Small plates, big flavors
Happy hour drink specials - $3 margaritas and other bargains to imbibe - might be illegal in Massachusetts, but the hours between about 5 and 7 have gotten decidedly more pleasant since high-end restaurants have started offering special low-priced menus for the after-work crowd.
Indeed, one of the happier hours I've spent recently was on the patio at Dante in Cambridge, at a high cafe table overlooking the sailboats on the Charles. Starting late in the afternoon, the bar menu includes four $1 sfizzi, small plates, in addition to other appetizers (all under $10).
Fried smelts ($1) are lightly battered and fried, served with a tangy aioli. Arancini ($1), plump balls of tomato and fontina risotto, are also fried; these come with a truffled honey sauce. The combination is crunchy, salty, sweet, and savory all at once. Lacy Parmesan crisps ($1) are good on their own, but a smoked tomato aioli makes them amazing.
A shallow square dish of lemony, garlicky hummus topped with pickled red onions ($1) is served with huge baked lavash triangles. The hummus is a little thin, but the flavor is wonderful, and the pita triangles are a great vehicle for not only the hummus, but also the aioli and the smoked-tomato dipping sauce. We round out our light meal with sea urchin ($6), also from the sfizzi menu, which is chopped with garlic and lemon rind and served with grilled toasts.
For an edgier, more urban, but no less happy time, Sel de la Terre in Back Bay offers a French Quarter menu (four items, each $5) early in the evening. The funky downstairs bar, with white cement block walls and vintage bicycles hung from the ceiling, feels like a cafe in one of Paris's hipper arrondissements.
The menu changes periodically, but the crostini of tuna conserva Nicoise (below) will be around for a while. A lovely plate of mixed greens with shaved tuna belly in olive oil sitting on a toast, it's a perfect warm-weather bite. The pork belly boudin served with toasted baguette and a syrupy rhubarb spread is pleasingly smoky and sweet.
Seviche is not as salty as we like it, but then we realize it comes with potato chips for a reason. Scoop up this marinated salmon belly and snapper on a chip, and you've got all the salt you need - along with a nice crunch.
None of these plates is large, but they're not tiny either. Order the pommes croquettes, four golf ball-sized servings of rich, nutmeg-scented potato puree fried to a deep gold, and a couple of other items from the French Quarter menu, and along with the lovely basket of bread, you've got a meal. A happy meal.