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Beyond Boston Avenue: Places to Go with the Rents

Having now been in school for almost four years, I can confidently say that one of the most important decisions you will make in your college career is where to go to dinner when your parents visit.  (Other contenders include your major, going abroad, and your roommates.)  This is an incredible opportunity because your parents will most likely:

a)     have a car

b)    have significantly more expendable income than you

c)     be willing to use said income on taking you and your friends to dinner because buying happiness is much easier than working to create it

So, one of the worst travesties that can occur is squandering this approximately once-a-semester or once-a-year opportunity on a mediocre meal – or even on a good meal, if it’s one that you get regularly.  So when Mom and Pop’s visit is coming up, put aside your problem set, skip your trip to the gym, and get some serious research done.  Don’t forget to cross-check your sources (Yelp.com, Chowhound.com, and foodie friends) and look for both inter-source consensus and specific dish recommendations.  To help you start, though, here is a short, very non-exhaustive list of some of the places I have thoroughly enjoyed.

Afghani

Helmand

My family and I had the unbelievable luck of stumbling across this place, and it immediately became our favorite restaurant here.  Owned by the brother of President Karzai of Afghanistan, the food here is simply sublime.  With flavors that suggest Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine without being either of them, these dishes are something unto themselves.  The first thing that arrives at your table after you order is a basket stuffed with fresh-from-the-oven flatbread accompanied by three delicious sauces (mint-cilantro pesto, yogurt, and hot chili).  At any time you can ask for a refill, which you will want to sop up the sauces after you finish your meal.  When it comes to ordering, the restaurant offers many lamb and some beef/chicken dishes that are all quite good.  But what really stand out are the appetizers – every single one of them ($7.50 each).  I mean it quite literally when I suggest that you should only order appetizers and share them (some are available as entrées as well, at $13.50 each).  It’s hard to pick one “best” to describe, since they are all so interesting, but the Kaddo was the first to knock me down, so I’ll give it the honors: it is a pan-fried and baked baby pumpkin, spiced with sugar, served over a yogurt sauce with a savory ground beef sauce on top.  I know it is hard to imagine those flavors going together, but when you take a bite, you’ll realize that while perfection is not always obvious, it is definitely achievable.  Also note that the carafe of house wine is generous and really quite decent.  Skip the desserts (Toscanini’s in Central Square is not too far if you still have room).  Reservations recommended.

143 First St, Cambridge; 617-492-4646

Every day 5-10 p.m. (Fri. & Sat.-11 p.m.)

Italian

Gran Gusto

This is a place I have only recently discovered, but two of its specialties have quickly won me over: nearly perfect Neapolitan pizza and the best damn tiramisu I’ve ever had.  Salads were good but not great ($4.50-$7.75); risottos were disappointing ($16ish); and I have yet to sample their homemade pastas ($12-$22), but the pizza is outstanding.  Now, this is not your typical, grab-a-couple-slices-and-go pizza.  This is traditional, hand-tossed, crispy-chewy thin crust pizza baked in a wood-fired oven (very important!), with a sauce of San Marzano tomatoes, and topped with imported buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil.  I am of the opinion that those four items make an ideal pizza (which happens to be called a Margherita and sells for $12 for a 12” pie – enough for one person).  Wash it down with a bottle of red wine from their excellent selection (from which they will gladly recommend) and follow up with a tiramisu ($5).  I have to say, I have never been a fan of tiramisu, but this stuff is incredible.  It is perfection in a glass.  Cool layers of mascarpone and zabaglione are topped with a bittersweet cocoa powder, all of which meld together into pure pleasure.  You’ll each want your own.

90 Sherman St, Cambridge; 617-441-0400

Lunch: Mon-Sat 12pm-3pm

Dinner: Sun-Thu 4:30pm-10pm (Fri & Sat -11pm)

Mediterranean

Oleana

One of the first really nice meals I had in Boston was at Oleana, and it still stands out as one of the best I’ve had.  Oleana is consistently rated as one of the best restaurants in the Boston area, and with good reason: the chef fuses flavors from across the Mediterranean, especially those from Arabic and Turkish regions, in very creative ways that work.  This is one of the few fusion instances in which the sums are better than their parts. Dishes are unique, elegant, and simply delicious.  My memories are vague because it has been so long since I ate here* and we ordered so many dishes, and every single one was fantastic.  You really cannot go wrong.  But if you simply must have recommendations, try the whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers ($5), acorn squash dolma with lamb, tahini, and brown butter ($12) for appetizers and the scallops/brussel sprouts dish ($26) for a main.

*Note: not returning is not because of lack of desire – it’s just that my parents don’t love me enough to pay for it.  Hopefully yours do.  (And if they don’t, then make it over to Sofra in Watertown, a small bakery/brunch counter owned and operated by the same chef/owner as Oleana.  Actually, you should try to make it over there anyway.)

134 Hampshire St, Cambridge; 617-661-0505

Every day 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. (Fri. & Sat. – 11 p.m.)

Ethnic Seafood

Asian Garden

You might think it odd to put a sort of dingy, non-descript Chinese restaurant on this list.  And in fact, many of the dishes at Asian Garden are somewhere between mediocre and bad.  Even worse, the menu doesn’t really help you – you have to know what to get when you walk in.*  But if you do know what to get, prepare for a treat.  Oysters in black bean sauce ($15) comes with six huge oysters, perfectly steamed and dressed in deliciousness.  Asian Garden Specialty Flounder (market price, $33 when I got it) is a whole fried flounder, pulled apart into chunks and tossed with a savory sauce and veggies, served back on its skin.  It is moist, flavorful, and meant for sharing.  Lobster in garlic sauce (market price, approximately $15.95) is similarly delicious.  For a veggie side, go with the pea tendrils ($15), a fantastic green I’ve never seen elsewhere that would have been perfect with a tad less oil.

*Hint: stay away from anything you’ve ever ordered before, and if the price says “seasonal”, it’s probably a good sign.  If all else fails, ask what the people who speak Chinese next to you have ordered, or point to something in the tank and say “I want that.”

28 Harrison Ave #1; 617-695-1646

Sun.-Fri. 10 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-3 a.m.

-Jared Olkin

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