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Reader Q&A

Restaurant critic Devra First took your questions

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July 2, 2008

Are you curious about dining out in the Boston area? What's affordable? What's new that's not to be missed? Devra First, the Globe's restaurant critic, took your dining-related questions and comments on July 2 at noon. Miss the chat? Catch up here.

The transcript follows.

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Devra_First: If it's noon, it must be chatting time. Bring it!
chris__Guest_: Have you reviewed Myers and Chang? Ate there this week and it was horrible!
Devra_First: I reviewed it at the end of November. Here's the link: http://www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants/articles/2007/11/22/a_fortune_of_fun_and_asian_flavors/
Devra_First: I gave it 2.5 stars. I think it's a really fun place to go with friends, and I think the food overall is quite tasty.
Devra_First: That said, I've definitely noticed inconsistency in how good it is. Sometimes it's just OK, sometimes it's really great. I've never had it be horrible.
Devra_First: What did you eat? Was it the service? What made it horrible?
bdmark__Guest_: Hey Devra...I'm searching for a classic Cuban sandwich in the city of Boston or Cambridge...what places can you recommend that are *really* authentic?
Devra_First: "Classic," hmm. The closest you might get is El Oriental de Cuba in Jamaica Plain. Here's their website: http://elorientaldecuba.com/
Devra_First: For less classic but mighty delicious, belly up to the bar at Chez Henri. They've got a really good Cuban. You can get a mojito with it, but I like to order a different cocktail just to give the bartenders a break. How many mojitos must they make every night! I don't want them to get carpal tunnel from muddling mint. Now if anyone can tell me where to get a good medianoche, I'd be grateful.
hungry1__Guest_: I do deliveries to the Boston/Cambridge area lunch time What are your favorite quick/informal lunch spots?
Devra_First: If you're near the South End, I like Orinoco and the aforementioned Myers + Chang. Toro also just started doing lunch, sandwiches and salads and the like. Chinatown is a great place for quick in-and-out meals. Xinh Xinh has great Vietnamese soups in the winter, and there are a bunch of good takeout banh mi places in the area. Mei Sum bakery and New Saigon Sandwich come to mind.
Devra_First: In Cambridge, Cafe Barada does good Lebanese. They're on Mass. Ave. near Davis. Also in that area is Redbones, which isn't the best barbecue in the world but is still a satisfying lunch. Also, I'm guessing your deliveries are motorized, but if the price of gas is getting to you and you've moved on to a bicycle, they have a bike valet.
bdmark__Guest_: Do you know of any other restaurants besides Mare in the North End (but located in the city) that use locally grown, organic products -- yet is still affordable? It doesn't matter the cuisine type...
Devra_First: A lot of places are heading in this direction. Persephone in Fort Point; Grezzo, also in the North End, for raw, vegan food; Common Ground in Dorchester, a hobbit-like environment, run by a religious group; Oleana, uses produce from the chef's husband's farm, Siena... Some of these focus more on the local than the organic.
Devra_First: Masao's Kitchen in Waltham is macrobiotic, and Life Alive in Lowell and Organic Garden Cafe in Beverly are both raw and organic.
Pizzaparty: Hi Devra. I'm having a pizza/bocci party at my house tonight and am curious. Are there any restaurants that have this? The original Bertucci's in Davis Square used to do this.
Devra_First: Um, can I come? That sounds great! I don't know of any restaurants that do this, though I sometimes see bocce being played in the North End. You could go to Regina's and then try to convince some of the guys to let you in on the game...
sushi__Guest_: Hi Devra, this might sound like an odd question, but here it is. I can't seem to get into sushi, but I love the experience of going with friends (I tend to order the soup and stir fry, and try some veggie rolls here and there). I think I just don't seem to like the seaweed taste. Are there any sushi restaurants around that have a broad menu? And what type of sushi would you recommend I try? I would like to keep trying it ... thank you!
Devra_First: I love that question -- so much of eating out is the social experience. How do you feel about the raw fish part of things? If you like that but not the seaweed, you could try the nigiri rather than the rolls. (That's the fish on the sushi rice, no seaweed.) Good entry level choices include cooked shrimp, maguro (tuna), and tamago (egg, kind of sweet and a good piece to end your meal on).
Devra_First: A lot of places now also sear the fish, so you could get some sort of seared fish nigiri if you're not into raw either. Oishii has a bunch of seared items.
Devra_First: Another thought is chirashi zushi, which is a bowl of sushi rice with pieces of fish laid directly on it. You could sort of pick and choose. Some of the inside-out rolls are also light on the seaweed. Or try the caterpillar-type rolls, which tend to be cloaked in avocado. In the meantime, I don't see anything wrong with getting miso and a few veggie rolls or the stir-fry and enjoying the company of friends.
nick__Guest_: When you do a review of a restaurant, do you visit the kitchen? I really do not trust restaurants at all in terms of cleanliness.
Devra_First: I don't visit the kitchen, because that would kind of blow my cover. I do try to peek in, but that doesn't give me a very good idea of cleanliness. I hear what you're saying; here's a link to the Mayor's Food Court, a city of Boston site that lists violations: http://www.cityofboston.gov/isd/health/mfc/court.asp
Devra_First: And here's a link to a story the Globe did that will only confirm your worst fears. Don't read if you don't want to know! http://www.boston.com/ae/food/articles/2007/08/26/high_end_fare_with_side_order_of_violations/
Devra_First: I figure I have more chance of getting in a car accident on the way to dinner than getting something serious while eating. You gots to take your chances in the name of deliciousness, I guess.
tweety__Guest_: what resturant in boston are good and cheap?
Devra_First: A hundred majillion of them! What cuisine do you like? What area is convenient for you?
Hungry__Guest_: Where can you get great BBQ in the Boston/North of Boston area?
Devra_First: Well, let's start this topic with the caveat that whatever I say someone will disagree with! Few areas of food seem as contentious as the barbecue issue.
Devra_First: I think Blue Ribbon is really good. Uncle Pete's also has its moments. Do you have a favorite? I'm a New Yorker by birth -- what do we know from real barbecue!
nick__Guest_: Have you ever considered critiquing salad bars, such as Whole Foods and Stop and Shop.
Devra_First: It's a great idea, though I wish there was more variety and differentiation among salad bars. Maybe I'll do it! What are your thoughts on the differences?
sushi__Guest_: re: raw fish: The truth is, I have no idea if I like raw fish. I'm afraid of it. I might muster up the courage to try a nibble, but until then, I'll try the seared option -- thank you! I do like cooked fish, and especially cooked shrimp ...
Devra_First: I *totally* get that. It can be a little intimidating. I think you'll like the seared and the cooked shrimp. And I don't know how I could have forgotten to mention unagi (just pretend you don't it's eel if that freaks you). It's cooked, and brushed with a delicious sauce. For raw, I'd try the tuna or possibly yellowtail for your first nibble. Both seem to be good gateway raw fish.
heWho__Guest_: Devra, you gave three and a half stars to Hungry Mother in Cambridge. While I agree it's a fantastic spot, I'd think a rating this high would be reserved for upper-echelon restaurants, where the service is impeccably polished and the food is among the very best in the city? places like L?Espalier, Clio and Troquet. What in your eyes made Hungry Mother so deserving?
Devra_First: This is a great question, because it speaks to a divide in star-granting philosophies. Some people feel that the highest ratings should be reserved for upper-echelon restaurants, and while I completely understand that (Hungry Mother on a par with, say, Per Se in New York?), I tend to rate on a spectrum of: How close does this restaurant get to achieving exactly what it sets out to do? Is it the very best restaurant it can be under the parameters of what it aims to be?
Devra_First: Because there's just no way a mid-tier restaurant can compare with the "finest" restaurants, and because I love all kinds of food at all levels.
Devra_First: So, for Hungry Mother, I think it achieves an extremely high level in the parameters it set for itself. Does that make sense?
nick__Guest_: Do you favor having calorie counts listed on the menu?
Devra_First: Well, no. Although I sometimes wish I could know if there's a stick of butter hidden on my plate, I think when you're going out to eat, the experience is too sensual to put a sort of brakes-squealing rider on it that way. I think we're all responsible for what we put in our bodies; when trying to eat lighter, which I do when not on the job, we can ask what's in the food or be knowledgeable enough about calorie and fat content to make our own calls about what to order. What do you think?
sushi__Guest_: Thanks, Devra! I'm really looking forward to going to sushi again to try out your suggestions - thanks again!
Devra_First: Let me know how it goes!
heWho__Guest_: That does make sense, though it may make it difficult to compare restaurants reviewed by the Globe before your stint to the ones you've reviewed. I like that idea of reviewing, but it may be helpful to detail that philospohy somewhere in the paper (unless it is and I just missed it because I usually read online)
Devra_First: I don't think it's outlined anywhere, and I take your point about the difficulty of comparing with Alison Arnett's ratings. To make matters more confusing, we shifted the meanings of the stars when I took over; zero stars used to mean "fair." There was no option for a restaurant to just be declared outright horrid. I think any reviewer has a love-hate relationship with giving stars; I think movie reviewer Wesley Morris and I commiserated about this way back.
Devra_First: Sometimes it just feels reductive, while other times it seems a helpful service to the readers.
Hungry__Guest_: I'm from Boston...any kind of BBQ goodness is worth a try :-) Where is Uncle Pete's?
Devra_First: Sorry, should have mentioned that. Uncle Pete's is in Revere. Here's the website: http://www.unclepetes.com/
Devra_First: And don't know if you've tried Blue Ribbon, but it's great. There are locations in Arlington and West Newton. Here's the link: http://www.blueribbonbbq.com/
conniec__Guest_: what is the best meal you have had in the past 6 months?
Devra_First: Wow. Well. Can I cheat and mention a few? In Boston, hands down, was dinner at the sushi bar at o ya. The fish is amazing, the sushi chefs are super-skilled and friendly, and the sake flows...
Devra_First: Not in Boston, but also sushi, I had sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. The fish could not have been fresher, and that's not hyperbole, simply fact. Amazing.
Devra_First: Also not in Boston, I ate at Eleven Madison Park in New York. The level of service, the beautiful and delicious food, the battalion of amuses-bouches and mignardises, the amazing wine service... It stands out in my mind, particularly a dish of perfect halibut with tapioca pearls.
Devra_First: How about you all? Best meal in the last six months?
nick__Guest_: I like Whole Foods, but it is variable. I am well known at the sushi vendors however. Salmon roll is my favorite. Sometimes I get chicken and brown rice. Salmon roll has no taste of seaweed.
Devra_First: Chicken and brown rice! It sounds good, and good for you, but is it sushi? It's like bagels -- at what point does it stop being a bagel and start being round bread with a hole in the middle? :) If you seek out brown rice sushi, Snappy Sushi in Davis Square and Douzo in Back Bay both serve it.
Annie__Guest_: I ate at Hungry Mother a few weeks ago after reading your shining review (they have it posted right inside the door!). It was excellent. I had a delicious drink that was bourbon, sweet tea and limoncello. We shared the pimento cheese and ribs for appetizers, then I had the catfish and my boyfriend had the gnocchi. We finished with the sticky bun. All in all, the food was excellent and the service good. I would highly recommend it and am looking forward to going back!
Devra_First: Glad you liked it! I love that sweet tea and bourbon drink, and those ribs... Hey, Hungry Guest, you should go to Hungry Mother. Not only do your names match, the ribs would probably make you pretty happy in your BBQ quest.
nick__Guest_: I do not favor calorie counts on the menu. They should be available if you explicitly ask for them.
Devra_First: I agree, though I'm very sympathetic to the difficulties of trying to eat light at restaurants.
conniec__Guest_: I just recently went to Sorellina on Huntington. It was wonderful. The pastas were amazing, as were the tuna appetizer and the octopus appetizer. Yum
Devra_First: I really like it, too. One of my co-workers hates it, and will never forgive the person (not me, though I would have) who recommended it to him. It's not a cheap night out, but the food is consistently good.
nick__Guest_: Do you have an idea why certain cuisines are not popular. I really miss Hungarian foods - Cafe Budapest, Csardas, Anna's kitchen. And also Ghanaian (West African food) - kenkey, kelewele. even goat.
Devra_First: I think in part it has to do with financial stuff -- it's hard to take a huge risk on opening a West African restaurant when you're not sure there's the population to support it. And in part possibly to do with immigrant populations. We have a lot of Vietnamese restaurants because there's a large Vietnamese population.
Devra_First: Have you tried Jasmine Bistro in Brighton? It's French and Hungarian, really good.
Devra_First: And there are definitely places to get goat, though perhaps not in the style you're looking for. There's Highland Cuisine in Somerville, for example.
Devra_First: I was talking to one of the guys who works at Fresh Cheese in the North End, and he told me he and his family got a baby goat from New York. They were going to cook it over the weekend. He was so excited! You could always get your own baby goat and cook it up yourself.
Devra_First: Thanks for chatting, everyone. It was fun. Though I'm disappointed no one told me about your best meal in the last six months. That'll be your assignment for the next chat, on July 16, to tell me about it. In the meantime, enjoy your sushi and barbecue and organic food and goat.
Devra_First: P.S. For those in search of barbecue, here's a very informative story on the subject we ran recently by my pal John Burgess, who filled in while yours truly was lazing around on vacation. (OK, eating like a pig in Montreal and New York. Let's not split hairs here.)
Devra_First: http://www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants/articles/2008/06/18/special_dishes_heat_up_local_barbecue_scene/

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