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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More about the Ashmont Grill and Tavolo

I’ve written a couple of previous posts about the Ashmont Grill — two years ago and five months ago. Since the latter post, Barbara and I have visited several times, mostly for the Monday Night wine club, which I highly recommend (though not, of course, for my under-21 readers). Each evening features a four-course dinner (admittedly of four small plates), with wines paired with each course, for an amazing $30 per person. The food is almost uniformly excellent, though occasionally the restaurant takes this opportunity to try out new dishes which of course aren’t necessarily successful. (Presumably the reason that they can achieve the $30 price point is that the wines are donated by a winery or retail outlet each time.) Here are four recent examples to whet your appetite:

From September 8
9/8/2008 Ashmont Grill Wine Club

From October 27
10/27/2008 Ashmont Grill Wine Club

From November 3
10/27/2008 Ashmont Grill Wine Club

From December 22
10/27/2008 Ashmont Grill Wine Club

I’m looking forward to Tuscany! (Who wouldn’t?)

A related event was a wine tasting benefit on August 4 at the Ashmont Grill for the St. Marks Area Civic Association, featuring wines from Albert Winestein, a retail wine-and-cheese store in Hyde Park.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Wine Club is not the wine nor even the food, but the fact that guests are arranged family style at tables that seat four to eight. As a couple, Barbara and I are always seated with strangers, something that would usually have a high probability of making me uncomfortable. I’m not particularly extraverted, and I tend not to be very sociable with people I don’t know yet. But the fact is that we’ve met lots of interesting people with a surprising number of things in common with us — not just providing the obvious conversation topics such as food, wine, and Dorchester. We’ve met a manager at a local independent bookstore (one of the few that remain), a physics professor, an architect from a neighboring town, and a woman who knew one of the very few Weston families to be distinctly countercultural.

So, if you live anywhere near Dorchester, try it out! Reservations are advised; you can call the restaurant (617-825-4300) to make inquiries and to be put on their email list. They usually don’t know the menus until a few days in advance, so don’t expect a lot of notice.

As locals know, the current incarnation of the Ashmont Grill is the creation of Chris Douglass, a neighborhood resident who is best known for his South End restaurant, Icarus. Barbara and I usually go to Icarus only once a year (for our anniversary), since it’s extremely expensive. The Ashmont Grill is still a bit overpriced, and not in the same league as Icarus in terms of cuisine and service, but at least it’s the sort of place that one could go to once a month, even without the exceptional value of the Wine Club. Read my July 19 review for more of my point of view, or check out the many reviews on Yelp for a variety of opinions, some reasonable and some wrong-headed. (I’m reminded of Tom Lehrer’s remark that the trouble with folk music is that it’s written by the people, and my friend Brian’s observation that you have to be wary of the general public’s opinions of restaurants, since McDonald’s is the most popular restaurant in the world.)

Before we leave the subject of the Ashmont Grill, I need to write a bit about Tavolo, Chris Douglass’s latest restaurant, catty-corner from the Ashmont Grill and right at the Ashmont Station on the Red Line. The theory was that this would be a third price point, with Icarus at the very high end, Ashmont Grill in the Middle, and Tavolo at the low end. As a pizza-and-pasta joint, Tavolo should be informal and inexpensive, while still serving high-quality food. Barbara and I have been there a couple of times, and we’re not impressed, though we really, really want to like it. The food is perfectly OK (nothing to write home about, but then again that’s not what you would expect), though there were a few flaws. For instance, while Barbara’s salad came with the dressing on the side, as she had requested, it was so heavily pre-salted that she couldn’t eat it. (Why pre-salt a salad at all?) And the carbonara was a bit too eggy, at least for our taste. We really liked the mushroom pizza. Service was fine, including cheerfully willing replacement of the salted salad. But our big problem was the wine prices. For a purportedly inexpensive restaurant with a $40 ceiling on wine, why does the lowest-price red go for $32? (My friends who are beer drinkers don’t have similar complaints.) For instance, a nice Sicilian Nero d’Avola that can be purchased retail for ten dollars is priced at $36 at Tavolo! I know that there are lots of reason for significant mark-ups, but if the otherwise pricey Birch Street Bistro in Roslindale can charge $24 for similar wines, why can’t Tavolo?

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