Boston trip report (Sept 2012, Neptune Oyster/L'Espalier/Craigie on Main/Legal Sea Foods)
I've lurked on these forums for awhile to get trip advice on where to eat so hopefully this is a way to return the favour.
little about me: I'm a young professional who has had a love affair with food that has only intensified as my ability to travel and dine at good restaurants has increased. I'm in my late 20s and my dining companion has typically either been my best friend or girlfriend. I'm a sucker for rich foods ala truffle/foie gras but can appreciate a good burger. In the past 3 years I've travelled to Chicago, then New York and now Boston with the hope to do somewhere on the west coast next year. My most notable meals while travelling include Alinea in Chicago, Per Se/Del Posto/Sushi Yasuda in New York, and now here's what I have to say about my meals in Boston.
Landed middle of last week and stayed at the Fairmont Battery Wharf in the north end (A+ service and decent location, would stay in Back Bay next time but it was an easy walk to downtown/Back Bay and an easy bike ride to Cambridge). Wandered around looking for a bite and decided that since Neptune Oyster was so close that we'd have to stop in. got signed up on the wait list and was told it would be about an hour and a half wait for 2. decided that my best buddy and I could wander around and grab some drinks in the area before getting in. we popped over to Vito's which is across the street for some beers. an hour later I decided to check the wait and was told by Tiffany that we could get seated in a minute or two and we ended up at the end of the bar with a great view of the restaurant. because of Chow's incessant raving about the hot buttered lobster roll that was what was ordered along with a dozen of MA's best oysters. Oysters were served up in minutes with a generous portion of cocktail sauce and mignonette. Delicious. Some of my favourites were the Glidden Point, Beausoleil's and Kumamotos. After a bit longer of a wait our lobster rolls came out and they were fantastic. toasted brioche roll opened up to a sea of lobster tail meat. there must have been 2 or 3 lobster tail's worth of meat in there slathered in butter. phenomenal. fries that came along were every bit up to standard, seemingly double fried with that extra crisp. well worth the $25 especially when compared to some of the other lobster rolls I had on the trip. after the meal we stumbled around boston's government centre to bars around the union oyster bar area which were decent but largely forgettable.
next day we wandered around downtown/beacon hill/back bay, ate lunch at the Back Deck. we got carded for a lunchtime beer but the waitress would not except my buddy's Alberta driver's license as ID. this did not please him and set the tone for the meal. the waitress offered the weak apology that school was back and lots of students were buzzing around but keep in mind that while I am in my late 20s and babyfaced, my buddy is in his late 20s and not babyfaced. ordered a sliced steak sandwiched prepared in a vietnamese fashion with a side of coleslaw. coleslaw was prepared vinegar style and was acceptable if underslated, sandwich was good but could have used more meat.
dinner was at L'Espalier which is next to the Mandarin Oriental. I was surprised that I could make reservations 2 days in advance, and even more surprised and delighted that the chef's table was available which is just a table on the side of the kitchen that offers a full view of the grill/fish stations. when we rolled up to the restaurant I wasn't sure what to expect, a hostess inside the door rang for the elevator and gave us a pleasant welcome. we rode a short elevator ride to the restaurant where Louis the fromager (cheese honcho) greeted us and escorted us through the kitchen to our table. my first impression of this walk was a blur as there was so much to see as we walked to our table. a blend of people, fire, food, and cookware. our dining table is essentially an elevated counter with some high chairs (seats up to 4) and has a pane of glass to separate you from the grill station (I believe to avoid contamination or you getting splashed). the view is incredible as you can see all the action of what's going on with the exception of the pastry, prep and appetizer/amuse stations (which are directly to your left). the pantry/fridge was to our right and throughout the night as chefs would go in they would greet us with a smile and ask how things were going. the grill station guy greeted us with a wink and said "hope you have room because you guys are in for a big meal". my buddy and I exchanged a look and a smile before my buddy remarked "jesus what have you gotten us into" and "this is so fricken cool". you are literally in the thick of things in the kitchen and it is much warmer than you may expect, though we did have our own air conditioner dedicated to blowing cold air on us.
onto the meal! my apologies to the kitchen and readers for my description of the dishes as i'm relying on hastily made notes and memory which gets more hazy as the wine and time goes on
focaccia, cheese roll, mutli-grain roll, other
my memory of the bread isn't great except that they were all quite good, the focaccia stands out however. it took me back to trips as a kid to italy where my grandmother would give me pieces of focaccia that burst with flavour and had a high enough butter content that made your fingers slightly greasy. I have not been able to find focaccia anywhere else quite like it and I did tonight. kudos to the pastry chef or wherever the bread is sourced from.
1. Mojito macaron
Good introduction to the meal, literally a macaron (french pastry) that tasted just like a mojito with hints of sweet syrup and mint
2. Cucumber granite
think cucumber sorbet/slurpee. tasted just like cucumber, not my favourite dish
3. Chicken Skin w/other
I don't remember much about the other but the star of the dish was the crispy fried chicken skin which was dusted with a bright orange smoke/salt seasoning. tasted like a junk food you'd get in heaven. crisp texture, richness, and an explosion of flavour.
4. Duck confit taco
the last of the amuse bouches/appetizers, a dish that was made for me because it encompassed the flavours I love. a hint of asian flavours and a strong hit of lime made this a memorable one for me.
5. Egg mousse w/white sturgeon caviar
rich dish. egg yolk mousse in a unique serving dish (border had caviar sized holes lining the plate/bowl) with some caviar to make you go yum. the smooth texture of the mousse coupled with the rich egg yolk taste and some caviar to top it all off was a great dish to introduce us into the more substantial plates.
6. Oyster w/gnocchi, bone marrow, grilled leek
oyster was good, gnocchi good but not the best i've had (n9ne at the palms in vegas holds that crown), grilled leek was great but the bone marrow oddly not as notable. a good but not great dish.
7. Seared scallop and butter poached lobster w/sweet potato mousse, walnut rutabaga mousse
strong dish with well executed scallop and lobster.
8. foie gras w/tomato on tomatillo puree and zucchini cakes
seared foie gras, how can you go wrong? another strong dish with the richness of the foie gras that is slightly cut with the acid of the tomato on tomatillo puree, zucchini cakes were decent.
9. chantilly(?) ice cream on cassis/raspberry jelly, on gin ice and a green tea cookie crumble
I get a sense that this dish was to cleanse the palate a bit and take you off of the richness that was the foie gras. sweet dish that was enjoyable. interesting presentation in a small bowl/glass.
9a. sumac truffle shot
this dish seemed to be more technique/experiment over taste, the sumac truffle was in a broth like liquid meant to be consumed together, this dish was decent but not memorable
10. black bass w/broth and vegetables
a nice filet of the black bass w/skin on a bed of vegetables in broth. the fish was cooked perfectly, this dish screamed clarity and elegance
11. pheasant/duck w/peach puree and a black garnish puree garnish
one of the grill station chef's was working on a dish for the next day which was a roasted pheasant. after some discussion with the chef he asked us whether we'd like to try the pheasant rather than the duck. we decided i'd go with the pheasant and my buddy would try the duck. unanimous decision? pheasant was good but needed some work. the duck was amazing. the peach puree was a sad reminder that summer was closing and produce this good would soon be a distant memory. my buddy noticed that the chef passed along our feedback about the dish
12. lamb filet/sausage w/ root vegetables
the sausage was one of the best thing I tasted in Boston, lamb filet was solid and who doesn't love root vegetables?
13. cheese plate (!!!)
louis came by with an assortment of 7 cheeses (mostly from vermont), some wide slivers of bread, jams, and almonds. this was the best cheese plate i've had in my life (haven't had that many) but it was an excellent selection that moved from the mild and creamy, to the aged cheddars, to the funky bleus.
14. apple dessert
at this point I was floating on a conspicious amount of wine, the desserts were solid but nothing amazing. brunoised apples are all I can conjure from my fading memory
15. chocolate/meringue dessert
as above minus the brunoise apples
I did not take detailed notes but we did get the wine pairing. pairings were good and the pours more than generous as noted above. I was well fed and drunk by the end of the meal.
service was good but there was something about our boyish server that I did not like. he gave perfectly acceptable service but came off as smug for some reason. from talking with our server, he was dedicated to serving our table and our table alone (neat). each chef that passed us by, we did like. extraordinarily friendly, with some more chatty than others (chit chatted with the fish station at the close of the night where he remarked on his rough night (see fave quote below)).
uncomparable to any meal I've ever had. we noted that it was for the most part a quiet kitchen. but the amount of action and how wide our eyes were reminded me of being a little kid and being engrossed with the little things in life
Not sure if this is brilliant marketing or a nice touch, the meal on the bill was $300/pp with wine pairing of $100/pp, and they gave us a discount of $100/pp for a grand total of $300/pp which is in line with what's charged on the website for the tasting menu.
Favourite chef quote
"I need two halibuts right fucking now" -sous chef
Favourite chef action
Fish station doling out yet another dollop of butter to braise lobster/fish/whatever in. I could not believe the amount of butter they go through.
In browsing these boards I've noted several posters bemoaning the fact that while Boston has good food experiences, its not on the level of the New York's or Chicago's of the world. While the execution and technique demonstrated in the dishes of this meal were not on the level of Per Se (really how many restaurants are?), this was not just a meal but an experience that I would put on par with any I've ever had. quite simply, from start to finish it was an amazing experience (despite our smug server). my friend noted that the consistency of the dishes was at a very high level, there weren't the lows that often accompany highs in some of the tasting menus you have out there, everything was at the very least good. I say bravo, especially to a restaurant that many on here seem to have discarded as last decade's flavour of the month.
continued in next post:
Our next day was devoted to biking to cambridge to wander around harvard and MIT. despite my best intentions we ended up on the wrong main street in cambridge/boston and ended up north of somerville on a bridge too far. after a correction we were starving and ended up at all-star sandwiches. we needed a place to park our bikes as they didn't come with locks from the hotel, so I spied this spot and it seemed busy and who can resist a good sandwich? got in, didn't have to wait but it was full at about 1:30pm on a weekday. I ordered the special of the day which was a fried fish po'boy with a tabasco remoulade and tomatillo relish. my buddy had the burger. after what seemed like a long wait my sandwich came with coleslaw. it was definitely a highlight of the trip and I would not hesitate to go back there to try all the other cool sandwiches on their menu (atomic meatball sandwich? put me down for 2 please). buddy seemed to enjoy his burger. highly recommended for a low-key lunch in cambridge.
Craigie on Main
after biking around we retired to our hotel and prepared our stomach for the night's main event, Craigie on Main. I was very hyped for the meal we were going to be having that night given the praise Craigie gets on here as well as the fact that the farm to table style meal isn't something that i've experienced as much in my travels compared to the standard french or italian or asian dining. the fact that they seem to love pork as much as I do had my anticipation building.
arrived by cab to the restaurant on a rainy night and were seated promptly. went for their 8 course tasting meal with the wine accompaniment, as well as they offered two sides (bone marrow and corn) for $10 a piece so it was hard to say no. interesting note on how they present their wine, its either a large or regular portion which is equivalent to 1/2 litre or 1/4 litre bottle. I wonder if they present it that way to avoid the connotation of fractions with quantity. anyways moving on.
again my apologies in advance to the kitchen and readers if these dishes aren't described with 100% accuracy.
1. Smoked alaskan salmon with crema and dill/chive
a good first start to the meal, the smoky and slick taste of the salmon was enhanced by the rich crema and herbs. delicious
2. Lobster plum salad w/jalepenos
an enjoyable dish with plums that burst with flavour. despite being able to take substantial amounts of spice the punch of the jalepenos induced some hiccups from me while rendering my buddy incapacitated for a good 10 minutes (he decidedly does not have much tolerance for spice). I did make note to the server and received a shrug and a note that she liked spice. the punch did not completely overwhelm the other flavours but came very close
3. Grilled red snapper on a boudin noir/hoisin sauce topped with shredded chorizo
well prepared grilled fish, the sauce was interesting, it almost muddied the dish to me while the chorizo was a nice touch. solid.
4. Vichysoisse w/ radish and potato and oxtail pastrami
smooth and creamy green soup served warm with treasure chunks of pastrami. good soup and finding the chunks of pastrami made that sip/slurp that much better
5. Orechiette (made with corn flour) and a lamb and forest mushroom ragu
highly anticipated this dish as it looked and smelled amazing. something was just off texture wise and it was not as a rich and hearty a dish as I felt it could have been. a minor miss.
6. Chicken fried veal sweetbreads with grilled eggplant
well executed but was possibly my least favourite dish of the night in terms of flavour
7. pork two ways, rib (w/dry rub and sauce) and belly (w/mustard grains/jus)
pork belly and rib, nuff said.
8. dessert -> sour panna cotta w/berry compote. a good finish to round out the dishes, this packed subtle flavour and a smooth creamy texture all the way down.
Bone Marrow. not my favourite dish of the night, 3 big hunks of bone with plenty of marrow. was scalding hot when scooping the marrow out which made for a harrowing experience. marrow and nothing more, fatty, rich, but lacking another dimension of flavour to round out the dish.
Corn. came roasted with shredded basil and pork/chorizo. tasty but not the best corn i've had (flavour wise)
pairing of the white to start and the red to finish was good, as advertised by our server the red had the lightness and acid to cut through the heaviness of the rest of the dishes.
underwhelming. this is where I'm not sure why I feel this way and whether these comments are deserved. service throughout the night was for the most part good/decent. my napkin was folded and replaced on the table upon returning from the washroom. the misses? the water and water bottle given to us was warm. no mention of what the breads were despite a wide variety of them. is this nitpicking? a side of me agrees and says should service be compared to what you expect at fine dining? a side of me disagrees and says they're projecting a certain rustic/farm to table image that is not all befitting of fine dining despite an elevated price tag (~$180 for wine and food/pp). I thought Emily's attitude was at times warm and engaging, and at other times cold and unwelcoming. another waitress (short red hair) who also served us was just right. highlight: Chef Tony came out to introduce our pork two-ways dish which was nice of him
exactly what you expect for a rustic/farm to table restaurant. complaint? tables are way too close together, I had a 4-top next to us and basically could have joined in their conversation at any time
I felt underwhelmed leaving Craigie on Main, I fully expected it to be the best meal of the trip. looking back I think my expectations were too high given the meal the night before, price point, and style. the food was good but the highs did not seem to be as high. the close tables made me grumpy and the inconsistencies I noted with the service made me a bit more grumpy. take this review with a grain of salt but I left feeling unsatisfied. my buddy noted that the meal was good but seemed right in line with price point compared to other meals we've had (when you're paying $100+/pp) should the quality increase linearly as you pay more? a discussion for another time.
Legal Sea Food
lobster roll and oysters were ok but it would be hard for me to recommend going back given prices were identical to neptune oyster. paid for the location (wharf) and name.
grabbed some late night tacos after the Red Sox game, had lengua and carne asada tacos. tried a carne asada burrito and chips + guacamole. delicious casual mexican food that hit the spot, would recommend for late night or before a game
Neptune Oyster (again)
another friend joined us from out of state and was craving a lobster roll so we took him to neptune oyster again. at this point my stomach was bordering on severe indigestion from all the food and booze it had taken in on this trip and the day was cold and windy so I was craving somthing warm and heart. cioppino to the rescue! delicious broth with generous hunks of fish, shrimp, scallops etc. the saffron? rice was perfect and I left the door a devout neptune oyster fan.
sorry for rambling, I hope you guys will enjoy my report, thanks for reading.
What a thoroughly entertaining food report. Thank you for your humour and details. And thank you for my favourite line of the day!!!
"tasted like a junk food you'd get in heaven."
thanks for the kind words, that definitely will encourage me to continue making trip reports and perhaps even writing about food. re-reading my posts and seeing some egregious spelling/grammatical errors is embarassing, these things are tough to put onto paper correctly without some serious proof reading lol.
Fabulous report, that was so much fun to read, thank you for posting about your excellent Boston adventures!