21 May 2009

A roundup of extraordinary Boston and New England dishes

I got solicited back in March by a national "lad" magazine to contribute a couple of Top 5 lists of Boston restaurants. Being the amateur food writer that I am, unschooled in the ways of the publishing world, I submitted a completed article rather than a proposal, which in retrospect was dumb, basically giving away the store. Now their editor has stopped responding to my emails, and since they never sent me a contract, I must assume they’ve decided not to use it.

I hate to waste good copy, so here are my lists. (If that magazine decides to use them without paying me, remember you saw them here first; lawsuit to follow.) As the feature has an August 2009 publication date, I won’t disclose the exact nature of these “top” lists. Let’s just call them a collection of dishes from Boston and New England restaurants that I consider extraordinary.

TOP 5 LIST #1:

Raw oysters, fried clams and the cold lobster roll at Neptune Oyster. The most impeccably fresh, beautifully prepared local seafood in a city famed for it is found at this little French-leaning joint. Ironically, it’s located in the middle of Boston’s North End, a neighborhood mostly known for its hundred Italian restaurants.

“One with everything” from Boston Speed’s Famous Hot Dog Wagon. This rickety food truck makes what the Wall Street Journal recently (and correctly) called the best hot dog in America, served in the middle of a wholesale food warehouse district. The giant dog is elaborately, lovingly prepared (marinated in brown sugar and cider, smoked on a closed charcoal grill, grilled on an open grill) and served with housemade condiments on a substantial grilled bun. It is a king among frankfurters.

Boiled Maine lobster at Barnacle Billy’s. Homarus Americanus is New England’s signature crustacean, and this unpretentious little shack on postcard-pretty Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine, seventy minutes north of Boston, does it exactly right: naked, with a pot of drawn butter, and beautiful local sweet corn on the cob on the side. A bucket of steamed clams with broth and more butter completes the picture here.

Roast chicken with garlic, lemon and parsley from Hamersley’s Bistro. In the city’s chic and restaurant-rich South End, Gordon Hamersley runs the archetypal chef-owned New American bistro, applying French technique to perfect New England ingredients (he was insistently locavore decades before the term existed), elevating the humble broiler into something transcendent.

Carne de porco à alentejana (marinated pork and littleneck clams) at Casa Portugal. The chefs of East Cambridge’s many Portuguese restaurants are experts with local seafood, a reflection of how the Portuguese ex-pat community serves as the core of Boston’s enormous fishing fleet. This dish artfully gives sunny Mediterranean simplicity a fresh New England accent, served up with courtly formality by the Iberian-native owner himself.


JFK’s lobster stew at Locke-Ober, in the company of Boston’s dwindling Brahmin class. Jack Kennedy’s favorite restaurant is still where Beacon Hill old money goes to escape the hoi-polloi in the arms of solicitous service and classic Continental and New England fare. Lined with old mirrors and mahogany, the clubby room offers a rare echo of a bygone 19th-century Boston, when bony, effete WASPs still ran the show (they’ve since been supplanted by roughneck Irish- and Italian-Americans.) Given some much-needed physical restoration and a slight menu freshening by local celeb-chef treasure Lydia Shire, it has kept its 19th-elegance and nose firmly in the air -- the last place in town where gentlemen without jackets are turned away.

Clam cakes and stuffed quahogs, a/k/a “stuffies”, at George’s of Galilee in Narragansett, RI. The former are deep-fried clam fritters, the latter are big local clams chopped and baked in the shell with seasoned bread stuffing, both once-ubiquitous summertime standbys that are increasingly hard to find. No one does them better than this salt-spray-weathered joint, which -- unlike many more-famous tourist-trap clam shacks -- actually sits on a beach in one of the few active, working-class fishing villages left on the New England coast.

Jonnycakes at the Commons Lunch in Little Compton, Rhode Island. A native (Wampanoag) food that Colonials adopted in the 17th century, these thin, lacy-edged pancakes made from local white flint cornmeal are a breakfast delicacy that few diners know about and fewer restaurants serve. They’re a tragically disappearing vestige of ancient New England culinary history. A modest family diner in this pristine rural seaside town an hour south of Boston is one of its last standard-bearers.

New England boiled dinner (corned beef and cabbage) from Doyle’s Café, a bona fide Irish-American tavern (opened in 1882) in a city overrun with shamrock-bedecked, Lucky-Charms-lilting fakers. As the black-and-white photos lining the bar attest, this is where real Boston pols come to quaff properly-pulled Guinnesses and dine elbow-to-elbow with their salt-of-the-earth constituents.

Steak tips at the New Bridge Café in Chelsea, one of those great knockabout mid-century saloons that are slowly fading away, to be replaced by obnoxious cookie-cutter chain outlets. The New Bridge hasn’t quite been the same since the smoking ban took effect, but its steak tips are still the best around, and its townie regulars with their inimitable, broad local accents present a timeless snapshot of blue-collar Boston.


Prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras and vin santo glaze from No. 9 Park. Barbara Lynch grew up in hardscrabble South Boston, then ascended through pluck and grit to build one of Boston’s most successful restaurant empires. No. 9 Park, her first venue, overlooks Boston Common and the State House, serving some of the most refined French- and Italian-inspired food in town. Not only does her famed pasta dish show how an Irish-American lass can outclass the Italian boys at their own game, Lynch cultivates the most polished and skilled servers and bartenders in town.

Grilled local bluefish at the East Coast Grill & Raw Bar. Forget the better-known Legal Sea Foods: grilling savant Chris Schlesinger’s casual, lively Cambridge joint is a superior exponent of ultra-fresh New England fish and shellfish. Bluefish is a darkly oily, predatory game fish that is tricky to prepare appealingly: expert wood-fire-grilling here makes it richly sublime. Schlesinger also does other fine local fish (like golden tilefish, monkfish, wild striped bass, and tautog), terrific raw bar, Asian- and Caribbean-inspired seafood preparations, and very creditable slow-smoked barbecue. ECG’s recurring Hell Night event, featuring ferocious chili-pepper-laden dishes, is a kitschy, delicious evening of culinary machismo for which you’ll pay dearly the next day.

A slice or a whole pie from the original Pizzeria Regina in the North End. The ancient coal-fired brick oven here, first fired up in 1926, turns out the best Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizzas this side of New Haven or Brooklyn, accompanied by the kind of casual, old-Boston Italian-American charm that the nearby tourist traps can only dream of. An original: the real deal.

08 May 2009

Doggie bags are a bitch

I don't care for doggie bags. Most people love leftovers from fine-dining restaurants (and we all know the dog isn’t getting them). When I open my fridge the next day to see an aluminum-foil swan or plastic tub or Styrofoam box, I find it depressing. You see, I think the doggie bag diminishes the experience of a beautiful meal from the night before.

To me, the contents of a doggie bag always look sad, forlorn: sauce all congealed, beautiful arrangement on the plate destroyed when the server haphazardly shoves the remnants into the container. Come the morning after, it's time to cue Peggy Lee: "Is that all there is?" How pitiful-looking are the remains of the entrée I paid $15 or $25 or $35 for last night? It can't just be reheating on my homely servingware that destroys the glamour and subtleties of flavor that made it so wonderful, can it? Was I just bedazzled by swank atmosphere and cosseting service, hoodwinked? The magic wreaked by fine-dining kitchens is an evanescent, nighttime thing: seeing its naked bones in the harsh light of day can be a cruel letdown.

The doggie bag presents other issues:
  • It's a Petri dish. Unless it’s the dead of a New England winter and the bag goes directly into my car trunk to chill, it sits at room temperature while I finish my dessert, coffee, and digestif, and while I enjoy some live music or the last half-hour of the game or a nightcap at my local. It may spend hours incubating bacteria before it sees my fridge.
  • I hate schlepping it around. I don’t drive to most restaurants (I often enjoy wine with dinner), so I’ve got to drag that thing along in the taxi, train or bus, and to any stopoffs on the way home. It may smell strong. Sometimes it leaks. It’s a pain.
It’s too bad that restaurants feel they have to cater to elephantine American desires for wretched excess, or our misguided sense that we’re being swindled if we don’t go home with a bulging, dripping bag. Casual dining chains like The Cheesecake Factory turn up that pressure: there are few dishes on those menus that wouldn’t feed two or three people with normal appetites. They contribute to an expectation that one dinner should be big enough for multiple meals, to which even our upscale restaurants often feel they must respond.

For instance, when Prezza, an excellent high-end Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End first opened some years ago, you could actually order an antipasto, a primo of pasta or risotto, a secondo, a contorno or two, and even dessert or cheese without needing to be wheeled home in a barrow. Their portion sizes were normative for Italy, normal in fact for just about anywhere but the USA, home of the SUV and the world’s most obese and morbidly obese populations. On a return visit, I was surprised to learn I'd significantly over-ordered. Prezza’s portions had been supersized, nearly doubled, doubtless because customers were bellyaching about “tiny” portions. When two of us dine there now, we split a single antipasto, pasta, entrée and dessert, and leave perfectly satisfied. We get a meal we can finish. No food is wasted. And we don’t need a damnable doggie bag.

I know mine is a minority viewpoint; I don’t expect the laudable portion-shrinking efforts of chains like TGI Friday’s to catch on. And I don't object to obscene portions because I'm worried about the other guy's health. If you want to hit the local casual-dining-chain hog trough, order yourself enough food for a small African village, and then take half of it home to gorge on later, by all means: knock yourself into type 2 diabetes. Nor is it a price issue for me -- I understand that my meal might only get 15% or 20% cheaper if there were half as much food on the plate.

Mainly, it’s that I want to remember that meal as it was meant to be enjoyed: all its ingredients at their peak of freshness and flavor, expertly cooked and beautifully plated, meticulously served amidst flattering lighting and pleasant company. I hate to besmirch a great meal's shining moment with a wan, warmed-over rerun, sitting in my bathrobe on the sofa. It's dispiriting, and dishonors the chef and line cooks and waitstaff who planned, sweated, and hustled, juggling 45 balls at once to make it arrive on my table at its absolute acme, at exactly the right point in my evening, smack in the middle of the dinner rush. So I will continue to explain to my server when dinner’s over and our plates are still half-full: “We’re done, thank you. Tell the chef we loved it, it was just more than we could finish. And, thanks, but we'll pass on the doggie bag.”

02 May 2009

An original cocktail: the Wisteria

This cocktail, a fairly simple sour, was inspired by the Stardust, a drink which Boston hospitality legend Brother Cleve created for the opening specialty cocktail menu of the late, lamented B-Side Lounge in Cambridge, MA. (Cleve in turn describes his cocktail as a variation on Don the Beachcomber's Royal Daiquiri, a Tiki drink of early 1940s vintage.)

The Wisteria's name references its pale lavender tinge, which is imparted by Parfait Amour, a curaçao-like cordial with subtle vanilla and almond notes, the vivid purple color of which probably no longer derives from violet petals as it once did. (I have found the Marie Brizard bottling of Parfait Amour the easiest to find in the Boston area.)

It uses shaved ice, which serves two purposes: a) it alludes to the Trader Vic's Mai Tai, of which the flavor of this drink is faintly reminiscent, and b) it gives me another excuse to use my Hawaiice ice shaver.

These go down easy, so be careful. The shaved ice left in the glass is like a delicious Sno-Cone for grownups.


MC Slim JB, Boston, MA

2 oz Flor de Caña Extra Dry rum (from Nicaragua)
1/2 oz Marie Brizard Parfait Amour liqueur
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz simple syrup

Shake all ingredients vigorously over ice.
Strain into a rocks glass packed with shaved ice.
Garnish with a short, normal-bore drinking straw (not a cocktail straw -- I snip a bendy straw in half) and a wide shaving of lime peel.