Saturday, June 23, 2012

M3: First Impressions

I walked by Alfresco, a small Italian restaurant on the edge of Davis Square, many times; it was one of those places I always wanted to try, dining in candlelight at a table for two on the sidewalk. Joel rarely craves Italian food, though, so we never made it over there. (Me? I could eat pasta for every meal for the rest of my life.) It's closed now, and the founder of South Boston's Local 149 has recently opened M3 in the space. M3 is apparently Southern code for "meat 'n' three sides." I can get behind that.

I met Tasted Menu colleagues around 7 PM on Friday, unsurprisingly facing quite a wait for a table in the relatively small space. Four stools at the counter opened up quickly, though, so we settled for that instead of a table. For noise reasons, I wouldn't recommend a party larger than two or three taking a seat at the counter; I could barely hear the conversation the entire night. It was fun, though, getting a peek into the kitchen and chatting with various staff members as they passed by.

The ambiance is lively and cozy - and by that I mean loud and cramped - but in a good way. It feels a bit like the lovechild of Highland Kitchen and Trina's Starlite Lounge, two of my absolute favorites, so I feel right at home. The walls and even the tables are covered with chalkboard paint, and food and drink specials are scrawled in pastels, different sections set off by empty picture frames. Funky chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and the lighting is enhanced by a string of mason jar lamps.

Amongst the four of us, we covered a good deal of the menu, which features charcuterie, appetizers, small plates, entrees, sides, and desserts. The entrees, all in the $18 range, include three sides; sides alone are $4 each. I was particularly attached to the lime garlic chili fries, but I was pretty happy with everything overall. Since the restaurant has just barely opened, I won't review it fully until it has had a few months to settle in, but my first impression is quite positive. I will definitely be back, and I think it will do very well in the neighborhood. And now, a peek at the food:

fried cheese curd: state of Maine cheese, flash-fried, red gravy
duck drumsticks: duck legs, superberry bbq, apple jicama slaw
peaches & cream: frisee, soft goat, arugula, walnut, pistachio, blackberry vin
crab deviled eggs: farm fresh, blue crab
hot water cornbread
brussels sprouts
macaroni 'n' cheese
lime garlic chili fries
thin pan-fried catfish: fresh water, cornbread, white harissa
beer can hen: porkslap ale, garlic & herbs, honey butter
strawberry cake
strawberry cake
coconut cream cake
derby pie

M3 on UrbanspoonSee my favorite dishes at this restaurant on Tasted Menu

Monday, June 11, 2012

Truly Extra Virgin: A Chilean Olive Oil Dinner Party

In the past, when I thought of olive oil, I thought of Italy, so I was immediately intrigued when I was contacted by a firm representing ChileOliva, an association of Chilean olive and olive oil producers. As part of a large marketing campaign, they were looking to sponsor dinner parties in the homes of food enthusiasts in several cities around the United States, including Boston, in order to spread awareness of Chilean Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I love throwing dinner parties, and I love olive oil, so it was easy to say yes. For attendees, I tried to pick a group of friends, both bloggers and non-bloggers, who would enjoy eating as well as learning about the olive oil. While I'm not sure how much education was retained due to the free-flowing Chilean wines brought by my guests, it was certainly a wonderfully fun (and delicious!) evening.

In preparation for the party, I spent some time reading up on Chilean olive oils and was surprised to find that it felt like I was reading about wines. From varietals to tasting notes, the topic of olive oil is much more complex than I had ever considered. Chile is apparently a perfect location for olive agriculture because it's geographically sheltered by a desert, an ocean, and mountains, and the climate is ideal: cold, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. (Its latitude is actually the Southern Hemisphere counterpart to the Mediterranean region in the Northern Hemisphere, which explains the similar climate.)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is something I've bought for years without really knowing what the "Extra Virgin" part meant, so this was a good opportunity to find out. "Virgin" is a commercial grade of olive oil that indicates that it was produced only through physical means, without chemical treatment; a virgin grade generally corresponds with superior taste. (Compare to "refined," an inferior grade that indicates that the oil was chemically treated to neutralize taste and acid content.) Virgin olive oils have a maximum acidity of less than 1.5%; they can be further classified as extra virgin if the acidity is less than 0.8%. Extra virgin olive oils are considered to be the finest in terms of taste and overall quality.

I was provided with a selection of recipes, from which I chose three courses for the dinner party, and in the days leading up to the party, I received plenty of olive oil for cooking and tasting, along with all of the other necessary ingredients to make the dinner party a success. In addition to some hectic last-minute apartment cleaning, I put together a music playlist on Spotify consisting of songs written and/or performed by Chilean composers and performers; you can check it out here if you want some appropriate background music as you read the rest of this post:

Even though I meticulously scheduled out the cooking and cleaning that needed to occur on the day of the dinner party, I ran into quite a few mishaps along the way: pastry dough that I should have thawed hours earlier, an undercooked first course, too much chicken for even my biggest pans, the panic that set in when it looked like there wouldn't be enough food, and several other exciting challenges. In the end, though, with the help of my roommate and our friends that arrived earlier in the day, everything came together. Without further ado, here are some food ideas and recipes so that you can throw your own dinner party. (Find more on the Chile Olive Oil website - and submit your own!)

I wanted to make something light, refreshing, and summery, and I had a bottle of rosewater just sitting around and waiting to be used, so I made a giant pitcher of rosewater lemonade using a recipe from, reproduced below with some minor changes and notes. Additionally, several guests brought along a variety of fantastic red and white Chilean wines, obviously a perfect fit for the theme of the evening. Chile's primary wine region roughly spans the same area as the olive region, and it produces many fine wines, so it's hard to go wrong. Just ask for a recommendation at your local wine shop.

Blushing Rose Lemonade (Recipe by user Cynna)
Servings: 12
Time: 10 minutes hands-on; ideally 1+ hours in the fridge
  • 10 2/3 cups water
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 2/3 cups fresh lemon juice (about 12 lemons)
  • 6 teaspoons rosewater (I got mine at one of the Armenian grocery shops in Watertown)
  1. Combine water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring just until the sugar has dissolved.
  2. Remove from heat and let cool. (Or, for a cold weather variation, try continuing quickly on with the rest of the recipe without cooling and serving it immediately. I forgot to let it cool, and when I tasted the finished product while it was warm, it was quite good!)
  3. Add to pitcher and stir in the fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
  4. Add rosewater. (Be sure to add a little at first and taste as you go. It can be a strong flavor if you overdo it.)
  5. Chill well until serving (ideally at least an hour).

I panicked when the first course, Fresh Tomato Tart (recipe below), came out completely underdone on the inside (a cream and egg mixture) but nicely golden brown on the outer crust, but my roommate came up with covering the crust with foil so it wouldn't burn as we put it back in the oven to finish the middle. Meanwhile, though, I realized that whether or not this course actually worked out, it didn't look like we'd have enough food. Fortunately, a few of our friends came earlier in the day and did a last-minute shopping trip and some quick thinking, resulting in a simple caprese salad and a giant tray of baguette slices with three tasty dipping options, at least one of which was olive oil-based.

And here's the recipe for the "official" first course, the Fresh Tomato Tart, provided by the Chile Olive Oil folks. (In the end, after a little bit of extra cooking in our temperamental oven, it turned out pretty awesome.)

Fresh Tomato Tart (Recipe provided by ChileOliva)
Servings: 10
Time: 20 minutes hands-on; 40 minutes in the oven (or more if your oven is stupid like mine)
  • 1 1/2 puff pastry sheets
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 4 1/2 tablespoons Chilean Extra Virgin Olive Oil (preferably a smooth, rather than bold, variety)
  • 4 extra large eggs
  • 3 large ripe tomatoes
  • Coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 12-inch tart pan with pastry dough, cutting and patching as necessary.
  2. Combine the basil, cream, four tablespoons of oil, eggs, salt, and pepper into a food processor; process until the basil is very finely chopped.
  3. Pour mixture into pastry pan and bake for 30-40 minutes until cooked through, golden, and fragrant. (This part confused me and took longer than expected. Ultimately, the end texture of the non-dough portion of this tart should be quiche-like.)
  4. While the tart is baking, slice the tomatoes thinly. As soon as the tart is removed from the oven, arrange the slices on top and drizzle with the remaining half tablespoon of oil. (I put the tomatoes on after removing the tart from the oven the first time, before it was truly done, so our tomatoes actually got baked a little bit. It turned out well!)
  5. Serve slightly warm.

We should have thought this one through before starting to cook! There had to have been a better way to divvy up the massive amount of chicken required. We ended up haphazardly cooking half in a wok and half in another large pan.  It seemed to be the only way to make it work so that all of the chicken ended up getting the flavors of the other ingredients while allowing everyone to be served at the same time, but I think this recipe would have worked much better on a smaller scale. It ended up being a bit bland due to the space issues in the pan; most of the chicken probably wasn't submerged in the broth throughout the cooking time. I couldn't taste the honey at all, and the onions didn't come close to caramelization.
Honey Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Yukon Potatoes (Recipe provided by ChileOliva)
Servings: 10
Time: 40 minutes
  • 10 chicken breast halves
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of pepper
  • 7 1/2 teaspoons of Chilean Extra Virgin Olive Oil (preferably a bold, rather than smooth, variety) 
  • 4 medium chopped red onions
  • 5 tablespoons thyme
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 6 yukon gold potatoes, diced into quarter cubes
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  1. Sprinkle the chicken with half of the salt and pepper; set aside.
  2. Heat CEVOO in skillet over medium heat until hot.
  3. Cook and stir the onions and half of the thyme until the onions begin to soften.
  4. Add the chicken, cook until slightly browned on both sides.
  5. Stir in all of the remaining ingredients, except for the rest of the thyme.
  6. Reduce heat to low. Cook covered for 6-8 minutes until chicken is fully cooked.
  7. Sprinkle with remaining thyme.
  8. Plate the chicken and vegetables. Garnish with thyme, a drizzle of CEVOO on the dish, and salt and pepper to taste.

What good's a dinner party without a sweet ending? I selected the olive oil and sea salt brownie recipe from the batch of options provided to me because it occurred to me that I could sneak in some of my favorite ghost chili sea salt for a spicy twist. These ended up coming out quite thin and dense. Not bad, but I would have preferred fluffy, caky brownies.

Olive Oil and Sea Salt Brownies (Recipe provided by ChileOliva)
Servings: 10
Time: 15 minutes preparation; 25 minutes baking
  • 4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, melted
  • 1/3 cup of CEVOO (preferably a smooth variety)
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup brown rice flour (The first recipe I was given used regular flour, which is what I used. The version I received later specifies brown rice flour. I'm not sure how this might change the texture. Go ahead and give it a try!)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups chocolate chips
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Line an 8x8 pan with foil and spray lightly with baking spray.
  3. In a large bowl, combine melted chocolate and olive oil.
  4. Whisk in eggs, sugars, and vanilla until combined.
  5. Add in flour and salt and stir until well mixed.
  6. Fold in chocolate chunks.
  7. Spread batter into pan and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. (Use ghost chili sea salt for a spicy treat!)
  8. Bake approximately 25 minutes until toothpick inserted one inch from the edge comes out clean. (Keep in mind that the chocolate chunks will be melty. The toothpick kept coming out with melted chocolate on it, and I overcooked the brownies a bit as I kept mistaking the chocolate for undercooked batter. I clearly should not be allowed to bake.)
  9. Let cool for 10 minutes before cutting into half-inch squares.

Finally, after much eating and celebrating, we reached the olive oil tasting portion of the evening, where we sampled mild versus bold varieties. Perhaps we should have done this at the beginning of the night as I suspect many of my guests were more concerned with finishing the remaining bottles of wine and having a dance party in the middle of my street. (Yes, that activity was actually considered and may have occurred.)

The somewhat coherent consensus, though, was that most guests preferred the mild variety; I, on the other hand, was a fan of the peppery bite of the bold variety. It'd go well in dishes where the oil is really supposed to be part of the main attraction (drizzled over a caprese salad, for example).

Thanks to my guests for attending and assisting with food and beverages in a variety of ways, and thanks to ChileOliva for reaching out to me and making this fun night possible!

If you're interested in learning more, check out ChileOliva's "How Virgin Is Your Extra Virgin?" campaign website, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channel.

Disclosure: This dinner party was sponsored by ChileOliva, which provided all necessary ingredients for the three official courses of the meal (with the exception of basic pantry items like salt and pepper), as well as several bottles of olive oil for cooking and tasting, plus a mini bottle of oil for each guest. In return, I agreed to host a dinner party and document my experience here on the blog and on my social media channels, while encouraging my guests to share their thoughts via social media as well. Despite the sponsorship, all opinions expressed are my own.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Weekend at Mohegan Sun, Part I

Mohegan Sun is visually stunning, from the Chihuly sculpture to the giant wall of water to the tiniest details, like the beautiful tiling in the bathrooms. All this eye candy somewhat makes up for the depression I expected to feel gazing at row after row of people pouring money into machines when it's clear the house always comes out ahead. While I've barely explored other casinos, this one struck me as more Disney-like than most, a glittering, kid-friendly playground meets shopping mall meets giant arcade. As such, it left me with a vague sense of unease; it's clearly the kind of place you go to willingly throw money away on un-winnable games and expensive stuff you don't need. Not really my thing, but I can see how some people would enjoy it.

I spent this past weekend exploring Mohegan Sun and overeating at the Sun BBQ Fest, thanks to an invitation to cover the event here on the blog. Joel got to come along, too, so although neither of us gamble and we both shy away from fancy-shmancy shopping plazas, we do love barbecue, and we both needed a couple days away from real life. I'll spread the recap out over three posts so as not to overload you with photos of meat, meat, and more meat. Full disclosure: Mohegan Sun provided us with a free hotel room (two nights) and free tickets to the BBQ fest ($30 value, per person, per day); the tickets included a food allowance that covered everything we ate at the fest, as well as a bunch of bottles of hot sauce that we brought home. We covered other costs on our own (gas and tolls to and from Boston, meals outside of the fest, and tickets to an MMA fight). (Yes, an MMA fight! More on that in Part II!)

We weren't able to leave Boston until rush hour on Friday, but aside from some traffic early on, we made good time and were able to grab our first taste of the BBQ fest before checking into the hotel. There were six major food vendors lining one side of the parking lot, and after a quick scan, we decided to start with Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Big Boned BBQ Co. ("We're not fat, we're big boned!"), drawn partially by the name, partially by the menu, and partially by the fact that we know someone from Chattanooga. Joel went all-out with a sampler platter, while I opted for pulled pork and a side of mac and cheese. (Sadly nearly every other booth only had sides of beans and slaw, neither of which I like, so I was thrilled to have mac and cheese and a taste of Joel's cornbread.)

(Spoiler alert!) While we might be a bit biased towards this first meal because it came after a stressful day and a long drive, this ended up being our favorite overall vendor. While other vendors had the best brisket but bad sauce or other combinations of awesome and not-so-good, this one was solidly enjoyable on all fronts. According to Joel, the ribs were fantastic, outweighed only by the very last ribs he tried on Sunday (more in Part III!) This was also the best spicy barbecue sauce. When we had extra food tickets on the final day, we went on a sauce-buying spree, but unfortunately they were already sold out of that sauce. Instead, we took home the medium and the honey barbecue. I'll let you know how those turn out.

After eating our fill and browsing the other vendors, we headed back to the car to check in at the hotel; we weren't sure how far away it was from the parking lot where the fest was taking place. Driving around Mohegan Sun can get quite confusing, despite lots of signage, and we ended up stuck in the valet area when we really just wanted to self-park; we both feel kind of weird about valet parking. The valet grudgingly agreed to not park the car while we went inside to check in, and when we came back out and finally found the proper place to park, it turned out that it was right back next to the BBQ fest. We then had to walk quite a long way through the crowded casino to get to our room.

Exhausted and quickly entering full-on meat coma mode, we put our bags in the room (which was quite nice), went back downstairs to wander around a bit, and then rested up for a weekend of even more BBQ.

Coming up tomorrow, part II - in which we try out one of the hotel restaurants, take an epic nap, eat even more BBQ, and go to a set of MMA fights.

But one more photo for the road, for those of you who love Chihuly as much as I do. Here's a close-up of the sculpture:

The coolest thing about it is that it is located at the base of a series of ponds in the lobby that lead into a small waterfall between the escalators going from the lobby to the center of the shopping area, so it looks like the spray at the base of the falls.

Want more Chihuly? Here's a collection of photos I took at the Museum of Fine Arts Chihuly exhibit in May 2011:

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