Monday, August 23, 2010

September Excitement

The view from a recent Mt. Jefferson hike in New Hampshire
Four days left at the old job: there aren't many projects left for me to work on. Ten days until the move to the new apartment: I have three small boxes packed, about a thousand to go. A little more than two weeks until the new job: I've been wearing jeans to work for so long that I need a total wardrobe makeover for the new job.

September's going to be crazy, so I don't know how often I'll be writing. I do have a backlog of about twenty...maybe thirty...things I want to share with you, so I'll try to write up as many of them as possible now and queue them up to post throughout September. You will eventually see stories from my trip to New Hampshire (cider doughnuts, cupcakes, and bears, oh my!), reviews of my favorite restaurants that I'm leaving behind in Brighton, event recaps (Grilling Social at Tremont 647, a chocolate buffet that I am attending tomorrow, and the grand opening of the first Massachusetts Pinkberry), a whole lot of cupcake quests, and some home cooking.

Also, the folks at CSN have offered to send me a kitchen product to review, so that post will go up at some point. My new apartment has a big kitchen and a huge dining room that I'm very excited about, so now's a good time to try out a new kitchen gadget! I was thinking pasta machine or ice cream machine. Any thoughts? (I'll also have a back and front porch where I can plant stuff!)

Since my updates over the next month or so may be sporadic, you can keep track of new stuff by following me on Twitter and/or "liking" Fork it over, Boston! on Facebook, and you can subscribe to my RSS feed or email newsletter over in the right sidebar.  I'll also be contributing a couple blog posts a month to Somerville Local First and eventually Oyster.

I'll also be participating in the Project Food Blog competition over on Foodbuzz, so you can be my "friend" over there if you have a Foodbuzz account. I may beg for votes at some point, but I'll keep that to a minimum :)

Anyway, I hope not to disappear too much, but soon my priorities will involve getting unpacked in the new place and fully immersing myself in the world of stem cell research. I'm thrilled to move to Somerville and start working at a job that is solidly in my desired career path! Also, I almost forgot - one of my bands is also debuting soon! The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library will be playing with Neutral Uke Hotel at Berklee's Cafe 939 on September 11. More info here.

Well, I hope you're all enjoying your last bits of summer (that sounds depressing, doesn't it?) Do you have any excitement planned for September?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cupcake Quest: The Chocolate Tarte

A modified version of this post appears on Somerville Local First.

This post is part of the Cupcake Quest series on Fork it over, Boston!

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner! No, the Quest doesn't end here; I'll keep gorging myself on cupcakes so you don't have to. But this Somerville gem is the reigning champion, and it's been right around the corner from Joel's apartment the whole time (and also extremely close to where I'm moving in just two weeks...uh oh). Well, it's actually only been there for a couple months, as The Chocolate Tarte's storefront on Highland Ave. is new, but owner Linda Hein founded the business back in 2004, bringing custom desserts to lucky wedding guests, Bar Mitzvah boys, and such. (According to the website, The Chocolate Tarte now works closely with Dave's Fresh Pasta and East Coast Grill to cater weddings and other events. Can someone please marry me immediately so I can experience the awesomeness of three of my absolute favorite food places feeding me all at once? Some girls dream out every detail of the dress, the decorations, and the flowers. I just want BBQ, pasta, and cupcakes. Is that so much to ask?)

The discovery of these Greatest Cupcakes in the World occurred in three increasingly delicious parts. Part I involves pasta, so I'm going to give you a sneak preview of the cupcakes right now since it'll be a few paragraphs before we actually get to them. Behold, miniature cupcakes from heaven:

Part I: The First Taste (from Dave's Fresh Pasta)

One day, I picked up some black heirloom cherry tomatoes from the farmers' market, along with fresh basil and mozzarella. The tomatoes looked greenish-reddish-purple to me, not quite black, but they were both beautiful and tasty.

After thinking about what else could go in the tomato-basil-mozzarella salad to make it sufficient for dinner, we decided to just make the salad as an accompaniment... pasta. I'd been craving a trip to Dave's Fresh Pasta for awhile; my last several attempts occurred after closing time. We picked up a couple types of ravioli (something with basil and something with lemon, but the details are clouded in the haze of fond cupcake memories). I'll devote a whole blog post (or ten) to Dave's at some point in the future. I'm obsessed with that place.

While at Dave's, I spotted mini cupcakes from The Chocolate Tarte, so of course I had to buy them. I had heard that The Chocolate Tarte opened up recently, and I knew it was nearby, so I was excited to give it a try.

After eating the ravioli, I took the cupcakes out of the bag and found a sad mess, which I promptly blamed on Joel.

One bite and all was forgotten. We knew immediately that our Quest had reached its first real zenith, the long awaited reward of so many calories consumed. There may be others down the line - who knows? - but at that moment, these were the Best Cupcakes We Had Ever Tasted.

Frosting: perfect. A buttercream unlike any we had ever tasted. (After much testing, Linda settled on a method that actually combines two European methods.) Creamy but light, like a dollop of the best whipped cream you could ever imagine, the frosting sits in a perfectly manageable little puff atop the cake.

Cake: moist! Flavorful! Until this point, all other miniature cupcakes that we had tasted on the Quest were very dry. These were magical.

We sat in a cupcake coma of sheer delight, pondering whether to go on. I decided I must try a regular-sized cupcake to see if it reached the same awe-inspiring level of greatness as the mini cupcakes. I planned to check out the actual store as soon as possible.

Part II: The Search for Non-Minis

One evening soon after the initial taste, I was hanging around Joel's apartment while he practiced music, so I figured it was a good time to go for a walk and check out The Chocolate Tarte in search of regular-sized cupcakes.

Turns out Linda only makes the big ones on special order. (I will definitely be making an order when I have a housewarming party after moving into the neighborhood next month!) No matter: the minis are amazing and virtually guilt-free.

I wanted to take some photos of the shop, but Linda asked if I could come back in the morning when the lighting would be better and there'd be more fresh treats to photograph. Not one to leave a chocolate shop empty-handed, I bought a couple more cupcakes, plus a small brownie, and said I'd be back.

By the way, the brownies are amazing too.

Part III: The Return (or, A Whole Lot of Chocolate for Breakfast)

I brought Joel back the next morning, and we discussed cupcakes and a whole lot more with Linda, who is very friendly in addition to being an amazing baker. She told me that after 20 years in the corporate world, she took a baking class and realized she could bake cakes ("but not pies.") The Chocolate Tarte was born.

As science nerds, Joel and I were impressed with Linda's technical baking knowledge, taking things like humidity into account when choosing a proper frosting-making method. (Side note - If you're into science and cooking/baking, check out Molecular Gastronomy by Herve This. I'm reading it right now; it's kind of like a Mythbusters for cooking myths. Lots of fun!)

We left with more cupcakes plus a couple slices of the namesake chocolate tarte, which Linda garnished with a sprig of fresh mint from the herb garden out back.

The tarte is incredibly smooth, rich, and fudgy, with some extra subtle flavors. (The one we got was made with Moroccan mint tea.)

We also saw this beauty on display, hinting at the gorgeous cakes Linda makes for events:

The Verdict: Good thing these are miniature, because I am going to be a frequent visitor once I move into the neighborhood in just two weeks. And it's not just the cupcakes that make The Chocolate Tarte worth a visit (or ten): everything else was spectacular, too. Linda's talent is evident in every flourish of frosting or bite of chocolate. She knows that every second counts when baking a treat to perfection, and she understands the changing environmental factors that can cause obstacles to deliciousness.

Fork it over, Boston! is thrilled to declare The Chocolate Tarte the reigning Cupcake Quest champion. Now stop reading and go eat!

The Chocolate Tarte on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pies 'n' Thighs

This is the final post in a series from a weekend trip to NYC. You can read the first post here (a general overview), the second post here (a review of a small chain of Thai restaurants), the third post here (cupcake truck!), the fourth post here (more cupcakes!), the fifth post here (Spanish food), the sixth post here (a mobile farmer's market), and the seventh post here (even more cupcakes).

I'm no Southern food aficionado: my travels in that part of the country include a years-ago trip to Houston when I was so picky I only ate baked potatoes (monstrous Texas-sized spuds), many vacations to Florida (which doesn't count), and a road trip to and from Bonnaroo (Manchester, TN) that included a stop at a delicious Nashville tourist trap, The Loveless Cafe.

Joel showed off his shapely thigh as we waited to eat.

From my limited experience, Brooklyn's Pies 'n' Thighs seems like the real deal. In any case, it's a comforting feast if you're in the mood for hearty dishes our arteries wish didn't exist, like chicken and waffles, biscuits and gravy, and heavenly donuts.

Dan and Clara thought hard about where to bring Joel and me for our last meal in town, and the adorably- (and appropriately-) named Pies 'n' Thighs won out. We walked about a mile to get there, and I stared curiously at Brooklyn's varied architecture. I also almost missed a turn on our route as I attempted to follow an adorable pug.

After a short wait, we were led through a maze of rooms: the bright main dining room with an eclectic collection of chairs and tables plus a plate of free doughnut holes, a hidden courtyard, and finally a brick-walled garage-like room with front barn-style doors opened wide to the street. I imagine it'd be rather cozy in the winter with the doors shut and the bricks keeping in the warmth.

The menu had adorable little cartoons, and the red-and-white checkered tablecloths added a whimsical picnic feel.

A rooster with sunglasses drew our attention to the brunch menu. We needed a bit of help from the friendly server to decipher this part of the menu, which featured mysterious dishes called "Banjo" and "Rob Evans."

Meanwhile, an amicable sailor fish told me to order a sweet tea, so I did.

I had missed the free doughnuts on the way in, but the menu declared their awesomeness.

We started the meal with a doughnut big enough to split four ways.

As soon as we arrived, I had set my mind on biscuits, so I ordered the B & G (biscuits and gravy), which - bonus! - had sausage! I felt like a glutton eating this. So rich, so creamy, so buttery, so...sausage-y. I think I only made it through about half before fearing an inability to fit out the door.

Joel couldn't resist that infamous duo, chicken & waffles. I must admit I'm confused by this pairing whenever I see it, but I guess it makes a good brunch combo because you're getting a little bit of breakfast and a little bit of lunch.

Among other things, Dan and Clara got some sides, including grits...

...and black-eyed peas.

You're probably wondering about the "Pies" part of Pies 'n' Thighs. So was I, but no one was hungry enough for pie after devouring everything else. Someday, pies, I will come back for you. Lemon Blackberry and Key Lime, you two are first on my list.

Brunch at Pies 'n' Thighs was a perfect way to end the weekend, and it put me solidly in a food coma for the ride home. As the highway rushed by, all the cars looked like giant pies and biscuits in my half-asleep dreamworld.

And then I was woken up by a rooster in sunglasses. 

Pies 'n' Thighs on Urbanspoon

New York Restaurants

Well, that concludes Fork it over, Boston!'s NYC weekend miniseries! Come back tomorrow to find out about the reigning champion of the Cupcake Quest!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cupcake Quest: Le Petit Cupcakery (Brooklyn)

This is the seventh in a series of posts from a weekend trip to NYC. You can read the first post here (a general overview), the second post here (a review of a small chain of Thai restaurants), the third post here (cupcake truck!), the fourth post here (more cupcakes!), the fifth post here (Spanish food), and the sixth post here (a mobile farmer's market). The last post will go up tomorrow.

Also, this post is part of the Cupcake Quest series on Fork it over, Boston!

After spotting the mobile farmers' market, we continued on through Brooklyn and stopped by an artsy (read: totally hipster) flea market. Outside, we found miniature cupcakes! Might as well finish off the weekend with a third stop on the cupcake quest. (Earlier in the weekend, I tried out Cake & Shake and Magnolia.) Plus, mini cupcakes are so tiny that they're practically guiltless. If you can swallow it whole, it doesn't count, right? (Wrong. Especially when bacon is involved.)

Le Petit Cupcakery features organic miniature cupcakes (many of them made with locally sourced ingredients). There's just something about the aesthetic of miniature cupcakes that makes me squeal with delight. Unfortunately upon tasting, though, they often turn out to be dry. These were sadly no exception.

First, I pounced on the maple bacon mini cupcake. Actual size: about half of this photo. The candied bacon was, of course, delicious. Would you expect any less from the lovechild of pig and sugar? The maple frosting was sweet and tasty with a smooth, light texture. The cake itself was rather dry.

Maple Bacon Cupcake: Farm-raised bacon and maple cake with maple cream cheese frosting and candied bacon

Next up, the Chocolate Blueberry. Again, great frosting. The blueberry was spectacularly juicy. But the cake? Dry. Not quite as dry as the maple cake, but still not satisfyingly moist. What a shame. These are just so adorable; I wanted so badly to fall in love.
Chocolate Blueberry Cupcake: Rich dark chocolate cake topped with organic blueberry buttercream and fresh blueberries
The Verdict: Worth a quick nom if you're browsing through the market, but I wouldn't go out of my way to order a full batch of these. If you're into a more cakey, dry cupcake, though, you'll probably love these, so give 'em a try!

Check back tomorrow for the last post in my NYC weekend miniseries, a review of a Southern restaurant in Brooklyn called Pies 'n' Thighs!

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Farmers' Market on Wheels

This is the sixth in a series of posts from a weekend trip to NYC. You can read the first post here (a general overview), the second post here (a review of a small chain of Thai restaurants), the third post here (cupcake truck!), the fourth post here (more cupcakes!), and the fifth post here (Spanish food). The remaining posts will go up over the next several days.

While the first part of the weekend was spent with Kim in Manhattan, the second part was in Brooklyn with Joel's brother Dan and Dan's girlfriend Clara, whom I've mentioned previously regarding their spectacular empanadas. (I've only had the chance to try one of their dessert varieties so far, but I've heard that the others are delicious as well. They're particularly proud of "la americana": ground free-range turkey, dried apricots, apricot preserves & cashews.)

I'd never been to Brooklyn aside from assisting on a few hours of a science documentary shoot last summer when I interned for Veriscope Pictures, so I was eager to explore and Joel was eager to show me some awesome parts of the borough. If I were ever to leave Boston for New York, Brooklyn would be the most likely destination. As a musician and disliker of crowded spaces, I'd fit in more comfortably there than Manhattan.

We spent our last morning in town exploring the Williamsburg area. I found the outskirts interesting: grungy storefront after grungy storefront with the occasional hidden gem type of place squeezed in between. I'd love to go back and explore more. When time permits, we're going to go on a Brooklyn food adventure with Dan and Clara, but this weekend was just too busy for extensive adventuring.

We passed many food trucks: burritos, ice cream, more burritos, more ice cream. Then, we came across another truck that we figured would be even more burritos.

But no! It was...

...a mobile farmers' market! From Vermont!

Curious, we spoke to the workers. (Most important question: When are you coming to Boston? "As soon as we're done conquering New York," they responded.)

The Holton Farms truck ("serviced by smiling Holton Farms employees dancing to happy reggae beats," says the website) does CSA drop-offs around New York City and sells excess produce to non-CSA customers. The CSA program is very flexible: pre-pay for your membership for the season and then choose whatever you want, whenever you want. (Online ordering is even available!) Unlike many other CSAs, you don't get a weekly bag of whatever the farmer selected for you; you choose everything yourself.

In an attempt to be a one-stop mobile farm stand, Holton Farms supplements their own produce selection with meats, dairy, and other products from other farms and businesses. Prices are subsidized for low income customers, and the farm states a commitment to sending the truck into under-served neighborhoods. 

Holton Farms, please come to Boston soon!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tio Pepe: A Taste of Spain and Mexico in the West Village

This is the fifth in a series of posts from a weekend trip to NYC. You can read the first post here (a general overview), the second post here (a review of a small chain of Thai restaurants), the third post here (cupcake truck!), and the fourth post here (more cupcakes). The remaining posts will go up over the next several days.

When traveling, I've always found the most interesting meals by trusting the advice of locals. Kim said Tio Pepe was amazing, so we had no choice but to go. We headed over with Joel before going to see The Stepkids play at Sullivan Hall. Tio Pepe felt a bit like a brighter, more open Dali with less cool stuff hanging on the walls. The website mentions a "romantic skylight garden" that does look rather romantic, but we were not seated there.

Service was friendly, although I earned a stern "no more sangria for you" admonishment from our waiter after I knocked my knife onto the floor. (A few minutes later, he poured me a very full second glass from our very large pitcher.)

Kim swears by the chimichangas, but I was dreaming of chorizo, so I ended up with arroz con pollo, a traditional saffron rice dish with chicken and chorizo, embellished with peas and red peppers.


I was lost in sangria-land and don't remember what Joel ordered, but everyone left satisfied. If this were in my neighborhood, I'd definitely return, but since it's in NYC where there are hundreds (thousands?) of other restaurants I need to try, it'll probably be awhile before I go back to this one.

My NYC weekend miniseries continues with Part VI: A Farmers' Market on Wheels.

Tio Pepe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Night in Hell's Kitchen

A modified version of this post appears on the Somerville Local First website, where I am a community blogger.

No doubt about it: Hell’s Kitchen is trashy TV. Half the words are bleeped out, the plot follows the same predictable formula season after season, the female chefs are occasionally shown changing clothes for no apparent reason, and the personalities are larger than life (and often unlikable). I’ve gotten sucked into watching a few previous seasons, and I always tell myself it’s the last time I’ll watch hours of Gordon Ramsey’s incessant shouting. This season, however, two of the contestants were local: Jason Santos of Somerville’s own Gargoyles on the Square, along with Benjamin Knack of Sel de la Terre. Both chefs made it to the final four; Santos continued on to Tuesday night’s finale, where he ended up losing to Chef Holli Ugalde.

Gargoyles on the Square hosted viewing parties throughout the season.
The previous week, I was able to snag a dinner reservation at Gargoyles on the Square to watch the second-to-last episode and try out some of Santos’ signature dishes. Joel ordered from the special Hell’s Kitchen tasting menu, and my parents and I tried out the regular menu. Our meal had moments that perhaps appropriately resembled an authentic night in Hell’s Kitchen: some long waits and bad service but mostly delicious food. On a normal night without overcrowding and a blaring television, service is likely much better than what we experienced, based on what I’ve heard from friends who have eaten there in the past.

Some highlights: the sheer coolness of watching Santos compete on the show while he was right there in the dining room with us; Santos’ signature dish, the duck confit; a nice bottle of Bordeaux, once it finally arrived. The lowlights: having our entrees thrust onto the table before we were done with our appetizers, then waiting endlessly for dessert; waiting at least 45 minutes for our bottle of wine, which arrived after our entrees were already cleared (and receiving poor excuses from the servers we were able to grab during that long wait). We did receive a free dessert as an apology, but we were hoping to drink a bottle of wine with dinner, not with dessert.

Chef Jason Santos watches himself compete in the penultimate episode of Hell’s Kitchen (Season 7).
Sloppy service aside, the food was strong enough to merit a return trip on a non-event night. Santos’ artistry is evident in his dishes, and aside from the pork, which was a bit dry, we really enjoyed the food.

First Course
Heirloom tomato & wild arugula salad with marinated olives, goat’s milk feta, Greek vinaigrette (from the regular menu)
Simple house salad with baby greens, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion vinaigrette (from the regular menu)
Tuna tartare with avocado cream, crispy wonton strips, and mizuna (from the Hell’s Kitchen tasting menu)
Second Course
Signature hoisin & honey-glazed duck confit with sweet sticky rice, mango, cashews, and young coconut milk (from the regular menu)
Pan-roasted Statler chicken, potato puree, wilted spinach, marsala jus, shaved pancetta, and “caprese” garnish (from the regular menu)
BBQ-rubbed pork porterhouse with black truffle creamed corn, asparagus, fried onions, and goat cheese cream (from the Hell’s Kitchen tasting menu)

Third Course
Vanilla cheesecake with fresh strawberries, caramel sauce, and powdered sugar (from the Hell’s Kitchen tasting menu)
Passion fruit tart with orange-buttermilk sorbet, mangoes, and coconut anglaise (from the Hell’s Kitchen tasting menu)
Personal feelings about Hell’s Kitchen’s trashiness aside, it was a good deal of fun to cheer on a local chef in his own restaurant with a bunch of fans. While it’s sad that he didn’t win the competition, at least Somerville will get to keep Chef Santos!

And reason #91873217 why Somerville is awesome: while walking home, we passed a couple of crazy bikes, likely part of SCUL, the Somerville bike gang that you've probably seen around town, often led by a guy with a disco ball on his super-tall handlebars.

Gargoyles on the Square on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 6, 2010

Cupcake Quest: Magnolia Bakery (NYC)

This is the fourth in a series of posts from a weekend trip to NYC. You can read the first post here (a general overview), the second post here (a review of a small chain of Thai restaurants), and the third post here (cupcake truck!). The remaining posts will go up over the next several days.

Also, this post is part of the Cupcake Quest series on Fork it over, Boston!

As we walked away satisfied from the cupcake truck, Kim and I prepared for Part Two of our Double Cupcake Day: Magnolia. Apparently popularized by mentions on Sex and the City and a few other shows, Magnolia has quite the reputation.

First of all, it's totally cute: frilly and light like a five-year-old birthday girl's party dress. The cakes might make you drool on the window. (Side note: The French phrase for "window shopping" - l├Ęche-vitrine - means something closer to "window licking", which conveys the activity so much more accurately, especially when desserts are involved.)

There was a line, but it wasn't quite out the door of the tiny bakery, and it moved pretty quickly. Magnolia smartly has a self-serve cupcake system (though I wonder how many people attempt or succeed to grab and run): on the broad front windowsill, there are several trays of adorably pastel-frosted cupcakes bedecked in round rainbow mini sprinkles or little pastry flowers. A variety of packaging accompanies the treats, and you just pack up what you want and bring it to the register.

Kim and I anguished for a minute over which cupcake to split. Flowers or sprinkles? A weighty debate. We settled on a classic vanilla cake with vanilla frosting and rainbow sprinkles.

The cake part of the cupcake tasted like real cake, light and airy, almost like angel food cake. The frosting was of the light and sugary variety rather than rich buttercream. The sprinkles added some nice texture. Maybe I'm spoiled from all the fancy flavors I've been tasting, but now I have trouble staying with vanilla. Cupcake flavors: it's a slippery slope. One day you move from vanilla to cookie dough, the next day you're stuffing your face with a whole tray of peanut butter chocolate, and the next day you're in the secret basement dungeon of a bakery wearing nothing but...well, never mind.

We ate our cupcake in a park across the street, and the pigeons and sparrows shared the remains of other people's cupcakes.

The Verdict: Sure, it was good, but like anything that has received so much press, it just feels a bit overrated. It's nice that despite the popularity, the price ($2.75) is reasonable relative to the cupcakes I've been eating all around Boston, which have mostly been in the $2.50-$3.50 range. Magnolia could easily raise prices and still bring crowds, especially around closing time (midnight!) on Saturdays and Sundays. I give Magnolia a thumbs up, but in the future, I'd be more likely to seek out lesser known bakeries.

My NYC weekend miniseries continues with Part V: Tio Pepe - A Taste of Spain and Mexico in the West Village, or you can jump ahead to Part VI: A Farmers' Market on Wheels.

Magnolia Bakery on Urbanspoon 
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