Category Archives: Restaurant reviews

FoMu: An Alternative Ice Cream Experience

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(Astrid Lium photos)

Vegan ice cream sounds like an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp. But this ostensible contradiction bears a striking resemblance to the original milky treat. With the help of FoMu (as in “faux moo”), the non-dairy alternative is quickly scooping out a niche in Boston’s ice cream market.

FoMu is a specialty shop offering vegan-friendly alternatives to the usual ice cream options. According to co-owner Deena Jalal, “it is like ice cream for foodies.” At the two store locations, customers of all dietary backgrounds can choose from unconventional flavors like avocado, Thai chili peanut, and rice honey lavender alongside the more traditional vanilla bean or chocolate.

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Jalal and her husband, Hin Tang, opened the first FoMu alternative ice cream shop and café in Allston on May 30, 2012, but the idea was a decade in the making. Jalal believes that the business move was a fateful one.

“The universe just aligned us right,” she says. “And it flowed.”

Jalal and Tang initially embarked on more conventional career paths––in marketing and finance, respectively. But the entrepreneurial couple had dreams that transcended life in corporate America.

“For years we said, ‘we’ll open an ice cream place someday,’ ” Jalal recalls. “We always had the dream in the back of our heads.”

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The duo created their local, vegan, non-dairy, gluten-free product with widespread dietary restrictions in mind. They have a growing number of friends and family members with allergies and lactose intolerance, whom they wanted to accommodate while also creating a healthy treat with broader appeal.

Jalal and Tang started with coconut milk because of the health benefits, flavor, and low rate of coconut allergies. Containing omega fatty acids, vitamins B and C, potassium, manganese, phosphorous, and zinc, coconut provided a natural, healthy alternative to cow’s milk.

“It’s a cure for everything,” Jalal says.

They added almond and cashew-based blends for some frozen creams, and a soy base for the soft serve options. Agave and unrefined organic cane sugar provide the sweetness. Gluten-free cones and toppings are available for the wheat-free customers. FoMu’s kitchen is located in Watertown, where small batches of ice cream are made daily and delivered. Local partners include Taza chocolate, George Howell coffee, MEM Tea, and Bonnieville cookies.

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The couple started by selling their product to local cafés, including Veggie Planet and Life Alive. The demand grew quickly, prompting Jalal and Tang to open their own shop. They found a space in a predominantly vegetarian corner of Allston, near other vegan-friendly restaurants like Grasshopper and Deep Ellum.

The name, which is self-explanatory, also has a sense of humor. “More effort went into that name than our own son’s name!” Jalal says with a laugh. “We wanted to embody what we were putting out with something abstract and obvious.”

They applied the same thoughtfulness and fun to the dynamic menu, which expands and changes slightly with the seasons. The inspirations generally come from foods and beverages that Jalal, Tang, and their loved ones enjoy. Paying homage to a friend who frequently ordered dark n’ stormy cocktails, they transformed the rum-based drink into an ice cream flavor. Thai peanut stemmed from Jalal’s love of Thai food. Salted caramel, the shop’s biggest seller, seemed like an obvious choice.

But not all of the experiments translated so well. “Unfortunately, sriracha didn’t work out,” Jalal says. “It was too garlicky, and that’s gross.”

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FoMu immediately attracted a loyal following of vegans, lactose intolerant customers, alternative foodies with a sweet tooth, and health-conscious parents treating their kids. Regulars began to encourage a second location in the funky, vegetarian-friendly neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. Taking their advice, the co-owners found a vacant space on Centre Street. They opened the second shop in the former shoe store, Got Sole, on April 16, 2013.

Jalal attributes FoMu’s popularity to the alternative options it provides, as well as the overall quality of their product. She notes that many of the patrons are animal-free for varying reasons, both personal and political. Many first-time patrons don’t realize that the ice cream is non-dairy.

“Across the board, people come in, they try it, and they like it,” Jalal says. “We use good ingredients. There’s not a lot of crap in it.”

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The friendly atmosphere and unconventional flavors attract employees along with customers. FoMu’s staff currently includes about 30 workers. Some of them, like Vanessa Saravia, started as patrons.

She discovered the shop while doing laundry in the neighborhood and started working there in June. Saravia moved from her home in California to attend Boston College, and began to miss the robust food culture that she believes Boston lacks. FoMu helped assuage the homesickness with its tight-knit community and unique flavors.

“It’s like ice cream with personality,” she says. “I’m not even vegan, but I still come in here on my days off.”

Her favorite parts of her job include the mandatory ice cream tasting and the connections she makes with customers, particularly the weekend regulars. When she started, Saravia recalls the patience and reassurance of the patrons, who recognized her as the new girl in the shop. They offered encouragement rather than frustration when she was learning the ropes.

Her weeklong training included an education of the shop’s health-conscious philosophy; a crash course in the ingredients and health benefits; a hands-on apprenticeship of the specialty coffees; and, of course, taste testing the goods.

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(FoMu co-workers Vanessa Saravia [left] and Megan Ramette take a break at the Allston shop.)

Saravia’s co-worker, Megan Ramette, offers samples to an eclectic crowd of customers on a Sunday afternoon. A six-person, three-generation family stands in line, trying bites of cardamom pistachio and cherry amaretto before placing their final orders. Tattooed men in black tee shirts with skulls and eagles sample the smaller variety of nut blends. Bespectacled hipsters in skinny jeans test out the chunky chocolate flavors.

Ramette offers each one with a smile and asks every patron if they would like to try another.

“I get tons of questions and requests for lots of samples,” she says. “You can try as many as you’d like. You want to know what you’re gonna get, right?”

Roxbury resident Jacquinn Williams frequents Jamaica Plain’s restaurant-strewn Centre Street, where she first discovered FoMu. Both lactose and soy-intolerant, Williams embraces the vegan ice cream option, and returns to the shop regularly. Her favorite flavors include saffron rosewater, honey lavender, maple walnut, and mango habanero.

“Life for me is all about reading [food] labels and avoiding most fast food and semi-slow food eateries,” she says. “If I could eat [at FoMu] every day and not be fat, I would.”

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(A small cup serving of bourbon maple walnut ice cream)

Jalal acknowledges that FoMu doesn’t appeal to everyone, but that doesn’t shake her confidence in the product. She doesn’t deem J.P. Licks, located just blocks away in Jamaica Plain, a competitor. There is enough room in the neighborhood for the traditional and alternative non-dairy counterparts.

“We really are such a specialty product,” says Jalal. “We’re supplementing, not competing, with a healthier, more conscious product.”

With two retail shops established and a growing fan base, Jalal and Tang remain open to expanding their retail and wholesale sales. The goals include more Boston locations as well as business at high-end grocers like Whole Foods.

The couple take the same laid-back and open-minded approach to the future in the same way they have every other step of the process. Again, Jalal emphasizes the importance of not forcing circumstances and simply letting them flow. In the meantime, she spends every day between the two shops, doing what she loves.

“I have an awesome job,” Jalal says. “It’s ice cream!”

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Amorino: Angelic Gelato

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I had just bitten into my street-vendor Nutella crêpe near Notre Dame Cathedral when I met Walid. His first impression was that of a grown woman licking chocolate hazelnut goop from her fingertips.

Walid was the brother of a friend of an artist I had met wandering along the Seine; a multilingual architect from Damascus; and a divorced father with, according to him, fourteen girlfriends. On this particular afternoon he was also my volunteer tour guide.

Our extended promenade through the 5th Arondissement burned through my tank of Nutella. Instead of a proper lunch––salade niçoise, steak tartare, anything with a baguette––at Walid’s favorite brasserie, I opted for a Côte d’Or chocolate bar from Monoprix.

“You eat too much chocolate,” he said. “I think you need to have more sex.”

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Determined not to be unlucky number fifteen, I rolled my eyes and lunged for the French chocolate. Walid grabbed my arm and led me through throngs of tourists in the Latin Quarter to a gelaterie called Amorino. The line extended out the door and to the end of the block. I started counting heads, but lost interest after twenty. I refused to queue up for ice cream, even gelato in Paris.

My guide persisted. See their faces, he pointed. The customers looked elated when they exited the shop, licking their plastic spoons and cones, and smiling at the heavens. Also, he added, they form the ice cream into flower petals atop the cone.

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My curiosity justified the 30-minute wait.

Inside the shop, images of Amorino’s signature cherub adorned the walls, the cups, the napkins. The smell of waffle cones wafted out the door with smitten patrons. Vats of colorful frozen waves with names like amaretto, stracciatella, and frutto del passione inspired awe and salivation from behind a glass barrier.

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Screw the fruity sorbetto, I thought. Òu est le chocolat? Walid pointed to a creamy mocha option called “L’inimitable,” which seemed untranslatable. Nutella flavor, he clarified.

I understood the necessity of the glass partition. Little else prevented me from hurdling the goods and burying my face in a bin of this magical frozen discovery. But, why not just call it ‘Nutella’? It’s Italian, after all.

“Je voudrais l’inimitable!” I shouted.

The woman behind the counter wielding an ice cream spatula scolded me in French for leaping ahead of myself. Walid explained: choose a cone or cup, then choose a size, then pay up, then choose the flavors. Mere formalities, I assured him; I wanted my frozen Nutella.

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Amorino allows up to three flavors per order, but why mix it up and risk disappointment when I could have a triple serving of l’inimitable?

I left the shop clutching a melting Amorino flower, which seemed too beautiful to eat for a moment, until it began to drip onto my fingers. Like the many customers ahead, I stopped outside to slurp up the sweetness. I was another elated cherub with an expression that encouraged the hungry queue to wait just a bit longer for their turn.

Walid was wrong––I didn’t need more sex, just another serving of l’inimitable. I suggested we return for dinner.

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Porter Café Adds Irish Flair to Centre Street

A modern Irish pub in West Roxbury offers craft beers, hearty food and a lively atmosphere.

 (All photos provided by Astrid Lium.)

Overview: , which , is the newest addition to Centre Street’s restaurant scene in West Roxbury. Located on the same block as and across the street from , Porter rounds out the area with a modern Irish pub option. Co-owners and Ireland natives, Paul Murphy and Dermot Loftus, have worked at various establishments around Brookline and Dublin, taking their expertise and experience to West Roxbury.

Atmosphere: Long and narrow, the pub utilizes its small dining space with a few tables and a lengthy bar. Red walls, warm lighting, high ceilings and virtually no artwork give the place a cozy, down-to-earth vibe. Wide mirrors reflect the light and walls, making the interior feel more spacious. The background music is low and folksy, but the chatter can reach almost intrusive decibels when the restaurant is packed with patrons. The size, ambience and exterior facade somewhat resemble Matt Murphy’s in Brookline, which may be explained by the owners’ previous experience there.

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Drinks: Long on beer and wine options, Porter is really a bar with sit-down food service. By the glass ($7-$9) or bottle ($28-$45), wine options include sparkling, white, rosé, and red. The pub is best known for its beer (about 75 to choose from), which is categorized as draft ($5-$6), can ($4-$6), large format ($7-$19), fruit ($5-$8), or bottle ($3.50-$8). From local lagers and California pale ales to Irish cider and fruity Canadian brews, Porter runs the gamut. And, yes, there is Guinness.

Appetizers: The food menu takes up less space than the beer list. Porter keeps its options simple yet somewhat diverse in nature. Starters include mussels steamed in coconut curry sauce (served with crusty bread, $11), simple mixed greens (with goat cheese and lemon caraway dressing, $7), and grilled fish tacos (two of them, served with salsa and cilantro lime cream, $8).

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Entrées: The meaty establishment offers one vegetarian-friendly main dish: roasted butternut squash risotto ($16), which is warm and filling. The others are all more carnivorous in nature: braised pork shank (fall vegetables, crushed Yukon potatoes, red wine reduction, $$19), roasted cod (buttered leeks, cauliflour, $18), and steak frites (maitre d’butter, cress salad, $18).

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Desserts: What Porter lacks in liquor and sweets it makes up for in craft beers and hearty bar food. The filling dishes wouldn’t leave much room for dessert, anyway.

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Service: Just like the restaurant itself, Porter Café’s service is straight-forward and no-nonsense. The waitress was accommodating when asked something, but granted enough privacy to enjoy a meal in as much peace and quiet as can be expected in a small, crowded pub. Competent yet not overbearing, the overall service was fine and reflective of Porter Café’s laid back nature.

Contact: 1723 Centre St., West Roxbury
617-942-2579
http://www.portercafe.com

Hours: Open nightly for dinner:
Tuesday-Saturday, 4-11 p.m.
Sunday-Monday, 4-10 p.m.
Bar is open until 1 a.m.

Owners: Paul Murphy and Dermot Loftus

Chef: Jimmy Whelen

Price: $$

(This article was originally published by West Roxbury Patch, http://westroxbury.patch.com/groups/business-news/p/porter-caf-adds-irish-flair-to-centre-street, on January 25, 2012.)

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