uhockey reviews Boston 06/03-06/07 - Craigie, Neptune, O-ya, L'Espalier, ICOB, Mistral, No 9 Park, and lots more.
First of all, thanks to all the great Boston hounds for their recommendations. As usual this site proves to be an invaluable resource for traveling well, dining well, and meeting fantastic people.
These reviews are my thoughts - I'm not a "pro," just a guy who likes to write and loves to eat. The blog is a hobby and my posts both there and here are intended only to help others enjoy similar great experiences (or to avoid the rare disaster.)
Reviews will be slow in coming as I tend to be wordy/thorough and also have to work. C'est la vie.
For my first post, a roundup of all the ancillary eats on the trip.
Stops included: Modern Pastry Shop, Mike's Pastry, Japonaise, South End Buttery, Flour, LA Burdick, Galleria Umberto, Pizzeria Regina, Mixx, JP Licks, Toscanini's.
Full text below, pictures in the blog.
Prior to early 2011 it seemed as though Boston would never quite top my ever growing list of places to visit; an incredibly historic city with a culture quite unlike any other it was a place I knew I wanted to see someday, but one way or another it never quite achieved “destination” status until my profession made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – the 2011 Endocrine Society Conference at the Boston Convention Center. With CME as the backdrop and literally hundreds of lectures distributed across the four day conference I knew the days would be long and full of education and networking, but seeing as how the conference did not see fit to serve meals (meals I’d have avoided anyhow) I also knew that this would prove a great opportunity to explore Boston’s culinary scene; and with the conference/travel/hotel paid for well in advance and nearly six months to plan explore I did with 12 restaurant meals and 11 experiences I’d qualify as “ancillary eats” in between.
Beginning first with my snacks, the list spread over the course of five days and included destinations ranging from Cambridge to the South End, pastries of American, French, Japanese, and Italian heritage, ice cream and “Fro-Yo” both, hot chocolate, plus the North End’s elder statesmen of both pizza and arancini – to say the least I cast my net wide and with the added benefit of a local tour guide for my first day the only thing holding me back was stomach capacity, something I thankfully have a lot of.
Beginning first with the pastries, my very first taste of Boston was not a cream pie or a lobster tail, but rather something more rustic from the ironically named Modern Pastry Shop, a full-service cash-only family owned Italian bakery just down Hanover Street from the more famous Mike’s Pastry. Strongly recommended by national publications and respected palates alike it was with good fortune that I arrived mere moments after they opened their doors and with shelves fully stocked I asked the pleasant young clerk what she recommended – an question to which I received nearly a bakers dozen suggestions from her and one overwhelming suggestion for the Sfogliatella from an elderly couple sitting down to enjoy their pastries with coffee and a newspaper Knowing at this point that my first day in town would entail no less than eight stops (it actually turned out to be nine) culminating with a ten-course tasting at Craigie on Main I decided the better part of valor was to heed my elders advice in addition to the two standards by which I judge an Italian bakery.
With my selections boxed and bowed despite the fact that I ordered my options to dine-in I parked myself at a seat nearest the window and while the world walked by dressed in Bruins Yellow and Black I indulged, first on an authentic filled to order Sicilian Cannoli. True to form and filled just prior to service as they are in Italy my bite was greeted with an excellent crack as the buttery pastry gave way to sweet, slightly textural, and entirely delicious ricotta filling. Not to be outdone, my second selection was a traditional Italian Baba highly recommended by the clerk. Opting for the vanilla custard filled version with a cherry on top this dish was the antithesis to the sweet and crunchy cannoli with the light sponge heavily laden with rum and Strega providing a boozy herbal tone mellowed by the sweet cream. To put it lightly both options, the options by which I judge the quality of an Italian bakery, were textbook.
Moving next to the sfogliatella I really didn’t know what to expect; sure I’d heard of the Neapolitan classic but in all honesty I’m not sure I’d ever even seen one in person let alone tasted one. Served warm and appearing somewhat akin to a croissant but at least thrice as dense this traditional Italian pastry was indeed layered and flaky, but what was inside was quite unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. Reportedly made with “yellow cream” and semolina and featuring a mouth-feel somewhere between mascarpone and ricotta with hints of lemon, orange, and cinnamon this nicely nuance treat was surprisingly light on the stomach despite its considerable heft and additionally – well – it was fantastic, just like everything at Modern Pastry Shop and well deserving of the glowing recommendations.
Having already mentioned Modern’s more famous competition, Mike’s Pastry, another morning would see me visit this North End favorite in a state of flux. Having heard of slightly rude service dissuading some while slightly stale pastries turned off others my plan was to arrive early – before the crowds had time to wear on the staff and while all was fresh – and while the latter was a success the customer service aspect was foiled by a pair of issues, namely a broken air conditioner and the city of Boston jack hammering the sidewalk out front in order to pour a new one (apparently unannounced to the owners.) With the service prompt yet gruff as the owners and clerks wondered aloud how anyone was even going to be able to see they were open let alone enter the shop once the pouring began my order was placed quickly and $17 later I was seated at the table enjoying breakfast with more treats for later boxed to go.
Having already noted my standards two of my selections were no surprise to anyone – the first a Rhum baba nearly 1.5x the size of that at Modern and while equally flawless in texture and creamy balance so boozy that I’d be surprised if it contained less than a shot and a half of rum in addition to the Strega – to be fair it was delicious and quite similar to some of the best I had in France, but at the same time it likely would have been better served after 8am. In addition to the Baba, my other breakfast choice was something novel – a delicacy titled “Boston Bocconotti,” essentially a cream puff masquerading as a Boston Cream pie…or perhaps a portable Boston Cream pie – but either way a lovely balance of sweet vanilla cream housed in a crunchy pate a choux style shell and dipped in semisweet chocolate with a white chocolate drizzle.
Turning toward my second standard bearer, and certainly Mike’s most famous item, I must say that with more than a dozen options there was no way I could simply select one Cannoli and in the end I opted for three. Well aware of the fact that Mike’s Cannoli’s were pre-filled as opposed to the a la minute style served at Modern my expectations were appropriately tempered – especially as I waited nearly 2 hours after ordering to enjoy mine – but in the end I came away duly impressed both by the flavors and the textures which, while not as crisp as Modern, were still better than 95% of my previous cannoli experiences. With my choices including chocolate cream dipped in chocolate chip, ricotta with hazelnut, and peanut butter mascarpone I will note that given the wetness of ricotta this was certainly the least crisp of the trio and for those looking for a traditional cannoli (with ricotta) the better choice would certainly be Modern – but for those looking for more interesting options you could do a whole lot worse than Mike’s – especially if you arrive early enough to skip the line.
Another pastry stop (actually two) during my 110 hours in Boston would be to Japonaise – first the location on Beacon and subsequently the spot on Commonwealth when the first was sold out of our desired items. Having heard great things about both their Almond Croissant and Azuki Cream (and with my dining companions sporting a groupon) our order was straight forward enough with 2 croissants and 4 creams packed and ready within minutes by a pleasant young Californian looking girl…selling largely French pastries…with a Japanese touch.
Beginning first with the croissant – according to some the best Almond version in Boston – all I can say is “really?” Perhaps it was our timing (around 3pm and not eaten until nearly 6pm) or perhaps I was spoiled by my recent trip to Paris, but whatever the reason I was simply unimpressed. With the exterior appropriately crisp and buttery, the “almond butter cream” interior was more like a wet layer of artificially flavored paste that although sweet and tasty enough entirely bogged down the pastry. Fairing better, perhaps due to lesser experience and expectation, was the Azuki Cream – another flaky croissant-style creation this time filled with mashed sweetened red beans and whipped cream. Again quite hefty with the filling – in this case expectedly – weighing down the pastry I actually really enjoyed the savory aspects of this creation and particularly the way the slightly coarse texture married with the impressively light cream.
Continuing on the topic of bakeries and staying on the South End one of my morning stops en route to the conference would lead me by South End Buttery, a spot I’d noted on my morning run the day prior and on review of their website later that day seemed well worth the visit., especially given the early opening hours, focus on “organic, all natural, locally raised and grown ingredients as much as possible” and coffee from Equator.
Entering the shop to the sounds of Radiohead’s “The Bends” and the smells of cinnamon, vanilla, and coffee this was the first bakery of the trip that smelled (to me) like a bakery and although decidedly hipster and aloof, the clerks proved quite helpful and pleasant in gathering my selections, bagging them up, and at the same time putting together a variety of espressos and foamy coffees for other patrons. With the bill paid and a long walk ahead of me a quick stop for pictures was requisite and afterwards I ate some while I walked and saved the rest for later – nothing like an Endocrinologist enjoying a butterscotch scone during a lecture on inpatient blood glucose management – and a superlative scone it was dense and biscuit-like without being dry and absolutely loaded with pockets of butter juxtaposing toothache inducing pools of caramelized butterscotch.
Not to be outdone by the scone, additional options from South End included a dense and moist Sweet Potato Walnut Blondie with hints of cinnamon and vanilla plus just the right amount of sweetness, an almond croissant that was a bit too doughy on the interior but nicely Frangipane nuanced and perfectly golden on the exterior, and finally the best Pecan Sticky Bun I’ve had in quite some time – still slightly warm and gooey in some areas while crunchy and caramelized in others with ample notes of butter and pecan throughout.
For my final pastries of Bean Town I eschewed the detractors and my own feelings about multi-store “chains” and given its close proximity to the conference center opted to visit Flour Bakery and Café on Farnsworth near the Children’s Museum. Again arriving shortly after the doors opened on a Saturday my first impression of Flour was that it felt corporate – like a regional Panera with its polished fast paced service and seats filled with both families and business folk alike. With this idea noted, my next impressions were of the goods themselves as I stood aside assessing the options while patron after patron moved with the ebb and flow of the line.
With selections made and coffee poured, a somewhat astringent fair trade blend I wouldn’t particularly recommend, I found a seat and began first with my traditional choice – an Almond Croissant that would turn out to be not only the most authentic I’d taste in Boston, but also the best with a golden shell that shattered on mastication and a fluffy interior lightly sweetened and subtly kissed with Frangipane. While perhaps not as good as the “average” in Paris, this warm bite was amongst the five best I’ve had to date in the United States, though admittedly the fact that it had just emerged from the oven may have had something to do with that.
For my other options, one eaten en route back to the center and the other eaten during a lecture later, I selected Flour’s much revered “weekend only” sticky bun and a hefty chunk of their admittedly unattractive Chocolate banana bread pudding. Beginning first with the sticky bun – my best advice would be to get extra napkins and a fork if you’re going to go at it warm. Dense, soft, and buried under a mountain of salty caramel and crunchy walnuts the most impressive characteristic was actually that something so sweet could also be subtle with yeasty notes balancing the butter and the toasty walnuts preventing the caramel from being cloying.
With the first two options so good it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to the bread pudding – my favorite style of dessert – but unfortunately it would be a bit of a letdown. Bearing in mind that this particular iteration was pre-made and served cold when I generally prefer my bread pudding hot from the oven, the biggest issue in my disappointment was actually that the chocolate was too dark for the quality of the bananas and the bread too absorbent for the amount of cream – in other words, I might as well have been eating a dense chocolate cake as opposed to bread pudding made with chocolate and bananas. Now, keep in mind that for a chocolate cake this was a pretty darned good one – it just wasn’t what I expected when I ordered bread pudding.
Moving past bakeries – at least to an extent – another famous space to make my not-so-short-list in Boston was LA Burdick, largely for their renowned hot chocolate, but also for what a friend told me was the best Cannele he’d experienced outside of Europe. Featuring what they describe to be only the best imported and local ingredients and located not far from Harvard’s campus in Cambridge my senses were ignited the moment I entered the door – wall to wall chocolates and candies, dark woods and subtle music, and a friendly young man offering me a delightful fig and port-wine chocolate. Already contented a mere minute in the door I proceeded to browse the myriad selections before progressing to the back of the store where I was again greeted warmly and after a few moments decision (alas, the single source hot chocolates cannot be ordered as a single-shot tasting) I took a seat and waited for my selections to arrive.
Beginning first with the pastry, an authentic Cannelé Bordelais prepared in a traditional beeswax pan, the texture was spot on with the exterior caramelized and crunchy and the interior lightly tinged with rum, vanilla, and what seemed to be a light note of lavender. A tad pricey at $2 I will note that although excellent they were not the best I’ve had stateside – but a top five contender to be sure. Moving on to the main event and unable to settle on a single choice, my hot chocolate selections included one demi service of Dark with a dusting of vanilla and one of White with a touch of nutmeg – both exceedingly decadent, rich, and complex – both the pure essence of their respective chocolates blended with rich steamed milk – and both rivaling the best hot chocolates I’ve tasted both in America and at Jacques Genin in Paris.
With sweets well covered both by the bakeries and a variety of desserts during proper breakfasts, lunches, and dinners another focus of my visit to the North End was Italian savories from two of Boston’s most storied locales, Galleria Umberto and the original Regina Pizzeria. Beginning first, as I did, with Galleria Umberto – to say there are few places like this left in the United States is an understatement and to be completely honest, if you aren’t looking for it there is a fairly good chance you’ll walk right past it without even knowing it is there…and that would be a damned shame.
Deceptively large given it’s demure exterior, Galleria Umberto seems the sort of place that could have existed in 1911 the same way it exists in 2011 (minus the Pepsi cooler) and with doors opening “around 11:00am” (actually 10:40 on the day I visited) there is no doubt this is a spot for the locals as a small line formed within minutes and everyone in line was not only older than fifty, but also a known friend of the clerks. Assuming my place perhaps ten deep in the line and listening to the chatter both in front of and behind me it seemed the “can’t miss” items consisted of the Pizza, the Panzarotti, and the Arancini (already recommended to me by many others despite my overall distaste for beef) but on reaching the front of the line and seeing the considerable size of each option I decided the better part of valor was to select two and with the modest tab paid ($4.56 cash) I took a seat with nearly a pound of food on a silver tray.
Seated amongst the hustle and bustle of the line soon snaking out the door my first bite was the pizza and unfortunately it was precisely what I expected – a doughy Sicilian style pie with slightly burnt cheese and admittedly nicely flavored sauce. While certainly better than the pie at L&B in Brooklyn, it was almost immediately that I wished I’d opted for the Panzarotti instead – it turns out that save for DiFara’s I’m just not a Sicilian style guy. Moving next to the Arancini, a golden orb approximately the size of a tennis ball, it was then that I realized why Umberto garnered so much hype amongst “foodies” – this was dirt cheap street food done well. Part creamy rice, part creamy cheese, a small pocket of nicely seasoned ground beef, and unexpected green peas lending some sweetness – entirely excellent and a great appetizer for what would follow at Regina.
Admitting my gluttony, the meal following my “appetizer” at Umberto would itself serve as an appetizer to lunch at Neptune Oyster, but now traveling with two Bostonian guides my visit to Pizzeria Regina would allow greater sampling; always a plus when it comes to pizza. Arriving earlier than my dining partners and browsing the premises of the establishment that proudly wears its 1926 origins on its sleeve I had to admit it was bigger than I expected, but the hustle and bustle was precisely as billed with patrons entering or exiting nearly every minute. Sitting on a bench while I waited I was grateful to hear the wait was short (“5 minutes for a table, go park the car” in a perfect Boston accent that tickled me greatly) and when my colleagues arrived the wait was zero and we were seated immediately.
With the Bruins the hot topic of the day at many of the tables around us and the restaurant seemingly full of locals as opposed to tourists it was no time before a waitress, abrupt but pleasant enough, dropped off menus and took our orders for drinks – water for myself and cola plus tea for the others – and after a moment of browsing decisions were made to order two pizzas, one plus a single ingredient and the other minus two ingredients (yet we were charged more for it than the loaded as they refused to simply take ingredients off and instead charged the price for a plain plus the desired toppings.)
Having noted the rather old-school style of service I will note that water remained full throughout the meal and although smiles and pleasantries did not abound, I certainly didn’t find the service any worse than expected for a bustling pizza parlor and within twenty minutes our two pies landed on the table hot and bubbling – the first a combination of Mushrooms, Onions, and Green Peppers over top a thin (requested “well done”) crust with plenty of crunch, spicy tomato sauce, and briny mozzarella. While certainly not my style with the onions and peppers the slice I did try was quite good and I particularly enjoyed the crust – crispier than New York style, yet appropriately yeasty.
For the other pizza my choice was the Fior Di latte Pomodoro with added Artichoke hearts and although I really wish I’d have asked for my crust well done, the toppings and balance of mild Fior de Latte with fresh torn basil and sliced tomatoes in addition to the sauce was tremendous, particularly in areas where the cow’s milk mozzarella pooled to form creamy pockets only serving to highlight the quality of the toppings. Was it the best pizza I ever had – certainly not, but it was quite good and I imagine that had I ordered the Pomodoro with a well done crust it could’ve been stellar.
Rounding out the supplementary bites of Boston were three frozen treats – one a frozen yogurt shop recommended by my dining partners from Regina and the others Boston institutions. Beginning first with the Fro-yo, I have to admit that in general it is not my go-to, but when I was told of this locations Japanese spin including fruit and yogurt “caviar” I was intrigued and the location en route to Japonaise was quite convenient.
With the store largely unadorned save for tables, soft serve machines, and a long bar of toppings near the register and featuring a pump-it-yourself 40-cents an ounce selection of ten rotating flavors there really is not much to say about the store itself and the attitude of the attendant was slightly warmer than the fro-yo; but with that said, the flavors that Mixx is turning out are actually quite impressive and although I found the texture to be a tad more “icy” and less creamy than that of Pinkberry, my small sampling of tangy cheesecake and smooth and slightly savory Taro topped with yogurt “caviar” bubbles was well worth the per ounce price.
A second frosty dessert in Boston would be provided by local chain JP Licks, specifically the location on Newbury as I made my way towards Fenway for the Sox and A’s. With the line surprisingly short despite the warm weather and droves of teens shopping the surrounding stores it was with great delight first of all that the soundtrack was sporting Interpol, and second that the young lady behind the counter was generous with the samples. Having already noted my fondness for ice cream over frozen yogurt I will note that amongst my favorite bites was a creamy peanut butter soft serve, a tangy margarita sorbet, and fresh banana oreo – plus the two flavors I ended up ordering; Myer’s Rum Raisin and Maple Butter Walnut – the first intense and boozy and the second smooth and sweet. While admittedly not the creamiest or subtle ice creams on the planet – as a matter of fact, their overall degree of sweetness is amongst the most intense I’ve ever tasted – I really liked the uniqueness of these two options and the service was nearly as sweet as the product.
Rounding out the list – perhaps Boston’s most famous location for ice cream and a spot the New York Times once named “the best ice cream in the world,” I knew a visit to Toscanini’s was requisite for the trip and thankfully a dinner at Craigie on Main provided the opportunity by placing me literally right next door. With the line out the door both when I arrived at Craigie and when I left nearly two and a half hours later the expectations were high and thankfully they were met.
Having already noted the space to be full by simply walking past, the thing that struck me next was how large the space was when I finally made it in the door – never before had I seen an ice cream parlor stating a maximum capacity of over 100 patrons, let alone one so full. With plenty of time to browse the big board and pleasant servers abound my tastes for this evening included the mildly bitter Earl Grey and (obviously) Buckeye – both lovely and spot on to their namesake flavors – plus my eventual decision of a $4.50 small bowl with one half filled with Burnt Caramel and the other half featuring Grape Nut Raisin.
Beginning first with the Grape Nut – all I can say is you have to taste it to believe it. Somewhere between Humphry Slocombe’s Secret Breakfast and Momofuku Milk Bar’s Cereal Milk in flavor and the very essence of Grape Nut’s cereal left to sit in heavy cream too long this was exactly my style of ice cream – not too sweet, nicely nuanced, and entirely unique. Equally unique, my second choice of Burnt Caramel would represent an ice cream so famous that a magazine article posted on the wall told of its accidental creation and although a bit over the top in sweetness I definitely understood the hype as the gelato-dense concoction was a perfect recreation of the flavor imparted to crème brulee by the torch – if I were to return I’d definitely consider pairing it with a fruit sorbet as I can only imagine this would be heavenly.
63 Salem St Ste 1, Boston, MA 02113
300 Hanover St, Boston, MA
257 Hanover St, Boston, MA
Cambridge, MA, Cambridge, MA
South End Buttery
314 Shawmut Avenue, Boston, MA 02118
Flour Bakery + Cafe
12 Farnsworth St, Boston, MA
Craigie on Main
853 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02139
Given how many visitors solicit free advice here and don't demonstrate the courtesy of the most cursory follow-up, it seems quite ungracious to complain about your very detailed report here. Thanks for taking the extraordinary effort!
But given the occasion of your visit was the Endocrine Society Conference, I fully expect to see sweetbreads, tripe, kidneys, marrow, Rocky Mountain oysters, and/or some kind of livers among your follow-up posts.
Such a great thread.
If you don't mind my asking, what is the deal about beef? You just don't like it?
And also, wine? You are treatin yourself to these amazing meals and don't do wine ever? Not even a glass?
Thanks again! I'm going to Le Comptoir in Paris tomorrow and your reviews have inspired me to write up a detailed report.
With regard to wine - I don't know, its just something I've never gotten into. I'll drink a bit of rose or a sweet dessert wine from time to time, but it is nothing I generally opt to order. With that noted, if someplace offers a unique cocktail I'll occasionally order one - I did at L'Espalier.
Regarding beef my feeling is that if it is included in a long tasting menu - say a single bite of Wagyu or a truly unique cut like the 60 day aged Wagyu Strip I had at Roberta's in Brooklyn - then that is fine, but in general "beef is beef" to me no matter how you dress it up and if I'm only getting 5-6 courses in a tasting I'd MUCH rather substitute something interesting.
Have fun at Le Comptoir - it didn't make our list when we went in April, but that didn't stop us from racking up 26 Michelin Stars in 9 days. :-)
774 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02199
I also enjoyed hearing about his trip; if it was too long for some people they can always skim it. Just a note about Mikes Pastry you can always get the plain filled to order which in my opinion is the only way to go. I also like Maria's pastry on the edge of the northend and the greenway
Full review in blog, text below:
I’m just going to come right out and say it – the hour plus wait at Neptune Oyster (even at lunch) did not make a whole lot of sense to me. Sure the oft raved restaurant has a fanciful location in the touristy North End, sure the seafood is fresh and somewhat uniquely presented, and without a doubt the place is too small for its popularity – but really, is it THAT much better than the rest of Boston’s oyster bars and purveyors of fresh seafood? Well, for my first true sit-down meal in Boston that is exactly what I aimed to find out and joined by two locals who had been there a number of times I can only say I’m glad we had appetizer pizzas at Regina before braving the nearly 80 minute out the door line.
Owned and operated by Jeff Nance and featuring a mere 44 seats including the raw bar my first impression on entering Neptune was probably the first impression everyone has – sardines – as in “packed in there like sardines;” to say the least this place is a tight squeeze. With that consideration noted, my second thought on walking past each diner en route to our table was “that looks good – that too – oh, and what is that;” in other words, the product they are putting on the table looks outstanding even from afar and the restaurant smells nothing like an “oyster shack” but rather like the upscale bistro that it is – a bistro of bivalves if you will.
With the paper menu already perused during our long wait it would be a short time before our server, a pleasant young man with an astounding knowledge of the myriad types of raw oysters and other seafood combinations on the menu, would arrive at our table with glasses of ice water. Not an enormous fan of raw oysters myself but pleasantly seated with a direct view into the kitchen I listened as the province, flavor profile, and texture of each oyster was described and within moments one of my co-diners had selected a half dozen that would arrive shucked on ice and by then the rest of our order was decided and we were left with perhaps a twenty minute wait during which beverages never reached less than 1/3 empty.
Noting already that service was extraordinary throughout our meal, I will note that the small kitchen’s pacing was unfortunately less so – an issue for myself particularly as I ordered a warm appetizer and warm main course with both delivered simultaneously leading to a conundrum as to which would suffer from the air conditioner blowing directly over our heads. While our server noted that this “shouldn’t have happened” even as he delivered the food and tried to make up for it by granting our request for a sample of the a la minute clam chowder it unfortunately did happen and the thin milky lacking both salinity and texture really did not make up for a lukewarm $25 main course.
With my co-diners having already visited Neptune a number of times in the past one of them decided to try something new while the other opted for his tried and true; the first a Vitello Tonnato sandwich with roasted veal, tuna tartare, cucumber salad, and spicy wasabi mustard and the second a plate of seared Georges Bank Scallops with Braised Pork Shank, Sienna Farms Root Vegetables, Brussels Sprouts, and Chanterelles. Graciously allowed to taste a couple bites of each I’ll note that despite my feelings about veal/beef in general, the Vitello was actually much more like a creamy and subtle tuna tartare sandwich than veal – as a matter of fact, if anything the veal mostly served to make the standard tuna seem more textural and fatty; toro-esque if you will and while I personally feel a heftier bread would have helped, it was still quite good. Moving on to the scallops – they were almost so good that they made me regret my order as the caramelized scallops married perfectly with the slightly sweet pork while the root vegetable and chanterelle combination did likewise with the caramelized Brussels.
For my selections, save for the timing issue alluded to above, the flavors at Neptune Oyster remained spot on for both appetizer and main course – the first, the house special Neptunes on Piggyback. Described as “Crispy Oysters, Berkshire Pig, Golden Raisin Confiture, Pistachio Aioli” and served beneath greens and atop toast these lovely plump oysters arrived perfectly crisp on the exterior and briny and sweet within. Paired with the tasty shredded pork beneath, sweet raisins, and a splash of acid from the aioli I personally could have done with more oyster and less bread considering the price, but all things being equal this was a surf n’ turf combination done quite right.
For my main course – well, I simply couldn’t resist the hype; especially after we’d waited for so long and it seemed everyone in the place was ordering one. Described simply as “Maine Lobster Roll with toasted roll, hot with butter, fries” and checking in at $25 all I can say is that the parts I was able to eat hot were everything you’d expect from hot buttered lobster – no more and no less. Ample in portion and with the bread nearly saturated with butter while still holding its form I only wish more places in Boston served their lobster rolls in the manner as opposed to cold with Mayonnaise. Was it worth $25? Probably not, especially as I was not wowed by the fries – but it was quite tasty and prepared perfectly with a great meat to bun ratio and plenty of butter.
With the check divided and paid our exit from Neptune would be almost precisely one hour after we entered the door and even then the wait time for those leaving their name at the door remained “an hour to an hour and a half” and all things being equal I’d say the experience and food was worth the wait at least once – but looking back in retrospect on my trip if I were a local I’d probably not return anytime soon unless I lived in the neighborhood given the quality, size, convenience, and reservations system of their new competition near Fenway – Island Creek Oyster Bar.
63 Salem St Ste 1, Boston, MA 02113
terrific descriptions, mike. this will be so helpful in guiding other visitors. I must say, I was so surprised at the flavor choices you made at JPLicks, because the maple walnut and rum raisin are my 2 personal favs(maybe i wrote about them in some previous long-ago post that your photographic memory scooped up?!)
your Mike's Pastry comments were particularly helpful because i have been, i guess, wrongly deriding them 100% over the years, yet it seems there are a few good items.
And now I'll have to visit the South End Buttery. That's great that you did make it to Rino's and I'll look forw to hearing more about it.
Thanks again for taking the time for the detailed report; you certainly saved me the time it would take to report on those Fri. experiences and your bec fin always makes for a pleasurable and educative commentary!
Thanks for the great reports! Looking forward to reading the rest. The lines at Neptune seem to be getting longer. We haven't been for over a year due to this reason alone, and that one can reserve at icob. I do feel neptune is better overall, but I just don't think it's worth the wait anymore.
Re: regina: I always think that with the pizzas there, 'less is more'. I've been underwhelmed whenever guests have insisted on having multi-topping pizzas which often make the dough a bit soggy, but the simple ones are great.
Craigie on Main:
Full text below, photos in the blog:
Walking in to Craigie on Main I must admit I was hesitant; as a matter of fact, for the sake of full disclosure I’ll note that until Chef Tony Maws won the Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast one month earlier I’d been ignoring suggestions to add Craigie to my agenda largely because the menu simply seemed too much like everything else trendy out there these days – offal this, local-regional that, and nose-to-tail porkcentricity. Rarely one to question trusted palates in the cities I visit it was in fact the Beard Award (and particularly who he beat out) that forced me to reconsider my decision and after a week or so of watching the restaurant’s social media feed I decided to give it a go – a quick e-mail to the restaurant assured me that the tasting menu could be ordered by a solo, that they’d avoid a main course of beef or veal, and that a printed copy of the menu could certainly be made available at the meals end; with a full day of sightseeing already scheduled I opted for 7pm and I arrived right on cue.
Greeted at the door by two young ladies, including one I could only assume to be the dining room manager as I later saw her doing everything from delivering plates to taking orders to hanging coats as the place got increasingly more busy, my reservation was confirmed and my bags checked before I was led to a nice (but poorly lit as the sun went down) two-top along the wall. With the room mostly heavy woods and brick plus some off white wallpaper juxtaposing the white tablecloths and quality service ware I actually liked the feel of Craigie save for one thing – the music which when combined with the open kitchen and room full of graduates, families, and parties was one of the loudest I’ve ever experienced.
Seated for approximately 5 minutes before Joseph, my captain for the evening, would arrive my water was filled (and kept nearly filled to the brim throughout) and a menu was delivered by a young woman. With the menu divided into a la carte options, a six course, and a ten course I asked a few questions (largely to make sure that the main course was not beef and that a copy could be provided) and Joseph explained to me that the way the ten course worked was he would ask if there was anything I really liked and/or didn’t want and the chef would craft it from there; thinking this sounded ideal and noting my likes and dislikes I opted for the ten course and things were underway. With the two-top next to me notably requesting the six course (hard not to eavesdrop when everyone is yelling over the din of the room) and the table of six to my left opting for the ten course I will note that although the restaurant was busy service was quite good throughout and descriptions of each dish were detailed – but save for a couple of items it really didn’t seem like the tasting was tailored at all.
Eschewing the custom of amuses and canapés first (more on this later) my meal would begin with cold bread and colder butter to go with my water. Arriving in a basket theoretically covered with a towel to retain heat, the chilly collection of carbohydrates consisted of two pieces each of sourdough, demi-baguette, and cereal bread – all decent, the cereal bordering on good, but none memorable and all done a disservice by the mundane unsalted butter.
For my first course of the night (little did I know that at Craigie the “ten course” is actually only seven courses as they count the palate cleanser, sorbet, and amuse as part of the tasting) the item listed as the “amuse” on my later printed menu was noted as Three Seafood Preparations: Tartare of Citrus Cured Halibut with Sea Trout Roe, Squid Noodles with Nuac Cham Vinaigrette and Crispy Garlic, and Smoked Sablefish Rillettes with Hackleback Caviar. Served as three single bites in a sectioned porcelain dish and progressing left to right in terms of complexity and depth of flavor I will note that each taste was flavorful and interesting, particularly the squid, but none were anything new or novel and the singular theme of fish and brine did not really do much to prime the palate for other tastes or textures.
Arriving literally on the heels of my amuse, the second course was listed on my printed menu to be Yellowfin Tuna, but from my pictures, notes, and memory the Salad of Scallop Sashimi with Pickled Mango and Red Onion Salad, Avocado-Lovage Puree was certainly not tuna – nor was the it for either of the tables neighboring mine. Again no more than a bite in terms of overall size, this second course was certainly more interesting than the amuses with the flawless mollusk sliced linearly into two creamy rounds and paired delicately with soured mangos and sweetened onions. Texturally complex and utilizing the lovage’s bitter qualities to touch all parts of the palate this was a dish designed to be an amuse both in size and in scope.
At this point keeping pace with the surrounding tables receiving the same dishes, course three would feature Line-Caught Striped Bass with Iraqi Beet Stew, Fresh Florida Rock Shrimp and Farro Verde and upping the ante both in size and in flavor this course was a knockout. Beginning first with the bass; the flesh tender and moist due to olive oil poaching and the skin crispy from a kiss of the pan I can sincerely say it was perfect – one of the best slices of bass I’ve ever had. Paired with sweet shrimp, smoky cubed beets, and a locally sourced toothsome green spelt this would prove to be my second favorite savory of the night.
Plate number four would be the only place where my tasting differed from the six course to my right and one of two places where it would diverge from those to my left (yes, that means the “six course” turned out to be 9 of the 10 I received as part of the ten course – though I will say the couple was celebrating an anniversary and were clearly known to the house.) With the table to the right lingering over the bass and that to my left receiving a whole family style hamachi collar to share, my plate would include Crispy Tempura of Soft-Shelled Crab with House made Cole Slaw, Preserved Lemon, Pickled Peppers, and Squid Ink Anchoiade – a dish I see has subsequently been added to the a la carte menu. With the soft-shell nicely prepared in panko but relatively par for season and the amalgam of slaw, lemon, and peppers tasty but rather benign the high point of this dish for myself was actually the black anchoiade with the potent flavors of anchovies and garlic serving a nice foil to the sweetness of the crab.
Described as “the pasta course,” dish five included the House Made Rye Flour Straccetti paired with a Ragout of Ham, Peekytoe Crab, and Mousseron Mushroom, but in all reality it might as well have been described as “wet noodles with ham puree” because that was truly all you could taste and although it tasted fine, I’d have much preferred something a little more subtle, or perhaps just an order of the rigatoni with chicken confit and chicken liver mousse from the a la carte.
My sixth item of the tasting menu would be a successful venture into the seemingly decreased number of offal courses compared to previous menus and although the couple to my right sent more than half back because they did not enjoy the texture, I personally found the Braised Veal Sweetbreads with Hom Shimeji Mushroom, Bok Choy, Hakurei Turnip, Ramp Kimchee and Almond Butter to be the most successful course of the evening. Delicate, creamy, and approximately the size of a jumbo egg with a nicely crisped exterior the gland itself needs no further description – it was applause worthy. What made this plate so successful from my vantage, however, was the Asian theme imparted by fibrous mushrooms, melting bok choy, and an interesting turnip something like a water chestnut bathed in a broth both sweet and savory, smooth and acidic all at the same time – the best use of the night’s bread service was actually mopping this plate clean.
For my final savory, myself now one course ahead of the table of six who was enjoying another shared course of chicken in place of the sweetbreads, course seven would be Vermont Pork Three Ways with Spice Crusted Rib, Grilled Belly, and Morcilla with Sorrel Coulis, Pea Tendrils, Radish, and Grilled Ramps. Large in portion and more so in flavor with protein plated to the left and vegetables to the right this is one situation where I can say the vegetables save for the tasty crispy ramps were extraneous save for visual contrast and appeal; the star here was invariably the swine and each of the three presentations (literally) brought something different to the plate. Beginning first with the rib – smoky, rich, and fibrous, next the belly – crisp skin and fatty supple flesh, finally the blood sausage – bold, heterogeneous, and full of spice – it is no wonder Maws’ kitchen is decorated entirely in shapes of the pig, he clearly has a great love for it and understands its preparation thoroughly.
Still somewhat perplexed by course six (little did I know the amuses were included actually making the pork course seven) being announced as my “final savory” in a ten course progression, my next dish featured Pink Grapefruit Campari Sorbet and Champagne Foam – a bitter little bite I could have certainly done without, and all the more frustrating when I realized this palate cleanser was actually course eight.
“For your dessert course – Bourbon Pecan Ice Cream Tart with Sea Salt, Smoked Mexican Chocolate Sauce and Bacon Pecan Crust” said my server mere moments on the heels of the sorbet and with that I was offered coffee (declined) and left to enjoy what would actually be a pretty remarkable dessert. Served essentially as a long thin sliver of buttery boozed up ice cream studded with candied pecans atop a savory crust and beneath a ribbon of salty chocolate ganache the tart itself was great but what really put it over the top was a smear and a dollop of chipotle and cinnamon spiced chocolate that added a whole other layer of complexity by bringing the other flavors to an peak on the palate.
For my tenth course of the night I was presented a rather innocuous “Greek Yogurt Foam with Red Beet and Blood Orange Granite” – slightly tangy, a bit earthy, and plenty citrus I certainly preferred it to the sorbet. Along with this course my captain would present to my table for only perhaps the third or fourth time of the evening and when he asked me how everything had went I simply stated “it was alright” and when he asked “just alright?” I inquired as to why the six course and ten course were so similar both in length and composition to which he confirmed my suspicion that the table next to me were “friends of the house.”
With the room still loud but starting to fade as the hour approached 9:30 the check was delivered along with two small macarons described as “Chocolate Almond Tobacco” and although their dry texture was not ideal the flavor was certainly intriguing. Also delivered with the check was a comment card, something I always take the time to fill out whether good or bad but especially in this case as it came with check-boxes a long note from Chef Maws requesting feedback. Of course, since Joseph had also forgotten to pass along word of my desire for a printed menu I had a good fifteen minutes to fill out the card and as such became rather wordy – mostly praise but also noting that while some dishes shined others disappointed, especially in the setting of a “ten course menu” when four courses could have been served as amuses or palate cleansers rather than proper courses.
Having now been up for nearly twenty hours I settled my bill and with menu in hand I made my way to the door where my bags were gathered and within moments I found myself in a cab en route for the South End. Having spent a good portion of the day eating I most certainly was not hungry, but at the same time I also wasn’t terribly satisfied with my visit to Craigie on Main either. Sure some of the courses were good – as a matter of fact, some were excellent – but for $150+ I tend to expect more from a Beard Award winning chef…and when I returned home to Ohio perhaps I found out just what I should have expected and received in the form of an apology and offer from Marjorie Maws stating “…ff course we're upset that you weren't blown away by our food. Here's a possible explanation (but definitely not an excuse.). You came in at a time when there are lots of out of town visitors who are here for one of the many graduations in the area. We learned a few years ago that many of these diners were not as adventurous as our local crowd and so we made the menu a little more "normal" for a couple of weeks. We do, however, still have several "funky" preparations available and our servers are instructed to ask where each party is on the "funk scale." It sounds like that may not have happened in your case and, if that's true, we are terribly sorry. May I offer you a gift certificate for a return visit to Craigie so that you can enjoy our full range of our selections? Again our apologies and we really appreciate your feedback. We can't wait to cook for you again!”
I’ll also note that since that visit the online description detailing the “Ultimate Craigie Experience” has been truncated from ten to eight courses while the sample menu itself still lists the same ten courses I received. While I can't say my first visit to Craigie on Main was my best in Boston all things being equal I'd definitely be willing to give anyplace that classy a second chance and on my next visit to the North East I shall.
Craigie on Main
853 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02139
Craigie is one of my favorites in Boston. That said, I think their tasting menu is more "experimental" and more often in flux than comparably priced tasting menus at other outstanding high-end Boston restaurants and thus always has some misses as well as some true hits. I would entertain at Menton, but Craigie is more exciting. In particular, their handling of lovage and sweetbreads are consistently fantastic (lovage turns up in all sorts of intruiging ways at Craigie, including sometimes in a soda). If it were less expensive, I would have a tasting at Craigie more often, but with those expectations in mind I would have been very satisfied to have been wowed by two savory courses, as long as everything else was also good without being great.
354 Congress St, Boston, MA 02210
Thanks for the reviews uhockey. I'm trying to eat less and living vicariously through posts like these. Sorry that you didn;'t try Maria's Pastry which I find the best of the triumvirate especially for their sfoliatelle. The canneles at Canto6 are my favorites and a bargain at 3 for $1 (much smaller than Burdicks) Agree on almond croissants here. The pale compare to the smallest patisserie in France but some here are tasty, just different. I will need to try SE Buttery. I've avoided it based on comments from a former (possibly disguntled) employee.
Maria's Pastry Shop
46 Cross St, Boston, MA 02129
Cambridge, MA, Cambridge, MA
I love these detailed reports, regardless of length. Keep 'em coming! Sorry you didn't have the best experience at Craigie, but I'm not surprised at their response, they run a very classy joint. I have noticed that the tasting menu gets abit more mundane during graduation time, and usually eschew it during that time, though honestly on my last few trips to Craigie, my meals have consisted of the crispy fried pig tails, the melange of egg, with mushrooms, vegetables, and either sweetbreads, chicken or sausage, and either the cod cheeks (if they have them), or one other appetizer that appeals to me. This helps keep the bill down, and it's enough food for a big guy like myself. I'd suggest this approach when you use that gift certificate.
Full review in blog, text as below.
If someone were to ask me my biggest gripe about Boston the third thing on my list would be the dearth of quality eats around the conference center; numbers one and two are reserved for the confounded green line that breaks down almost every time you’re on it and the fact that their sports teams have won a championship in every major sport over the last ten years while Ohio teams…well, you know. With the conference beginning on a Saturday and myself not at all planning to dine on catered food or the cafeteria-style options of the center, the one recommended spot that was open on Saturday and within walking distance was Sportello, a counter-style Italian themed spot from acclaimed local chef Barbara Lynch. With plans already made to visit Lynch’s flagship No. 9 Park for my final dinner in Boston a quick look at the menu made my decision easy – as a bonus, the standard lunch menu would be supplemented with Brunch items as well.
Arriving at the restaurant early during our lunch break I was slightly confused by the hidden entrance and lack of signage to the point that had I not been looking for the address I’d have certainly walked right past it. Entering the door and climbing the stairs to the sounds of happy-go-lucky 80s pop I was next surprised by how empty the restaurant was – only two other diners present and the staff largely standing about chatting. Greeted promptly I was told I could sit anywhere I liked and making my way through the white and wood motif I selected a spot at the bar closest the open kitchen and with the place-setting serving as one menu I was handed the brunch specials while my water glass was filled by my cheery server, Haley. With time constraints noted given the number of lectures I wanted to see and having already browsed the online menu I quickly made sure the items I’d targeted were available and within minutes my order was placed.
With the restaurant quite quiet save for the music and the sound of the griddle I have to admit that the space was much smaller than I’d expected, but with a bakery in one corner and unique retail items and books near the door I have to admit Lynch’s ability to put a lot in such a tiny space was admirable. Upscale yet casual both in style and in server demeanor I was next asked if I’d like bread to enjoy with my meal and with the obvious answer being yes a plate of moist and dense Scali bread with sesame seeds arrived warm alongside a plate of creamy ricotta, olive oil, and fresh rhubarb compote – a lovely sweet yet savory touch that made me wish I’d have had time to return in order to sample more of the bakeries offerings (or that the bread service at No 9. Park was half as good.)
Having eschewed appetizers and bakery selections instead opting for two main courses – one savory and one sweet – I watched my first plate come together piece by piece as one cook worked the grill and the other the oven to construct Smoked Duck Hash with slow scrambled eggs, root vegetables, potatoes, and griddled toast. A rather standard preparation rendered impressive through the use of top quality ingredients each aspect of the dish was nicely done with the duck smoky and supple and the eggs nearly a buttery porridge in consistency. While I personally would have preferred the vegetables a bit more crispy that was hardly a quibble as the previously confited and subsequently heated cubed carrots and turnips were quite delicious.
For my second course the preparation would unfortunately not begin until I was nearly done with the first and given the duration of its cooking time my planned meal of less than an hour ended up taking nearly 80 minutes. Noting the delay, I can certainly say that the souffle pancake with huckleberry jam, powdered sugar, and maple syrup from Vermont was worth the wait as I watched the whites and yolks folded together then quickly pan seared, flipped, and finished in the oven to create a puffy single plate-sized cake with a slightly crunchy top and fluffy interior very much like a soufflé. With fresh huckleberry jam (incidentally sold in the store) and pure maple syrup finishing the plate this was essentially a $12 dessert well worth the price.
With the bill paid – a somewhat pricey $35 with tax and tip for brunch – and my thanks to the staff I gathered my things and with the restaurant now perhaps 1/2 full as the hour approached noon I made my way back to the street where a quick walk would have me back at the conference center less than 1:45 after I’d left and all the happier for having done so. While certainly not the best lunch/brunch/or meal of my trip Sportello’s location, hours, quality, and service put it in a league of its own in Boston and if there is ever another conference I should attend in Boston I’d return without hesitation for the gnocchi, rigatoncini, or some selections from the bakery.
348 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02110
147 Pearl St, Boston, MA 02110
Actually, I like the green line -- in that it goes to many of the places I want to go. Yep, it's less reliable, but the stops are where I need/want to go (by and large).
OT, it always amazes me that Americans think something old doesn't need to work. The london tube, the oldest subway system in the world, has many, many faults. But the trains do seem to run rather better than the green line! [admittedly, the constant engineering works on the london network would bring the much smaller mbta to a halt].
Island Creek Oyster Bar:
Full review below, pictures in blog:
…on Saturday the Boston Bruins by way of the Boston Red Sox unknowingly threw a big monkey wrench into my well planned trip to Boston. Having visited many of the most storied stadiums in baseball and the most fabled arenas in hockey I knew that the Garden would have to wait until another trip – tickets for game three were topping a thousand dollars and while I know it would have been a great experience I’d only spend that much if it were my Kings in the finals. With that noted, a trip to Fenway seemed like a must for my trip to Boston and with the Sox in town playing the A’s in a 7:05pm start and the last lecture of interest scheduled to end at 5:00pm I knew a quick trip on the Greenline would afford me a pre-game bite at Island Creek Oyster Bar and provided the game didn’t go too long (or if I left early) I could make it back to O-Ya for a late seating. With stubhub supplying the ticket and reservations made my plan seemed perfect…but you know what they say about best laid plans.
With the lecture proving less dynamic than hoped and myself departing early to hop the silverline to the greenline (breaking down only once on this trip) I found myself at Island Creek just after 4:40 and although my reservation was for 5:30 I was greeted pleasantly by the hostess in the bustling bar and within moments was led through the expansive room (easily eight fold the size of Neptine) to a great two top next to the banquet in the main dining room. Still early in the dinner hour there were perhaps three tables full when I arrived though the banquet would quickly contain a group of ten celebrating some sort of business financial success (platters of seafood, plenty of champagne, and clinking glasses abound) and the restaurant would slowly fill to 2/3 capacity by the time I departed fifty minutes later (the rush my decision.) With a wall of oyster shells to my left, the loud bar to my distant right, and plenty of leather, wood, and steel the place felt even more upscale casual than Neptune and the clientele mirrored that with most in buttoned shirts and some in ties and sports jackets.
Greeted by my waitress, a bubbly young woman with a great smile named Jillian, and deferring the cocktail list while she filled my water the daily menu (literally, printed daily, and stamped with the date) was presented and suggestions made regarding what was freshest on the raw bar. Left to decide with the note “I’ll go get you some bread” my decision process was relatively straight forward as I the two items most raved were on the standard daily menu – though I must admit the daily Johnny Cake dish and the lobster with uni stuffing sounded delectable. With my order in mind it was at this point that I became aware of something, however – the folks at the bar were cheering loudly as the Red Sox had apparently just gone up by four in the game…the game I was supposed to be going to in about two hours…the game that had (unbeknownst to me) been rescheduled to a 1:05pm start due to the Bruins.
With Jillian returning to the table with bread as promised and confirming that the game had indeed been rescheduled I explained my predicament to which she was sympathetic stating she’d understand if I wanted to run and see if I could at least use my ticket to get in and see the stadium, but with the game now in the 8th inning I decided to call it a loss and stay; I could always do one of the Fenway tours the following day. A bit disheartened my order was placed and with that Jillian promised to bring “milk and cookies – on the house” as a consolation prize and left me with bread – a basket of pillowy Honey whole wheat paired with salted almond honey butter that was nearly the flavor of sweetened peanut butter and just as creamy – the best table bread of the trip even compared to the impressive pretzel roll at L’Espalier.
With the kitchen upstairs and orders starting to appear for other tables in the restaurant I sat and listened to the light overhead music while checking for missed e-mails about the game’s time change on my phone but my browse was interrupted in less than ten minutes when Jillian returned with my appetizer course of Local Clam Chowder with Hand Dug Clams, Buttermilk Biscuit, and House Cured Bacon. Served piping hot and of medium thickness this creamy potage was everything Neptune’s was not – briny yet balanced, smoky yet subtle, and absolutely chock full of clams and less-so with potatoes. Decorated with three buttery ping-pong ball sized biscuits as opposed to generic oyster crackers this was a soup worthy of its $10 price tag and I was glad to have bread with which to soak up every bit of it.
With the soup sopped it was at this point that the bar groaned – according to my phone the Sox had miraculously managed to give up four in the top of the 9th and the game was headed to the bottom of the ninth and for the first time I thought to myself that maybe, just maybe there was a chance I might luck out and as good fortune would have it my main course arrived just as the game headed to extra innings. Having heard great things about ICOB’s Lobster Roe Noodles but somewhat skeptical given my cynicism for beef I’d decided to take the chance for two reasons – one was that my dining partners the day prior didn’t even remember short rib being included in the dish and the second was that both Jillian and one of the guys at the table across the way stated “you can barely taste it” and although they were wrong in that regard as I certainly coul taste it, the piled high plate was very impressive.
Titled officially as “Lobster Roe Noodles with Grilled Lobster, Braised Short Rib, Pecorino, Chanterelle Mushrooms” and featuring each ingredient in plethora plus sweet green peas the star of this dish was most certainly the house made noodles – briny and smooth, perfectly al dente and the very flavor of lobster roe – yet at the same time, the flavorful amalgam topping the noodles was not far behind in the flavor department with notes of sweet, savory, ocean, and earth all competing equally for palate space. With the lobster snappy, the short rib melting in the mouth, and the sauce somewhere between butter and smoky pan jus there was really nothing left to be desired and although pricey at $27 this was the sort of dish that could have easily served two as a lighter meal.
With two outs in the bottom of the 10th and the game still tied Jillian arrived at my table to collect my empty plate and asked if I was still interested in dessert – a difficult call as everything had been so excellent, but an option on which I deferred first of all because of the game, but also for the sake of my 9:00pm reservation at O-Ya. With the bill settled and a hefty tip left for the great service I made my way to the street and part jogging headed for the stadium where I would not only get in but would also watch one inning from the 6th row behind home plate and the next two from the top of the Green Monster until JD Drew ended it with a single to score Crawford in the bottom of the 14th…the crowd went crazy, I later went to O-Ya for one of my best stateside meals in recent memory, and if I ever come back to Boston I’ll most certainly return to Island Creek Oyster Bar.
Island Creek Oyster Bar
500 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA 02215
All of these re-cap's have been stellar. Thank you for taking the time to report back. As a major Neptune supporter I still view it as the best in town, but after my last two visits to ICOB I can see why people enjoy the experience (and food) more than Neptune. Happy we have both.
Looking forward to your O-Ya review, arguably our best in town.
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below:
Save for the newly appointed Restaurant at Meadowood the only stateside Michelin 3-Star I’ve not yet been is MASA and considering how frequently I visit New York this is admittedly no accident. Call me crazy or call me unrefined but when you grow up in the Midwest the difference between fish here and the fish at almost any costal location is so profound that I just can not fathom spending nearly $500 (and not being allowed to take pictures) on “amazing” sushi when I could be nearly (or just as) impressed by a meal one quarter the price at a “good-to-great” costal sushi spot. With all that said, however, my interest was peaked when review after review and friend after friend told me Boston had something different – that there was a place doing “sushi” in a way that not only featured the freshest fish and designer ingredients but also found a way to make the food and experience something totally different and entirely unlike anything else out there; that place was O Ya.
A frequent reader of Food and Wine plus many blogs and newspaper articles I’d obviously heard of O Ya – it was hard to miss given the fact that the small location in Boston’s leather district had once been named The Best New Restaurant in America by Bruni and owner/chef Tim Cushman had nabbed Food & Wine’s Best New Chef award the same year. With the restaurant seating a mere three-dozen my reservations were made far in advance and even despite my late hour of arrival the place was packed throughout my visit –some folks drinking a bit of sake and eating a couple plates while others opted to indulge in the $250 long-style tasting menu and any combination in between. Having requested a seat at the sixteen stool bar I arrived slightly early for my reservation and greeted by Nancy Cushman and a pair of hostesses my bag was taken and I was led quickly to the seat I would inhabit for the next 160 blissful minutes.
With my seat directly before one of the three sushi chefs and my water filled by an astute young man who would keep me filled to the brim throughout the meal the next person to greet me would be my captain of the evening, Jessica, who presented the luxury tasting menu along with the a la carte menu and a sake/wine list. Explaining to me also that there was the option for a chef’s omakase that could be constructed for $160 and tailored to the diner’s likes while focusing on the restaurants signatures and whatever was most fresh I spent a few minutes deciding and eventually opted for the omakase as opposed to the luxury menu largely because the luxury contained two beef courses, but also because I decided putting myself in the chefs’ hands with the notes of “no beef, but as many foie gras courses as they would like to serve” seemed like a grand idea.
With Jessica returning to the kitchen after a smile and a “good choice,” the meal would start slow as the overhead stereo delighted with Radiohead and Led Zeppelin bouncing about the high ceiling of the former firehouse and as I waited for my first course I would be pleasantly entertained not only by the sushi chefs and action in the largely visible kitchen, but also by the smiles, oohs, and aahs of nearly everyone around me. With dish after dish presenting something new and unique – certainly not your standard salmon on some sticky rice – I watched with great interest as items were torched, sous-vided, grilled, foamed, sliced, seared, and assembled. While not as interactive as many of the sushi bars I have seen, the level of skill was undeniable and during the rare moments when the sushi chefs were not working on a specific plate they were smiling, conversant, and clearly enjoying their clients reactions to the complex flavors of each and every dish.
Seated for perhaps twenty minutes hoping that each impressive creation that passed before my eyes would be included in my menu, my first bite of O Ya was a single Kumamoto Oyster with watermelon pearls and cucumber mignonette. Served on ice and bracing in its sweet/salty balance punctuated by a creamy gush on biting into the oyster this was the sort of raw oyster that even I, a man generally unimpressed by uncooked mollusks, could learn to like.
With the pacing tending towards a new plate every 7-10 minutes my second of the twenty courses would be Hamachi with spicy banana pepper mousse – an intriguing preparation with the lightly torched fish characteristically clean and a bit smoky, but with extra “oomph” added by the acidic sweetness of the pepper that brought out some of the more flavorful notes of the otherwise mild fish.
Noting in advance my overall blasé feeling for both salmon and overpowering citrus flavor, course three would be my least favorite of the night and – to be fair – the only dish out of twenty that didn’t work for me. Titled Salmon with unfiltered wheat soy moromi and yuzu the salmon was reportedly wild caught and actually quite good in texture and flavor; what didn’t work for me however was the bracing fermented wheat and yuzu combination which smelled something akin to waterless hand sanitizer – not a good thing and even with the characteristic heft of salmon totally overwhelming.
With that single disagreeable bite behind me the next sixteen savories would literally serve as a perception altering foray into the world of Chef Cushman and teams’ brilliance – the first eye opener entitled “Warm eel with thai basil, kabayaki, fresh Kyoto sansho.” Served over slightly sweetened rice and indeed warm I was explained that this slice of eel was originally dipped in soy and then broiled prior to a quick pan searing of the skin to create a dramatic effect with the fish crispy on one side and creamy on the other. Not settling for a simple great piece of eel the addition of sansho and thai basil gave the bite an earthy flavor with top notes resembling anise that melded well with the unctuous flavor of the fish.
Next up – a slice of chutoro as thin, fatty, and as perfect as one would expect. Described as “Peruvian style kindai bluefin chutoro tataki with aji panca sauce and cilantro pesto” this was one of my favorite courses of the night and having never heard of aju panca in the past I was told it was a form of sweet Peruvian pepper the chef fancied for pairing with more subtle fishes, particularly tuna, and all-in-all I must say it was an inspired choice acting to not only accent the buttery fish but to also serve counterpoint to the bold flavor of the pesto.
Arriving sixth would be a dish I couldn’t help but hear my neighbors gushing over and although it really did not seem like much at first the moment I tasted “Homemade Russian fingerling potato chip with summer truffle” I immediately understood why. Featuring a single razor thin chip, crisp and buttery as possible and topped with nothing but a bit of chive, crème fraiche, and a slice of truffle this was simplicity done well – chips and dip perfected – all perched peculiarly atop hand formed sushi rice.
Following the chip, Wild Santa Barbara spot prawn with garlic butter, white soy, and preserved yuzu was a relatively straight forward presentation and with the jellied yuzu intensely sweet to offset the punchy garlic this snappy torched shrimp was delicate and flavorful yet nicely balanced with a saline top note from a quick paint-brushing of white soy prior to service.
Reverting back to the first course and amongst my favorite bites of the menu, dish eight would present Fried Kumamoto Oyster with yuzu kosho aioli and squid ink bubbles. An extremely dynamic presentation both to the eyes and to the mouth this morsel featured a single oyster – tempura crisp and buttery outside but liquid, briny, and slightly sweet within topped with a frothy amalgam of tart citrus, a bit of spice, and a lot of brine that permeated the nostrils the moment it entered the mouth and clung to the palate well after the bite was gone. I could have (and should have) ordered an a la carte round of these simply to experience it again.
Nearing the midway point of the menu, Kyoto style morel mushrooms with garlic and soy was a great followup to the oyster in its earthy simplicity – no tricks, no gimmicks, just an excellent morel with some traditional seasoning and rice – if you like morels you would like this dish and from my standpoint I like morels as much as I like truffles and this meaty specimen wad excellent.
For my next course I was granted a gift – the only dish of the evening not on the menu and described by Jessica as “something the chef has been working with – he wanted to send this out since you said you like foie gras; he calls it Foie Gras spoon with miso and yuzu.” Served as stated on a wooden spoon I’d actually seen something similar to this before at Alinea and on inquiring how it was done the technique was confirmed as the foie was first house cured, then blanched and frozen before being pushed through a sieve and then dehydrated to form the creamy microspheres that melted on the tongue into a creamy pool lightly accented with savory miso and candied yuzu.
Course eleven would arrive on hand-blown glass plate and was titled Shima Aji and Hokkaido Sea Urchin ceviche vinaigrette with cilantro – it would be the heftiest flavor of the evening save for the final savory and also amongst the most refined services of a jack fish or mackerel that I have experienced. With rosy flesh and silver scale plus a ribbon of fat betraying its cold water sourcing the fish itself was slightly sweet and firm yet supple – a truly perfect specimen – but what truly put the plate over the top was the urchin vinegar pairing with the two distinct flavors literally melting into one indescribable taste that only punctuated the complexity of the fish.
With the restaurant now starting to empty as the hour neared 10:30 the soundtrack slowly shifted to some heavier more modern tunes including the Silversun Pickups and Pearl Jam and with that my next course would arrive in a steaming basket. Annotated as “Arctic Char – yuzu cured with smoked sesame brittle, cumin aioli, cilantro” this warmed preparation was uncovered at presentation and with a puff of steam the air immediately filled with a smoky grilled aroma yet the dish itself would be merely warm as the scent lied beneath. Meaty and flavorful, slightly sweet but more so a mélange of spices and a lovely balance of textures from the smooth fish, crunchy brittle, and creamy aioli – another resounding success.
For lucky number thirteen another sashimi course would arrive – this time Kindai Bluefin Tuna Tataki with smoky pickled onion and truffle oil. Another return to more traditional flavors and topped with strings of daikon the tuna itself was as good as one would expect at a restaurant such as O Ya while the savory onion and aromatic truffle oil served to accentuate the more “meaty” tones of the fish.
With the tastes and textures now clearly progressing towards the heavier end of the spectrum my request for a foie gras heavy menu would be realized with three of the last six savories – the first of which was “Seared diver scallop and Foie gras, Shiso grapes, Vin Cotto,” an intriguing “surf n’ turf” served on a nearly eighteen inch long plate. Starting first with the scallop and foie gras my favorite aspect of this dish was the manner in which Cushman chose to prepare them nearly identically – cool at the base and crispy caramelized atop (though the foie was notably sous vided prior to meeting the pan) – a unique flavor contrast to be sure. With the proteins at the centered and minimally adorned the next step in this plate’s success was the ‘choose your own adventure’ aspect of it; an open invitation to explore the nuances of the scallop and liver with toppings including tangy vinegar, tiny grapes dotted with bits of shiso paste, and a thick puree of what I believe was chestnut and spices – this would be the first time in the meal I utilized my fork and knife, largely because I didn’t want it to go to fast.
Next up, “Shiso tempura with grilled lobster, charred tomato and ponzu aioli,” a dish that seemingly took notes from Chef Thomas Keller’s playful manner of undermining the ‘wow-factor’ of lobster by naming other ingredients first, yet in this case appropriate given the impact of the crispy leaf of savory shiso on the dish – an impact that when combined with the creamy ponzu and smoky tomato lent this dish a nearly “BLT” tone with a lot more pizzazz.
Course sixteen would be one of the most talked about on O Ya’s continuous rotation partially because of Bruni’s glowing review of it but also because it really is quite good. Titled Grilled Chanterelle and Shitake mushroom sashimi with rosemary garlic oil, sesame froth, soy and featuring lightly sautéed strips of sliced mushroom tinged with notes of both soy and rosemary for myself the highlight of this dish was actually the “froth” – the very essence of woodsy mushrooms and earth with crunchy bits of sesame punctuating the otherwise creamy and smooth experience.
Originally Chinese but now adopted by Japanese culture as well, gyoza seemed a logical choice for the O Ya menu and if one is going to make dumplings why not fill it with something delicious – and top it with something equally excellent? Entitled Foie Gras gyoza with Kyoto sansho and pink peppercorns, course seventeen would prove to be the most substantial of the meal and also the most spicy. With the dumplings nearly translucent and the creamy filling also used as garnish the sapor of liver was notable throughout, yet by utilizing the peppercorn/sansho/crisp bacon garnish there was nothing simple or one-dimensional about this plate and as a matter of fact despite not generally enjoying a lot of heat this may have been my favorite uses of whole peppercorns ever.
For my “final savory” of the evening I was served Tea Brined Fried Pork Ribs with hot sesame oil, honey, and scallions, a relatively straight forward dish with a pleasant balance of sweet and spice overlying crisp skin, succulent meat, and melting cartilage.
Having noted that the prior dish was my final savory, dessert was next – and it too contained Foie Gras. With a slender glass arriving first and filled with a shot of 13 year old sake the final course of my omakase was titled “Foie gras with balsamic chocolate kabayaki, raisin cocoa pulp, sip of aged sake” and like the rest of O Ya’s signatures it did not disappoint. Perfectly seared and served still sizzling the foie itself was lovely while the combination of raisin, cocoa, and balsamic lent a sweet and aromatic top note that only became more pronounced with a sip of the semi-sweet sake.
With the clock reaching 11:15 my server would arrive to ask if I’d like to try dessert and never one to pass on at least looking at the menu I knew the moment I saw it that the Tres Leches soaked Boston Crème Pie with cocoa crumble and sesame was a must. Priced at $12 and served as a sort of angel food cake with cream filling absolutely drenched in sweet milk and resting atop crumbled chocolate cake laced with notes of soy and cinnamon everything about this plate simply worked. Complex – for sure. The best Boston Crème Pie I had in Boston? Without a doubt – and in a trip that contained a number of stellar desserts it was certainly the most unique.
With the bill paid (well less than half the cost of MASA or Urasawa for those keeping tally) and a menu collected I made my way to the hostess stand after a bow from the sushi chefs and a “thank you for coming” from Nancy and within moments I was tucked into a cab en route for my hotel with not only some great food in my belly and some great memories in my mind, but also a new found appreciation for sushi and a new member of the Top-10 meals I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy in the United States.
9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111
Thanks trumpet and tart - it was a really good trip - particularly for one that was work-based, and I never anticipated meals like O Ya or L'Espalier to be as good as they turned out to be. If things work out right I may indeed be back during the upcoming year en route to other parts of New England and perhaps Quebec.
774 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02199
9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111
My experience at O-Ya put Urasawa firmly near the top of my list of places to go in the coming year or so. MASA I'm still hesitant on because the picture policy......and the fact that for the same price I could walk down the hall for 5 hours of bliss at Per Se.
mike, don't know if you've been following it, but this is another detailed thread about OYa, but from a fairly negative viewpoint. I posted a link to your your detailed review- in this other thread- because yours is so detailed, as was hers:
One question> i know you have a substantial appetite (as do I); even though the OYa courses are tiny, were you full afterwards?
My satiety index is not logical - I'm neither full nor hungry when I'm eating highly caloric foods. I was fine - could have eaten more - but the same could be said for 29 courses at Per Se or a whole lamb shoulder at Zahav - or 5 pizza places in New York. I don't do fine dining to feel "full" - I go to experience the chef's vision. If I want to be full I'll stay home and eat a salad and some chicken like I do the other 300+ days a year. :-)
That review sounds like they were mad that OYa doesn't change their menu every day. C'est la vie. Neither do a lot of places. The menu has like 60 options. If you've done the tasting, go ALC next time.
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below:
Of all the places I’d marked as likely visits in Boston Mistral’s brunch was the only one that raised some red flags with a few trusted opinions stating it was not worth it, yet aside from being part of a dreaded ‘restaurant group’ never was a reason stated for this opinion save for “Craigie on Main is the best Brunch in Boston.” With the detractors noted but having already pegged Craigie (perhaps mistakenly) for a dinner it seemed senseless to overlook favorable reviews by many national publications because of a couple naysayers and aside from the reviews – both positive and negative – Chef Jamie Mammano’s menu contained pretty much everything I love about big city brunch.
With reservations made well in advance after hearing the French-Mediterranean bistro could often present a substantial wait at the bar for walk-ins I arrived just on time for my 12:30 reservation and having walked from the convention center in dress shirt, slacks, and jacket I was glad to find the room cool and my table ready when I checked in – what I wasn’t ready for, however, was just how jammed packed the main seating area would be with tables certainly less than an child’s arm length apart and a noise level bordering on the loudest I’d ever experienced in a restaurant with linen and quality silverware.
With my bag checked and reservation confirmed I was quickly led through the lengthy dining room by way of the lounge/bar where Nadal and Federer were battling it at Roland Garros and within moments I found myself at a comfortable two-top covered with paper and within moments my water and coffee were both filled – the water remaining so throughout the meal without fail but the coffee often sitting empty for long periods of time largely because I’m pretty sure the servers simply couldn’t see (or navigate) through the fray. Greeted next by my captain the menu was presented but having already browsed the online options thoroughly and wanting to get back to the conference by 2:30 I opted to place my order without further ado – and to be honest, I think he was relieved since in the course of my 90 minute meal he was the only server besides the water and bread attendants to visit any of the ten tables in my vicinity.
With orders placed and coffee (a smooth but rather boring blend) prepared to my liking I sat back for a bit and enjoyed the high ceilings, slate floors, and ornate lighting while thinking to myself that that if the tables were better spaced and the noise turned down it really could be a lovely and dramatic room – and with that thought in mind I was interrupted by a woman’s purse grazing my temple followed by a quick apology. Slightly annoyed by the ambiance (or lack thereof) thankfully this would be the last glitch of the afternoon as my next interruption was the welcome sort – a young man sporting a tray of warm brioche “coffee cake” muffins topped with brown sugar streusel and a side dish of house made cherry compote and unsalted butter – all lovely, but the butter completely extraneous as the cakes themselves had plenty built in.
Having been told that my order would start to arrive “in about fifteen minutes” and now with two muffins (literally) under my belt I was a bit surprised when my first menu selection arrived after a mere ten minutes – particularly as the menu indicated a fifteen minute wait was to be expected for this specific choice. Titled simply “Warm Cinnamon Buns” and arriving as a pair in a piping hot rectangular Staub cast-iron dish with the creamy frosting still bubbling my first thought was “damn, I over ordered” but after a single bite those thoughts changed to “I’ll make room!” Gooey, golden, loaded with Vietnamese cinnamon, and so buttery that it almost seemed impossible that the pastry itself remained fluffy these were not your typical “Cinnabon,” but rather the sort of cinnamon roll you’d make at home if you had the time.
Working slowly on the cinnamon rolls as I tried to decide if I wanted to eat both considering I had two more courses coming there was thankfully a sizable twenty five minute gap before my next course and thankfully when it arrived I noted the small appetizer price was mirrored by the small portion on the plate and after finishing my cinnamon rolls I indulged in the house made parfait of Hudson Valley foie gras on brioche with cognac cured red grapes – an ingredient list that would have had to try pretty hard to fail. Arriving again as a pair this time with the golden brioche at most two-bites each and the “parfait” essentially a whipped terrine topped with cracked pepper, sea salt, olive oil, and small slices of grape this was a very competent foie gras prep and although small in size the gossamer finish was quite substantial.
With my breakfast sweet tooth well documented my final selection of the morning saw me shun the impressive sounding duck confit hash in favor of the pancakes – specifically the Milk chocolate chip pancakes with banana brulee, hazelnut nutella, and crisp plantains. Arriving after another fifteen minute wait and stacked three high with a sealed container of Vermont maple syrup my first impression on receiving the plate was one of awe – the entire dish smelled like chocolate and nutella though none was to be seen, but with the plate then dressed in warm syrup and my fork cracking through the caramelized banana my answer came quickly as a gush of liquid chocolate poured forth from the steaming cakes. With a side order of golden and buttery Lyonnaise potatoes with rosemary, onions, and chives serving as a counterpoint to the pure sweetness of the pancakes I will simply note that in the end many potatoes returned to the kitchen but not one of the hundreds of chocolate chips remained.
With my table cleared and the restaurant now perhaps half full as the brunch hour neared its end I was asked if there was anything else I’d like and with another cup of coffee the bill was paid and I found myself back on the street en route for the conference center by 1:50pm – perfect timing and now with a breeze coming out of the east bringing perfect weather. Admittedly pricey at $40 with tax and tip I cannot say that I’d frequent Mistral for brunch if I lived locally even though the food was excellent given the noise and cramped seating but at the same time I’d definitely consider going back for dinner sometime when (hopefully) there was less noise and (ideally) equally excellent food.
221 Columbus Ave, Boston, MA 02116
L'Espalier Chef's Table:
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below:
As one of the earlier East Coast members of the “farm to table” revolution and a regular amongst the “best of” lists in various local and regional publications dinner at L’Espalier was the easiest dining choice I made in all of Boston. Of course I’d heard the rumors that Frank McClelland was spending less and less time overseeing the operations of his flagship restaurant since migrating near the Mandarin Oriental Hotel but under the well trained hand of Shane O’Neill I had little doubt the of the kitchen’s capabilities and given the local sourcing of many of its ingredients from McClelland’s organic Apple Street Farm I had no reason to doubt that no matter who was cooking on the night of my meal the food ‘should’ be delicious….and of course a little extra assurance by literally dining in the kitchen didn’t hurt either. Having planned for this to be my longest, most elaborate, and most expensive meal during my trip the necessary contacts were made through Daria Caritano approximately two months in advance and with my time of arrival set to be 7:00pm everything went according to plan as I entered the lobby at five minutes to seven.
With greetings offered by a pair of capped doormen and my reservation confirmed my first stop at L’Espalier was the elevator to the main dining room floor – a ride during which I’d clearly been pronounced to the hostess at the top of the lift as I was greeted by name and my bags were checked before the doors had even fully opened. With the maître d’hôtel soon to arrive and again all smiles and pleasantries I was introduced to at least fifteen members of the staff en route to (and through) the kitchen where I would finally land at a large four-top behind a glass window overlooking the entirety of the kitchen. Seated on a comfortable high stool with padded lumbar support I was next greeted by Chef O’Neill and encouraged to “make yourself comfortable – we’ve got a lot of great dishes planned for you tonight” and with that the maître d’ suggested I remove my coat “because it gets pretty warm” and instructed me on the use of my own private air conditioner.
With the kitchen moving at a frenetic yet focused pace due to two large graduation parties and a rehearsal dinner the next man to greet me would be Shah – for all intents and purposes my own personal server for the evening. A quiet yet knowledgeable man whose tenure at the restaurant dated back to its prior location the only two decisions of the evening would arrive quickly – the first being whether I’d prefer still or sparkling water and the second being the selection of a cocktail or wine to go with my meal. Left with the extensive wine list and slightly less substantial cocktail menu to decide for a moment while my water was fetched I must note that although I generally do not drink the cocktail menu at L’Espalier proved to be one of the most intriguing I’d seen in some time and in the end it was not a matter of deciding whether I wanted one of the $15 beverages but rather which – a decision Shah made easy on me when he affirmed one of the three I’d considered to be his favorite.
With the decisions part of the night taken care of within 10 minutes of seating I was once again left by myself to watch the action of the kitchen and all its chefs, dynamics, dramas, lectures, ebbs and flows – an experience not unlike that in many cooking shows yet vastly more real and interactive as home life was discussed, skills were honed, jokes were made, and in one case a licked spoon re-entering a sauce pan resulted in an entire course being restarted (and extra cleaning duties at shift’s end for the offending party) – to say the least it was an experience like no other and everything that anyone ate at L’Espalier during my three hour meal was mine to observe, question, and enjoy.
With the kitchen (and air conditioner) humming the first item to arrive at my table was in fact not my cocktail but rather a pair of canapés – one a creamy goat cheese gougere and the other a creamy slice of Foie Gras terrine with cherry compote served on a porcelain spoon – both excellent and a sweet/savory pairing that served their purpose admirably to awaken the palate.
With canapés consumed and amuses en route Shah would arrive next with my “Red Sidecar” shaken and poured tableside featuring Myers Dark Rum, Cognac, Pomegranate, and Fresh Orange. Admittedly a lightweight when it comes to alcohol but generally an admirer of rum based drinks when I do opt to imbibe this drink was right up my alley with a lot of sweetness included a sugared rim to balance the woody aromatic blend of cognac and rum.
Arriving shortly after the cocktail and announced as my amuse bouche of the evening Copper River Salmon Crudo with crème fraiche, buckwheat crumble, and caper “caviar” would prove to be not only very texturally compelling, but also quite interesting in replicating the traditional smoked salmon and caviar experience without using eggs or a smoker at all.
Having heard great things about the bread service at L’Espalier I would not be let down when Shah arrived next at my table with a basket of warm house made bread nine slices deep paired with a round of sweet butter with sea salt. With the nightly options consisting of Rosemary Focaccia, Pretzel Roll, Multigrain Wheat, and Fig it was with much restraint that I limited my intake of bread between courses, though I will fully admit to taking only a bite or two of the multigrain while finishing each of the other options and requesting another couple slices of the fig to accompany the selections served with the cheese board later.
Now well settled in and watching the kitchen produce forty orders of sweetbreads for one of the parties while the pastry team sliced an enormous white cake crafted for the rehearsal the tasting menu proper would begin with something I more or less expected considering the city I was visiting – an oyster. Titled “Misty Point Oyster, mignonette, North American Caviar” this relatively straight forward preparation was served shucked from the shell in an elegant double glass bowl with a touch of liquid nitrogen doing double duty as temperature control and special effects. With the oyster itself smooth and surprisingly sweet and the mignonette flavors fashioned by the combination of the foam and the jus this tasty bite went down smoothly with the caviar adding a touch more brine and texture.
With courses arriving on average at ten minute intervals and flawless timing and execution the rule throughout the evening my second course would be one of the most memorable of the night both for its wonderful flavor and for its relative simplicity. Titled Apple Street Farm egg mousse with white sturgeon caviar and featuring a creamy sweetened pudding rife with egg yolk juxtaposed against briny bubbles of caviar it was like Keller’s Oysters and Pearls minus the oyster plus more cream.
Moving through the list of my favorite ingredients the third item of the evening was Butter Poached Main lobster with garlic emulsion, English peas, and ham consommé – a dish prepared a la minute by O’Neill as the team prepared twelve menu lobster courses for one of the parties and in my case pairing a snappy half tail simply with sweet shucked peas, mellow yet heady garlic, and the slightest essence of smoky ham.
Course four would prove to be my favorite of the night and having the opportunity to watch the sous-chef break down six or seven whole lobes of foie gras over the course of my meal I gained a whole new respect for the time and skill needed to make the ingredient shine. This time the same preparation as on the nightly menu, Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with almond cake, salted caramel and green almond milk foam was one of the best seared Foie Gras preps I’ve had in recent memory with the supple organ meet creamy on the inside and caramelized on the exterior pairing perfectly with the almond sponge and dehydrated nut butter on the plate’s left. Generally preferring my liver sweet to savory the addition of the airy nuanced almond foam and smears of sticky caramel worked beautifully for me, though I will note that for some this dish may have proven “too sweet” for so early in the meal because in all reality it undeniably could’ve been served as dessert and I’d not have complained one bit.
Course five would be another dish that seemed somewhat oddly placed as it functioned almost as an early meal palate cleanser prior to beginning the heftier proteins but having enjoyed meals at places like Alinea and VOLT where the savory sweet savory sweet flow is seamlessly incorporated into the progression of the meal the only problem with “Buffalo milk panna cotta with Tabasco tomato caviar/Ricotta crumble/olive oil gelee, matcha crumble and eucalyptus sorbet, Strawberry watermelon cocktail with strawberry sphere” was that there was simply too much going on for a single plate even if the “plate” was in fact three distinct entities. Beginning first with the ice cream as it was the most likely to melt I will note that this singular fraction of a dish was the only failure of the night at L’Espalier – too minty, too grassy, too potent. Moving next to the Panna Cotta – a huge swing in the other direction – this deconstructed caprese was flawless and tinged with a bit of heat that brought everything together. Finally, the cocktail was molecular gastronomy personified with the fizzy strawberry layer floating atop a thicker watermelon broth containing an “egg” filled with creamy strawberry foam.
With one of the parties wrapping up it was around this time that the kitchen started to slow down a bit and the chefs became more conversant discussing their techniques, sourcing, and concepts while inviting questions. For the sixth course I was served “Georges Bank Halibut with Prince Edward Island Mussels, Parmesan Gnocchi, English peas, and Truffled egg yolk” – an absolutely lovely dish with a portion-size big enough to constitute a main at many a fine dining establishments. With the fish itself faultlessly prepared and featuring a golden sear over-top moist flesh and the hand formed gnocchis nearly the same texture as the mussels this base of this dish was strong with the flavors of the sea while the whole peas, carrots, and pea puree formed a sweet vegetal note mellowed by notes of truffle.
Next up the kitchen would bring the funk and the heat in the form of Veal Sweetbreads, confit ox tongue, pickled shimeji mushroom, and horseradish cream – sort of an upscale charcuterie board with the creamy sweetbreads mildly gamey and the thin terrine of tongue entirely so. Served on a plate that looked like weaved glass and paired with pickled mushrooms and smooth yet spicy horseradish it was not my favorite sweetbread plate of all time, but it was well composed and soundly executed.
With duck always a must order when available my next course would feature Roasted Lola Duck with sweet onion puree, Radishes, and Spring Ramps. Plated simply with duck and jus at one side and smooth puree, bitter radish, and melting ramps at each other this was a no tricks/no gimmicks sort of dish and with the duck clearly aged, approximately 12-14 days in house according to O’Neill, it was exemplary with golden skin crackling to give way to supple rosy flesh – a contender for top five duck dishes I’ve ever enjoyed.
Pronounced as my final savory, course nine of the evening arrived sizzling from roaster after a quick sear on the grill. Titled Herb crusted tenderloin of lamb, green asparagus, and potato with butter truffle emulsion this aromatic presentation was perhaps four ounces of supple loin crusted with an amalgam of spices including but not limited to chives, cumin, and sage paired with a smear of curry, two unique purees both imbued with butter and truffle, plus a small pile of wilted Swiss chard.
With my cheese course announced to arrive next I was a bit surprised (and so was Shah) when a palate cleanser arrived in its stead – an apparent “mix up” from the pastry team, but when the biggest mistake of the evening entails an extra dessert how can I complain? Described as Mixed summer berries, strawberry sorbet, apricot gelee, yogurt foam, and fruit leather “party favor” the young female pastry chef who delivered this suggested I break the leather over the bowl and on doing so the parfait was completed with a topping of house made granola. Tart and tangy but smooth and light this was one of the better palate cleansers I’ve had in recent memory and a glimpse ahead to the welcomed whimsy displayed by the pastry half of the kitchen.
Moving on to the previously promised cheese course (and joking with the pastry team that I’d “obviously need another palate cleanser after the cheeses”) it was plain to see that L’Espalier takes their cheeses seriously as the selection of seven was delivered with a detailed listing of thirty available in house for purchase. Amongst my “Selection Grand Fromage” the options chosen for me by the house included Menage from Carr Valley Cheese, Coupole from Vermont butter and Cheese Creamery, Caccio di bosco from Tuscany, Hoch Ybrig from Zurich, Robiola la Rustica, Epoisse de Bourgogne from Burgundy, and Caveman blue from Rogue Creamery Oregon. A great selection of cheeses ranging from the nutty three-animal blend of Menage to the sharp white truffle tinged flavor of Caccio di Bosco all the way to a stunning briny Epoisse the plate was made all the better by an accoutrement tray of apricots, candied walnuts, pine nut honey, raisin walnut bread and whole wheat slices.
With the savory half of the kitchen now beginning their clean-up for the evening Jiho Kim would arrive with my next course and an unnecessary apology for the “mix-up” with the first palate cleanser declaring the next dish a “palate re-cleanser” of Liquid nitrogen panna cotta with raspberry jus, mango sorbet, and coconut powder. Again with a focus on tart meets tangy but smoothing things our with the slightly savory coconut powder I enjoyed this dishes textural variation a great deal even though at first the nitrogen frozen panna cotta was so cold it actually adhered to my tongue and cheeks before starting to melt.
Beginning the proper desserts I will admit that I’d contacted the restaurant in advance and told them I didn’t want to miss out on two of Joho’s current main menu options (not generally part of the Kitchen Table experience) and graciously they agreed to do both – the first amongst the ten best desserts I’ve ever eaten. Titled “Chocolate banana macadamia bread pudding, crème anglaise; milk chocolate sorbet” and served with with Buddha’s Hand Gelee and milk foam this tall cylinder was presented tableside first and then, with the young female pastry chef running to grab a “bigger knife for more drama,” Shah chopped through the outer edge releasing a stream of crème anglaise laden with hot banana pudding, sweet smooth chocolate, foams, and hard malted milk balls. Texturally complicated and entirely delicious I’d recommend anyone visiting L’Espalier to request this dish in advance.
For my final proper course of the meal, number fourteen, a trio of desserts were offered up on a single composed dish titled “Milk chocolate caramel soufflé, caramel financier, grapefruit gel; Gianduja ice cream” and while the soufflé was light, tasty, and beautifully accented by the salty caramel sauce and the Ice cream was like frozen whipped nutella, the part I couldn’t stop thinking about for the rest of my trip to Boston was that Financier – a delicate little crumb cake that tasted as though the pastry team had figured out how to make bread with nothing but sticky caramel.
With the my plates cleared the mignardises would begin first with a show from Shah in the form of liquid nitrogen quenelles of Orange and lychee Ice creams made tableside. With each tart and tangy dollop causing me to billow a puff of smoke through my nose I will admit that even as it becomes more and more common to use liquid nitrogen tableside I still think it is fun and if you can make it tasty and interactive, why not?
For the final bites at my table a plate of mignardises would arrive featuring a yuzu marshmallow, almond coconut cookie, guava pate de fruit, and coffee and Prosecco chocolates – all good, but none the quality of that financier.
After a chat with the pastry chefs, Shah, and Chef O’Neill about the high points and low points of the meal and a quick tour of the rest of the restaurant (I’d spent nearly three hours there and had never even seen the dining room) which was now empty save for two tables lingering over coffee and dessert I settled the bill and collected a copy of the menu as well as my belongings before making my way back to the elevator in the lobby. Greeted once again by the maitre d’ I was thanked for my patronage and offered a 20% off card for any future lunches at L’Espalier along with a buttery coconut macaron I’d enjoy on the cab ride home.
Having now rambled on at length about the experience I can say without a doubt the food was good and sometimes beyond reproach – particularly the bread pudding, the duck, and the foie gras; all three of which rank amongst my top five ‘must order’ menu items anywhere – and while perhaps not as innovative or “wowing” as places like The French Laundry, Alinea, or Per Se at a comparable price point, the ability to literally sit in the kitchen and interact with the chefs at such a level is something I don’t really feel you can put a price tag on. Was the Chef’s Table at L’Espalier the most amazing of my life? No. Was the meal even the best food in Boston? Close, but not quite. Was it memorable and worth every penny? You bet – and I’d do it again.
774 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02199
42 Route 171, Woodstock, CT 06281
East Coast Restaurant
1456 Dorchester Ave, Dorchester, MA 02122
It would be hard to compare medium price to the upper echelon so I'll just name those above the $150 price point.
1) Gagnaire Paris April 2011 ($350ish)
2) Alinea August 2009 ($300ish)
3) The French Laundry Feb 2009 Extended Tasting ($500ish)
4) Vidalia 24 May 2010 ($170ish)
5) Per Se December 2009 ($500ish)
6) L'Arpege April 2011 ($450ish)
7) L2o September 2009 ($250ish)
8) Joel Robuchon September 2009 ($250ish)
9) Providence March 2009 ($190ish)
10) Ledoyen April 2011 ($300ish)
Oddly you can tell during which years I was interviewing/traveling more on someone else's dollar as I had more cash to spend on the food.
This year promises to be more like that.
If I were to do a mid/lower range list it would obviously be quite different, but that is for another time.
FWIW, I'd say O-Ya along with Roberta's, Providence, and Vidalia 24 were some of the best "deals" in fine dining I've found anywhere.
Thanks for list. l have been to 8 of them, and enjoyed your # 1 with you. l assume you mean Vidalia in Washington, D.C.. When there he served a side dish that was onion soup without the soup, thus caramelized onions with old gruyere cheese, still one of best 20 things ever eaten.
Parker House Restaurant:
Full review with pictures in Blog, text as below:
With the first lecture of the day scheduled to be a good one I got up for an early run at 5:00am on Monday June 6th so that I could have a proper sit-down breakfast at a Boston landmark before the meeting and having already put ten miles of pavement under my feet by the time I arrived at The Omni Parker House I had thankfully worked up quite the appetite. With many (luckier) conference attendees apparently staying at the Parker House the room was full of familiar faces and nametags when I arrived and despite the early hour the classic grand dining room was already over 1/3 full. Approaching the hostess stand and requesting a table for one I was asked then if I’d be enjoying the buffet of a la carte and stating I was as yet uncertain I was offered a table close to the buffet so I could peruse the options.
With the room seemingly unchanged from its mid-19th century origins I was led past high ceilings, oil paintings, wood paneling, crystal chandeliers and hand carved molding by the hostess before reaching a comfy two top near the wall. Asked if I the seat was acceptable I agreed that it was and with that I was left to browse the menu and the room where John F. Kennedy spent many a nights. With the seats posh and the linens thick I will certainly agree with some that the room felt dated, but at the same time there are certain places in history that only need a little maintenance to maintain their charm.
Greeted next by my server my water was filled and I was offered coffee – a bold nutty brew that I often had to stop the bussers from “warming up” because the nearly continuous flow was throwing off my sweetened balance. With the online menu already browsed and the buffet underwhelming a quick perusal of the paper menu and a single question (with a surprising answer) confirmed my order and with that my server disappeared to the kitchen returning moments later to be sure my coffee was filled.
With my question being whether I could order the Parker House rolls as a side dish for breakfast and her answer being that I could simply go up and “take a couple from the buffet – but wait for them to come out warm” I took my cue when a young man carrying a tray of croissants, muffins, bagels, and rolls walked out to replenish the stock and with a small plate in hand I did just as I was instructed while also procuring a tablespoon of butter and a dollop of honey. With the rolls golden on the exterior and warm and soft with notes of yeast and sweetness within I will note that although good these certainly weren’t the quality of the gems that Eric Ziebold is making in DC, but at the same time it is hard to say that something is “better” than the original since, by definition, the original is how it is “supposed” to taste.
For my main course the decision came down to sweet versus savory and as usual the sweet won out when all was said and done. Arriving perhaps fifteen minutes after my order was placed and served hot from the griddle, “Banana Pecan French Toast with sliced Banana, Pecans, Apple Butter, and pure Vermont syrup” was an absolute knockout and despite my adherence to the house classics otherwise it was not only the best dish of the meal, but also the amongst the best breakfast items I had on my visit to Boston. With the toast itself featuring that all-too-rare balance of golden crispy exterior and custard soft center the dish was only improved by the addition of warm sautéed bananas, crushed pecans coated with cinnamon, and a substantial pile of apple butter that was more like apple whipped cream than butter. Finally, though the plated selection was already stellar the addition of an ounce of liquid gold from Sugarman of Vermont only served to gild the proverbial lily.
Working slowly on my main course while sipping my coffee my server asked if I’d like my next course readied to arrive while I enjoyed the French Toast and agreeing to this it would be mere moments after I finished before my dessert (yes, dessert at breakfast after a dish that could have easily served as breakfast) would arrive – predictably the Parker House’s original Boston Cream Pie with two layers of moist sponge cake divided by smooth pastry cream and topped with chocolate and almonds with a hint of rum. Often imitated and frequently duplicated this was perhaps as good as a traditional Boston Cream Pie can get and while I must admit a preference to the more elaborate version at O Ya two nights before it is, like the rolls, a matter of taste; and you really can’t argue with a place willing to serve a single serving cake for breakfast either.
Happy and satiated I sat for a bit while drinking yet another cup of coffee and hoping that the caffeine would overcome the pending crash after my pancreas caught up with the glucose load I’d just consumed. With the time drawing on 7:30 and the conference due to begin at eight I next requested my check and with it would receive one last sweet taste from the kitchen – a post meal palate cleansing shot described as a Strawberry-Banana yogurt cooler; tart, fresh, and delightful.
With the bill and my thanks to the server paid I soon made my way back through the grand room to the lobby where I browsed the classic yet understated interior of the hotel for a few minutes before taking my leave through the golden doors where a young man immediately offered to hail me a cab. With the offer declined and taking to the street I was greeted by the morning sun, Old City Hall, and more of the Freedom Trail as I made my to the conference center arriving just on time for the first lecture. With the lights not yet dimmed I found a seat near the middle of the pack where I’d ironically I’d find myself sitting next to an elderly physician I’d seen eating at the Parker House – a physician who would ask “Was that Boston Cream Pie you were eating for breakfast?” and to which I responded happily “Yes…but the French Toast was better.”
9 East Street, Boston, MA 02111
60 School St., Boston, MA 02109
City Hall Cafe
695 Main St, Fitchburg, MA 01420
Eastern Standard Kitchen:
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below:
When I arrived in Boston my Monday lunch had originally been unscheduled; on one hand I figured I’d be getting a bit worn down by the conference by that point but at the same time I did not want to marry myself to anything specific in the event that I was not...at least that was the plan until I ate at Island Creek Oyster Bar two days prior and walked by their sister restaurant Eastern Standard en route to Fenway the same day. Having already heard about Eastern Standard from locals and duly impressed by Owner/Chef (and L’Espalier trained) Jeremy Sewall’s approach at ICOB I checked out the menu and called to make reservations along with a “if possible” request that would turn out to be quite possible.
With the best lectures of the day largely pooled in the morning hours and Eastern Standard featuring lunch, dinner, and “mid-day” seatings (and menus) I scheduled my reservation at the very end of lunch and arriving at 2:20 I was right on time. With the restaurant 95% empty save for a couple at the bar and a few folks on the patio when I arrived I was greeted first by a pair of hostesses (who would actually be interviewing new wait staff during my visit) and told I could sit anywhere I liked. Opting for a table near the patio but protected from the sun I was seated at a nice marble two-top table with vintage leather chairs and next visited by Ksenia, my omnipresent server, who would present the lunch menu and descriptions of the daily specials, charcuterie, and soup.
Wanting to sample broadly from the eclectic menu and having already confirmed that my special request from the dinner menu could be accommodated at lunch I sat and decided for a few moments and after being told the stuffed dates were sold out my order was placed, water was filled, and I was left to soak in the nostalgic feel of the room and music while I waited watching folks walk by on Commonwealth. With Dean Martin overhead and a red vinyl couch and pictures of Marilyn Monroe to my right it would not be long before Ksenia would appear at my table with my first bites of Eastern Standard’s cuisine – a small plate with five half slices of Whole Wheat Sourdough and smooth unsalted butter. With fond memories still lingering of the impressive bread and butter at Island Creek I will merely note that this bread was a bit of a letdown only for that reason, otherwise it was serviceable table bread served warm and baked in house.
Opting for three appetizers as opposed to an appetizer and a main course my first dish to arrive from the kitchen was my request from the dinner menu and delivered hot with golden brioche “match sticks” Pan Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Rhubarb and Fennel Cream was a very good preparation with sweet and savory holding one another in check while also each complimenting the delicate liver in entirely different ways. Ample in portion and equally in flavor I’ll note that while I personally would have benefitted from more of the golden brioche this is a minor quibble I have pretty much everywhere except places where it is replaced anew during the course of the dish.....and even then I really can’t say no to more brioche.
With the foie gras as good as hoped it would be a bit of a delay, perhaps 25 minutes of reading my conference books, before my second and third plates would arrive – one excellent, one not so much. Beginning first with the daily charcuterie plate with mustard, cornichons, and pickled onions the days selections on the bargain $14 board would be Coppa, Salami, Prosciutto, Duck Rillets, Lamb terrine with mint, and Veal tongue – all excellent examples, but particularly the rillets and the veal tongue which were both a bold balance of spices, salinity, and texture.
Having noted my disappointment with the accompanying dish I will note a caveat in that when I mentioned the issue – namely overcooked egg and undercooked sweetbreads – it was replaced immediately and not only was an apology offered, but the dish was comped as well…but unfortunately it still was not all that good. Titled Frisee aux Lardons with Hazelnuts, Sweetbreads, and Poached Egg this salad certainly had all the makings of a great dish, but unfortunately the gaminess of the sweetbreads when combined with too heavy a hand with the vinaigrette led to something muddled, heavy, and simply lacking the balance I’d hoped.
With my primary target of the afternoon being a dessert (even more so than the Foie Gras) my order was placed without need for a menu and when delivered I knew immediately that this would be one of the highlights of the trip. Described as “Butterscotch Bread Pudding with Praline Ice Cream and Salted Caramel” and delivered as a steaming hot square absolutely smothered with liquid caramel the only way to sum up this dish is with the Def Leppard lyric – “I’m hot, sticky sweet.” With the pudding thick and creamy, the caramel salty and smooth, and the ice cream retaining its temperature by clever placement atop a thick praline this was everything a pan-style bread pudding should be and one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
With caramel, foie gras, egg, pork, and sweetbreads now competing for stomach space my server arrived once again to ask me if there was anything else I’d like and joking that a nap would be nice I was cleverly oriented to the fact that Eastern Standard was attached to a hotel (something I’d have never guessed as it certainly does not feel like a “hotel restaurant”) and with the bill paid I thanked the team and made my way outdoors for a nice walk to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see the Chihuly exhibit. With my last dinner of the trip still to come I can without a doubt say that for a place marketing itself as a “kitchen” or “bar,” the food and service that Eastern Standard is offering is certainly more befitting of a proper restaurant and one well worth a visit for those traveling to Boston – especially for dessert.
528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215
253 Shawmut Ave, Boston, MA 02118
Island Creek Oyster Bar
500 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA 02215
If you ever get back to Eastern Standard, try their steak tartare, one of the best versions in the city (equalled IMHO only by the version served at Drink). Their cocktails are also truly great, if that's your thing.
528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215
No. 9 Park:
Full review with pictures in blog, text as below:
While many touristy stops such as Durgin Park, Mike’s Pastry, Pizzeria Regina, and Union Oyster House come to mind when thinking of the Boston dining landscape there is perhaps no other location (save for the currently closed Olives) as significant as Barbara Lynch’s No 9 Park in terms of putting Boston on the “fine dining” map. Sure fancier restaurants have entered the dining landscape in recent years (Including Lynch’s own Menton) and some suggest that the Beacon Hill location is not what it once was, but with Chef de Cuisine Patrick Campbell still serving many of the dishes that won Lynch attention from Food and Wine, the Beard Awards, and countless other publications en route to beginning her empire I thought the old townhouse would prove a fitting close to my first exploration of Boston’s world of haute cuisine.
With reservations made well in advance and a request for a table with adequate lighting having heard that the space could become considerably dim I approached the unassuming building at 9 Park Street mere moments before my 7:00pm reservation and with the Bruins first NHL Finals game in nearly twenty years about to begin the city was electric. Entering the small doors and greeted by a friendly young man at the podium I was told it would be a few moments before my table was ready and asked if I’d like to take a seat in the lounge while I waited. Never really a fan of this tactic as I could see a few open tables to my right (including the one I’d be sat at fifteen minutes later) I consented to the request and after declining cocktails twice and having my water knocked over by a tipsy elderly gentleman I was finally rescued from purgatory and shown to my table hoping that the night would improve substantially from here on out.
Making my way through the low ceilinged room the noise from the bar quickly dissipated and with deep wooden floors and ancient crystal chandeliers above I suddenly understood the comments about the lighting and realized there really was not a seat with “good lighting” save for those nearest the large windows looking out into the street – the two-top of which would be mine for the evening. With padded wooden chairs, thick double linen tablecloths, crystal, and silver the room was one that felt formal without being stuffy and old without being dull. Greeted soon by the sommelier I was offered a wine and cocktail menu which I perused but declined and moments later I met Matthew – a young charismatic server who would provide not only great service throughout the evening, but also interesting stories of the restaurant and substantial knowledge of the menu.
Having acknowledged my interest in some of Lynch’s classics I will note here that the menu at No 9 Park is not exactly the most intrinsic in that there are two options – a tasting or a prix fixe, but for the tasting two of Lynch’s “classics” as well as cheese come at an additional supplemental charge of $15 each. Never one to skimp and finding the night’s tasting quite favorable save for the main course of beef it was without question that I was allowed a substitution of the main and opting for the full tasting with all three supplements the night began quickly without an amuse, but instead with the first of many warm house made Buttermilk Biscuits with creamy unsalted butter.
Beginning the tasting my first menu course would arrive and while I personally feel it would have been better suited as an amuse it would not have been very good either way. Titled “Striped Bass Crudo with fava beans, green garlic, crème fraiche” this two-part presentation featured a tasty ceviche at the left and a terrible tartare to the right – flavors so dissimilar I actually found it hard to believe they came from the same fish. Beginning first with the crudo, the bass was clean, smooth, and nicely matched to its accoutrements while the tartare tasted fishy, nearly “pickled,” and downright sour from the crème fraiche. Not wanting to judge too quickly I will note that when Matthew returned to find 3/4 of the tartare still on the plate his inquiry as to whether I enjoyed the course was answered honestly (and apparently reported as such to the chef.)
Moving on to bigger and better things, course two would be more of what I expected from a restaurant so highly regarded and once again it would arrive as a duo on a single plate. Titled “Dayboat Sea Scallop with potato mille feuille, chanterelles, baby leeks, and mushroom puree this clever dish featured a beautiful caramelized scallop to the right and to the left an equally attractive round of creamy potatoes that looked nearly identical. Pairing each with savory leeks and woodsy mushrooms I really enjoyed this dish and in all my times fine dining I have never seen this playful trick before.
For my next dish I was served an ingredient I don’t traditionally fancy that was prepared so well that it didn’t even matter. Given the option to swap this course when I asked for a different main course in place of the beef my decision to keep Stinging Nettle Gnudi with ricotta, smoked veal belly, and sage was based largely on Lynch’s roots in Italian cooking and thankfully while the veal was a mere undertone the five creamy orbs of Gnudi were immensely flavorful with notes of sage, smoke, and salinity all in perfect balance.
Beginning the supplemental dishes it seems crazy to me that one should have to “add” the restaurant’s most famous dish and it seems even crazier that one would ever consider not doing so. Ordered with all intent to pay the $15 surcharge but instead served “on the house” due to my displeasure with the bass “Prune stuffed Gnocchi with foie gras, almond, and vin santo” was the perfect marriage of two of my very favorite foods and the sort of dish where although the portion size was ample I could have easily eaten it all night. On one hand intensely sweet from the potato dumplings wrapped around prune preserves and on the other smooth and savory with a gossamer finish from the liver the true brilliance of this dish was actually the vin santo sauce bringing both together while bits of crunchy almond added texture.
Not to be outdone by the gnocchi, my second supplement was an absolute steal for a mere $15 as it featured an easily 3-4oz slice of pan seared Hudson Valley Foie gras perched atop “baked fig en croute” and alongside dollops of pistachio puree and drizzles of reduced port. Clearly intended to be served as a one-two punch with the gnocchi this dish was every bit as delicious but nearly the exact opposite in texture with the liver more firmly cooked and the figs still fibrous in their skins beneath the flaky pastry shell. Less reliant on the sauces for balance than were the gnocchi I will note that while I enjoy foie gras paired sweetly the port was almost too much in this preparation while the pistachio puree was creamy, subtle, and restrained.
Continuing the hit parade with another of my favorite ingredients, “Native farm egg with house made sausage, spinach, and truffle brodo” was essentially a soup or broth that I’d have normally expected earlier in the menu but given the heft of its ingredients it also served as an appropriate sixth course. Arriving as three overlapping rounds topped with shaved summer truffles tableside this hearty amalgam first featured a disc of cooked spinach topped with a creamy golden egg, and finally by a pan seared slice of crispy sausage. Running the gamut from vegetal to creamy to savory to earthy this was a well crafted dish even with the truffles less aromatic than optimal.
For my final course in place of the beef I was served, by request, Peking Duck Breast with confit leg, baby root vegetables, chestnut puree and sour cherry. Having gotten somewhat used to the complex flavors of aged duck breast during recent dining experiences (namely Paris and the night prior at L’Espalier) this fresh preparation was surprisingly tasty and although a bit “chewy” the skin was immaculate and crisp thanks to what I was told was a few hours of brining in soy, sugar, and Chinese Five-spice. Moving past the breast to the molten confit and the sweet/savory balance of accoutrements on the plate I really liked the way each ingredient seemed to pull a different flavor from the duck – particularly the cherries which highlighted notes of cinnamon and clove in the crispy skin.
With the cheese cart arriving tableside next I will fully admit I was stunned by Matthew’s knowledge of the selections as most servers Stateside can barely pronounce the cheese let alone describe its province, notes, and their personal opinions on it. Again suggested as “on the house – Chef Campbell feels bad that you did not enjoy the bass” each cheese was described at length and after some debate I opted to allow Matthew to choose and as such was served Monte da Vinha, Tomme de Chevre au Muscadet, and a phenomenal Cow’s milk cheese titled Dom Villas from Portugal with notes of grass and spice enrobed in a silky texture and a rind with crystallized bits. Served with the cheeses were a plate of accoutrements described as honeycomb crunch, grapes, hazelnuts, wheat toast, and peanut butter apricot fig terrine – the latter of which was spread on a buttermilk biscuit to great effect.
Moving on to desserts I can only say that it is rare for me to be impressed by savories and let down by sweets but that is exactly what happened at No. 9 Park. Arriving first and declared a palate cleanser Cherry Soda with Shiso foam was precisely as described – a bit bubbly, plenty tart, but no better than the cherry limeade at Sonic (at least so far as my memory of 5-6 years ago serves me.)
Arriving quickly on the heels of the palate cleanser, “Native Strawberries with Saffron, Vanilla, and Lychee” would definitely prove more interesting than the cleanser with the strawberries served in three forms – frozen, cooked, and raw – beneath a gelatin infused with saffron and a dollop of vanilla cream smoothing out the citric punch of lychee sorbet. Tasty and interesting I cannot say this was a bad dessert, nor a boring one, it just wasn’t my style and it was far too similar to the Soda and Shiso in citrus/berry composition to serve an ample closing to an otherwise well designed and diverse menu.
With a table of lawyers behind me checking the Bruins score frequently and the local team winning in a landslide I sat and finished my water while debating coffee until Matthew arrived with my check and some mignardises – a Raspberry gelee on shortbread and a chocolate mousse with chocolate ganache that saved the day for those of us who prefer our desserts laden with cocoa, caramel, or nuts. Requesting a menu and paying the bill I thanked Matthew for the excellent service and en route to the hostess stand to gather my bag I was met by Chef Campbell who wanted to “personally apologize for the tartare – I think we may have gotten a bit of tail meat in a couple the servings tonight” – a very nice gesture that although totally unnecessary was a classy touch.
With bag collected and a cab easily hailed within seconds the drive back to my hotel was a long one due to traffic leaving the Garden but with windows down and a cabby born and raised in the area the scene and conversation were lively and memorable and having heard where I’d just dined my driver informed me that No. 9 Park was the very place he and his wife had celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary 8 years prior. Asking me if they should go back for their tenth I hedged my bets and said it was certainly worth considering both for the nostalgia and the food to which he asked “Do they still have that gnocchi? Its one of the best things I’ve ever had!”
No 9 Park
9 Park Street, Boston, MA 02108
Union Oyster House
41 Union Street, Boston, MA 02108
No. 9 Park
9 Park Street, Boston, MA 02108
1 Faneuil Hall Sq, Boston, MA 02109
354 Congress St, Boston, MA 02210
Full review with pictures in the blog, text as below:
For my very last 3/4 day in Boston my agenda finally had nothing to do with the conference but rather with seeing the New England Aquarium – the last remaining “Top 10” aquarium left on my United States list – and visiting some of Boston’s more touristy, famous, and well-known spots. With an early run and morning visit to Mike’s Pastry already completed by 6am and 8am respectively my arrival at the Aquarium would precede the opening of the doors and with small children and tour busses arriving only after I’d been there for more than two hours (seriously, the little blue penguin exhibit and central tank alone justify the cost of admission) the visit was one of the best in recent memory…and at this point the day had only just begun.
With logistics conveniently planned and with Droid-based Googlemaps in hand a quick walk from the aquarium to the Blue Line toward Wonderland would lead me to East Boston, a place some had told me to avoid, but a place that nonetheless contained a restaurant I didn’t feel I could afford to miss – a restaurant featuring Zagat food ratings on par with O-Ya at a bill less than 1/8 the price and a restaurant that was often known to sport 2+ hour lines at dinner despite its location – Rino’s Place.
With the Blue Line surprisingly efficient compared to the Green or the Silver and maps thankfully accurate my departure from the aquarium at 10:30 and a quick walk would have me at the doors of the 25 year old family owned red sauce joint just moments after the doors opened and aside from a small sign outdoors and a large poster of Guy Fieri within the “Place” was about as unassuming as it gets. Watching Food Network and similar programs rarely (if ever) and having never seen Fieri’s show that made Rino’s the phenom it has become I surprisingly entered the small ~50 seat space with only one other couple already present and after being encouraged to sit wherever I like I was presented with the menu, wine list, and a glass of water by my server – a tall bald fellow who knew everyone (and was likewise known by everyone) who entered the restaurant that afternoon except for myself.
Asked if this was my first visit I affirmed the suspicions to which I was bid “Welcome – the specials menu is gonna take a bit, but if you need anything just give me a holler – bread will be up in a minute” and with that I sat and relaxed at my white tableclothed table sipping my water and listening to the kitchen while the specials menu was hand-written in great detail. With windows to my left and a large mural to my right it would be a good twenty minutes before the menu was completed and in the interim I placed an order for an appetizer while the restaurant slowly filled to capacity.
With tip-top service throughout the afternoon and water that never reached less than half empty the specials menu took a bit of time to navigate but once my full order was placed it would be mere seconds before the meal would begin – first with a simple house salad topped with zippy house made Italian vinaigrette (the alternative option being an enormous helping of rigatoni with red sauce that could have easily served two, as was ordered by my neighbors who opted against waiting on the specials menu and had their full meal in front of them before the hand written menu was complete.)
With the salad relatively straight forward and now knowing the rumor of Rino’s portion sizes to be true I slowly ate some greens while reading The Globe’s sports page when a warm basket of sliced house made Italian Bread arrived along with packets of butter. Asked if I’d like “some gravy for dipping” I declined (once again, worried about portion sizes as I’d ordered three different dishes) and with a pat of Land O’ Lakes Whipped Butter as the alternative condiment I will note that although slightly sweet with an ample crunch this is the sort of bread that is made for dipping – not that it was bad, but more that it was a sort of dense carbohydrate sponge that would prove useful as subsequent plates arrived.
Ordering half portions in order to maximize tasting while saving stomach capacity, my first dish to arrive would be a $6 plate of gnocchi described as “homemade potato dumplings sauteed in a fresh plum tomato sauce and topped with fresh mozzarella and baked.” With the dumplings clearly handmade and so light they seemed ready to float off the plate and the blend of slightly sweet yet subtly spiced tomato sauce and creamy cheese providing just the right amount of flavor this “half” portion was easily two-fold the size of an average plate of restaurant gnocchi and served piping hot without suffering from the sogginess that maligns lesser preparations it was substantially better than most, as well.
With the gnocchi plate mopped clean with a slice of bread my next course would arrive with bread of its own and a flavor profile somewhat similar to the gnocchi, but a lot more spice. Titled simply “Tripe” and described minimally as slowly simmered in Fresh Plum Tomato Sauce served with Toast Points I was told that this was one of the “chef’s favorites” and at $6.50 for what was easily half a stomach it again proved vastly better than its price would dictate. Savory, light, rustic, and flecked with spicy notes of black pepper plus pecorino, garlic, and notes of cumin and paprika this was tripe done right and thankfully light despite the significant portion size.
Realizing at this point that three half-portions was enough that dessert probably was not in the cards and unable to resist wiping up the tripe sauce with the crunchy garlic bread my final course arrived steaming hot from the salamander oven and as good as the first two courses was it proved to be the best of the night – and amongst the best rustic Italian dishes my Midwestern palate has ever encountered. Described simply as “Layered Eggplant” and ordered largely on the word of my server who called it his favorite “non-meat” dish on the menu this half-eggplant arrived in three thick rounds pan seared to a supple consistency supported by a fried panko crust and sandwiched around whole roasted tomatoes, layers of fresh mozzarella “from a store just down the street,” and topped with a thick garlicky basil pesto sauce. To say the least it was delicious, to say more would just be hyperbole – if it is on the menu it is a MUST order and at $6 I have no idea how they’re making money on this dish.
Nearly bursting at the mere suggestion of dessert (especially with an early dinner planned before hopping on a plane back to Ohio) my server asked me if there was anything else I’d like and with the restaurant now full with a couple of parties waiting I thanked him and said no, just the check. Full and happy the bill did not hurt my mood with a total of $24 after a nearly 25% tip and thanked as though he didn’t expect such generosity I made my way to the street and back to the Blue line where I managed to avoid falling asleep en route back to Boston knowing that a walk around the Freedom Trail remained on my agenda. Thankful for the weather and even moreso that I’d made the decision to travel over to East Boston for lunch I can wholeheartedly recommend Rino’s Place and given the quality to price ratio I can even say that it might be worth the hour-long waits.
258 Saratoga St, Boston, MA 02128
Full review in blog, text as below.
For my very last meal in Boston I took a chance on Durgin Park; sure its location, reputation, and fame screamed “tourism” but then again how could a space in operation since 1827 not be? With a sign reading “Established before you were born” and street performers, kiosks, and crowds dominating the exterior I will admit my skepticism on approaching the only restaurant my mother remembered visiting in Boston 30+ years prior but something told me to press on if only for nostalgia factor.
With my plane leaving at 8:05pm my arrival at Durgin Park would occur between lunch and dinner and while the streets outside were bustling the restaurant itself would prove largely uninhabited. Greeted first by a man at the bar and then by a hostess in a long Quaker-style dress I was given the option of sitting indoors or on the patio and although the weather was gorgeous the loud crowds outside and desire to see the aged interior led me to choose the upstairs indoor dining room – an area that would turn out to be completely empty throughout the duration of my seventy minute visit save for the cooks and servers arriving and preparing for dinner service.
Seated at one of the myriad long communal tables near the open windows with ceiling fans churning overhead I browsed the heavily wooden and tile room for a bit before my server, a nice young woman named Shively approached with a pitcher of water and the restaurant menu. Expecting the gruff attitude some say that Durgin Park encourages from their servers I’ll note that I received no such behavior but rather smiles and “you’re welcomes” throughout the meal and with the full pitcher of water left on the table refills were never an issue. With the menu filled with “traditional New England-style” options and a focus on that which is broiled, boiled, or fried accompanied by side dishes largely reserved for Thanksgiving dinner in the Midwest I weighed my options for a bit before making my decisions – an order declared “all the classics – good choice” by Shively.
With the restaurant reportedly functioning with “one chef and only a couple servers” due to my time of arrival I was told it would take “about half an hour” to put my order together but with plenty of time before my plane was to arrive I had time to waste and set to reading the extensive beer list and a small book about Durgin Park’s history while I waited. Expecting the whole order to take thirty minutes I was surprised when Shively returned with my first course less than ten minutes later; Clam Chowder with Oyster Crackers and Corn Bread with a pat of butter. Beginning first with the cornbread – nice firmness and a touch of sweetness, plenty toothsome but unfortunately a bit dry even with added butter. Moving on to the chowder – definitely a step in the right direction and much more as I’d expected from the clam chowder in New England – thick, creamy, loaded with potatoes and clams – but unfortunately just a bit too bland, a situation I remedied by adding the salty oyster crackers which definitely helped.
Moving on to my main course which would indeed arrive approximately thirty minutes after I placed my order, Baked Boston Schrod with seasoned Breadcrumbs, Boston Baked Beans, and Butternut Squash was two hits and one epic failure. Beginning first with the miss – the butternut squash – a soupy unseasoned mess that I can only imagine being palatable to babies; it honestly tasted like chunky water and had someone in the kitchen tasted it I cannot imagine this dish being sent out. Moving on to bigger and better, first off were the beans served in a small bowl and bursting with flavor. Soft without being mushy, fibrous without being chewy, sweet while still savory, and all with a light undertone of pork filling the palate. Last but not least, the Schrod with seasoned breadcrumbs reminded me strongly of the battered Yellow Perch my grandmother used to make during summers back in Ohio – flavorful and light, flaky and delicate, and great alone but better with ketchup.
With the schrod all gone and my feelings about the squash noted by the still full bowl dessert would arrive quickly on the heels of my main course. Ordered at the start of the meal as to avoid delays and essentially the impetus for my visit in the first place, “Indian Pudding” would appear in a bowl much larger than anticipated and as a fan of bread pudding, pudding in general, polenta, cornbread, maple syrup, and cinnamon the dish really had no chance to fail. Steaming hot and absolutely slathered with quickly melting vanilla ice cream this was exactly the sort of dish I’d hoped for – a dish that could double as breakfast, dessert, or a side dish with minimal difficulty and absolutely loaded with texture, nuance, and sweetness; sure it isn’t going to win praise as the most attractive or artistic dessert out there, but for me it just might have won out as the most utterly satisfying.
With the bill paid – an admittedly steep $40 after tax and tip – and more smiles and thanks from my server I made my way to the top of the stairs where the chef yelled to me from the kitchen to ask me how everything was. Responding that everything was good (I didn’t have it in me to complain about the squash after the Indian Pudding) he asked where I was from and stating “Ohio” he responded “yeah – ya ain’t going to find Indian Pudding there” and thanked me for coming in even though he didn’t have to; the thanks was mine to give for sending me home from Boston on such a fine note.
340 Faneuil Hall Market Pl, Boston, MA 02109
1 Faneuil Hall Sq, Boston, MA 02109