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Boston Restaurant Blog -- September, 2009

Below are blog entries from September, 2009. Use the links in the left column to do a quick search of blog entries, or to see blog entries from other months. And feel free to use the "Comments" links under each blog entry to reply to us; your comments just might end up in our Boston restaurant blog! (Note: This page is part of our restaurant features section.)

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September, 2009

Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Impressive Meal at Stellina Restaurant in Watertown

A group of us met up in Watertown earlier this week at an upscale but casual Italian restaurant called Stellina. Now even though the place has been around for more than 20 years (and is well-known among both diners and food critics), for some reason I had never been there. But finally I made it over to this rather elegant and classy spot in the square, and had a terrific overall experience.

photo of Stellina Restaurant, Watertown, MA Stellina is a fairly small restaurant with a front entrance on Main Street in the heart of Watertown Square, and a back entrance/exit that leads to a seasonal patio with a garden and a fountain. The left side of the restaurant is mostly made up of a cozy, intimate bar that includes a space in the front for entertainment (there was live jazz music when we were there). The main dining area to the right is also cozy and romantic, with a mix of table lamps and attractive hanging lights adding to the slightly sultry feel. Toward the back is a rather narrow private room that tends to be used for larger parties such as ours.

Our server arrived soon after we sat down and we ordered some drinks, including various wines and beers (I was happy to see that Allagash White was included on their beer list). We skipped ordering appetizers, partly because the assorted breads (and a creamy pesto dip that was heavy on the garlic) were enough to keep us going until our main entrees arrived. And our dishes came to us fairly promptly, considering that nearly everything at Stellina seems to be made from scratch.

Among the dishes we had, there were several highlights, with perhaps the Tuscan lamb ragu being the standout. This was a dish that simply bowled us over, with the uniquely rich taste of the ground lamb mixing perfectly with fennel, garlic, olives, tomatoes, and pasta, and the wine and cream sauce adding even more richness to the dish. The humble pasta and meatball plate wasn't far behind, mainly because of the hearty mixture of pork, veal, and beef used in the homemade meatballs. The crispy thin-crust white pizza was similarly good, with an array of flavors coming from the smoked proscuitto, pungent fontina cheese, sharp-tasting garlic, and piney rosemary. The rather unusual eggplant parmesan lasagna included layers of breadcrumbs, mozzarella cheese, and bechamel sauce, with the coarse breadcrumbs mixing nicely with the smoother layers of the other ingredients. Finally, the pasta con fichi (pasta with figs) had a delightful mix of sweet and savory tastes coming from the figs and goat cheese, and the spinach that was mixed in added a slight bitterness to the complexity of the dish.

We were all pretty full from our meals, which is why the half-portions of tiramisu worked out perfectly. And their version of this dessert was a good one, with a strong espresso taste going nicely with the lighter tastes of the chocolate and mascarpone. Service was mostly decent, while prices were very good (probably because we didn't get soups, salads, or appetizers), with each person putting in just over $30.

As was the case with Highland Kitchen in Somerville (a fantastic restaurant that we reviewed last week), Stellina isn't exactly a hidden gem, so we won't be featuring it one this site. But as far as restaurants go, this was one of the best places I have been to all year, and one that I want to go back to very soon.

If you are looking for the address and phone number for Stellina, here it is: Stellina Restaurant, 47 Main Street, Watertown, MA, 02472. Phone: (617) 924-9475.

Related Blog Entries: Italian restaurants, Watertown restaurants

Thursday, September 24, 2009
Culinary Greatness at Highland Kitchen, Somerville

As most of you probably know, I go to what is probably an inordinate number of restaurants in the Boston area. Some are good, some are not so good, and many are simply average. Then there are the relatively small number of restaurants that seem to achieve greatness, and beyond that, well, a very select few that are in my personal "hall of fame." Now I've only been to Highland Kitchen in Somerville a couple of times, but if the place isn't already in my hall of fame, it's very, very close. And based on the crowds that this gastropub pulls in night after night (including both nights I have been there), I feel that I am not the only one who thinks this way.

photo of Highland Kitchen, Somerville, MA Highland Kitchen is in a rather pleasant part of Somerville (on the edge of Prospect Hill, midway between City Hall and Somerville Hospital) that is not exactly an area brimming with restaurants, as it is mostly residential. Indeed, it is one of the only dining options in this section of the city, though Davis Square is admittedly not too far away. The exterior of Highland Kitchen has an attractive sign hanging over the entrance, as well as a neon martini glass and "eat" sign in the windows. The interior almost has the feel of a Southern honky tonk, with dim lights, lots of old wood, a jukebox filled with old blues and country music, and little in the way of upscale touches even though it mostly considered an upscale restaurant and pub. The space isn't big, but they make do with what they have, with the tables being relatively close together. An attractive bar sits to the left, while the main dining area lies mostly to the right.

The food at Highland Kitchen fits in well with the Southern feel to the restaurant, as many of the items on their menu are what you might find at a BBQ joint or a soul food place. And some of the Southern-style dishes I have tried there are simply awesome. The pulled pork, for example, was better than most I've had in New England, with a tangy vinegar-based sauce that is firmly rooted in the eastern areas of North Carolina. The collard greens with smoked bacon was another dish that greatly impressed, with a ton of flavor coming from the slowly cooked meat. The macaroni and cheese was neither too clumpy nor too runny, and had a flavorful mix of cheeses and bread crumbs. And while gnocchi is not exactly a Southern dish, the version at Highland Kitchen comes close, as the delectable pan-fried pasta pillows I had there were mixed in a ratatouille that you might possibly find in a Cajun meal. The other dishes I tried at Highland Kitchen were all above average, with the "devils on horseback" (dates wrapped in bacon) being one of the best. The North African plate was also impressive, with the hummus being a bit watery but otherwise tasty, the pureed roasted red peppers getting an extra kick from pomegranates and ground walnuts, and the sweet-tasting carrot puree getting a boost from ground almonds. Other items I tried at Highland Kitchen were the burger (juicy and tasty, but not all that memorable), the handcut fries (crisp and nicely browned), and the smoked bluefish cakes (mild, moist, and tender, and served with a sweet and spicy mustard/mango sauce). I also tried several beers at Highland Kitchen including Pretty Things Jack D'Or, a tremendous Belgian-style beer with a fruity, floral taste.

All it took was two visits over the past several weeks (including one earlier this week) to make me fall in love with Highland Kitchen in Somerville. In a way, it is a bit like another place I really like that is south of Boston, namely the Fat Cat in Quincy; both are upscale gastropubs with excellent food, varied beer lists, and friendly, laid-back environments. And both are incredibly popular, which means that neither one could really be classified as a hidden gem. Between the two of them, I would probably give the nod to Highland Kitchen, partly because of the truly outstanding food, and partly because I feel that the atmosphere at the Highland is just a bit more pleasant (can't go wrong with either place, though). Definitely a huge thumbs-up to Highland Kitchen, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite restaurants in the entire Boston area.

If you want the address and phone number for Highland Kitchen, here it is: Highland Kitchen, 150 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA, 02143. Phone: (617) 625-1131

Related Blog Entries: Somerville restaurants

Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Lunch at Bub's BBQ, Sunderland

As I've said before, I'm not a particularly huge BBQ fan, but I do like to have it every now and then, especially if it comes from a decent place such as Blue Ribbon BBQ in Arlington or Tennessee's in Braintree. And one place outside of the Boston area that I have been thinking about over the past few months is a roadside barbecue joint in the Pioneer Valley called Bub's BBQ. Well, we finally got to try it about a week ago, and it turned out to be quite good, though based on what I tried, Blue Ribbon still remains at the top of my list (in New England, anyways).

photo of Bub's BBQ, Sunderland, MA For those familiar with Guy Fieri's show "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives," Bub's BBQ seems made for this show. It is a classic roadside restaurant that sits on a lonely stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere, a few miles north of UMass Amherst and a short distance east of the Connecticut River. The restaurant itself is housed in a shack that looks a little like the long-gone Willow Pond in Concord (for those who remember that classic dining spot and watering hole). The inside of Bub's has a sort of rustic charm, with a front area that has picnic tables, and a main room with more seating as well as an indoor grill and both hot and cold buffet bar stations. The ordering area includes a rather humorous touch; a little stuffed pig on a line that is used to move orders from the counter to the grill. Outside is a covered seating area that includes more picnic tables.

We tried a number of items at Bub's BBQ, including several from the hot and cold bar, which is included with each meal. The cold bar had a delicious dill potato salad, while the hot bar had decent versions of dirty rice, BBQ beans, collard greens, and glazed sweet potatoes. The winners of both bars, however, were the hickory smoked potatoes, which had a delightfully smoky and earthy flavor, and the cabbage soup, which had a terrific mix of sour and savory tastes. The hush puppies, which we ordered as a side, were rather dry and had a strong onion taste that overwhelmed the rest of the ingredients. As for the entrees, the pulled pork sandwich was tender and had a nice homemade sauce mixed in, though the flavor of the sauce didn't seem quite strong enough. The skewered jumbo shrimp were moist and tender, while the steak was a bit tough but otherwise decent with a moderately smoky flavor. I washed my food down with a sweet tea, which wasn't bad at all, though I admittedly have been spoiled by the incredible sweet tea that I had for about a week straight in North Carolina last year.

So Bub's BBQ was a very good place overall, and one that I would certainly recommend to barbecue lovers. It may not be the best BBQ joint in New England, but it's plenty good, and the rural roadside atmosphere of the place only adds to its appeal.

If you would like the address and phone number for Bub's BBQ, here it is: Bub's BBQ, 676 Amherst Road (Route 116), Sunderland, MA, 01375. Phone: (413) 548-9630

Related Blog Entries: barbecue joints

Friday, September 4, 2009
Trip to Queens and Coney Island

Last week, I was down in Queens and Brooklyn but only for a brief time, so I didn't get to try many restaurants, but I was able to get to two dining spots I had never been to before, as well as hitting an old classic at Coney Island.

photo of Veracruz, Mamaroneck, New York On the way to Queens, we stopped in the pleasant Westchester County town of Mamaroneck for a quick lunch. Our destination was a little Mexican hole-in-the-wall called Veracruz. There wasn't much to the place, as it had a small kitchen area on the left that was also where folks picked up takeout, and a rather plain dining room to the right. Our food was a mixed bag, with everything being a bit too greasy for our tastes, but to be fair, some of the food was quite good. The chile relleno, for instance, did have a greasy batter but it was stuffed with deliciously mild cheese and came wrapped in two tortillas with tasty beans, rice, and cilantro placed between the tortillas and the pepper. And the beef tacos had a flavorful mix of lean meat, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, and a good dose of cilantro for good measure. Unfortunately, the spicy pork sandwich was simply too greasy and it was absolutely overloaded with cheese (once some of the cheese was taken off, it wasn't bad tasting, however). Service was a bit reserved but friendly enough, and the prices were very low. Greasiness aside, I mostly liked the food at Veracruz, though I'm not sure I'd put it near the top of my list of places to go near Route 95 in New York or Southwest Connecticut.

After spending part of the afternoon in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, we headed to the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, where three of us ended up wandering the boardwalk area and Surf Avenue. We ate little snacks along the way, including some of your typical beach food along the boardwalk as well as an outstanding hot dog at the original Nathan's near the old Astroland. I've been to this Nathan's before, and it is certainly a classic spot that is a must for anyone who loves hot dogs (and places that represent old New York).

photo of the Palace Diner, Flushing (Queens), New York After Coney Island it was back to Queens for the night, and the next day it was back to Boston. But before we headed back, we had breakfast at an old-school restaurant in Flushing called the Palace Diner. Overlooking a highway and set in a neighborhood of small houses and apartments, the Palace Diner had a New Jersey feel to it (or perhaps something out of a Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen song). It was huge, with a moderate-sized dining area to the left, a sprawling dining area to the right, a separate dining area at the end of the room to the right, and an area of counter seating in the middle of the place. There were some real old-fashioned touches to the diner, including booths with individual jukeboxes, a linoleum floor, and a fish tank near the entrance. Our breakfast was good, solid diner fare that included a pancake-style pastrami omelet filled with meat, bagels that were very nicely done (crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside), some tasty corned beef hash that was firm and clumpy, and about the best home fries I have had anywhere, with thinly-sliced potatoes and carmelized onions seasoned perfectly. Service was efficient and the prices were generally pretty reasonable. And there was a parking lot right out front. So basically there was much to like about the Palace Diner, enough so I could see myself trying the place for lunch or dinner sometime in the future.

My trip to the New York City area was indeed a brief one, but there were some good eats along the way (especially at Nathan's and the Palace Diner). Be on the lookout for another New York blog entry coming up soon, as I may be heading to Manhattan over the next couple of months (and surely hitting some new restaurants along the way).

Related Blog Entries: New York restaurants, Queens restaurants

Tuesday, September 1, 2009
A Note to College Students

It's hard to believe that the summer is already over, and that college students are coming to Boston in droves right now. If you are a college student arriving in Boston for the first time (or returning for another year of school) and you have any questions concerning the Boston restaurant scene, we would be glad to help out. Probably the easiest way to get in touch with us is to go to our Facebook fan page or our Twitter page. On either one, you can post questions about restaurants that we can try to answer. And the added benefit of the Facebook page is that hundreds of other people who follow us as fans can also try to answer your questions.

So how do you get to these pages? Well, to become a Facebook fan of ours, please go to the link below:

http://facebook.com/pages/Bostons-Hidden-Restaurants/87883173969

And to become a follower of ours on Twitter, please go to this link:

http://twitter.com/hiddenboston

We certainly don't have all the answers to your questions concerning Boston-area restaurants, but we will try our hardest to help. And if we can't, our Facebook fans certainly should be able to. Good luck with school, and have a great time in Boston!