Walking through Beacon Hill at the Liberty Hotel: Taste of Beacon Hill 2010

Wednesday night I put on my dancing shoes and headed out to “Taste of Beacon Hill,” at the amazing Liberty Hotel, thanks to Yelp Boston- thanks for the tickets, Yelp (and if you’re in the area, follow Yelp on Twitter and maybe you can win cool tickets, too!) ! Fortunately for those that would’ve had to witness me breaking out the moves, there was no dancing, but what I got was far better- the chance to sample summer fare of 26 restaurants on Beacon Hill in Boston.  They had it all- the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Luckily, the ugly was few and in between.

The Liberty Hotel, which I have been dying to check out for AGES, is absolutely STUNNING.  It was the Suffolk County Jail for 120 years, until it was deemed unfit for housing prisoners in 1973.  It took over 30 years for it to be converted and the result is a dynamic building that preserves the historical and dynamic appeal of its history with the modern and hip.  I can’t even explain it.  You can read about it and see pictures here.

Now, for those of you keeping score, I AM a vegetarian.  However, lately, I have been considering pescatarian, and last night I went into the event with the attitude that if I wanted to have seafood, I would.  I didn’t try every restaurant, particularly the ones that were serving meat, but I assure you that by the end of the night I was STUFFED like a Thanksgiving turkey, as was my aunt, who I brought along for the ride.

When we got there, we discovered that “Taste of Beacon Hill” was a benefit to sponsor “Future Chefs,” an organization that provides scholarships, career assistance and mentors to underprivileged, at risk and low-income students from the Boston area that are interested in culinary careers.  I was particularly pleased and surprised to hear that in addition to fundraising, schools often donate scholarships to the program, as well.  With the economy and shrinking endowments, more and more schools are being forced to reduce their scholarships, so it makes me happy that there are schools that give to causes that matter.  There were several alums, current students and a staff member in attendance at the event and they were all very enthusiastic and grateful- just wonderful to see.

Yeah, yeah…you want to hear about the food.  I jotted down some quick notes when I got home so that I wouldn’t forget anything and I have to tell you, I might’ve had a little too much wine because I’m reading things like, “She called THAT  hummus?”  and “Sadness piccata.”  There’s some other stuff, too, but I don’t want to be barred from Beacon Hill.  In my defense, I didn’t know there’d be sangria to try when I had that first glass of Chardonnay.  However, when Upper Crust serves sangria, you have to try it out of sheer curiosity!

While I want to say a huge thank you and commend them for participating in such an awesome event, I have to tell the truth, so I’ll start out with the mediocre and disappointing and get that out of the way.

No one is sadder than I am that I am including this place, but No. 9 Park made my “What the heck happened?!” list this time around.  This place is legendary, with Chef Barbara Lynch serving up rustic Italian, and I have had some of the most incredible culinary experiences of my life here.  Of course, when I found out they were going to be serving, I was pretty pumped.  Admittedly, I sent “prune stuffed gnocchi!” vibes.  Now, Barbara Lynch also owns Menton, a restaurant in Boston that only serves fixed course menus, ranging from 85-145 dollars a person.  I was expecting James Beard worthy dishes.  What did I get?  Raw oysters on the half shell.  Whoop-de-freakin do.  I know they’re a delicacy (although the snot-like quality really turns me off), but they weren’t even shucking them in front of us.  Could you have picked a lazier dish to showcase yourselves, No. 9?? It was horribly disappointing and a really poor showing, in my opinion.  If I was ever so inclined, I’d get oysters at Union Oyster  House (only thing I’d go there for- it’s a tourist trap because it’s the oldest restaurant in the country), or Jasper White’s Summer Shack.

Another slightly disappointing dish was the naan dish from Scampo (Lovely, Jenny- continue to piss off some of the best chefs in Boston!).  Lydia Shire (of Biba and Locke-Ober- a Boston Institution) herself was cooking this right in front of us.   Scampo is actually located in the Liberty Hotel itself, and I peeked in- fantastic space.  I’m going to give the chef the benefit of the doubt on this one because I didn’t have the lamb that I assume would’ve pulled the whole dish together.  FYI: I have to tell you that it’s a little awkward saying to Lydia Shire, “No lamb for me, thanks!”

What I ended up with was a piece of naan (cooked in quite a bit of oil in a skillet) topped with hummus, a pea and bean mixture, yogurt with herbs, red onion, and a sprinkle of sumac.  The flavors worked- it was Lydia Shire, for Pete’s sake!,- but there just wasn’t a WOW factor.  I often have naan with hummus, yogurt and veggies, so maybe that’s why, but it wasn’t impressive to me.  I did, however, appreciate the sumac, a spice that I so rarely see used.

What I am happy to show you was the other offering from Scampo.  Check out this chocolate mousse.

Seems pretty run of the mill, yes? What you can’t see is the Kahlua poured on top of it!  My aunt tried it as I don’t eat chocolate (obviously, she knew it was her duty to my readers) and said that it was very rich, but quite good!

Another disappointing one was Beacon Hill Bistro.  I hadn’t eaten here before and had heard mixed reviews, so I was quite curious to see what they had to offer.  I really hope that what they served wasn’t indicative of the rest of their menu, although that WAS the point.  It was a sampler plate that included a pepper jerky (neither my aunt nor I tried this), a mini salted chocolate sundae and smoked salmon on a cracker with dill and god only knows what else- all I could taste was the dill, which makes sense as there were sprigs the size of palm fronds.  The good news is that this place focuses on local and organic products, so at the very least, I was probably ingesting pesticide free and environmentally friendly dill.  My aunt tried the chocolate salted sundae, took one bite and politely set it aside- the balance of salt to chocolate was waaay off.  Final Score: 0 for 2.

Harvest Gardens was another restaurant with a poor showing.  I actually hadn’t heard much about this place, so I went in with no preconceived notions.  When I saw the mini lobster rolls, my hopes went through the roof- lobster rolls are to New England what fish and chips are to the British.  It started out beautifully- I spotted them, noted the mini hot dog (I think it might’ve been challah bread?) rolls toasted on both sides, saw the lobster salad tucked in and calling my name and I snatched it up, nearly mowing down a woman sidling into the Scampo line (ha! joke’s on you, lady!).  I took my first bite and my taste buds and brain were at war.  My eyes said, “Lobster!” and my mouth screamed, “BUTTER!” All I could taste was the butter that they had apparently SOAKED the roll in.  The lobster salad just wasn’t flavorful enough to stand up to the lobster.  Sadness lobster.  And I’m just going to not say anything about the tuna tartare because the chef was so nice.  Perhaps it was just an off night?

Now, before I get myself blacklisted from the Boston food scene, let’s move on to the good stuff!  I don’t even know what to talk about first- The cupcakes?  The best scallop I have EVER eaten?  Ok, let’s start with the great stuff and move our way up to the practically orgasmic.

Everyone knows that Upper Crust makes great pizza.  It’s not some well kept secret, and I was actually a little surprised (but not complaining!) to see them at the event.  I had a mini slice of tomato, basil and mozzarella pizza, which, as I already knew, was delicious, with a crispy crust and a sauce that would make my Italian great-grandmother proud.  I would think she would’ve appreciated the sangria, too- it was a DELICIOUS surprise.  I must admit that I knocked back my chardonnay a teeny bit too quickly just so I could taste it- i wasn’t disappointed. It was wonderfully fruity, refreshing, the perfect summer drink and kicked ass against the sangria from another restaurant serving cuban sandwiches (the name escapes me as I didn’t try their food- just their booze.  Go figure.).  I hope they are actually serving this stuff at the location near me!

Whole Foods was there, as well, with a HUGE display of mini cheesecakes.  I don’t really have much to say about these, because they were standard Whole Foods fare- quite tasty.  Vanilla Bean and Raspberry were heads above key lime, but my favorite part about this was the display and I probably wouldn’t have even bothered telling you about this station, except I want to show these pictures:

Sadly, these weren't for sampling

The one thing that I have never been able to master when it comes to arborio rice is the art of the risotto cake.  One place that does it right?  Hampshire House.  Not only was their presentation one of the best at the event, it lived up to its aesthetic charm.  A veggie risotto cake sat on top of red pepper coulis and baby basil- which not only acted as a garnish, but did enhance the dish, which I always appreciate.  Superfluous items on a plate annoy me.  Don’t put stuff on the plate I can’t eat unless it’s a lobster.  I digress.   It was a perfect combination that left me feeling like I had just eaten the city’s most sophisticated bite of comfort food.

For those of us that don’t want to face the onslaught of tourists with fanny packs and stand in line at Mike’s Pastry, Boston’s most infamous cannoli dispensary, I assure you that a respectable substitute awaits you at Panificio Bakery and Bistro.  The cannoli, which was filled right in front of us, was delicious- the cream was a lovely consistency and there was a hint of lemon, making for a really fresh and light taste.  I have actually found that the cannoli shells, when done poorly, can be a little oily- but these were crunchy, delicious, and the only residue on my hands when I shoveled in the last bite was the powdered sugar.  The savory dish, heirloom tomatoes on a toasted bread, was nothing to write home about, but I’m willing to overlook that if they’ll just keep those cannolis coming!

Most of the restaurants I had at the very least heard of before, but Lala Rakh was not one of them.  This is Persian/Iranian cooking at it’s finest and the only Eastern Mediterranean restaurant in the city.  I will forever be grateful to Taste of Beacon Hill for introducing me to this place.  The only problem I could find with this place was that they ran out of food before the night was over.  There were two dishes in particular that I wanted to swim in…a spinach and yogurt dish that they served with a perfectly crusty bread for dipping (or in my fantasty, perhaps as a kickboard?), and another dish consisting of eggplant, tomato, garlic and egg.  The farmers at my market had better get ready to sell me some eggplant, garlic and tomato ASAP because I need to figure this dish out for myself.  I snagged a menu from their table and was pleased to note that the prices were reasonable and the selection vast.  If you are in Boston- this is a must try.

It’s impossible to choose my favorite thing because I’m torn between two things- a dessert and an entree.

Say what you will about Todd English, Fig’s and Olive’s.  I know, I know- overbotoxed, overpriced, and overrated, but I will not let you besmirch his cupcakes.  I should preface this by saying that I actually am not usually a cupcake fan.  In theory, I want them.  They look awesome, but then I take a bite and the cake is dense and the frosting is too sugary and leaves me wanting a gallon of milk straight out of the carton.  That was before.  Wednesday night I met a cupcake of a different kind.

My aunt and I were confused that the Fig’s table was covered with adorable mini cupcakes and were told that Todd English is opening a place called “Curly Cakes” in a couple of months on Beacon Hill.  I thought many things to myself:  “He’s a little late to the cupcake party,” and “I wish we had Magnolia Bakery.”  Then I ate one. Two. Five. Ok, fine.  By the end of the night I had five freakin’ mini cupcakes.  Ok, six.  I swear to you.  Just six.  And don’t judge me- you would’ve done the same freakin’ thing.  There was raspberry, strawberry, chocolate mousse, and vanilla bean.  The chocolate moose and vanilla bean had a delicate candy coating on the frosting.  If the sounds my aunt was making while eating the chocolate mousse one was any indication, it was as good as the vanilla bean.  I cannot impress upon you how delicious these things were.  The cupcakes were moist and beautifully flavored- light, somehow.  The frosting was the best part, though- not too sweet and melted in your mouth.  I don’t know another way to describe it except that it was like ice cream, but not cold.  I cannot believe I have to wait two months for Curly Cakes to open.  Seriously.  I’m afraid I won’t be able to help myself.  There may be talk of a cupcake intervention on this blog somewhere in the future.  You heard it in this post first.  I’m spitting on the memories of three of the Golden Girls by saying this, but these things put the Whole Foods cheesecakes to shame.

Ok.  I’ve made up my mind.  I’m going to have to give the award for Best Dish of the Night to Scollay Square.  Anyone who can cook a scallop THAT perfectly in front of a crowd of people with broken and misbehaving burners deserves an award (and a stiff drink!).   This is “heaven on a plate (I SWEAR to you that is a direct quote from my notes.  I underlined it about three times, too.)”:

This is a seared scallop sitting on top of a risotto leak cake with a dash of lemon sauce and a few crispy sauteed veggies as a flavorful garnish. The chef was nice enough to chat with us and told us that he simply seared the scallops in a dash of olive oil, salt, pepper and threw in a little whole butter in the end to aid in caramelization.  I couldn’t believe it was really that simple because the flavor was just so delicate and refined, but there you have it!  Of course, if I try to recreate this magic, i’ll probably set the things on fire.  The risotto cake, although made at the restaurant and brought over, was still absolutely perfect- a crispy and crunchy exterior and a perfectly seasoned and textures inside.  I plan to get to Scollay soon and if you are in the area- SO SHOULD YOU.

This was such a terrific night and although I didn’t win that gift certificate for botox at the silent auction…KIDDING (although I kid you not, that was one of the items you could bid on), I enjoyed every bit of it.  So, again, one last thank you to Yelp and also my lovely aunt for coming with me and not abandoning me when I whipped out my camera.   And one final note: To whoever DID win that botox gift certificate…LESS IS MORE.


About annenglish

I often think my the right side of my brain dominates- I live to create things. Color is one of the things that brings me great joy and in everything that I do, it is a theme that takes on great aesthetic importance. I am a jewelry designer, metal artist and writer (wanna-be.) During the day I work in an office, and while I like it, I spend my days dreaming about the next thing I want to make. As a result, I am the post-it queen- design ideas are always strewn about my desk, waiting for me to gather them up and take them home at the end of the day. Oh, yeah. I'm also a tremendous slob, which is unfortunate because I love to cook and washing dirty dishes is my least favorite chore to tackle. I'm a healthy food enthusiast and amateur chef. Cooking is a tremendous creative outlet for me- experimentation is my hallmark...whether it's surprising color combinations or flavor combinations.
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