Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and either because you forgot, never thought you’d get a sitter, or are miserable at things like this, you have neither dinner plans nor reservations. Maybe it’s because your love is a spontaneous thing that’s bigger than any greeting card holiday. Take your pick. Then take heart, because there’s still time to plan a high-end celebration or an affordable dining adventure.
You know Rialto is going to be a special experience once you drive into the parking garage (“So clean, so modern, so well-lit,” murmurs a member of our party). And on the dramatic staircase of the Charles Hotel where Rialto is located. And from the warm welcome at the door. Fancy, well-dressed people who look vaguely familiar glide past to the tasteful dining room. But there are plenty of seats in the L-shaped lounge and bar where no reservation is needed and the full menu is available, along with cheaper bar offerings.
The unfussy creativity of the food dazzles us from the first small plates. Braised endive with honey and raisins is warm, complex, and inviting. In another, crisp fried shells of small, almond-shaped arancini enclose a surprisingly light puff of creaminess. A third offers the sweetness of perfectly prepared Nantucket Bay scallops, amplified by the tang of the red wine and blood orange sauce drizzled on the plate. Even a clear and simple heirloom bean soup with a tangle of chard contrasts strikingly with the salty funk of a tomato-anchovy crouton.
Entrees continue the same balance of flash and homeyness. Slow-roasted Long Island duck with braised escarole is falling-apart tender under miraculously still-crisp mahogany skin. Salty Sicilian olives and fingerling potatoes complete the dish. A single oversize duck raviolo is smothered with a game and black truffle ragu that’s both earthy and luxurious, the pasta so thin you can almost see the runny duck egg it encloses. Cacciuco is a subtly flavorful clear fish broth with lobster, clam, and mussels, made brinier by a disk of salt cod at the bottom. Tuscan steak, available in both small and large portions on the bar menu, is more conventional, elevated by a topping of shaved pecorino.
Desserts at even the best restaurants can feel sweetly familiar and safe (chocolate lava cake, I’m looking at you) but at Rialto they show just as much creativity as what came before. A light chocolate-chestnut cream puff is accompanied by crunchy almond-cocoa sorbet and a caramelized pear. Trifle in a parfait glass, layered with beautifully contrasting pink grapefruit and mango, and rose prosecco cream, is topped by a crisp cartaletta cookie. The walnut-apple bread pudding puts other, heavier versions to shame, with its glazed crab apple nestling beside the warm pudding, and a dice of jewel-colored dried fruit. From start to finish, chef Jody Adams’s kitchen delivers real artistry, never forgetting that its first job is to be simply delicious. Rialto will serve a three-course fixed price menu for $95 on its Valentine’s menu.
Across the river and a world away, Teranga shows that creativity can burn brightly at a modestly priced neighborhood restaurant. Chef Marie-Claude Mendy prepares the food of her native Senegal with passion and precision, combining bold flavors that are by turns familiar and surprising. Teranga is a cozy room and the friendly greeting and West African music warms us before we even sit down. We order drinks as we explore the menu. There’s a moderately priced list that includes several good African wines and Kenya’s Tusker beer. Of the nonalcoholic offerings, house-made juices are all terrific, including a sweet and sour Bissap juice made with sorrel, pineapple, and a sweet-spicy ginger-pineapple juice. Both are scented with vanilla sugar. Our server brings a basket of warm bread with a dipping vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic, and 25 spices. This is an accidental creation of Mendy’s, she says later on the phone, invented when she tried to replicate a departed chef’s sauce. We taste cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, cumin, and ginger before we give up.
Appetizers bring an explosion of flavor. Crisp flounder croquettes come with an addictive cilantro-garlic sauce, and light puffy fritters made with black-eyed pea flower are just right for dipping in the tangy tomato salsa. Plump brochettes of shrimp are perfectly grilled and served with a snappy sriracha sauce.
Entrees are all different and all delicious. Michoui is a slow-cooked lamb shank, meltingly tender and juicy, served with sweet caramelized onions. Thiébou Yap pairs flavorful lamb chunks with vegetables and nutty broken jasmine rice. It’s clean, mild, and satisfying with every flavor distinct. Tilapia is grilled with the right amount of char to seal in its juices in what’s called poisson braise, and covered with a fresh, colorful sauce moyo over yucca grated into couscous-size grains.
Another fish offering, the national dish Thiébou Djeun is a stew mixing the freshness of the sea with earthy cabbage, cassava, and pumpkin. Brochettes, grilled cubes of filet mignon with a bracing mustard sauce and not enough yucca fries, are good enough for one friend to almost renege on a pre-meal promise to share everything. We’re loving both the new and known flavors and so is the notably diverse clientele, which mixes neighborhood regulars with graduate students looking for a taste of home and a couple from Somerville who came in because they “found a parking spot and it seemed like a sign.”
That mixture of exotic and familiar carries through to a French crepe-wrapped guava and kiwi under a creme Anglaise. Beignets are made with millet flour and topped with fragrant orange blossom water. An unclassic tarte Tatin uses mangoes instead of apples, the fruits jammy with contrasting coconut and ginger cream dollops.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Teranga is that it still feels undiscovered despite its excellence, affordability, and coverage of chef Mendy’s 2011 win on the Food Network’s “Chopped” competition. That’s a shame, but it’s working in your favor if need a last-minute plan for tomorrow night.
Better-known and worth considering for an even more affordable meal is Penang, the large Chinatown outpost of a chain of Malaysian restaurants (others are in New York and Harvard Square). Though no more expensive than other spots in the neighborhood, it looks more polished, with pleasant lighting and an inviting woody dining room. That doesn’t extend to the service, which is brusque but efficient. At Penang — as in Malaysia — gastronomy is a function of geography, with a menu set at the crossroads of Chinese, Thai, and Indian cooking.
Start with roti canai, a warm soft flat bread served with a bowl of deeply flavorful chicken curry stew for dipping. The dish is a staple of street stalls in Malaysia and Singapore and it’s a perfect introduction to the intersection of flavors to follow. The skewered beef and chicken satay, like many of the Thai dishes, are solid if not memorable, but the satay bean curd is delightful. Tofu is deep-fried, a crispy exterior giving way to a soft interior and the surprise of a fresh cucumber and bean sprout stuffing.
The vermicelli in the Singapore noodles are wok-tossed with vegetables and shrimp in a pungent coating of curry powder. With roots in Chinese cooking, the Hainanese chicken with rice is a whole or half-chicken steamed with soy sauce and rice wine. It’s both simple and luxurious. So is the whole striped bass steamed with a “special sauce,” aromatic with ginger and garlic.
Half the fun of the Buddhist yam pot is the presentation: bright corn, snow peas, black mushrooms, and shrimp in an edible bowl of fried taro. The soft starchiness of the taro contrasts nicely with the snap of the vegetables and the crunch of cashews that top the dish. When the bowl is gone, you’re done.
If Valentine’s Day means chocolate to you, consider ending the meal elsewhere. Here, the coconut pudding and bubor chacha, sweet potatoes and yams with coconut milk, make a satisfying conclusion.
1746 Washington St., South End, Boston, 617-266-0003, http://www.terangaboston.com
All major credit cards except American Express accepted.
Hours Mon-Sat Llunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-1 a.m. (kitchen closes 10:30 p.m.);Sun brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$8.Entrees $14-$17.
What to order: Brochettes de crevettes, Michouicq, poisson braise, mango tarte Tatin.
685 Washington St., Chinatown, Boston, 617-451-6372, http://www.penangusa.com/backup/archive082205/location_boston.html
All major credit cards except American Express accepted.
Hours Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m-11:30 p.m.;, Fri 11:30 20 a.m.-midnight, 12 a.m.,; Sun 11:30 a.m-11:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $3-$7. Entrees $8-$20 (some fish market prices).
What to order: Roti canai, Buddhist yam pot, steamed striped bass.Dan Zedek can be reached at d_zedek