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Shanghai Village, Arlington

Shanghai Village is in Arlington center, making it convenient for a pre-bridge game bite. Nate and I were seated immediately at 5:30pm. The Chinese restaurant has been around for ages but last fall they closed for renovations and added a new sushi bar. There is a banner advertising their "Grand Re-Opening!"

I was there once, in 1999, I remember it serving average American Chinese food. Nate had a Groupon to use, specifically for the sushi menu, so I had the chirashi ($18). The word "chirashi" means "scattered," and is basically any assortment of fish and vegetables on top of a bed of sushi rice. It's like lazy man's nigiri. My version came with salmon, tuna, escolar, hamachi and imitation crab meat. The sushi rice was seasoned correctly and was even the right temperature. The fish was cut well, but the tuna and escolar were watery and bland.

Nate got the Spicy Roll Combo ($18): spicy tuna, spicy salmon and spicy yellowtail. Despite the "spicy" title, Nate deemed all the rolls bland. He did not finish his meal.

There were only 2 waitresses and they were harried. We had to wave her down each time we wanted more water, more diet coke, or the bill.

Luckily, the Groupon gave us a $12 discount; the prices are high for the quality of what you are getting. It might be another 17 years before I return.


Cha Yen Thai Cookery, Watertown

People have been raving about the "delicious, authentic" Thai food at Cha Yen Thai Cookery since it opened in 2014. I attempted to go with some friends after a recent bridge tournament, only to discover the restaurant is primarily takeout; there is one table for 4, and a few high stools at a counter. My friends left for another restaurant, but I determined and waited in line for take out. When I finally reached the counter, they told me it was a 25-40 minute wait for takeout, so I gave up.

2 weeks later, I convinced my co-workers to try it for International Thursday. Luckily, the lunch wait was far more reasonable (10 minutes). I had the pork pad Thai ($8.50). It was a solid rendition; the noodles were the right texture and the sauce was fresh, not too sweet. I liked the crispy friend shallots on top. My pork was a tad overcooked. I wish they had mango coconut sticky rice; I have been hunting for some since I got back from SE Asia.

It's a fine option in the area, but not worth a 40 minute wait. Go next door to Sevan and pick up some baklava while you are there.


Bar, New Haven CT

What is it about New Haven and pizza? It is hard to believe it was over five years ago when I accomplished the herculean task of having Pepe's and Sally's in the same afternoon, one after the other. Sally's has since closed, but Bar is a very respectable entry in the contest of New Haven's best pizza.

Steve wanted to gather a bunch of his Connecticut-based college friends together for a night out. When he suggested we try Bar, I was in. I have heard from several different people about how I "HAVE TO" try their mashed potato pizza.

We got there an hour early, and thank goodness we had a reservation (they only take reservations for larger groups of 10+). At 5:30pm, the wait was 90 minutes and the large restaurant and bar area was packed to the gills. There is a pool table and I almost got hit by a pool cue, twice.

The menu is consists of one salad (seasonal greens, sliced pear, caramelized pecans,
and crumbled blue cheese) and pizza (3 sizes)

We ordered three large pies: Mashed potato (1/2 with bacon), Eggplant, and Sausage, pepperoni & onion. They were huge, but super thin – the size of a half sheet tray. The mashed potato with bacon was outstanding, as promised, but the other two were equally delicious. The crust was flavorful and had the right amount of chew. The toppings were generous and delicious.

The large pizzas start at $15 and toppings range from $2- $5, each. The bowl of salad was $22 and it was really good; the crunchy pecans played nicely with the sweet pear and salty blue cheese.

They mircobrew their own beers, as well as having a large beer list. Steve loved his dry Irish stout. The venue becomes a nightclub at 10pm, but we didn't stay for the dancing. If I lived closer, it would become a regular haunt. Definitely check Bar out, if you are in New Haven, but be prepared for a wait.

I love the concept of Wink & Nod; They call themselves a "culinary incubator" and allow a new restaurant to run their kitchen every six months. This keeps the menu fresh, and allows people to experiment with new dynamic cuisines that would be too risky in a traditional restaurant setup.

The newest pop-up is Pelekasis, which serves modern Greek fare. What does that mean? Well, it means the grape leaves ($12) have foie gras, and the tzatziki is updated with green apple. Meatballs? Those are made with wild boar. And the Gyro you love so much? Instead of lamb, it has honey-brined pork belly.

I don't know what it says about falafel ($10) that they weren't really able to update it, but they decide to serve it with a beet tzatziki. The spanakopita ($12) was touted as having "100 layers," and it was good, but fell a few layers short.

I liked everything; I thought it was all very good. The meatballs ($13) had a nice sear on the outside and a springy texture inside. The falafel was tender. The foie gras in the grape leaves was subtle, but present. I loved the freshness of the green apple in the tzatziki. The one small round of pita ($7) it came with was insufficient. In fact, I would say all the potion sizes were small for the cost.

The Gyro was delicious; I loved that it was topped with crispy fried potatoes. But at the end of the day, I ask myself is this $16 pork belly Gyro better than the traditional one I get at Greek Corner (Cambridge) for $7? Not just better, but more than twice as good? The answer is no, absolutely not.

I guess what it comes down to is that I love traditional Greek cuisine, and I see no need to mess with it. The meal for two, plus a glass of red wine, came to $100 including tip. I could feed 4-6 people at Greek Corner for that price.

Wink & Nod is a neat space; a short flight of stairs leads you into a dimly lit basement space with dark leather banquettes. It aims for to embody "Yesteryear’s Speakeasy With Modern Flair," They have an extensive list of craft cocktails and even have a scotch club on Tuesday nights. You should definitely check it out for a drink…and then go to Greek Corner for dinner.


The Talk, Watertown

It's a stupid name for a restaurant, but the same family owns a diner called the Talk of the Town, so when they decided to open a sit down Italian restaurant they went with 'The Talk,'

Steve and I started with the mussels in garlic, white wine and lemon ($13). The mussels were listed on the menu as fresh, but they definitely tasted like frozen, but the lemon, butter, and wine sauce was delicious. I just don't understand why people insist on serving mussels in a shallow plate and not a bowl.

I was also pleasantly surprised at the warm Italian bread. It was delicious for sopping up the great sauce with the mussels.

The Isabella pizza ($13) was an absolute disaster. It was reminiscent of a high school Home Ec project. The crust was awful – flavorless with a mealy texture. I cannot believe someone actually thinks this is appropriate to serve.

The eggplant Parmesan ($19) redeemed the restaurant a bit; the eggplant slices were seasoned well and fried correctly. Steve didn't like the sauce nor the cheese, but I did not have a problem with either. The ziti that it was served with was bland. Hasn't anyone told the chef to salt the pasta water?

There were definitely some high points in the meal, but the pizza was so bad it was offensive. We certainly will not be back.


Hojoko, Boston

The name is cute - it is Japanese for Son of HoJo which is appropriate given that the Verb hotel, where the restaurant is situated, used to be a Howard Johnson's. Hojoko is Tim Cushman's (of O Ya fame) new casual Japanese izakaya, the Japanese version of a tavern. The menu has an assortment of small plates, sushi rolls, and skewers, to be shared - tapas style.

I managed to easily find parking at 5:30pm on a Tuesday night. Leslie and I shared the foie gras "spam" sushi ($8), grilled prawns ($12), udon carbonara ($13), hamachi kama, which is the collar of the fish ($15), and a simple local green salad with a spicy ginger-sesame dressing ($7).

The salad dressing was delicious, although the hamachi kama was definitely the winner of the night. The grilled smoky fish skin against the tender flesh was delicious. Be aware of all the bones.

The foie gras "spam" sushi was a disappointment – overly salty and very expensive for what we got - 3 small rolls.

The prawns are large and well cooked, but again the price tag was heavy.

I liked the idea of the fusion of Japanese and Italian with the udon carbonara, but the soft noodles were at the wrong texture for the sauce. I did like the pork belly addition. Again, minuscule serving size.

Our service was proficient; we noted how quickly they wanted to snatch our plates off the table even before we are done with the dishes.

Hojoko is far too expensive for what it is. One Yelp review warns that you will need to go out for cheap pizza afterwards and it turns out it wasn't in jest – I went to the bar to meet up with my friends, post-bridge game, and shared nachos.

G & Steve’s Cancun Vacation

I have been trying to convince Steve to go on a beach vacation for years now. However, every time I suggested it his response was “I’m Irish, I burn,” But after last winter's snowmageddon of 108 inches, he acquiesced and said that he was ready to try a beach vacation.

I did my research, and I found a deal that sounds too good to be true. Hyatt offers two free nights at any Hyatt worldwide, if you get their credit card, and spend $1000 in the first three months. Hyatt is also starting a foray into the all-inclusive market. They currently only have three: two in Cancun, and one in Jamaica. In Cancun, the Hyatt Zilara is for adults only, whereas the Hyatt Ziva welcomes families. The rate for a room at the Zilara ranges from $500 to $800 a night, which includes all food and drink. I decided this would be the best way to spend our four free nights.

I was worried that Steve would balk at Cancun - He is not a fan of Mexican food. But, to his credit, he was willing to give it a try. I have been to Cancun once before, as a stop during a cruise. My six hour visit to the port, barely gave me an impression to go on. To be honest, I was a little weary – Cancun conjures up images of coeds, drunk on cheap booze and partying to loud music.

It turns out there was need to worry, Steve and I just returned from four exquisite nights in paradise. The Cancun airport is a shit show, but I pre-arranged transportation through USA transfers ($55 RT for a private car). The ride to the hotel was a easy 25 minutes. We were greeted at the Zilara with drinks and cold face towels. A generous tip during the check in process may have persuaded them to give us an upgrade to a front ocean view suite on a high floor. Additionally, we are granted access to a reservation at Chef’s Plate, the specialty restaurant on grounds that is only available to the guests of the more expensive suites.

Our room was on the sixth floor (out of eight), with a balcony large enough to string a hammock across from one end to the other. There was a Jacuzzi for the two of us, situated with the view of the ocean. The bathroom included a double rain shower, and the mini bar was packed with alcohol and snacks, all free for the taking.

Although this is my first time at an all-inclusive resort, I've been on several cruises and I expected the level of food to be about the same as cruise fare, which is to say, I didn't have high expectations and I was OK with that.

The Hyatt Zilara has five dining options including a buffet, Mexican, tapas, Japanese, and general continental fare. My expectations were pretty accurate; The food ranged from OK to really delicious. Steve found a walnut ice cream that he loved and indulged in every night, and I had a Sea bass that was so outstanding, I had the exact same entrée the next night, which is unheard of for me.

The Japanese restaurant includes a teppanyaki bar which we are also able to get reservations for the first night. Our chef gave us a fun little show with twirling knives and spatulas, and there was, of course, a display of flames, but the food itself was average. My noodles are good, but my ribeye it was overcooked.

Our next two dinners were at Pelicanos, the outdoor open air eatery by the pool. This is where I had my delicious Sea bass, cooked perfectly, served with a salsa Verde. Both nights, we sat with the view of the ocean lit by the full moon; It is hard to ask for a more romantic setting.

The last night was the trumped up six-course chef's tasting menu at Chef’s Plate. We are seated communally at a long table with seven other couples. Hysterically enough, they are all Asian, making Steve the minority in the room. The food was fine, but honestly I would have been happier with a third night of Sea bass. We never got to the Mexican restaurant (remember, Steve doesn't like Mexican food) or the tapas place (The wait was half an hour and we weren't willing to do that), but the buffet was an excellent choice for breakfast/lunch. My favorite part was the guacamole bar. It was fresh, creamy, and bright with jalapeno, cilantro, red onion and tomato. Paired with the salsa Fresca, I basically ate a whole lot of chips and guac for lunch. Everyday. The person at the grill in the buffet, was also skilled. The grilled shrimp and flank steak were excellent. For breakfast I would indulge with churros dipped in a caramel sauce.

We received excellent service everywhere we went. Although, technically tips are included in the all-inclusive experience, Steve and I made sure to bring plenty singles; we tipped the staff every time they brought us a drink or a meal. This insured that we had attentive service throughout the trip. A very nice man named Julio kept us stocked in mud slides, watermelon mojitos, piña coladas, and frozen lemonades in our poolside cabana.

A word about the cabanas. There are plenty of beach cabanas available, but the pool cabanas were a hot commodity. People would get up at the crack of dawn to put down a towel/magazine/bag, claiming their spot. I had no problems with this. It actually became one of my favorite rituals of the trip. I would naturally wake up around 6am, claim our cabana, and wait for the sunrise. However, if neither of you are early birds, I can see how this would be a really frustrating practice. The cabana themselves are lovely – four poster beds, with drapes to block the sun. This would enable you to lie by the pool all day long without burning, Steve's greatest fear. The ocean was stunning polar ice blue, with soft white sand. The waves were rough, so we primarily stayed by the heated pool and swim up bar.

Speaking of fears, the zika outbreak had me nervous. Leading up to the trip, I did copious research and ultimately decided it would be OK for us to go. We were armed with three different kinds of insect repellent, including one that was 98% DEET. My fears are completely unfounded. I literally did not see a single mosquito. And trust me, if there was one, it would've found me (mosquitos, apparently, love Chinese food).

Our room attendant also added some romantic touches every night: champagne and chocolate covered strawberries, or rose petals on the bed or Jacuzzi. This is my favorite picture of the whole trip:

The hotel had a few activities offered each day: yoga, bike rides, Spanish lessons. My favorite was the guacamole making lesson. There was also nightly entertainment: variety shows with dancing and aerial acrobatics, and a live band. Every Tuesday afternoon, there is a foam party in the pool. I was worried we were a little old for such shenanigans, but it turned out to be outrageous, juvenile fun. I wish I had gotten a picture of us dancing in the foam.

On our way back to the airport, our driver asked us if we had visited the museum and we laughed. We told him no, we entered the resort on Sunday and did not leave until it was time to go home. I could not have asked for more lovely, romantic and relaxing vacation. I'm already plotting how we can get back there.

Jim's Kebabs, Lawrence

The name Jim's Kebabs does not exactly scream authenticity, however I was in the mood for falafel so I decided to give it a chance.

I was up in Lawrence for training and I asked one of my friends who worked there, what he liked in the area and he said laughed and said, "nothing, usually when we went out to lunch we would leave Lawrence," I did a quick Google search for restaurants within walking distance of the office and Jim's was the winner.

Jim's is a small mom and pop sub shop; Jim, himself was super friendly and took my order. The falafel was huge, quite the bargain for six bucks. I told him I wanted extra sauce and he delivered, it was dripping with it. The falafel was crispy, although little over fried, and the addition of pickles was not what I was used to. If I am ever back in the area, I would definitely go to Jim's again. Sorry the picture isn't that interesting; once I started eating, I couldn't put it down to take a picture without a structural disaster.


Bastille kitchen, Boston

Steve and I helped his mother, Joyce, celebrate her birthday last weekend at Bastille kitchen, a new French restaurant in Fort point. The dining room is lovely; High ceilings, brick walls, iron sconces, and curved banquettes, wide oak floorboards, and a marble bar. We were seated immediately for our 7pm reservation.

After ordering, the bread basket arrived with four hot mini croissants. They had me at hot mini croissant. I could've polished off six of these with some good cheese and been perfectly content.

The menu has classic French items, although they did not have my usual go to, steamed mussels, so I opted for the prime skirt steak frites ($30). Joyce had the salmon au poivre ($28) and Steve won the dinner round with his whole roasted haddock ($36). His fish was perfectly cooked and so flavorful. I had fish envy. My steak was cooked correctly, and I enjoyed the trio of sauces with my cone of crispy salted fries. I did not try the salmon, but Joyce seemed to enjoy it very much.

I was little full for dessert, but you can't have a birthday celebration without a candle to blow out, so I relented. I ordered the citrus Napoleon which was lemon curd and pink grapefruit supremes sandwiched between three large bronzed planks of puff pastry topped with a cloud of torched Italian meringue. I think the ratio of puff pastry to curd was too high. Thinner planks would have been better for taste as well as ease of eating. The dessert had structural integrity problems - trying to take a bite destabilized the whole construct and lemon curd and citrus segments went everywhere. That said, the curd was sweet and bright with lemon and the pastry was a nice textural contrast. Joyce had profiteroles with salted caramel chip and hazelnut gelato, with small pitcher of warm chocolate sauce. Steve just had three tiny scoops of salted caramel gelato. All desserts were $8-$9, which seems reasonable for my mammoth plate, and pricey for the gelato.

Our server was attentive, but not intrusive. The best part of the night is that we discovered that Necco Street garage (behind the restaurant) is only five dollars on Saturdays, no validation needed. Between the cheap parking, the fish and the mini croissants, we will definitely be back.


Dumpling Making Party

I’m a Chinese New Year’s orphan; Mama and Papa Tsoi are across the country, so I am left to celebrate on my own. I decided that it would be a perfect opportunity to host a dumpling making party. There are many traditional foods that one has to have, almost all of them symbolizing wealth and prosperity. Dumplings are essential as they are similar in shape to old-fashioned silver ignots. Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during the New Year celebrations; the more money you can make in the New Year.

I did a fair amount of research and testing leading up to the party and what I discovered is that dumplings are super versatile. Your basic filling involves a meat, a vegetable, herbs, spices, eggs for binding, cornstarch for absorbing excess moisture, and whatever seasonings you would like. Mama Tsoi makes her wrappers from scratch, but I cheated and used store brought.

I put 9 friends to work, folding and pleating dumplings, while I focused on cooking.

You can steam, boil, panfry or deep fat fry. I prefer the panfry method, as it results in a crispy bottom and tender tops.

They were fast learners and 300 dumplings were done in a jiffy. It was a wonderful afternoon of cooking, eating and drinking (lychee martinis). I feel less like an orphan.

Here’s my recipe, which is a hybrid from all my research:

Classic pork, cabbage and scallion dumplings

Makes about 200 to 250 dumplings

1 head Napa cabbage (about 1.5 lbs.)
3 bunches of scallions
4.5 lbs. ground pork
2 tsp salt
2 tsp pepper (white or black)
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
3 tbsp. fresh ginger root, finely grated
2/3 cup soy sauce
3 eggs, beaten
1/3 C sesame oil
1/3 C Shaoxing rice wine
2-3 T corn starch

Commercially available dumpling wrappers (enough to make ~250 dumplings) Twin Marquis was the only brand I could find. I recommend the shanghai style (white) round wrappers.

a small cup of water for wetting the wrapper

Dipping Sauce
soy sauce
sesame oil
rice wine vinegar

Using a food processor (in batches), finely chop the Napa cabbage, using the pulse. Set in a strainer, lightly salt and let sit for 15-20 minutes. Squeeze out excess water.

Chop scallions by using the pulse function.

Separately, add salt, pepper, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, and corn starch to the ground pork and mix well. Combine the vegetables, beaten eggs, and the ground pork mixture, using hands to thoroughly mix together if necessary.

I would cook a small amount and season to taste, accordingly.

I took this 1/3 of this filling and added 1 cup of minced shitake mushrooms, and half a bunch of cilantro for a variation.

My third dumpling was inspired by tomorrow’s Super Bowl, I made buffalo chicken dumplings.

1 lb skinless, boneless chicken thigh
1/3 C Frank’s buffalo sauce
6 stalks of celery
4 ozs of cream cheese

Pulsed it all together in the food processor. This made about 40 dumplings.

Cooking directions (from tinyurban kitchen.com) :

You will need to work in batches here, since each pan can only pan fry one layer of dumplings at once. Add 1-2 T of vegetable oil to a nonstick (e.g., cast iron pan) pan and heat to medium high heat. Once the pan is really hot, place the dumplings (either fresh or frozen) in one layer (flat side down) inside the pan.
You should hear significant sizzling. Let the dumplings cook for about 2-4 minutes, or until the bottoms are golden brown.

Add about ½ cup of water (or enough that there is about ¼ inch of water in the pan). Cover, and reduce heat down to medium. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, or until all the water evaporates and you begin to hear that sizzle sound again.

Gung hay fat choy, my friends!


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