, the egg salad was so awesomely light that I actually found myself preferring it.

tw-food-21Before our tasting began, we were presented with the one other item that we had ordered: T.W. Food’s oyster shooter ($3.00 each).  Last year, the shooter was a part of the tasting, and Keith can tell you how many often I’ve spoken of its cool brininess.

“Is oceany a word?” I would ask.

And later:  “What about sea-licious?”

This time around, the shooters came in flavored essences — beet, fennel or cucumber.  Keith choose the fennel while I opted for the beet, which was not only intensely flavored of beet but also — well, is oceany a word?

tw-food-31We were never able to resolve the issue, since our tasting then officially began with a smoked foie gras crème brûlée.  It was served alongside a cross-hatch of apples and a round of toast, and while it was incredibly creamy, I’ve never liked crème brûlée; even the foie’s richness couldn’t compete with the caramelized top.  I will say that the sugary top was perfectly crisp and had a pleasant snap to it, and that the foie’s texture was remarkably airy and almost like a custard but that is all.  My bias against crème brûlée prevents me from saying that I truly liked this demitasse of a starter, no matter how pretty it was or how well the crisply sweet apples complemented the foie.

tw-food-41The second course of the tasting was another story altogether.  I loved every aspect of this frothy cauliflower
soup.  Spiced with vanilla, curried gnocchi hid at the bottom of the mug, sidling onto my spoon at the very last minute to surprise me with their wholly unexpected zest.  The broth was at once creamy and light, and tasted almost intoxicatingly of cauliflower — rich, milky and utterly delicious.  What was interesting was the mixture of textures here: breezy cauliflower foam, atop lush cauliflower-vanilla soup, in which pillowy gnocchi swam.  It was absolutely lovely, and I had to hide my spoon from myself when I was done, since I was tempted to dip it into Keith’s mug.

tw-food-51The third course was one I was looking forward to very much, from the moment I read its description on the menu: “German spätzle, a special ‘Schwabish’ recipe: bacon, onion, parsley and Emmenthaler cheese.”  I love spätzle — well, I love noodles and those made with egg have a very warm place reserved in my heart — and I am one of those people who think that the addition of bacon to any recipe is a smart move, so I attacked this plate knowing that it was almost impossible for me to be disappointed.  That said, I think even if I hadn’t been already leaning towards affection, there would have been no chance of me not adoring this dish.  After all, what’s not love about crunchy, salty bacon paired with soft, chewy noodles and the tang of melty cheese?

tw-food-6I was a bit anxious about this next dish of Scottish salmon, but not because I get squeamish around fish.  In fact, I love most seafood, and a pan-seared fillet with wild mushrooms sounded particularly appetizing.  What was  getting me nervous, however, was our server described as “eggplant caviar.”  Here’s the thing:  I hate eggplant.  (I know it’s not cool to hate it, but the truth’s the truth.)  At first I took the childish route, performing surgery on my plate in order to transport as much salmon and mushroom to my mouth as little contact with the eggplant as possible.  Don’t worry, I quickly realized that this was utterly silly and that a little but of aubergine wasn’t going to kill me.  In fact, it was quite good…  for eggplant.

tw-food-7Our last of the main courses was game-centric: venison two ways.  The first was the cured and roasted leg meat, and the second was with braised and packaged in pasta.  While it should be noted that everything on the plate was  delicious (especially the smeared dollop of turnip purée and the tender wedges of pear), I found this dish to be exceedingly heavy.  Had the grand tasting been six courses, with the venison as the final savory plate, that would have been one thing, but to face it after the not-so-light salmon and the filling spätzle…  I thought it was a bit of a misstep on the planning stage of things.

tw-food-81Stage one of our dessert was a small cheese plate featuring Noble Cheddar from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and my beloved Comté from Jura, France.  As with the salmon earlier in the evening, I had some hesitation when approaching this dish.  This time, however, it was because of the cheddar.  I am a great aficionado of cheese, but I am most certainly on the fence when it comes to cheddars.  In fact, of all the different varieties that I’ve had, I can only think of three that I’ve liked:  Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Montgomery’s and Keen’s.  I’m sad to say that the Noble didn’t make my list, though my wedge did find itself on Keith’s plate.

tw-food-91The final course of the grand tasting was one that I was quite curious about: pears suspended in a chamomile tea gelée with a sweet cream panna cotta and a pumpkin coulis.  I don’t know if it’s trendy to confess this, but here I go regardless — I really enjoy a nice gelée.  I like its slippery texture on the tongue, and I like its concentration of flavor.  This gelée satisfied me immensely, as did the panna cotta, which was perfectly balanced between firm and satiny.  The one aspect that I found myself spooning away from, however, was the pumpkin coulis.  Flavored with cinnamon, it was so overwhelming that a few smears on my spoon were more than enough for me to get a taste; after he had finished his, I swapped my goblet with Keith, a fan of cinnamon.

tw-food-101Immediately before we were presented with the bill, we were given some extra desserts to speed us home.  My absolute favorite was a sweet that tap-danced the line dividing cookie from cake; made of almond flour, it was so delicate and so subtle that I found myself chewing more and more slowly so that I could enjoy it even more.  The second-place finish goes to the golden brown tuille, whose sticky crunch was impossibly fun.  In the absolute dead last position were the sugar-dusted Concord grape jellies; after one bit I forfeited my candy to Keith.  I don’t know what it is about grape (and cherry, and raspberry) but I infinitely prefer the authentic fruit to a reproduction, or even a boiled down version of its essence.  I don’t know why this is, especially as I’ve no problems with candified versions of apple, peach and watermelon; grape, for whatever reason, is at the top of my can’t-stand-it list.

Now, first things first:  I love T.W. Food.  I love the casual-yet-refined ambiance, I love the eclectic mix of furnishings, I love the fact that our server remembered us from last year, and I of course love the practically worshipful attention-to-detail Chef Wiechmann and his team possess.  What I don’t love is that I’ve come to realize that there are so many foods and flavors that I dislike: crème brûlée, eggplant, most Cheddars, cinammon and concentrated grape.  Did my food preferences cause me to enjoy my meal any less?  Of course not; I just find myself wondering what else there is out there that I find unpalatable, and hoping they’re not on the menu next year.

T.W. Food
377 Walden Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
617.864.4745
twfoodrestaurant.com

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Dinner at Boston Public.

I have mixed feelings about Boston’s Restaurant Week. Granted, there’s no denying that the twelve days provide a great opportunity for diners to try some of the area’s restaurants, especially with their more wallet-friendly prix fixe menus — $33.08 for a three-course dinner and $22.08 for a three-course lunch. With restaurants like Gaslight, T.W. Food, B&G Oysters and Great Bay taking part, it’s no wonder that reservations can be tricky to come by.

At the same time, are Restaurant Week reservations worth it? After all, what you will be eating will by no means be an accurate representation of an establishment’s food. The menu is oftentimes so pared down as to only offer two options of entrées and three of each appetizer and dessert. If you’re hoping to try a restaurant’s signature dish, chances are you’ll be out of luck. If the limited menu choices aren’t enough to dissuade you, consider this: service. A crowded, boisterous dining room with too few frazzled waitstaff is fun for exactly no one.

This past Thursday night Keith and I were invited to dinner — a Restaurant Week dinner — at Boston Public in Louis Boston by some friends. In spite of my opinion on the matter, we said yes, as a long time had passed without seeing Lexi, Terence, Kyle and JD. I was running a little behind schedule because of delays on the red line, which stressed me out because I have this paranoia that I’m always late (this may or may not be true). In spite of my unpunctuality flustering me, it didn’t prevent me from noticing a few things.

First of all, the menu was on the strange side — Keith had located an online copy prior to dinner, and we had all dissected it. The menu we received when we sat down was a bit different, happily. Earlier in the day, we had been quite indignant about the number of supplemental fees so it was gratifying to see that the fourteen-ounce sirloin ($17 supplemental charge) and the Angus filet ($15 supplemental charge) were omitted. However, we saw there was a new appetizer: Buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes, for an additional five dollars.

Now, that was frustrating (an extra five dollars for mozzarella?!) but it didn’t compare with our affecting, artificial waiter. When we were making our wine selections, he spoke to our group as though we knew nothing about wine. The menu offered two choices in wine flights, one for $20.08 and another for $30.08; both JD and Lexi expressed interest in the first, but here the waiter did something that I especially did not appreciate. He gave truly one of the hardest sells I’ve seen on the pricier wine flight, and I’m sad to say my friends went for it.

crab-wontons.jpg

In spite of all that, I was pleased with my appetizer of crab wontons, which also came with a fantastic chartreuse green dipping sauce. I sampled the sauce first — tangy and familiar, something about it kept my fork moving from mouth to dish until it was all but gone. I tried dragging a wonton through the sauce but honestly, they were both at their best alone. The wonton was crisp, crunchy and deliciously crabby, without even the slightest hint of oiliness.

(When I asked the server about the green sauce, he said, “It’s sort of like an herb mayo.” To which I replied, “Oh? What herbs?” His response was, “Whatever’s available.”)

The rest of the party didn’t fare so well with their starters. Keith and Terence ordered the chicken spring roll, which Keith found incredibly lackluster; Kyle thought his shortrib potstickers, which JD and Lexi had both also selected, were overly greasy. Presentation-wise, the potstickers arrived in an overlarge bowl, with the crescent-shaped dumplings barely covering its bottom.

I had been torn as to what to select for my entrée. After all, Boston Public fancies itself a steakhouse (an Asian steakhouse, I should say) but the menu we received only had one beef entrée: skirt steak, a notoriously cheap and tough cut. Now, I have nothing against cheap cuts; after all, a skirt steak is at its most flavorful when braised. This skirt steak, however, was to be grilled and served with a red wine sauce. Already hesitant, I asked our server his opinion.

“I kind of hate salmon,” he said. When he saw my expression at this, he quickly added, “But other people really seem to like it.”

salmon.jpgWhile it was the worst endorsement I’ve heard, Kyle and I both decided to risk the salmon — probably the best I’ve taken. Even though I’ve never liked dried Umeboshi plums (though I liked the misspelling of plum on the menu) the combination of the sauce and the palm sugar glaze gave the fish a very nice subtle sweetness. The flavors also complimented the sautéed bok choy layered underneath the salmon, leaving me extremely happy with my choice.

Again, the other members of my group weren’t as pleased with their selections. All had gone with the skirt steak, which arrived on ridiculously small plates barely the size of the steaks themselves. The red wine sauce gave the appearance of a bloody, bloody wreck of a steak; the melting pat of butter placed atop the meat didn’t do anything at all of change that. I stole a piece from Keith’s plate — it was as rubbery as squid, and not nearly as fun to eat. Also, it left me wondering exactly where the Asian influence lay. The steak had been prepared in the most basic fashion with essentially a red wine jus; I may not be an expert in the kitchen, but I had been under the impression that a jus is French.

To add even more indignity, the others’ entrées were literally just meat. Luckily Keith and I had decided to spilt a side dish, and ordered the potato purée. Almost all of us ended up scraping some of it onto our plates.

panna-cotta.jpg

For dessert, I was the only one to deviate from choosing the blueberry shortcake, opting instead for the vanilla panna cotta with raspberry sauce. It was genuinely a forgettable dish. In this case and this case alone, Keith’s selection surpassed mine with ease. The shortcake would have been a nice, simple dish, but the addition of lemon took it beyond basic and into something much more interesting.

At the end of dinner, I think I was the only one to not have any complaints about the food. I was sad that the same couldn’t be said of my fellow diners, but I was pleased nevertheless. Until… the bill arrived. The restaurant had added a 21% gratuity to our check. It was an absolutely perfect farce. I am all for rewarding excellent service, but I also am for the right to decide whether or not such service was received. In this case, it was most certainly not; an 18% tip would have been undeserved.

While we were reaching grudgingly for our wallets, I noticed a patron across the room pouring her martini out of its signature glass and into a lowball. Odd, I thought, but considered that maybe she didn’t like martini glasses. I’ve been known to knock over a few with a clumsy elbow, so I could understand if perhaps she preferred something a bit more stable. Outside, Keith told us how the table next to us had ordered cocktails; after a delay, the hostess had informed them that the bar was out of martini glasses, and asked if they would object to their drinks being served in white wine glasses. It made me wonder, had someone asked the woman in the other room for her glass back? Before I could think about this some more, Keith and Kyle said that they had walked past several customers unhappily arguing with their servers.

Is it cheering to know that we weren’t the only ones displeased with our evening? Of course not. No one likes to receive a bill for almost four hundred dollars after a highly uneven and mostly disappointing meal. At the same time, it was comforting to learn that we were not alone.

Boston Public
234 Berkeley Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116
617.266.4680
bostonpublicmeat.com

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