Friday, June 3, 2011

Bakeries and Bites, Boston MA

rior to early 2011 it seemed as though Boston would never quite top my ever growing list of places to visit; an incredibly historic city with a culture quite unlike any other it was a place I knew I wanted to see someday, but one way or another it never quite achieved “destination” status until my profession made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – the 2011 Endocrine Society Conference at the Boston Convention Center. With CME as the backdrop and literally hundreds of lectures distributed across the four day conference I knew the days would be long and full of education and networking, but seeing as how the conference did not see fit to serve meals (meals I’d have avoided anyhow) I also knew that this would prove a great opportunity to explore Boston’s culinary scene; and with the conference/travel/hotel paid for well in advance and nearly six months to plan explore I did with 12 restaurant meals and 11 experiences I’d qualify as “ancillary eats” in between.

Beginning first with my snacks, the list spread over the course of five days and included destinations ranging from Cambridge to the South End, pastries of American, French, Japanese, and Italian heritage, ice cream and “Fro-Yo” both, hot chocolate, plus the North End’s elder statesmen of both pizza and arancini – to say the least I cast my net wide and with the added benefit of a local tour guide for my first day the only thing holding me back was stomach capacity, something I thankfully have a lot of.

Beginning first with the pastries, my very first taste of Boston was not a cream pie or a lobster tail, but rather something more rustic from the ironically named Modern Pastry Shop, a full-service cash-only family owned Italian bakery just down Hanover Street from the more famous Mike’s Pastry. Strongly recommended by national publications and respected palates alike it was with good fortune that I arrived mere moments after they opened their doors and with shelves fully stocked I asked the pleasant young clerk what she recommended – an question to which I received nearly a bakers dozen suggestions from her and one overwhelming suggestion for the Sfogliatella from an elderly couple sitting down to enjoy their pastries with coffee and a newspaper Knowing at this point that my first day in town would entail no less than eight stops (it actually turned out to be nine) culminating with a ten-course tasting at Craigie on Main I decided the better part of valor was to heed my elders advice in addition to the two standards by which I judge an Italian bakery.

With my selections boxed and bowed despite the fact that I ordered my options to dine-in I parked myself at a seat nearest the window and while the world walked by dressed in Bruins Yellow and Black I indulged, first on an authentic filled to order Sicilian Cannoli. True to form and filled just prior to service as they are in Italy my bite was greeted with an excellent crack as the buttery pastry gave way to sweet, slightly textural, and entirely delicious ricotta filling. Not to be outdone, my second selection was a traditional Italian Baba highly recommended by the clerk. Opting for the vanilla custard filled version with a cherry on top this dish was the antithesis to the sweet and crunchy cannoli with the light sponge heavily laden with rum and Strega providing a boozy herbal tone mellowed by the sweet cream. To put it lightly both options, the options by which I judge the quality of an Italian bakery, were textbook.

Moving next to the sfogliatella I really didn’t know what to expect; sure I’d heard of the Neapolitan classic but in all honesty I’m not sure I’d ever even seen one in person let alone tasted one. Served warm and appearing somewhat akin to a croissant but at least thrice as dense this traditional Italian pastry was indeed layered and flaky, but what was inside was quite unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. Reportedly made with “yellow cream” and semolina and featuring a mouth-feel somewhere between mascarpone and ricotta with hints of lemon, orange, and cinnamon this nicely nuance treat was surprisingly light on the stomach despite its considerable heft and additionally – well – it was fantastic, just like everything at Modern Pastry Shop and well deserving of the glowing recommendations.

Having already mentioned Modern’s more famous competition, Mike’s Pastry, another morning would see me visit this North End favorite in a state of flux. Having heard of slightly rude service dissuading some while slightly stale pastries turned off others my plan was to arrive early – before the crowds had time to wear on the staff and while all was fresh – and while the latter was a success the customer service aspect was foiled by a pair of issues, namely a broken air conditioner and the city of Boston jack hammering the sidewalk out front in order to pour a new one (apparently unannounced to the owners.) With the service prompt yet gruff as the owners and clerks wondered aloud how anyone was even going to be able to see they were open let alone enter the shop once the pouring began my order was placed quickly and $17 later I was seated at the table enjoying breakfast with more treats for later boxed to go.

Having already noted my standards two of my selections were no surprise to anyone – the first a Rhum baba nearly 1.5x the size of that at Modern and while equally flawless in texture and creamy balance so boozy that I’d be surprised if it contained less than a shot and a half of rum in addition to the Strega – to be fair it was delicious and quite similar to some of the best I had in France, but at the same time it likely would have been better served after 8am. In addition to the Baba, my other breakfast choice was something novel – a delicacy titled “Boston Bocconotti,” essentially a cream puff masquerading as a Boston Cream pie…or perhaps a portable Boston Cream pie – but either way a lovely balance of sweet vanilla cream housed in a crunchy pate a choux style shell and dipped in semisweet chocolate with a white chocolate drizzle.

Turning toward my second standard bearer, and certainly Mike’s most famous item, I must say that with more than a dozen options there was no way I could simply select one Cannoli and in the end I opted for three. Well aware of the fact that Mike’s Cannoli’s were pre-filled as opposed to the a la minute style served at Modern my expectations were appropriately tempered – especially as I waited nearly 2 hours after ordering to enjoy mine – but in the end I came away duly impressed both by the flavors and the textures which, while not as crisp as Modern, were still better than 95% of my previous cannoli experiences. With my choices including chocolate cream dipped in chocolate chip, ricotta with hazelnut, and peanut butter mascarpone I will note that given the wetness of ricotta this was certainly the least crisp of the trio and for those looking for a traditional cannoli (with ricotta) the better choice would certainly be Modern – but for those looking for more interesting options you could do a whole lot worse than Mike’s – especially if you arrive early enough to skip the line.

Another pastry stop (actually two) during my 110 hours in Boston would be to Japonaise – first the location on Beacon and subsequently the spot on Commonwealth when the first was sold out of our desired items. Having heard great things about both their Almond Croissant and Azuki Cream (and with my dining companions sporting a groupon) our order was straight forward enough with 2 croissants and 4 creams packed and ready within minutes by a pleasant young Californian looking girl…selling largely French pastries…with a Japanese touch.

Beginning first with the croissant – according to some the best Almond version in Boston – all I can say is “really?” Perhaps it was our timing (around 3pm and not eaten until nearly 6pm) or perhaps I was spoiled by my recent trip to Paris, but whatever the reason I was simply unimpressed. With the exterior appropriately crisp and buttery, the “almond butter cream” interior was more like a wet layer of artificially flavored paste that although sweet and tasty enough entirely bogged down the pastry. Fairing better, perhaps due to lesser experience and expectation, was the Azuki Cream – another flaky croissant-style creation this time filled with mashed sweetened red beans and whipped cream. Again quite hefty with the filling – in this case expectedly – weighing down the pastry I actually really enjoyed the savory aspects of this creation and particularly the way the slightly coarse texture married with the impressively light cream.

Continuing on the topic of bakeries and staying on the South End one of my morning stops en route to the conference would lead me by South End Buttery, a spot I’d noted on my morning run the day prior and on review of their website later that day seemed well worth the visit., especially given the early opening hours, focus on “organic, all natural, locally raised and grown ingredients as much as possible” and coffee from Equator.

Entering the shop to the sounds of Radiohead’s “The Bends” and the smells of cinnamon, vanilla, and coffee this was the first bakery of the trip that smelled (to me) like a bakery and although decidedly hipster and aloof, the clerks proved quite helpful and pleasant in gathering my selections, bagging them up, and at the same time putting together a variety of espressos and foamy coffees for other patrons. With the bill paid and a long walk ahead of me a quick stop for pictures was requisite and afterwards I ate some while I walked and saved the rest for later – nothing like an Endocrinologist enjoying a butterscotch scone during a lecture on inpatient blood glucose management – and a superlative scone it was dense and biscuit-like without being dry and absolutely loaded with pockets of butter juxtaposing toothache inducing pools of caramelized butterscotch.

Not to be outdone by the scone, additional options from South End included a dense and moist Sweet Potato Walnut Blondie with hints of cinnamon and vanilla plus just the right amount of sweetness, an almond croissant that was a bit too doughy on the interior but nicely Frangipane nuanced and perfectly golden on the exterior, and finally the best Pecan Sticky Bun I’ve had in quite some time – still slightly warm and gooey in some areas while crunchy and caramelized in others with ample notes of butter and pecan throughout.

For my final pastries of Bean Town I eschewed the detractors and my own feelings about multi-store “chains” and given its close proximity to the conference center opted to visit Flour Bakery and Café on Farnsworth near the Children’s Museum. Again arriving shortly after the doors opened on a Saturday my first impression of Flour was that it felt corporate – like a regional Panera with its polished fast paced service and seats filled with both families and business folk alike. With this idea noted, my next impressions were of the goods themselves as I stood aside assessing the options while patron after patron moved with the ebb and flow of the line.

With selections made and coffee poured, a somewhat astringent fair trade blend I wouldn’t particularly recommend, I found a seat and began first with my traditional choice – an Almond Croissant that would turn out to be not only the most authentic I’d taste in Boston, but also the best with a golden shell that shattered on mastication and a fluffy interior lightly sweetened and subtly kissed with Frangipane. While perhaps not as good as the “average” in Paris, this warm bite was amongst the five best I’ve had to date in the United States, though admittedly the fact that it had just emerged from the oven may have had something to do with that.

For my other options, one eaten en route back to the center and the other eaten during a lecture later, I selected Flour’s much revered “weekend only” sticky bun and a hefty chunk of their admittedly unattractive Chocolate banana bread pudding. Beginning first with the sticky bun – my best advice would be to get extra napkins and a fork if you’re going to go at it warm. Dense, soft, and buried under a mountain of salty caramel and crunchy walnuts the most impressive characteristic was actually that something so sweet could also be subtle with yeasty notes balancing the butter and the toasty walnuts preventing the caramel from being cloying.

With the first two options so good it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to the bread pudding – my favorite style of dessert – but unfortunately it would be a bit of a letdown. Bearing in mind that this particular iteration was pre-made and served cold when I generally prefer my bread pudding hot from the oven, the biggest issue in my disappointment was actually that the chocolate was too dark for the quality of the bananas and the bread too absorbent for the amount of cream – in other words, I might as well have been eating a dense chocolate cake as opposed to bread pudding made with chocolate and bananas. Now, keep in mind that for a chocolate cake this was a pretty darned good one – it just wasn’t what I expected when I ordered bread pudding.

Moving past bakeries – at least to an extent – another famous space to make my not-so-short-list in Boston was LA Burdick, largely for their renowned hot chocolate, but also for what a friend told me was the best Cannele he’d experienced outside of Europe. Featuring what they describe to be only the best imported and local ingredients and located not far from Harvard’s campus in Cambridge my senses were ignited the moment I entered the door – wall to wall chocolates and candies, dark woods and subtle music, and a friendly young man offering me a delightful fig and port-wine chocolate. Already contented a mere minute in the door I proceeded to browse the myriad selections before progressing to the back of the store where I was again greeted warmly and after a few moments decision (alas, the single source hot chocolates cannot be ordered as a single-shot tasting) I took a seat and waited for my selections to arrive.

Beginning first with the pastry, an authentic Cannelé Bordelais prepared in a traditional beeswax pan, the texture was spot on with the exterior caramelized and crunchy and the interior lightly tinged with rum, vanilla, and what seemed to be a light note of lavender. A tad pricey at $2 I will note that although excellent they were not the best I’ve had stateside – but a top five contender to be sure. Moving on to the main event and unable to settle on a single choice, my hot chocolate selections included one demi service of Dark with a dusting of vanilla and one of White with a touch of nutmeg – both exceedingly decadent, rich, and complex – both the pure essence of their respective chocolates blended with rich steamed milk – and both rivaling the best hot chocolates I’ve tasted both in America and at Jacques Genin in Paris.

With sweets well covered both by the bakeries and a variety of desserts during proper breakfasts, lunches, and dinners another focus of my visit to the North End was Italian savories from two of Boston’s most storied locales, Galleria Umberto and the original Regina Pizzeria. Beginning first, as I did, with Galleria Umberto – to say there are few places like this left in the United States is an understatement and to be completely honest, if you aren’t looking for it there is a fairly good chance you’ll walk right past it without even knowing it is there…and that would be a damned shame.

Deceptively large given it’s demure exterior, Galleria Umberto seems the sort of place that could have existed in 1911 the same way it exists in 2011 (minus the Pepsi cooler) and with doors opening “around 11:00am” (actually 10:40 on the day I visited) there is no doubt this is a spot for the locals as a small line formed within minutes and everyone in line was not only older than fifty, but also a known friend of the clerks. Assuming my place perhaps ten deep in the line and listening to the chatter both in front of and behind me it seemed the “can’t miss” items consisted of the Pizza, the Panzarotti, and the Arancini (already recommended to me by many others despite my overall distaste for beef) but on reaching the front of the line and seeing the considerable size of each option I decided the better part of valor was to select two and with the modest tab paid ($4.56 cash) I took a seat with nearly a pound of food on a silver tray.

Seated amongst the hustle and bustle of the line soon snaking out the door my first bite was the pizza and unfortunately it was precisely what I expected – a doughy Sicilian style pie with slightly burnt cheese and admittedly nicely flavored sauce. While certainly better than the pie at L&B in Brooklyn, it was almost immediately that I wished I’d opted for the Panzarotti instead – it turns out that save for DiFara’s I’m just not a Sicilian style guy. Moving next to the Arancini, a golden orb approximately the size of a tennis ball, it was then that I realized why Umberto garnered so much hype amongst “foodies” – this was dirt cheap street food done well. Part creamy rice, part creamy cheese, a small pocket of nicely seasoned ground beef, and unexpected green peas lending some sweetness – entirely excellent and a great appetizer for what would follow at Regina.

Admitting my gluttony, the meal following my “appetizer” at Umberto would itself serve as an appetizer to lunch at Neptune Oyster, but now traveling with two Bostonian guides my visit to Pizzeria Regina would allow greater sampling; always a plus when it comes to pizza. Arriving earlier than my dining partners and browsing the premises of the establishment that proudly wears its 1926 origins on its sleeve I had to admit it was bigger than I expected, but the hustle and bustle was precisely as billed with patrons entering or exiting nearly every minute. Sitting on a bench while I waited I was grateful to hear the wait was short (“5 minutes for a table, go park the car” in a perfect Boston accent that tickled me greatly) and when my colleagues arrived the wait was zero and we were seated immediately.

With the Bruins the hot topic of the day at many of the tables around us and the restaurant seemingly full of locals as opposed to tourists it was no time before a waitress, abrupt but pleasant enough, dropped off menus and took our orders for drinks – water for myself and cola plus tea for the others – and after a moment of browsing decisions were made to order two pizzas, one plus a single ingredient and the other minus two ingredients (yet we were charged more for it than the loaded as they refused to simply take ingredients off and instead charged the price for a plain plus the desired toppings.)

Having noted the rather old-school style of service I will note that water remained full throughout the meal and although smiles and pleasantries did not abound, I certainly didn’t find the service any worse than expected for a bustling pizza parlor and within twenty minutes our two pies landed on the table hot and bubbling – the first a combination of Mushrooms, Onions, and Green Peppers over top a thin (requested “well done”) crust with plenty of crunch, spicy tomato sauce, and briny mozzarella. While certainly not my style with the onions and peppers the slice I did try was quite good and I particularly enjoyed the crust – crispier than New York style, yet appropriately yeasty.

For the other pizza my choice was the Fior Di latte Pomodoro with added Artichoke hearts and although I really wish I’d have asked for my crust well done, the toppings and balance of mild Fior de Latte with fresh torn basil and sliced tomatoes in addition to the sauce was tremendous, particularly in areas where the cow’s milk mozzarella pooled to form creamy pockets only serving to highlight the quality of the toppings. Was it the best pizza I ever had – certainly not, but it was quite good and I imagine that had I ordered the Pomodoro with a well done crust it could’ve been stellar.

Rounding out the supplementary bites of Boston were three frozen treats – one a frozen yogurt shop recommended by my dining partners from Regina and the others Boston institutions. Beginning first with the Fro-yo, I have to admit that in general it is not my go-to, but when I was told of this locations Japanese spin including fruit and yogurt “caviar” I was intrigued and the location en route to Japonaise was quite convenient.

With the store largely unadorned save for tables, soft serve machines, and a long bar of toppings near the register and featuring a pump-it-yourself 40-cents an ounce selection of ten rotating flavors there really is not much to say about the store itself and the attitude of the attendant was slightly warmer than the fro-yo; but with that said, the flavors that Mixx is turning out are actually quite impressive and although I found the texture to be a tad more “icy” and less creamy than that of Pinkberry, my small sampling of tangy cheesecake and smooth and slightly savory Taro topped with yogurt “caviar” bubbles was well worth the per ounce price.

A second frosty dessert in Boston would be provided by local chain JP Licks, specifically the location on Newbury as I made my way towards Fenway for the Sox and A’s. With the line surprisingly short despite the warm weather and droves of teens shopping the surrounding stores it was with great delight first of all that the soundtrack was sporting Interpol, and second that the young lady behind the counter was generous with the samples. Having already noted my fondness for ice cream over frozen yogurt I will note that amongst my favorite bites was a creamy peanut butter soft serve, a tangy margarita sorbet, and fresh banana oreo – plus the two flavors I ended up ordering; Myer’s Rum Raisin and Maple Butter Walnut – the first intense and boozy and the second smooth and sweet. While admittedly not the creamiest or subtle ice creams on the planet – as a matter of fact, their overall degree of sweetness is amongst the most intense I’ve ever tasted – I really liked the uniqueness of these two options and the service was nearly as sweet as the product.

Rounding out the list – perhaps Boston’s most famous location for ice cream and a spot the New York Times once named “the best ice cream in the world,” I knew a visit to Toscanini’s was requisite for the trip and thankfully a dinner at Craigie on Main provided the opportunity by placing me literally right next door. With the line out the door both when I arrived at Craigie and when I left nearly two and a half hours later the expectations were high and thankfully they were met.

Having already noted the space to be full by simply walking past, the thing that struck me next was how large the space was when I finally made it in the door – never before had I seen an ice cream parlor stating a maximum capacity of over 100 patrons, let alone one so full. With plenty of time to browse the big board and pleasant servers abound my tastes for this evening included the mildly bitter Earl Grey and (obviously) Buckeye – both lovely and spot on to their namesake flavors – plus my eventual decision of a $4.50 small bowl with one half filled with Burnt Caramel and the other half featuring Grape Nut Raisin.

Beginning first with the Grape Nut – all I can say is you have to taste it to believe it. Somewhere between Humphry Slocombe’s Secret Breakfast and Momofuku Milk Bar’s Cereal Milk in flavor and the very essence of Grape Nut’s cereal left to sit in heavy cream too long this was exactly my style of ice cream – not too sweet, nicely nuanced, and entirely unique. Equally unique, my second choice of Burnt Caramel would represent an ice cream so famous that a magazine article posted on the wall told of its accidental creation and although a bit over the top in sweetness I definitely understood the hype as the gelato-dense concoction was a perfect recreation of the flavor imparted to crème brulee by the torch – if I were to return I’d definitely consider pairing it with a fruit sorbet as I can only imagine this would be heavenly.


bellachefa said...

Your chow report is even better with pictures!

uhockey said...

Everything is better with a visual aid!

More to come. I really did make quite the trip out of it.

Jenny Cleary said...

I was curious what sweets you attacked on your trip to Boston. I also attacked JP Licks, Toscanini's, and Mike's Pastry. Very yummy, indeed! Next time your in the area, check Christina's located in Inman Square. Pretty good, I really enjoyed their coconut almond chip. I didn't go to Flour thinking it might be overhyped, but I was told their sticky buns were worth it. Ahh, I guess next time! Nice rundown :D

Lori said...

Loved this post! I had a cannoli from Mike's during one of the morning talks and was sure the people sitting next to me were commenting.

uhockey said...

Were you at ENDO Lori? I mean, seriously, what better way to prevent lecture induced hypoglycemia? :)

Lori said...

I attend ENDO almost every year, but missed most of the good eating due to too many evening meetings. Catered food = not worth the calories. It is great to hear your reports!! A cannoli (or two) was an absolute necessity and I tried the line at Neptune, but didn't have the patience to wait.

Chic and Charming said...

If you ever go back, I think Clear Flour Bread in Brookline has croissants superior to the bakeries you tried (they also have Cannelé Bordelais in the afternoon which tend to be a little 'burnt' compared to Burdick, but I think more delicious). My favorite spots are Oleana and La Morra. La Morra has the most authentic northern Italian food my husband has found since he came back from his year in Italy (better than anything we've ever tried int he North End). We recently moved from Boston, so I've really enjoyed returning to some of my favorite spots through your pictures and posts!

uhockey said...

Well thank you. :) Glad to be able to give back to the people who gave me great recommendations. If/when I get back Clearflour was definitely on the list.