Wednesday, December 30, 2015

These Are My People

Playska - Somerville, MA

The Cvapi and the Balkan Chicken Boudin
     I'll always argue that the best way to get to know a city is by running it. Even when it's the city you live in, you'll see things you've never seen before. This is especially helpful when you're looking for new restaurants to go to. During a run a few weeks ago, I came across a new restaurant near Inman Square called Playska. I had never seen or heard of this place before but was intrigued by the letters on the window that said "Balkan inspired sandwiches." The Balkans consist of a bunch of countries in southeastern Europe including Albania, Croatia, Serbia and a few others, and since I have connections to eastern Europe and the middle east (and because I know it has the same as the German restaurant Bronwyn) I was eager to go. Stumbling across this place happened at the perfect time because Jake was coming in town and he left me with the task of choosing a place for lunch. I obliged... as I always do. To Playska!
     The restaurant was really tiny, hot and full of random antiques and art boasting the eastern European and Russian vibe. It had a relaxed atmosphere, like a small coffee shop, and only a few small tables. We agreed to split two sandwiches because it was far too difficult to pick. I chose the Cvapi, which had Bosnian style pork sausages, challah bread, feta, butter lettuce, red onion, cucumber pickle and yoghurt remoulade. The little pork sausages were my favorite. They weren't like the typical sausages you'd expect with a casing and the feeling of fillers and fat. They were more along the lines of a homemade sausage or ground meat formed into a tubular shape and chocked full of spices. These sausages tasted very clean, and similar to kofta, which is a middle eastern meatball type dish that my great grandma used to make with pepper, mint, allspice and other spices. They were savory but light and had a subtle freshness that went with the yoghurt remoulade that gets its flavor from yogurt, lemon, and dill. The sausages went perfectly with the feta, pickled cucumbers and particularly the thin, and stringy red onion. The bread was the second best part. It was a fat, wide and short challah bread bun with a slightly floury outside and a sprinkle of herbs on top. It was chewy and a tad bit sweet. All the different players in this sandwich were critical, and the added pickled potato wrapped in an aluminum foil ball was an added, peculiar treat.
     Jake's sandwich (that we split) was the Balkan Chicken Boudin, which had lemon and sumac chicken sausage, cucumber pickles, butter lettuce and a yoghurt remoulade. This sandwich had very similar flavors to mine, aside from the meat, which was a bit more mild with more of a lemon flavor. It still was delicious with the feta, but I wished it had the red onions as well.
     I couldn't leave without dessert, so I opted to try their danish-like pastries with tasty toppings on top. The pastry with the peanut butter in the middle was a little odd because the flavor of the peanut butter was different than I anticipated and it was crumbly, like cooked peanut butter. The other pastry was much better, thanks to marzipan, which is almond paste. Topped with little slivers of almonds, this pastry was light and sweet.
     I'd definitely recommend Playska to anyone passing through Inman, as it's quick, delicious, light and different! I've also read that they're considering rolling out a breakfast menu which is thrilling. Ooo!


Jerk - Dorchester, MA

Jerk chicken, collards and rice

     After Thanksgiving, I headed straight to school with all my baggage because I needed to get to class. Part of me was annoyed with the situation, but the other half of me was excited because it meant David would pick me up and we would probably go get food. We chose this random Jamaican place down in Dorchester called Jerk. I had been to a Caribbean place once before back in Lansing with Marc and it was delicious, so I was excited about this being similarly good. The restaurant was very plain inside with a handful or two of dark wooden tables, only a few decorations and a playlist that played a mix of Frank Sinatra, Jamaican music and the occasional pop song. The waiter was incredibly sweet, but it was next to impossible to understand what he was saying because his accent was so thick (which is totally fine... I'm not saying that was a bad thing).
     For the meal I got the jerk chicken which was basically 3 or 4 big hunks of chicken that had been completely infused and coated with the caribbean jerk sauce and flavor. So far in my experience with Caribbean food, it seems as though their approach isn't so much about getting the perfect chicken cutlet. Instead it comes off more as a cut the chicken into pieces, bones and all, and cook it as is approach. While I like the simplistic approach, it makes eating it a bit difficult because you're on the continual lookout for bones that'll puncture your gullet. Anyway, the chicken was incredibly tender, fell off the bones and had a delicious and delayed, subtly spicy flavor. As my sides, I got rice and the collard greens, which made the presentation quite lovely. The collard greens were fantastic too, primarily because the chunks of ham were abundant and it wasn't as sweet as some collard greens can be. I'm not a big fan of the sweeter collards. David's stewed chicken was very similar in taste with more bones, and his mac and cheese had an incredible crust. Definitely homemade. I can't say I'm jumping to go back, but it was a fun and delicious experience if you're looking for Jamaican food in Boston.


Al Wadi - West Roxbury, MA

The best dipping oil on the left, grape leaves and hummus with a Lebanese beer that tasted like... beer.
     This was an impulse buy. Admittedly, not a bad impulse buy because food adventures are rarely
bad.  I saw a groupon for a Lebanese restaurant called Al Wadi and had to have it. I generally like to seize any opportunity I can to compare my great grandma and grandma's Lebanese cooking to anyone and everyone else's. Literal years after I purchased the groupon, I finally convinced someone (Jimmy) to come with me, since it was a little bit of a hike down to West Roxbury.
     We went pretty early (like a couple of old people), and we were one of 3 or 4 tables that were seated the whole time we were there. The restaurant was huge and beautifully decorated. There were a lot of reds, oranges, and tan colors, synonymous with desert hues I'd guess. There were also really beautiful, sparkling light fixtures and chandeliers, really putting me back into my great grandma's old house.
     Unfortunately, the food didn't live up to the atmosphere. We ordered the hummus with ground meat on top but the hummus was relatively unflavorful as well as the tablespoon of ground beef on top. It definitely was not as garlicy as grandma's and she uses ground lamb instead of beef, which is much much better. I was hoping for some warm, fresh baked pita, but they served microwaved cut up pita triangles. Yes I can tell.  I'd honestly rather have had them room temperature because then half of them wouldn't be crisp while the other is still soft.
     The grape leaves were probably the closest to grandma's grape leaves out of all other grape leaves I've ever tried (outside of those made by my family members). Generally when you get them from other restaurants. from hot bars in grocery stores, or in a can, they're soaked in oil and there's no meat. It's just rice stuffed in a grape leaf swimming in oil. Ew. My family has always steamed them so I was delighted to discover that Al Wadi had steamed their grape leaves AND stuffed them with ground lamb. Thank you thank you! They were delicious and served with an unnecessary cucumber yogurt sauce.... but still undoubtably delicious.
Kafta and kibbeh
     Strangely, my favorite part of the meal was the dip they served with the bread. It was good olive oil (you can always tell if you've got a high quality olive oil) and just za'atar I think. Za'atar is a middle eastern mix of spices including things like thyme, marjoram, oregano, sesame seeds and the most notable flavor from sumac. The sumac gives it a strong, earthy flavor I think and is unlike any other spice, in my opinion. Dipping the bread into the za'atar and oil was delightful and made me feel at home.
     For the meal I ordered the kafta kabob. Kafta is a meatball/meat log type dish that consists of ground meat (generally lamb, beef, chicken or pork) and mixed with onions and spices. These kafta were beef and lamb and were served on top of rice pilaf. The kafta were pretty tasty, but, as Jimmy pointed out, they were a little more tough and dryer that I think they should've been. I have concluded that Al Wadi wasn't making many things fresh. I understand that can be hard to do, but between the pita, my kafta and Jimmy's baked kibbeh, you could tell a lot of things had been reheated in the microwave or just reheated in an oven and dried out. The rice pilaf was ok, but I'm not a huge fan to begin with. It's just meh. I'd much rather have grandma's Syrian rice with cinnamon (sounds odd but it's fabulous).
     For dessert we ordered the baklava sampler which was decent. Sometimes baklava can be dry, and sometimes it can be too gooey. These were slightly more on the gooey side and shockingly sweet. While tasty, they could've benefited from being a little less soaked and sweet. However, they did offer both a pistachio and a cashew baklava which was different. I liked the pistachio best, but the cashew was still good.
     I think I'd pass up that Al Wadi groupon if I saw it again. It was worth the experience and worth a shot, but, at least in my case, any Lebanese restaurant has some pretty big shoes to fill in order to impress me.


Cantina la Mexicana - Somerville, MA
Fajitas, eggs in purgatory, and a gordita from Cantina la Mexicana

     Well... this honestly wasn't the first time I've been to Cantina la Mexicana, and it won't be my last. This past year Gentle Giant did a fundraiser for the Walk for Hunger there, and I sampled their prickly pear margarita which was really unique. Definitely the best margarita I've ever had. Please try it if you can. I had a burrito then as well and was unfortunately not impressed. It's a big place up in Union Square in Somerville, but I've never seen much of a crowd. The waitstaff is super responsive and pleasant and well.... the margaritas.
     This time David, Rachel, Victor and I went after running the Somerville Jingle Bell 5k, and the food was much more exceptional that I anticipated. Admittedly, we were starving, but it was still fabulous. David and I ordered a gordita because I had no idea what that was, and he wanted to introduce me to his friend gordita. It basically came as a cornmeal tortilla (or what they called a pancake) and was topped with refried beans, chicken, melty cheese, lettuce, sour cream and a little dusting of more cheese. It was difficult to eat, but it was so delicious with the two textures of cheeses, sour cream and chicken and splash of cool fresh crunch from the lettuce.
     We also wanted to try one of their breakfast specials which was called... something. I cannot remember, their brunch menu isn't online, and no one else on the internet seems to have documented this incredible experience before. Maybe it was called swimming eggs? Either way, it was similar to eggs in purgatory. By that I mean that there is a tomato based sauce and the eggs are dropped into the sauce and cooked that way rather than frying them in a pan. This was so profoundly flavorful with a slight bit of heat. It was full of spices, peppers, onions, diced tomato and surprising chunks of chorizo while topped with cilantro and a crumbly cheese. It was served with some warm tortillas so you could wrap up some egg, sauce and the sauce treasures. Took Mexican brunch to a whole new level.
     Because 2 dishes were enough, we also got the grilled chicken fajitas. Although they didn't come to the table on one of those sizzling skillets that makes everyone else that didn't get fajitas jealous, they were still great. These fajitas were different in that you were given the grilled meat, grilled peppers and onions but also received fresh tomato, red onions, lettuce, and avocado. The mix of cold and warm fajita fillers was something I hadn't seen before and was super pumped about. Oh! And another cool addition was snap peas. They included snap peas into the vegetable mix that was grilled and they were delicious! What a pleasant surprise.
     Everything here was delicious and surprising in some way making for a really fun food experience. I'd definitely recommend Cantina la Mexicana if you're looking for unique, fresh Mexican food. I can't speak for the authenticity of it, but my taste buds sure don't lie.

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