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When the pandemic threatened his business in 2020, chef Johnny Sheehan knew what he had to do: Get in a car and leave Leena’s Kitchen, one of two Plymouth restaurants he co-owns (the other being Salt). Sheehan wasn’t fleeing in panic or despair, he was test driving a new menu item: pizza. In a fortuitous move, he bought a pizza oven just before “the world went crazy.” After eating indoors became off limits, he started experimenting with foods designed to travel well. “I would make a pizza, throw it in a box, drive 30 minutes in any direction, and stop and eat it,” Sheehan said. “The pizza in-house is fantastic, but I wanted it to be in the same conversation when you got home. . . . We think about cheese, moisture content, fat content, salinity. I treat it like anything else I do.”
I’ve lost count of how many Leena’s pizzas we’ve ordered, but any way you slice them, we haven’t been disappointed. Our household’s loyalty lies with the margherita, but there are 10 other options, including black truffle, artichoke, vegan, and funghi, featuring a wild mushroom blend, a goat cheese cream concoction, and mozzarella. The tomato sauce tastes fresh, not jarred-sugary, and that crust — sturdy enough to fortify the perimeter while staying soft to the bite — was worth the mileage Sheehan put on his car.
Leena’s, located in a strip plaza about two miles from downtown Plymouth, was a star on the local restaurant scene long before it started selling pizza.
The modern Italian fare — which Sheehan says owes much to chef de cuisine Max Calise — ranges from contemporary riffs on familiar dishes, such as chicken parmesan and gnocchi, to wagu beef carpaccio, to an Italian grinder steam bun packed with cured meats, provolone, and shredded lettuce.
Don’t overlook the vegetables, either. In many restaurants, they’re relegated to “sides” purgatory. Here, meticulously prepared produce is front and center, flavorful enough to go up against meat- and cheese-centric entrees. After decades in recovery from frozen carrots boiled into oblivion (thanks, Mom and Birds Eye), the Leena’s version hooked me at first bite. They’re pan roasted with toasted walnuts, carrot turmeric caramel, and pickled mustard seeds. Roasted squash is cooked with saffron caramel, hazelnut praline, and charred squash puree. Add a beet salad made with creamy herb yogurt to make a satisfying meal that even a hardcore carnivore might crave. No matter what you decide on, an order of basil and thyme focaccia is mandatory.
But in an upended industry, good food doesn’t necessarily mean success. Like all restaurants, Leena’s has faced formidable challenges. Last summer, it closed for several months because of a staffing shortage, deciding to focus on Salt, which is on the Plymouth waterfront and benefited from tourist traffic. Leena’s used the downtime to “warm up” what Sheehan called a “doctor’s office” vibe left over from the space’s previous incarnation. The bar is spacious, and the ceilings high, so even if you’re understandably skittish about dining in, you might feel comfortable enough to enjoy a glass of wine or cocktail while waiting for your order. If we can have hybrid workplaces, why not hybrid restaurants?
Leena’s Kitchen, 63 Long Pond Road, Plymouth, 774-404-7470, www.leenaskitchenplymouth.com. Snacks $3-$12, salads $11-$21, vegetables $12-$18, entrees $19-$90, desserts $4 to $12.
We walked into a dream.
It was summer 2021 and there was a lull in local COVID-19 infections. So we ventured out to one of our favorite restaurants — Pier 6 in the Charlestown Navy Yard — but the wait for an outdoor table was too long. We stopped for a drink at The Anchor (which has Boston’s most phenomenal outdoor space) where we heard the USS Constitution’s sunset cannon salute, then headed home. However, when we should have turned left, we meandered right and that’s when we saw it: a wide passageway lined with trees and white lights, a cobbled street set with dining tables and chairs, all nestled between soaring granite buildings. It were as if we had been transported to Europe. The wine was excellent; the food, sumptuous — a dream come true in trying times.
That’s why during the long, gray January days, at the height of the Omicron surge, I chose to revisit Dovetail Restaurant — this time via takeout for three.
Ordering was easier than at any other restaurant we’ve yet tried. The order form and payment went smoothly, but I didn’t quite believe it when a message popped up stating our 10 items would be ready for pickup in 15 to 20 minutes. So I called. The woman who answered the phone assured me it was true.
We flung open a tablecloth, lit some candles, and brought out the good dishes.
Before a morsel had been unpacked, I was impressed. The hostess had stapled the receipt to both bags, and circled which item was in each bag. Inside, cardboard boxes were labeled with the dish’s name and everything was still warm. But would the food be as good as that summer night? My god, yes.
The focaccia was airy and flavorful, the perfect accompaniment to anything, really — but in this case, the tomato-braised calamari, which was sweet and tender. My guests were also wowed by the pork Milanese. I tried and failed to eat only a third of the mushroom toast and will know better next time to order my own. While I seldom enjoy Italian food as much as I savor it in the North End (looking at you, Limoncello), the bigoli pasta was outstanding: creamy with a peppery bite matched by arugula, and enough parmesan to enhance, not overpower the other flavors. When I tell you that whitefish has never passed my lips — it’s true, my father was a fisherman — I must admit I devoured the oven-roasted cod. Delightfully light, firm, yet flaky, enhanced with lemon and a bouquet of capers, it was served with crisp small potatoes. But it was the chicken cacciatore we all agreed was the best dish of all. I could try to describe the red pepper ragout and fennel that accompanied the juicy dark and white meat, but it’s best to order it yourself. Tonight.
We can’t wait to return to Dovetail. A peek inside at the dining room and I was surprised to see it’s even more dreamy than the summer outdoor space. Now that Boston has vaccine passports, we can try it. Yet once it’s warm again, we’ll probably still choose to sit in that hidden passageway, reminiscent of Europe yet quintessentially Boston, and then take an after-dinner stroll with a view of the Constitution and the downtown skyline nearby. A bright spot to look forward to during winter’s — and COVID’s — dark days.
Dovetail, 16th Street, Charlestown, dovetailcharlestown.com. Appetizers: $5-8, entrees $20-44.
I have a few places around town I order from when I’m feeling homesick — Highland Creole Cuisine is one of them. The over-25-year-old restaurant serves traditional Haitian food and a range of Caribbean dishes. It’s saved on my phone for days when I need a hug.
The white rice cooked with oil and the plantains, side options to many of Highland’s entrees, bring me back to cooking with my Puerto Rican mom at night. I’m honestly terrible at preparing rice outside of using a rice cooker despite my mom’s teaching efforts (and I’m no stranger to heating up frozen tostones), so their meals provide a warm nostalgia.
I usually order the fried chicken ($14 on UberEats,) but on this occasion, I splurged, ordering their fried fish ($31). Both of them are great comfort food options with crispy exteriors, creole seasoning, and savory sauces. Many entrees also have a side choice of rice and beans, and the portions included are definitely fair. (I had plenty of fried fish leftovers — it’s a whole red snapper.)
Even if your teen years weren’t spent washing rice in a flurry before your mom arrived home, I’m sure you’ll enjoy Highland’s food. Fluffy rice can never be wrong.
Highland Creole Cuisine, 2 Highland Ave., Somerville, highlandcreolecuisine.com. Appetizers: $7-12, entrees $17-31.
Amy MacKinnon can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyMacKinnon.
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