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When Japan meets Peru on the plate

March 6th, 2017

Peru’s Japanese population dates back more than a century, enough time for two culinary traditions to mingle and become something new. Nikkei cuisine — a seafood-centric fusion of Japanese and Peruvian ingredients, techniques, and aesthetics — has been inspiring celebrity chefs such as Ferran Adria (El Bulli) and Nobu Matsuhisa (Nobu) for years. Now it comes to Boston in the form of Ruka, a restaurant at the new Godfrey Hotel in Downtown Crossing.

This is the latest venture from the group that owns Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar and Yvonne’s, with a strong team in the kitchen. The chef is Preston Miller, who comes to Boston from the Breslin, a New York gastropub with one Michelin star. Local sushi master Ting Yen of Oishii oversees the sushi program; Bing Liu is lead sushi chef. Yvonne’s pastry chef Liz O’Connell is in charge of desserts.

The place is beautiful, with carved dragon pillars, dreamy murals, Day-Glo potholder looms hanging from the ceiling, and a dramatic Murano glass chandelier over the front podium. Reservations are prized, there is always a crowd, and the noise level can be deafening.

The food echoes the room, a lush pastiche that can sometimes feel like an onslaught. The menu is divided into six categories: sushi rolls, Peruvian-style sashimi, “chilled + raw” ceviches and salads, grilled kebabs, “hot + wok” stir-fries and sautés, and “monumental.” (The last is composed of three dishes — priced from $75 to $150 — designed to feed four or five as an entrée. Otherwise, figure two to three dishes per person to share. Ruka also tacks onto the bill a 3 percent “Kitchen Appreciation Charge” to compensate non-tipped employees.) In addition to the Nikkei focus, several dishes — stir-fries, a roast duck — showcase Chifa, or Chinese-Peruvian cooking.

 The food is unusually complicated, chockablock with spices, fruits, and vegetables. Menu descriptions barely scratch the surface, and the waitstaff can’t always help.

Sea bream sashimi.

DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

Sea bream sashimi.

Is that zinnia-looking blossom the “ginger flower” mentioned in the description of Japanese sea bream sashimi (madai usuzuki)? Our server’s not entirely certain. The blossom decorates a plate of thinly sliced white fish, sprinkled with crunchy black bits, arranged around a pool of carmine red, Peruvian pepper sauce. What are those bits? No one knows. Nonetheless, the fish is pristinely fresh and delicious dipped into the bright sauce.

 Some dishes have also changed or disappeared since the restaurant opened in early December, without update to the menu. Pomegranate has been axed from Nantucket Bay scallop ceviche because of seasonal unavailability, we are told. Regardless, the scallops are wonderful, tossed in homemade yogurt mixed with leche de tigre (“tiger’s milk,” the citrus marinade used in making ceviche).

Everything from the sushi bar tastes as good as it looks. Hamachi amarillo is a yellowtail-wrapped roll of rice, avocado, and corn, arranged on creamy jalapeño-corn puree. Dabs of Peruvian red pepper mayonnaise dress up a platter of spicy tuna roll, studded with Asian pear and jicama, and dusted with texturally terrific “crispy rice dots.” Texture is half the fun of crunchy salmon tacos — fried shiso leaves mounded with salmon ceviche, avocado, and pickled peppers.

Is New England Nikkei the next step for this evolving cuisine? Vinegary shrimp sunomono — shrimp and cucumbers tossed in tart yuzu-lime vinaigrette — is topped with fried clam strips and a squiggle of tartar sauce for a clam shack-meets-Lima treat.

Sweetish golden, cherry tomato-esque fruits appear on skewers of grilled chicken thighs drizzled with piquant yellow pepper sauce: They’re pichuberries, an Andean berry, chock-full of vitamins and antioxidants. Meaty Sichuan king trumpet mushroom kebabs are slathered in garlicky-hot mustard dressing.

Sushi rolls, sashimi, salads, and skewers are better bets than “hot + wok” dishes. There are almost no noodles in the overly fishy, too soupy “green noodles,” and the chicken fried rice is mushy and inexplicably sweet. I liked octopus lomo saltado, a riff on a classic Chinese-Peruvian stir-fry of beef, onions, soy, rice, and French fries. In Peru, the fries would have been mixed in, not a garnish.

A bowl with four miniature sweet potato dumplings, a smattering of black trumpet mushrooms, and a poached egg in smoky dashi is bland. This is an unapologetically expensive restaurant, but it’s hard to justify the $11 price tag for papas chongo — a paltry portion of pan-fried purple potato slices dolloped with garlic mayo.

The “monumental” tea-smoked Long Island duck is a spectacular presentation: slices of perfectly roasted breast, a scoop of confit, and a fistful of tangy kohlrabi, carrot, and red onion slaw, scattered with tiny, pickled Amazonian peppers. Make yourself a duck sandwich with steamed Chinese buns and garlicky aioli. But I wish the confit wasn’t so salty, and that they’d swap out the aioli for more-traditional hoisin.

Desserts range from a nondescript moon pie to delicious, pretzel-esque fried dough, glistening with miso-
butterscotch glaze. The classic Peruvian dessert Suspiro Limeno (“Sigh of Lima,” meringue-covered dulce de leche) is reimagined as a dulce de leche patty, lemony sponge cake, and beet meringues. Beets and meringues don’t mix.

Ruka draws fashionably dressed 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom come for the lively bar scene. The beverage program includes a smart sake selection and a wine list organized by the altitudes where the grapes were cultivated. A 24-page cocktail booklet annotates every drink with factoids about Incan mythology, Andean botany, and Peruvian pop culture.

“PLEASE DO NOT STEAL BEFORE READING THIS,” reads the last page. “These cocktail menus are available for sale for $20 with all proceeds going to local charities . . . Please think about purchasing a copy rather than just slipping one into your pocket or bag. You monster.”

Red-faced, I’ve subsequently donated $20 to MSPCA-Angell.

RUKA

505 Washington St., Downtown Crossing, Boston, 617-266-0102, www.rukarestobar.com

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices: Appetizers $9-$30. Entrees $14-$150. Desserts $7-$16.

Hours: Daily 5 p.m.-1 a.m.

Noise level: Loud

What to order: Crunchy salmon tacos, chicken thighs anticucho, octopus lomo saltado, Ruka spicy tuna maki, Japanese sea bream sashimi (madai usuzukuri).

Mat Schaffer can be reached at matschaffer@yahoo.com

Roxy’s Central & A4cade get the high score

February 28th, 2017
The Double Fried sandwich at Roxy’s Central & A4cade.

ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The Double Fried sandwich at Roxy’s Central & A4cade.

If you’ve ever wondered what a deliriously happy hipster looks like, head over to Roxy’s Central & A4cade. A collaboration between the teams behind Roxy’s Grilled Cheese and Area Four, it is part counter-service and takeout restaurant (in the front) and part raucous game room (in the back).

Don’t expect to just waltz in to the 21-plus arcade; as early as 6 p.m. on a Monday, the line of beanie-clad post-grads can snake down Mass. Ave. We’ve never waited more than 20 minutes — but that’s long enough to realize it’s been at least a decade since we last contemplated standing in the cold to get in somewhere.

The Roxy’s side is a fine spot for a workday lunch — get the turkey Caesar, with tender baby kale and shaved Parmesan ($8.15), and treat yourself to a dulce de leche frappe ($4.69) — but it’s no match for what lies beyond the metal meat-locker door.

Flash your wristband and toss a total stranger’s coat to the side so you can settle into one of 20ish seats scattered among vintage video games like Ms. Pac-Man and Nintendo. “People just throw their stuff wherever, doesn’t mean the seat is taken,” the waify hostess yells over the cacophony of ’80s pop music, pinball machines, and dozens of 20-somethings laughing as they share tater tots and strong cocktails in vessels shaped like R2-D2.

Start with a large order of crisp, golden fries for the table ($4.15) and a flight of dipping sauces — barbecue, vegan ranch, a mustardy house blend called Justin’s Sauce, and chipotle and truffle mayos — while you work out what you’ll be drinking.

If you’d like to pretend you’re on a tropical vacation with your sweetie, you can’t go wrong with the Kill Screen 2 player ($18, $9 for a single serving), from a slushie machine emblazoned with the words “DRINK ME!” What’s swirling around is a frozen painkiller, the tiki favorite made with a mix of rums and coconut.

There is a whole section of the menu devoted to fried potatoes. If fries aren’t your thing, try tater tots ($3.15). We had ours topped with cheese ($4.29), despite our server’s warning that the smoked gouda sauce quickly coagulates. “We should have listened,” we said, dragging the crisp cylinders through the gloppy paste, and returning to our small order of rosemary truffle fries ($3.95).

The festive vibe might have you contemplating another drink. Maybe this time it’s Worst. Drink. Ever ($10), the arcade’s answer to the most love-to-hate-it cocktail of mixologists everywhere: the vodka soda. This version is delicious, with St. Germain, cranberry, and citrus shrub ($10).

The food here is mostly much better versions of what you might find in a boardwalk arcade. The West Coast dog ($12) comes split down the middle and filled with more gouda sauce (it stays hot and works well here), with caramelized onions and pickles. The BLT ($7.49) is a gut bomb, with a fistful of shredded North Country bacon on a Portuguese roll with lettuce, tomato, and chipotle mayo. The LTO burger ($6.49) is a tasty, thin griddled patty in the style of Tasty Burger or Shake Shack, and the Double Fried ($7.29) takes fried chicken to new levels of crunch. It takes two dips in the fryer before it’s served on a bun with lettuce, Grillo’s pickles, hot honey, and ranch dressing. Of course, you’ll also find the grilled cheese sandwiches that Roxy’s became known for.

But A4cade is as much about the atmosphere as the food. You didn’t queue up in the cold for a fancy hot dog. You’re here to stuff gold tokens into 25-year-old gaming machines with terrible graphics and discover you still stink at skeeball. You’re here to drink a brandy cocktail called Your Mom’s Basement and to notice that no one is looking at his or her phone. The delicious vanilla soft serve with cheery yellow sprinkles ($3) and fried chicken sandwiches? They’re just a player’s bonus.

ROXY’S CENTRAL & A4CADE

292 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, 617-714-3960, www.roxysgrilledcheese.com or www.areafour.com

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Sandwiches $4.49-$8.99, burgers and hot dogs $4.19-$12, sides $3.15-$8.15, desserts $3-$4.69.

Hours Daily 5 p.m.-midnight

Liquor Full bar

What to order Fries with a flight of sauces, LTO burger, the Double Fried, West Coast dog, Kill Screen cocktail

The Critics Ate Makimono, Squid Ink Noodles, and Tater Tot Poutine This Week

February 28th, 2017

At Ruka, Porto, and Roxy’s Central / A4cade

Cheesy snacks and vintage arcade games at Roxy’s Central & A4cade

February 27th, 2017
From left: Kara Brooks, JM Craven, and Cliff Ashbrook play video games at Roxy’s Central & A4cade.

ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

From left: Kara Brooks, JM Craven, and Cliff Ashbrook play video games at Roxy’s Central & A4cade.

Where to Roxy’s Central & A4cade, a hybrid grilled cheese shop, game room, and bar. This emporium of wholesome fun is a collaboration between Roxy’s restaurateur James DiSabatino and Area Four’s Michael Krupp.

What for Board games, booze, burgers, and grilled cheese. It’s a gluttonous mullet: Enter at Roxy’s for counter-service grilled cheese and tater tots; linger at stools or a table with Cambridge families introducing their toddlers to poutine. Or proceed through swinging doors into a holding pen-slash-storage area. You’ll step through what looks like a walk-in fridge — just call it a speak-cheesy — to present your ID to a host, who’ll outfit you with a paper bracelet. Once you’re in, it’s a free-for-all: Play skeeball and vintage arcade games like “Ms. Pac-Man,” ogle the longest shuffleboard table in the city, and order up some drinks. But prepare for a wait: Everyone had the same idea as you.

The scene Studio 54 for gamers. Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” plays on the speakers. A Dr. Who arcade game twinkles alluringly. Three guys play foosball in a corner. Another man caresses the shuffleboard table, murmuring to it like a lost love. People mill around in a daze, awestruck by the assortment of throwback gaming options, occasionally clutching one another and squealing. A slushie machine behind the bar implores, “Drink Me!”

What you’re eating Meals designed for young metabolisms. Roxy’s is known for its husky grilled cheese sandwiches, and these are here in profusion, loaded with short ribs, bacon, guacamole, and more. There are also hot dogs, coated in smoked gouda sauce or topped with sliced pickles, and bacon cheeseburgers. A “fried potatoes” menu section offers truffle, cheese, and loaded fries, plus a beefy poutine, also available in tot form. For dessert, vanilla soft-serve.

Care for a drink? Enter A4cade for playful tipples like rum-and-coconut brain-freezer The Kill Screen and There’s No Crying in Skeeball, a tequila-based concoction that’s “spicy AF,” per the menu. A “Gettin’ Tiki With It” section promises tropical temptations like a Land Shark with cognac and passion fruit; Schwing, Schwing is a “foxy mixture” made with rye and plums. Or you could always order a magnum (P.I., heh-heh!) of wine.

Overheard Testosterone-fueled excitement; praise for poultry. A fellow with a fluffy man-bun punches his pal in the shoulder. “I’m gonna get my ‘Mortal Kombat’ on, man!” he says. A trio of young gents, one of whom wears a long navy lab coat, discuss the economics of arcades. “If you’re gonna open one of these places, the games had better be cheap,” says one. A man with a “Star Wars” long-sleeved T-shirt rhapsodizes about fried chicken. “Last time I was here, I ordered two! But I think you need to be drunk to do that,” he concludes.

292 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-945-7244 or 617-714-3960, www.roxysgrilledcheese.com or www.areafour.com

Review: Riding the waves at new Jody Adams restaurant Porto

February 21st, 2017

Last year, a few months after co-owner and chef Jody Adams and the team from Trade opened their lively, suave Mediterranean-on-Back Bay restaurant Porto, I waddled in to review the place. Adams was perched at the bar.

It was October — four months and one chef de cuisine ago. Eataly, lurking in the Pru next door, wasn’t open yet. Rialto, long Adams’s flagship, had closed upon her departure in June.

Like a lot of things at Porto, the cocktail cart is a little better now.

This month, the cart pulled up to my table with two different aged rums and delivered a daiquiri that maintained the drink’s trademark tartness but added several layers of complexity.

Dragging the bartender into the middle of the room to do tricks like the chef at a Mongolian barbecue is still a godawful affectation. But the drink was good, and there was no chance of burning down the building.

 More than six months into Porto’s run, Adams — along with co-owners Eric Papachristos and Sean Griffing and recently added chef de cuisine Andrew Hebert — has steadied the ship somewhat. The deceptively spacious dining room, next to Saks Fifth Avenue in one of the city’s highest-rent districts, is a stunner. Subway tile lines the long open kitchen; macro photos of seafood hang on poured concrete walls; the dark, glassed-in front room can be bustling and even uncomfortably loud, while the main dining room offers a warmer, cozier vibe; a long L-shaped counter rings the kitchen, and a separate bar overlooks the street. And an elegant patio offers A+ people-watching opportunities in the summer.
Owing perhaps in part to Adams’s long track record, the crowd seems to skew slightly older, and some stop to greet Adams — still watching from the bar during one recent dinner service.

The restaurant is named for the Italian and Portuguese word for “port,” and the menu focuses on fish in its many forms; it excels with Mediterranean-inspired meze plates, raw and cooked, cold and hot.

A crudo of fresh scallops displays precise knifework, and a dice of briny, crunchy nicoise olives offsets the sweet shellfish. Clams and guanciale — cured pork jowl — swim in a rich, fennel-seasoned broth that will have you searching for a spoon once the bread has run out. Crunchy, cornmeal-dredged oysters and a bright preserved-lemon aioli complement each other perfectly.

Grilled octopus at Porto.

LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF

Grilled octopus at Porto.

Grilled octopus is omnipresent these days — good thing they have so many tentacles, I guess — but Porto’s version is anything but perfunctory. Mining the southern coast of the Mediterranean for flavor, the perfectly tender, lightly charred cephalopod is surrounded by chickpeas (whole and hummused) and hunks of eggplant and enlivened by harissa.

Pasta dishes, made in house, are also standouts. Squid ink noodles, sometimes a pointless gimmick, here redeem the whole black-pasta genre, tossed with delicate squid, chorizo, and peppers (an earlier incarnation, no longer on the menu, added a bright citrusy tang that made it even better). Delicate campanelle pasta, studded with roasted cherry tomatoes and covered with bottarga — cured, grated fish roe — would make for a good main course if it doubled in size.

That wouldn’t be a bad idea, because Porto, even now, is afflicted with the same disease that plagues so many otherwise excellent restaurants: The wonderful small plates are more exciting and better executed than the main courses.

Whether this is a terminal case remains to be seen. The entrees on Porto’s refreshed menu are indeed more interesting under Hebert, who worked with Adams at Trade and Rialto before gaining experience in kitchens all over the country.

Pan-seared monkfish, matched with Brussels sprouts, raisins, and pine nuts, is moist and flavorful, served with a swatch of squash romesco (apparently anything can be a romesco now).

Whole fried fish.

LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF

Whole fried fish.

Whole fried fish is crisp and tender and meaty — a snap to take apart and eminently shareable. Though the accompanying pool of aioli flavored with Aleppo pepper runs a few shades too salty, it’s easy enough to dip into it sparingly.

And fish stew, with a beautifully cooked cut of hake at its center and mussels, squid, and white beans swimming in a fragrant broth, is more cohesive and satisfying now.

But a massive boneless rib eye that should be a showstopper at $60 is instead marred by bad butchering. Imagine preparing a rich, bright sherry reduction, grilling and trimming a slab of beautiful romanesco, dotting the dish with black garlic and shaving a mortgage payment’s worth of truffles over the whole thing, only to spend the next half-hour chewing and hacking at connective tissue that shouldn’t be anywhere near a properly butchered rib eye.

And what to do with a pallid, gray confit duck leg — served with duck and pork sausage and a tasty fried cube of mashed sweet potato — that has been salted beyond all reason? After three visits of entree ennui, we’ve chosen to share three main courses among four people and pile on the small plates. If I was stuck with the duck all to myself, I’d be chugging water straight from the sturdy glass decanter on the table.

By the fourth visit, I’m totally convinced that the way to best enjoy Porto is to stick mostly to the small plates. Servers, warm and accommodating, and quick with clear recommendations, won’t dissuade you from that approach.

The bar is inventive and competent. The Greek negroni subs out every ingredient in a classic negroni but somehow succeeds in appropriating the idea with unusual flavors; to create a drink called Le Parfumeur, the bar infuses mezcal with black pepper and mixes it with good vermouth and a high-test version of the artichoke amaro Cynar, then cuts the heat with lemon and lavender.

Desserts run from satisfying to strange. Chocolate Om Ali, an Egyptian bread pudding made with coconut and coriander, is hot and sweet and melty; a cylinder of intense chocolate mousse in a pool of vibrant cherry syrup is easily enough for two. But get all the way out of here with a recent affogato, which asks an otherwise sane person to pour hot espresso over a fruity scoop of delicious, deep red sorbet, thereby ruining both.

Few area chefs have done as much to earn a loyal following as Adams. But whether the loyalists who flock here will find what they’re looking for is an open question. For all the grace and skill on display — on plates, in glasses, and all over the dining room — Porto can seem confoundingly adrift.

Campanelle.

LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF

Campanelle.

PORTO

Ring Road, Back Bay, Boston, 617-536-1234, www.porto-boston.comAll major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Small and raw dishes $8-$17. Main courses $28-$60. Desserts $7-$12.

Hours Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

Noise level The reverse mullet: party in the front, business in the back

What to order Raw scallop, barrel-aged Greek feta, fried oysters, clams, octopus, pan-seared monkfish, chocolate Om Ali.

Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.

HOW RESTAURATEURS DESIGN SPACE FOR ROMANCE ON VALENTINE’S DAY

February 14th, 2017

Feb 14, 2017 Cameron Sperance,

 

While some attempt to aim Cupid’s arrow by sensually pairing entrees with live music, others are zeroed in on inviting materials. Restaurant owners look to surround their dishes with a romantic aura this time of year, and hiring the right team of designers is key to executing the perfect aesthetic shot.

Romantic restaurantFlickr / Portobay Hotels And Resorts

A restaurant build-out can cost a venue half its projected annual income, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, so designers have to tug at purse strings before they can strike at diners’ heartstrings.

“Building for romance is definitely more expensive,” said Jo Megwa, owner of Italian eatery Piattini on Boston’s popular Newbury Street. The venue will open for its first Valentine’s Day since undergoing a romantic facelift.

“My designer fought me every step of the way,” Megwa said, “but we covered the front and back of our booths so we could pull them out for one day out of the year and provide our guests with intimate [seating arrangements].”

With more than half of her Valentine’s Day customers returning each year, she said the cost is ultimately worth it. Her seating strategy is pivotal in heating things up, as diners expect to feel like they are shrouded in privacy while in an expansive dining room.

“The way we sit is important when we think of romance,” said Cheryl Katz, the co-owner of C&J Katz Studio, which designed the dining rooms of Boston’s No. 9 Park and Menton. “We look to give the option of sitting on the same side with banquettes and always would recommend going with upholstered as opposed to wooden seating.”

While what is romantic might be up to each individual, certain things seem to be universal.

“Some people are wooed by grandiose spaces and others look for cozier spots, but the No. 1 thing that defines romance is lighting,” said Brian Miller, design director at Washington, DC, architecture firm Streetsense. “You can’t get romantic without good lighting.”

Boston's Bistro du Midi Fireplace Courtesy of Ashling Inc.

“Romance is a fireplace. There’s nothing like sitting in the dining room at Bistro du Midi by the antique fireplace and looking out on the lights of Boston Common,” said Tom Clark, president of restaurant construction company Ashling Inc. (responsible for the build-out of Bistro du Midi). “The only negative is that it might be slower business at those cozier spots during warmer months, so you need to find a balance.”

But Miller, who completed 41 restaurant projects while at Streetsense, said ideas of romance are also influenced by region.

“The perfect Valentine’s Day in Boston is going to be different than one in Miami or L.A. I look to give something primal or elemental — a courtyard in a warmer climate or a fireplace in a colder climate and then provide a counterbalance like expansive windows to make the space inviting year-round.”

There is another potential danger in narrowing your focus too much.

“The con of building for romance is that you become a cliché and that’s all your restaurant is about,” said Kenneth Feyl, architect for numerous Boston-area restaurants while at JD LaGrasse & Associates, “but for some restaurants, that may be the goal and what works.”

It works for Piattini, Megwa said.

“I don’t see any negative with going the romantic route,” she said. “We have candles — real ones because I’m against those battery ones — at our tables and back lighting to give an intimate ambiance, but we aren’t turning people off. We’re hosting financial firms at dinner, too.”

 

 

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