Food critics: A no longer nameless Business?

Walking into the dimly lit Church, you are met with the belief that you may find absolution here, just not in that way. Located on 69 Kilmarnock St., Church has offered residents of the Fenway area an escape from the numerous sports bars that clutter Yawkey Way. A combination of a restaurant and music club, Church served as the location for a recent meeting of food bloggers, providing an alluring ambiance and divine dishes.

“Let’s go for the high table tonight,” says Jacki Morisi to Michelle “Meesh” Zippelli.

Church, the restaurant.

Immediately the women are met by a waitress, who asks, “So are you girls the bloggers?” Clearly they are known, but why? These 25-year old Northeastern alumni have been on the Boston blog scene since graduating in 2010, making friends with chefs and public-relations pros at every event they venture to.

“Boston has so much to offer with food. It’s ever-changing with new restaurants opening all the time,” says Zippelli. “There is never a shortage of things to write about, that’s for sure.”

After chatting with head chef Jon Gilman, the foodistas have decided what to order from the restaurant’s new spring menu, which is the basis of this week’s blog. With three starters, including one order of mushroom canelones, followed by a trio of entrees and two desserts, this was a feast fit for the pope. Like clockwork, both Morisi and Zippelli whip out their iPhones to tweet about their appetizing adventure:

Meesh Zippelli ‏ @MeeshZ

Love @churchboston chicken and waffles http://instagr.am/p/JTR8-qkv8i/

https://twitter.com/

jacki morisi ‏ @Jacki_Mo

Loving your new spring menu @ChurchBoston! Mushroom canelones, duck confit spring rolls, crab cakes and fried green tomatoes. I can’t.

With their blog, Just Add Cheese, Morisi and Zippelli strive to find the best food in Boston, as well as other places such as New York, Maryland and Rhode Island. And they are not alone.

Since the launch of blog publishing services like Blogger and WordPress in 1999 and 2003, respectively, the Internet has become a frenzy of virtual niche communities, with blogs focusing on food, sports, music and just about any other interest you can imagine.

For Renee Hirschberg, founder of Boston Brunchers, a group of bloggers who review some of Boston’s most choice restaurants one brunch at a time, blogging was initially an outlet to fill a creative void while she worked and attended graduate school at Boston University.

Hitting the food scene in 2010, Boston Brunchers’ first event took place at Lord Hobo in Cambridge and included 13 bloggers, a mere fraction of what the group consists of today. After an explosion of tweets, blog posts and word of mouth, the Brunchers currently number more than 250 members, which span the likes of 20-somethings such as Morisi and Zippelli, as well as older age groups. The common thread: each member has a passion for food and an allegiance to support Boston businesses.

“The Boston blogging community in general is very social, especially the food blogging scene,” says Hirschberg, 34, who ran her own marketing company until 2009. “Food bloggers are constantly looking for a way to become more involved and it’s an easy way to do that.”

With such a large number of members, it’s impossible for every Bruncher to attend an event, so Hirschberg makes entrance into a contest, allowing each blogger an equal opportunity. Once she posts about an upcoming brunch, bloggers either write comments, which are then sorted and chosen through random.org, or the restaurant chooses its favorite answers.

Nicole Spasiano, 27, won her first chance to dine with the Brunchers in February 2011 and has been to nine events since.

“It’s the best part of blogging and social media,” says Spasiano, whose blog i am a honeybee focuses on food and drinks, as well as her general interests. “You don’t have to be involved, but there is always an opportunity to connect with people.”

Admittedly a shy person, Spasiano enjoys getting to know fellow bloggers through their online presence then meeting them in person, with Boston Brunchers providing an excellent occasion to do so. And as Hirschberg points out, not everyone is completely understanding of what food bloggers are trying to accomplish.

“A big part of what we do is connecting the community of food bloggers,” says Hirschberg. “Nobody really understands when you pull out your camera at a meal and wait 20 minutes to take pictures as your food gets cold.”

While the practice of critiquing food is no new trade, as seasoned vets like Devra First of the Boston Globe have been doing so for years, the task has traditionally been performed in a nameless fashion, with critics reviewing restaurants candidly as to provide a glimpse into what an average diner should expect. However, Boston Brunchers follows a different mantra: the brunches are well planned-out events, where the restaurant pays for the food. A conflict of interest some might say, though not according to blogger Chelsea Dugan.

“I don’t think the group would function as well as it does if people didn’t believe we were being honest,” says 21-year-old Dugan, whose blog, Chelsea’s Choice, launched in 2011. “Obviously nobody likes to write a bad review but you can’t risk the integrity of your own blog jus to please a restaurant.”

Perhaps in this new environment where popular bloggers get more hits on Twitter than some newspapers get in subscriptions, old rules need not apply. Hirschberg admits that while restaurants may be putting on their best face for the Brunchers, she urges the bloggers to be utterly honest in their reviews and post disclaimers that the food was free.

“I tend to think that as an overall rule, a reviewer who is not getting a free meal has a more impartial perspective, but I also recognize that it’s increasingly difficult, there’s not a lot of budget for that kind of thing in journalism,” says First. “If we want to hear about food, this may be something that increasingly happens. I really think that what’s important is for people to be transparent about their methods.”

As Boston Brunchers continues to grow, inciting praise and criticism for their tactics, one can’t deny the online prowess this group holds. Booked with events through July, the Brunchers are in high-demand among restaurants, as businesses realize the vast publicity that can be gained by hosting the group. Relying heavily on social media, specifically Twitter, to get their message out there, the Brunchers have successfully tapped into a thriving market, simply by taking advantage of the technology of today.

While some company may find the constant tweeting and picture taking during a meal irritating, the Brunchers find solace in their fellow foodies. Morisi does not appear phased as Zippelli instantly updates the Twitter-sphere of her tasty tales with an instagram of the savory chicken and waffles dish just placed before her.

“Twitter definitely allows us to access a more broad community in terms of people in the restaurant industry and the food blogging community,” says Morisi. And Zippelli chimes in, “Sometimes on Twitter I feel like it’s not even so much about interacting with readers, as so much it’s us trying to engage the people we want to see our post.”

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Wine Riot Tour Tops Off This Weekend

Wine Riots Tour kicks off this weekend in Boston.

Interested in learning the difference between a Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay without having to wear your Sunday’s best and watch your manners? Well then check out the Wine Riots hosted by Second Glass.

The concept is simple: educate yourself on the various types of wine in a non-intimidating environment, while having a great time. The Wine Riots were created in 2008 and have since expanded, with this year’s tour hitting seven different cities across the country.

The tour kicks off this weekend in Boston, with riots on Friday April 20 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. All parties will take place at Park Plaza Castle. With unlimited wine from around the world, the event features music, wine education sessions, a photo booth, temporary tattoos and a bunch of Boston’s best street food, according to Boston.com.

For more information on how to buy tickets, check out this website.

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Ice Cream Battle: City Hall Edition

Ice Cream Truck Battle: Ben & Jerrys vs. b.good

Looking for a free treat without feeling guilty afterwards? Head down to City Hall Plaza today from 1 – 3 p.m., where Ben & Jerry’s and b.good are battling to raise money for charity.

The two companies are giving out free ice cream and milkshakes in the hopes some sugary sweetness will prompt you to donate money to Back on My Feet, a nonprofit that dedicates itself to engaging underserved populations in running “as a means to build confidence, strength and self-esteem.”

Continuing their battle from last week, where Ben & Jerry’s dished out 1,000 ice cream scoops and b.good served 800 milkshakes to people in Harvard Square, according to BostInno, the competition will get even more intense today, as b.good writes on their Facebook page:

Stakes are even higher. For rest of summer, losing truck must pull over whenever winner drives past on Boston streets & driver must jump out & salute the champion. (That and loser must buy winner beer after the battle.)

So whether you are looking to support a good cause or are craving some tasty treats, head down to City Hall Plaza this afternoon and get your fill.

Pret a Manger Location Revealed

After reports that a Pret a Manger will be making its first Boston appearance surfaced earlier this week, fans of the British cafe were left wondering where they will be able to pick up their favorite sandies.

Well take a deep breath, for the suspense is finally over. News of the eatery’s location broke today, putting some well-churned rumors to rest. While initial reports claimed that Morton’s would move into the abandoned Borders space on Boylston Street, the building will instead house Boston’s first — and I hope not the last — Pret a Manger.

The vacated bookstore, which closed last year after Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February, will be divided into three sections to make room for an Athleta shop run by Gap Inc. and an expanded H&M store, in addition to the cafe, according to Boston.com.

With a menu touted to be natural and healthy, Pret a Manger could be new hotspot for an inexpensive lunch, as sandwiches start at a mere $3.89.

Some Food Sites for Thought

To keep updated on the most recent food news in Boston, I look at a variety of sites, which range in recipe offerings, reviews and restaurant news in the area. Here are some of them:

For straight food news, restaurant reviews and events happening in the area, Boston.com and Grub Street Boston are the best outlets to visit. The food Lifestyle section on Boston.com features a variety of stories regarding food, including videos and tutorials. This site gives readers a good idea of what Boston has to offer food wise, while allowing the audience to interact via comments.

With an attractive layout, Grub Street Boston is my go-to site for all things food. The site lists stories by publication date, with tabs on top for the Top Stories of the day, as well as side tabs for recent news of openings and closings in Boston. There is also a “Find Restaurants” tab where users can search eateries by name, cuisine type and location. While some of the articles are original content, many are drafted from stories on other sites.

Additionally, the Boston Phoenix “On the Cheap” section offers a glimpse at some of the inexpensive eats in Boston. While Eater: Boston edition has a good mix of food news, reviews and feature stories. Foodspotting is another site I use to track good eats in Boston.

When I’m looking for quick and easy recipes, I always visit Foodista, though I steer clear of their blog, as it is usually celebrity-focused – sorry, I don’t really care that Miley Cyrus is allergic to gluten.

New Eats at Fenway

Fenway Park

With opening day on Friday, the executive chef at Fenway, Steve “Nookie” Postal, is prepping to feed almost 40,000 eager fans and like a pitcher throwing a curve ball, Postal has a few surprises up his sleeve.

“The big thing this season is gluten free,” Postal said, as originally published in the Boston Herald. “A lot of people are having issues with gluten so we have a whole host of gluten-free foods, everything from hotdog rolls to pizza.”

In addition to gluten-free foods, Fenway Park will feature a new fish shack that will serve cooked-to-order seafood, including fried clams, fish and chips. Dubbed the Fish Hut, the shack demoed last year and apparently made the cut, with BostonEater.com recommending it as one of the standouts on Yawkey Way.

Fans yearning for a cold beer and a dirty dog don’t fret, the Summertime Grill at Fenway will continue to serve Fenway Franks, footlong hot dogs, Philly Cheesesteaks and sausages. However, those looking for signature sandwiches should try the Cuban at El Tiante.

For more upscale dining, Fenway Park houses the EMC Club on Level 3, which serves brunch for day games and dinner for night games. Up one level is the State Street Pavilion Club, a buffet set-up that features a carving table, raw bar, pizza and panini station, as well as a menu that changes with each new team.

Whatever your taste, Fenway will most likely have it, however be prepared to pay stadium prices!


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Bacon and Beer Tickets Available Today

It’s no surprise that Boston residents like their beer, however it seems the combination of alcohol, bacon and a good cause will crash websites.

Bacon and Beer Festival Boston 2012

With presale tickets available online yesterday for Boston’s Bacon and Beer Festival, a benefit for Lovin Spoonfuls and Community Servings, two local hunger relief foundations, the website crashed, despite being prepared for 100,000 visitors per hour. And with tickets for the general public going on sale today at 1 p.m., the tech team will probably have another busy day ahead of them.

Presented by EAT Boston, the fest kicks off April 28 at the House of Blues Boston from 2:30 – 5:30 p.m. With delicious bacon offerings from local restaurants paired with beers from New England’s best breweries, it surely is not an event to skip!

The festivities continue on April 29 with a Bacon and Beer Karaoke Harbor Cruise from 2 – 5 p.m., with tickets available for $32. If you still haven’t got your fill of beer and bacon, there will also be an art show at PA’s Lounge in Somerville on May 3 from 6:30 – 8 p.m. and 8 – 9 p.m. Attendees will be able to peruse some bacon and beer inspired art, while chowing down on food from Stone Hearth Pizza Company, Wicked Kickn’ Savory Cheese Cakes and Pink Box desserts. And what would the event be without beer? Watch City Brewing Company, Left Hand Brewing Company and Clown Shoes Beer will provide beverages for the event.

Pret a Manger Boston Bound

One location of the Pret a Manger sandwich chain.

After spending a semester in London my freshman year of college, I have been searching, sadly to no avail, for the Boston equivalent of the UK eatery Pret a Manger. Now it looks like I will no longer have to settle for a sandwich from Panera Bread, as the company just announced the addition of 14 more shops in the U.S., with at least one location in Boston.

Pret, which opened in 1986, already has an established presence in the United Kingdom, and with shops in New York, D.C. and Chicago, the brand is well known in the States as well. While the U.S. menu varies slightly from the British one, offerings like the balsamic chicken and avocado sandwich and a brie, basil and tomato baguette are staples on the chain’s menu.

Though an exact location for the Boston outlet has yet to be released, according to Boston.com, the company is growing quickly, with 24 new shops opening in 2011, including two in Paris. The sandwich chain, owned by London-based buyout firm Bridgepoint, plans to expand further in 2012 with the addition of 44 new shops, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Convenient and clean, Pret a Manager shops offer customers a natural alternative to fast food, though the company has come under criticism in the past for some unhealthy menu options, such as its tomato soup, which contains 4.5g of salt, according to the Daily Mail.

Despite this debate, I’ll choose an avocado pine nut wrap over a meal from the dining hall any day!

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The State of Chinese Journalism

Wu Nan talks with a group of Northeastern students and professors about the state of journalism in China.

Currently spending the year at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow, Chinese journalist Wu Nan took some time on Thursday to talk with a group of Northeastern students and professors about the evolution of journalism in China and the importance of investigative reporting.

Wu cited landmark investigative cases in China, such as the 2003 story of Sun Zhigang, a recent graduate who was imprisoned, and later killed, in a detention center while traveling in southern China. Zhigang’s story fueled questions, which exposed the mysterious disappearances of numerous people in rural areas in the south of China. After multiple stories were published, an investigation took place, resulting in the removal of such facilities.

Though Wu reminded us that reporting in that part of the world is much harder than in America, as the Chinese government can easily censor news organizations.

“Doing journalism in China is almost like playing a video game, you are constantly trying to find a way out of the maze and obstacles constantly appear,” said Wu. “It’s frustrating because you are fighting this everyday, but it’s also addicting.”

Wu also showed a video report she produced on Chinese coal miners suffering from black-lung disease, in addition to discussing a range of stories, including one about the high-speed train crash in Shanghai last summer, in which a man’s presence on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, pushed government officials to increase their rescue efforts.

With 250 million users, Weibo is just one example of the explosion of social media in China, which according to Wu gives hope that the government will limit its censorship efforts. Touting the online media as too large to control, Wu believes that the government’s dependency on tax revenue from Internet companies will restrict officials from shutting it down.

Since earning her master’s degree in journalism at the University of California in Berkeley, Wu has incorporated digital media in her reporting, offering Chinese viewers the opportunity to actually see who they are reading about, as well as a means of connection.

While Wu identified style as the biggest difference in Chinese and American publication, she claimed the essence of journalism is still the same.

“I think journalism is a group of very dreamy people, there is darkness but you can always see light.”

Samuel Adams Releases 26.2 Brew

Samuel Adams 26.2 brew on tap.

In honor of the Boston Marathon on April 16, Samuel Adams has released a new beer, appropriately named 26.2 Brew.

Originally announced in February, the beer was released last week in a tasting at the Boston Athletic Association’s downtown headquarters. The beer is set to appear in at least 100 bars, including Atlantic Beer Garden, Post 390 and LIR, among other locations in the Boston area.

So what does the brew taste like? It’s a rare style, known as a gose, a light German beer brewed with wheat, plus coriander and salt. With a slightly lower alcohol content level (4.5 percent), the beer is said to sport a lighter body than Sam’s other brews, according to Grub Street Boston.

If you haven’t tried the beer for yourself yet, check out this video of Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch describing the new brew.

Photo (cc) some rights reserved.