Mandrake Does Bar Food Right

Posted: July 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: American, Beverly, Casual/Pub Food, Mandrake | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

We’d been by Mandrake in Beverly many times but had never ventured in. To be honest, we were a bit put off by Mandrake’s curtained windows and dark exterior. Don’t make the mistake we did—Mandrake’s interior is warmly lit and welcoming, the service is outstanding, and the bar food is reasonable and delicious.

Sitting down at the bar last weekend, we were immediately served glasses of water (we love when that happens) and a large paper cone of house-made spicy potato chips and asked if we wanted to see menus. After a long day of yard work, we did.

Between the appetizers and sandwiches, Mandrake has a great selection for those in the mood to snack rather than dine. (There are plenty of entrees we may return for, along with several specials that looked good, all in the $20 to $25 range.)

We almost went for the nachos grande ($11) and later wished we had, as it looked great. We tried the olive/hummus plate ($7) along with a couple of sandwiches. The large portion of hummus had good texture, the olives were plentiful, and the pita was warm and crispy.

The surf and turf sliders—one crabcake, one petit filet—are a good dinner value at $14, served with a mound of crispy sweet potato fries. Both sliders were excellent; the crabcake was tender inside and crispy outside, and the perfectly cooked beef was topped with béarnaise aioli. The generous, crispy Gloucester fish sandwich, also with sweet potato fries, was only $10.

We were well attended by the bar staff all evening, starting with an immediate offer of a taste when we asked about one of the white wines (followed by a full pour of our selection). The sidecar we ordered came with an assurance it would be remade if unacceptable, since it’s not a popular request. Although it wasn’t right (on the rocks rather than straight up), we somehow managed. We were pleased at the price of the 40 cl Stella Artois ordered later: only $3.50.

A couple of final notes. Mandrake offers select menu items for half price every day except Saturday from 5:00 to 7:00. Also, the Web site seems to be under construction, and the menus aren’t available at the moment.

Mandrake Bar Bistro
252 Cabot St, Beverly
(978) 922-0663
www.mandrakebeverly.com

Mandrake Bar Bistro on Urbanspoon

P.S. If you’re walking along Cabot Street after dinner and are tempted by the authentic-looking gelato at Trevi Coffee & Tea, don’t be fooled. For $2.75, we received a small cup of what tasted like ice milk.

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The Gulu-Gulu: Not Your Average Café

Posted: June 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cafe, Casual/Pub Food, Gulu-Gulu Cafe, Salem | Tags: , , | No Comments »

I’ll be honest with you, when I first drove by Gulu-Gulu Café in Salem, I imagined it to be a coffee house hipster hangout populated entirely by the under-30 set. But the more I heard about it, the more I was intrigued, and looking at the events calendar made me realize this was more than just another trendy café. Any restaurant that shows the silent films of Buster Keaton during its weekly movie night is okay in my book.

So when I had a recent opportunity to meet up for a drink with local Salem blogger, Sarah Landry of Hot Pants for Shuffleboard, Gulu-Gulu was the spot. Despite the large room and high ceilings, there was a warm, almost cozy feeling, and the waitstaff, while definitely young and hip, were happy and helpful.

The room is casual and fun with funky furniture, a revolving showcase of local artists’ work on the walls, and a stage for live events. A long bar along one wall features towering blackboards listing drinks and specials. The patrons range from young to old and include individuals, families, and groups of friends.

We sat at the bar, and the luminous Ms. Landry ordered a sauvignon blanc ($6) and the JackMax’n Cheese, which is baked with cheddar, goat cheese, and roasted peppers and comes with a side salad ($7). I ordered the Argentinean malbec ($6) and the Cheese and Meat Coalition, your choice of any three served with toasted ciabatta bread ($8).

The cheese choices were fairly standard, lacking any blues or stinky cheeses, but there were a few interesting tastes, most notably the Czech-style marinated brie, which was delicious. The generous quantity of toasts accompanying the plate was a welcome sight, as restaurant cheese plates are notorious for skimping on the crackers or bread. The mac and cheese looked terrific, and Ms. Landry reported it was tasty, savory, and just a bit chewy around the edges.

Our small tastes were only the tip of the iceberg where the menu is concerned. It includes everything from snacks to meals, breakfast to dinner, coffee to cocktails. And the beer menu, for which Gulu Gulu is well known, is truly impressive. Inspired by the Prague café of the same name where the owners (Steve Feldmann and Marie Vaskova) met, there are plenty of Czech specialties on offer as well.

One begins to understand that Gulu-Gulu is more than a restaurant, serving as a meeting spot, entertainment venue, strong supporter of local arts, and the perfect place to interact with your community. Hearty food, live music, movies, and art are all good reasons to check it out. And who knows, maybe you’ll even get to hear someone play the didgeridoo—we did!

Gulu-Gulu Cafe
247 Essex St., Salem
(978) 740-8882
www.gulu-gulu.com

Gulu Gulu Cafe on Urbanspoon

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Blue Ox’s Matt O’Neil Knows His Gnocchi

Posted: June 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Blue Ox, Event, Lynn | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Potato gnocchi, pea puree, ham, mint, mascarpone. Sound like spring on a plate? It was, and it tasted even better than it sounds. This was the main event at last night’s cooking demonstration at The Blue Ox in Lynn.

Chef/owner Matt O’Neil charmed an audience of about 40 with both his cooking advice and his food at this special event ($29). We had expected more of a stand-around-watching-the-chef type of demonstration and were pleasantly surprised when we were led to a table and handed a wine list along with the night’s menu and several recipes to take home.

We tried the house white ($5.50), a dry blended wine that’s very good for the price, while snacking on an antipasto of sopressata, prosciutto de parma, fresh mozzarella, shaved parmesan, roasted peppers and asparagus, grilled artichokes, and aged balsamic.

Then Chef O’Neil began demonstrating the gnocchi recipe on a large table at the front of the room. While he worked, he gave us tips on many of the ingredients he uses in the restaurant along with things to avoid when making gnocchi.

Here are a few take-aways from the chef:

  • Use kosher salt or sea salt that has not been iodized. The iodizing process changes the salt, preventing it from drawing out moisture from food you are trying to sear.
  • Splurge on a bottle of aged balsamic. You only need a few drops in a salad or antipasto, so a small bottle will last quite a while.
  • Likewise, spend the money to get a good bottle of fruity olive oil, not for cooking but for salads and adding to pasta or gnocchi. O’Neil uses one from Greece.
  • With the right ingredients, it’s easy to “doctor up” something like a jar of roasted peppers. Just sprinkle with lemon juice, good olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  • For gnocchi, use Russet or Idaho potatoes, bake them in the oven, and rice them while they are hot.
  • For extra flavor, O’Neil drizzles a tablespoon of good olive oil into the gnocchi dough when he adds the eggs. He also adds a small amount of freshly grated nutmeg.
  • He cautions never to overwork the dough. It should still be bit rough when you begin rolling it out, or the final product will be chewy rather than fluffy.
  • After rolling the gnocchi (O’Neil uses a fork for this), place them on a sheet pan sprinkled with semolina flour. All-purpose flour would get absorbed into the dough and make it gummy.
  • To freeze the gnocchi, put them in the freezer still on the tray. Once frozen, you can pack them in a plastic bag or container.

At the end of the demonstration, we were invited to try rolling out dough and forming the gnocchi up at the front table, and then we were served a steaming bowl with the aforementioned sauce and ham. The gnocchi were tender, the sauce was to-die-for delicious, and the mint puree drizzled on top added incredible freshness. The main course was followed by a cannoli with a crisp shell and an extra-creamy filling.

O’Neil, a Swampscott native who now lives in Nahant, is clearly one of the area’s top culinary talents. We look forward to returning to sample the dinner menu, which the chef describes as American style with a twist. The main dining room features a handsome bar area and the gorgeous art of Martha’s Vineyard-based painter Traeger DiPietro. There is a free parking lot a few yards away from the front door.

After seeing Chef O’Neil in action, we’re also hoping for more cooking demonstrations. Eating, drinking and learning—the perfect way to spend an evening.

The Blue Ox
191 Oxford Street, Lynn
(781) 780-5722
www.theblueoxlynn.com

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Take the Cygnet Challenge

Posted: June 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: American, Beverly, Cygnet | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

cyg1We’ve got a challenge for all you foodies on the North Shore: go to Cygnet and try not to have a good time. Having spent an extremely enjoyable evening there last weekend, we don’t think it can be done.

It starts with the bar, which has got to be the best looking north of Boston, or close to it. And its beauty is more than skin deep: our Kettle One martini was large, chilled to perfection, and accompanied by crunchy olives. Likewise, the Lemon Drop ($11) was perfectly mixed, and the margarita on the rocks was so good we could hardly taste the tequila (but we sure could feel it).

It continues with the comfortable dining room—thick carpet, wood paneling, fun artwork, upholstered settees paired with comfortable single chairs—and the terrific service. Our waitress was energetic without being annoying, happy to leave us alone as we enjoyed our cocktails and perused the menu.

We finally settled on the duck spring rolls ($13, good but not great) and the corn crab cakes (also $13 and a must-have: crunchy, tender, and highly satisfying). We briefly thought about soup, but at $8 a bowl (!) decided to pass.

The star entrée of the evening was a wonderfully tender beef filet with a cabernet reduction. Cooked beautifully, it had perfect texture and was complimented extremely well by the sauce. We also enjoyed the soy-glazed sea scallops; they were large and meltingly tender, but the saltiness of the glaze needed to be cut by some acid or sweetness. The fish in our fish and chips was generous, fresh, and lightly breaded, and the fries were just right.

All of the entrees were in the $20 to $30 range (exact prices not recorded—blame those drinks), and we loved the fact that we could choose any two sides from a selection of about 10. The outstanding choice was the creamy sweet corn risotto.

We really didn’t need dessert, but we were having too good a time not to try the warm chocolate cake, which was accompanied by a fantastic scoop of hazelnut ice cream.

Located on winding route 127, Cygnet is off the beaten path for many, but if you feel like a relaxing drive on a warm summer evening, the excellent food and intimate atmosphere make it a great destination.

Cygnet
24 West Street, Beverly Farms
(978) 922-9221
http://cygnetrestaurant.com/
Cygnet on Urbanspoon

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Bella Verona: A True Trattoria

Posted: May 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Bella Verona, Italian, Salem | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

interior3If we were going to open an Italian restaurant, we’d want it to be cozy and softly lit, have great food at reasonable prices, and be staffed by handsome waiters with appealing accents. Fortunately for us (and our credit scores), this restaurant already exists, tucked away on a side street in Salem near the Hawthorne Hotel.

We’ve been fans of Bella Verona for quite a while, and our meal there Sunday night bolstered our view that the food and the atmosphere at this tiny trattoria are as genuine as it gets.

After reciting the night’s specials to us and leaving a hand-written blackboard as a reminder, our waiter left to secure the carafe of house chianti we ordered ($25). Several of the selections sounded interesting, and we ended up with two starters and two entrees from the board.

The baked eggplant and baked artichokes (both $10) were a huge hit—moist, tender, and flavorful. We did wish for a slightly larger serving of the eggplant for the price, though. The veal saltimbocca special was to-die-for delicious—tender cutlets in a salty, savory sauce ($20). The chicken almalfi ($18) was also full of flavor, this time lemon, accompanied by mushrooms and olives.

The pasta dishes we ordered from the main menu were expertly prepared and very reasonable: spaghetti bolognese ($12) had a generous portion of meat sauce, and the tagliatelle alla puttanesca ($13) was a spicy mix of capers, olives, and anchovies.

The atmosphere definitely put us in a North End mood because we felt the need for some Italian pastries before we left. We sampled the tiramisu ($5.50), crème caramel ($4.50), and cannoli ($5.50). The cannoli shells were crisp, but the ricotta cream lacked richness, so the tiramisu was the clear winner. Cake drenched in espresso and topped with sumptuous cream—we couldn’t have designed a better ending.

exterior

Bella Verona
107 Essex St, Salem
(978) 825-9911
www.bellaverona.com

Bella Verona on Urbanspoon

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Sixty2 on Wharf Hits the High Notes

Posted: April 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Bistro, Mediterranean, Salem, Sixty2 on Wharf | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »


If you’re ready to shake off those winter doldrums and step out, we’ve got the perfect destination for you. We had a superb meal last night at Sixty2 on Wharf, the latest addition to Salem’s Pickering Wharf.

We found the décor, the food, and the service spot on at this chef-owned restaurant featuring Boston-quality Mediterranean cuisine. We were warmly welcomed by the host and seated in the cozy dining room featuring an unusual cork floor, stylish black tables, and inviting red walls.

The menu starts off right with a large selection of antipasti, all of which are $5. (We’re already plotting a return for a night at the bar sipping cocktails and sampling the small plates.) We discussed our options over a glass of white cote de rhone and a dirty dirty martini. The wine ($10) was a generous pour served in a carafe, and the martini featured Grey Goose and gorgonzola-stuffed olives.

Our appetizers set the tone for the meal—visual appeal, layers of flavor, and perfect texture. Fresh milk mozzarella was served in coin-sized medallions with crisp baguette slices and pepper jelly on a beautiful piece of gray slate. Polpettes were small balls of porky goodness, easily enough for two to share.

For entrees, we went with the night’s pasta special, gnocchi with oxtail, and the sea scallops with romesco sauce and farro. Our waitress was a gem who seemed genuinely happy to be serving us and had an extensive knowledge of the menu and wine selections. We explained that we wanted a light red to go with the scallops and were happy with the pinot noir she recommended.

The scallops ($25) were large and succulent with a wonderful crunchy sear on the outside; they combined well with the earthy farro. The hand-made gnocchi were also a highlight—moist and feathery light. The only thing off key was the oxtail, which was quite chewy.

The mozzarella and gnocchi were part of the $22 Neighborhood Nights three-course prix fixe menu, a fantastic value currently available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays. To end the meal, we indulged in the toffee pudding and the brown butter tart. Both were worth the calories, but the unusual flavors in the pudding and wonderful softly whipped cream really sang.

It’s easy to understand why the Boston Globe named Sixty2 best new restaurant on the North Shore, and we were pleased to see a good-sized crowd on a Tuesday night, since pricier restaurants sometimes struggle to fill seats in times like this. But it’s clear the locals have caught onto the symphony of flavors chef Tony Bettencourt and his crew are serving up.

Sixty2 on Wharf
62 Wharf Street, Salem
(978) 744-0062
www.sixty2onwharf.com

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