Monday, November 15, 2010

Quick Takes: Henrietta's Table and il Casale

My mother came into town this weekend a few days early for a conference, which gave Anna and I the opportunity to try out a couple of restaurants that had been sitting on our "to eat at" list for a while.   First off, we ate at Henrietta's Table as a sort of spur of the moment decision (thank goodness for the Open Table app) after giving her a several hour long walking tour of Cambridge... and I have to say that the dining exerience was exceptional. For those unfamiliar with it, Henrietta's Table is a farm-to-table/locavore's delight... they actually mark the items on the menu that are from local sources... similarly indicate whether wines are organic and made with sustainable practices...  and present seasonal locally inspired cuisine. I guess that may be overly trendy and verging on preachy to some, but I think it's a nice touch...  and it's not like they're in your face about it... they just are giving you some additional information to make your dining choices...  and who can complain about that? Even if you hate locavorism and want it to die, they've conveniently labeled which items are not local so that you can do the most damage to our environment and local food system. Everybody wins!

Here's the short take of our Henrietta's Table experience: loved the variety and quality of salads they offer with local cheeses. Unfortunately I discovered I'm not as enamored with fresh figs (neither is God apparently) as I am with dried, but that's obviously not the chef's fault... you roll the dice with a menu item you're not sure about and sometimes you are (only slightly) disappointed. C'est la vie.  On the other hand, everyone enjoyed their main course quite a bit...  though I'll note for vegetarians (i.e. Anna) that there is only one option (though it's got both quinoa AND farro - yay hipster grains!)... for me in particular, I found my dish of pulled lamb shank to be exquisite. For dessert, I (sort of) abstained, sampling both the pumpkin pie and bread pudding my mother and Anna ordered... each was quite good, but I absolutely loved the bread pudding... though I've got a real soft spot for that dish (you'll find it located around my midsection). I'll note that we were there quite early...  around 5:30 when they open for dinner... and it had only really started to fill up when we were leaving, but I have to wonder whether the high ceilings and wide open layout would be overly noisy on a busy night. Uncertain, but it's something to think on.  One additional (important) thing: they offer two ($25) and three ($32) course "yard sales" Sunday through Thursday... and being that their main courses are priced in that neighborhood, this strikes me as the deal of the century... we'll certainly be back during the week sometime in the future to try it out.

Next up was il Casale, which is out in the 'burbs, but up for "Best New Restaurant" and "Best Chef: Northeast" Beard awards this year... so as you might expect, it's a darling of Chowhound, and thus reservations (even for a Sunday night) require a little advance effort. From the name you might be able to guess that il Casale is all about Italian cuisine... though I don't believe they specialize in any particular subgenre...  call it "Pan-Italian."  Beware that while you'll see some dishes reminiscent of fettucine alfredo and spaghetti Bolognese, that the dining experience is traditional Italian and not Americanized Italian. What does that mean? It means that they have selections arranged as anitpasta (appetizers/tapas), primi(pasta), and  secondi(protein) with contorti (vegetable sides)... which can be a little confusing if you haven't done it before... and even though I'm a quasi foodie living in a city with a reknowned Italian section and have actually been to Italy itself... I'm mostly a novice in regards to the intricacies of the food. So I was confused. Thankfully our French(!?) waiter was perfectly able to explain it all, and you can pretty much assemble a meal from the above pieces as you see fit. We ended up selecting the cheese...  er formaggi...  plate to start, the highlights being the pecorino de vino (cheese aged in chianti), a very nice mild Gorgonzola, and some delightful robiola (a cheese I only discovered a month ago, but have developed a real fondness for). I went for a small plate of spaghetti cacio e pepe as my primi and a bouillabaisse-esque saffron seafood stew (brodetto) as my secondi. Anna decided to go with ignudi (i.e. "naked" ravioli) and a couple of veggie sides (broccoli rabe and some spicy green beans) to make up her meal, while my mother went with a salad and her favorite dish to cook at home: tagliatelle alla Bolognese. Somewhat surprisingly, I'd have to say that everyone's favorite was the one with essentially three ingredients that you can make at home in little more than the time it takes to boil water (and we will tonight!)...  spaghetti cacio e pepe. The most disappointing... and I would say it does indeed rates as a disappointment... were the contorti, which were fine but pretty uninspired... we were definitely hoping for better, but maybe Anna would have been advised to focus on the sfizi/tapas section? Maybe you can't really expect that much from food billed as a side dish. On the other hand, my brodetto was excellent... each piece of fish was perfectly cooked and I sopped up every drop of the heady broth... and my mom enjoyed her pasta Bolongese, but I think she maintains she can still do better in her own kitchen (I am in no position to judge against my own mother's cooking).

Both were very good, but I'd certainly rate Henrietta's Table as the superior experience... though since they are doing completely different things I'm not sure how fair it is to compare them. Either one is a great place to go for a nice, but not fussy, dinner out... though il Casale will probably score you more foodie points if you're trying to impress somebody... and as it is located in an old firehouse, has much cooler digs... so maybe the better date choice. For Henrietta's Table, there is just something off putting to me about restaurants in hotels...  the ambiance just seems especially inauthentic... of course, the problem there is that many of our city's finest dining options are hotel restaurants. So I guess I just better get over it.