Dante’s Chef’s Table

I was honored with a surprise birthday gift last week from a dear friend: dinner at the chef’s table in the kitchen at Dante. It was just the two of us seated at a private booth in the midst of all the action and we had an amazing evening. We were escorted to the table and left with a wine list and a cocktail list, but no menus. Dante Boccuzzi himself stepped over to the table and introduced himself. His only questions regarded allergies (none) and the number of courses (seven). With that simple preamble, we were off!

First up was a deceptively simple plate of tuna sushi. Hawaiian big eye tuna, delicately rolled with rice, wasabi and nori, topped with a sliver of foie gras and briefly torched to melt the liver over the sushi. This garnish, along with a sprinkling of crisp rice, really took things to the next level. Next up was a tower that began with a thin round of hearts of palm, then a crunchy tempura of shiitake and finally a deliriously fatty slice of hamachi. A shot of yuzu foam covered the fish and helped to cut the intense richness of this plate. The chef’s training at Nobu in Milan was clearly at play here.

An enormous butter poached shrimp followed. Resting atop roasted fingerling potatoes, laying alongside was a swath of spicy sweet corn puree, some sauteed corn kernels and a few leaves of baby spinach. A crumble of toasted cornbread, scattered across the plate, gave a little nudge of crunch to the plate.

A crispy piece of roasted Pacific sea bass was next, served with tender braised radishes and meltingly soft polenta. A pair of luscious dayboat sea scallops came over next, quickly seared and plated with some gorgeous, meaty mushrooms and sauteed watercress, the whole thing sauced with decadent hollandaise. The final savory course was a few slices of rare rib-eye steak, nestled atop a bunch of flash-fried watercress. House pickled ramps provided a welcome, tangy relief to the parade of richness.

By now, more than two hours have passed, along with a couple of cocktails and glasses of wine. We settle back in our seats and are presented with a miniature pre-dessert: poached local peaches, vanilla ice cream and a tiny spoonful of hot caramel to pour over the whole thing. It was luscious and we felt stuffed. The pastry chef, though, had different ideas. After a personal consultation at our table, she brought us two different plates. The first was a blackberry buttermilk panna cotta, cool and fragile, trembling like a lady’s decolletage. Topped with a white chocolate dipped shortbread, it was amped up with a scoop of intense raspberry sorbet. (All the flavors of sorbet and ice cream are made in house.) The other plate was centered around a twice baked brownie wrapped in crispy phyllo dough. This was accented with a seasonal stone fruit compote and a cubical “scoop” of pink peach sorbet.

At this point he kitchen had quieted down considerably and the chef came over to spend a few minutes with us. We talked about our personal favorite restaurants in New York, about his experience there, and about how much we had enjoyed our dinner. The final treat of the night, presented to all guests at Dante, is a rolling cart laden with candy. Everything from DumDum suckers and Tootsie Rolls to exotic imported hard candies, we were just too full and asked for a bag of goodies to take home with us.

All told, we had spent more than three hours at table and consumed way more calories than I care to think about. It was a magical evening, made all the more special by the company I was lucky enough to share it with. I’ll remember this one for a long time!

Dante

One of Tremont’s latest additions is the restaurant Dante.  It is also one of the greatest.  Four of us enjoyed a really extraordinary meal there last night.  The setting is an old bank building on Professor Avenue.  Stately stone columns flank the entrance.  The interior is a soaring space, typical of an early twentieth century bank lobby.  The ornate ceiling remains in all its glory and the back of the room is focused on the wide open door to the vault.  The room is divided down the center, separating the lounge from the dining area.  The bar area is accented with a row of handblown glass hanging lamps.  Above it all hangs a crystal chandelier with elegant ribbons of  color adorning it.  The tables are topped with individual rubber placemats, low slung water glasses and modern, quirky flatware.  A frosted glass hurricane held a floating votive in the center of our beautifully wood-grained table.

The cocktail list includes some intriguing options.  We chose some seasonal specialties, including one with fresh raspberries and another with cucumber and mint.  The wine list is accessible and completely reasonable.  The first two pages feature 50 under 50:  fifty wines available by the glass, or by the bottle, all falling under the fifty dollar mark.  While were sipping away, the signature breadbasket arrived, made from an old vinyl record album (in our case, Grand Funk Railroad), filled with Stone Oven Bakery selections and served with house made hummus instead of butter. I was grateful for this lighter spread, given the rich dishes I was about to devour.

Two of us chose the five course Chef’s Tasting Menu, while the others made a la carte selections.  I was pleased that the kitchen was willing to split the table in this way.  The tasting menu includes two set appetizers, along with a choice of one of the pastas, one of the entrees and one of the desserts.  Our first plates soon arrived…the Selection of House Cured Meats. Three types of salame, prosciutto, two terrines and foie gras mousse shared a wooden board with grain mustard. giardinera and some intriguing cracker bread.  Everything was outstanding, from the silky prosciutto to the velvety mousse, all nicely countered by the vinegary punch of the pickled vegetables.  A scallop shell also appeared, containing Dayboat Scallops, gratineed with spinach, house made pancetta and Sauce Royale.

Next up was a beautiful plate of Tuna Tartare.  A perfect circle of finely diced, rosy red tuna from Hawaii was surrounded by olive caper remoulade and crowned with a poached egg and a crispy potato nest.  The tuna was immaculately fresh, the remoulade playing a rich and salty harmony to its sea-breeze melody.  Our companions also loved their choices.  There was a dish of Braised Artichokes, filled with chevre mousse and topped with a tangle of balsamic laced arugula.  Another of our companions chose to taste her way through the risotto section of the menu, starting with the Arborio and Rhubarb version.  This was somewhat sweet and came topped with toasty garlic chips and drizzled with orange essence.  We agreed this would also work as a dessert.

Our pasta dishes came next, starting with Dante’s take on Carbonara.  Fresh fettucine, tossed with pancetta, cream and parmesan cheese and topped with (yet another) perfectly poached egg.  Next to me arrived a plate of spaghetti, dressed with pesto, braised shortribs and snap peas.  Redolent of summer, this was one of the table’s favorites for the night. The second risotto variation was made from Bhutanese Red Rice and asparagus, scented with tarragon.

Now we were ready for our entrees.  At this point, the room was really buzzing and the plates were coming out of the kitchen fast and furious.  There was a plate of Braised Veal Shortribs “Oscar.”  Classically, this is a veal cutlet topped with crab, asparagus and hollandaise sauce.  This version was made from meltingly tender shortribs, finished with crispy fried asparagus, the requisite crab and a lemony hollandaise.  It was, in a word, divine.  There was a dish of Sesame Crusted Salmon.  It came plated with barbecued eel, sake braised cucumber and rice.  This was our least favorite dish of the night, but probably the only one we didn’t love.  The salmon was too sweet for my taste and just a tad overcooked.  We also tasted an outstanding serving of polenta, enriched through the addition of mascarpone, parmesan and gruyere cheeses.  The final risotto of the evening was made from brown rice and finished with English peas and pearl onions.

Feeling almost stuffed, we settled back into the chairs and considered the dessert menu.  A martini glass filled with peanut butter mousse, chocolate and toffee ice cream was a real winner.  A circle of panna cotta was a quivering mass of not-too-sweet goodness and came topped with a scoop of intense chocolate sorbet.  Surrounded by filets of bing cherries, dots of chocolate ganache and a puddle of cherry syrup, it was probably my favorite of the sweets.  Affogato al Cafe was presented in a highball glass:  two scoops of chocolate almond biscotti ice cream, over which was poured a shot of espresso, arrived plated with a pair of biscotti. The sorbets and ice creams also wowed us.  Fresh mint and chocolate chip, topped with kataifi; lemon and lime, stuck with a heart shaped tuile onto which had been baked Fruity Pebbles;  powerfully scented peach with an oatmeal cookie.  All of these flavors really shone through.

The final treat of the night is Dante’s version of the after dinner mint.  The waiter rolls up a huge cart laden with gigantic bowls and vases filled with the candy of our childhoods.  Bubble gum, fruit flavored taffy, sour lemon candies and suckers are just some of the choices proffered along with the check.

All in all, we were thrilled with the entire evening.  The waitstaff struck a professional and friendly balance, making us feel welcome and allowing us to take our time (we were there for three and a half hours!).  The room is beautiful, albeit a bit noisy when it’s full.  The menu offered familiar dishes with enough flair to make them interesting, while keeping them “safe” for less adventurous diners.  The prices are in line with the rest of Tremont’s fine dining spots.  Appetizers are $4 to $19; entrees are $15 to $28;  desserts are $4 to $8 (a cheese course is $12).  The Chef’s Tasting Menu is a relative bargain at $50 and also comes with wine pairings for an additional $35.  Chef Dante Boccuzzi’s operation is definitely firing on all cylinders at this point.  I highly recommend a visit!