Punjab Palace (Boston)

Poori!

Punjab Palace sits among the row of bars and restaurants on Brighton Ave. It’s a quaint little place – one square room with a small angled bar. It’s clean, neat and Bollywood music videos softly echo off the flat screen. The waitstaff is extremely friendly.

The three chutneys on the table were fantastic, although the mint one probably the best of the lot. We ordered a poori, which I believe is Hindi for “ginormous puffy bread thing.” (Rough translation.) It was quite good, and smothering chutney on top was a good choice. It was an anti-Burgundy, if you will.

We also had a coconut naan, which I’d never tasted before. Another good choice, Burgundy. The bread had a lovely nutty, sweetness about it, although I’m not sure how well it paired with the food. The rest of our meal was standard fare: a yellow dal, gaat paneer and a tikka masala.

The dal was excellent – mild with a hint of spiceness. And the paneer was tasty too, although if I had to nitpick I’d say that the cheese wasn’t the most delicate I’ve ever had. The tikka masala was good, but not the best I’ve ever had either. The consistency and color were there, the flavors quite good. But the chicken was a little dry and stiff and the sauce didn’t completely blow me away.

That's enough Tikka Masala to feed a large family

One more note. The serving platters here were little marvels of geometry: they appear to be the size of a small bowl or cup, yet somehow house about 12 pounds of food. Perhaps this is some kind of Indian technology in which food is densely packed in a small space. I think I’d like to get one for the kitchen.

Overall, everything was fantastically tasty and the experience extremely positive. The best Indian I’ve had in the Boston area, and almost worth it for the chutneys alone.

3.5 out of 4 paws

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Craigie On Main (Cambridge)

Craigie on Main sits in an unassuming location on, you guessed it, Main St. in Cambridge. We sat in the bar area, which is dark, casual and quaint. I could see live jazz quietly echoing through this area, or perhaps an intimate movie scene being shot in a corner; It’s certainly a relaxing ambiance.

Sunday night’s offer a taster known as the “Whim,” named such because chef Tony Maw capriciously generates dishes that night. That, or he started in mining before delving into the culinary arts.

The amuse bouche was a delicate fluke tartar with a whitefish roe. Like a good hors-d’oeuvre it was light, refreshing and tickled the taste buds. The dill flavor in the dish popped with the citrus from the lime. It was quite good.

Not exactly a clam shack

The second course was a crispy fried Maine clam. I love the homage to New England cuisine here, as I think most chefs wouldn’t insert a fried clam dish in the middle of a taster. In the northeast, fried clams are served in small boxes in shacks in maritime towns up the coast. Here, Maws is able to invoke the memories of those summer fried clam binges in a delicate, sophisticated manner. The dish is on the salty side, perhaps from the dried black olive, but the squid ink sauce works extremely well. It too was a little salty, but quite tasty on its own.

A quick note about the plating: Apparently both of the sauces on the plate were the same sauce. But the presentation at Craigie can be confusing and empty. The use of negative space in some of the dishes was overkill, and usually when sauces are clearly separated, as they were with the clams, it’s a cue to the eater that they are different flavors. They weren’t. Fortunately, this doesn’t really change how the food tastes.

The next course was skate over razor clams, with shrimp and potato. The fish was lightly breaded, and the sauce provided a really nice sweetness. This dish had a homey quality about it, reminding me of fillets my mother would make when I was younger. OK, my Sicilian mother wasn’t exactly Miss Cleaver, so it’s possible I was the only person to find nostalgia in this piece of skate. Still, it was good despite being simple.

Following that was a vegetarian “Ragu” with faro, mushrooms and a soft-boiled egg – probably from an immersion circulator – on top. If you haven’t had the pleasure of a high-tech egg: This dish cheated in two ways, first by using faro – always a smart play – and second by finishing it with that runny egg. How could it not be good? The mixed product was a medley of sweet, creamy egg and earthy mushroom happiness. Everything married really well, including the faro, to create a course that was lick-the-plate-good. Wait, licking the plate isn’t socially acceptable?

The Immersion Circulator Egg

The main course was a Daikon poached durad with wheat, meyer lemon and fennel. The fennel was nice and sweet and all of the accoutrements around the fish were really good. The protein itself was a little too fishy, but after eating it for a while, the dish grew on me. By the end, I absolutely loved it and could have eaten it for about a week before slipping into a food coma. It’s not too heavy and almost refreshing in the mouth after a while, but there’s a richness that keeps you going back for more.

The cocktails at Cragie are also fantastic. We paired a flight with the Whim, the highlight of which was a desert drink with bitters, lime juice, sherry, demerier and an entire egg. It produced some cappucino, smokey, rich froth which prompted a second order immediately. I also had two of my new favorite drink, a Blood and Sand (with Bowmore Scotch), which is like sitting in a woodsy cabin by a roasted fire in a worn leather chair. Befitting of the Craigie atmosphere.

You can't go wrong with eggs

The desert course was a potpourri of sweets. Chocolate, almond and apple cake, sheep’s milk cheesecake, sour-milk panna cotta and finally a pear pine nut plate. Another entire post could be dedicated to this quintet, but the winners here were the cheesecake, the apple cake and a turnip ice cream paired with the pine nuts.

I have no idea what the Craigie menu is like, although it can’t be too bad given the quality of the Whim. With that said, I’m not sure why anyone would want a menu when someone like Tony Maw is doling out eggs for dinner and turnip ice cream. And did I mention it was all for $55?

4 out of 4 paws

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Di Fara (New York City)

On Avenue J in the burrough of Brooklyn there lives a pizza wizard. He’s a man of small stature, his movements deliberate, his face speckled with age. Those who have seen him do not forget. He is Domenico. Maestro di pizza.

Going to Di Fara has become quite a cult experience. Those unaware of the setup and popularity are often thrown by the wait time for a pizza. Every once in a while he throws out some slices, but for the most part this is a 45-minute to two-hour test of patience for a $32 pie.

Domenico, who imported his craft from just outside Naples many years ago, makes every pizza. With a small stepping stool, he monitors them in one of four ovens, occasionally overcooking one. His family members bring him ingredients and take orders, but he doesn’t let them make the pizza. One assumes they know the recipes by now, but it’s his product and it comes from his hand only.

He grows his own basil. Then he cuts some on top of the pizza when it leaves the oven. His sauce is balanced, his crust a near perfect blend of crunchy goodness and flexibility. Every pizza is finished with some fresh parmigiano-reggiano and a drizzle of olive oil. Other New York style pizzas might want to consider finishing pizzas like this, because it adds great depth and a perfect saltiness.

Di Fara may very well be the best New York-style pizza in the country. Although for whatever reason – time constrictions in this case – I keep missing the revered square pie. I even had a pizza with toppings on this venture, and those were stupendously sweet and lovely. For now, the round pizza can stand up to any New York style pie I’ve ever had.

4 out of 4 paws

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Tia Pol (New York City)

Tia Pol is a tapas spot on the West Side with a hip and sophisticated feel. We sat next to a vintage-style Elektra cappuccino machine near the bar. The table was cramped, the service casual, the lighting too dim for photographic exploration.

Ever dance with the Deviled Egg in the pale Tia Pol light?

The first small plate was a deviled egg. It had a distinct smokey flavor and was quite smooth going down. Surprisingly, there was nothing overly tangy or acidic about the preparation, which can sometime overpower this dish, but we’ll touch on that in a second.

Eggs were followed by a tomato croque, which was entirely too cheesy. One or two bites was enough there, thank you. The sardines had their own problem: they tasted like a slippery pile of vinegar. If for some reason you drink vinegar, then this dish is probably for you. Otherwise, not so much.

Fortunately, the chicken liver mousse arrived shortly and nearly made amends for the previous misses. The mousse was rich, sweet and fatty, with a lovely honey and sherry finish from the accompanying sauce. The crackling butter crouton it was served upon balanced the heaviness and cut the richness nicely. It was so good, in fact, that we ordered two.

The squid ink with rice that followed had a fresh, oceanic smell, although the dish could have used more salt. And, not to invoke Woody Allen, but it could have used more squid too. The final plate we procured was a fried artichoke salad, which was tasty but not overly complex. The salad itself was fairly good, but the fried artichoke was the star. Again, more than four pieces would have been nice.

The food on this night was particularly vinegary. I’m not sure if that’s typical, or if they just had a pickling festival in the kitchen on that night. Nonetheless, some of the dishes were just misses. Otherwise, Tia Pol is a fun tapas spot with a few good items. Unfortunately, that’s on par with my tapas experiences. I’m still looking for a big winner in this dining style.

3 out of 4 paws

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Pylos (New York City)

Pylos is another deep and narrow New York space, probably housing no more than 60 or 70 seats. It’s dark and romantic with a sophisticated, yet festive ambiance. The ceiling is made of dozens of clay jugs.

We started with the classic Greek dish, Saganaki, which is three cheeses melted in a clay pot. I’ve seen other presentations in which the cheese was ignited by flame at the table, but they did not do that here. Nonetheless, it was really tasty.

The second appetizer was octopus (Htapothi scharas) with a balsamic reduction. The octopus was chewy and meaty, with a delicate seal on the surface. A really nice texture for octopus. The flavors were amazing – strong grill notes with a lovely smokey element, enriched by the balsamic. Even the capers balanced well and didn’t overpower the dish. Fantastic stuff.

Octopus

A giant Greek salad arrived at the table next along with a chicken-lemon soup (Avgolemono Me Sampania). The feta cheese was fantastic, smooth and of extremely high quality. The salad was just about as good as the basic Greek salad can be, highlighted by a really good oil with a great olive flavor. The soup was subtle, with tones of lemon and herbs.

Next was a pistachio crusted bass, which finally revealed chinks in this Greek’s armor. The fish itself left something to be desired, simply tasting like a standard, somewhat dry cooked fish. However the side component almost bordered on ratatouille, with a spinach twist, which was quite nice.

The vegetable moussaka, like all of Pylos dishes, apparenty, had a really nice balance between vegetables and the bechamel. Nothing was overpowering and the dish was quite smooth on the pallet, with the potatoes and sauce acting as the strongest flavors. My only complaint about this dish is that it bordered on mild.

The desert tower

Which means that Pylos’ appetizers were better than the entrees, which is not uncommon. In general, I find appetizers to be easier than entrees which are in turn easier than deserts. So, not to be outdone, we ordered Christos’ desert tower, which is a neatly stacked pile of triangular phyllo dough, surrounding a custard and swimming in honey. And that’s as good as it sounds. This is like baklava on steroids, and frankly I’d like to eat one right now. Just looking at a photo of it brings a tear to the corner of my eye.

All told, Pylos was a great experience and holds up well, if not better, than most Greek food I’ve ever sampled. I wasn’t wild about the entrees, but the feel of the restaurant, quality of ingredients and preparation of most classic dishes was simply superb.

3.5 out of 4 paws

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Momofuku Noodle Bar (New York City)

Momofuku Noodle Bar is the casual version of the Michelin two-star restaurant with the same name. It’s a typical Manhattan space — narrow, deep and cramped — with two bars lining the left side of the room and bench-like tables on the right. The decor is simple and clean. The vibe is casual. I didn’t see many Japanese people.

After about an hour wait for lunch, we sat at the end of the bar and started the festivities. The first item was a gorgeous beat salad. The beats were delicate and of excellent quality, yet weren’t too sweet. This wasn’t a bad thing, per se, and while quite good I wouldn’t say they were the best beats I’ve ever had.

Following that was the first item of a three-course, $20 prix fixe, the osyter Bun. This was a fried oyster inside of some doughy bread-like contraption, which I’m thinking should house all food from now on. The oyster was delicious — fried with typical briny notes — but sadly there was so little inside the bun that I genuinely wonder if my oyster fell out.

Not to worry, the shrimp bun came next. I’m not sure what shrimp is shaped like a cubical cake, but I’m thankful it was. This was like a spicy, creamy explosion inside the mouth, exploding inside the mouth with the pungent flavor of good shrimp. Probably my favorite item of the afternoon.

Fast and furious the dishes descended upon the counter, and next was the foie gras. Apparently, it was baked, and since I’m almost certain I’ve never had such a preparation, I couldn’t say if it was typical for the piece to be somewhat watery and veiny when cutting into it. Nonetheless, it was really tasty. But the key to the dish was the fantastic balance achieved with the foie, the almond, smokey tea sauce (!) and the sweet pear. A wonderful presentation and bite that sat nicely in the mouth and almost created a perfect harmony with the woody interior of the restaurant, if that makes any sense. Perhaps one has to sit at the bar and try this on a snowy afternoon to understand.

My chicken tamale (with mole verde) was good, but not great. The masa was really well done, but the sauce and flavors didn’t stand out, other than being quite hot. The second item on the three-course made up for this though – the rock shrimp rice cake. To quote every episode of Japanese Iron Chef, I could eat this forever. Hehehe.

The sauce and shrimp aromas were ocean-like, in a lovely way. It somehow hinted of a really tasty, creamy dover sole. The rice cakes were doughy and chewy and nothing short of fun to eat.

The final segment of the meal consisted of noodles, and they did not disappoint. The ginger scallion noodles were a medley of those very flavors, and the noodles were hearty and full. The quality and smells in this dish were outstanding. But that lost the noodle battle to my chicken ramen, which frankly was the best ramen in the history of earth. All the ingredients were of spectacular quality, and the chicken was really really good. But the broth is something to behold. It isn’t porky, it isn’t salty, it isn’t fatty. It. Just. Tastes. Perfect. Your ramen is jealous, and it should be.

The apple pie cake truffles were a letdown desert. It’s almost criminal to say, since the quality of everything is so outstanding here, but it tasted like a coffee cake from Starbucks. Wasn’t a fan.

A nitpick: the pace is quick here, and I wasn’t wild about that. It’s not that a noodle bar should produce food with the spacing of a twelve-course taster. Rather, having too many dishes on the table at once means something will be cold before eating it, and that’s just sloppy. At the least, allow a minute or two in between dishes.

Overall, an enjoyable experience with some extremely high points.

3.5 out of 4 Paws

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Inception (2010)

There’s a fairly decent argument in the art world about whether an artist’s work becomes something outside of the artist once it hits other people. For example, if Tolkien writes LOTR as a parody for war and people interpret it as a story about racism, then is it a story about racism or about war? Does it matter what the artist originally intended?

I know director Christopher Nolan is walking a similar line with Inception, telling viewers “interpret the movie anyway you want.” Which is perfectly fine. In this case, I don’t think there’s much legerdemain or fanciness involved here; I’m fairly certain the whole movie is very deliberately a dream. Or dream-like. Or movie-like.

Consider the very deliberate, very simple recurring ideas planted at the beginning of the movie:

First, the idea of planting an idea itself. Ideas, after all, spread like viruses. A little drop in the well and soon they spread across the entire pond. Inception starts in a world that looks like any other. Or does it? We quickly discover we are in a dream. But then when we wake up, we think we’re in the real world only find out we are still in a dream. Idea planted.

“Fool me once, shame you on you. Fool me twice, shame on, well, you’re not gonna fool me twice.”

Second, how do you know you are dreaming? Dreams start in the middle — we can never remember how we “got here” in a dream. Interestingly, Inception is a movie that, by all accounts, begins in the middle. We never find out how in the hell Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets Saito (Ken Watanabe). Or what in the world Cobault industries is. Or why they hired him. Or how long he’s been doing it. Or how he met any of his team. Or how Michael Caine taught him or where the technology came from. Or how a wanted murderer moves around Europe so easily. Or how he has so much money. Or how he’d just call up home and talk to the mother of the woman “he killed.”

And, like a dream, Cobb’s world is hazy and dynamic and grandiose. He’s a superhero. He goes from Kyoto to Paris to Mumbasa like he’s James Bond himself. And his task? To save the world.

“My competitor will own 50% of the world’s energy market and BECOME A NEW SUPERPOWER! HE MUST BE STOPPED!”

Sure, no problem. After all, he’s the best “Extractor” in the world. Whatever the hell that is.

Notice the inconsistency between not being able to explain Mal’s (Marion Cotillard) delusion to authorities based on their shared dreaming — implying the technology is not well-known or accepted — and yet the key target in the film, a confused spoiled son, Mr. Fischer (Cilian Murphy), has been trained by some unseen rival extractor to simply master the world of subconscious dream-invasion defense. It’s a world full of mazes and loops and Penrose steps. If that doesn’t sound like a dream, I don’t know what does.

Little of the remaining film takes place in our “real world,” or what I’d Level 1 of the movie/dream. Cobb skips to Mumbasa and there is tailed by Cobault Industry hit-men. Only nothing happens until he meets his man, and then he literally jumps out a freaking window to escape them. When he lands, a Cobault brood says “you’re not dreaming now!” Or something of that effect.

I found that particularly thought-provoking dialogue, because the rest of the sequence plays exactly like a dream that I’m sure we’ve all had. Cobb is shot at by a number of people, none of whom hit anything despite close range. He then escapes by awkwardly jumping over a bus and wedging himself through two buildings, which do seem to close in on him — a classic dream anxiety representation. When he breaks free of the walls, Saito picks him up in with a quick screech of the tires and a flick of the door (which also takes out a Cobault Industry droog).

Turns out Saito can tail people like the CIA and has more money than God, because, well, he bought a fancy airline for fun. You know, to make the plan easier. (What’s easier, buy 12 tickets or purchase a huge airline, which inevitably would make news, and have your biggest competitor fly on your newly purchased airline next to you in the first class cabin while you attempt to drug him?)

After the flight to LA is over, Saito makes a phone call that allows a wanted murderer to saunter right into the country. Last time I checked, only the president of the United States has that power. Corporate espionage? Buying airlines? Usurping the law in a matter of minutes, no questions asked? If you’d ask me, I’d say that’s a bit over the top. And deliberately so.

“Your world is not real! Think about it…”

“Come back to reality, Dom.”

Most importantly, because the movie offers so much depth, it doesn’t hinge on this point. (To say nothing of the fantastic score, direction, art direction, cinematography, etc.) It’s not a trick, or a twist, or a crutch. It’s simply like the fabricate of the film. The film feels dream-like throughout.

And all of these elements — the chase, the dream technology, Saito, Fisher, the chemist magician who can isolate inner-ear impact with his sedatives but still works in the Mumbasa underground — drive the story forward. They propel it toward its never ending, never relenting goal of creating catharsis for Cobb. For getting him back “home.”

Of course, we’ll have to answer what “home” is. Because when I say “home” I’m not talking about a physical place, but a state of mind. Cobb’s “home” is the acceptance that his wife is gone and the purging of whatever guilt is associated with that. Only then can he be with his children. Can he be happy again — free of all the demons in his mind. Whether that guilt is the one we are given in the story (his inception of Mal), or guilt from something else, anything else in his life even, is utterly moot. Like Fischer’s facade in his own mind, the change is still real. The guilt will be gone. And that’s what home for Cobb is.

There is another layer of Inception: the Nolan metaphor. The biography of the creator. The director’s story — a giant one of storytelling and film making. Of 10 years of tinkering and adapting and adjusting and selling. And dreaming. Of creation and originality. And inception.

Arthur: “Don’t think of Elephants. What are you thinking about?

Saito: “Elephants?”

Arthur: “Right, but it’s not your idea. The dreamer can always remember the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.

Cobb: No it’s not.

Cobb is like a director. (DiCaprio based his character on Nolan.) He brings his thoughts, experiences, and even demons into his work, and in the process, can find meaning and resolution. His own catharsis. Through Cobb, Nolan says, no, I can make something original. I can have something take hold in your mind from my piece of art. Most importantly, I can get you to separate it from me. It will be your own experience.

“Never recreate from your memory. Always imagine new places! You don’t want to alert the dreamer of your presence.”

Don’t shake the audience too hard. Wouldn’t want to remind them they’re in a movie/dream. So how would he go about doing all this? How can one get an idea to hold? Cobb offers a proposal.

“I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion.”

An idea is less effective if it’s shocked, guilted, or yelled into one’s consciousness. And that’s deeply profound and ubiquitous, extending well beyond the scope of art.

Of course, the analogy continues. There is an “audition” for a producer (Saito, the deep pockets). Yusuf, the chemist, is like a technical director. Ariadne the screenwriter, creating mazes and puzzles to guide the heroes. Eames, the actor, playing a hooker, playing Browning, and sitting at an old actor’s table prepping for the part. He even has to improvise. They have meetings. They storyboard. Sometimes the film is compromised because the damn director drives a train through the set one day.

And in that sense, Fischer is the audience. He is taken on a journey, in an oh-so delicate manner. And in the end, despite none of the events of his dream actually happening, despite none of the ideas being his, he is changed, fundamentally. Like an audience after a good movie. Catharsis.

Roll credits.

But wait, we return to Cobb — we “pop out a layer” to our original story in Level 1 — for having made the dream, Cobb is changed too. This change, primarily, occurred in his own mind, despite any interpretation we take of Level 1. It was his own mental projection of Mal that he finally overcomes at the end.

Mal: “You keep telling yourself what you know. But what you do you believe? What do you feel?”

Cobb: “Guilt.”

Mal: “I’m the only thing you do believe in anymore.”

Cobb: “I wish. I wish more than anything. But I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You are just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best I can do; but I’m sorry, you are just not good enough.”

Re-read that, and remember Cobb is actually talking to himself. He only tackles his demons by facing them head on. Only then is Cobb “home.” He’s free of his guilt.He can finally look at his kids, and no longer cares about that spinning top. Should you?

And…Roll credits.

4 out of 4 Paws

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