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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

Best Picture Cocktails

Best Picture Cocktails

In the 2010 Oscar race, there can be ten cocktails but only one winner. READ MORE

Chocolate Cheerios Not Groundbreaking

Chocolate Cheerios Not Groundbreaking

This week's mission: Can an austere-but-fun breakfast cereal stay balanced after it goes chocolate? READ MORE

Make Your Own Italian Sodas

Cola from a can is not the only way to drink soda. Carbonated water can be customized with the flavor of your choice—and you can use as much or as little as you like, to control sweetness. For this purpose, soypower likes Nature's Flavors concentrates, especially the peach and grapefruit varieties. Florida Hound's favorites are Monin's mandarin and tangerine syrups, ordered directly from the Monin company. "I like Monin syrups," agrees LadyCook61. "I have 15 different flavors , which I used not just for Italian sodas but also for lemonade, ice cream, coffee, milk, even in cakes." And "you have to get yourself some Monin Key Lime Pie!!" says Kater.

Beyond syrups, there's the ever-popular egg cream: a mixture of milk, soda water, "just the right amount of Fox's U-bet chocolate syrup and just the right wrist action in the stirring," says Florida Hound. Mix-ins don't have to be sweet at all; WhatThePho says, "when we open a bottle of red wine that fails to live up to our expectations, I do spritzers! I'm not a huge sweet fiend, so these taste great to me."

Discuss: Favorite syrup for Italian sodas?

Chef Ungar Wants You to Come Home with Him

globalgourmand has been putting off reviewing the chef's table dinners at The Dining Alternative because words can't do them justice. "This is a holistic experience. It is the museum, the theatre, the restaurant, the church, and the bedroom all at once."

The chef's table events are held monthly at Chef Peter Ungár's own home in Somerville (thus the address is not public until diners make reservations, $125 per person, which includes a wine pairing with each of five courses). The December chef's table blew globalgourmand's mind. "Shall I talk about the lighting? The silverware? Being able to watch Chef Peter Ungár and his team work in seemingly perfect harmony—the silent dance that occurs in his well organized little corner of a kitchen? Shall I talk about the fine company at my table? Where DOES one begin on an experience that lingers (months later) like a glowing dream?"

One could talk about the food, and globalgourmand does. The first course made him weak in the knees: olive oil confit pork belly with marrons glacés, quince with vanilla bean and thyme, and kumquat-glazed foie gras. "Yes, imagine sweet, silky, unctious pork fat layered with moist confit pork meat, brightened by piquant kumquat and grounded by creamy, earthy-sweet chestnut purée, foie, and tender quince. Yes, you can die and go to heaven now," says globalgourmand.

The romance continued with the second course: Nova Scotia lobster and maitake tortelloni in lobster cognac: "It was a orgy of ocean and earth, with homemade pasta just toothsome enough to not get lost in the tryst."

Next was white miso branzino (sea bass) steamed in sake, served on a plate garnished with squid ink and turnip coulis. "Everything more subtle and delicate here," says globalgourmand. "You have to reach for each of the flavors, but they're all there, and they all work. Perfectly."

And so it went swooningly, through the persimmon sorbet, and the sous-vide bavette steak with fig molasses and ancho chile, and the kabocha squash and chèvre tartlet for dessert, followed by cheese, lavender chocolate truffles, rosewater meringue, and black cherry crisp. "No hesitation, and certainly no regrets. We'll do it again soon. We might just do it every month if I can shift some dollars around in our budget," says the wowed globalgourmet. "Make a reservation before this opportunity goes away. Things this good don't last forever."

The Dining Alternative
Address available upon making reservations

Discuss: Chef's Table: The Dining Alternative

Peking Duck: A Lost Cause in Boston?

When Pegmeister posted in search of decent Peking duck, the same advice was handed down repeatedly: Don't bother trying to get it in Boston. queeny's dad used to work at (now closed) Weylu and told her that most Chinese restaurants in Boston cheap out by buying roasted duck from the delis and serving it with the Peking duck accoutrements: scallions, hoisin, and pancakes.

There is one place that still does it up right: King Fung Garden II in Brookline. You have to order it a day in advance, a good sign of authenticity. It's $34.50 for the classic three courses: duck with pancakes, stir-fried, and in soup. And it's good. "The only bad thing is that this place is set up as a typical take out joint and they don't serve alcohol. Definitely not a romantic dinner type place but, honestly, the best Chinese food always comes out of the sketchiest places," says cavaluv.

Note that the Brookline King Fung Garden is not the same as the Boston branch; the owner sold the Chinatown restaurant and moved to Brookline. The Chinatown King Fung Garden isn't as good.

King Fung Garden II [South Shore]
370 Boylston Street, Brookline

Discuss: Peking Duck -- Educate me please!

Downtown Food at South Shore Prices

Although it's been holding down a spot on Hancock Street in Quincy since 2002, Alba Restaurant gets little buzz says CocoDan. Too bad, because it's got good classic Italian-American food, great drinks, and an extensive wine list. "Downtown food without the downtown prices," says CocoDan.

SeaSide Tomato had a great meal there recently: a fried calamari appetizer came garnished with jalapeños that gave it a "good spicy kick," and a duck dish was done "perfectly medium-rare" and served with foie gras bread pudding. "!!!!!" says SeaSide Tomato, wordlessly. Prosciutto-wrapped cod was "perfectly executed," with roasted potatoes that were "out of this world."

SeaSide also kvelled over the wine list, which is vast and well thought out. The bartender also told her a lot of bottles are being sold at cost. CocoDan adds that the owner, Leo, doesn't mind customers taking home the leftovers and is happy to help with selections.

Alba Restaurant [South Shore]
1486 Hancock Street, Quincy

Discuss: South Shore Updates?

The Best Cheddar Cheese Spread

Traditional, handmade Somerset cheddar has its pleasures. But cheese spread that comes in a plastic tub from the grocery store has fans too. "I'm addicted to good sharp cheddar cheese spread—give me a tub of cheese, some water crackers, a glass of wine, and a Macintosh apple and I'm a happy woman," says girlwonder88. "However, a lot of spreads I've found are pretty disappointing, and I feel like I'm still on the hunt for the perfect combination of taste and texture."

cinnamon girl likes MacLaren's Imperial Sharp Cold Pack Cheddar, which comes in a red container. "It's got that sharp aged taste and crumbly texture," she says. MacLaren's is very good, agrees DockPotato, but he'd recommend Pine River Sharp Spreddar if you can find it. And "if Merkts cheeses are available in your area, you might give their sharp cheddar spread a try," suggests Fydeaux.

Discuss: Help me find the world's best cheddar cheese spread!

Looks Like ALF Was Onto Something

Apparently it's a bad idea to talk up how delicious cats are in Italy, notes the Daily Beast, particularly if you're on television. The article is brief, but raises the haunting possibility that cats are, in fact, delicious (a theory aggressively championed by 1980s television star ALF).


Overheard on the General Topics Boards

"It ended up tasting very gamy and the fatty texture was a turn off. A shame since everything else I have cooked from the book tasted delicious." - TommyJay, on pig's head torchon from the Momofuku cookbook

"Teaberry is first choice, and thankfully it's usually in stock at the local grocery. After that it's Adams Clove Chewing Gum, found at the gas station. I fondly remember Fruit Stripe gum and recently bought a pack. Beware! It's not the same as when we were kids, neither is Juicy Fruit. JF used to be gray, remember, but now it's a sickly yellowish-green and the flavor lasts about as long as it takes to throw the wrapper away. Ugh." - cuccubear, on preferred flavors of gum

"A lot of canned food labels say there are 2 servings—tuna, soup, etc. I think it's just a ploy to make things look like they have fewer calories than they do. Same goes with indie bottles of juice etc." - tatamagouche

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Pack Food

Minnesota has one of the highest rates of volunteerism in the nation (sorry Tennessee, you're actually 38th), a fact that helps the following story make a bit more sense. The St. Cloud Times reports on a six-person church group getting together after the Haiti earthquake and deciding to do something. The result: they raised $64,000 to buy food, then organized 3,000 volunteers to pack an astounding 800,000 meals for Haitians in need. It's a heck of a tale.

Pictured: U.S. Army soldiers bundle ready-to-eat meals for distribution in Haiti.

Image source: Flickr member The U.S. Army under Creative Commons