Puritan & Company

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When someone invokes Massachusetts’ Puritan heritage, it’s often in the context of annoyance or inconvenience. For many of us, Puritans are synonymous with blue laws, antiquated zoning regulations, and idiosyncratic rules about the sale and consumption of alcohol. Anytime we encounter a local or state ordinance that inhibits our freedom to engage in some pleasurable pursuit, we have a tendency to point our fingers at our stern, colonial-era forebears and their infamous zealotry. It may be unfair to blame the Puritans for the arbitrary vestiges of conservatism that infect our collective mind set, but make no mistake – these people were the enemies of fun. Theirs was a no-nonsense culture characterized by strict piety and a hearty intolerance of anything that didn’t accord with their religious principles. Puritan life was short on TGIF moments, since weekend festivities were prohibited. No such thing as Christmas cheer, either; the Puritans banned the popular holiday. Drinking in moderation got the Puritan stamp of approval, but drunkenness was harshly punished (I’m sure I’d spend half my days in the stocks). We won’t even get into the Salem witch trials.

The curtain closed on American Puritan culture about three centuries ago, and today stodginess and dogmatism are hardly the qualities that a restaurant or bar would wish to promote. Which makes “Puritan & Company” a curious choice of name for a contemporary eatery in Cambridge’s Inman Square.

Puritan & Company features classic American cuisine interpreted through a modern lens, with an emphasis on locally sourced and independent products. The restaurant’s moniker may evoke religious settlers and their rejection of pleasure, but its true roots are not quite so antiquated – the Puritan Cake Company, a full-service bakery, stood in this same location from the 1930s through the 1950s. Some of the bakery’s infrastructure remains; the ramp leading up from the front door was once used for wheeling baked goods down to delivery trucks parked outside on Cambridge Street.

And while the staff doesn’t dress in somber colors and won’t rebuke you for enjoying yourself, the restaurant does embrace some Puritan values. Just as extravagance was anathema to the Puritans, the eponymous restaurant thrives on a refreshing sense of simplicity.

The décor is one of an “urban farmhouse” – bright and modern, but unadorned. Skylights bathe the hardwood floor and exposed brick walls with natural light, giving the space a country-like, almost outdoorsy feel.

Vintage cabinetry and hanging lights encased in mason jars add to the historical complexion.

The main bar has a plain white surface and 12 comfortable chairs.

In the rear is a six-seat charcuterie bar, which saw a reboot in time for Puritan’s spring menu and now serves amaro flights in addition to fancy meats.

That sense of calculated reserve extends to Puritan’s cocktail program, starting with the unassuming glassware – drinks are served in either a very basic tumbler or a tall glass that looks a bit like a mason jar. Bartender Colin Kiley explains that the drink program has been evolving over the past year. When Puritan & Company first opened in 2012, their liquor license only allowed for beer and wine. The license was later expanded, but Colin admits that coming up with the drink menu at that point was like “repairing a car that someone’s driving.”

Wisely, they opted to keep things fairly simple and to create drinks that complemented the restaurant’s modest décor. Even the garnishes are understated, as is the case with the Up from the South cocktail. Combining Zucca mezcal, blood orange shrubb, pineapple-clove simple syrup, and lime juice, a malted salt “garnish” is simple but effective.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Colin says of the cocktail program. He’s playfully dismissive of offbeat ingredients (specifically mentioning kumquat) and favors a minimalist approach. “If it doesn’t need anything…” he says with a shrug, content to let quality ingredients and smart combinations do most of the work.

The Kingston Negroni stands as a representative example. A simple but thoughtful interpretation of the Negroni, it combines locally made Privateer rum, Aperol, and vermouth, with the sweetness of the rum balancing the bitter components.

Of the Paper Plane, Colin says “if [the drink list] were an album, this would be one of our covers.” Attributed to Sam Ross of Attaboy in New York, this mix of bourbon, Nonino amaro, and lemon juice is a straightforward cocktail in which each ingredient somehow brings out the most subtle notes of every other ingredient.

This interplay of flavors is not only central to Puritan’s cocktails but designed to interact with the food program. “We try to keep the drinks as food-friendly as possible,” Colin explains. “We’re a restaurant with a bar,” he says; not the other way around.

Puritan’s menu features dishes that would be familiar to any native New Englander, though even some of the most traditional recipes are transformed. The soft-shell crab isn’t blended into a typical crab cake but instead has a crispy exterior. Red jalapeño gribiche and succotash make for a sweet, spicy dish.

For those unfamiliar with Giannone chicken, it refers to a method of chilling fresh chicken using icy cold air instead of water. Pioneered by a farm north of Montreal, Quebec, the technique is said to inhibit bacteria and, ultimately, result in meat that is uniquely tender and moist. That’s certainly the case with Puritan’s Giannone chicken. Accompanied by artichoke, asparagus, and farro, the chicken is full of flavor and fork-tender beneath a crispy, buttery skin.

One item long absent from Puritan and Company’s menu was a burger. Which is not to say that a burger was unavailable. Debuting as a special and then retreating into the shadows as a “secret” item available to guests at the bar, Puritan’s patty melt has emerged from obscurity and can now be found on the bar and brunch menus. While many Boston-area burgers are lauded for their increasing complexity – think stuffed patties, unconventional toppings, buns infused with herbs or bacon – this rendition is like pure New England nostalgia on a plate.

Puritan’s patty melt is a generous slab of dry-aged ground beef served between two slices of grilled, house-made rye bread, with Swiss and American cheeses oozing out of the sides and a spicy homemade sauce on top. No sooner was it placed before me that I was reminded of the pan-fried burgers that my mom used to make back in our East Boston apartment when I was a kid. And while that may be a personal memory, the presentation is meant to conjure a certain wistfulness – as Colin notes, the patty melt recalls the sort of burger you’d get at a classic diner or a Friendly’s. Even the name is something of a throwback; how many people call it a patty melt these days?

Reinforcing the bar’s intent to design food-friendly drinks, Colin offered to make a cocktail that would pair well with this splendid burger. His variation of an East India Cocktail fit the bill. Made with Armagnac (a robust brandy that he referred to as “cognac’s country cousin”), Plantation 5-year rum, pineapple-clove syrup, lime, and angostura bitters, it was a bold yet refreshing drink with prominent notes of orange and a touch of spice.

Less deliberate but still effective, the Thaw in the Straw cocktail is a good partner for the pineapple brown sugar cake. Made with bourbon, honey, lemon, and ginger beer, the Thaw in the Straw is an odd mix of tartness and sweetness.

On its own, I can’t say I loved it. With dessert? Different story.

Evoking the Caribbean via New England, the pineapple brown sugar cake combines lime curd, graham caramel corn, and coconut-lime sorbet. It’s an intriguing mix of textures, with the crunchy popcorn offsetting the spongy cake. And the sweet, tangy flavors liven up the cocktail, bringing out the spice of the ginger beer and the vanilla notes in the bourbon.

In addition to the not-so-secret patty melt and an ever evolving cocktail list, Puritan & Company has unveiled a few new features to coincide with its spring menu. A six-course chef’s tasting menu, with the particulars changing nightly, is available for a reasonable $70. On Saturdays, the space next door to the restaurant becomes the “Puritan Meat Market.” From noon until 2 p.m., traditional New England lunch items, such as corned beef sandwiches and meatball subs, are available for takeout. And on Sundays, Puritan’s chef de cuisine Alex Saenz creates a southern-themed menu featuring fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and catfish.

Taken together, it’s exactly the sort of innovation and variety that I’m sure the Puritans would have just loved

Address: 1166 Cambridge Street, Cambridge

Website: http://www.puritancambridge.com

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Cuchi Cuchi

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I don’t know how many hours I spent trying to find the words to describe Cuchi Cuchi before finally surrendering to the reality that the Central Square bar simply defies categorization. Calling it a cocktail bar would give short shrift to its eclectic dinner menu. Referring to it as a tapas bar is a little off the mark, too, because despite the preponderance of small-plate offerings, “tapas” is Spanish, and Cuchi Cuchi’s menu draws inspiration from around the globe. You could call it an ode to the Roaring Twenties, on account of the vintage drink list and servers clad in flapper dresses; but where exactly do the 19th-century fixtures, framed portraits of mid-20th-century actresses, and motion-detecting LED table fit into that description? “We wanted something completely different,” co-owner Fernanda da Silva explains in a matter-of-fact tone when reflecting on the inspiration for Cuchi Cuchi, which will celebrate its 14th anniversary this summer. Bartender Laura Antunes somehow manages to unite the restaurant’s many disparate elements: “We appreciate beauty,” she says simply. “Inside and out.”

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Beauty can be found in abundance at Cuchi Cuchi, and it appears in countless forms. An angular 40-foot bar is punctuated by brass lamps with reverse-painted glass lampshades that mimic an early-20th century style known as “blown out” or “puffy.” Behind the bar are three gorgeous stained-glass windows from the 1890s that once resided in a Chicago restaurant.

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An original Kubuki kimono adorns a wall above the dining area, next to a trio of autographed pictures of the incomparable Dita Von Teese.

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Hovering above the restaurant like a high priestess of fashion is a mannequin affectionately known as Conchita, who models selections from Cuchi Cuchi’s extensive wardrobe of tantalizing outfits and jewelry.

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And below Conchita is the “Chico Chica Boom” dining table, which adds a little modern-day pizzazz to the menagerie of elegant antiquities. It’s an interactive LED table that senses motion, reacting when you place a drink on its glass surface.

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As described on Cuchi Cuchi’s website, the décor seeks to capture the essence of Old World beauty and the glamour of the early Hollywood era. It’s a loosely defined theme that stretches across decades and borrows from multiple eras of style. The idea for it originated in the earliest days of Cuchi Cuchi’s history.

“When we talked about opening a restaurant,” Fernanda says, “the first thing we did was go shopping.” She and co-owners Tamara Bourso and Barbara Dollar (the latter of whom has since moved on to other endeavors) perused antique shops and worked with antique dealers to procure many of the items that conspire to give Cuchi Cuchi its timeless radiance.

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Fernanda’s enthusiasm for early Hollywood style is clearly evident. “The ladies dresses were so elegant,” she exclaims as she waxes nostalgic about an era defined by fashionable evening wear – fur coats, boas, glittering jewelry, snazzy suits. “Nobody dresses like that anymore,” she says a little wistfully.

Well…that’s not entirely accurate.

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Accentuating the décor, most of Cuchi’s staff don extravagant costumes that resurrect the days of flapper dresses, bob haircuts, colorful feathers, and flowing hats. Laura – herself a Cuchi Cuchi regular before becoming an employee – relishes the opportunity to get dressed up for work, and so do some of the customers. Groups of guests occasionally show up in Jazz Age garb, with Halloween and New Year’s Eve drawing the most colorful crowds.

Between the dazzling outfits and the charming antique fixtures, Cuchi Cuchi summons all the glitz and mystique of a vintage nightclub – think candlelight and jazz, conversation and laughter, a plume of bluish smoke drifting from the tip of a long cigarette holder balanced between the gloved fingers of some femme fatale. It’s a fervent, heartfelt paean to an era of glamour, sophistication, and sensuality.

And they’ve got the drinks to match.

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Cuchi Cuchi’s drink list is expansive and diverse, but a section devoted to “Vintage Cocktails” fits the mood perfectly. The Singapore Sling is a classic that dates back to 1915. Made with gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine, Cointreau, orange and pineapple juice, and soda water, this old-school cocktail is vibrant, potent, and sweet.

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The Pegu Club Cocktail has its roots in the 1920s, when it was the signature drink of the eponymous British gentlemen’s club in Burma. Combining gin, orange curacao, lime juice, and Angostura and orange bitters, it’ll cool you off on a sweltering summer night.

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The amusingly named Satan’s Whiskers is a 1930s-era cocktail that blends gin, sweet and dry vermouth, orange curacao, orange bitters, and orange juice.

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The refreshing Caipirinha is the national drink of Brazil, and Cuchi Cuchi renders it simply and faithfully with cachaça, fresh lime juice, and sugar.

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The Mai Tai is a potent variation of the tiki classic, combining light and dark rum, orange curacao, amaretto, pineapple, and lime juice.

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Just as Cuchi Cuchi’s décor traverses styles and genres, their food menu casually hops continents. Fernanda explains that they avoided serving tapas because co-owner Tamara also runs the Spanish restaurant Dali, in Somerville, and they didn’t want to foster competition. But they did want dishes that fell somewhere in between appetizers and entrées in terms of portion size. The concept promotes a communal dining experience, with parties ordering a variety of dishes and sharing them.

And while it might not strictly be tapas, some of the dishes do hail from Spain, like the Sizzling Garlic Shrimp, served in piping-hot cast-iron skillet.

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Beneath the crispy exterior of the Fried Artichoke Hearts is a mix of gorgonzola, pistachios, and basil. This Italian dish is served with lemon, wine, and black olive sauce.

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You can’t smoke the Cuban Cigar, but this recipe of beef short ribs wrapped in dough with black bean salsa and plantains is satisfying anyway.

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Gobi-Manchurian is an Indo-Chinese dish of crispy cauliflower fritters in a tangy, spicy sauce.

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France makes several appearances on the menu, first with the Gratin Dauphinois – a rich, decadent bowl of baked, thin-sliced potatoes, onions, cheese, and cream. And the classic Duck a l’Orange is prepared in crepe form, with succulent roasted duck, citrus, and fennel vinaigrette.

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There’s even a nod or two to Russia, as with the Chicken Kiev.

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While the Vintage Drinks tend to coincide nicely with Cuchi Cuchi’s panoply of historical items and themes, they’re matched by “Cuchi Drinks,” a selection of original concoctions and the bar’s take on other modern libations. I might not have noticed how many of them are made with muddled fruit and herbs had Fernanda not confidently told me that her bar was the first in the Boston area to offer a menu of muddled drinks.

That might sound like a bold claim, but it’s a credible one if you consider the state of cocktail culture 14 years ago. When Cuchi Cuchi opened its doors back in 2001, cosmos and appletinis were all the rage; I think mojitos were just becoming popular. The trend of crafting original drinks with fresh ingredients – and revisiting classic recipes, for that matter – was only gradually coming into vogue.

As with any good contemporary cocktail bar, Cuchi Cuchi’s drinks feature quality spirits, fresh fruit, and plenty of clever twists. The cocktail offerings change regularly, and all of the bartenders contribute ideas and recipes.

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“They take a long time to make,” Fernanda says of the cocktails’ composition, “but that’s because there’s a lot of love in these drinks.” Laura concurs: “It can be laborious, but we take a lot of pride in the drinks we make.”

The Orient Express is made with muddled kiwi, orange, lemongrass, cranberry juice, citrus vodka, and lychee liqueur, with a champagne float. Smooth, fresh, and fruity, the kiwi seeds add a cool visual effect at the bottom of the glass.

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The Blood Orange Side Car is a bold, fruity update of the classic, adding blood orange puree to a mix of cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice.

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Ordering “You Give Me Fever” prompted the waitress to quietly sing a few bars from the sultry standard as she delivered this fiery mix of muddled jalapeno, pineapple and lime juice, fresh mint, tequila, and Maraschino liquor.

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Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a recent addition to Cuchi Cuchi’s menu, features muddled mint and jalapeño, Agavales Blanco tequila, elderflower liqueur, and passion fruit. The elderflower liqueur is St. Elder, made in Somerville. I mention that not only to give Cuchi Cuchi props for using a local product but because I think this is the first time I’ve encountered an elderflower liqueur other than St. Germain. Anyway, I digress.

It’s a sweet, balanced drink with a soft texture, floral notes, and a little kick at the end from the jalapeño. With layers of color and one of the most charming garnishes I’ve ever seen – a slice of lime cradling a cluster of pomegranate seeds – it was almost too pretty to drink. Almost.

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“Sexy, right?” Fernanda remarks. “That’s what Cuchi Cuchi’s about – naughty, sexy, fun.”

I’m glad someone can describe this place so succinctly.

Last Call

I don’t think Cuchi Cuchi could have chosen a more fitting name for itself. Inspired by the signature catchphrase of legendary Spanish entertainer Charo, the restaurant’s moniker demands to be uttered with flair and a sense of playfulness. It encourages conversation – “Why did they call it that? And what does it mean, anyway?” – and encourages guests to not take things too seriously. And that’s important, because for all of Cuchi Cuchi’s artistry and panache, its longevity is buoyed by the quality of its food and drink. If the atmosphere inspires you to dust off an old fedora or don a vintage cocktail dress, so be it. But you can come as you are.

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At the same time, it’s easy to get swept up in the staff’s enthusiasm. Listening to Fernanda and Laura talk about their shared passion for beauty, expression, and style somehow makes Cuchi Cuchi come alive. It becomes apparent, if there were any doubt, that the décor is not the product of calculated interior design but the living reflection of the collective imagination of a close-knit ensemble.

“It takes a certain personality to work here,” Fernanda acknowledges.

Of that, I have no doubt.

Address: 795 Main Street, Cambridge

Website:http://www.cuchicuchi.cc/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Alden & Harlow

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Casablanca Restaurant was the epitome of Harvard Square – quirky, informal, colorful, and a haven for anyone who worked, lived, or otherwise hung out in Cambridge’s most famous neighborhood. It opened as a bar in 1955 and evolved into a restaurant known for Mediterranean fare and mural-covered walls that depicted scenes from its namesake film. In December 2012, after more than a half-century of serving students, professors, actors, writers, and a host of eccentric characters, Casablanca finally succumbed to rising rents, increasing competition, and the impending retirement of its longtime owner. The Harvard Square institution closed its doors, leaving its oft-crowded space eerily quiet and empty.

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In many ways, the bar and eatery that opened at the same Brattle Street address a year or so later couldn’t be more different from its famous predecessor. With its upscale, contemporary look, inspired food menu, and top-notch cocktail program, the space now occupied by Alden & Harlow might not even be recognizable to a former Casablanca regular. At the same time, something about that dark, subterranean atmosphere and unpretentious attitude seems comfortably familiar.

At the bottom of a flight of stairs leading down from Brattle Street, Alden & Harlow has a tucked-away, almost hidden quality to it; despite its popularity and critical acclaim, being in there kind of feels like you’re in on a really cool secret.

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The bar area is dimly lit, with illuminated wooden slats on the walls and hanging caged lighting. There’s a fairly enormous, wraparound bar with upwards of 25 seats. A few tables and booths round out the bar area, which has a small, intimate feel about it.

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Low, wooden ceilings with exposed beams and a weathered concrete floor give the space a cozy, almost rustic appearance. Beyond the bar is a roomy dining area, overlooked by an open kitchen.

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Since its January 2014 opening, Alden & Harlow has garnered near-universal praise for its innovative cuisine. Led by chef Michael Scelfo, formerly of nearby Russell House Tavern, the menu features locally sourced, farm-to-table goods, with a special emphasis on vegetable dishes.

Charred broccoli is served on a bed of butternut squash hummus, topped with Bianco Sardo cheese and crumbled cashews. The sweet and savory hummus would be delicious even on its own. But combined with the smoky broccoli and the full-flavored cheese, it’s like a small feast for the palate. The cashews add not only flavor but texture to this excellent pre-dinner snack.

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The menu also boasts an unusual abundance of pickled products. Scelfo has explained in interviews that his grandmother made her own pickles, and he learned the art from her. That passion for pickling shows up all throughout the menu, like in a complimentary serving of pickled green beans. Drizzled with olive oil and topped with toasted sesame seeds, the crispy green beans have an acidic, vinegary zip and a warm, nutty essence.

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Heirloom eggs feature pickled fiddleheads and boquerones, which are Spanish anchovies soaked in vinegar.

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Things turn playful with the pickled corn pancakes, which are drizzled with maple syrup, accompanied by shishito peppers, and topped with – of all things – popcorn. It’s an unexpected combination, and at first glance, seems kind of silly. But the flavors work surprisingly well, and the airy, crunchy texture of the popcorn serves as a clever contrast to the soft, fluffy pancakes.

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Of course, there’s also plenty for carnivores to love. The chicken fried local rabbit (which I have yet to try) has become something of a signature item. And the “secret burger” is a legend unto itself. It’s a concept chef Scelfo experimented with while at Russell House Tavern, where he created a wildly popular burger recipe that wasn’t listed on the menu and was instead promoted only on social media. At Alden & Harlow, the “secret” burger isn’t so secretive; it appears on the menu, but the description’s a little…vague: “Our 8-oz Creekhouse grind, your faith, house-made roll.”

When it comes to burgers, I am a man of faith. So I didn’t ask what was on it, and the bartender didn’t offer any details. I was just happy they hadn’t run out yet; only a couple dozen or so are made every day, and they go quickly.

It’s easy to see why.

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The burger patty is made from a combination of brisket, short rib, and beef plate. It’s topped with salted onions, the chef’s grandmother’s special sauce recipe, bread and butter pickles (no surprise there), and a crispy slice of baked cheddar cheese. Smoky and juicy, with a blend of sweet and savory flavors, the “secret” burger more than lives up to the hype. The kicker is the unexpected crunch of the baked cheese, again making the texture a key part of the experience.

That innovative and ambitious menu has earned Alden & Harlow innumerable accolades. It’s regularly lauded by local publications and outlets, and this past summer, the venerable Bon Appetít named Alden & Harlow one of the 50 best new restaurants in America. And that made me wonder, as I do whenever I visit an eatery renowned for its cuisine, whether the cocktail program will match that level of ingenuity. I mean, if everyone’s coming for the food, why not just offer a few microbrews and a decent wine list and call it a day?

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Fortunately, Alden & Harlow’s cocktail program echoes many of the same principles that have won the restaurant such acclaim. The inventive libations resist categorization and emphasize local products and house-made ingredients. Some of the cocktails even incorporate items you might expect to find on the food menu instead of the drink list.

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[BBH Note: My initial visit to Alden & Harlow was in late summer, and much of drink list has changed since then. Rest assured, their current offerings are just as creative and satisfying.]

Pureed local corn makes the Amazing Grace foamy, creamy, and highly original. Combined with a maple liqueur from Vermont, lemon juice, and poblano pepper, it’s a balance of sweet and sour notes with a rich, peppery aroma.

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A charred apricot garnish lends a smoky essence to the Stone’s Throw. Made with rye whiskey, Punt e Mes, house peach vermouth, apricot, and mole bitters, it opens with a muted sweetness and ends with an herbal bitterness from the Punt e Mes. Mole bitters bring a hint of spice to the mix.

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Apricot also shows up in the Ancient Stone, made with Reyka vodka, mint, and “bubbles.” Bright and sweet, the fresh mint gives this drink a soft, herbal aroma, and the sparkling wine adds a pleasant touch of effervescence.

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But the first “wow” of my initial visit came courtesy of Duane’s World, a blend of Indian rum, Oloroso sherry, cold-brew coffee, Amaro, and urfa tincture – an extract from a Turkish chili pepper. Coffee is the most prominent flavor, but the warmth of the rum, along with the nutty notes from the sherry and the bitterness from the Amaro, make for a rich, wonderfully complex cocktail. The urfa tincture contributes subtle, peppery notes of sweetness and spice. Masterful.

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There are also a couple of nods to the classics, albeit with some novel twists. The Kon Tiki Mai Tai is a tribute to a variation of the tiki classic popularized by the famous Kon Tiki restaurant. Dating back to the 1960s, this recipe calls for two rums, ginger, orange, lime, absinthe, and Angostura bitters. The anise flavor from the absinthe might be jarring if you’re accustomed to a traditional Mai Tai, but the drink is well balanced, vibrant, and not too sweet.

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The Eastern Slopes combines elements of a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned, with rye whiskey, pisco, Santa Maria al Monte, orgeat syrup, and orange bitters.

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As I mentioned, most of the above drinks have since gone the way of summer. But now there are plenty of fall-themed cocktails, like the Sandhill Crane. Made with St. George Terroir gin, cranberry sage shrub, lime, and maple, it’s a crisp blend of sweet, tart, and vibrant flavors; a sage leaf rim adds a wonderful herbal fragrance.

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It’s a cocktail worthy of autumn in New England, and if Alden & Harlow is this good at capturing the essence of a season in a glass, it’s almost enough to make me look forward to winter.

Almost.

Last Call

Casablanca devotees (and I know they’re out there) might be a little sad to see anything in the hallowed space downstairs from Brattle Street. But you know, some dull national chain restaurant could’ve set up shop in there. Instead, Casablanca was succeeded by something truly original in Alden & Harlow, and while their respective food and drink offerings are light years apart, it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of continuity between the two.

Maybe it’s because they each, in their own way, reflect the culture and character of Harvard Square. The neighborhood may be home to one of the most elite universities in the world, but its streets teem with a wildly diverse, eclectic, mostly laid-back crowd. In the past, some of that crowd may have staggered into Casablanca for a late-night bite and a beer; nowadays, it’s wise to get a reservation for Alden & Harlow. But that doesn’t translate into exclusivity. As ambitious as Alden & Harlow’s menu is, it’s also approachable, affordable, and likely to have broad appeal.

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Even better – success hasn’t gone to Alden & Harlow’s collective head. The atmosphere remains casual and unpretentious, and on every occasion I’ve been there, bartenders have knowledgeably described every cocktail and happily offered suggestions on drinks or dishes.

Case in point – I was intrigued by the “AH House Bitter,” one of two spirits on draft (!!). The bartender explained that it was a house-made Amaro and was called “Alpine Style” because of its foresty blend of herbs and bittering agents. It sounded a little too bitter for me, so I opted for something else. But later, when I was paying the bill, the same bartender brought over a sample of the house-made bitter anyway, apparently deciding I needed to try it despite my misgivings. I was glad he did – with its crisp, pine-like essence, this digestif was complex and surprisingly smooth, with hints of rhubarb among the herbal flavors.

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Thoughtful gestures like that are often what make a visit to a bar or restaurant truly memorable. Couple that with good food and drink, and Alden & Harlow may even outlast its famed predecessor.

Address: 40 Brattle Street, Cambridge

Website:http://aldenharlow.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

New Year, New You – A Cocktail Dinner

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Pairing food and drink is a time-honored practice, and one most closely associated with wine. In a typical wine pairing dinner, a chef prepares several courses, each accompanied by a different wine; done properly, the ingredients in your glass complement those on your plate, making the sum of your meal greater than the whole of its parts. More recently, the availability and complexity of craft beer have brought beer pairings into vogue. They may occur at gastropubs instead of five-star restaurants, but the principles are the same.

Cocktail pairings are comparatively rare. That might be surprising, especially in light of the culture and popularity of modern mixology. But matching cocktails with food presents a number of challenges. One obstacle is that the drinks themselves may already contain a complex mix of liquor, bitters, and herbs. Common mixers, such as citrus, don’t get along well with certain dishes, and some liqueurs may be so bold as to overwhelm your palate. Alcohol content poses another problem. Cocktails are by their nature more potent than beer and wine, and if you end up hammered before the second course even arrives, you’ll probably inhale your food just to soak up the booze – which defeats the purpose of eating deliberately and enjoying the flavor interactions.

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Difficult though it might be, it’s no surprise that Cambridge’s Moksa would embrace the challenge of a cocktail pairing. No stranger to hosting creative events, the Central Square Pan-Asian eatery and cocktail lounge hosted a “New Year, New You Cocktail Dinner” in late January, pairing a three-course meal of small plates with cocktails designed by beverage director Noon Summers.

An intimate crowd gathered for the festivities, which began with a champagne cocktail.

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Complete with a tea-smoked sugar cube, it was a light, elegant drink that lent itself to some engaging pre-dinner conversation among the dinner guests.

We also got a plate of edamame to snack on.

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And with that, the pairing officially got under way. The first-course cocktail was a classic – a Martinez, made with Edinburgh gin, sweet vermouth, and allspice dram. Even by itself, the drink was outstanding. Noon described it as “food friendly,” which it certainly was.

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Dry, with a hint of sweetness at the end, it matched well with the first dish – yellowtail sashimi with ginger, chive, and a sake-yuzu soy drizzle. The dry and bitter elements of the Martinez didn’t dominate the mild flavor of the fish, and the aromatics brought out the flavors of the citrusy, spicy soy sauce.

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The next cocktail would warm the heart of anyone who’s endured this horrendous New England winter – a hot toddy. With distinct floral and herbal notes, Noon’s hot toddy combined whiskey, Grand Marnier, tea that she brought back from a recent trip to Thailand, and spices, including a hibiscus flower syrup. The tea flavor was strong but not overpowering, and the drink was served at the perfect temperature. “I didn’t want to overheat it,” Noon explained. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t taste the whiskey.” (This may be why every hot toddy I’ve made at home has been disappointing.)

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Accompanying the hot toddy was a dish called Chow Fun – a roasted mushroom blend served with Asian greens and shrimp. As someone who doesn’t love mushrooms, I was a bit leery going into this one. But of all the evening’s pairings, this may have best demonstrated how flavors can work together to create something bigger than the individual components. The herbal flavors from the tea and hibiscus brought out the earthy essence of the mushrooms, which in turn took on the rich flavors of the vegetables and spices. The orange flavor of the Grand Marnier paired beautifully with the shrimp.

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The evening ended on an appropriately sweet note. The Radiant Orchid cocktail, named for the 2014 color of the year (you’ll just have to look that up), combined Grey Goose vodka; Noon’s “farmhouse cordial,” made from freshly grown herbs; Concord grape juice; and Lambise, a cocktail beer.

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Served alongside it was a smooth, creamy panna cotta made with Concord grapes. It was a simple yet masterful combination. Grape was clearly the central flavor, appearing in both the cocktail and the dish. But the tartness of the lambic and the herbs in the farmhouse cordial provided balance, resulting in a well-rounded dessert pairing that was fruity but not overly sweet.

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I spent the entirety of the evening enjoying the splendid flavor combinations and happily discussing the meal with the other guests. It was only later that I came to fully appreciate the forethought and expertise that made the night so successful. There were some obvious relationships between the food and drink ingredients, like the grapes that featured in both the Radiant Orchid and the panna cotta. Other connections were more nuanced, like the spices in the Martinez accentuating the yellowtail dish. No matter how pronounced or subtle, identifying those key flavors ahead of time and knowing how they’ll behave is critical.

What’s more, Noon’s carefully selected cocktails prevented us drinking too quickly and not appreciating the accompanying dishes. One would be hard-pressed to chug a Martinez; with such dry and bitter liquors, it’s a sipping cocktail if ever there was one. Likewise, no one gulps down a warm drink like a hot toddy. The drink portions were also smaller than usual, which made them well suited to the small plates.

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It seems inevitable that cocktail pairings will grow in popularity, and as “New Year, New You” demonstrated, the possibilities are enticing. But the success of such endeavors depends on the right balance of creativity, skill, and restraint. And it doesn’t hurt to have a mixologist of Noon Summers’ caliber at the helm.

This also wasn’t the last such event at Moksa. Tonight, in fact, they’re hosting a decadent chocolate-themed pairing, with items like warm cocoa nibs whiskey punch, spicy scallops with white chocolate and wasabi drizzle, and a house-made chocolate Irish cream.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound too awesome or anything.

Address: 450 Massachusetts Avenue

Website:http://www.moksarestaurant.com/

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Thanksgivukkah – Showdown at Sundown

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It is a holiday dilemma that no one in our lifetime has ever had to grapple with. At sundown on November 28, 2013, Hanukkah begins – right around the time most of us are loosening our belts after Thanksgiving dinner and eyeing the dessert table. This phenomenon, the outcome of a rare, cataclysmic convergence of the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars, has been dubbed Thanksgivukkah. And if you’re a Jewish American who observes both holidays, you’re going to have your hands full. It’s been 125 years since this last happened, so there’s really no template for how to celebrate. What’s it going to be – a long day of devouring turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, followed by a night of lighting candles, spinning dreidels, and eating latkes? All while in a tryptophan-induced haze? That’s a whole lotta food, fun, and family time in one day, if you ask me.

But a double holiday doesn’t have to mean double stress; in fact, many people have embraced the idea of Thanksgivukkah, finding fun ways to combine elements of two holidays centered on reflection and giving thanks.

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Of course, if you find yourself lacking the celebratory fortitude to observe two holidays at once, you can always add alcohol. And for that, you might take a page from the book of Moksa. This past Monday, the Cambridge bar and restaurant hosted Gobble Shalom, a lighthearted mashup of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. It was an evening of seasonal small plates, holiday-inspired cocktails, and lots of people wearing sweaters.

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The Thanksgivukkah mood was festive and irreverent. The bar in Moksa’s back room was decorated with grains and pumpkins, chocolates, and a mammoth dreidel full of whiskey.

OK, it's a top, not a dreidel; but you get the idea.

OK, it's a top, not a dreidel; but you get the idea.

Guests were invited to participate in an ugly sweater contest and encouraged to drop off unwanted clothing (ugly or not) in a bin to be donated later that night. And sweater donation wasn’t the only good cause of the evening. Moksa was hosting Opus Affair, a community of local artists that occasionally sponsors fundraising events for arts-related causes with its Punch Bowl Fund. A $5 donation scored you a drink ticket, which could be redeemed for a glass of punch.

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Guests could then vote to determine which of three local arts organizations – the Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston, Boston Early Music Festival, or New Center NOW – got to take home the whole pot.

The 100 or so guests seemed more than willing to drink for charity, even if the punch ingredients were a little…unorthodox. The deep purple concoction was made with Manischewitz wine, gin, and a Bonal aperitif.

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Now as you are probably aware, Manischewitz doesn’t enjoy the best reputation as far as wines go. Few drink this kosher yet notoriously sweet vintage on occasions other than Jewish holidays. Using it as the base for a punch is best left to the professionals – like Noon Summers, one of Boston’s top mixologists and Moksa’s beverage director. The result was surprisingly good; the gin and aperitif dialed back the sweetness, and the result was kind of like a Hanukkah sangria, bizarre as that may sound. “I wanted something that would preserve the flavor of the Manischewitz,” Noon explained to me, with an ironic smile.

The punch was accompanied by several other cocktails that paid tribute to Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and the fall season. First up was the Modesty “Tznius,” a mix of date-infused rye whiskey, Palm wine, and vermouth. The date flavor added a rich sweetness to this Manhattan-like cocktail, while a star anise fruit topped it off with a touch of bitterness.

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The Purple Maize combined bourbon and blueberry beer, and was garnished with a kernel of purple corn. The blueberry flavor was prominent but not overpowering, making for a sweet but earthy drink.

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The most intense cocktail of the night was the spicy Fire Water. Aguardiente contributed a mild anise essence to this bloody Mary, while a green chile brought the heat. Housemade cornbread croutons served as a tasty garnish.

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Of course, holidays with the family are about more than just drinking.

[I’ll pause here and let you wipe up the coffee you just spat all over your screen.]

Sharing a feast is an essential part of almost any holiday, and Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are culinary heavy hitters. Moksa’s Thanksgivukkah celebration didn’t feature a full spread of food, but a small menu of bar bites cleverly combined the flavors of the season.

Thanksgiving means turkey, obviously, and these turkey lettuce wraps were topped with a delicious, spicy cranberry sauce.

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Crispy potato fritters made with cottage cheese, green peas, and coated in lots of spices were a nod to traditional latkes. A rich, creamy pumpkin chutney gave them an autumnal twist.

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Eventually the two punch bowls were drained, which signaled the closing of the polls that would determine which local arts organization would take home a cash prize. Emerging victorious was the Bridge Repertory Theatre. A theatre group seeking to find new ways to connect with audiences through innovative productions, the Bridge Rep will surely put its donation to good use.

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As with other events Moksa has hosted, Gobble Shalom was playful and refreshingly devoid of cliché – no shots of Wild Turkey, no Adam Sandler holiday songs playing on a loop. It was an opportunity to learn about three local arts groups, eat some good food, and raise a glass to a once-in-a-lifetime holiday crossover.

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But the star of the show was mixology extraordinaire Noon Summers, whose cocktails were as creative as they were drinkable. I was skeptical of combinations like bourbon and blueberry beer, but I kept coming away impressed. And it takes equal parts nerve and talent to make a respectable tasting punch out of Manischewitz wine, but she more than managed.

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Whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or both this year, I hope it’s safe and happy. And if you are going all out and hosting Thanksgivukkah, have fun and make the most of it – the next one isn’t for another 79,000 years.

Shalom!

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Novo Fogo Cachaça

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Cachaça.

It’s an odd-looking word. Most people’s first question is, How do you pronounce it? A common second question is, What is it?

The first question has an easy answer – it’s pronounced ka-SHA-sa.

The answer to the second question has long been a topic of contentious international debate that recently led to a modification of the U.S. government’s regulations concerning the import of this distilled spirit.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Cachaça is a liquor made from fermented sugar cane juice and produced exclusively in Brazil. It is best known as the key ingredient in a Caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil and a drink enjoyed around the globe.

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It would be difficult to overstate the popularity of cachaça in Brazil; with 400 years of history, a National Cachaça Day (June 12), and upwards of 30,000 different producers of the spirit (many of whom are unlicensed), it’s safe to call cachaça the national liquor of South America’s most populous country.

Just don’t call it rum.

See, that’s where things get a little sticky. In accordance with a litany of complicated trade regulations, the U.S. government has long classified cachaça as rum; or more specifically, a “Brazilian rum.” It’s understandable, at least in the sense that both spirits are derived from sugar cane. But whereas rum is made from processed sugar cane – aka molasses – cachaça is made from fresh cane juice. The result is a spirit that might be considered a cousin of rum, but is less sweet, with a more herbal, grassy freshness.

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For many years, though, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) refused to acknowledge such nuance. A spirit made with sugar cane? That’s rum. What has this meant for most of us? Honestly…not much – mainly, that bottles of cachaça had to have “rum” somewhere on the label and, in compliance with the TTB’s definition of rum, had to be at least 40% ABV (whereas cachaça is traditionally 38% ABV). But what was a low-level item of arcane federal bureaucracy for the majority of American consumers became a cause célèbre among cachaça purists.

And so in 2009, a grass-roots group launched a national campaign to persuade the TTB to amend its regulations…which, surprisingly, it did. As of February 2013, the U.S. government classifies cachaça as a unique Brazilian distilled spirit – still a subclass of rum, to the continued chagrin of the devout, but no longer requiring the word rum on the label (the same way cognac doesn’t have to identify itself as brandy). Of course it’s a little more complicated and political than all that, but you get the idea.

While cachaça’s never enjoyed widespread popularity here in the United States, it hasn’t exactly been obscure. If you’ve ever had a Caipirinha, of course, you’ve probably had it. Sometimes you’ll see it in a variation of mojito.

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But one by-product of this formal shift in cachaça’s designation is that the spirit has enjoyed an uptick in publicity – and yes, the reclassification campaign was driven by a cachaça distiller that sponsored promotional events all over the country. And as its popularity continues to rise here in the U.S., so does the quality of the cachaça that reaches our shores. Despite widespread production in Brazil, very little cachaça gets exported (which is a whole other story), and the brands that do are typically industrial-produced in factory-like settings. But with our ever-growing taste for small-batch spirits, craft-made cachaça is making inroads into in the U.S. market. And with that, I give you Novo Fogo.

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Novo Fogo (which translates to “new fire” in Portuguese) is a microdistillery in Morretes, Brazil, with a presence in Bellevue, Washington. Their focus is on making a small-batch, organic cachaça in an environmentally friendly manner. Every step of the production process in their zero-waste facility is done by hand – from the sugar cane that they cut with machetes to the unique, handcrafted bottles, made from recycled glass, that hold the final product.

Swiped from Novo Fogo's Facebook page, entirely without permission.

Swiped from Novo Fogo's Facebook page, entirely without permission.

The Novo Fogo folks recently stopped by Cambridge’s Moksa as part of its Bars on Fire tour to whip up cocktails and educate us on all things cachaça. I’ve had a few Caipirinhas in my day, but this was my first opportunity to get up close and personal with their key ingredient. Unlike most industrial-produced cachaça, Novo Fogo’s varieties – silver and barrel-aged – are clean, smooth, and can be easily enjoyed neat. Even with one sip of the darker, barrel-aged variety, I could see why purists would bristle at this being so crudely classified as rum. Yes, it did have a rum-like quality on account of the sugar cane, but warm notes of oak and vanilla were just as prominent. That makes sense, since it’s aged in small oak barrels, and the resulting elixir seems to have more in common with a good bourbon than rum.

Introductions aside, it was time to see how the spirit fared in cocktails.

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First up, appropriately, was the standard – a Caipirinha. This was a traditional recipe made with silver cachaça, muddled limes, and sugar. Even with the mercury gradually falling outside, this tropical classic was refreshing. As a special bonus, it was “served in a mason jar so you can shake it yourself.” Wow. I mean…wow.

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Next up was presumably a Novo Fogo original – the cleverly named Bossa Novo, combining silver cachaça, apricot, lime juice, and bitters. The scent of apricot was apparent even before the first sip, and it was prominent in the flavor as well. I have no doubt that my mason jar shaking added a customized dimension to this strong and fruity beverage.

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I was excited about the Rio Punch because it gave me a chance to try barrel-aged cachaça in a drink, mixed with Sorel (a hibiscus-infused liqueur with hints of clove, cinnamon, and other spices), coconut water, and most intriguingly, grilled pineapple. This one didn’t quite live up to the exciting ingredients. The smoky sweetness from the grilled pineapples was pleasant, but the coconut water didn’t contribute much flavor, and even the cachaça didn’t stand out. And weirdly, there was an inexplicable bubble gum-like flavor. I didn’t see a Hubba Bubba “floater” or anything, but I’ll give them a mulligan on this one.

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Things improved with the Maine Kimura, which boldly combined silver cachaça, brown butter and maple syrup, blueberry preserves, lemon juice, and “bubbles.” This one had a thick texture, almost like a smoothie. The maple and butter flavors were appropriately autumnal, and the preserves gave it a rich sweetness. It was smooth and satisfying, though I detected no bubbles.

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Now what goes best with Brazilian cocktails? Why, Asian food, of course! As part of the event, Moksa was offering a menu of $1 and $2 appetizers.

First up was delicious, tender pork belly served in a soft, doughy steam bun.

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I followed that with the baby back rib, which was superb. The juicy meat practically fell off the bone.

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This tuna dumpling tasted as good as it looked.

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My only prior visit to Moksa was for a bartender blood feud earlier this year; if this is representative of their food menu, I’ll be making a return trip.

My final drink of the night, the Prata Bolo, was also the most surprising. Made with barrel-aged cachaça, banana milk, lime juice, and nutmeg, this creamy concoction reminded me of eggnog, despite there being no egg. Maybe the dusting of nutmeg on the top was putting me in an early holiday mood. While the banana flavor was surprisingly mild, the lime added a tangy sweetness. It was one of the simplest yet most effective cocktails of the evening.

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Overall, it was a fun, informative evening. It was cool to learn about cachaça’s interesting history and its versatility. But if I have one complaint, it’s that a night devoted to the national spirit of Brazil didn’t have enough…well…Brazilian spirit. Sure, a soundtrack of samba music lent a festive air, but when I think about the breadth and diversity of Brazilian culture, it seems that an event like this offers an opportunity for international cuisine, live performances, colorful costumes, that sort of thing. Maybe I’ve been spoiled byalcoholic spectacle lately, but I feel like the evening could have been infused with the Carnival-esque sounds, sights, and energy we associate with our neighbors to the south.

Granted, I don’t foot the bill for these things, I just show up and drink.

Saúde!

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Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Dueling With an Ancient Spirit – Licor 43

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Every classic cocktail has an origin story. There’s the yarn about Winston Churchill’s mother commissioning the recipe for what would become the Manhattan. There are competing tales about the first Sidecar. Here in Boston, the Ward 8 is thought to have emerged from a particular episode of 19th century backroom politics. Seldom do these stories hold up under scrutiny. Most have benefited from decades’ worth of boozy embellishment and exaggeration, while others are complete fabrications. Even the most plausible should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

That’s what happens when a cocktail that was first made a century ago survives through modern times. The older the drink, the taller the tale. But unless you have a great grandfather who claims to have mixed up the first Singapore Sling, historical accuracy isn’t all that important. Colorful legends behind a drink’s conception add a little depth and character, but mostly serve as trivia to share with someone over a potent, well-made beverage.

That said, few legends of liquor are quite as compelling as the one behind Licor 43.

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The story of this Spanish liqueur supposedly begins more than 2,000 years ago. In 209 B.C., the Romans captured the city of Quart Hadas – what we now know to be Cartagena, Spain. Amid their conquest, the invading army happened upon a gold-hued, aromatic liquor infused with local fruits and herbs. Despite taking a quick liking to the liquor, the Romans’ suspicions were aroused by its unique flavor, unknown ingredients, and rumors of its unusual properties; thus, they banned its production.

Unsurprisingly, the locals kept making the stuff anyway, but in secret; even less surprisingly, the Romans became increasingly enamored of it, and its popularity grew – if somewhat discreetly – among the Roman elite. They called it Licor Mirabilis – the “marvelous liqueur” – and eventually had it exported to other Mediterranean cities.

The recipe remained a tightly held secret that was passed down through many generations until 1924, when it was purchased by a Spanish family with the surname “Zamora.” They eventually rechristened the spirit “Cuarenta Y Tres,” or Licor 43. The name derives from the number of ingredients that constitute the liqueur, and apparently only three people – from three generations of the Zamora family – currently know the recipe.

Maybe you’re captivated by the story, or perhaps you’re more inclined to raise an eyebrow at historical plot holes being glossed over for the purposes of a modern marketing campaign. But again, the accuracy of a back story is much less important than the quality of its subject. And Licor 43, with its rich, amber hue, warm vanilla essence, and surprising notes of citrus, is worthy of a tale or two.

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Licor 43 is still made in Cartagena today, and while the Zamora family doesn’t want anyone to know what’s in their product, they’d be appreciative if more people knew about their product. “Never heard of it” is the response I get whenever I mention this stuff to someone. Our ignorance is understandable; while the liqueur is not new to the U.S., the vast majority of its sales have historically been in Europe, with a particular concentration in Spain (obviously) and Germany. What’s more, the flavor profile of Licor 43 was thought to be challenging to mix with other ingredients; so even in bars that carried it, the bottles tended to collect dust on a back shelf.

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All of that’s changing. Sales of Licor 43 are growing all over the world, with a landmark 500,000 cases being moved in 2011 (just to put the global market in perspective, Captain Morgan sold 10 million cases last year). And in 2012, the Zamora family partnered with W.J. Deutsch to improve distribution in the U.S. – where, as you might have noticed, specialty cocktails have become all the rage.

So how do you spread the word about an ancient liqueur that’s been shunned or forgotten by most bartenders? Easy. Gather up six of Boston’s top mixologists, give them some Licor 43, and ask them to do what they do best – create drinks. Oh, and just to make things…interesting? Put a little money on it.

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Licor43 006edit

That’s exactly what went down at the “Tonight’s Secret Ingredient” bartender contest, a cocktail death match hosted by Moksa Restaurant in Cambridge. The rules were simple – come up with a drink that incorporates Licor 43, submit it for the appraisal of the judging panel, and make a bunch of samples for a small but thirsty crowd of spectators. Winners get cash prizes and local bragging rights. Losers get their drinks thrown in their faces by disgusted judges and suffer the scathing taunts of their peers.

Before the throwdown got under way, attendees were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres and a couple of Licor 43-based drinks. First up was the Mini Beer – 1.5 ounces of Licor 43 in the world’s smallest beer stein, topped with a splash of heavy cream to mimic a foamy head. The result looks exactly as its name would imply – like a mini beer – but any similarity ended there. The sweetness and texture of the cream were perfectly suited to the vanilla flavor of the liqueur, making for a small but decadent liquid appetizer.

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That was followed by the Key Lime Pie Martini, the name of which gave me a shivery flashback to the plague of pseudo-martinis that we had to endure a few years ago (I’m getting nauseous just thinking about the tiramisu martini I once sampled). It’s exactly the sort of drink I’d never order, let alone trumpet on my website, so I’m glad it was free – because it was sinfully good. The flavor was so eerily similar to actual key lime pie that I assumed there must be some hideous, bright green, chemically induced additive, but no. The drink was a fairly basic mix of Licor 43, vodka, half and half, and lime juice. I still can’t imagine asking a bartender for this, but if someone were to purchase one on my behalf, you know…I suppose I’d be OK with it.

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As the crowd’s anticipation and inebriation swelled, the master of ceremonies announced that the contest was finally about to begin. The judges, Fred Yarm (author of Drink & Tell: A Boston Cocktail Book), Heather Kleinman (Executive Editor of DrinkSpirits.com), and Jerry Knight (Director of Marketing at Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits), took their places at a table on the stage. Their dour expressions cast a pall over the room; I would not want to be the bartender who served them an inferior drink.

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The champions, meanwhile, were split into three groups of two opponents each – in other words, three mano a mano duels for the right to advance to the finals. The first two combatants paced anxiously behind the bar, each guarding their ingredients like a tiger protecting her young.

The first contestant was Taso Papatsoris from Casa B in Somerville. His drink, called Jardin Dorado, combined Licor 43 with gin, a Spanish sherry, Angostura bitters, and pimento bitters. It was a splendid cocktail. The gin provided a dry backdrop for the vanilla and citrus of the Licor 43 and the nutty flavor of the sherry. Garnished with an orchid, this may have been the most beautifully presented of all the evening’s drinks.

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On the other end of the bar was Jason Kilgore of Catalyst in Cambridge. Whereas Taso’s drink had a light, floral essence, Jason’s “Three of a Perfect Pair” was heavier and more intense. This one mixed Licor 43 with gin, rye whiskey, freshly made rhubarb syrup, lemon juice, and a barspoon of Fernet Branca. I thought whiskey and gin sounded like a fearsome combo, but the vanilla notes softened the flavor, and the rhubarb syrup contributed an earthy sweetness.

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Licor43 062edit

Each bartender approached the stage and made his case to the judges, who sampled the concoctions and took some notes. And with that, Round 1 was officially in the books. Round 2 pitted Amber Schumaker, from Eastern Standard, against Oronde Popplewell, defending his home turf of Moksa.

As if the evening’s stakes weren’t high enough already, Amber had the added challenge of filling in at the last minute for Eastern Standard’s Kevin Martin. Though she was working with someone else’s recipe and had little time to prepare for battle, Amber rose to the occasion with the Verano Deseen – Licor 43, lime juice, Amaro Nonino, rye whiskey, and Regan’s orange bitters. The flavor of the rye and the sweetness of the Licor 43 were up front in this one. Beyond that, the Amaro gave the drink even more depth, while the lime and orange flavors ensured that the Verano Deseen lived up to its name – it translates to “Summer Wish.”

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I asked Amber why she chose rye over bourbon, and she met my query with a stony glare. “You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, son,” she growled.

Her opponent, Oronde, whipped up one of the stranger-looking cocktails of the evening. The Straw Ox combined Cachaça, Licor 43, strawberry vinegar, lemon juice, and simple syrup, and was topped with “Licor 43 Foam,” which looked like a glob of Cool Whip. I moved in to ask what it was, but Oronde’s eyes told me not to even bother.

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orondeedit

With its pale violet glow and cryptic garnish, the cocktail was as intriguing in appearance as it was in taste, though there was a mild sourness that I didn’t care for.

As Amber and Oronde appealed to the judges, the Round 3 champions moved into place. Josh Taylor of West Bridge (which sounds like a town, or maybe a specialty furniture store, but is actually a cool-looking restaurant in Cambridge) created the aptly named Backyard Cocktail, a summery mix of Licor 43, rhubarb shrub, fresh strawberry and lime juices, and club soda.

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Sam Gabrielli of Russell House Tavern countered with 43 Elephants, a drink that mixed Licor 43 with Amarula, Fernet Branca, an egg white, and Angostura bitters. If Josh’s Backyard Cocktail captured the flavors of summer, Sam’s evoked more of a wintry mood. Amarula, an African cream liqueur with hints of caramel, matched well with the vanilla notes in the Licor 43, and the egg white further enhanced the drink’s creamy texture.

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Licor43 140

Six up, six down; now it was up to the judges to decide who would continue in the tournament. Music played, guests mingled, and more Licor 43 Mini Beers and Key Lime Pie Martinis got passed around.

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Licor43 185

The frivolity of the crowd was in stark contrast to the savagery on the other side of the bar – jittery contestants snarling at one another, heaving appalling insults, and hurling accusations of ingredient tampering. Clearly, these people didn’t like each other.

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Licor43 175

Suddenly a hush fell over the room as the judges delivered their verdict – Sam Gabrielli, Oronde Popplewell, and Josh Taylor would advance to the finals, while the bell tolled for Taso, Amber, and Jason. The crowd erupted, a mix of delighted applause and hateful jeers. Before returning to the bar to make their drinks one more time, the three remaining warriors solemnly raised barspoons to their vanquished foes – a time-honored gesture of respect among those in the cocktail trade.

As the now restive crowd settled in for another grueling wait, the mood turned dark. Alliances shifted among the spectators, and loyalties were openly questioned. A woman approached me and asked if I was “Team Josh, Team Oronde, or Team Sam.” I laughed. She didn’t.

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crowd-edit

Whispered accusations of intimidation and bribery caused some to question the honor of the finalists. “The guy from Catalyst got screwed!” yelled the guy from Catalyst. The smoldering look on Amber’s face made me wonder whether her earlier knife/gunfight remark was a metaphor or a warning.

As the simmering hostility approached a full, violent boil, the microphone crackled with the voice of the emcee – the judges were ready to crown a winner.

Licor43 180

Licor43 180

Silence descended again upon the expectant crowd, punctuated occasionally by isolated gasps and muttered prayers. The bell tolled first for Sam, who ushered his 43 Elephants back to Russell House Tavern. It rang again for Moksa’s Oronde and his Straw Ox. That left Josh Taylor of West Bridge to raise his Backyard Cocktail in triumph amid a deafening ovation.

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DSC_0149edit

Josh’s victory was richly deserved. He got a handsome cash prize while those of us in attendance were treated to another round of his award-winning cocktail. And while all the drinks were impressive, I’d have to concur with the judges – this was the drink of the night. The vanilla of the Licor 43 paired beautifully with the strawberry juice, while the rhubarb shrub kept it from being overly sweet. The lime juice further brought out the citrus notes of the Licor 43, and the club soda introduced just the right amount of dryness. Positively refreshing, and ideal for a backyard barbecue on a hot summer day.

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DSC_0151

Victory belonged to Josh, but the night belonged to Licor 43. Whether this very old spirit will become the latest thing, I don’t know. Nor can I say whether its fascinating origin story is true (but if there really are only three people who know the recipe, I hope at least one of them has the good sense to jot it down at some point). But even if its history has merged with legend, the liqueur’s quality requires no exaggeration.

Nor does an event like this – even though I may have added a few teensy-weensy embellishments in my retelling. In truth, the night had the tone of a friendly competition, and not a drop of blood was spilled (that I know of). Personally, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch six cocktail experts at work. It was especially instructive to see the similarities and differences in how they approached a given ingredient, and each cocktail was distinct in its composition and presentation.

contestcollage

contestcollage

If you want to try your hand at making the winning drink, the recipe follows.

The Backyard Cocktail, crafted by Josh Taylor of West Bridge in Cambridge 

1 1⁄2 oz Licor 43

3⁄4 oz Rhubarb Shrub

1⁄2 oz Fresh Strawberry Juice

1⁄2 oz Fresh Lime Juice

Club Soda

Combine the Licor 43, rhubarb shrub, strawberry juice, and lime juice and shake lightly.  Strain into a  highball glass over ice.  Top with club soda and serve with a straw.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Park

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IMG_0698

A softly lit, basement-level room in Harvard Square. Exposed brick ceilings and a dark, aged-looking hardwood floor dotted with area rugs. Leather-upholstered furniture. Maps and chalkboards on the walls. Bookshelves lined with literary classics. If there were a tweed jacket hanging on a doorknob and a hint of pipe tobacco in the air, the setting might be the office of a distinguished professor at one of the preeminent universities in the world. But while the décor might recall the rigorous pursuit of academia, the most esoteric conversation you’ll have at Park will probably be about the exotic-sounding ingredients in some of their drinks, or maybe one of their excellent craft beers.

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sign-edit

The same people who run the nearby Russell House Tavern opened Park last year, and there are plenty of happy similarities – a moderate-sized list of well-conceived cocktails, a killer beer list, and a menu of comfort food classics that are creatively updated and beautifully presented. Its subterranean location even recalls the downstairs area of Russell House. But where the latter feels like a cool, upscale lounge, Park is more akin to a cozy den, replete with floor lamps, leather couches and armchairs, even a fireplace.

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IMG_0666

The intimate atmosphere extends over a deceptively large space, which is divided into four areas. There’s the dining room, with big red leather seats and long wooden tables.

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diningroom-edit

There's a fireplace in the classroom, and the walls are covered with maps and chalkboards.

Park 002

Park 002

The appropriately named “den” is where you’ll find that comfortable furniture and the bookshelves.

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IMG_0671

And there’s a back room that’s…well, a back room, but with cool circular booths.

Park 033

Park 033

Each area has its own slightly different atmosphere, though it’s all tied together by vintage photos and artwork on the walls.

At the center is a large, horseshoe bar that accommodates 20 to 30 drinkers who have an impressive selection of cocktails and microbrews to choose from. That’s where Melissa and I started when we came in for drinks and an early dinner on a recent Saturday.

Park 022

Park 022

Our evening began with cocktails, and Park’s list doesn’t disappoint. Mel opened with the 1919, which she ordered in honor of the birth year of two of her late grandparents. It was a potent mix of rye whiskey, rum, Punt e Mes, Benedictine, and most intriguingly, mole bitters (as in the sauce used in Mexican cuisine, not the rodent). Personally, I’m not a fan of Punt e Mes, a bitter vermouth, but the drink overall was bold and complex.

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IMG_0672

What I am a big fan of is rum, which was paramount in my Private Dancer, made with amber rum, lime juice, Melete Amaro, allspice dram, and Velvet Felernum (a sweet syrup; and yes, I had to look several of those ingredients up). While Mel derided it as a “sophisticated chick drink,” I did at least manage to finish it; the 1919 ultimately proved too much for a certain someone.

dancer-edit

dancer-edit

Our attention turned to the dinner menu, which is composed largely of traditional American cuisine with some fresh innovations. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the appetizer menu, which has playful entries such as the “Bacon 3-Way.” As we perused the options, our waitress brought over a plate of Vermont cheddar cheese topped with a port wine reduction and the biggest, most elaborate crackers I’ve ever seen. Cheese and crackers just don’t get fancier than this.

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IMG_0684

We ultimately settled on the charming “Tasting of Toast.” Elegantly served on a wooden board were six pieces of toasted cocktail bread with three varieties of toppings: duck pastrami with whole-grain mustard and pickled shallot; cheddar and apple butter; and chilled crab and cucumber salad. All three were delicious, but be warned – the toppings don’t adhere all that well to the bread, as Mel discovered when her crab and cucumber salad slipped from the toast and plummeted unceremoniously to the floor. The five-second rule, of course, does not apply in bars.

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IMG_0691

The bar area was quickly getting crowded as we wrapped up our toast tasting, so we moved to a table for dinner. We were seated in the den area, and there the cocktails continued. I ordered the Fireside Poet, no relation to the summery Wandering Poet at the Parish Cafe. Maybe I have a soft spot for drinks that evoke my English degree, but this mix of bourbon, Creole Shrubb, Santa Maria al Monte, maraschino syrup, and whiskey barrel-aged bitters was easily my favorite drink of the night.

poet-edit

poet-edit

Mel’s choice was the Sheldon Highball, which, like so many of Park’s drinks, was made with a bunch of things I had to look up – Cynar (a bitter liqueur), Becherovka (a gingery liqueur of Czech origins), Barenjager (a honey liqueur), house-made ginger beer, and lemon juice. On the heels of the bitter 1919, the Sheldon Highball was especially bright and vibrant; the house-made ginger beer wasn’t too sweet, and the lemon juice gave it an unexpected zing.

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IMG_0718

Finally we made our way to the entrée menu. Amid a broad offering of reinvented classics, what truly stands out is Park’s “meat pie of the day,” served with mushy peas. I’d love to report back on this fun, unique offering, but for better or worse, my eyes never made it past the top item on the menu – slow-roasted brisket served with white bean cassoulet and caramelized vegetables. Fork-tender, almost like stew beef, the brisket was bursting with flavor and practically melted in my mouth.

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IMG_0712

Melissa opted for the phenomenal chickpea-lentil burger, which was spicy and rich. As a carnivore and burger purist, I typically only consume veggie burgers under duress. This one, I would actually order for myself – which, respectfully, is the highest honor I can bestow upon a burger not made of meat.

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IMG_0706

We were pretty well satisfied after dinner, but I couldn’t leave without trying something from Park’s top-notch beer list. There are about a dozen or so microbrews on draft, plus a cask option, and a similarly eclectic selection of bottles and cans. I chose the locally brewed Portico Sett Seven Scotch Ale, which I’d been curious about since seeing it on draft at Flash’s Cocktails. Dark, complex, and smooth, it was a fine way to round out the evening.

portico-edit

portico-edit

Of course, with a beer selection Park’s, it’s a shame to only try one. So I returned a few nights later to check out a couple more options. I was giddy to learn that the cask option was one of my favorites – Ipswich Oatmeal Stout. But as the bartender started pouring it, he noticed that it seemed a little “off” and might be the dregs of the cask (they change it every Thursday). He gave me a sample so I could judge for myself, but he was right. Disappointed as I was to miss out on the cask offering, I really appreciated the bartender’s warning; he could have just poured me a glass and I’d have thought “ugh, Ipswich on cask really sucks!” Instead I ordered the Boulder Beer Company’s Mojo IPA on nitro, one of Park’s most recent arrivals. Crisp, dry, and smooth, with a creamy head, it tasted as good as it looked.

Park 020

Park 020

I then challenged myself to inquire about the Thunderhole Brown Ale without giggling or snickering about the name (I failed). Kindly overlooking my immaturity, the bartender described it as lighter than most brown ales and suggested I might prefer something more traditional – St. Botolph’s Town, a “rustic” brown ale from the ever popular, Somerville-based tenant brewers, Pretty Things. He gave me a sample before I committed, and it was excellent.

Park 028

Park 028

The bar was much quieter on my weekday visit than it was on Saturday night (in other news, the sky is blue). It gave me a chance to look around a bit, and there’s plenty of neat little historical oddities, like old typewriters, sewing machines, and lots of photos from the 60s and 70s on the wall. And I noticed that the tap handles are affixed to a reclaimed iron plumbing pipe, similar to what I recently encountered at Granary Tavern.

historical-collage

historical-collage

I also had an opportunity to speak with Justin, the manager, and of course I had to ask about the name of the bar. Why Park? He told me the bar is named for the Harvard Square parking garage, with which it shares space in the lower, basement level. A most inauspicious muse, in my opinion. But Justin explained that in an area with so many bars and restaurants, the people behind Park wanted it to be a place where you could go for drinks and stay for a great meal, and thus park yourself for the night. Fair enough! I’ll be sure to park here again.

Last Call

With a beer list that’s not only expansive but constantly in flux, Park is well suited to a busy, eclectic neighborhood like Harvard Square. The beer selections rotate often, and a new cask is tapped every Thursday. The dinner menu shifts periodically as well, and even the cocktail list had changed in the few days since I’d been there.

Prices are pretty standard, even a little low in some cases. Our Tasting of Toast was reasonably priced at $10, and sandwiches and entrées range from $10 to $23. The drinks were $10 and $11, and the beers cost what you’d expect for such a diverse selection – $5 to $9 for the draft brews.

Park 010

Park 010

Even with so many options in Harvard Square, Park’s a pretty popular place. On Saturday the bar filled up within minutes of the doors opening, though the space is big enough that the crowd wasn’t overwhelming. And while the exposed brick and wood on the walls and ceiling make for an attractive décor, they also result in some pretty rough acoustics; you might struggle to be heard when it’s busy. But on my weeknight visit, things were much calmer – ideal for sitting at the bar and having someone knowledgeable recommend a good beer.

Address: 59 JFK Street, Cambridge

Website:http://parkcambridge.com/

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Copyright © Boston BarHopper. All Rights Reserved.

Orinoco

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I don’t have much in terms of rigid criteria when it comes to choosing places to write about for this blog. I operate under a few basic guidelines. First, the subject of my review has to have a physical bar that I’d be willing to sit at for an evening of nothing more than drinks. After all, this is Boston BarHopper, not Boston RestaurantReviewer. Second, I prefer to avoid anything resembling a chain; the way I see it, the more locations a bar or restaurant has, the more its overall character diminishes. Of course, there will always be exceptions.

Harvard Square’s Orinoco does not have a bar. It also has two other locations, in the South End and Brookline. But when you invite me to a complimentary party on a picture-perfect evening in September with a roasted pig, mouthwatering Venezuelan hors d’oeuvres, and lots of sangria and beer…well, I suppose I can relax my standards.

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DSC_0134

Bringing the culture and cuisine of Latin America – specifically, Venezuela – to Cambridge, Orinoco opened its Harvard Square restaurant in January 2012. After eight months, they decided it was time to host a bonche (party!) for their customers and neighbors on their back patio. The reason? Manager Martha Garcia told me that whenever a new Orinoco opens, the management hosts an open house. “It’s a way to introduce ourselves to the community,” she said.

Quite an introduction.

My friends Mario and Ivys, who always manage to find awesome places like Orinoco and Tres Gatos, had dinner here with Kelly a month or so ago, scored themselves an invitation to the bonche, and passed the offer on to me. Who am I to turn down a party on a weeknight? But this wasn’t any ol’ fiesta. The main attraction? A traditional pig roast.

You know how often I go to pig roasts? About as often as I go to Venezuela. No way I was missing this.

Just approaching Orinoco gives you the feeling that you’re headed to someone’s backyard for a cookout. The restaurant is on JFK Street but is a little set back and out of sight; you walk between a couple of buildings to get there, which gives it kind of a home-y feel. The bonche was held on Orinoco’s gorgeous back patio, which is normally set up with tables for what must be a delightful outdoor dining experience.

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DSC_0173

Mario, Ivys, Kelly, Kat, and I arrived around 6 p.m.; the festivities weren’t yet in full swing, but importantly, there was no line at the drink table (yet). The beverage options were ideally suited to a late-summer, Latin American-themed party: mojitos (a treat, since they’re not usually available at Orinoco’s Harvard location), sangria, and a couple of beers – Negra Modelo and Pacifico.

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DSC09735

Even though it was quiet when we arrived, I could sense that a special night of revelry was ahead. Nothing about the atmosphere made me think I was at a bar or restaurant; it truly felt like a casual, well-planned backyard party. The stone floor, lush greenery, a running fountain, and strung lighting gave the patio the look of a grand garden and made me feel like a guest – not a customer.

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DSC09724

As we sipped our drinks, the heavenly smell of charcoal and barbecued pork wafted through the air, equal parts teasing and torture. But good hosts that they are, Orinoco wasn’t going to let us starve, treating us to some of their appetizers.

First up was a spicy ceviche. Even Kelly, who claims to not care for seafood (yet repeatedly gets it while we’re out), could not resist. The ceviche was followed by maracuchitos – queso paisa wrapped in sweet, fried plantains.

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DSC09742

I love plantains on their own. Throw in some cheese? Delicioso.

And it just kept getting better. The non-pork-related highlight of the night was Orinoco’s datiles – bacon-wrapped dates with an almond in the middle. ¡Ay, dios mio!

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DSC09758

Honestly, I’ve never been a huge fan of dates; but the list of things that I won’t eat when wrapped in bacon is very short. (You know what I loathe? Olives. I wonder if I would find bacon-wrapped olives palatable.) The smoky bacon, the nuttiness of the date, the distinctness of the almond…they were packed with flavor and I had to restrain myself from grabbing two handfuls from the serving tray.

The patio began filling up over the next hour or so, with excited guests trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive pig.

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DSC09752

Meanwhile, our hosts kept plying us with apps. Tequenos – guayanes cheese wrapped in a crisp dough, with chipotle ketchup – were like upscale mozzarella sticks. And while I didn’t get the proper Spanish name, chicken salad served on a bread-like cracker was delicious and artfully presented.

app-collage

app-collage

Truth be told, I would have been fine just with the snacks. But that’s not why we were here. No, hors d‘oeuvres alone would not placate the restless masses. The anticipation gradually swelled to a crescendo, and soon a manic chant of “Bring on the pig! Bring on the pig!” broke out (not really).

At last, fashionably late and with great fanfare, the star of the show emerged.

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DSC09788

Look at that bad boy! Has an animal ever looked so happy to be devoured by 200 guests?

El cerdo was greeted with applause, excitement, and a long line. I have to admit – after three weeks of eating and writing about tripe, haggis, and head cheese, it was comforting to be eating a meat that people were actually clamoring for.

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DSC09815

The line stretched throughout the patio, culminating at a table serving yuca, black beans, salad, and of course, the roasted pig. The meat was well worth the wait – tender, juicy, and delicious, and no one could stop talking about how incredibly spiced it was.

By then the sun had gone down, the stars were out, and we had a full-on bonche on our hands. All that was missing from the festive vibe was the steamy South American climate, but I heard no complaints about the perfectly temperate September air. People mingled, chatted, danced to salsa music, talked about how good the food was. I was in no hurry for the night to end, but when it finally did, I felt like I was leaving a big neighborhood party.

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DSC09927

I stopped in on the following night for a quick chat with Martha (who not only remembered me but greeted me like an old friend) and to get a better look at the place. Orinoco’s interior feels small, but it’s actually rather spacious – probably about 20 tables or so. It has an authentic, rustic look, with classic old chairs and family pictures on the wall.

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DSC_0155edit

The dark, candlelit atmosphere could make for an intimate evening of sharing small plates and a bottle of good Spanish wine, but if the previous night was any indication, things could just as easily be festive and lively. And as soon as I walked in, the salsa music that was playing immediately brought back the magic of the bonche.

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DSC09886

Orinoco offers a full, rich menu of traditional Venezuelan cuisine. Several dishes offer the shredded beef and plantains that Venezuelan cuisine is famous for, like Pabellon Criollo, which the menu calls “Venezuela’s most folkloric dish.” I hear the empanadas are a big hit, and there are always some tempting weekend specials.

I opted for a couple of arepas, which are Venezuelan corn pocket sandwiches. “Domino” was made with black beans and Palmizulia cheese, and “Pelua” was made with Edam cheese and that delicious stewed, shredded Venezuelan beef.

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DSC_0180

Both were delicious and surprisingly filling. But I have to admit – the accompanying dipping sauce stole the show. Made of cilantro, garlic, parsley, and olive oil, the sauce had a zing that further brought out the flavors of the arepas. I could seriously drink this straight, like out of a shot glass.

Speaking of shots, Orinoco’s alcoholic offerings are limited to beer and wine, though they also serve sangria. (Only the Brookline location has a full liquor license.) Not that I’m complaining – the sangria is full-bodied and refreshing, made with a secret spice (cinnamon?) that gives it a unique character. Aside from that, I never mind a good Negra Modelo, which nicely complemented all the spices in my arepas.

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sang-beer-collage

As if I didn’t already feel like a welcomed guest, Martha generously treated me to quesillo, sort of a Venezuelan version of flan. Topped with strawberries and blackberries, and with hints of coffee, it was sweet conclusion to my meal.

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DSC_0190edit

Last Call

Orinoco seems right at home in an area as rich and diverse as Harvard Square. And what better way to be a good neighbor than to host big, backyard party? The bonche was a swinging success, and a great idea on Orinoco’s part – I’m not sure when or if I would have found the place were it not for their event, but I’ll certainly return.

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DSC_0171edit

I don’t know much about Venezuelan cuisine, so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the food. But all of Orinoco’s locations are run by native Venezuelans, so that’s got to count for something. I certainly enjoyed the appetizers and my arepas. And they sure know how to roast a pig.

Perhaps best of all, Orinoco is surprisingly affordable. Most of the entrees are around $15, but you can make a pretty satisfying meal out of the empanadas (under $9) and antojitos (little cravings). Those irresistible datiles are $7, and the arepas average about $6. A glass of sangria for $7 isn’t bad, and my Negra Modelo was a very reasonable $4.75.

I don’t know whether Orinoco will ever be hosting another bonche of such grandeur, but I feel fortunate to have been there. On their website, Orinoco says their goal is to effect a “neighborhood-focused dining tradition that is casual, lively and fun.” On at least one night in September, they succeeded in grand fashion.

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DSC09823

Address: 56 JFK Street, Cambridge

Website:http://www.orinocokitchen.com/

Belly Wine Bar

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When I think of a wine bar, I envision something dark, stuffy, and deadly serious. A very fru fru bar, maybe in a hotel, with servers dressed to the nines and displaying a thinly veiled air of condescension. I see lush burgundy rugs, table lamps, maybe leather sofas and fancy cocktail tables. It would probably have a French name, like Vin Cache. Maybe that’s an unfair assessment, born out of how infrequently I find myself in wine bars. But let’s face it – wine is sophisticated. If a bar devotes itself to wine, I’d expect something very polished. A small plate of grandiloquence and a full carafe of pretension.

But when a wine bar decides to call itself “Belly,” assumptions are best left at the door.

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DSC_0091

“We wanted it to be playful,” said the bartender, of the unusual moniker. “Like the wine list, which is kind of out there.”

Wait – a wine bar wants to be playful? Not highfalutin? And what’s with an off-the-wall wine list – can’t I just come in and order a glass of Merlot?

I imagine you could. Belly has something on the order of 120 wines, so I’m sure they can accommodate your blandness if you insist. But at a bar that strives to be anything other than ordinary, why would you yearn for dullness?

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DSC_0086edit

From the people who brought you the Blue Room (right next door) and Central Bottle (just down the street), Belly Wine Bar opened this week in Kendall Square and is everything you wouldn’t expect a wine bar to be. Forget dark and staid. Belly is a bright room that balances a funky, modern look with a casual, laid-back feel. Of all things, what you’ll probably notice first is the wild black-and-white pattern of the tiled floor.

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DSC_0007

Hand-painted by an Italian company that had never before shipped an order to the United States, the tiles would be an assault on the eyes if not offset by a plain, dark brown ceiling with wooden beams, and complemented by the warm, white and light-green color scheme. Cool stonework and exposed brick on the walls contribute to a comfortable, earthy atmosphere.

If the wine bar I envisioned earlier was akin to a fancy den, Belly feels more like a kitchen – it’s small, and in addition to the warmth and brightness, a long, rectangular table with 10 chairs occupies the center of the room, with three smaller tables and few round ones on the far wall.

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DSC_0008edit

A table in the back artfully displays the cheeses that any good wine bar would offer. The bar itself is square with nine seats and an elegant, white marble top.

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DSC_0010edit

I stopped in on Belly’s opening night at about 5:30 and again the night after. Opening night started off quietly – just one or two customers and me. But you could tell it was something special; I felt like I was sharing in a culminating moment that followed untold hours of preparation and anticipation. I got to meet the owner, Nick, who runs Belly with his wife, Liz. He’s a very nice guy whose enthusiasm was as obvious as it was contagious – there was almost an unbridled glee among the employees. No fancy waiters in dark suits here. Just some casual people who are pretty excited about opening a wine bar.

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DSC_0080edit

The quiet start gave me a chance to talk to the bartender, Fanny, a veteran mixologist and oenophile who was only too happy to expound upon Belly’s wines, cocktails, food, philosophy, and pretty much anything else I asked about. And it’s a good thing, too, because I opened the menu and barely knew where to start. Belly’s menu consists of wine, cheese, salumi, charcuterie, and words that are hard to pronounce. The wines are organized not only by color but under offbeat headings like “Rocks in Your Mouth” and “Size Matters.”

Now I love wine, but I’m no connoisseur, so I asked Fanny to suggest something. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when she opened with a curveball – “Do you want red, white, or orange?”

Orange? Dude, we’re talking about wine, not Crush soda.

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DSC_0005edit

Sure enough, Belly offers a selection of “orange” wines. I learned that orange wines are dry wines made from white wine grape varieties that have spent some time soaking in the grape skins, giving the wine an orange hue and contributing more tannins. The result is a white wine with a bit of red wine character – or, as Fanny said, “white wine for red wine lovers.” Fortunately, I love both. She suggested a Radikon “Slatnick,” 2009; and sure enough, it did almost taste like a white/red hybrid. More body than I’d expect from a white, but less bite than a red.

Accompanying my wine was a small dish of taralli – traditional Italian wine biscuits. Fanny told me they’re prepared similarly to bagels (boiled before baked), which makes them light, buttery, and highly addictive. They made for good munching while I pondered my next wine.

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DSC09664

After my orange wine, it was time for some red. Again relying on Fanny’s good judgment, I got a Joseph Drouhin Brouilly. It was a big tasting wine, with shades of raspberry and blackberry. I also detected the unmistakable hints of a wine buzz.

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DSC09684edit

Now what would wine be without cheese? (Honestly, I’d have to say it’s pretty good even on its own, but I digress.) From what I’m told, the cheeses are curated by the cheesemonger at Central Bottle to match the wines. The eight cheese varieties are not listed by name, but by “character,” with options like “Fresh,” “Earth,” “the Blues,” and “Funk.”

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DSC_0014

Bring on the funk!

In this case, “funk” was a whole milk cow cheese from Connecticut. It was delightfully sharp and perfectly complemented by fresh raw honey, fruity jam, and two types of crostini – one savory, one sweet.

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DSC09670

With red and orange under my belt, it was high time for a white. Fanny asked if I wanted something clean and crisp – qualities one would normally associate with a white wine – or something funky. I’d already gone the funky route with the cheese, and I figured there was no turning back. So I funked it up with Montlouis Sur Loire, Weisskopf “Le Rocher des Violettes,” 2009. I liked it; definitely an unusual flavor and mouthfeel for a white. In place of the oaky flavor you might expect was a certain minerality…which I guess is why it fell under the heading “Rocks in Your Mouth.”

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DSC_0031edit

Now if Belly’s wine options strike you as a little unorthodox, wait until you see their food menu. You can choose from “snacks” like blanquette of rabbit offal (oh hoo hoooo! nice try, but I learned my lesson after the haggis incident, thank you very much), marrow bones, and pate de campagne, to name a few. The “salumi” section offers morcilla fresca, duck breast, and soprasetta, among others. And there’s “charcuterie” like rabbit rillettes and foie gras terrine.

I started with a snack, a word that does little justice to what I chose – lamb bacon and eggs.

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DSC_0026

Ever seen bacon and eggs look like that? I didn’t think so. Made from lamb meat and topped with shaved egg yolks, the bacon was crispy, light, and delicious. A red wine would seem to be the best match here, but I was surprised by how much the white I was drinking brought out the flavor.

Admittedly, beyond duck breast and foie gras, I wasn’t all too familiar with the rest of the menu. So I again turned to Fanny (hey, at least I picked out the snack on my own), who suggested something from the charcuterie menu…

Head cheese.

The term alone sounds pretty gross, even if you don’t know what head cheese is. It quickly goes from gross to disgusting once you find out.

Despite what any logical person may deduce from the name, head cheese is not actually cheese. That’s a rather unnerving bit of trivia, is it not? Because let’s face it – when you use the word “cheese” to describe something that is not in fact cheese, you’re usually not talking about something good.

No, head cheese is jellied meat made from the head of a pig or cow. Oh, but it may also contain parts of the animal’s tongue, heart, or feet, so you might get a little variety. (I could explain this in further detail, but I’m afraid you’d stop reading.) Fanny acknowledged “there’s definitely several different textures going on in there,” but reassured me that “it’s not brains or anything.” Yeah, there’s a ringing endorsement.

I’d like to pause here and raise my glass, a bit wistfully, to the good old days of, say, a few months ago, when the raison d’être of this blog was highlighting the better qualities of a given bar and saying a few words about whatever beer and cocktails I had when I was there. I’m now in my third consecutive week of trying meats that society has by and large rejected. I wonder if, somewhere along the line, I got off track. Eating tripe, haggis, and head cheese isn’t winning me any awards or even garnering me any praise. No, all I get is people sucking in their breath, shivering, and scrunching up their faces like an audience watching an incredibly gory slasher film. I suppose it’s a good thing I derive such a deep sense of satisfaction from that reaction; otherwise I might have to get back to basics.

But enough with the melodrama. The head cheese was, believe it or not, really good!

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The exterior was crispy, and as advertised, the meat inside had a varied texture. It was served with crostini and a small bowl of mustard and vegetables, and the flavor reminded me of pork belly.

Of my three recent adventurous meat orders, this is the only one I’d look forward to getting again (the tripe at Tres Gatos would be second, as long as I was splitting it with someone; the haggis would be a very distant third).

Anyway, while awaiting the arrival of the head cheese, I figured I needed a little liquid insurance in case it was as bad as it sounded. Aware that Fanny’s cocktail knowledge probably exceeded even her wine smarts – after all, she personally designed Belly’s cocktail list – I told her I was a Manhattan fan and was looking for something in that neighborhood. She recommended the Vieux Carré, a classic cocktail that originated in New Orleans. Belly’s recipe was traditional and faithful – Old Overholt rye whiskey, Pierre Ferrand Ambre cognac, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Bénédictine, Peychaud's bitters, and Angostura bitters.

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Outstanding. This wasn’t the first Vieux Carré I’ve ever had, but it was without question the best. Each sip was packed with flavor, yet it had a very simple, smooth finish.

Belly’s list of specialty cocktails is small but, like everything else here, creative and playful. I couldn’t resist ordering the Silver Bullet. No, not that Silver Bullet. Belly’s Silver Bullet is a simple mix of gin, Kummel, fresh lemon juice, and perfectly crushed ice.

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For so few ingredients, this was intensely flavorful, which was probably the result of the Kummel. I’d never encountered this liqueur before; its caraway/cumin flavor gave the Silver Bullet a truly unique character. It was almost like a very sophisticated lemonade that you had to drink slowly. Very slowly.

Things were picking up when I was leaving, and there was a bigger crowd when I stopped in on the following night. As can be expected of any newly opened bar or restaurant with an unorthodox menu, I saw customers walk in with a sense of quiet curiosity and maybe even hesitation. But on both nights, I noticed that tentativeness gradually giving way to the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses.

Again – not what I’d expect of a wine bar.

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Last Call

Belly aims to be unusual, but it does so with a natural grace. From the décor to the wine to the charcuterie, everything here is deliberate – but none of it feels contrived.

It’s rare that I sit at a bar and rely solely on the bartender’s food and drink suggestions, but I felt completely comfortable doing so. And Fanny, with a genuine enthusiasm for her craft, seemed more than willing to impart her knowledge. I doubt Belly will ever be as quiet as it was in those first few hours, so maybe I won’t get a chance to do that again; but I feel fortunate to have had the experience.

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Belly isn’t cheap, but if you’re going out for an evening of wine and fancy cheeses, you probably weren’t planning on an inexpensive night anyway. The wines vary in price, but you have the option of a two-ounce pour or a five-ounce. The smaller pours range from $3.50 to $14, and most are $5 or $6. The full pours I got were $9, but again, that’s highly variable depending on your selection. The cocktails were $11 apiece, which is fairly typical for drinks of that sort. The snacks, salumi, and charcuterie are anywhere from $5 to $14, so if you are watching your wallet, you’ve got some flexibility.

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Belly is an invitation to adventure, and only a fool would decline. If you’re a wine lover, you’ll probably revel in the unconventional offerings. If you’re more of a casual wine drinker, you’ll likely come out knowing a lot more about wine than you did when you went in. And if you know nothing about wine, or if the food is wholly unfamiliar, then it’s an opportunity to experiment in an environment that is anything but intimidating. The staff are very friendly, happy to explain everything on the menu, and eager for you to try the intriguing options they’ve clearly worked hard to offer you.

Address: One Kendall Square, Cambridge

Website:http://www.bellywinebar.com/

Outdoor Seating, Part 3 – Up on the Roof

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First of the fall and then she gooooes back/Bye, bye, bye bye…

Want to see something depressing? Look at today’s date.

Yeah.

August is nearly over, and summer is hanging by a thread. This pains me. Terribly. Don’t get me wrong – I’m excited for football, crisp autumn days, dark beers, and an abundance of pumpkin-flavored food and beverages. It’s what follows autumn that I abhor.

Anyway, no need to get ahead of ourselves. It’s still summer for a little while, and hopefully we’ll have some pleasant weather as the season shifts. But it’s time to wrap up the Outdoor Seating series while there’s still a month or so to enjoy the simple pleasure of sipping a cocktail in the great urban outdoors. So after a week of drinking on the water, and another hiding out on back decks, we look to the sky for the final installment – rooftop bars.

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You’d think more restaurants in Boston would make use of their rooftops. Space is always at a premium here, and relatively few places have enough room for the secluded patios we looked at last time. Roof decks make efficient use of that limited real estate and offer a surprisingly quiet alternative to bars that are often in very congested city areas. Personally, I appreciate the novelty of the experience – the anticipation of walking up a dark staircase and emerging onto a rooftop patio bathed in afternoon sun or illuminated by soft lighting at night, and undetectable from the street. If nothing else, it’s just cool to think “I’m on a roof!”

Our first stop is Harvard Square. Unlike some areas of town that quiet down when school is out of session, Harvard gets even busier in the summer. It feels like a hastily thrown-together collage of shops, restaurants, bars, street musicians, tourists, and a million cars vying for about 20 parking spots.

If the mere thought of dining alfresco amid such constant activity sounds overwhelming, you’ll be surprised to know that there are actually some really good outdoor options in Harvard Square. But if you need to get even further away from the crowds, Daedalus offers a refuge on its roof deck.

Daedalus

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Indoors or outdoors, this was my first trip to Daedalus. It’s is a short walk out of Harvard Square proper (sort of on the way to Central), so it’s already a little bit removed from the heaviest foot traffic.

I stopped by at about 6:15 on a Friday evening with Kelly and Ivys, prior to meeting up with the rest of the barhopping crew. At the time I was a little concerned as to whether a roof deck was a good idea; the day had been, by all accounts, a steamah. But the Daedalus roof deck is well equipped to handle even the quirkiest New England summer days, whether it be searing heat or the out-of-nowhere thunderstorms we’ve had all season (not that I think they’d let you out there during a thunderstorm). Large red umbrellas on most of the 15 or so tables keep the sun from baking you, and there’s a covered section with ceiling fans to cool things down.

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The roof scene was fairly quiet when we arrived; maybe a dozen people there. By 7 p.m., the whole deck was filling up fast. And despite the scorching heat, the sun was fading and a nice breeze was kicking up.

Since there’s no bar on the Daedalus roof deck, and you must order food in order to drink up there, we grabbed a corner table and began perusing the menu.

Daedalus has a respectable beer list, but if ever there was a time for a cold, fruity cocktail, it was a warm August night like this one. Kelly got things under way with a Caipirinha. Daedalus’s take on the national drink of Brazil was made with Leblon cachaca, fresh limes, and sugar, on the rocks.

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I opted for a coconut Mai Tai, which swaps out regular rum for Malibu and throws in a little dark rum for good measure.

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After snacking on hummus and pita, we moved onto dinner. Ivys went with the evening’s special – risotto with steak and scallops. It was a delicious combination, kind of like an Italian surf and turf, and was beautifully presented.

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Kelly was pleased with her crab cake sandwich, topped with avocado and a spicy chipotle aioli.

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I got the Cuban sandwich, which I would characterize as acceptable (and given that the best Cuban money can buy is just a little further up Mass Ave at Chez Henri, I’m being generous).

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The Daedalus roof deck is spacious and uncluttered, the wooden tables nicely spread out. Flower beds add color and create the impression of being on a secluded rooftop garden. Cool-looking rectangular lanterns come to life as twilight falls, and the whole deck takes on a peaceful ambience.

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Try to hold onto that peaceful feeling when they bring you the check. Daedalus is a lovely environment, no doubt; but the food is seriously overpriced. I’ll give them a pass on the crab cake, which, at $13.95, is comparable to what you’d pay elsewhere. But my Cuban was the same price, and the sandwich was disappointing. Ivys’ risotto was a staggering $21.95. Granted, it was a special, and quite good, but for that price I’d expect more than two steak tips and a few scallops.

Kelly’s Caipirinha (I’ll be glad when I’m done with this section of the post so I can stop looking up how to spell that) was $9, and my coconut Mai Tai was $10. On the one hand, that’s what nicer drinks tend to cost around here; on the other, these weren’t exactly craft cocktails. Pretty good, but nothing special. We’ll call it a draw.

But as I observed in my visits to Alley Bar and RumBa, sometimes you have to pay a little more if you want a certain atmosphere. Prices aside, we had a really nice experience at Daedalus. It’s a beautiful, quiet environment that’s well suited to a summer evening and warrants at least one visit.

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While Daedalus creates some secluded rooftop space in busy Harvard Square, the Rattlesnake Bar and Grill does the same thing in Back Bay. Before executive chef Brian Poe put Shangri-La out of its misery and made it the Tip Tap Room, he gave a stunning culinary makeover to the Rattlesnake, a bar that was never exactly renowned for its food. Now it’s a destination, and the highlight is the roof deck.

The Rattlesnake

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The Rattlesnake roof deck is somewhat sparse in terms of its décor, yet it’s also visually striking (kind of like the Tip Tap Room, now that I think of it). While the walls are painted bright red, the bar and the wooden floor are black, providing a nice contrast. The whole area has a nice glow when the lights come on. And if it’s too hot, the Rattlesnake now employs misting machines to keep you cool.

I was here at about 6:30 on a Monday night, and the roof deck was hoppin’. Unlike Daedalus, the Rattlesnake roof deck has its own bar. That made the scene a lot more lively, as it attracts more of an after-work crowd. There are about 15 tables, which were filling up when I got there.

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Rattlesnake offers a handful of cocktails, along with a separate list of margaritas (which was their hallmark before the menu got its upgrade a few years ago). The draft beers on the roof deck are limited – Sam Summer, Harpoon, and Blue Moon, but the bottle and can selection is much more expansive.

I started with a glass of sangria, which has been my warm-weather standby cocktail this year. Refreshing, not too sweet, and perfect for yet another sizzling August evening.

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The advantage of having a bar up here means you can stop in just for drinks, but you’d be foolish to skip the food. The menu is pretty extensive, and as with any Brian Poe creation, very little of it is conventional. Take the corn bread, which I got as an appetizer. As awesomely delicious as corn bread is, it’s a pretty simple, consistent formula. Rattlesnake, by contrast, makes a grilled corn bread and jazzes it up with chiles and Guadalajara butter. The result was rich, dense, and smoky, like Southwestern cuisine colliding with Southern BBQ.

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I probably could have stopped right there, but the undisputed highlight of Rattlesnake’s menu is “Tacos a la Poe,” and I wasn’t skipping that. Forget your typical taco fillings like chicken, beef, or carnitas. Rattlesnake’s tacos are upscale and innovative, and you can choose from fillings such as fish, duck, lamb, and scallops, among others. I got the Spicy Cubano tacos – chipotle- and lime-marinated smoked pork loin, pickles (normally unacceptable on my plate but essential for a Cuban), Swiss cheese, jalapeno pickled red onion, and habanero saffron slaw.

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If I were less vain, I would have taken a picture of my face while I was eating this, since it probably matched the bright red walls. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson after the Toro Furioso episode at Five Horses.

Intense as they were, the tacos were fantastic. Very tender, thinly sliced pork. My mouth aflame, I left the cocktails behind and went for a Blue Moon.

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Prices here are higher than at your typical bar; but then again, this is anything but typical bar food. The corn bread was $8.25, and my tacos were $12.75. Pretty good deal for innovative recipes that you wouldn’t find just anywhere.

The beers are kind of pricey. My Blue Moon was an absurd $6.50 (but after the heat of those tacos, I would have spent $20 for it). The sangria, on the other hand, was $8, which is eminently reasonable.

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For our final destination, we head to one of the most densely packed areas in Boston. The North End crams what feels like 5,000 or so Italian eateries into approximately two city blocks. And summer is probably this neighborhood’s busiest and most popular season; locals and tourists alike hit the North End in full force, clogging its narrow, winding streets, standing in long lines at the pastry shops, and creating interminable waits at many of the small, quaint restaurants. Needless to say, there’s no shortage of options for Italian food here. Yet as far as I know, only Ristorante Fiore has a roof deck – and I can’t think of a better way to escape the chaos.

Ristorante Fiori

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And what a roof deck it is. Large and spacious, enclosed by white garden walls and exposed brick, Fiore’s rooftop is comfortable, casual, and impressive. The roof deck has its own bar, with a marble top and a dozen seats. There’s a TV behind the bar and a couple of ceiling fans to keep the air moving on those stifling summer days. The seven tables in the immediate vicinity make for a good apps-and-drinks atmosphere, and there’s a separate dining area with lights strung above it, creating a romantic scene when the sun goes down. A mural painted on the back wall evokes the Italian countryside.

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I arrived at 5:30 on a beautiful Monday evening and was surprised to find not another soul at the bar. Both the dining area and the bar started filling up about an hour later, though it never got terribly crowded while I was there.

A summer evening on the roof deck of an Italian restaurant put me in the mood for a glass of white wine. I began with a crisp, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc.

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As enjoyable as the wine was, I wished I’d taken a closer look at my surroundings. In front of me was a jug of pineapple-infused vodka. Now that’s not a big deal; plenty of bars infuse their own vodka. Then I noticed a jug of another clear liquid – but with large chunks of coconut. This was unusual. The bartender told me it was coconut-infused rum. What’s more, the two infusions combine to create the Fiore martini, a seasonal specialty that I promptly ordered. Sophisticated tropical perfection.

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That seasonal martini is only one option on what is an extensive cocktail list, highlighted by summery selections like a blood orange mojito and a cucumber cooler. And like any Italian restaurant worth its salt, there’s a wine list a mile long.

I wasn’t planning on eating, but I wasn’t planning on ordering a potent martini on top of my wine, either. I got an appetizer of calamari that wasn’t spectacular, but kept me upright.

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Fiore’s prices are pretty standard for the North End. My wine was $8, which is reasonable. The cocktails range from $10 to $14, and the calamari was $12. Entrée prices are a little up there, but again, comparable for the area.

What’s incomparable is the experience. There are plenty of restaurants in the North End with huge windows that open onto the street, giving you the comforts of indoor dining with outdoor air and a view of the always bustling Italian neighborhood. But for me, nothing beats a secluded rooftop, far above the crowds, with only the night sky and soft lighting above.

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Last Call

As I said when I began this series, finding quality outdoor seating can be a challenge in Boston. Of course, the same could be said for any major city. Gray buildings, loud cars, busy streets, crowded sidewalks – most people don’t relish these sights and sounds when they’re in the mood for a quiet dinner or a few drinks.

In some cases, you might find yourself paying a little more for your relative seclusion; it’s up to you whether the scenery is worth a $7 beer. But there are plenty of places that are affordable and still give you a chance to enjoy the weather.

That said, any bar or restaurant can just stick a few tables and chairs on the sidewalk. But the places that get it right are the ones that find a way to transport you. Whether it’s cocktails by the water, beers on a back deck, or dinner on a rooftop, the best-conceived outdoor seating areas constitute something of a sanctuary – no matter how congested the surrounding area.

Daedalus: 45½ Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge

Website: http://www.daedalusharvardsquare.com/

Rattlesnake Bar and Grill: 384 Boylston Street, Boston

Website: http://www.rattlesnakebar.com/

Ristorante Fiore: 250 Hanover Street, Boston

Website: http://www.ristorantefiore.com/

Meadhall

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Cambridge’s Kendall Square is, in a word, disappointing. I mean, it’s not a dump, not a bad area of town. It’s not even a bad place; it could just be so much better. In Kendall’s endlessly long, empty streets, I see unlimited potential. Like that other square in Cambridge that houses a world-renowned university, I want it to be the kind of neighborhood that both locals and tourists flock to. I expect it to be thriving, full of activity, populated by dozens of cool bars, restaurants, interesting shops, and more. Full of popular attractions as well as hidden gems.

It’s not.

Every time I step off the Kendall T stop, I have no idea where I am (even when I’m with people who frequent Kendall, they tend to take a minute to get their bearings). Maybe because everything looks the same. Lots of drab office buildings. And anywhere you’re going in Kendall, regardless of where you are, is at least a 10-minute walk (with directions that usually involve cutting through a hotel lobby).

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Which is not to say there’s no reason to go to Kendall. There’s plenty to do, in fact; it’s just all spread out and makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. The Kendall Square Cinema is a very nice theater showing independent films. Flat Top Johnny’s is a really cool pool hall. And if you’re looking for adult beverages, a trip to Kendall is certainly worth your while. Cambridge Brewing Company brews their own excellent beer. Lord Hobo has an impressive beer list, a respectable menu of cocktails, and an always intriguing music selection. Then there is the subject of this week’s post: a two-floor tribute to European drinking culture, with a selection of draft microbrews that makes it a true standout in the Boston area and a bona fide destination in Kendall Square – Meadhall.

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Stepping into Meadhall is like stepping into a Bavarian beer hall. It’s a vast, open space with high ceilings, a massive bar in the center of the room, two floors, and a stunning 100 beers on draft. All that’s missing are big-bosomed women slinging beer steins and a bunch of red-faced old men singing bawdy drinking songs.

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Although it’s only been open a little over a year, Meadhall has a classic, timeless look that might make you think it’s been there forever. The décor is minimal, with a few large brewery banners serving as the only ornamental touches of color. Old-school chandeliers and cracks in the stone floor contribute to an “aged” appearance. There are no TVs on the main floor, which makes it the second bar I’ve been to in the past couple of months that thoughtfully forgoes such modern amenities (the other being Saloon). Floor-to-ceiling windows open in the nice weather and offer a view of Kendall’s wide open spaces.

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The bar itself is impressive. It’s oval-shaped and surrounded by 40 comfortable chairs. The warm, handsome-looking wood, with desk lamps that illuminate the bar surface, give you the feeling of sitting at a great, big desk. And right in the middle is a glorious, wraparound bank of 100 beer taps.

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Anyone could be forgiven for being momentarily overwhelmed by the beer selection here. It’s not exactly the kind of bar where you can glance at a few tap handles and make a quick decision. Meadhall’s draft offerings are listed on an enormous chalkboard high up on the wall, presumably attended to by someone who has exceptional handwriting skills and no fear of heights.

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Here the beers are helpfully delineated by style – Amber, Saison, Porter, Stout, and on and on. If you’re still unsure about what you want, don't fret. The bartenders on the occasions I’ve been here have been quite knowledgeable about each beer – no small feat with that many offerings – and they’re quick to offer you a sample of anything you want.

And chances are, you’ll find a beer you’ll like, unless you’re looking for something like Bud Light. Meadhall is all about craft beers and microbrews, with an emphasis on Belgian-style beers and local and regional breweries. Without doubt, Meadhall caters to the discerning beer drinker.

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Interestingly, it was not beer but cider that led me to Meadhall on a recent Saturday night. It was a warm evening, and in a quest to get material for my Outdoor Seating extravaganza, I’d been hitting roof decks and patios all day with a fever pitch. That brought me to the outdoor patio at The Field in Central Square, with Jen, Kelly, and Kat.

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As we plotted our next move, Jen suggested Meadhall, because she thought they had a roof deck (which they do not). And, whether we ended up drinking outside or inside, we wanted to go somewhere kind of close by; Jen again offered Meadhall, even though it required a cab ride or a trip on the T. We kept throwing around various options, and Jen kept throwing around Meadhall.

And it wasn’t even because she really loves the place or had a hankering for craft beer – rather, she kept going on about a cider that she’d had the last time she was there and wanted to have again. (For me, this was not a reason to trek all the way to Meadhall, or any bar.)

Unsurprisingly, we settled on Meadhall.

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We arrived around 8:30 and were joined by the elusive Dolan (she has a first name, but nobody uses it; at this point, I’m not 100 percent sure I even remember it). There was a good Saturday night crowd, but it wasn’t packed yet. The five of us were able to commandeer a few seats on one end of the bar, and there were also still tables available. Half an hour later, nearly all the bar seats were taken, most of the tables were filling up, and the upstairs was full too.

We’d barely gotten settled in our seats before Jen was pounding the bar and calling for her cider. When it finally came, she downed it in one gulp, demanded another, and finally mellowed out a bit.

I started the evening with a newish favorite – Victory Prima Pils. Solid, crisp, and clean…and look at that glass!

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One of the things that’s most interesting about this place, and nearly everyone remarks on it, is that they go out of their way to serve each beer (or cider) in its matching glassware. You know, I’d never think less of a bar for serving a Blue Moon in a Newcastle glass, because frankly, why would you care? Yet Meadhall’s insistence on matching beers with the appropriate glasses is not only charming but also feels, somehow, like the right way to do it. (Or maybe the owner’s just really anal.)

I only recently tried Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, during my trip to the Tip Tap Room, but Kat’s been drinking it by the gallon for years. Her glass was even cooler than mine, and her beer more complex.

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By this point Dolan, a hard cider aficionado, had joined Jen’s chorus about this cider they were drinking. Needless to say, I had to see what all the fuss was about. Now, I’m not a big cider guy; I order one now and again – usually Magners or, if I can find it on tap, Harpoon. The problem for me is that my personal gold standard for hard cider is one that my friend John, of Brew Dudes fame, made last Thanksgiving. It was rich, potent, smooth, and thick – like actual apple cider. I only had John’s brew one time, but every cider I’ve had since then has been embarrassingly inferior.

Until I had Downeast Cider. And suddenly, Jen’s exuberance was understandable.

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Downeast Cider is a craft cider made in Maine with locally grown and freshly pressed apples. I raised this unfiltered brew to my lips and was greeted by the pure aroma of apples – as opposed to something that’s supposed to taste like apples. It looks like that thick, brown cider you have on Thanksgiving. Someone at the bar said it reminded her of “rural Virginia.” For me it recalled the homebrewed version that John made (and hopefully will make again) and pretty much ensured that I’ll never order another brand.

I stuck with Downeast the rest of the night. Jen or Kelly ordered the other cider on tap, Fatty Bampkins. We all diplomatically agreed it was “pretty good.”

Since my Saturday night visit to Meadhall was so dominated by the cider (and I swear, I’m not on Downeast’s payroll), I figured I’d better make a follow-up trip and discuss a little more beer. So I stopped in on a Sunday afternoon around 2, and promptly ordered a cider.

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But after that, I figured I’d try one of the two flights of Belgian beers that Meadhall offers. I’ve never really acquired a taste for Belgian-style beers, but I decided to take a chance. I got the Ommegang Flight – Ommegang Witte, Ommegang Belgian Pale Ale, Rare Vos, Hennepon, and Ommegang Abbey Ale. I enjoyed all five, and if I were better versed in Belgian beer nomenclature, I’d describe each one in excruciating detail. But what I will say is that they were all a little milder than your typical Belgian beer (and I know there are some beer connoisseurs out there cringing at my lumping Belgian beers together and calling them “typical”). The flight is especially good if you’re feeling indecisive; you don’t get to choose your beers, but the ones they give you are carefully thought out and arranged.

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A little food was in order. Meadhall offers a “weekend menu,” an abbreviated version of their regular dinner menu. I went with Bourbon Barrel pork sliders, made with the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale barbecue sauce. The sliders were good, but were befouled by pickles. (I disdain pickles on sandwiches – except Cuban sandwiches, but that’s another story.)

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There’s a small cocktail list if you neither like nor are in the mood for beer. I tried the iced toddy, which is like a hot toddy, but…well, you get it. It was a refreshing drink for a hot day – tea, Apple Jack brandy, ginger liqueur, lemon, and honey syrup, topped deliciously with ground clove, which just put it right over the top.

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Cocktails and ciders aside, Meadhall is clearly about the beer. So it wasn’t until I started writing this post that it dawned on me – does Meadhall serve mead? I mean, it’s called Meadhall – not Beerhall. This necessitated yet another visit.

I stopped in around 5:30 on a Thursday and found the bar nearly full with after-work imbibers. Sure enough, Meadhall serves mead. There are three “meaderies” represented – Honeymaker, out of Maine, and Moonlight and Sap House, both in New Hampshire – and each have several styles represented on the menu. It’s pretty rare that I drink mead; then again, who does drink mead on a regular basis? I don’t mind it, but as you may know, it’s incredibly sweet. So I opted for a Honeymaker mead described as “dry.” As meads go, it was pretty good; ironically, I would have liked it to be sweeter (look, I’m a complicated individual, OK?).

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I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the mead was served in a matching Honeymaker glass. The woman next to me, noting the dainty glass and the honey wine it held, remarked “It’s hard to imagine Vikings drinking that.” Fair point, but we agreed that the Viking version was probably very primitive and attracted bugs, so this was a step up. I switched to a Peak Organic Summer Session, a crisp, American wheat beer, and called it a night.

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Last Call

Every time I come to Meadhall, my appreciation of it grows. It’s popular after work and fills up quickly, but with 40 seats at the bar and plenty of space to stand, the crowd never feels too dense. It’s attractive during the day, when the big windows let in an abundance of natural light. But it’s even better at night, when the interior is illuminated almost solely by the chandeliers and desk lamps. The upstairs area, which is sometimes rented out for private functions, offers cushy leather chairs and couches and has a smaller bar.

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Prices here are pretty standard. Most beers are around $5, but there are some fancy ones that’ll cost you a little more. My beer flight was $10. The Downeast Cider was $7, and cocktails are $10. The food’s a little pricey, but there are snacks and small plates that are pretty reasonable. The pulled pork sliders I had were $12, which I think is a little high (but when it comes to pork sliders, I’ve been spoiled by the $5 happy hour special at the Corner Tavern).

As Cambridge “squares” go, Kendall may lack the vibrancy of Harvard or Central; but those other places lack anything resembling Meadhall. In a city that boasts many bars specializing in microwbrews, Meadhall is a true destination for any beer drinker.

Even if you prefer cider.

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Address: 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge

Website: The website is “coming soon,” but you can check out the placeholder here: http://themeadhall.com/. I imagine they’re too busy sampling their beers to finish the website, and I can’t say that I blame them.

Russell House Tavern

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I knew Russell House Tavern was my kind of place was when I had to use the restroom.

Bear with me.

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I went to Russell House Tavern for the first time a couple of years ago, with Melissa, my friend Brian, and Brian's wife, Malika. We were wandering around Harvard Square one evening and happened upon Russell House, which I think was fairly new at the time. The girls went inside to look at the menu (because as long as they had food and beer, Brian and I would have been cool with it) and deemed the dinner options acceptable; more importantly, there was no wait.

While the food was great and the beer selection was even better, the atmosphere didn’t make much of an impression on me. It kind of reminded me of a kitchen. The décor was very bright, with white walls and a black-and-white tiled floor, and the room was a little loud. There were four long, rectangular tables with stools, surrounded by smaller tables with booths and chairs, and a bar off to one side. I mean, it wasn’t bad, not by any stretch; just…nothing special.

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As the four of us finished up, I asked about the location of the restroom and was directed downstairs. Assuming I was just headed to a basement level with restrooms and storage, I was stunned as I made my way down a large, oak staircase into a completely different bar, far removed from the hustle and bustle of upstairs.

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I found myself in a spacious, cool room with exposed brick walls, dark wood, and stone flooring. A large, marble-topped bar with about 25 seats was the focal point, along with a dining area that was much more intimate than the upstairs. Lamps on the bar and lighting fixtures on the walls contributed to a relaxed, living room feel.

The contrast in atmosphere could not be more striking. If upstairs was like a noisy kitchen, downstairs was like a quiet den. If upstairs was the crowded kids’ table at Thanksgiving, downstairs was where the grown-ups sit, with more comfortable chairs and a few bottles of wine.

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A couple of years after that first trip, the downstairs bar at Russell House Tavern has become one of my favorite places to eat and drink in Harvard Square. Brian and I usually have a excellent meal here, matched with a few craft beers, then head across the street to Whitney's for darts, a couple of PBRs, and some local color. (Not a bad night, if I do say so myself.)

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Regardless of whether you’re sitting upstairs or downstairs, you can count on creative modern American cuisine and a well-thought-out beer selection. But whenever I’m downstairs, I find myself mostly in the mood for Russell House’s fantastic cocktails. Maybe it’s the lounge-type feel, or the snazzy vests and ties that the bartenders wear. Or maybe it’s just that their drinks are so damn good. While there are plenty of bars to choose from in Harvard Square, Russell House Tavern is the only one I know of in the area that makes the kind of inventive craft cocktails that have been cropping up in Boston these past couple years.

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Their cocktail list is presented in two sections – Quintessential Classics and Current Conceptions. On Brian’s and my most recent visit, we sampled from both sections.

Of the classics, we tried the Vieux Carre and the Southside. The Vieux Carre seems like a cool variation on a Manhattan. Old Overholt Rye, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters are joined by cognac and Peychaud’s bitters, providing a nice twist on a classic. A sophisticated, slow-sipping cocktail.

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The Southside, in contrast, is the kind of drink you might inadvertently quaff down in two gulps. I didn’t even taste the gin, so I felt like I was drinking lemonade, with the mint simple syrup giving it a subtle earthy freshness. It would be a refreshing summertime cocktail – and a dangerous one.

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The Current Conceptions section hosts a number of libations fit for summer. The Always Sunny strikes me as an ideal drink for this insanely hot weather we’ve been having as of late. Made with Privateer Silver Reserve rum, lime, strawberry simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and house-made ginger beer, it was an easy-drinking cocktail with a tropical flair.

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And the Crimson Crow was like a raspberry lemonade, with vodka, lemon juice, and raspberry simple syrup.

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As Brian and I perused the dinner menu, we shifted our attention to Russell House Tavern’s top-notch selection of microbrews. There are about eight or nine beers on draft, along with a rotating cask option. Whenever a bar has cask-conditioned beer, I feel compelled to try it...partly because I imagine my friends at Brew Dudes giving me a mildly reproachful look that says I’m really passing on a unique beer-drinking experience if I don’t try the cask offering.

Last time I partook of Russell House’s cask, they were serving High and Mighty Beer of the Gods.

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It was crisp and floral, an enjoyable beer whether you’re drinking it out of a bottle or a cask. The waiter told me they had just tapped the cask that afternoon, along with representatives from the brewery, who were suitably impressed with the cask-conditioned version of their fine beer.

Russell House Tavern also serves one of my all-time favorite beers on draft – Gritty’s Black Fly Stout. Gritty’s is brewed in Portland, Maine, and finding this smoky, creamy dark beer in Boston can be a challenge.

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You could easily come here just for the drinks, but the menu is no less satisfying. Appetizers range from salads to crab cakes to oddities such as beef tongue meatballs, and there are “small plates,” with even more daring choices like hickory smoked lamb’s belly toast, crispy pig’s head cake, and grilled prime rib knuckles.

I'd love to tell you more about Russell House Tavern’s dinner menu, but the only thing I've ever ordered is the grass-fed burger with cheddar, bacon, and caramelized onions. Served on an English muffin, this is without question one of my favorite burgers in the Boston area. I still remember my very first bite. It was one of the juiciest, best-prepared burgers I'd ever had. The English muffin gets a little unwieldy once you get about halfway through, leaving you with quite a mess on your hands. No matter! I would eat this thing with my hands tied behind my back if I had to.

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Oh, and the last time I ordered it, the waiter asked if I wanted fries or salad on the side…or a little of each. Now is that perfect or what? I get offered a salad and think “I should be good, go with the healthy option,” but I know nothing goes better with a burger than fries. A little of each? Russell House has got you covered.

I unapologetically order the burger every time I’m here. And it's almost too bad, because there are some great options, like the local Berkshire pork trio (loin, belly, smoked shoulder), a variety of seafood dishes, and even a raw bar menu. There’s also a pizza selection, which is Brian’s domain.

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On our last visit, he got the Angry Queen, with marinated roasted tomatoes and basil. His assessment: “It got better the more I ate of it. It seemed a little bitter at first. But maybe I’m just drunk.”

What I wouldn’t give to express myself so succinctly and poetically.

Last Call

In an area with so many bars and restaurants, Russell House Tavern manages to stand out. Upscale but casual, the downstairs area would be a great place for a date. And I don’t mean to judge the upstairs too harshly. Now that the warm weather’s here, the big windows that look out onto the square are open, giving it a nicer vibe. There’s also a small section of outdoor seating.

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I usually find the downstairs bar to be a little crowded in the after-work hours; most of the 25 bar seats have been occupied the past couple times I’ve been there, but getting a table has never been much of a problem. Russell House doesn’t seem to draw a lot of students, which distinguishes it a bit from other establishments in the area. That might be because the prices are a tad on the high side. My burger and Brian’s pizza were both $12, and the entrees average around $20. But I’d say such creative cuisine warrants a little extra. And that burger’s worth every penny. The cocktails range from $8 to $13, which is pretty standard for well-made craft drinks, and the draft beers are $5 and $6.

Oh…and the restrooms are pretty nice, too.

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Address: 14 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge

Website:http://www.russellhousecambridge.com/