11 April 2014

From the Archives: Squeegee Your Anomie with Rye Whiskey

Max Toste of Deep Ellum decants a Rye Manhattan
(photo courtesy of The Boston Herald)
As I rarely have time to create original essays for this blog, I occasionally reprint ancient pieces of mine, including articles I wrote long ago for alt-weekly Boston’s Weekly Dig (now known as Dig Boston), many of which became unavailable online after its mid-2007 website makeover.

Here’s one of a series of cocktail pieces I did for The Dig focusing on little-known and underappreciated spirits, in this case, American straight rye whiskey. Rye was just making its comeback in Boston bars with the help of the scene’s best craft cocktail purveyors; few local food writers seemed to have noticed. I also suspect this is a very early mention in the Boston press of a raw-egg cocktail.

It’s a film noir world: drop that Technicolor cocktail
First published in Boston’s Weekly Dig, February 21, 2007

Rye commands reverence among booze historians as America’s oldest whiskey, the original base of ancient cocktails like the Manhattan. Yet despite cultish adherents and growing press attention, rye cruises in the blind spot of most Boston bartenders. Order it and you’re liable to get a blank stare, or an unassuming blended Canadian whisky like Crown Royal, a substitute that Americans had to settle for during Prohibition. Repeal came too late to restore American rye’s fortunes: bourbon had usurped the American whiskey throne, relegating the impoverished surviving ryes to the plebian front-end of Boilermakers.

Philip Marlowe, the archetypal private detective of 1940s hardboiled crime fiction, slugged rye from bottles stashed in his desk and glove box. Preferring brash rye to sweeter, mellower bourbon flagged Raymond Chandler’s protagonist as an old-school hard guy. The assertive bite Marlowe favored is distilled from a mash of at least 51% rye grain (where bourbon uses sugar-rich corn) and aged in charred-oak barrels. Respectable ryes under $40 are still produced by venerable brands like Van Winkle and Sazerac, but this roughneck is also getting the super-premium makeover: you can now drop $100 or more on 21-year-old ryes from boutique producers like The Classic Cask.

As for cocktails, rye’s emphatic character is ill-suited to the sickly-sweet concoctions that rookies order when they graduate from Goldschläger shots. Crafting a well-balanced rye cocktail demands a certain scholarly, 19th-century rigor and inventiveness. Such precise bartending chops are cultivated at only a handful of local bars, like Cambridge’s B-Side Lounge, which spearheaded Boston's vintage-cocktail revival and has trained some of our best mixologists. At these elite establishments, rye is one tool in the campaign to hoist Boston drinkers out of the dark age of chocolate “martinis”. When you’re ready for a grown-up drink with some grizzled authenticity, try curling your lip like Bogart and ordering a rye cocktail from one of these expert purveyors.

Green Street. Dylan Black, proprietor of this recently-remade Central Square restaurant that serves robust New England fare, is an accomplished barman and savant of American imbibing history. His long cocktail list prominently features rye. The Daisy Black ($7.50) – named for his great-grandfather, himself a bartender in rye’s original heyday – softens the burred edges of Old Overholt rye with fresh lemon juice and honey syrup. More adventurous tipplers might try the Toronto ($8), a prize fight in a cocktail glass: jangly rye duking it out with blackish, poisonously-bitter Fernet Branca, with simple syrup trodden underfoot. You might flirt with the cross-dressing weirdness of the Double Standard ($8), which drapes rye in fruity, Cosmo-pink togs of Plymouth gin, lime juice, and raspberry syrup. Or you could just savor some Michter’s rye ($6) plain with a bit of water, a better match for this gastro-tavern’s bluff, unaffected charm.

Green Street, 280 Green St, Cambridge. 617.876.1655 www.greenstreetgrill.com/

Deep Ellum. This Allston newcomer serves a creative pub-food menu, but is foremost a connoisseur’s beer bar with 22 drafts, 90+ bottles, a cask unit, and lots of brew-specific glassware. Fortunately, co-owner Max Toste is also a devotee of old-time cocktails like the Sazerac ($7): Old Overholt rye, Peychaud’s bitters and simple syrup stirred with ice, decanted into a cocktail glass rinsed with anise-scented Absente pastis, finished with a lemon twist. After just one, I feel like an honored guest at a particularly well-appointed French Quarter brothel. Less complicated but also delightful is the Rye Sour ($7), rye and a house-made sour mix of fresh citrus juices and sugar. With several brands to choose from, including Old Potrero, a 100%-malt-rye straight whiskey from San Francisco that Max declares “better for sipping”, we’ll return to explore obscure corners of Deep Ellum’s vintage bar guides. Maybe that beer list, too.

Deep Ellum, 477 Cambridge St, Allston. 617-787-2337, www.deepellum-boston.com/

No. 9 Park. The cocktail cheffery practiced at this luxury Italian/French restaurant near the State House may be the best in Boston, worth suffering the obnoxious company of its toffee-nosed Beacon Hill regulars. Occasional twee flourishes of molecular gastronomy, like toppings of nitrous-oxide foams, are forgivable: the bar staff executes the classics with integrity and impeccable ingredients. A Green Point ($11) takes Old Overholt rye and Punt e Mes, an intensely-aromatized Italian sweet vermouth, and adds Green Chartreuse liqueur for herbal complexity and a faint sweetness. The result is a multi-faceted, mahogany-hued riff on the Manhattan, gorgeously trimmed with a fresh cherry steeped in Maraschino liqueur (no horrific candied-clown-nose garnishes here). After dinner, I order a Rye Flip ($10). Heads swivel as Courtney [Hennessey] cracks a raw egg into a dry shaker, agitates it, adds ice, Rittenhouse rye and simple syrup, shakes it again long and hard, strains it into a claret glass, and grinds some fresh nutmeg on top. Half the bar watches my first swallow; the effete blueblood-wannabe on my left cringes with nausea. I grin. This is what real nog is supposed to taste like: rich, potent, just barely sweet. I feel virtuous, vigorous, like a star in my own black-and-white movie. While I agree with Chandler that “It is not a fragrant world,” the right rye cocktail can certainly refresh it for a moment.

No. 9 Park, 9 Park St, Boston. 617.742.9991 www.no9park.com

17 December 2013

RIP, Peter O'Toole. Glad I Got to Review You in "Ratatouille"

Image courtesy of Picture Show Pundits
I was sorry to read of the passing of Peter O’Toole, the great old British actor I much admired in films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Stunt Man, The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year. But I was especially tickled by one film performance that many obituaries omitted: his icy Parisian restaurant critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s 2007 animated feature Ratatouille.

Aside from O’Toole’s vivid voice work, I loved the fact that -- six-year-old-movie spoiler alert -- the chef/hero, a rat from the provinces who improbably ends up running a restaurant kitchen, manages to win over Ego’s hard-hearted professional spoilsport with an artfully-prepared Provençal comfort-food dish that hits the critic’s nostalgia button.

When the film debuted, I was writing only restaurant reviews and food/drink features for alt-weekly Boston’s Weekly Dig; doing a film review was a lark. As it happened, I loved the movie, even though its depiction of restaurants critics is a bit problematic.

The Dig redesigned its website in the summer of 2007 and in the process accidentally blew up its online archives, so I’m running it again here.
RIP, Mr. O’Toole. It’s not the size of the life, but the size of the liver.

From Boston’s Weekly Dig, 27 June 2007

There’s a rat in me kitchen, thank goodness
Review by MC Slim JB

When the Dig asked me to provide a Chowhound’s take on Ratatouille – Pixar’s new computer-animated feature about a rat who aspires to be a great chef – I thought, what business does a food writer have reviewing movies? But as a restaurant habitué and cinephile, I’ve noticed the worlds of film and food have much in common. They’re collaborative efforts: a film’s scenarist, director, actors and other contributors mirror a restaurant’s chef, maître’d, servers, et. al. Enjoyment of each requires a couple of hours’ time and benefits from comfy seats and boon companions. Whether dining or viewing is the main event, discussing it afterward is part of the fun.

As you might expect, I love food-themed movies. I went in prepared to measure Ratatouille against the greats of the genre. It’s up against some stiff competition. My all-time favorite is Tampopo (1985, Japan), in which a trucker helps a young widow save her failing ramen stand by guiding her to the quintessential noodle soup recipe. It both respects and satirizes genre films, movie lovers and obsessive foodies, and it features some jaw-dropping scenes that deliriously conflate the pleasures of food and sex.

Another standout is Big Night (1996), in which two immigrant brothers struggle to keep their authentic Italian restaurant afloat in philistine-saturated 1950s New Jersey. The climactic feast, prepared for a VIP who never shows, looks like the giddiest, tastiest dinner party ever, while the wordless final scene is a lyrical reminder of how cooking and sharing a meal can express love and forgiveness.
Does Ratatouille belong in this rarified company?

It certainly has the bona fides. The film got the foodie community buzzing by hiring Thomas Keller – chef/owner of The French Laundry and Per Se, two of America’s mostly highly regarded restaurants – as a consultant. Keller assisted the filmmakers’ painstaking efforts to realistically re-create the look of a Parisian haute cuisine restaurant, how its kitchen works, and especially its cuisine. Co-writer/director Brad Bird – of The Iron Giant (1999) and The Incredibles (2004) – has created a hero any food obsessive can identify with.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat with a hypersensitive nose, a refined palate and dreams of culinary greatness. He admires human cooking and covets people-food, to the bemusement of his garbage-scavenging family. Separated from them during an emergency evacuation of their nest in the French countryside, he lands in Paris in the kitchen of Gusteau’s, a down-at-the-heels fancy restaurant. The ghost of the late Gusteau himself (Brad Garrett), whose cookbooks and cooking shows have made him Remy’s hero, pops up periodically as mentor and conscience.

Remy forges a symbiotic relationship with the kitchen’s garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), a clumsy doofus utterly bereft of cooking skills. Like Cyrano turning an inarticulate hunk into a silver-tongued Romeo, Remy becomes Linguini’s literal puppet master, making him a talented cook by proxy. With the rat guiding his actions, Linguini earns acclaim for himself and the enmity of the gnomish, scheming Skinner (Ian Holm), the restaurant’s current chef/owner.

Remy and Linguini’s other antagonist, restaurant critic Anton Ego (imperiously voiced by Peter O’Toole) may cause food writers everywhere to squirm, and not just because he looks like a refugee from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. The real affront is how the film misrepresents their profession. Ego’s a pompous aesthete, insufferably certain of his power and infallible taste. Wait, that’s not the error: it’s his announcement that he’ll dine at Gusteau’s the following evening to review it. I know that every local restaurateur recognizes the critics from Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald, ensuring they get fabulous meals, but good critics still cultivate anonymity, seeking the same treatment as their readers.

That’s a quibble in a film where the food looks so fabulous, the culinary technique so true to life. Ironically, another false note belongs to Keller, who designed the film’s dishes – most notably the titular specialty that Remy creates to impress Ego. Unlike most of Remy’s soulful, instinctive cooking, his ratatouille is a fussy, post-modern abstraction of the humble French peasant stew. Looking like a Bundt cake made of poker chips, ringed by a careful smear of sauce and crowned with a tiny sliver of basil, it’s the least appetizing entrée in the movie.

Mercifully, Ratatouille eschews the obnoxious pop-culture riffing that has plagued recent animated films, which should help it age much better than anything involving Robin Williams. The CG looks gorgeous: wet rat fur is a lovingly rendered as the sleek, Anna Karina-esque bob worn by Colette (Janeane Garofalo), the kitchen brigade’s feisty lone female cook. I’m grateful that Remy and his clan aren’t Disney-cute; they look especially rat-like when running for their lives, as they frequently must do, since most of the human characters loathe them.

Ratatouille features thrilling action sequences, abundant slapstick, nefarious intrigue, comic misunderstandings, a romantic subplot, lovely Parisian scenery, and ghostly homilies about daring to follow your dreams, however improbable. I particularly enjoyed Colette’s Anthony Bourdain-like description of Skinner’s dubious kitchen crew, as well as Remy’s musings on the ecstasies of well-matched flavors. Even non-foodie grownups should find Ratatouille funny, exciting and moving. With any luck,
it will also inspire them to cook better, and maybe eat a little less garbage.

09 April 2013

11 Reasons Your Yelp Reviews Suck, and 11 Things You Can Do About It

I recently appeared on Minnesota Public Radio’s “Daily Current” program in a segment entitled, “Everyone's a critic: Yelp reviews hold great power”, which examines the growing impact of amateur restaurant reviews posted to sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp and Chowhound.* In preparation for this interview, I gathered some thoughts about the flaws in many amateur reviews, the concerns I have with anonymous reviews, and some tips for amateurs on writing fair and useful restaurant reviews.


I’m very wary of taking restaurant advice from anonymous reviewers online for the same reasons I wouldn’t trust a stranger who gave me unsolicited advice on the street. I don’t know anything about you; who knows what kind of awful food you like? But beyond this issue, which I’ll dig into more below, I often see a host of common problems in the reviews on sites like Yelp. Specifically, the reviewer:
  • Bases his opinion on too small a sample or an unrepresentative one: a single visit, or brunch, a Restaurant Week meal, or on what I call the Shitshow Days – New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving Eve -- where specialty menus and/or mobs of customers don’t reflect the typical dining experience. There are good reasons why pros always put in three or four visits before formulating an opinion. You should, too, though just two visits would still be better than one.
  • Is obviously making unfair judgments or poor decisions based on ignorance of the restaurant’s cuisine, level of formality, intentions, or audience. For example, he’s angry that he couldn’t order Cantonese dishes at a Sichuan restaurant, doesn’t understand why the dive bar serves poorly-made Martinis, or can’t believe the Michelin three-star place has no children's menu and won’t seat him while he’s wearing a bathing suit and flip-flops.
  • Clearly has no understanding of how restaurants work. She can’t tell the difference between a service error and a kitchen error, gets angry when she hasn’t made a reservation at a peak time and has to wait for a table, or gets upset that the restaurant won’t seat her incomplete party. (Even pros can be guilty of this last one, hard as that may be to believe.)
  • Has no sense of how to optimize the dining experience by speaking up to fix a problem. To do this, it helps to understand which errors can be fixed right away (e.g., the wrong order arriving, an underdone steak) and those that can’t (e.g., the dining room is too loud, there are no halal options). If you don’t bring a fixable problem to your server’s attention, they can’t fix it.
  • Makes unmerited claims to authority. “I have an Italian surname; I know Italian food.” “I did Spring Break in Cancun; I know Mexican food.” “I’m a foodie; I am very particular about food.” Sorry, but none of that has any bearing on your ability to write an informed restaurant review. Dave Andelman claims to have eaten every single meal of his adult life in restaurants: have you noticed the awful crap his Phantom Gourmet TV show heartily endorses? Maybe you just stepped off the boat from China, but favored American-style fast food there, and thus are a lousy judge of actual Chinese cuisine.
  • Betrays a lack of human empathy, often expressed by a condescending tone toward the staff. The reviewer doesn’t appear to have ever considered what it would be like to have strangers rating him on his annual job performance based on a single 90-minute meeting.
  • Reveals an undue sense of entitlement: she appears to expect special treatment at the expense of other customers, that the restaurant should bend the rules for her because it’s her birthday, or that no demand is unreasonable because “ the customer is always right” – in general, an attitude that a restaurant is obligated to cater to her every whim.
  • Has unreasonable expectations on whether the restaurant can accommodate special dietary preferences, allergies, restrictions, taboos, etc., and wrongfully assumed without calling ahead that it can and should be able to deal with every customer's gluten intolerance, veganism, aversion to onions, etc.
  • Shows a lack of deep contextual knowledge of the kind that informs really useful food writing. The reviewer has no experience working in restaurants, a shallow grasp of the local restaurant scene, limited perspective on its history, a poor compass on emerging local and national culinary trends and talent, little direct experience of international cuisines from travel abroad, meager knowledge of beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails, and scant home cooking skills.
  • Includes a raft of details unrelated to food, service and atmosphere under the mistaken belief that these will be of interest to strangers. I’m glad you were out with your dear Great-Aunt Margie and were wearing your favorite party dress and saw Jacoby Ellsbury at the next table and had a bunch of cocktails and were really lit by the time dinner arrived, but let’s skip all that. Only your closest friends care, and even they are probably bored with that story.
  • Has an obvious agenda behind an overtly positive or negative review. The reviewer is either a shill (an investor, owner, employee, public relations agent, friend or relative of the restaurant) or an axe-grinder (an investor, owner, or employee of a competitor, an unethical PR person angry the restaurant ditched him for another firm, a disgruntled ex-employee, the owner’s jilted ex-paramour.) Ever wonder why that one reviewer only talks about Seaport restaurants, and defends even the most mediocre ones to the death? Maybe she works in marketing for a developer in the neighborhood, or is trying to boost the value of her Waterfront condo. The problem of phony online reviews is growing, and the fakers are getting better at masking their biases.

As I said, I distrust any review from a person about whom I know nothing. At a minimum, I need to feel some confidence that the reviewer and I share the same sensibilities, that we like and dislike the same kinds of places. This makes reviews on sites where reviewers remain anonymous, like Zagat (now part of Google) and OpenTable, quite useless to me. With professional reviewers and bloggers, you can glean their point of view, expertise and trustworthiness by reading their published body of work -- for starters, by looking at places you’ve both been to and seeing if you mostly agree or disagree with their opinions on them.

With a little effort, you can make similar assessments of amateurs if they review under a consistent identity, as is done on Chowhound, Yelp, and TripAdvisor. By reading a dozen or so of an individual's bylined opinions about places you know, you can begin to gauge their knowledge, contextual depth and tastes. Finding someone you trust in this manner is far more likely to yield solid recommendations than taking advice from an online stranger, which is the equivalent of meeting some random nobody whose favorite restaurant might be Old Country Buffet, or that pizza place you stopped going to after you ate there sober once.

Aggregate star ratings are utterly suspect for the same reason: you know nothing about the people behind the underlying individual ratings. There are too many opinions from strangers rolled up in there, and many of them might be the sort who thinks waiting an hour for a table at The Cheesecake Factory is totally worth it.

It’s always useful to find reviewers with special expertise in or passion for certain cuisines, like the slow-smoke barbecue nerd, the oenophile with a Master of Wine qualification, or the woman who was raised on her immigrant mother’s Taiwanese cooking. Food bloggers often fall into these categories, but I count many amateurs, especially on Boston's Chowhound board, as valuable resources on this score, too.

Anonymity and aggregate star ratings thwart your ability to grasp the point of view behind opinions. Still, skimming a couple of dozen Yelp reviews can help, as long as you understand that at best these provide an approximation of the statistical mean. If you are satisfied with mass market oriented restaurants and national casual dining chains, that perspective might be adequate. If you’re one of those food geeks who considers a merely okay meal to be an avoidable tragedy, you’ve got to dig deeper than the so-called wisdom of crowds, and seek out individual voices that share your ardor for extraordinary food. That takes some work.


As an old-media restaurant critic for the last eight years, I've long understood that the value placed on professional opinions is dwindling. Three or four years ago, Boston diners could read two dozen professional restaurant reviews in local print publications every month. Now, there’s maybe half that, and I expect that number will keep shrinking. (My own longtime employer, The Boston Phoenix, the city's leading alt-weekly for nearly fifty years, ceased publication in March, 2013.) Professional critics are dinosaurs in a tar pit; the voice and weight of amateur reviewers is ascendant.

Given that you have the chance to exercise that voice loudly and often, here are a few pro tips on how to make your amateur reviews more fair, useful, and compelling:
  • Don’t review a place you’ve only been to once. I’ve published over 300 professional reviews: many places I reviewed favorably didn’t make a great first impression, and some of the harsher reviews were of places that wowed me initially. In light of how important consistency is to a restaurant’s success, accumulating a larger sample size is the only way to ensure you’re being fair and accurate.
  • Get your facts straight. I once called out a Yelper for slagging a ramen place (Cambridge, MA’s Yume Wo Katare) because he clearly didn’t understand the very specific style (jiro ramen) they were serving there, and defended his opinion with one erroneous assumption after another. He had some restaurant industry connections, had traveled in Asia, had visited a passel of famous, fancy ramen joints. None of this changed the fact that his comments were as ignorant as complaining that a traditional Northern Italian restaurant didn’t serve spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs. Don’t be that idiot.
  • If your restaurant experience was unsatisfactory and your server didn’t fix the fixable problems you brought to their attention, take up your unresolved issues with the manager after your meal, either directly or with a follow-up phone call or email. Give the restaurant an opportunity to make things right before you flay it online.
  • Skip the outline of your credentials. The fact that you are 100% Irish (meaning your great-great-great-grandparents emigrated 160 years ago in the Famine) doesn’t mean you can tell cottage pie from shepherd’s pie. Even if you did speak fluent Gaelic, you still might be a food ignoramus with lousy taste. Let your knowledge, passion, and discernment speak for itself. You may in fact be an expert on Irish cuisine, but it's not because of your genes.
  • Consider that your negative review has the power to affect people’s livelihoods, especially when the place is new. One bad review of ten that have been posted hurts far worse than one out of a hundred reviews. Professionals know to give a new place a few weeks to complete a shakedown cruise; consider giving that same benefit of the doubt to fledgling enterprises.
  • Recognize that the Internet gives an illusion of anonymity that is fleeting at best. Don’t exhibit “e-balls”, the bravado that arises from the imagined distance between your browser and the object of your criticism. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say in person to the host, bartender, server, chef or owner. Assume that your pen name or alternate online identity will eventually be revealed, because it will. (Do you really think that Google, Verizon, and the NSA don’t already know who you are, Foodie1992?)
  • Consider whether the restaurant’s failures are systemic or a reflection of an off night. Everyone has bad days and personal distractions to deal with. Most staffers are busting their asses to ensure you have a great meal. Last night’s fumbling server or overtired line cook may bounce back and be awesome the rest of the year, but your one-star pan based on a single anecdotal experience will persist online forever.
  • Learn to cook and to serve. If you really want to deepen your appreciation of what the pros are able to do at speed and scale every night, pile up some hours in your own kitchen doing some scratch cooking: learn how to shop for fresh, seasonal produce; clean, filet and cook a fish; truss and roast a chicken; make a basic stock and vinaigrette; bake a loaf of bread; grill and roast and braise different cuts of beef; steam a lobster; cook vegetables and grains perfectly. Then try pulling off an eight-person dinner party sometime. It ain’t as easy as it looks, is it, Monsieur Ego?
  • Travel, and don’t eat like a damned tourist when you do. Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations!”  is one of the few food-TV shows I have any use for because he eats abroad the way I always have done: by checking out the markets, eating the street food, avoiding anything considered the “Best Local X” in mass-market guidebooks, and finding a way to get invited to a local’s house for a home-cooked meal. You will find it mind-boggling (and usefully humbling) to discover how very much you have to learn about your favorite cuisines.
  • Back at home, seek out restaurants run by immigrant chef/owners whose primary audience is his or her fellow ex-pats. These places don’t dumb down the cuisine for American palates; it’s the next best thing to traveling to their homeland. If everyone in the joint but you is not speaking English, that’s a promising sign.
  • Make sure you don’t have a reason to recuse yourself. Don’t be a shill or a negative shill by reviewing a place in whose success or failure you have a hidden interest.
In short, before you lob an online dart that could hurt a small business, recognize how little you may actually know, do some homework, and act like a decent human being. The Internet has given you great power; try not to be a prick about it.

Other guests included Jack Yu of reputology.com, which helps businesses manage their reputations by monitoring amateur reviews, and Rick Nelson, a professional restaurant critic for the Minneapolis-St. Paul daily Star-Tribune. You can listen to the MPR segment here. I don’t show up until minute 26; the whole thing is worth listening to.

27 March 2013

From the Archives: Five-Drink Minimum at Vinalia

Courtesy of Boston's Weekly Dig
Once again, I'm reprinting an ancient piece of mine from Boston's Weekly Dig that disappeared when its online archive went kablooey sometime in the summer of 2007. Five-Drink Minimum is an annual Dig feature series that sends local writers to one or more Boston bars to document a brief binge. 

My assignment in March, 2006 was to bottom-up five drinks  one of the bartender's choosing, the rest mine  at Vinalia, a bygone, fairly fancy restaurant and wine bar in Downtown Crossing that sat in the spot currently occupied by Petit Robert Central.

I think this piece demonstrates that our drinks scene has made some progress in seven years: few Boston bartenders in 2013 at this price level would have no idea what American straight rye whiskey is, and the Sex and the City-style oversized cocktail glass is thankfully on the wane.

By MC Slim JB
101 Arch Street, Downtown Crossing, 617.737.1777, www.vinaliaboston.com 
From the March 15, 2006 issue of Boston's Weekly Dig

Vinalia is determinedly modern, chicly spare and hard-edged, a polished black-granite bartop reflecting a glowing, cobalt-blue wall. Bartender Christine says, “Vinalia gets insanely packed on weeknights with after-work Financial District types. We pour many specialty cocktails, but we’re a serious wine bar. Weekends are calmer, mostly couples on dates and event groups.”

Drink 1, Christine’s choice: dreading the kind of candy-flavored fauxtini they concoct for rookies, I’m relieved instead to get a Sidecar up ($9), a grownup’s drink. Successful Sidecars hinge on fresh lemon juice: fortunately, the centerpiece of Vinalia’s bar is piles of fresh fruit. Yikes, is that a 14-ounce cocktail glass? Five of these will coldcock me.

Drink 2, (the rest are my choices): Manhattan up ($9). At most joints, asking for rye – the original Manhattan base, not bourbon (look it up) – creates confusion. “I don’t think we stock rye,” says Christine. “Canadian whisky* comes close,” I offer. “Use Crown Royal.” The result sports just the right Angostura accent: smooooth.

Drink 3: Time to switch to wine, or I’ll be stumbling into the path of a Silver Line bus. The by-the-glass list is diverse and sensibly priced for a bar this swanky. Feeling magnanimous after two birdbaths of fancy hooch, I order a 2004 Contratto Panta Rei Barbera d’Asti ($11), a complex, hot Piemontese red served in a quality balloon wineglass. Under the eerie blue lighting, it looks like chocolate syrup. Drinking rich sure is easy when the boss is paying.

Drink 4: The bar is full of witty, gorgeous young devotees of Bacchus, or so the knots of friends at the lounge tables appear to my lubricated senses. I’m ready to jet to Tuscany with a 2004 Villa Vignamaggio Chianti ($10), from a winery I once visited on a holiday stopover in Greve, the very spot where Mona Lisa sat for Leonardo. Overcome with nostalgia and the realization that I haven’t had a real vacation in years, I decide this wine is both awesome and a little sad. 

Drink 5: The homestretch calls for something short and sweet, an Austrian dessert wine, a 2005 Weinlaubenhof Alois Kracher Beerenauslese Cuvee ($11), which I mistakenly fancy I can actually pronounce. It’s a viscous, flowery, golden little cup of nectar, and I feel ever-so-worldly for knowing about it. Pretty soon it’s done, and so am I. I grip the handrail tightly on the long escalator ride down and out of the bubble of ease and savoir-faire that Vinalia creates, emerging unsteadily into the windblown trash of Downtown Crossing.

* I included this aside to my editor: “Please note the spelling ‘whisky’ (no ‘e’) for Canadian and Scotch, not ‘whiskey’, the spelling used for the American and Irish spirits.” He ignored me.

30 December 2012

Friends of Eater Boston 2012 Year-End Questions: MC Slim JB's Responses

Anyone who follows Boston’s restaurant scene ought to be reading Eater Boston, the local affiliate of the national Eater network of city-based blogs covering restaurants, bars and nightlife. In multiple postings each weekday, editor Aaron Kagan manages to vacuum up every significant story on our scene – restaurant openings and closings, chef comings and goings, worthwhile upcoming one-off events, happenings in food TV and other media, what the critics (professional and amateur alike) are saying, interviews with food-world personalities – and report them all with a sly, often satirical edge.

As part of its annual December summing-up of the preceding year, Eater Boston poses a series of questions to the “Friends of Eater Boston”, a group of professional restaurant critics, noted food bloggers, industry insiders, and food-scene personalities. I’m happy and honored to be a part of this group. I’ve collected my answers to the 2012 year-end questions here; click on the questions to go to the original Eater Boston articles to see how other Friends of Eater Boston answered, too.

Eater Boston: Name your top restaurant standbys of 2012 -- the restaurants you returned to most.
MC Slim JB: Strip-T’s, Coppa, Dumpling Café, Estragon, Island Creek Oyster Bar, jm Curley’s.

EB: What are the top restaurant newcomers of 2012?
MC: Gustazo Cuban Restaurant & Cafe, Thai North, West Bridge, China King, Casa B, Shojo, Yume Wo Katare. For bars, I’d add The Hawthorne, Brick & Mortar (though technically speaking, both opened in late ’11), backbar, and First Printer after Brother Cleve was brought in to revamp its cocktail program.

EB: Describe 2012 in one word
MC: Ramenmania!

EB: What was the best Boston-area dining neighborhood in 2012?
MC: Allston. For the nth year running, it presents the highest concentration of worthy budget restaurants in Boston. Particularly enjoyed the new Kaju Tofu House, which specializes in sundubu jigae, a Korean spicy tofu soup that is a great morning-after restorative; JoJo Taipei, an excellent traditional Taiwanese restaurant; and Lone Star Taco Bar, the terrific border-food joint from the Deep Ellum folks.

EB: What was the biggest dining surprise of 2012?
MC: Seeing Mad Men’s Jon Hamm at Taberna de Haro, along with Tom Werner, Larry David, Michael Keaton, and Patrick Lyons. I try to be cool around any celebrities I see around town, so I didn’t look at them as I walked by on my way out. But I’m a huge Mad Men fan, and so I had to steal a glance at Hamm through the front window from the sidewalk. He caught me, gave me a big, bug-eyed, goofy grin, as if to say, “Yeah, I know you’re gawking.” Love that man: as an actor, a style icon, and off-camera, a very funny guy who seems genuinely humbled by his fame and success. For me, the real, ongoing surprise is that most celebrities that visit Boston are seen dining in stupid tourist-trap restaurants, not great local places like Taberna de Haro.

EB: What and where was your single best meal in 2012?
MC: Always hard to pick one, but I had a memorable multi-course dinner at Thai North, which features the rare-in-Boston cuisine of Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, though you’ll only taste it if you order off the specials board. I went with a bunch of my food-geek friends, and we went to town, though the check didn’t crack $20 a head with a nice tip. Highlights included dressing fish, duck larb, khao soi, and mango sticky rice. A criminally overlooked place.

EB: Were there any restaurants that you broke up with in 2012, i.e., places you stopped going to?
MC: I guess it’s hard to have a breakup when you never really got past the flirting stage, but I’ve been singularly unimpressed with most Seaport restaurants and bars outside of standbys like Drink and Sportello. In my book, the lovely harbor views don’t compensate for mostly underwhelming food and drinks. I’m hopeful something there will wow me in 2013, but for now I’d rather give my affection to non-chain, independent restaurants in less touristy neighborhoods.

EB: Dining world headline predictions for 2013?
MC: Humanity’s heavy footprint on the planet will continue to adversely affect how we eat: drought, floods and violent storms will contribute to famine and higher food prices. We’ll see more big outbreaks of food-borne illness due to our over-reliance on antibiotics and factory farming. I expect we’ll see more and more seafood species disappearing from overfishing. The swelling ranks of the newly-prosperous middle class in places like India and China will drive up oil prices, in turn driving up food prices, and their accompanying rise in the consumption of meat, wine, and luxury foods will make those things more expensive, too. I hope this will serve as a wakeup call for us to get more serious about sustainable energy, fishing, and agriculture, as well as global warming, but I’m not optimistic on that score. Okay, I need to go eat a locally-grown turnip now. Happy New Year!

16 April 2012

Who Is Kyle Melrose and Why Is He Trying to Poison Professional Critics Against Your Restaurant?

As documented in a recent post on Eater Boston, some local character going by the name of Kyle Melrose has been emailing local professional restaurant critics and editors to talk trash about certain restaurateurs around Boston, and apparently has been doing so for years. I got my first email from Mr. Melrose a couple of months ago:

"From: Kyle Melrose, bostonwriter2010@gmail.com
Only becuase [sic] I like you and what you are doing, you should know I overheard Joe Casanelli [sic], the owner of Posto and Painted Burro really bashing you BIG TIME and very publically [sic]. Was not cool.  KM"

I quickly replied: "Kyle -- Thanks for the tip! Seems kind of ungrateful, as I've said very nice things about Posto. But it's to be expected: not everyone is going to love you when your job is trying to paint an unbiased picture of restaurants on behalf of consumers."

At first, I took the message at face value, having initially confused “Kyle Melrose” with another Kyle I know casually. Also, it’s easy to believe a restaurateur might be cursing a professional restaurant critic: maybe I had reviewed their place harshly, or hadn’t reviewed it yet (which is the case with Pizzeria Posto and The Painted Burro), or perhaps dissed a previous employer. (For instance, Cassinelli once worked at Stella and Mistral, two venues I’ve occasionally criticized.) As a reviewer, you strive to be fair, honest, thorough and accurate. Earning the enmity of some industry folks is just part of the job.

Then I had an email exchange with Cassinelli’s public relations people at 451 Marketing in which I recounted the Melrose story, which they protested wasn’t true. That got my antennae up, and when Aaron Kagan at Eater Boston mentioned getting a similar email, I decided to poll a few other professional critics and food website editors in Boston. Sure enough, one prominent local reviewer also got a “Joe bad-mouthed you” email from Melrose. Another responded, “That guy? Haven’t heard from him since 2010 -- he was bad-mouthing MET Back Bay then -- but he’s supposedly a local PR guy who trashes competitors and their clients.” The jig was up: I was actually late to the party in recognizing this Kyle Melrose as a fraud.

Most of the time, I have fairly sensitive radar for this kind of “negative shilling”, a slam from a bogus source. It's inevitably someone with an ax to grind: a competitor (like the Harvard Square pub owner who is notorious for posting one-star Yelp reviews against his neighbors), a disgruntled former employee, an ex-paramour. And as I said to The Painted Burro's PR people, I wouldn't let a hostile owner affect my impartial assessment of the restaurant; his or her opinion of me is irrelevant to whether my readers might enjoy the place. But until this incident, I hadn’t considered that such a story might be the invention of a rogue PR person trying to prejudice my perceptions. I routinely work with PR professionals in my day job outside of the restaurant industry, and have never seen this shady tactic used there.

Judging from Melrose's targets, I have a pretty good idea of who he is, though I haven't any proof. Further, many of the industry folks I've talked to about Melrose, both on the restaurant and PR side, suspect the same culprit, though nobody will go on the record about it. Any way you slice it, it's sleazy, unethical, possibly criminal behavior. At the very least, it would be extremely damaging to the reputation and business of any PR firm proven to be engaging in it. What restaurant would ever hire an agency that was known to slander its former clients?

To be fair, some anonymous sources turn out to be reliable: a self-described insider's predictions that Kingfish Hall was closing imminently proved to be true, despite the adamant denials of Todd English’s PR team. But thanks to Mr. Melrose, I’ll be a bit warier of anonymous tipsters with bad news from now on, wondering if in fact the source might be an ethically-challenged PR agency that is bitter about being dumped and not above some lowdown backstabbing. When it comes to anonymous bile, whether spewed on Yelp or poured into your Gmail inbox, caveat emptor.

22 February 2012

Boston Goes Berserk for a Bowl of Noodles: Thoughts on the Recent Ramen Craze

Boston has been buzzing lately about ramen, thanks to a couple of chefs from famed modern Japanese restaurant O Ya who recently decided to start a pop-up called Guchi's Midnight Ramen. Their bright idea? Serve a beautiful bowl of ramen late at night every couple of weeks to a small group of aficionados, using the idle kitchens and dining rooms of friendly local restaurants. The concept took off, so much so that its first event open to the general public sold out online in literally 30 seconds. In the wake of this frenzy, Ken Oringer's Uni Sashimi Bar announced it would start serving late-night ramen on Thursday through Saturday, and Myers + Chang started serving ramen at lunchtime.

In the runup to Guchi's premier event (by invitation only, held for friends and media types at Bondir), its second night (the fast-sellout one, held at Sportello), and afterward, the local food press had a field day. Would-be attendees who got shut out of the Sportello event vented their frustration at length on Chowhound. The Boston Globe ran a follow-up story today, and their reporter interviewed me at length for it. As my comments didn't end up in the story, I'm running them here.


PEGGY HERNANDEZ, BOSTON GLOBE REPORTER: The area has restaurants which serve ramen, including Sapporo, Myers & Chang, Blue Ginger, but, looking at Chowhound, blogs, etc. it seems many believe Boston is in need of "real ramen". You say on Chowhound: "Bostonians are dying for good ramen: it's clearly a hole in the scene." What isn't real about what's been out there? Why do Bostonians want it so much? Is it a Momofuku thing?

MC Slim JB: I think it's fair to say that the core of regular Boston Chowhounds is a bit worldlier, better traveled, more adventurous than many online amateur reviewers. They’re also value-conscious (which is not the same thing as cheap), and suspicious of media hype. When I say there's a hole in the scene, I'm speaking to that audience, which I think is pining for what is essentially high-quality Japanese fast food at a low price point without much concern for ambiance. Think Tampopo (the movie) more than Momofuku. They’re not hostile to Joanne Chang doing a $12 bowl of ramen, but I think the craving is less for upmarket interpretations, more for a traditional ramen experience.

PH: I ask that because, wow, there is so much excitement/hype on social media about Guchi’s Midnight Ramen. What was behind that? The upscale chefs? Also, is interest still strong after so many people were unable to get tickets to the second GMR at Sportello?

MC: I think the GMR folks did a great marketing job there, starting with their invite-only, press-oriented debut event at Bondir, which netted them a lot of food blog and lifestyle magazine coverage. With clever use of Facebook and Twitter, they skillfully built buzz and demand. The O Ya pedigree didn’t hurt, but I think the excitement was pure food-nerd curiosity combined with the mystique and fun of doing an event at midnight in a pop-up setting. And Chowhounds aren’t above I-got-there-first bragging rights, though few would publicly cop to it.

There will definitely be some backlash, folks who will stay miffed that they got shut out of an unexpectedly tiny event. GMR might do the events more frequently, or do them at larger scale, but that strikes me as unlikely given that this is a labor of love, a side project for already-busy chefs. I think the way to address the issue is simply to be more upfront about the number of seats to be made available to the general public. Then prospective diners can better gauge whether it’s worth the effort to hawk a Twitter feed for hours waiting for the ticket-buying starting gun. *

* N.B. Based on an announcement today for Guchi's next event, it appears they have opted to take this exact advice, not only specifying the total number of available tickets, but also announcing exactly when the tickets will go on sale well ahead of time.

PH: I think you're correct, that GMR is a "quixotic" effort. Do you think GMR and Uni are creating a new kind of energy around a particular food? These two efforts certainly attract younger crowds.

MC: I think in the case of Uni, you’ve got Ken Oringer’s hard-earned reputation for delivering quality dining experiences across a spectrum of cuisines, as well as curiosity about the Clio/Uni physical makeover and growing awareness of Todd Maul’s superb cocktail program. And the cost is sure to be in reach for more diners than Uni’s traditional menu, which ranks among the most expensive in town. 

By contrast, GMR doesn’t have comparable brand loyalty yet, so they will have to work harder to avoid the perception of being another overhyped shallow-foodie trend with the durability of a mayfly. But I think that anything that gets a conversation and some excitement going about an underserved cuisine is a good thing. And getting something delicious in the wee hours remains a tough task in Boston, so there’s big pent-up demand there, too. It’s just a little odd that something so inherently humble in its original form has created such a frenzy here. I imagine it would be like diners in Tokyo suddenly going crazy over diner-style American pancakes and sitting down to eat them in a swank venue at $30 a throw. (Okay, that probably has already happened in Japan.)

PH: Any comment on the price points ($25 for pork bun, ramen and cookie at GMR; $8 for pork bun, $10 for ramen, $3 for dessert at Uni)?

MC: Yeah, that’s not exactly your subway-station bowl of ramen, is it? Then again, there’s a reasonable expectation that the chefs involved are going to be doing a luxury version, with loving attention to broths, tares, and noodles. Me, I want a range of ramen options, in the same way I sometimes want a Craigie burger, sometimes a Gallows burger, sometimes a Flat Patties burger.

There’s nothing wrong with chefs taking a humble street food and elevating it with gourmet ingredients and technique, a topic I expounded on at length here. But I think it’s easier to appreciate the gourmet version when you’ve experienced a great iteration of the truck-stop version first. So by all means, let a thousand bowls of ramen bloom, including ones with slices of pork from Kagoshima Kurobuta that lived their lives reclining on unicorn-down pillows. But please, let’s include a fabulous $8 one in there somewhere, too.

12 December 2011

The 2011 Devil's Dining Awards

Illustration by Natalie Dee

It’s time once again for my annual mapping of the peaks and valleys of Boston’s dining and drinking scene. Here, I summarize the research I’ve accumulated in the past twelve months writing my fine-dining restaurant review column for Stuff Magazine (as well as its annual Dining Awards), budget restaurant reviews for the Boston Phoenix (including my retrospective "2011: The Year in Cheap Eats"), and bar reviews for Serious Eats -- not to mention my own devoted, non-paying pursuit of good food and drink.

As another extraordinary year for Boston’s industry scene wanes, I come not only to praise the worthy individuals, dishes, trends, and venues, but also to highlight the lowlights: the frauds and the hucksters, the follies and fiascoes. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce and the bygone Esquire Dubious Achievement Awards, I present for the third year running my personal take on the awe-inspiring and the awful in Boston’s dining and drinking scene: the 2011 Devil's Dining Awards!

  • Well-Scuffed Media Punching Bag Award: to Todd English. English’s travails with Olives Charlestown (which nearly lost its liquor license for English’s dithering on a post-fire rehab), Kingfish Hall (where he was $40K in arrears on his rent), the Sal DiMasi corruption trial (in which he was subpoenaed as a defense witness), the New York Post’s Page Six (for his telenovela-worthy love life) made him a tabloid staple this year. Even Boston Magazine, long a shrieking fangirl, tore down her Todd poster this year, writing an acidic “Dear Todd” breakup letter. Can’t a handsome, globetrotting, millionaire celebrity chef get a break? That would be a no: we’ll be back slinging the snarky cheap shots as soon as English, who once shilled for the execrable Michelob, proceeds with bruited plans to turn Kingfish Hall into a beer-geek bar.
  • Purple Heart on a Paper Napkin Medal: to Heidi Watney, NESN’s intrepid on-field reporter during Red Sox broadcasts, for her series on concession-stand specialties at ballparks around the country. Watney earned her combat pay during one standup segment at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, where a bite of a disgusting-looking fried chicken and waffle sandwich caused her to painfully, visibly gag. “Not my first choice,” she diplomatically opined after regaining her composure, “But I got it down.” Just barely, it seemed. That’s taking a bullet for the squad. We hope NESN bought her a big shot of Fernet-Branca afterward. (Best of luck with the Lakers, Heidi!)
  • Yogi Berra Award for Fractured Food English: to Billy Costa, host of NECN’s weekly restaurant-review show TV Diner, for consistently mangling common food words. We’ll give him a pass on künefe, but how does a kid from East Cambridge mispronounce the Portuguese sausage chouriço as "chew-ree-ko"?
  • Charles Bukowski Award for Entertaining Literary Drunkenness: to Anthony Bourdain, whose late-winter No Reservations visit to Boston blended a three-day Southie dive-bar bender with a loving pastiche on overlooked Boston-lowlife crime novel and 1973 Robert Mitchum vehicle The Friends of Eddie Coyle. To the chagrin of local Chowhounds, Bourdain barely talked about our food, though visits to East Cambridge Azorean spot O Senhor Ramos and Eastie’s Belle Isle Seafood were appreciated. But by the abysmal standards of most food-TV programming, this episode was funny and original, a wide-lapelled, bleary-eyed travelogue of a grittier Boston that few tourists ever see.
  • Grand Mulligan Award: to Dave Andelman for his advocacy work on behalf of Massachusetts restaurants. Andelman owns The Phantom Gourmet, a local restaurant-review TV show whose ethos might best be summarized as The Deep-Fried, the Honey-Glazed, and the Ugly, one which suspiciously gives endless rave reviews to its advertisers. But we want to give Boston's Pay-For-Play High Priest of Lowbrow Foods a bit of a pass. After all, Andelman successfully campaigned this year for the Restaurant Rejuvenation Act, which legalized pre-noon alcohol service hours for weekend brunch, a profit booster for Massachusetts restaurants in a stricken economy, and is now advocating for a restaurant tax holiday. We believe it was Mary Poppins who sang, "A spoonful of good deeds helps the smarmy pimpin’ go down."
  • “Mariah Carey in ‘Glitter’” Award for Most Unintentionally Hilarious Vanity Project: to “The Strega Life with Nick Varano”, Nick Varano’s video love letter to all things Nick Varano, starring, you guessed it, Nick Varano. A monthly episode of Dirty Water TV, a phenomenally cheesy-looking NESN show that covers Boston nightlife, “The Strega Life” debuted with Varano narrating a mawkish tribute to his humble upbringing that segued into a wannabe Rat Pack-style look at the ring-a-ding swingingness that is his Strega Waterfront restaurant. The show devotes plenty of screen time to the sundry sports celebs that bob in Varano’s considerable wake (see the Anything for a Comp Award below). Along for the ride is gushing sidekick Christina DelGallo, a crossed-eyed, cantilevered, Real Housewives of Revere styled blond with a smoker’s rasp and a thick Chicago accent. Must be seen to be believed.
  • Anything for a Comp Award: to Red Sox captain Jason Varitek, who proposed to his new bride-to-be over dinner at the kitschy, Vegas-ish Strega Waterfront, which cultivates the custom of local sports celebrities with copious freebies. We hope the horse head scene or the various bloody assassination scenes (like Moe Green’s bullet through the eyeball) from The Godfather Saga, a DVD of which runs on a continuous loop on Strega's many TVs, didn’t spoil the romance of the moment.
  • Most Anticipated Episode of Law & Order: Boston: the pending legal actions against highly-profitable gourmet pizza chain The Upper Crust, which was convicted in 2009 of ruthlessly exploiting its Brazilian ex-pat kitchen crews, resulting in a six-figure-settlement for unpaid back wages. This year, UC is the subject of a new US Labor Department suit for not only failing to pay the old settlement, but continuing to abuse its immigrant labor. Further, a separate action accuses owner Jordan Tobins of withholding the wages and threatening the life of a former manager turned whistle-blower. The result will either vindicate Tobins or earn him a first-ballot entry into Boston’s Asshole Restaurateur Hall of Fame. We’ve already set the DVR.
  • How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? Award: to Tim Maslow, the new chef at tiny family-owned Watertown joint Strip-T’s, taking over from his veteran-chef father. To a solid but dull American menu (most popular entrée: plain grilled salmon), Maslow has added a range of far more innovative fare, like charred baby octopus in smoked-tomato / wasabi sauce, and grilled romaine with oxtail and poached egg. Turns out that Maslow Fils just came off a five-year stint in Manhattan superstar David Chang’s restaurant empire, most recently as chef de cuisine at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Who could do just turkey tips, tuna subs, and quesadillas after that experience? Expect this extravagantly talented young man to get offers at bigger, shinier spaces in Boston very soon.
  • Nice Guys Finish First Award: to chef Jamie Bissonnette of Toro and Coppa Enoteca, who competed earlier this year on Chopped!, the Food Network's cooking-competition reality show, and refused to let its producers goad him into trash-talking his fellow contestants. (Compare with fellow Boston-area chef Stephen Brand of UpStairs on the Square, who came across in the same episode as kind of a hyper-competitive dick.) Biss won, then used his $10K prize to buy his wife the engagement ring he couldn’t afford when they got married. We were also gratified to see him win Food & Wine’s “The People’s Best New Chef” Award. Pretty good year, chef!
    • Jacoby Ellsbury Award for Most Welcome Comeback: to Michael Leviton of suburban Newton's Lumiere, for returning to the in-town restaurant scene with his new Kendall Square restaurant Area Four. (Leviton’s first crack at urban fine dining, the star-crossed Persephone, appeared to be slightly ahead of its time in the Seaport.) Fans are also ecstatic that he has revived the Persephone baked-to-order pretzel – now nugget-sized and served with pimiento cheese – a dish we once called the Bar Snack of the Year.
    • Light the Pyre of Saugus Wings Award: to the memory of William Wong, founder of unutterably tacky Route 1 eyesore and landmark to gloppy Sixties-vintage American-Chinese food that is The Kowloon. Wong went to that Great Steam-Table Trough of Moo Goo Gai Pan in the Sky this past summer.
    • Nice Work If You Can Get It Award: to Will Gilson, who retired from his role as chef of Garden at The Cellar to open a summer-long pop-up restaurant at Adrian’s, a waterfront motel restaurant in Truro.
    • Amen, Chef! Award: to Jasper Whitefor his loving appreciation of the soupe de poisson, a/k/a fisherman’s soup, at Jody Adam’s Rialto, as reported by Grub Street Boston. Local celeb-chef White is America’s foremost expert on the preparation of Homarus americanus (Maine lobster). Of Adams’s rendition – whose deep flavor she attributes to the use of codfish frames and lobster bodies -- he observes, “She just nails it. It tastes like you're in Marseilles.” We have no pretensions to Chef Jasper’s discriminating taste, but heartily concur, making an annual pilgrimage to Rialto just for this dish.
    • Bartender of the Year Award: to Scott Marshall, formerly of Drink, now behind the stick at the Hotel Commonwealth’s brand-new basement bar The Hawthorne. Like most of his brethren in the top tier of Boston’s craft bartenders, he has encyclopedic knowledge and amazing technical chops. What separates him from that elite company is a welcome sense of humor and lack of self-seriousness that the best of the best occasionally could use a little more of.
    • Tavern Proprietor of the Year Award: to Jeremiah Foley of J.J. Foley’s Café. Grandson of the original J.J., he’s a living repository of the Runyonesque history of the South End, and hard-working owner of its most egalitarian hangout, still a watering hole for cops, Herald and Weekly Dig staffers, Gillette factory workers, and residents of the nearby upmarket condos. If you find yourself being hustled bodily out the tavern’s side door by one of Foley's strong sons, you’ve been 86’d, and had better find somewhere else to drink for a few months. Foley's has served more gangsters, toughs, grifters, and sharpers than you’ll ever know, and Jerry knows how to keep an orderly public house (with surprisingly good food).
    • Iggy Pop, Godfather of Punk Award, Cocktail Edition: to master mixologist and musicologist Brother Cleve, whose pioneering work at the Lizard Lounge and especially the bygone B-Side Lounge spearheaded Boston’s craft cocktail revival. Youngsters who want to drink at the feet of the master should check out the old-school Tiki drinks and classic cocktails he's now slinging at Think Tank. (He still spins a mean DJ set, too.)
    • Welcome Diaspora of the Year: the ongoing migration of veteran bartenders from Drink, Boston's premiere craft cocktail bar, to new posts around town. For example, bartending stalwart and B.A.R. graduate Misty Kalkofen just relocated to Central Square’s new Brick & Mortar; Sam Treadway and Bryn Tattan surfaced at Union Square, Somerville's new Backbar. With his nonpareil training ethos, manager John Gertsen will backfill their ranks with fresh talent. This ongoing cross-fertilization of the city's craft cocktail revival has a happy result: expanding the number of bars where cocktail geeks can enjoy delicious, exactingly-made drinks. Now do your part, and bring an Extra-Dirty Grey Goose "Martini" drinking friend to one of them for a tipple upgrade.
    • Brillat-Savarin Award for Meritorious Service in Restaurant Criticism: to Mat Schaffer, who took an austerity-minded Boston Herald’s offer of early retirement this summer. We long admired Mat for his honesty, efforts to remain anonymous, obvious pleasure in eating, penchant for the pithy turn of phrase, and aplomb reviewing everything from luxury fine-dining palaces to Chinatown dives. Friday mornings feel strangely empty without a witty Schaffer review to kick them off. The sharp old pro will be much missed. And no, having local industry celebrities contribute to the Herald’s Fork Lift food blog doesn’t quite fill the void.
    • Elvis/Beatles Award for Legendary Meeting We’re Sorry We Missed: to the May evening that Jonathan Gold dined at Craigie on Main, the day after Craigie’s chef/owner Tony Maws won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef, Northeast. Gold is the brilliant restaurant critic for the LA Weekly and the only food writer in history to win a Pulitzer. (We think every aspiring food writer should be reading his work religiously.) Maws, as he had promised in his acceptance speech in New York the night before, was already back on the line cooking. Our hero dining at one of Boston's best? Wicked.
    • Umberto Eco Award for Whimsical Restaurant Semiotics: to local food writer Jolyon Helterman, who offered a hilarious taxonomy of Boston restaurant menus in a December 2010 Boston Magazine piece. Do Boston restaurants really fall into only four basic types signaled by their menu typography and design: locavorish, Francophilic, gastropubby, and upscale-minimalist? No, but avid restaurant-goers had to chuckle in recognition of how much ground Helterman’s satirical archetypes covered.
    • Mitt Romney in Overalls Award for Flimsy Blue-Collar Shtick: to Alex Beam for a comically awful anti-foodie rant ("He's had his fill") in his Boston Globe column in March. In it, Beam took weird, off-kilter potshots at the sustainability movement, food-TV programming, and general foodie pretentiousness while bragging implausibly about his Panda Express intake. And here we thought Howie Carr owned the prep-school-alum-posing-unconvincingly-as-Joe-Sixpack beat.
    • Annoying Industry PR Buzzphrase of the Year: “farm to table”, essentially another way to mouthe that old hobbyhorse, “seasonal and local”. Our favorite ridiculous variants included “farm to fork” (used by Ken Oringer’s new Kennebunkport restaurant Earth) and “oven to table” (from Area IV’s new restaurant Area Four). For PR flacks running out of ideas for 2012, we’re here to help: how about “mud to maw”, “field to pharynx”, or “grange to gullet”?
    • Virgil Award for Hell's Tour Guide of the Year: to Luke O’Neil’s "Boston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown", an entertainingly written and thoroughly researched crawl through the short hairs of Boston’s fetid underbelly. Thanks to O’Neil’s vivid and harrowing field work, you can experience the brain-numbing existential purgatory and threat to life and limb that is Parrotta’s Alpine Lounge in Chelsea without hazarding a visit there yourself.
    • HGTV Award for Best Repurposing of a Hall Closet: to Avery Bar, a cozy small bar with gorgeous fireplace and comfy lounge seating that the Ritz-Carlton Boston Common installed in a formerly disused corner of the hotel’s main lobby.
    • About Effing Time You Showed Up, Godot Award: to Island Creek Oyster Bar, for providing a long-overdue counterpoint to the argument that -- outside of Neptune Oyster and Chinatown live-tank Hong Kong style joints like Peach Farm -- Boston has been seriously overrated as city with great seafood restaurants.
    • Saddest Closing Award (tie): to Ken’s Ramen, whose owner took Boston’s greatest bowl of noodle soup back to Japan; to Scup’s in the Harbor, a humble, charming eatery set in an Eastie shipyard, sunk by family medical difficulties; to Tawakal Halal Cuisine, a rare local outpost of Somalian food that only lasted an eyeblink; and to Don Ricardo's, a South End Brazilian / Peruvian / Mexican place that was modest, high-value, run by the sweetest old couple in the neighborhood, and criminally underpatronized by locals. R.I.P, all.
    • Most Anticipated Opening Award: to Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, the new pop-up venture (location still TBD) recently announced by folks affiliated with downtown luxury avant-Japanese restaurant O Ya. In addition to the obvious (it will serve Japanese noodle soup at odd hours), the owners are promising serious broths, tares, and handmade noodles. Might ease some of the pain from the closing of Ken's Ramen.
    • Top of the Bandwagon Award: to the South End’s El Centro, one of a dozen new restaurants that jumped on the year’s most overheated restaurant trend, upscale Mexican. El Centro created some separation between itself and the rest of the pack with an actual Mexican-native chef/owner and more traditional cuisine than most.
    • Amy Winehouse Memorial “Talent Ain’t Enough” Award: to Rocca Bar & Kitchen, the upscale South End Italian restaurant that had all the ingredients to be a long-running success -- a beautiful space, great patio, award-winning chefs, and veteran management -- but shuttered last New Year’s Eve, undone by an inability to deliver a consistent service experience.
    • Best New Gastropub Award: to The Abbey in Washington Square. Brookline will never have enough neighborhood joints with excellent upscale-tavern fare and good drinks that serve till 1:30am.
    • Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya Award: to Shangri-La, the oh-so-seedy Beacon Hill temple of terrible Chinese food, every underage Suffolk and Emerson student’s favorite place for a sure-to-be-regretted-tomorrow Scorpion Bowl. It was also notorious for allegedly hosting a brothel in its basement for years. Its replacement, the forthcoming Tip Tap Room, cannot help but be less unsavory.
    • Mobile Restaurateur of the Year Award: to Staff Meal Truck. In a year where Boston finally got a raft of worthy food trucks, Staff Meal served innovative, delicious, yet budget-priced food like head cheese sandwiches, Chinese sausage and choy in mu-shu wrapper, foie gras baklava, chicken paprikash sub with bacon jam and fried shallots, and trotters and sardo with preserved-lemon vinaigrette and spicy kale on a roll. Consistently original and astonishing. This ain’t your grandfather’s dirty-water-dog cart.
    • King’s Chapel Burial Ground Award for Most Interesting Ghosts: to The Wholy Grain, the South End bakery / café that opened this year in the former "social club" where notorious local mobster Philip "Sonny" Baiona held court for decades. With the once-thriving (and now also-defunct) Waltham Tavern down the block as his primary retail outlet, Sonny was doing a brisk business in drug dealing, bookmaking, and loan-sharking in 2006 when the DEA and FBI put him in MCI-Walpole on a five-year bid; the 83-year-old wiseguy died there a year later. We’re guessing that few of the yoga moms and other new South Enders who have quickly popularized this now-charming spot have any idea of its sordid history.
    • Manny Ramirez Award for Least Likely Future Comeback: to Anthony’s Pier 4, the Waterfront institution that was Boston’s It Place in 1976, but 35 years later has still not gotten the memo that the restaurant world has moved on. Slated for demolition to make way for another glitzy Seaport redevelopment project, it promises to relocate nearby. With its fly-in-amber menu, welter of fresh new Waterfront competitors, and longstanding troubles with the tax man, we’re thinking that ain’t happening.
    • Franz Kafka Award for Nightmarish Bureaucratic Malevolence: to the City of Boston’s Inspectional Services Division, which has crushed eat-in business at South End Spanish deli/grocer Las Ventas by forcing it to remove its table seating. The reason? An opaque certificate-of-occupancy issue that ISD’s own inspectors apparently cannot explain themselves. Said one regular customer who must now find another place to eat Las Ventas’s excellent bocadilloes, “It sounds like a naked attempt by ISD to solicit some graft.” We suppose the good news is that owners Julio de Haro and Lara Gaffigan, who also own the popular Spanish restaurant Estragon next door, have not yet awoken to find themselves turned into giant cockroaches.
    • Cracked & Moldy NKOTB Lunch Box Award: to Helen Mont-Ferguson, longtime director of food and nutrition services for Boston Public Schools, who was removed from her post in May after it was discovered that frozen foods with 2008 expiration dates were being served to school children. “Thanks, but Mom wants me to eat healthy, so she brown-bagged me a Fluffernutter, Ritz Handi-Snack, and some Hostess Sno Balls.”
    • Better Five Years Behind New York Than Never Award: to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, for finally getting behind the food truck trend, with very happy results for local eaters-about-town. Next on your to-do list, Your Honor: make that long-promised Boston Public Market, an in-city farmer’s market akin to Manhattan’s Greenmarket, happen next year in Boston.
    • NIMBY D-Bags of the Year Award: to the "North End Ten", members of the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association, for getting the already BRA-approved Doc’s Restaurant on Long Wharf un-approved, after restaurateur Michael Conlon had spent years and tens of thousands of dollars developing it. Already home to a hulking, hideous Marriott, the tourist-trap-chain Chart House restaurant, a welter of vendor carts, and an otherwise-unused building that hides an emergency egress from the Blue Line (which Doc’s would have supplanted), locals complained the new burgers-and-lobster-rolls joint would have “eliminated prime public space” and “spoiled the view”. Another explanation? The neighbors are just control-freak pricks.
    • Hipster Jets vs. Sharks Awardto the Jamaica Plain residents who packed Neighborhood Council meetings to conduct unruly, rancorous debates on the merits of a Whole Foods replacing longstanding Latino-focused Hyde Square grocer Hi-Lo Foods. Turns out that even as diverse and progressive-seeming a community as JP can struggle unattractively with gentrification issues.
    • “Sam Bowie Drafted Ahead of Michael Jordan” Award for Tragically Botched Opportunity: to the City of Boston for awarding the Pink Palace, a long-disused Boston Common structure it offered for use as a restaurant, to dull airport-food-court chain Earl of Sandwich. Of all the things we might have done to show off Boston’s culinary uniqueness to tourists, this is the best we could do? As the kids say, Fail
    • Cast of Jersey Shore Award for Most Hoped-For Early Death: to Groupon, the coupons-by-email phenomenon that has been the bane of many local restaurateurs. It puts butts in seats, but is a drag on profitability, and few coupon-clippers ever return to pay full price. Our prayers for Groupon to run out of cash before it could get to an IPO went unanswered, but at least its stock price has tanked, so it may yet meet its deserved fate.
    • Hooters on the Waterfront Award: to Seaport chain steakhouse Del Frisco’s, for its gimmick of maintaining a squad of comely female servers in fishnet stockings and micro-minis. Their primary role appears to be delivering highly profitable side dishes like $11 creamed spinach to tables of lecherous businessmen on expense accounts. Classy!
    • “Bite the Wax Tadpole” Award for Brand Blundering: to Back Bay restaurant Mass Ave Tavern. The space formerly known as Match relaunched under new owners in January simply as Mass Ave, which made it impossible to find online, then swiftly changed its name to 94 Mass Ave, then almost as quickly renamed itself as Mass Ave Tavern. As of press time, that last one has stuck, but don’t hold us to it. Pretty sure Restaurant Branding 101 these days opens with, "Think about The Google first".
    • Count to Ten Award: to Emma’s Pizza in Cambridge, which generated a mini-firestorm by engaging in a real-time Twitter flame war in August with an unhappy jerk of a customer. Probably felt good at the time, but this move earns a failing grade in Fundamentals of Restaurant Social Media.
    • PT Barnum Award: to the prankster who punked the Boston Globe’s biweekly online food chat by posing as Barbara Lynch and promising a free tasting at Menton, one of Boston’s costliest one-percenter hangouts. We love a deal as well as anyone, but our bullshit detector is sensitive enough to recognize that Babs and Free Food are two things that do not go together.
    • Donald Trump Award for Profligate Bad Taste: to David Schuler, a Massachusetts native now living in Mississippi, who drove 1400 miles to spend $1200 on 150 frozen pizzas from Stoughton’s Town Spa Pizza. Dude, seriously: we get nostalgia, but frozen pizza?
    • Silly Bandz Award for Fad That Was Cute for About Three Minutes: to Temazcal Cantina, the Seaport upscale Mex joint, for its iPad-based menus. Presumably these can be praised for making the kitchen live up to high plating standards (so the dish that arrives at your table looks as good as its food-porn menu photograph), but quickly wear out their welcome once you get to the cocktail menu and are forced to Peruse. Only. One. Drink. At. A. Time. Worst application of technology in a restaurant setting since the Keno feed.
    • Charlie Sheen Award for Grandiosity of Self-Delusion: to ancient North End tourist trap Joe Tecce’s Ristorante, which blamed its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing last May on the Big Dig, which ended in 2007. It couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with Tecce’s menu of superannuated red-sauce-and-melted-mozzarella clichés, featuring specialties like batter-fried sweet and sour chicken and veal, could it?
    • As If! Award for Restaurant Futility: to Canadian pizza chain Boston Pizza, which temporarily changed its name to Vancouver Pizza as a show of support for the Canucks over the Boston Bruins in the 2011 NHL Finals. It didn’t help: the Bruins took the Stanley Cup in seven games anyway. If only Boston Pizza had changed its name to Somebody Wake Up the Sedin Twins Pizza.
    • Pu Pu Hot Pot Award for Dubious Restaurant Naming (tie): to Blue Inc., which begs the question, “Which marketing genius thought it would be a good idea to ask Herald readers for naming suggestions, and then actually use what they came up with?”; to Sweet Caroline’s, the Fenway-adjacent eatery which unwisely references Neil Diamond’s numbingly overplayed stadium anthem and creepy adult mash note to an 11-year-old girl; and to A @ Time (we’re not making that up), a new Thai joint in Allston that sounds like a pad gaprow-induced case of the hiccups.
    • Bull & Finch Award for Worst New Tourist Restaurant (tie): to Max Brenner’s, the Israeli chain whose chocolate-overload novelty concept might be more interesting if its food weren’t so uniformly mediocre; and to Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill at Patriot Place, which combines a theme based on a schlock-country anthem with a menu worthy of a Ninety-Nine, complete with potato skins and fried mac ‘n cheese. Pro tip: most restaurants with entertainment or sports figures on the marquee suck hard.
    • You Can Dress Them Up Award: to Mike Andelman of the Phantom Gourmet, for engaging in an ugly public spat in January with a Grill 23 hostess who refused to seat him in the dining room before it opened. On the Phantom’s weekly radio program, Mike petulantly referred to the “dumb hostess” as a “little monkey” and a “never would talk to me in high school type girl”, then slagged all hostesses as attractive incompetents. When the story drew wider media attention, the restaurant issued a press release expressing dismay at the personal attack and defending their employee. Under pressure from civility advocates like Server Not Servant, brother/boss Dave Andelman forced Mike to issue a public apology, which lamely excused his rant as “satire”, not the bitterness of a grown man still smarting over teenage dating humiliations.
    • Tuxedo-Print T-Shirt Award: to Locke-Ober, for dropping its storied dress code and letting shlubbily dressed tourists into its dining room. This marked the inglorious end to an era of civility in Boston fine dining, as L-O was the last room in town to insist that gentlemen don jackets for dinner. Heaven forbid you should ever have to leave the sweatpants at home.
    • Orange-Stained Underwear Award: to the Boston restaurants that were revealed in a Boston Globe exposé ("On the menu, but not on your plate") in October to be mislabeling cheaper fish as fancier ones for profit, e.g., selling escolar, known for some very unpleasant side-effects, as “white tuna”. Others were caught selling farmed tilapia as wild red snapper and frozen Pacific cod as fresh and locally-caught. Even exurban celeb-chef Ming Tsai was red-faced, having to explain that technically it’s okay for him to call the humble sablefish in his signature $41 entrée at Blue Ginger by the loftier “Alaskan butterfish”, even though the FDA considers it misleading and illegal to use vernacular names for fish as market names. (Apparently, the embarrassment stung: Blue Ginger’s menu now reads “Miso-Sake Sablefish a.k.a. Butterfish".)
    • How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away? Award: to Gargoyles on the Square, the beloved Davis Square fine-dining restaurant that announced its closing after 15 years in September, causing a rush of tearful farewell dinners, only to keep reopening each weekend until nearly November.
    • Sisyphus Finally Crushed By Giant Boulder Award: to Joe Cimino, the would-be operator of Back Bay’s Saratoga Restaurant. “Never heard of it”, you say? It’s the one that recently was on the verge of losing its liquor license after failing to open in its Fairfield Street space after 12 years – that’s right, 12 years -- of wrestling with building wiring, ADA access requirements, groundwater, and other issues. Sorta makes the food truck thing look pretty sweet, don’t it?
    • Foie Gras Poutine Award for Culinary Excellence in an Unlikely Setting: to Victor’s Italian Restaurant, a tiny, family-owned restaurant with the look of a plain-Jane sub shop, tucked away in a residential corner of Saugus, for its scallopine. Pounded, breaded, and sautéed to order (even for subs), they’re a minor epiphany for anyone who has ever ordered a cutlet and been unable to tell what animal it comes from. Veal parm that tastes like veal? Revelatory!
    • Fenway Park Award for Most Overdue Facelift: to the bar at Clio and Uni, Ken Oringer’s acclaimed fine-dining tandem in the Eliot Hotel, which had long been stuck in a mid-90s, Sex and the City, flavored-vodka rut. Then Oringer hired idiosyncratic, innovative bar manager Todd Maul, who quickly elevated the bar into the top tier of Boston’s craft cocktail purveyors with a history-hopping, 100-entry, modernist-cuisine-inflected specialty cocktail list. About frickin’ time. (The pending physical-plant makeover is pure gravy.)
    • Ephemeral Pleasure of the Year Award: to the lightly-pickled fresh local herring, a rare and extraordinary delicacy, only available for a few days this past spring at The Gallows in the South End.
    • Eagles of Death Metal Award for Misleading Nameto Thailand Café, a Central Square restaurant long known for sub-mediocre Thai food that got a new owner and concept a few years ago but didn’t bother to change its English-language sign. What’s entirely easy to miss from the curb is the new half of the menu, an array of sensational, very traditional Sichuan dishes. Now slated for eviction (its landlord is redeveloping the building), we hope it finds a new home soon.
    • Titans of Industry and Street Food Award: to Boston Speed Dog, purveyor of what the Wall Street Journal called the best hot dog in America back in 2008, and which recently so impressed third-richest-man-in-the-world Warren Buffett that he jokingly threatened to buy the company. Not bad for a humble wiener cart usually parked in Roxbury’s dusty, industrial Newmarket Square. (Awesome side note: owner Greg Gale told the Boston Globe that he didn’t recognize Buffett, but that he "love[s] his music.")
    • Dish of Year (tie): a simple soup of broth, crouton, poached egg, cheese, and white Alba truffles at Erbaluce; handmade burrata with shaved vegetable salad, pistachio vinaigrette, and aniseed tuile at Bondir; roasted apple salad with corned beef tongue, horseradish, and beet broth at Strip-T’s; crudo of striper collar at Coppa Enoteca.
    • Manny Pacquiao Award for Disputable Championship: to Menton, which in eighteen short months may have achieved Barbara Lynch’s goal of unseating L’Espalier as Boston’s best-regarded luxury French restaurant. Menton’s recent accolades include Boston's only five-star restaurant rating in the Forbes Travel Guide, the highest service and décor ratings in the latest Zagat Boston Survey, and inclusion in Gayot’s 10 Best New Restaurants in America. It’s also rumored to be up for a coveted designation as a Relais & Châteaux property, which would be a first for Boston. We’d rate the contest a draw: both restaurants have deservedly-lauded food and service, and L’Espalier’s superior desserts are matched by Menton’s better cocktails. But both get our booby prize for cold, charmless, colorless dining rooms. (We never got over the old L’Espalier.)
    My sincere thanks to Boston's many great food journalists who make tracking the local industry scene so easy and entertaining, including: Devra First and the Dishing bloggers of the Boston Globe (also deserving of special kudos for its crack investigative reporting this year), Kerry Byrne of the Boston Herald's Fork Lift food blog, Marc Hurwitz of the indispensable Boston Restaurant Talk & Boston's Hidden Restaurants, Kara Baskin of Grub Street Boston, Adam Gaffin at Universal Hub, Aaron Kagan at Eater Boston, Dan McCarthy at Urban Daddy Boston, Lauren Clark of the much-missed Drink Boston, Leah Mennies and Donna Garlough at Boston Magazine's Chowder Blog, Jacqueline Church of The Leather District Gourmet, the folks at WBUR's Public Radio Kitchen, Patrick Maguire of Server Not Servant, Richard Chudy of Boston Burger Blog, Gary of BBQ blog Pig Trip, Penny Cherubino of BostonZest, Kitty Amann and the other lovely ladies of LUPEC Boston, the iron-livered Cocktail Virgin gang, the brilliant amateurs of the Boston board of Chowhound, and my esteemed colleagues at the Boston Phoenix (notably the magisterial Robert Nadeau), Stuff Magazine, and Serious Eats. Extra-special thanks to the great Natalie Dee of the webcomics Natalie Dee and Married to the Sea for her amazing illustration.

    And thanks most of all to the Greater Boston industry folks -- the chefs, line cooks, garde-manger, pâtissières, dishwashers, hosts, servers, backwaiters, busboys, bartenders, barbacks, managers, phone attendants, PR people, as well as the fisherman, farmers, foragers, distillers, winemakers and brewers who supply them -- who made so many nights in 2011 memorable for me.

    Here’s hoping that 2012 finds that everything on your plate and in your glass was locally and sustainably produced, trucked into town in gossamer hybrid vehicles fueled with recycled argan oil, and brought to you by a server willing to pretend to believe in your fictional food allergy, overlook your date's sorry dress sense, and ignore that blob of sage pesto in your teeth. Một hai ba, yo!