For my birthday back in May, I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner as I am generally wont to do whenever I help myself to a bit of indulgence. As it was my friend Jose's birthday a couple weeks prior, we arranged to pamper ourselves together. The question of where to go was actually quite easily settled. Although there are plenty of Boston area restaurants that are fantastic and on my list of places to try, one stood out in particular, Craigie on Main.
Yes, I had been there for drinks at the bar on a few occasions, and a few other gentlemen and I did track down their renowned burger after much effort. However, I had never been there for a full dinner, the most complete experience. Especially with Chef Tony Maws again nominated for a James Beard Award, which he would win a few days after I made our reservation, I wanted to experience it fully. Thus, we made our way over to Central Square late one Sunday night for the Chef's Whim, a weekly special that promises inventiveness and spontaneity.
Joined also by Amy and Joy, our foursome wasted no time in making merry, starting with a round of aperitifs before dinner. I chose the Bellwether cocktail, made with green apple and almond infused Dolin Dry, St. Germain, yellow Charteuse, Macon-Villages chardonnay and sparkling wine. Assuredly, it was exactly the light aperitif that I desired, an enhanced flute of champagne in many ways with each of the other ingredients adding depth and complexity.
Since we were not sure what exactly was on the menu until it was set upon the table before us, choosing a bottle of wine was somewhat difficult. Thus, it seemed that the safest option would be to go for something in the middle of the spectrum. Avoiding wines that might be too overwhelming, we decided to go for a bottle of L'Ancien Beaujolais 2008 from Jean-Paul Brun. It turned out to be not an unreasonable choice with its lighter body laced with raspberries complemented by a backbone of earthiness reminiscent of the forest after an autumnal rain. Consequently, it could hold up to the stronger flavors presented but never threatened to overwhelm anything either.
With that important bit of business settled, there was naught left but to enjoy the food. First up was a dish of squid noodles with nuoc cham, toasted garlic, and breakfast radish. For me, this was actually the most memorable dish. From my understanding, the squid was cut into the shape of noodles, and they had fantastic texture, not too chewy, but that ideal balance that I think of as QQ. I would be quite interested to know how the squid noodles were cooked exactly as the texture really was quite perfect for squid. As for the taste, Jose remarked, quite rightly I think, that the dish was quite reminiscent of gambas al ajillo with the combination of seafood and garlic. This dish is of that category where one begs for more after the last bite has been taken.
Next, we were served smoked and citrus cured char topped with white and green asparagus that had been shaved and maple glazed, microgreens, shallots, bulgur wheat and a buttermilk vinaigrette. At the time of the dinner, we were very much in the middle of asparagus season, and I simply could not get enough. The way they were prepared here was most definitely superior to my own attempt at shaved asparagus. Here, they retained more sweetness and crispness. I am sure that there is also some difference in quality since I bought mine from Stop & Shop. The char was also tasty, very much like lox. However, at times, I was not sure of the harmony in the dish and probably would have preferred just more asparagus.
A course of tempura soft-shelled crab with a squid ink anchoiade, preserved lemons, dehydrated olives and a Louisiana-style slaw followed. This was some of the most deftly fried soft-shelled crab I have ever had, hitting that perfect juncture of crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. I was a huge fan of the anchoiade and had to stop myself from licking it off the plate; although, not everyone at the table shared in my tastes. Sadly, I cannot find the words to fully describe how delightful I found this dish.
For the fourth course, we were treated to rye straccetti, morel and rabbit ragu, guanciale. I certainly have a soft spot for good, fresh pasta, and the straccetti was spot on: toothsome with nuttiness and spice elevating it far beyond supermarket stuff. The morel and rabbit ragu alone was also meaty and umami-savory while not being overly rich, and it would have rescued even that insipid supermarket stuff. And really, who can say no to guanciale. Perhaps it can best be described as comfort food, but by no means to I mean that as anything less than a compliment. Again, another dish that I wanted more when there was no more to be had.
Dinner continued with confit chicken thigh topped with foie gras foam and chive flowers and served alongside sauteed spinach, young vidalia onions and a prune, almond and parsnip tzimmes. Personally, this course could not compare with the elation from previous one. The chicken certainly was well-prepared and quite good in its own right, but it did feel quite as exciting. Also, I do not mean to be culturally insensitive, but tzimmes just does not quite satisfy me as it seems muddled and overly sweet to my palate.
By this point, we were all quite full, but dessert was yet to come. Since there were four of us, I thought it quite clever that each one of us was served a different sweet and expected to share. This arrangement suited my tastes as I always want to try a bit of everything without feeling too stuffed at the end. The four were: an olive oil chocolate mousse with elderflower meringue and tangerine foam; an apricot frangipane with amaretto ice cream and pistachios; a bourbon pecan ice cream tart with a bacon pecan crust and a smoked Mexican chocolate sauce; and a panna cotta with brown butter powder, cashew coriander granola, and a dried cherry and kirsch puree. Of course, my favorite was the bourbon pecan ice cream tart because, well, just read the list of ingredients again. I also found the frangipane to be quite good with the strong flavors of marzipan and amaretto, although perhaps the apricot got a little lost amidst all the nuttiness. The panna cotta was like eating breakfast. Although, if breakfast always tasted as good, I would probably eat breakfast more often. Additionally, the brown butter powder was an excellent touch, reminding me of Grant Achatz's powdered caramel. While the mousse was again tasty, it also failed to capture my imagination as I feel that the combination of chocolate and olive oil has become a bit of a fad.
At the end of this fantastic meal, we probably could have rolled out the door. All in all, it was fabulous and delicious. I want to reiterate again that my more critical comments above are really quite nitpicking, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Craigie certainly is on my list of recommendations for Boston's best restaurants. Last, allow me to express my gratitude to my friends who came along, willing to indulge me as I indulge myself.
PS. I recognize that this post is a lot of text and apologize for the lack of color. However, I just want to make a quick point of how taking pictures at dinners such as these can be quite disruptive. As everyone is served together, courtesy demands that everyone waits to start eating together, and I certainly do not find it polite to expect one's dining companions to wait for one of the group as he/she snaps pictures. In some circumstances, discretely taking pictures may occasionally be excusable, but it is always important to remember the setting and to be mindful. Mind you, flash is never ever permissible, disrupting not only one's dining companions, but also the whole restaurant. Of course, I must eat my words slightly as my note-taking could also be construed as disruptive as well, but I hope to be discretion itself.