Noms: The Rice Barn, Needham

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Just last week, we moved from Brookline to the town of Needham. Since our kitchen is still under construction, we’ve been forced to eat out more than we normally do. Given this, we thought it would be fun to write a review of a Needham restaurant we had never been to before: The Rice Barn.

Located right in Needham Center, The Rice Barn is the premier Thai food restaurant in town. While the inside of the establishment is a bit more upscale than we are used to, the atmosphere is far from stuffy, and the menu is very accessible. The restaurant website explains that its menu offers a “diverse selection of dishes,” including Thai traditional village delicacies as well as flavors from other parts of Asia. Among some of the options are various noodle dishes like Chinatown Street Noodle, which is inspired by Bangkok’s Chinatown; Saigon Beef, which is a traditional dish from Vietnam; and Chiang Mai Noodle, which is described as a “wonderful ethnic dish from northern Thailand, influenced by Burmese cuisine.”

While we are somewhat adventurous eaters in general, we decided to stick with the more popular options that we recognized from other Asian establishments. Joanne started with a lovely take on wonton soup, with a warm, rich broth and perfect pork-stuffed wontons. For main dishes, Jonah went with the special yellow curry, which boasted shrimp, avocado, and mango paired with rice. Joanne opted for the traditional pad Thai with shrimp. Both dishes were delightful. Joanne commented that her pad Thai was one of the best she had ever had. Jonah was very pleased with his curry, especially enjoying the flavorful curry sauce, but he found the avocado to be a bit overwhelming in amount, as he was given nearly half of an avocado with the dish. The perfectly cooked rice that came with Jonah’s curry was served in a beautiful pyramid configuration, with white rice at the bottom and brown rice at the top.

The best part of both meals was that The Rice Barn did not scrimp on the shrimp! At other establishments, we often receive only three or four shrimp in a dish, but we counted that each of us got about eight shrimp, which is double what we expected. And while the menu prices at The Rice Barn are not cheap, we felt like we got a good amount of food for our money. The service was friendly and prompt, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. When we return, we will try to be a bit more adventurous with our menu selections.

Noms: Farm Grill, Newton

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FarmGrillWhile we enjoy trying new restaurants often, there are a handful of restaurants that are our favorites, and as such, we go to them frequently. One of these establishments is Farm Grill and Rotisserie in Newton. This rather unassuming eatery at 40 Needham Street serves some of the freshest and tastiest Greek cuisine we have ever tasted.

The Farm Grill is a no-frills establishment; you order your food up at the counter, and then they call out your number when your order is ready. While the extensive menu takes up nearly the entire wall and is somewhat overwhelming, it is broken down into categories, including Salads, Appetizers, and Dinners to make it more manageable. The prices are reasonable, with most salads averaging around $10 and most entrees ranging from $14-$18; and with the generous portions and quality ingredients, it actually feels like a steal.

Farm Grill has an impressive selection of appetizers, including traditional grape leaves, spicy feta spread, and hummus, but Jonah and Joanne are crazy for the tzatziki, a savory spread made with Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic and herbs. This deliciously creamy delight is best eaten with an order of grilled gyro pita rather than the typical pita they serve on the side, as the gyro pita is thicker and fluffier and a more substantial vehicle for the spread.

While the menu boasts Greek staples such as Moussaka (an eggplant, potato and beef dish), Spanakopita (filo dough stuffed with feta and spinach), and Pastitzio (a pasta and beef casserole), the real must-haves are the grilled offerings, especially the chicken kabob. The kabob, consisting of juicy bites of marinated chicken, sliced peppers and onions, is grilled to perfection. Jonah and Joanne are always amazed at how juicy and flavorful the chicken is and, of course, how well it goes with tzatziki! Typically, Joanne and Jonah will each get a chicken kabob on top of a large Greek salad served with a side of homemade creamy Greek dressing. On occasion, they will each order the chicken kabob meal, which comes with a small side salad and two hot sides of your choice, including (but not limited to) spinach and rice pilaf, steamed vegetables, and butternut squash puree. No matter what permutation you get, you will leave Farm Grill feeling satisfied and nourished.

This restaurant is a special place where many of the customers are regulars and are treated like family. For as long as it keeps putting out high quality, addictively yummy cuisine, it will continue to be one of our go-to places for a great meal.

Noms: Margarita’s, Framingham

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One of our favorite cuisines is Mexican food. In fact, we had our engagement party at a favorite Mexican restaurant. That place has since closed, so we have been on the lookout for a new favorite Mexican spot. Recently, we decided to give Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant in Framingham a try. Margarita’s is a chain with 24 locations throughout the Northeast.

When we walked in at 5:30pm on a Saturday, the place was already packed, which was surprising. While we waited for a table, we had a chance to peruse the lengthy menu, which was divided into numerous sections, including appetizers, salads, vegetarian dishes, fajitas, tacos, grill and “Los Favoritos.” Needless to say, the number of menu options was overwhelming. In the end, we opted to share the appetizer of guacamole with tortilla chips. Jonah got the “Burrito Vegetariana” (aka vegetarian burrito), and Joanne ordered the shrimp fajitas.

The meal started off well, as our waiter was prompt and courteous. We were given a complimentary basket of tortilla chips with salsa, which was deliciously salty and spicy, and our drinks were brought quickly and refilled as needed. We were pleasantly surprised by the guacamole appetizer, as it tasted freshly made and authentic.

After that, the meal took a turn for the worse. While Jonah was excitedly expecting the variety of vegetables promised in his burrito, he was sorely disappointed by the lack of peppers, mushrooms, black beans, and rice, and completely overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of under-sautéed onion in and on top of the burrito. Jonah likened his experience to “pulling a raw onion straight out of the ground and eating it like an apple,” and, unfortunately, his breath smelled like onion for the rest of the weekend.

While the shrimp in Joanne’s fajitas were perfectly cooked and the presentation was impressive, she was put off by the overly-salty seasoning used on the fajita vegetables (again, an overabundance of onion) and felt like the veggies were undercooked. The fajita platter did not come out of the kitchen sizzling on a cast iron skillet like most fajita platters do; instead, the food looked like it had been sautéed and then placed on a cast iron skillet afterwards. All in all, it was a disappointing entrée.

To top it all off, the meal ended up being more than $40 for just the two of us, which seemed unreasonably high for the quality and quantity of the food. Thus, we will continue our search for our new favorite Mexican restaurant. If any of you have suggestions, we’d love to hear them!

Noms: Finale, Boston

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To keep with our chocolate-themed newsletter, we thought it would be fun to review one of our favorite dessert restaurants, Finale. We had our very first date at the Finale in Coolidge Corner (which sadly is no longer), so the restaurant holds a special place in our hearts. Despite the closing of the Coolidge Corner location, we love going to the Back Bay Finale to celebrate special occasions or when we are in the mood for a fancy dessert.

One might assume that Finale only serves dessert, but one would be incorrect about this assumption! In addition to its myriad sweets, Finale has a rather impressive, although abbreviated, “Savory Menu” as well. All savory items are less than $16, which is a pretty good deal any way you slice it. Joanne has been to the Harvard Square location several times for lunch, and she very much enjoys the Greek salad topped with roasted chicken, especially appreciating the unexpected mango and candied olives. Another tasty savory meal is the truffle macaroni and cheese, which is very rich, warm and comforting on a cold winter’s day.

Obviously, desserts are the stars of the show at Finale, and ranging from $9-12, they are a good deal, given the quality of the ingredients and the beautiful presentation on the plate. On our first date, Jonah got the crème brulee, which had a perfect crispy crust on top of a creamy sweet custard and was garnished with fresh fruit. Joanne got the Manjari Mousse, which is a “bittersweet Valrhona Manjari chocolate mousse layered with chocolate buttermilk cake.” While the cake and mousse on their own are divine, make sure to ask your server for extra crème anglaise and French apricot puree, as those two sauces put this dessert over the top!

The last few times we have gone to Finale, we opted for the dessert sampler under the “Shareable Desserts” section of the menu, which allows you to try up to nine miniature-sized versions of Finale’s signature desserts. These little bites let you experience everything without bursting your wallet (or your stomach!). While the shareable desserts are a bit pricier at $17-27, they can be a more economical way to enjoy your sweets with a group of friends.

If you are hankering for a sweet way to end the evening, you should definitely make a special trip to Finale. Sweet dreams!

Noms: The Local, Wellesley

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To celebrate Jonah’s birthday, we decided to venture out to The Local, a restaurant that just opened up in Wellesley last November.  Per usual, we went for an early dinner (5:30  pm), so when we arrived, there weren’t many patrons.  Suffice it to say, the place began to quickly fill up, and as we walked out the door at 6:30 pm there were people waiting for tables.  The Local’s menu is divided into clever sections such as “Snack Things,” including warm potato chips and dip and spicy Chex mix, “Mac and Cheese Things,” which allowed the diner to customize his or her mac and cheese, and “Bigger Things,” which was comprised of larger entrees including chicken cacciatore, short ribs, and semolina-crusted fish and chips.  Impressively, none of the appetizers is more than $14 (most were $5-8), and none of the entrees costs more than $19.

To start our meal, we had the fried pickles, which were crispy and delicious and not greasy in the least.  For our main meals, Jonah had the grilled cheese sandwich with a cup of tomato soup, while Joanne had the Atlantic salmon, which came with roasted Brussels sprouts and parsnip puree.  Although Jonah’s grilled cheese was smaller than others he has gotten at similar restaurants, he felt it was the perfect amount of food and was comfortably full by the end of the meal.  Joanne’s salmon was perfectly cooked, and the contrast in flavors among the salmon, Brussels sprouts, and puree was addictive.

While our meal was tasty and uneventful, it appeared as though the couple dining next to us were not happy with their orders.  We overheard them telling their waiter that the steak tips they had ordered were not cooked to their liking, so they sent them back.  In addition, it looked like there were other issues with that couple’s meal, including missing meal components.  Our guess is that since the restaurant is still only about a month old, it is working out the kinks.

All in all, The Local was a pleasant surprise for its delicious food at very affordable prices.  It will surely be added to our favorite restaurants rotation!

Noms: Zaftigs, Brookline

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Zaftigs Delicatessen is hardly a new kid on the block when it comes to affordable, addictive Jewish- and American-style food.  Since opening up in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner in 1997, the restaurant has received numerous awards and recognition for its impressive menu of comfort food favorites.  Since Zaftigs is merely a five-minute drive from our home, we often go there for breakfast, lunch, or dinner at least once a month!

The menu at Zaftigs is large but not too overwhelming, separated into Starters, Salads, Sandwiches, Entrees, and Breakfast sections.  We often find ourselves ordering the same things over and over, but we occasionally will go out on a limb and try something new.

This past Friday evening, we were in the mood for sandwiches.  Joanne ordered her usual Nanny Fanny sandwich, which typically is made with corned beef, coleslaw, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese on marble rye.  This time, however, she swapped out the beef and had roasted turkey instead and asked for a small salad as her side.  Jonah went for his favorite grilled cheese on challah bread (pictured above), asked them to throw some tomato slices in there, and also had a side salad.

The turkey Nanny Fanny was a really nice change from the usual corned beef version.  The turkey was tender and juicy, and the coleslaw in the sandwich added a wonderful amount of sweetness and crunch.  Zaftigs is known for its generous portions, and this overflowing sandwich was no exception. Jonah’s grilled cheese was ooey gooey and delicious, definitely a warm and comforting choice for a chilly December evening.

Given the size of Joanne’s sandwich, she was fully satisfied with eating half for dinner that night and saving the other half for lunch the next day.  And since the whole meal came out to only about $27, it was a real deal, as we basically got three meals out of it!

Zaftigs is truly a gem in Coolidge Corner (A new one opened up in Natick recently and is equally delicious.) and we will continue to go there for breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between!

Noms: Cook, Newton

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Last weekend, we decided to branch out and try a new restaurant.  Cook, located on Washington Street in Newtonville, opened its doors this past September.  This New American Bistro serves a wide variety of dishes, including snacks such as bacon-caramel popcorn, wood-fired flatbreads, appetizers like shrimp tacos, and a number of entrees for vegetarians and omnivores alike.

We went to Cook on the early side, as we had gleaned from the numerous Yelp reviews that the restaurant can get very busy very quickly.  When we arrived, we were surprised to see a number of television cameras and bright lights – Chronicle, Boston’s daily TV news journal, was shooting there!  We saw Anthony Everett, the host of the show, talking with the head chef, and the cameramen were taking footage of the restaurant patrons, too.  You might just see us on that episode of Chronicle, so keep an eye out!

While there were a number of items on the menu that looked delicious, Joanne ended up going the rather unadventurous route of having the roasted chicken.  It came with a parmesan polenta cake and sautéed broccoli rabe.  The chicken was juicy and tender, the polenta cake was creamy and delicious, and the broccoli rabe was cooked to perfection.  Jonah got the grilled cheese sandwich which was accompanied by a small side salad.  We decided to also share an order of French fries that came with three dipping sauces: a sriracha ketchup, a curry honey mustard, and a creamy bacon dip.  The grilled cheese was excellent, right up there with Rox Diner.  We both enjoyed the French fries with the various dips, although at the end of the meal, we felt like we could have skipped them because we had no room for dessert.

There are a number of dishes we would like to try upon our return, including some of the sumptuous- looking desserts, so we will definitely be going back to Cook sometime in the near future!