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Hello, Orange County!

I headed to Logan Airport early on Saturday morning, ready to escape the horrors of New England weather for a week.  Having flown on Virgin Atlantic previously, I booked my flight on Virgin America, one of my favorite airlines which also happened to have the cheapest ($250 RT) non-stop tickets to LAX.  The ticket counter for every other airline was absolutely packed Saturday morning, but I walked right up to Virgin’s ticket desk, where a friendly employee greeted me, grabbed my suitcase, and checked me in with a smile.  Wait…. am I still dreaming?  Friendly airline employees at 5:00am?  Yes, Virgin America has them.  But what they also have are $25 checked bag fees, so I planned ahead and fit eight days of clothes (and more importantly, shoes) into a rolling carry-on size suitcase, thanks to space bags.  Being a frugal traveler, I also skipped out on buying breakfast at the airport, despite not eating before I left my apartment.  And this turned out to be my downfall.

Going through security was a breeze, and Virgin only uses two gates in Logan’s Terminal B, so the area was quiet and not nearly as hectic as the rest of the gates in the terminal.  Boarding was a piece of cake; the crew was organized and again, extremely friendly.  I took my aisle seat, loaded my carry-on into the overhead bin, and pulled out my book and iPod for the six hour flight.  If you’re not much of a reader, Virgin America offers on demand movies and TV shows and free streaming satellite TV right in the headrest, as well as wireless internet access for an additional charge ($13 per flight).  All beverages and food are also ordered in your personal console, including complimentary items like water and juice.  This was much easier than waiting for the flight attendant to walk up and down the aisle, although I hesitated to order what sounded like delicious food due to the high price.  Again, this would be my downfall.  Going through three hours of turbulence over the Rocky Mountains, on an empty stomach, with a tendency to develop motion sickness all meant that the descent into LAX was not fun for myself or anyone sitting around me.  Next time, I won’t forget breakfast OR Dramamine.

Happy Birthday, Carolyn!

Unfortunately this feeling didn’t go away for the rest of the day, so I spent one of the only two days with my aunt sleeping the sickness away.  I didn’t truly get to appreciate the beauty of this part of Southern California until Sunday morning, when my cousin, aunt and I drove to La Habra, a suburb of LA, to visit my cousin Carolyn’s other side of the family.  Today is her 23rd birthday (Happy Birthday, Carolyn!) and the entire family on her paternal side gathered to celebrate at her grandparents’ home.  Watching the Oscar’s in LA was an interesting experience, especially given the knowledge certain members of her family had on the film industry.  One of her relatives is a member of the SAG, and offered some interesting and hilarious commentary on the awards. We spent Sunday night there to make the drive to LAX early on Monday morning said goodbye to my aunt as she heads back east, and then drove back down to Irvine.  I can now say that I’ve experienced traffic on the 405, one of the most notorious highways for traffic in the country.  Even before dawn the five lanes of highway were backed up and at a complete stop at one point.

Irvine is an interesting city, far different than anything I’ve seen in New England.  I’ll write more about the city at another time, but here’s a few pictures of the view from my cousin’s apartment (click for a larger and better view):

Irvine

Irvine, CA with Mt. Baldy in the distance

Restaurant Review: Red Rock Grill

I’ve been anxiously awaiting this day for months, quite literally.  Last fall my friend Mike and I discovered the amazing Six Burner Restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay, located just outside the train station of the same name.  Despite the odd location and spotty service we were instantly won over by the comfort food with a modern twist, all at an affordable price.  Unfortunately for us, Six Burner closed less than a month later and we were left craving chicken pot pie spring rolls all winter.

That is, until my excellent Facebook creeping skills directed me to this new restaurant, the Red Rock Grill and Bar in Upton!  The owners of the Boston location had apparently closed up shop in the city to set up a new eatery closer to their homes in Worcester County.  Despite living in Boston, both Mike and I were willing to make the trek out to Upton and on Thursday night, we finally got there.

Chicken Pot Pie Spring Rolls

Red Rock seems to be a reincarnated version of Six Burner, but 35 miles west of the city and catering to a totally different clientele. We would make the hour drive out of the city in rush hour traffic just for the chicken pot pie spring rolls!  These little creations are absolutely incredible.  We were a little disappointed with the nachos — while they tasted fabulous, we weren’t sure they were worth the $10 (we added BBQ chicken for $3).  They were a little lacking in toppings, and half the chips were just tortilla chips with no salsa or meat on them.  Nothing too special, but if I wanted out of this world nachos I’d probably head to Sunset Grill in Brighton anyway.

After two appetizers we split the Guinness and jalapeño pot roast with mashed potatoes and roasted carrots — the best comfort food I’ve had in a long time.  What sealed the deal for me was our waitress — she asked the kitchen to split the meal onto two plates before it was served, which NEVER happens, or there’s a charge associated with it.  I wish I remembered her name, but she deserved every penny of her tip.  She was great about refilling our drinks and keeping the complimentary popcorn bowl full as well.  We topped our dinner off with the peanut butter mousse — again, absolutely incredible.  It had the consistency of cheesecake, although it was much lighter and quite savory.

For a city girl with literally thousands of restaurants within just a few miles of my apartment, I am still eager to make the drive to Upton anytime soon.  For a semi-rural area with very few dining options, this is going to be a gem for the community.

Red Rock Grill and Bar is located at 66 West Main Street in Upton, Massachusetts.  For directions, hours, and a full menu, visit http://www.redrockgrillandbar.com/home.

Martha Stewart Wannabe

I often joke that I perfected the art of buying a new car in under 48 hours, thanks to my ability to make major decisions with spontaneity.  However, trying to pick something off a menu at the restaurant can take an eternity.  Anyway, I put my rapid decision-making skills to work this weekend when I managed to find an apartment and sign up for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) all within 30 minutes!

After weeks of searching for my own place to live, which was filled with disappointments and discouragement over the cost of rent compared to my income, I had finally found the perfect place in Newton Upper Falls.  I loved the room, the tenants seemed nice, and the location was perfect – 15 minutes to work, 20 minutes to school.  With a family lunch planned for last Saturday, I hopped in the car to drop off the deposit, sign a lease, and surprise my mom and sister with the good news that I finally had a place to live after three years of dorm life.  But alas, I arrived in Newton, checkbook in hand, to find discover that the room had already been rented.  Somewhat confused and extremely disappointed, I got back in the car, drove to Providence, and tried to forget how absolutely perfect it would have been to live there.  That evening I returned home to answer about two dozen posts on craigslist advertising rooms for rent, and even managed to set up two viewings for the next day before heading over to Matthews Arena for the best Northeastern hockey game this season.

The always crazy Doghouse -- Husky Pride

Sunday morning I woke up, greeted the day with a Gatorade and two Excedrin, and headed to East Boston for apartment #1.  I shouldn’t even have wasted the $4 in tolls, thats how bad this was.  I figured that with it being located in Jeffries Point (one of the nicest parts of East Boston) it had to be pretty decent, but there was nothing nice about this place.  Feeling defeated (yet again) I hopped back on the Pike to view apartment #2 in Brighton.  At this point I was thinking that I would have rather gone home and slept off the raging headache, but I had made an appointment with the current tenants, so I stuck to it.  As I got closer I realized the neighborhood was awfully familiar… maybe it has something to do with the fact that my sister lives 3 blocks away?  I pulled up in front of a well-maintained three-story house on a quiet one-way street and instantly had good vibes.  In addition to my spontaneity, I also have an incredible gut instinct!

I knocked on the door and was greeted by two extremely nice young people, who were two of the three current tenants, and the two who were actually staying.  They showed me around the MASSIVE first floor, answered all my stupid questions, and took me upstairs to look at the room for rent.  I was a little thrown off by the cotton candy pink walls, but the room was huge and the color was definitely inviting.  “Well, the only downside is there’s no closet in the room….” were the next words I heard.  NO WAY, my brain was saying, until I heard… “follow me, I’ll show you the closet we use for this room.”  OH HEY, ITS AN ENTIRE SECOND BEDROOM.  With a desk, bureau, and numerous racks and shelves around the room, I was loving this whole “walk-in closet/office/sitting room” idea.  I kept picturing all the different ways I could decorate it and furnish the space… basically, I was in heaven.

I was ready to put in a deposit that moment, but I figured I should sleep on it and the other spaces I had arranged to view.  But of course my impatience got the best of me, and Monday evening I headed back to Brighton to put in a deposit on my new home!  I’m so excited that after three years of dorm life I finally have my own space to decorate however I’d like.  So this is where my Martha Stewart instincts kick in..

Wallpaper Covered Doors

Did you know that woman has some awesome ideas? Seriously, who ever thought about putting wall paper over door panels to add some fun to a room?  Her ideas for throw pillows, switch plates, picture frames, and headboards seem so simple that I keep wondering why I’d never thought of them myself!  And don’t even get me started on painting… I have so many ideas for colors to paint this room, its not ok.

But one of the things I’m learning from all this is that it gets so expensive… so fast.  I’ve lived a pretty luxurious life the last six months, without rent or utilities to pay (thank you, student loans!).  And while I’ve saved a significant amount, I’m learning that just because I’m in college, that doesn’t make it okay to deplete my savings account every time I want to go shopping or do some decorating.  I have another month until moving day, and I plan to do lots of DIY projects and yard-sale scavenging between now and then.  I’m even working on a way to decorate around the pink paint, as I’m realizing just how expensive it is to paint a room.

But I’ve already decided where I’ll be going to first for furniture: my parents basement.

Restaurant Review: Paramount

When I began putting my list of 52 restaurants together, I made sure to include Paramount as it is managed by a popular restaurant group in Beacon Hill that is also responsible for the success of the 21st Amendment.  This restaurant and bar, located directly across from the side entrance to the State House, is the second home for many staffers and lawmakers during the busy seasons on the hill.  Lately I’ve been hearing wonderful things about Paramount, and a raving review by my own boss sealed the deal: I had to get over there, and soon!

Step 1: Call up my partner in crime, Mike.  He’s become my de facto adventurer when it comes to trying new restaurants, and I could tell from one look at Paramount’s menu that this was his kind of place.  So Thursday night we bundled up, braved the cold and snow that has taken over the city, and headed up to Charles Street for a good meal.

Since I had just been to this part of the city (its just a few doors down from Bin26 Enoteca) I knew exactly what to look for, but Paramount is sort of hidden between the more popular restaurants and boutiques that line the main street of Beacon Hill.  Once we walked in the door, a curtain had to be pushed back to enter the dining room.  The dimly lit room with a limited number of small tables was oddly inviting; the waitstaff promptly seated us at one of the only open tables in the restaurant.  It took me all of forty-seven seconds to decide what I would be having for dinner, and it didn’t take much longer for Mike.  I was craving some serious comfort food, and that is what I found.

Before the entrees were served, our friendly waitress brought over a plate of foccacia bread with a side of…. guacamole?!  We weren’t quite sure if we were seeing it correctly, but alas, one bite determined we were right.  Thankfully, the homemade guacamole was blended to a consistency that was conducive to spreading on a delicious piece of foccacia.  The flavor was savory but not too overwhelming, one of the best homemade guacamole’s I’ve had in a whole (although not much tops Zocalo’s made-at-the-table guac, formerly in Brighton but now in the Back Bay).  And then… dinner was served.  Tonight was my night for comfort food: BBQ steak tips, served with mashed potatoes, fried onion strings, and green beans.  Despite knowing that my arteries were closing up even more with every bite I took, I was in absolute heaven.  The beef wasn’t SUPER tender, but then again, it could have something to do with the fact that I like my beef cooked medium-well.  The mashed potatoes were out of this world — they might even rival my mom’s homemade garlic red mashed (but don’t tell her I said that!).  Mike’s pulled pork sandwich and sweet potato fries were also amazing, but just a little bit messier than I like to tackle when eating out.

So after we basically lick the plates clean, we were rapidly approaching food coma status.  And then, those horrible words.. “Would you like to take a look at the dessert menu?”  How am I supposed to say no?!  I have zero will power and a horrendous sweet tooth, a combination Mike seems to share.  We ordered a “chocolate fallen cake”, which was similar to a lava cake with strawberries, mango puree, and whipped cream on top.  I like to think that the mango puree was healthy enough to balance out the delicious, rich chocolate of the lava cake — absolutely amazing!

Paramount is perfect for a casual night out, especially if you’re craving comfort food.  Service was okay; our waitress was friendly but this is definitely a no frills type of place.  Our water glasses were constantly full and the staff seemed pleasant, which is enough to make me happy.  The dining area is rather small and they don’t take reservations, so I wouldn’t recommend bringing a large group over on a Friday night.  The restaurant is, however, family friendly – even on a Friday night there were several kids in the dining area with what looked like a pretty delicious kids meal.  Also, the breakfast is supposed to be absolutely incredible — one of the best weekend brunches in the city.

Paramount is located at 44 Charles St in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston.  The closest public transportation stops are the Charles/MGH station on the Red Line, and Arlington Station on the Green Line.  For more more information and the entire menu, go to www.paramountboston.com.

Restaurant Review: Bin26 Enoteca

Last Monday afternoon I headed to Bin26 Enoteca for a work lunch, which is conveniently one of my 52 restaurants for this year!  This was a slightly different setting than I would hope for since I was in “work” mode rather than a “critique the restaurant” mindset, but it was great to try this place out with a group who had been there before.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, Boston is turning into an Arctic tundra.  Since the MBTA was an epic failwhale, per norm, I made the trek from the bus stop in Copley Square up to Charles St.  So upon first sight of the yellow sign above the door I made my four-inch stilettos move as quickly as possible — immediately I was welcomed by a bright, spacious dining room, and two of my five colleagues.  The back wall of the bar is quite possibly the largest wine rack I’ve ever seen, which could also be part of the restaurant’s theme.  Enoteca can be interpreted several different ways, but a few of the most common are “wine shop”, “wine bar”, and “wine library”.  The wine selection was incredible; our group included a few wine connoisseurs who were impressed and satisfied with their options.

But on to the food.  Apparently I didn’t get the memo that I was supposed to order a first course, which made for an awkward situation when the soup and salads arrived.  Being the youngest of the six at the table by a VERY wide margin and making what felt was a working-lunch faux-pas wasn’t the best way to start off the meeting (especially since I could have been enjoying the eggplant rollatini, which I was told was fabulous!).  After getting over this minor dilemma, our lunches were served.  My roasted chicken breast was stuffed with spinach and ricotta, and served with a carrot-potato gratin.  Oh my, it was fabulous!  The chicken was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the gratin was a work of art (if I had been able to I absolutely would have snapped a picture).  Interestingly enough, my five colleagues all ordered a veal chop which disappeared instantly — I assume there were no complaints with their meals either.

We finished off the meal with coffee and dessert – a lemon torte topped with fresh berries was a perfectly light way to top off a heavy meal.  Everyone seemed to enjoy lunch, and on top of that the service was excellent.  A few block away from the usual State House/Financial District restaurants, this Charles Street spot is one of my new favorites for a special occasion.

Bin26 Enoteca is located at 26 Charles Street in the Beacon Hill Neighborhood of Boston.  It is a short distance from the Charles/MGH stop on the Red Line, Arlington Station on the Green Line, and the Boston Common Garage (if driving).  For more information, the current menu, and to make reservations visit www.bin26.com.

Restaurant Review: Tremont 647

So, we’ve made it to week two of my 52 week culinary adventure.  What I’ve learned in these two weeks: if I’m going to eat out like this, the gym is going to need to be my best friend on the off days.

But anyways — I’ve had a Groupon burning a hole in my pocket for the last 4 months for Tremont 647.  On Saturday night I grabbed the one person I know who’s willing to try any new restaurants, anytime: Mike R. (who was also my partner in crime for the Bacon-Wrapped Steak with Bourbon BBQ Sauce adventure that left me at least 4lbs heavier).  Wanting to watch the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game in the afternoon, we made reservations for 7:45 on a Saturday night.  Forgetting that the South End is an entirely different species from the rest of Boston, we seemed to have arrived just before the peak of the night’s business.  I was a little thrown off when we walked in, since the hostess booth is hidden behind the main wall and squeezed in next to the bar, which is literally right in front of you when you walk in the door.  In the three minutes we waited for our table to be prepared, I was shoved/bumped into several times… by people sitting in their bar stools.  Not their fault, but the restaurant’s cramped front end was a little off-putting and definitely a tight fit.

But a few moments later we were at our table, and all was well again… until we smelled the food.  Instantly, my stomach began to growl, rather fiercely, at the aroma coming from the open kitchen directly behind me.  Out of fear of excessive salivation, I chose to avoid eye contact.  The appetizer menu had several interesting options – we settled on the Thai Chicken Wings.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long after our ordered was placed to be presented with the finest bread I have EVER eaten in a restaurant.  Warm, soft focaccia, topped with caramelized onions and a light coating of olive oil… oh.my.gawd.  Without hesitation we asked for a second basket, and only declined the third when there was absolutely zero space left in our stomachs.  At which point, the chicken wings were brought out.  They were tender and had incredible flavor, although I spent a solid 10 minutes trying to, unsuccessfully, put my finger on the predominant spices.  Alas, all I can tell you is that they definitely had ginger and lime in the marinade, and they were definitely finger-lickin good.

So then, after another basket of the most amazing bread ever, the main courses were served.  I ordered “Rouge’s Fried Chicken”, which, to my delight, was lightly battered and not the least bit greasy.  Served with their famous bacony-collard greens and a buttermilk biscuit, all topped with a scallion gravy, I was satisfied, but not totally “wowed”.  My main complaint was the amount of salt that seemed to be on everything — I have a very high tolerance for salt and tend to oversalt everything I cook, but even this was too much for me.  Mike’s dinner, on the other hand, was beyond incredible.  I was leery when it was first served, mainly since the pork chop was literally the size of a brick.  We were both thinking, “How is he even going to cut that?”  But the second he put his fork into it, the pork shredded perfectly — knife not necessary.  It was probably the most tender piece of pork I’ve ever seen, especially considering the size of the chop.  Apparently it is slow roasted to make it this tender, then covered in a spicy southwestern sauce.  Served with cilantro rice, beans, and fried plaintain chips it stood out from the more traditional menu choices, but was amazing nonetheless.  I would order/recommend this dish in a heartbeat.

And finally… we made it to dessert.  Of course we would never turn down an opportunity for dessert, and we went with our waiter’s suggestion: a brownie baked with walnuts and cherries topped with popcorn ice cream.  That’s right — popcorn.  We were told that they coat vanilla ice cream with popcorn, let it sit in a freezer for some number of hours to allow the flavor to infuse into the ice cream, which is covered in sea salt after the popcorn is removed.  I hope I got that right; but either way it was definitely the most unique dessert I’ve ever had.  While it was good, it was almost too overwhelming after our flavorful dinners.  The popcorn ice cream, to me, is something rare that I can say I’ve had, rather than something I would run back to have again.  All in all it was delicious.

Apologies for being about a week late on posting this — other priorities seem to get in the way of sitting down to write sometimes.  Also, my find of the week: a Groupon for Sibling Rivalry!  Looking forward to using that in the near future.  Lastly – as you may be reading this, I’m actually out trying another restaurant on my list!  Look for my review of Monday’s lunch in Beacon Hill soon.

Tremont 647 is located at 647 Tremont St in the South End of Boston.  About a ten minute walk from both the Prudential stop on the Green Line or Back Bay Station on the Orange Line, valet parking is also available for around $15.  For directions, menus, hours, and reservations (which are highly recommended), visit www.tremont647.com.

Restaurant Review: VIA Italian Table

Recently, my father commemorated his fifty-second forty-twelfth birthday.  To celebrate, we chose restaurant #46 on my list of 52 to try in 2011 — VIA Italian Table, in Worcester, Massachusetts.  VIA is owned by the Worcester Restaurant Group, which also manages two other Worcester favorites, The Sole Proprietor and 111 Chop House, the latter of which is my favorite restaurant in Worcester County.  My family had been raving about this place for literally years, and so I knew it was time to try it myself.  I was a little nervous about making reservations for New Year’s Day, but it was the only time that worked for everyone’s schedules.

First of all, the inside was decorated beautifully AND tastefully for the holidays, both of which are important (nothing’s worse than tacky Christmas decorations a week after the holiday).  We were seated at a large, round booth that comfortably fit our party of five, and were promptly greeted by our waiter. Low and behold, he was my sister’s junior prom date! Considering my sister is now 23 and the prom was seven years ago, it was kind of cute, in a nostalgic sort of way.  So if you jump in the car and drive to VIA after reading this review, be sure to ask for Andy as your server!

On to the important part: the food.  For appetizers we ordered the fried olives and the fried artichoke hearts.  I’m not much of an olive person so I passed on those, although I heard rave reviews from those who did have them.  I can say that the fried artichoke hearts were absolutely incredible.  The batter wasn’t too heavy, and the accompanying sauce was a perfect complimentary flavor.

Next were the entrées.  Forewarning, I’m a sucker for risotto.  Any menu with at least one risotto dish will win my heart.  At VIA, there were at least three different types of risotto and it was the starch of choice for many entrées, including my selection – the Spit Roasted Tenderloin of Beef, served with Parmesan Risotto.  The beef was stuffed with spinach, prosciutto, pesto and  fontina cheese, and cooked to (medium-well) perfection.  Not much more to say than amazing.  Only downfall was that there was no vegetable served with the beef and risotto, besides the spinach stuffed in the meat.  A vegetable medley, or at least some broccoli, would have gone a long way for me.  Although, I didn’t try any of the others, I’ll list the selections of my dining companions, all of whom walked away with satisfied stomachs and taste buds:

Spit Roasted Sirloin of Beef

Pesto Sea Scallops

Grilled Swordfish Toscana

Chicken Disaronno (The Special of the Night)

There was nothing but praise at our table for everything that was brought out from the kitchen.  To top the night off, we tried three desserts — an apricot tart, Italian Chocolate Cheesecake, and VIA’s Crepe Cake.  It was all incredibly delicious, and remarkably, the five of us were unable to finish the three plates after our filling meals!

As with most restaurants on Shrewsbury Street, and those owned by this restaurant group in particular, VIA is not exactly the everyday restaurant for the general population, mostly due to price.  However, it’s perfect for a special occasion lunch or dinner, and I’ve heard the restaurant week deals are fabulous as well. I’d recommend VIA for an anniversary dinner, rather than an average date night — unless, of course, you’re in the doghouse and need to earn some brownie points.

VIA is located at 89 Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, Massachusetts.  The dining room and bar are open for dinner seven days a week, as well as lunch everyday except Saturday.  For more information visit www.viaitaliantable.com.

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