SEPTEMBER 8, 2019 NEWSLETTER
Founded in 1996
"Bar Room" by Thomas Hart
Benton, circa 1934
By John Mariani
Perhaps because Cambridge is not as compact as Boston, I always think of it as the larger city, where you can walk very far and enjoy so many pubic squares as well as stroll through nearly a dozen neighborhoods like Somerville, Riverside, Radcliffe and Strawberry Hill. The M.I.T. campus now takes up an enormous chunk of real estate, and the Charles River is broad enough to remind you that Cambridge is very much its own city, not an attachment to Boston.
Given its number of universities and their students, Cambridge is awash in storefront eateries of every stripe, from vegetarian spots like Whole Heart and a place that sells 14 kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches to fusion spots like Anna Sortun’s Sarma to a multi-room restaurant and nightclub called The Middle East. There are no old, historic restaurants in the city—The Red House dates to 1802 as a private residence but only became a restaurant in this century—though one of the best in town, Harvest, is celebrating 45 years in business.
44 Brattle Street
Of the four restaurants Chris Himmel owns—Grill 23 & Bar, Harvest Post 390, Bistro du Midi and Harvest—the last is the best and most personalized. I doubt any restaurant in New England can claim as many illustrious graduates of its kitchen as Harvest. Scott Bryan, Bob Kinkead, Barbara Lynch, Frank McClelland, Sara Moulton, Eric Brennan, Chris Schlesinger and Lydia Shire all practiced their craft there before going off on their own to prove their mettle.
Today Tyler Kinnett, Harvest’s chef since 2015, is behind a newly renovated kitchen, and while he is clearly doing his own cuisine, it is in the line and spirit of what was done before. Dishes on the menu back in 1986, like fettuccine with jalapeños, grilled peppered shrimp, and a pea and goat’s cheese salad, might just as readily be found on the menu today.
Kinnett has wide experience in the area, having worked at Hamersley’s Bistro and Sel de la Terre and having run the catering department at Fenway Park, as well as having cooked at Blackbird in Chicago and Per Se in New York.
You’ll find Harvest down a cobblestone path near Harvard Square, and the linden tree-lined garden terrace is the loveliest of several rooms, with candles on a clothed table.
Beverage Director Brahm Callahan’s 21-page wine list is one of the finest in the region, with about 20 half-bottles, and prices are quite reasonable overall in a state whose taxes can make wines punishingly expensive.
Harvest has a very long menu, which could do with some trimming. You might just go with the raw bar offerings, which include at least five species of oysters ($3.50 each), or the crudi seafood, like Scituate scallops with a pine granita and brioche ($14) or Acadian redfish with yuzu, avocado and plantain ($12), or the icy seafood towers ($40 to $75), then a mix of charcuterie and cheeses ($12 to $13).
You get a delectable skillet of cornbread with maple syrup, and Harvest serves one of the best lobster bisques (left) in town, exceptionally rich with lobster roe dumplings, pearl onion and chervil ($18). Corn panna cotta with sweet cherry tomato, bacon, smoked Gouda, red quinoa, peppers and cornbread crumbs ($14) is a fine starter, too.
Among the seafood main courses I recommend the Georges Bank haddock sided with mussels, fennel, butterball potatoes, artichokes, sugar snap peas and lemon ($34). Meat dishes of note are the garlic and fennel roasted rolled porchetta with grapefruit marmalade, stoneground Mexican Taza chocolate mole, coraline chicory and shiso ($38), and the perfectly balanced sweet and sour flavors of plump duck breast with stone fruit, pistachio mole and lavender jus ($36). There’s always a pasta or two, like the Swiss chard and ricotta tortelloni, good but overdressed with tomato, eggplant, kohlrabi, basil pesto, radicchio and Parmigiano ($24).
On Sundays Harvest holds a barbecue of beef brisket and pork belly, smoked sweet potato salad, jalapeño cheddar cornbread, baked beans and curtido ($34).
Harvest is always a happy night out, so you must enjoy some of Joshua Livsey’s sumptuous desserts, like the dense but moist flourless chocolate cake with cherries, dehydrated chocolate mousse, whipped cream and cherry jam ($10), or a corn cake ($12), or a blackberry Pavlova meringue with lush elderflower panna cotta, blackberry gastrique and sage ice cream ($13).
as good as refined dining gets in New England, and
it is served up with a genuine bonhomie that puts
its 45 years of longevity in proper perspective.
Open for lunch Mon.;Fri; for
dinner nightly; for brunch St. & Sun.
505 Massachusetts Avenue
You might mistake Little Donkey for one of those funky eateries along Central Square, but when you have two powerhouse chefs like Jamie Bissonette and Ken Oringer—both James Beard award winners—the dynamic soars upward. They also run Coppa (Italian trattoria), Uni (“global street food”) and Toro (Spanish, with branches in New York, Dubai and Bangkok).
Little Donkey is a big, bright room of industrial design remnants, with exposed brick walls, concrete surfaces and slender columns. There are high bar tables with high chairs, as well as regular ones.
The menu is similar in style to Uni’s in offering
flavors from around the world—from Jersey to
Japan,” though there’s a lot more Japanese than
Jersey on the menu. About Little Donkey Oringer
says, “Every chef likes to have a restaurant
where they can cook whatever the hell they want
to cook any time they want to cook it, and this
gives us that freedom.” Most often such hubris
is a path to madness, suggesting a throw-away
mentality without feeling the need to perfect a
dish. Yet, given their dual experiences and
ability to cover their bases, Oringer and
Bissonette have forged their ideas into a
winning formula. I had a lot of terrific food at
a lunch at Little Donkey, where I was glad to
see both Oringer and Bissonette, both of whom
I’ve been writing about for decades, sitting
Natalie Ann Schaefer
Despite the “whatever the hell we want to cook” modus operandi, the menu doesn’t radically change much from day to day, though there are always specials. My party of five checked off a bunch of items, beginning with cooling tuna poke with Gochujang condiment and pickled bean sprouts ($16). Organic hummus with cucumber, sumac, sunflower seeds, served with warm Barberi bread ($10), had a complexity of spices too often lacking in muddy versions. And who can say no to a pile of patatas bravas ($6)?
Cornmeal pupusas with peas, Chihuahua cheese, spicy slaw and tomatillo sauce ($8) didn’t add up to the sum of its parts. “For the Table” are BLT lettuce wraps with lamb bacon ($15), a very tasty dish with pimento cheese, tomato jam and pickled red onions that would do any Southern cook proud, while the Seoul Bowl "Bibimbop Style" ($14) had fiery kimchi, tofu, Korean fried broccoli, Persian cucumbers and egg, a combo that would rank high in any of the more exciting Korean eateries around town. Also very good with lots of punch was Thai sausage chow fun with Calabrian chili, scallion and crunchy peanuts ($15).
You know there’s going to be a big sloppy burger on such a menu, and Little Donkey’s is called the “impossible burger” ($16) because of the difficulty of eating it without a mess. It’s really delicious, slathered with sambal mustard, tomato jam, smoked tofu aïoli and American cheese, whose components make even the tofu taste pretty good. There’s also a buffalo burger with pickles, American cheese, onion soup mayo, jalapeño chops ($15) and—wait for it—foie gras! It, too, is nice and sloppy, kind of silly and also irresistible once you’ve had it, for a very reasonable $15.
This is not the kind of place where you skip dessert, and if you’re a fan of cookie dough, you’ll probably love the big scoop of it with chocolate chips, Little Donkey’s signature sweet (right).
With a name like Little Donkey you might not take a restaurant too seriously, and if you did, you’d lose part of the fun. But Bissonette and Oringer are dead serious about putting out the best versions of every item on their menu with their practiced ability.
Open for lunch through dinner Mon.-Fri, for brunch and dinner Sat. & Sun.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
UNCLE JACK'S MEAT HOUSE
are two Uncle Jack’s restaurants in Queens: Uncle
Jack’s Steakhouse in Bayside (with two others in
Manhattan) and Uncle Jack’s Meat House in Astoria
(with a branch in Duluth, Georgia).
The Steakhouse is a more traditional dining room, not stuffy but not as casual as the Meat House. Both served first-rate beef, and I found the diversity on the Meat House menu offered a lot more for those who just want to eat light at the bar, evoking the look of a meat locker, or go full bore in the (quieter) rear dining room.
Opened last December on a lively, restaurant-saturated block, the Meat House has a deliberately scruffy Roaring Twenties look, with a Bootlegger Jack’s Hidden Speakeasy accessible through a unisex lavatory. There’s a handsome bank vault-style door, peeling wallpaper and Tiffany chandeliers, but not in the sanitized Disney way, looking instead like it’s been around forever.
The wine list is serviceable but largely stocked with familiar brand names. There are several half-bottles available, and prices are moderate, but there are no vintages listed, which is very disappointing.
The menu has all the standard steakhouse items and a
good deal more, including a category of “Munchies,”
from meaty pork belly chicharrons
with a hot sauce perked up with lime ($10) to wagyu
beef meatballs in a sweet hoisin sauce ($18). A lot
of steakhouses do a slab of roasted
bacon, but Uncle Jack’s was outstanding for its
ideal blend of fat and lean, served with a chipotle
mayonnaise ($12). Best of all are the unusual
lobster and avocado mini tacos in a taro root shell
with wasabi-laced mayo ($14)—so good they are tough
to share with even the best of friends. A close
second are the tuna poke “spliff” cones of raw,
ahi tuna in a spicy mayo, sesame and avocado
There’s also a generous charcuterie board of artisan meats and cheeses and housemade condiments ($24) that you can definitely share. There are also sandwiches and salads, along with five hamburgers to which you can add other items ($12-$17).
In addition to all this, there are daily specials, and since it was Wednesday, the option was meat loaf ($18), which was not a very generous slab and needed seasoning. The “Scratch Plates” included a delicious, succulent, well-cooked herbed chicken with pan gravy and seasonal vegetables ($20).
Of the eight side dishes offered (all $8), I’d go with the naturally buttery Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, the “Corngasm” crème brûlée corn pudding or the shredded crispy Brussels sprouts with bacon lardons and Thai spices.
No, you do not want to skip at least one dessert for the table—portions are very large—from the “Baking Bad” three-cookie plate ($10) and “O.M.G. It’s Huge” coconut cream pie ($10) to the gooey, rich chocolate soufflé with salted caramel ice cream ($12).
Uncle Jack’s Meat House is serious about delivering first-class food, and the atmosphere is engaging, so I wish they’d get rid of those kitschy menu names. This food deserves way more respect.
Open for lunch and dinner daily.
NOTES FROM THE WINE
OF SOUTH AFRICA,
Beaumont Family Wines offers
accommodations for visitors on their farms
To continue with my tasting of South African wines now in the U.S. market, I find that so many are so well priced and that Pinotage is so critical to the country’s viniculture means that it is now expressive of individual vintners’ own style. But there are other varietals well worth trying, as noted here.
Forrester Petit Pinotage 2018 ($14.99)— A very
good price for a splendid “little” Pinotage whose
elements are impeccably blended in an un-oaked
version of the varietal, so it comes from last
year’s vintage in Stellenbosch from vineyards
selected for their fruity character. With little
skin contact and 14% alcohol, it has a lighter body,
fresh with good acid, so it goes well with salmon,
veal or chicken dishes.In addition, Ken Forrester is
known as "Mr. Chenin" for his fine work with that
Backsberg Pinotage Rosé 2018 ($13)—A fourth-generation winery whose improvement over the past ten years by Michael Back and his son Simon has brought more focus and modern technology to this estate in the Simonsberg Mountains, about 40 minutes from Capetown. Michael Back says, “An additional change in our thinking over the last number of years is to say that at the all-critical time of harvesting we don’t simply harvest ripe fruit, but rather fruit from ripe vines. The holistic view again – all the aspects of the vine must show ripeness.” The wine is interesting in several ways, first, by showing that Pinotage is a first-rate base for a rosé wine; second, it has remarkable floral notes and lovely color; and third it has a slight fizz on the palate, all of which makes it a terrific apéritif, not least with shellfish.
Flotsam & Jetsam Cinsault 2017 ($24)— I’m not sure Cinsault as a single varietal is going to catch on anywhere outside of South Africa, although as one element in a blend it gives deep color and aroma to Pinotage, as well as to Rhône Valley wines blended with Mourvèdre and Grenache. This oddly named label, made by Chris and Suzaan Alheit of Alheit Vineyards, whose website tries to be churlish, exemplifies the grape’s initial burst of ripe flavors, with dark color and medium body. The grapes are picked early so as not to have a heavy, cloying result. Taste it and make up your own mind about single varietal Cinsault.
Glenelly Glass Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($20)— Here’s a diversion in a wine that is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, crafted from various blocks of vines on the estate. Many California wineries could take a lesson from this refined, complex Cab with only 14% alcohol. The tannins are still taking their time loosening up, but right now it’s a very good wine at this price level to go with a thick porterhouse on the grill.
Beaumont Family Wines Hope Marguerite 2018 ($20)—In 2004 Sebastian Beaumont took over as winemaker at his family’s winery in Bot River, an historic 18th century estate they bought in 1978, producing its first labeled wines in 1994. Since then their reputation for fine Chenin Blanc, first released in 1997, has been assured, as this exemplary bottling shows. It does not have the grassiness or fruit punch character of lesser Chenin Blancs and is closer in subtlety to a Burgundy like Chablis. It spends time mostly in French oak, with 15% new wood, and while the producer claims its “fresh, clean and powerful fruit will develop beautifully over the next 5–10 years in bottle,” I wouldn’t take a chance on holding on that long. It truly deserves to be enjoyed right now with all kinds of seafood.
"THE BUZZ Putting the fancy in fancy-free— with killer food and more Tiki chic than you can shake a mini umbrella at."--Alexandra Hall, "THE 10 MOST EXCITING RESTAURANTS IN BOSTON RIGHT NOW," Boston Common July 24, 2019)
David Chang tweeted he decided it was time to
post his latest “heretical statement,”
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I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." THIS WEEK:
Eating Las Vegas
JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas
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