31 May 2023

Links to My Recently Published Restaurant Reviews, Food/Drinks Features and Interviews

27 April 2023

Links to My Recently Published Restaurant Reviews, Food/Drinks Features and Interviews

18 January 2017

My Responses to Eater Boston's 2016 Year-End Survey of Local Food Writers

I don't pen many original essays for this blog: it mainly exists as a place for people to find links to my professionally-published restaurant reviews, food/drink features, and occasional interviews by other outlets. Researching and writing my biweekly reviews for The Improper Bostonian (on top of a day job in an unrelated field) doesn't leave me much spare time to write here. But I can offer up an easy one: reprinting my contribution to Eater Boston's annual survey of local food writers, where we recount our past year of dining and drinking all over Greater Boston -- our favorite new places, reliable old standbys, saddest closings, etc. -- and look ahead to trends in the New Year.

So here is my 2016 year in review with some thoughts on what's ahead in 2017. Thanks as always to Eater Boston for including me in this feature every year, and to my fellow Boston food-geek writers for their ongoing insightful, valuable and entertaining work. I encourage you to read their funny, thoughtful year-end responses in the "Year in Eater" story stream here, too.


What were the top restaurant newcomers of 2016?

For me, as I imagine for many of us, 2016 was a carbuncle of a year. A world on fire, the passing of many beloved cultural icons, the election, watching family members and friends die or struggle with heartbreak, illness or unemployment: all prompted me to seek solace in good food and drink. That made the past twelve or so months’ welter of great openings in Boston an estimable, necessary salve.

Those newcomers ranged from fantastic watering holes with excellent drinks and food (Casa Verde, The Automatic, Ruka), sublime regional Italians (SRV, Fat Hen, Bar Mezzana), a welcome Greek renaissance (Kava, Brendan Pelley in his short-term perch at Wink & Nod and now at Doretta), dazzling Asian entrants (BLR by Shojo, Sichuan Gourmet Burlington, Little Big Diner, Tiger Mama, the reinvented UNI, Ganko Ittetsu Ramen, Pabu), a couple of lovely wine bars (The Maiden, haley.henry with its novel focus on luxury tinned seafood), superb pizza makers (the Stoked brick-and-mortar, Area Four South End, Ciao! in Chelsea, Arlington’s Commune Kitchen), and worthy new spots from familiar and upcoming local stars (Waypoint, Juliet, Little Donkey, Branch Line).

But I took special pleasure in the opening of Mamaleh’s, a smashing traditional Jewish deli from the team behind State Park. Boston hasn’t had exceptional, housemade Ashkenazi soul food in living memory: its revival was painfully overdue. Dining here was one of the best balms I found for 2016’s many surreal anxieties and lacerations of the spirit. I don’t doubt I’ll find more reasons to seek its hearty, delectable comforts in 2017.

What were your top restaurant standbys of 2016?

I spend so many nights researching my restaurant reviews for The Improper that I can’t revisit already-beloved places nearly enough. But I still hit a few favorites on the regular:
  •  Erbaluce still kills it Every Single Frickin’ Time with its singular Piemontese cuisine and rare wines. Were I forced at gunpoint to choose one favorite fine-dining restaurant in Boston, this would be it.
  • You could routinely find me at Chinatown’s Peach Farm, enjoying its unfussy, splendid Hong Kong style live-tank seafood and Cantonese dishes, especially very late at night.
  •  Yvonne’s served as a versatile stop all year to take visiting out-of-towners to gawp at its cheeky, glamorous atmosphere, enjoy the top-tier cocktails, and share a celebratory meal.
  • Hojoko, with its hip, raucous rock-bar ambiance, long menu of upscale-izakaya fare, and wicked cocktails (notably authentic Tiki drinks) became part of my standard pre- and post-Fenway rotation.
  •  Drink in Fort Point and The Hawthorne in Kenmore Square aren’t just pinnacles of Boston’s craft cocktail movement, perhaps my favorite dining-out trend of the last 20 years: they serve as crucial engines of its growth as they train and disgorge new generations of talent year in and year out. Both understand the essential equality of hospitality and technical chops in creating a nonpareil drinking experience.
  • Bar Mezzana lured me back often for its amazing crudos, crostini, pastas, sleek atmosphere, warm hospitality, and outstanding cocktails and wines.
  • The new Sichuan Gourmet near the Burlington Mall is maybe the best of the mini-chain’s outposts of numbingly spicy, invigorating traditional Sichuan cuisine. It’s even better with a crowd.
  • And as ever, there’s my longtime local, J.J. Foley’s Café in the South End, presided over by publican supreme Jerry Foley, bolstered by his many strong sons (most ubiquitously his eldest, GM Mike Foley), a sweet waitstaff, and the kind of modest Irish and American bar fare that perfectly suits watching a big game, playing pub trivia, or idling away a few hours with friends from the neighborhood. It’s the textbook incarnation of a great and ancient Boston tavern. 

What was the biggest dining surprise of 2016?

I suppose I could say it was the spectacle of once-timid friends gobbling down the octopus that appeared on countless menus this year, but really it was the continued stamina of Greater Boston’s restaurant expansion: so many big new openings that I now fret about the ability of the economy and labor pool to support. I was more hopeful than some of my peers in this roundup last December about the prospect of a bubble, but there are ominous portents of it now. (Crap: Emma’s Pizza, Spoke Wine Bar? Really? Eff you, 2016. Eff you to hell.)

What was the saddest closure of 2016?

The food was nothing special, but I was truly saddened by the closing of Johnny D’s, an intimate venue for many memorable shows over the years -- my standouts include The English Beat and multiple Sleepy LaBeef gigs. Among proper restaurants, I will most long for the quirkily-inventive, frequently mind-blowing, umami-overloaded Italianate cuisine of mercurial chef Tim Maslow at Ribelle. Glad he’s still around, cooking at Tiger Mama, but I kinda wish he’d never gone uptown after his reinvention of Strip-T’s.

What was your most disappointing meal of 2016?

I’m a fan of the original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, made pilgrimages there over the years for its justly-storied clam pies. That magic has not made the trip up I-95 to their new outlet in a Chestnut Hill mall. All of the hassle, none of the charm, not nearly enough of the flavor.

What was your best restaurant meal of 2016?

I was delighted to uncover fantastic traditional Mexican tacos at the itty-bitty, humble Rincon Mexicano in East Somerville: that chef from the D.F. has it going on. But the red-letter-day dinner was an epic debauch at Little Donkey, Jamie Bissonnette and Ken Oringer’s terrific globe-trotting small plates joint in Central Square. A few cocktails, 17 dishes highlighted by an awesome special of live uni with flatbread, a couple of bottles of wine, all the desserts. (I won’t cop to the party size, but will admit to later hearing that even the staff was gobsmacked by our horrific excess.) The evening ended with us waddling over to Trina’s for some desperately needed Fernet-Brancas. I generally eat with more restraint, or I’d risk serious health issues, but for some reason – maybe my scarily food-nerdy companions, the elbow room that feels liberating after the tight quarters of Toro and Coppa, the fabulousness of the food and drinks – we really went off the rails that night. I can’t blame the review-research imperative every time.

What are your headline predictions for 2017?

Well-ridden hobbyhorses of mine, but these issues continue to worry and frighten me:
  • 2017 will be another year where our chances at slowing climate change -- and heading off the resulting catastrophic consequences for our food chain -- continue to dwindle.
  •  Invasive corporate chains will keep surging at the expense of far better locally-owned establishments. (I for one will not be abandoning my favorite local Italian purveyors and restaurants to patronize Eataly Boston.)
  •  We will continue to fail to deal with how abusive to restaurant industry workers our current wage practices and transportation systems are. That isn’t just awful for them: when it results in good indies fighting and sometimes failing to survive, it’s bad for you and me.

Sum up the 2016 restaurant world in one word.

Resource-constrained. Our locally-owned restaurants battled anew in 2016 to attract talent both front and back of house against competition from deep-pocketed nationals: looking at you again, Eataly, and every chain in the godforsaken Seaport. And now I shudder to think of the impact of proposed draconian new immigration policies on our kitchen staffs. Said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: support your local independents -- maybe be willing to pay a little more so they can compensate quality staffers fairly -- if you don’t want Boston’s dining scene to become dull and middlebrow, indistinguishable from every less interesting, culturally-diverse city in the USA. Do your job.

15 November 2015

RIP, Ryan McGrale, Beloved Boston Bartender.

Photo courtesy of The Improper Bostonian
By now you’ve probably heard that Ryan McGrale, beverage director at Tavern Road, passed away suddenly, unexpectedly this weekend. The news left me stunned: I'd sat countless times at his bar at No. 9 Park (a late-afternoon weekend ritual for my wife and me for years), the Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan, and finally at Tavern Road. I cannot add much that has not already been said in the recent online outpouring of shock, grief and celebratory remembrances of this extraordinarily talented bartender, genuinely caring hospitality pro, and uncommonly vivid force of nature.

But I did get to feature him in my April 2014 cover story for The Improper Bostonian on Boston bartenders, entitled "Pouring Reign". (I so love his front-and-center badassery in Adam DeTour’s awesome cover photo, right.) In this piece, I talked with a dozen local pros I admire: six promising newcomers, and six talented veterans whom I felt didn’t get the press attention they deserved, in which latter company I firmly placed McGrale. I had to edit the interviews heavily for length, which left too many colorful, telling reflections from my subjects on the cutting room floor. One small thing I can do in Ryan’s memory is present his unexpurgated comments here.

Thanks, Ryan. You left a huge mark on a legion of patrons and industry colleagues. I will never forget your incredible energy, riotous good humor, fantastic cocktails, and above all, your dedication to making your customers feel loved and well cared for. RIP.


MC Slim JB: Measure or free-pour?
Ryan McGrale: Mostly measure, but free-pour occasionally.

MC: Drink that you wish more customers would order?
RM: I wish more customers would order gin cocktails (e.g., "Gin doesn't agree with me!")

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?
RM: Wish customers forgot about a Margarita WITH SALT.

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware, etc.? (Could be a work piece or something on your home bar.)
RM: First-edition “Bon Vivant’s Companion” by Jerry Thomas.

MC: Most annoying customer behavior?
RM: Yelling drink orders at the bartenders while we are either making drinks, taking another drink order, or interacting with another guest.

MC: Every bartender has a collection of Fiasco Moments, e.g., the tray of glasses smashed into the ice bin, the flyaway tin that resulted in a guest wearing a shakerful of cocktails, the strangers you introduced at your bar that ended up in a murder/suicide, your proud original creation that customers hated, etc. What’s a particularly egregious / entertaining one of yours?
RM: My last bar shift in NYC. The bar was getting slammed around 10 pm. In NYC, that's early. This bar also does some of the most cocktail volume in the country. So things were getting pretty stressful. I had a guy from Jersey waving his credit card and cash at the opposite end of the bar. My nearest bartender was just getting stomped on with no end in sight. I looked down to check on her and locked eyes with this guy waving his credit card and cash in the air. I said, "We'll be with you in a minute." He continued to wave and be animated, insisting someone come up to him and take his order despite us politely saying we’d get to him in a moment. He thought we were ignoring him and started *snapping his fingers* to get anyone’s attention. I hate when anyone does that. So I figured I’d go out in a little blaze of glory for all the rough nights the Jerseyites had given me over the years, especially as a Bostonian. So I got down on all fours, walked down the bar, jumped onto the bar in front of the guy, crouched down, put my hands on his left and right cheek, and licked the left side of his face. The crowd was now seeing what was happening. I said, "We are here to serve you as best we can. We are people, not dogs. Don't you ever dare snap at anyone who serves you!” loud enough for people around him to hear. I hopped off the bar and took his order. The crowd started cheering like crazy! He smiled and said "You’re right, I’m sorry, never again in this or any bar!" Then he and I had a shot together and the night continued as it started.

MC: Spirit (or wine varietal/region or beer style) that more customers should be trying, and your favorite cocktail or bottling to introduce a newbie to it?
RM: Sherry. "Perfect Bamboo" cocktail: Amontillado Sherry, sweet and dry vermouth, Angostura and orange bitters.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?
RM: Any day at start of service except Fridays and Saturdays.

MC: You may have seen this article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars: What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers? 
RM: I worked at Clover Club when it opened, then went to sister bar Flatiron Lounge after. I still use NYC lingo at my bar now. I use "Staff meeting" and "Point." Lately we use the phrase "Bar tool!" Imagine what I’m referring to.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?
RM: Usually a cold beer accompanied by an amaro (but not Fernet-Branca.)

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?
RM: Been catching up on film, especially after the Oscars. I really liked "Gravity", saw it in IMAX, very gripping and suspenseful. I strongly suggest it.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?
RM: I'm an open book. Not ashamed about letting people know what I drink, especially when they think we drink cocktails or craft beer every chance we get. I do enjoy a NASCAR Spritz: Bud Lite Lime with a shot of Aperol in it and a lemon twist.

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had other than at your place?
RM: Erbaluce! By far one of my favorites, if not the favorite restaurant in Boston. Classic rustic Italian, amazing homemade pasta, awesome wine list and stories for days from owners Chuck and Joan!

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?
RM: I love a good dive bar. Delux was one of my favorites until it closed recently. [N.B.: it has since reopened under new ownership.] I love Anchovies in South End and The Field in Central Square.

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?
RM: Either Gatorade or a shot of whatever your last drink was the night before. If you were drinking beer all night and still got drunk, sadly, a good shot of whiskey with a hit of bitters.

MC: Most interesting current trend in cocktails (or beer or wine)?
RM: Mists and foams.

MC: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?
RM: National and local cocktail competitions (except for the Cocktail Wars and World Class competitions.)

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of? 
RM: Teaching humility.

MC: What Greater Boston bar (besides your own) is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?
RM: Blue Dragon. Somehow flying off the radar, though they have an amazing program of sprits, cocktails and beer, and a great meal at the bar to top it off. They are always busy and ready to show you a good time atop their knowledge and friendly service.

MC: What are the top two or three (or four or five) destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?
RM: Harry's New York Bar (Paris), The Aviary (Chicago), Tiki Ti (LA), Bar High Five (Tokyo), The Merchant Hotel (Belfast).

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper (or other amateur reviewer) has ever said about you or the place you work?
RM: I'm a very energetic and excited person, especially when I’m in the zone behind a bar: more than most, I can say. A Yelper once said that I had to be on drugs to like my job this much: literally on drugs. She was seriously saying that I was under the influence.

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame? 
RM: Tom Mastricola.

MC: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.
RM: It’s not about the drink. It’s about the WHOLE experience you provide them. Also: having respect and humility will lengthen your bartending career.

Photo courtesy of The Improper Bostonian
MC: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentors.
RM: I have many mentors that have gotten me to today. It’s a tie between two. My first was Tom Mastricola: the reason there are fresh-juice programs in Boston pre-cocktail culture and the classic cocktail movement of the early 2000s. The second was when I worked in NYC: Julie Reiner. She helped take my game to another level that I couldn't have gotten to if I’d stayed in Boston. Living legend. One of the reasons we do what we do today behind cocktail bars. Overall badass! xoxo

MC: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?
RM: Again, humility!

MC: What question do you think I should have asked? Answer it. 
RM: I would have asked "Greatest Bartending Moment? Was it career-defining? Guest you took care of? Personally life-changing? Wake-up call?" Answer: Introduced two strangers to each other at a bar I worked at: two single people and I was talking to each of them then decided to have us all in one conversation because we were all talking about similar topics that they seemed to have some things in common and needed a companion that evening. They later started dating and then married. Six years later they had their first child, and his middle name is Ryan.

27 June 2015

My Contributions to The Improper Bostonian’s 2015 Boston’s Best Issue

Cover image courtesy of The Improper Bostonian
The Improper Bostonian just published its annual awards issue, recognizing local standouts in categories including Arts & Entertainment, Bars & Clubs, Beauty & Health, Fashion, People & Places, and the one I helped shape for the second year running, Boston's Best Food & Drink. I’m glad to see my work expanding the range of award categories in 2014 survived into this year. While I helped select this year’s winners, they are not all my first choices (though I agree with the vast majority of them). My other contribution was doing the write-ups for the following winners:

Banh Mi: Pho Viet’s
Bartender: Ran Duan of the Baldwin Bar at Sichuan Garden II
Bread: Clear Flour Bread
Breakfast: South End Buttery
Chinese: Best Little Restaurant
Deli: Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions
Dim Sum: Winsor Dim Sum Cafe
Gluten-Free: Myers + Chang
Gyros: Zo
Ice Cream: Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream
Indian: Dosa-n-Curry
Italian: Erbaluce
Japanese: O Ya
Mexican: Angela’s
Patio: River Bar
Pie: Petsi Pies
Ramen: Yume Wo Katare
Restaurant of the Year: Sarma
Soup Dumplings: Dumpling Café
Spanish: Toro
Steakhouse: Grill 23 & Bar
Tacos: Dorado Tacos y Cemitas
Thai: Cha Yen Thai Cookery
West African: Teranga

Allston: The Glenville Stops
Back Bay: Deuxave
Brighton: MDM Noodles
Brookline: Fairsted Kitchen
Central Square: Viale
Dorchester: Anh Hong
East Boston: Rincon Limeño
East Cambridge: Loyal 9
Harvard Square: Alden & Harlow
Newton: Sycamore
North End: Neptune Oyster
Porter Square: Giulia
Roxbury: Merengue
South Boston: Moonshine 152
South End: Coppa
Union Square: Casa B

Congratulations, everybody, and thanks for all the great eating, drinking and hospitality!

20 June 2015

The Last Waltz: Food Nerd Edition

Illustration courtesy of Sally Corp.
I recently attended a funeral for the mother of an old friend. Beyond the beauty of a simple wake marked by heartfelt, moving testimonials by her closest relatives and friends, I was impressed by the meal the family hosted afterwards for the mourners at a nearby restaurant. The food reflected this woman’s refined tastes and gregarious, sincere, native-New-Englander personality in an unpretentious yet celebratory way. I didn’t know her well, but well enough to think: “A great lobster roll: luxurious, but something you can eat while holding a glass of the kind of nice Chardonnay she favored. Unfussy yet deluxe. Perfect."

For better or worse, I’m the kind of food geek who can weep for my friends’ pain while admiring their thoughtfulness about a menu they somehow managed to plan amidst their sorrow. And I realized that I’ve been to many such memorials where the food was understandably an afterthought. Of course that doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things to most people: the bereft have far more profound, immediate concerns on their minds in that trying moment than damned passed hors d’oeuvres.

But I couldn’t help considering that ancient notion about food as communion, as standing for something deeper than mere sustenance at such moments. I watched the video collage of happy snapshots from a life well lived, heard the heartbreaking, loving words of the people closest to this woman, and thought that serving good food at that moment was pertinently true to her memory, a good cook whose good cooking was as much about nourishing the souls of the people she loved as their bodies.

It left me thinking about my own wake, what I’d want served to people mourning my absence. “Here lie the ashes of Slim, who spent an inordinate amount of his free time in life pursuing the pleasures of food and drink, and spilled a small sea of ink encouraging strangers to enjoy the work of the chefs and somms and bartenders who had thrilled him.” It’s natural for me to want that moment to feature an awe-inspiring, memorable repast, isn’t it?

Without being morbid – I’m planning to stick around for a few more decades if I can help it – I think that deserves some consideration, and pondering it, I’m quickly faced with a dilemma. Part of me wants that moment to promote the kind of food and drink I most loved myself: one more chance to evangelize the abstruse dishes and odd cocktails that made my jaded palate tingle in life. But is the memorial really about me? That last shared public moment: shouldn’t it be more about making the people you’ve left behind happy and comforted, especially when most of them aren’t obsessive food dorks? This is an old balancing act for food nerds – indeed, for nerds of any stripe – recognizing that the joys of your own infatuations aren’t often shared by laypeople, and so striving for a middle ground where they can enjoy the heat you bask in without getting singed (though in truth, bored is the likelier risk.)

I’ve idly considered my Final Playlist, songs the dead man wanted you to hear. That’s easier. The music I favored in life is more like old photos: full of ridiculous choices, pure idiosyncrasy, more forgivable for any strangeness and awfulness. But food and drink are different: you’re gone, they’re there, and they’re hungry and thirsty. Meanwhile, you’ll be missed, but maybe some of them are thinking, “Well, at least I’m never going to have to be talked into eating another weird tentacled or stinky fermented thing again.”

I have no idea just now what I want served at my wake, but I’m thinking about it, even if it’s a discomfiting reality. I suppose it’s something a grownup can and should see to, like their will or life insurance, best attended to well in advance of the necessity. Having just seen my friends manage to serve both the memory of their dear mom and the immediate needs of the people she left behind equally well, aptly, beautifully, I don’t want to let that detail of my own passing left to chance.

So what do I want served? Foie gras poutine? Great Coney Island dogs? Sublime sashimi? Chouriço pizza? Pig bones and tails in mostarda? Steamers a-go-go? Pork-and-crab soup dumplings all around? A couple of square meters of jamón ibêrico de bellota? Buffalo beef on weck? Vintage Brunello, Jet Pilots in crazy Tiki mugs, a keg of Guinness, all three? Is it really appropriate to torture the bereaved by insisting on a Fernet Flip toast? I feel I have to triangulate somewhere between the poles of humble comfort, extravagance, and the strange-but-good. I can’t manage how the people I loved remember my life as a whole, but with enough deliberation, maybe I can make them say: “That was a great fucking funeral. What a spread! What hooch!” I’m pretty sure that has to be more about what they love to eat and drink, not so much what I loved to eat and drink. I’ll be damned if I don’t get that one right.

27 April 2015

They Demolished The Hilltop, But They Can’t Take My Memories

The Hilltop Steakhouse in brighter days
Photo courtesy of bothkindsofmusic.com
I felt a twinge of ambivalent nostalgia today at the news that The Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, once a legendary national landmark, was undergoing its final demolition. Countless Bostonians, myself included, recall it fondly as an early experience of Special Occasion Dining in the form of choice-grade steak and gummy lobster pie.

I'll never forget being one of the vast crowds waiting boistrously in its ever-present long lines, the bustle of its enormous dining rooms, its kitschy Old-West-themed fun, epitomized by the herd of petrified fiberglass cattle out front. “The Smith party of six for Sioux City, Sioux City”, intoned over a scratchy PA by an ancient hostess in a beehive hairdo and cat’s-eye glasses, is an ineffable memory for many of us.

We can all skip the part where Frank Giuffrida -- the founder who opened The Hilltop in 1961 and built it into one of the highest-grossing restaurants in the United States by the early 1980s -- decided eventually to sell it to new owners, who through some combination of cupidity and incompetence began shepherding it through its long, slow decline into irrelevance and eventual oblivion.

The ultimately ignominious end of The Hilltop, once so iconic it was frequently name-checked as “The Hungry Heiffer” by barfly Norm Petersen on the long-running, Boston-set network sitcom “Cheers”, got me thinking about how former restaurant powerhouses lose their luster over time. Hang around long enough, and you're often faced with the question: "Did that place really go downhill, or did my tastes simply evolve past it?"

Both are true with The Hilltop, I think. Plenty of factors beyond its control pushed it into the grave: the rise of attractively-priced national chain steakhouses, the slow fade of US Route 1 roadside culture, the increasingly sophisticated tastes of and options available to the American dining public. It's a rare restaurant I revisit after a couple of decades that: a) is still thriving, and b) still delivers the same joy I remember from my youth. The restaurant business and its customers march relentlessly onward. But not every restaurant is doomed to lose its power to satisfy old hungers, to beguile with no-longer-fashionable charms.

Some of my most treasured dining experiences of the last few years consist of revisiting one of the few restaurants from my youth that my dad could afford to take his large, dubiously-mannered brood out to dinner. Decades later, my family uniformly recalled it fondly long after we had moved away from the area, often talked about it at holidays. So in my dad’s last years of failing health, we decided to bring him back there, hired a wheelchair van to do it. Confounding our muted expectations, the place turned out to be practically preserved in amber, every bit as terrific in its humble way as we'd remembered it. It still had the same icy pitchers of Bud, superb local seafood dishes (steamers, stuffies, and clams casino, particularly), hearty Italian-American fare (notably the house special, a spicy, soupy pasta with white or red sauce and littlenecks, langoustines, shrimp and scallops), and a few Portuguese specialties. (Chouriço and peppers! Pork and clams!)

They even made Manhattans just the way my pop preferred them, with Canadian rye and one of those awful neon-red Maraschino cherries in a squat, sturdy cocktail glass. The granddaughter of the owner who once took fond care of us had taken over his role, though the ancient restaurateur still kept his hand in, tottering around to inspect the place a couple of times a week. It was an uncanny, beautiful time-trip. My family remains deeply grateful for the several occasions we got to take Dad there near the end: it meant a lot to all of us, especially him, to return to a place for which we had such deep affection long ago and yet find everything we loved about it still perfectly intact. Those kind of profound, lovely restaurant experiences are too rare.

RIP, The Hilltop. RIP, all those other restaurants and bars we once loved that the inexorable slog of time has consigned to memory. RIP, oh my papa, a man who wasn’t the most worldly of gourmands -- he adored The Hilltop, too, after all -- but knew how to recognize a joint with good, unfancy, lovingly-prepared food and drink for not too much money when he saw it, share it with his family and friends when he could, and find that to be just right, just enough.

06 January 2015

Friends of Eater Boston 2014 Year-End Questions: My Responses, Plus Some Honorable Mentions

Illustration courtesy of Eater Boston
Eater Boston, the local affiliate of the national Eater network of city-based blogs covering restaurants, bars and nightlife, is essential reading for local food dorks. Editor Rachel Leah Blumenthal and a cast of contributors cover the length and breadth of the Boston dining and drinking waterfront with impressive depth and welcome sly humor. I've participated in a few of these year-end retrospectives of and looks ahead at the Boston scene, featuring a small group of local professional food and drink feature writers, restaurant critics and bloggers. It's great fun, and I'm always honored to be included. I'm collecting my answers here, including some Honorable Mentions that didn't make it into the Eater features. Check out the whole motley group's responses as well as Eater Boston's other 2014-in-review coverage here.

Eater Boston: What were your top restaurant standbys of 2014? 

MC Slim JB: Friends envy me my restaurant-reviewing gig, not understanding that continually having to research the next new place crimps the time I have to devote to established places I already know and love. Here are a few I managed to get back to repeatedly in spite of that:
  • Café Porto Bello, City Point, the kind of modest, old-school, red-sauce Italian place your grandparents would love, with a welcome bit of Old Southie sass in the service. Pro tip: upgrade to the house-made pasta.
  • J.J. Foley’s Café in the South End, a nonpareil family-run Irish-American tavern with a palpable hundred-plus years of history. Puts the city’s countless dull fake-Irish bars to shame and disgrace.
  • The Franklin Southie, a more modern neighborhood joint with a genuinely loveable bartending crew (one example here). I mourn its imminent passing, though I’m hopeful for its successor, Moonshine 152, from first-time chef/owner Asia Mei. Her cooking at Sam’s at Louis Boston was about the only thing I’ve ever liked about the Seaport.
  • Gene’s Chinese Flatbread, DTX and Woburn Center, lonely local outposts of Shaanxi cuisine, with its emphasis on hearty wheat-based foods like astonishing hand-pulled noodles and mind-blowing accents of garlic, chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Soulful, satisfying and cheap: a food nerd’s dream.
  • Dumpling Café, Chinatown. I’d go just for the best soup dumplings in Greater Boston, but its long menu of Taiwanese fare is consistently rewarding and a great bargain.
  • Moody’s Delicatessen, Waltham. The one new place on my list. It plugs a giant hole in our scene with astonishing Jewish deli meats like brilliant pastrami and corned beef, but offers so much more, drawing on French, Italian, Spanish, German and other notable traditions of cold cuts, sausages, and pâtés. If the Food Dork Gods are just, Moody’s expanded wholesale operation will mean you can buy their singular artisanry from your local market soon.
  • The Hawthorne, Kenmore Square. Absolutely brilliant craft bartending on both the technical and hospitality sides of the coin, in a lovely, dimly-lit, hiding-in-plain-sight setting. The short menu of bar snacks is very nice, too. Long, slow kowtow to its sublimely talented bar manager Katie Emmerson (whom I called Boston's best bartender in this year's Boston's Best issue of The Improper Bostonian), who decamped to L.A. late this year.
EB: What were the top restaurant newcomers of 2014?

MCSJB: My favorite new places included:
  • Alden & Harlow. Folks who have been reading me for a decade know I’ve long tried to bring attention to the assiduous work of Michael Scelfo, who elevated a succession of other owners’ restaurants out of deserved obscurity. His first place of his own got my Best New Restaurant of the Year nod in The Improper Bostonian back in July, and I stand by that in December, despite some stiff competition. A humble, dedicated craftsman is finally getting his due. About effing time.
  • Sarma, which I know opened in late 2013 but I was slow to get to, so please indulge me. Running delectably around the Mediterranean, with some emphasis on one of my favorite underrated-by-Americans cuisines (Turkish), this ultra-cool Somerville place makes every sequence of small plates a memorable night out. Vik Hegde’s terrific bar program is another huge plus. One protracted, 20-plate, overstuffed January evening there – did we really say yes to four helpings of the Turkish-style fried chicken thighs with yogurt remoulade? -- was a close second on Single Best Meal of 2014. 
  • La Brasa. Beautiful, eclectic, inventive food, much of it kissed by wood fire and smoke, with another fine bar program. I don’t live in Somerville, but places like this and Sarma make me wish I did.
  • Thao Ngoc. Humble room, incredible Vietnamese fare from a huge menu, and prices so low it feels like theft. Don’t call yourself a food geek if you haven’t been here.
  • Moody’s. I’m no longer bitching about the lack of a proper delicatessen in Boston, even if it means I have to extend my definition of Boston to Waltham. Feast on one of their shockingly good sandwiches on premise if you can, but regardless, don’t leave without an armful of sausages, charcuterie and salumi. No deli in my experience this side of New York or Montreal holds a candle to it.
EB: Describe 2014 in one word.

MCSJB: Smoky! The flavors of wood fire and smoke beguiled me at dozens of places, including Alden & Harlow, La Brasa, Pastoral, Viale, River Bar, the Stoked truck (with its genius wood-fired Neapolitan pizza oven on wheels), Row 34, and many others.

EB: What was the best dining neighborhood in 2014? 

MCSJB: I say it every year: Allston. The most diverse concentration of affordable restaurants serving amazing traditional cuisines from all over the globe. I’m hopeful it can sustain more grownup, Western-tradition restaurants like the fine new Glenville Stops, too easily overlooked in its location on an obscure side street. 

EB: What was the biggest dining surprise of 2014?

MCSJB: I was gobsmacked that in the age of Yelp and Instagram I could still uncover a new restaurant that had been open for eight months yet was entirely overlooked by the local press and barely acknowledged by amateur reviewers: Thao Ngoc, a homey Vietnamese place in Fields Corner. One of my favorite new restaurants of 2014: a place to bring six friends, feast like a king, and collect $20 apiece to cover the check, including a fat tip. I’m truly grateful that The Improper occasionally lets me review more modest places like this in sorely under-reported neighborhoods like Dorchester.

EB: What was your single best meal in 2014?

MCSJB: A tasting menu at Giulia in Cambridge. Gorgeous, ravishing yet subtle from start to finish, notably in the house-made pastas that were rolled out earlier in the day on the very table at which we dined. Just a fantastic, traditionally-centered, chef-owned Italian indie, with evident love and long-honed finesse in the cooking. Mike Pagliarini is another original who toiled for years in service to more-famous owners (I long admired his work running Michael Schlow’s Via Matta) that I’m really gratified got the chance to helm his own place.

EB: What was the biggest restaurant grievance of 2014?

MCSJB: The proliferation of popular but mediocre chain restaurants in tourist neighborhoods like the Seaport, which is inflicting a line cook and server shortage on far worthier independent restaurants around town. I cringe at the advantages that deep-pocketed nationals have over home-grown talent. Every dink city in the US has those chains; the quality of Boston’s currently-fantastic scene depends on its indies. Support them, I beg you.

EB: What are your headline predictions for 2015?

MCSJB: I'm not a prognosticator, but I'll offer a few hopes for the new year:
  • Against a welter of evidence to the contrary, I hope that Uber will retire the “Be Evil” plaque that seems to currently inspire its executives, and become a more ethical thorn in the side of our corrupt, deplorable taxi system. Affordable ride-sharing alternatives are not just a boon to customers, but to the many restaurant employees who work past the T’s closing.
  • I firmly expect that the legacy of the great John Gertsen, whom I literally wept to see leave Drink for San Francisco this year, and still-here peers like Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard, Row 34 and The Hawthorne – specifically, their indispensable training of successive waves of highly-skilled craft bartenders -- will continue to be felt in the presence of fine cocktail, wine and beer programs in bars and restaurants all over the city. The next time you raise a glass here with something really good in it, remember how uncommon that was ten years ago, and thank those folks and their gifted lieutenants.
My honorable mentions that did not make their way into Eater Boston's year-end questions:
  • Shojo, already a unique venue for Chinatown with its hip atmosphere and superb cocktail program, getting a serious kitchen upgrade with Mark O’Leary’s smashing, street-food-driven cookery. The most memorable, delicious iteration of the wildly-overblown burger trend I had in 2014 was his witty, mantou-based gloss on a McDonald’s Big Mac. 
  • Chef Chang’s on Back Bay, which offers Bostonians rare glimpses of the foods of Henan, Shaanxi and Xinjiang, among other more familiar regions of China. I’m hopeful that this represents growing local desire to visit the lesser-known corners of the world’s greatest collections of regional cuisines, but at the very least, it’s a huge addition to the Back Bay, a neighborhood that has long been a food-nerd desert.
  • Erbaluce, to my mind the single most consistently soul-satisfying Italian restaurant in Boston, if for nothing else than the way that chef/owner Charles Draghi quietly makes the case for sustainable seafood. One sure way to get people eating less-familiar species is to present them so deliciously that you don’t necessarily notice that the chef’s sourcing choices are better for the health of our scarily-overtaxed and increasingly global-warming-damaged fisheries. Not hurting the cause: Draghi’s impeccable grounding in Northern Italian tradition, nor partner Joan Johnson’s heartfelt hospitality and extraordinary, idiosyncratic Italian wine list.
  • Viale, for hitting the ground running with exceptional food, drink and service, admirably filling some very big shoes: the former home of the long-running, beloved Rendezvous in Central Square. Having a team of old pros at the wheel doesn’t guarantee that you will avoid some ugly shakedown-cruise bumps, but Viale crushed it from about Week Two on. 
Happy 2015: good eating and drinking in the coming year!

31 October 2014

RIP, Tom Menino, the Boston food nerd’s friend

Mayor Menino at a charity event
(Photo courtesy of Hubbub)
I can’t add much to the countless heartfelt remembrances of Boston’s late, beloved, longest-tenured mayor, Thomas M. Menino. Myself, I ran into him personally three times, always when browsing the way-marked-down suit racks at the original Filene’s Basement in Downtown Crossing, looking for bargains on my lunch hour. The third time, we exchanged more than pleasantries: I told him I was proud as a Bostonian that he had upped his sartorial game lately with better suits and ties and tailoring. He seemed genuinely pleased. I meant it: I thought he looked more dignified and statesmanlike with his newly-smart dress sense, bringing a much-needed, high-profile dash to our famously schlubby burg.

That’s my only anecdote, one of tens of thousands among a citizenry that, according to one famous survey, more than half of had met Menino personally, an astonishing statistic, and doubtless a big part of the reason he endured and thrived as a popular and effective change agent in Boston for so long.

My real point here is to encourage you to check out these two pieces by Corby Kummer, the longtime restaurant critic of Boston Magazine whom I’ve long admired for his food journalism and estimable books on the history of food. One is a video interview with The Mayor at Esperia Grill (one of my very favorite Greek restaurants in town, in part for its phenomenal pork gyros). It’s part of a promised series by Boston Univerity's BU Today that trailed Menino as he visited local, family-run restaurants out in the neighborhoods. I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of those.

The other is a piece Kummer wrote for The Atlantic that makes a convincing case for Menino’s stunning, positive influence on our food scene. I was a longtime Menino supporter, especially appreciated his pioneering advocacy of our food-truck movement, but I had scant idea of how broadly and pervasively he improved our access to quality food, benefiting Bostonians of every age and stripe.

Thanks, Corby, for shining some light on that. And thanks, Mr. Mayor, for being a fellow food nerd, but also one with an aggressive social conscience and political dedication to making good, healthy food available to every one of the citizens about whom you so obviously, deeply cared over a lifetime of public service. That ought to humble every one of us who merely writes about the pleasure in good eating. You left an indelible mark. We owe you a huge debt of gratitude.

22 October 2014

Vanna White Rules the Food World

Vanna White, courtesy of Flickr
Don't ask me how the Facebook comments on a photo I uploaded of my lunch at Gene's Chinese Flatbread, a terrific Boston purveyor of Shaanxi cuisine, somehow morphed into a discussion of so-called food hacks (employing simple, inventive tricks to improve your eating), then devolved into an extended "Chuck Norris Facts"-style riff centered on Vanna White, "Wheel of Fortune" star. But it happened. For my part, I blame a few Guinnesses at a failed night of pub trivia earlier in the evening. But I had enough fun with it to want to reproduce it here. I have since learned that Ms. White, like many people in the entertainment business, has had a troubled relationship with food in her day, no joking matter, so I hope readers take it purely in the affectionate spirit it was intended.


Marc Hurwitz [esteemed food writer and author of the Hidden Boston collection of blogs, which you should really read if you care about the Boston dining scene]: Vanna White is doing the garlic thing [shaking garlic cloves vigorously between two bowls to quickly peel them, a famous food hack] on Wheel of Fortune right now. I promise this will be on half a dozen food blogs tomorrow at minimum.

MC Slim JB: It's not really a thing until Vanna does it.

Marc: Who cares about Vanna White?

MC: She was way ahead on kale, on food trucks, on poutine. She's an oracle in a spangly evening gown.

Drew Starr [another well-known Boston food writer you should follow]: She taught Jean-Georges how to not finish baking a chocolate cake.

MC: She rearranged her food vertically on opening night at Gotham.

Marc: Wheel of Wow! Who knew? Consider me a convert.

MC: Vanna taught Ferran how to spherify.

MC: Sous-vide was based on Vanna's bathtub regimen.

MC: Vanna put a fried egg on everything when she was in grammar school.

Drew: And told Robuchon to add more butter to his potatoes.

MC: Vanna shames all her bartenders into measuring.

MC: Vanna gently suggested in an early Chowhound post that Danny Meyer should focus on hospitality.

Drew: But she can free pour.

MC: Vanna stabbed James Beard in the heart for being a cold, fish-eyed bastard.

MC: Vanna knows that they're called jimmies, not sprinkles.

MC: Vanna's soufflés rise on the better angels of her nature.

MC: Vanna out-eats Chuck Norris at churrascaria rodizio.

MC: Vanna once drank Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Peter O'Toole under the table.

Drew: When she was running the OSS, Vanna tasked Julia and Paul Child to France, knowing it would result in the reawakening of the American palate.

MC: When Vanna orders dancing shrimp, the shrimp aren't drowned in booze, but voluntarily dance for her before jumping into her mouth to die happy.

Marc: I heard that Vanna has never waited 15 minutes after finishing a meal before returning to the pool.

MC: Vanna eats ortolan without a linen napkin over her head. What does she have to be ashamed of?

MC: Vanna thinks ghost chilies are wimpy, but is too polite to say so.

Drew: If Vanna accidentally puts ketchup on a hot dog, it turns to mustard.

MC: Vanna White forgives Pat Sajak over 4am scrambled eggs.

MC: Vanna White saved David Chang's failing ramen shop by showing him how it's done.

MC: Vanna checked Anthony Bourdain into rehab, but has mixed feelings about it now.

MC: Vanna nearly broke up Bowie and Imam's marriage when he couldn't stop talking about her carnitas tamales.

Drew: Vanna doesn't have to hand-pull noodles; when they see her, they pull themselves

MC: Vladimir Putin fears no man and no thing, but he quakes in hope that Vanna will like his beluga and vodka service.

MC: Vanna was the only one of Keller's friends with the guts to tell him his ratatouille dish in "Ratatouille" was the least appetizing thing in the movie, and as she tartly put it, "That film has a lot of scenes of rats eating garbage."

Drew: I'm sad. Only 5 results on twitter when I searched "vanna garlic"

MC: Vanna once told a young Rene Redzepi, "You know, your food's pretty good, but you know what would make it great? Put a bunch of twigs and stuff on it."

MC: The finest Kobe beef from Hyogo Prefecture comes from Wagyu steers who get daily massages, dine on rice straw, drink sake, and watch an endless looped video of Vanna turning over the letter "K".

MC: The most prized copy of Playboy among collectors features a lingerie shoot of Vanna in which she confesses her favorite dish is "sashimi made from the flesh of my enemies."

MC: As heir to the fortune of a great-grandfather who invented the orange powder essential to Kraft Macaroni n' Cheese, Vanna was expected to go into the industrial food business. Her entertainment career was her way of breaking from the soulless path laid out for her by familial obligations. She has no regrets.

MC: If, after a night of passion with Vanna White, she serves you grilled Fluffernutters in bed the next morning, you did well. If it's Fage with fresh strawberries, don't expect her to return your subsequent calls.

MC: Vanna White gets a nickel royalty for every hamburger served in the US. Yep: everybody serving a hamburger was her idea.

MC: Vanna White likes to tilt at windmills. She's the secret mastermind behind a SuperPAC whose goal is to legislate public-school teaching of European-style dining with the fork in the left hand, knife in the right. Its secondary goal is the US adoption of the metric system.

MC: Vanna White's favorite beauty secret is a good night's sleep. She just texted me to remind me of my early alarm tomorrow.


I know. Food nerds.

31 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part VI: Moira Costello Horan of The Franklin Southie

Moira Costello Horan of The Franklin Southie
Photo courtesy of Moira Costello Horan
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here.

Here’s number six, my unedited interview with Moira Costello Horan, whom I first ran into at Union Bar & Grille in the South End, later at Local 149 in Southie’s City Point neighborhood, and later still at The Franklin Southie, where she is currently the bar manager. Here are Moira’s original, unvarnished words.


MC SLIM JB: The life of a professional bartender is a vampiric existence, in the sense that you don’t see a lot of daylight. Plus there’s that pesky requirement to work weekends and holidays, times that many professions enjoy as time off. How do you manage to work a social life, let alone a romantic life, around these constraints? Aside from the professional compensations, are there other advantages to the night owl’s existence that civilians aren’t aware of?

MOIRA COSTELLO HORAN: It is a vampiric existence, but there are many advantages to it. I'm never stuck in traffic, there's never a line at the supermarket, the days I have off are slow ones at bars and restaurants. Restaurants become your family, so holidays are spent with the people you love and care about. I honestly don't have a lot of friends who aren't in the industry because it just doesn't make sense. My boyfriend is a fellow bartender, so we understand each other's schedules. Being so social as a profession makes me want to just stay home on my time off. There is no better place than my couch and being quiet. 

MCSJB: Measure or free-pour?

MCH: Measure cocktails, free-pour mixed drinks.

MCSJB: Drink that you wish more customers would order?

MCH: Gin martinis with a twist. They're delicious. 

MCSJB: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

MCH: Dirty vodka martinis. They're disgusting.

MCSJB: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., spoon, ice tool, ice mold, shaker, mixing glass, knife, Lewis bag, cocktail book, serving glass, other piece of barware or glassware?

MCH: I have lots of tools, but don't particularly feel like the tools make the bartender. 

MCSJB: Most annoying customer behavior?

MCH: Don't wave in my face, don't interrupt me when I'm talking to someone else, don't give me a drink order when I ask you how you're doing.

MCSJB: Spirit that more customers should be trying, and your favorite cocktail or bottling to introduce a newbie to it?

MCH: Gin is one of my favorite spirits because it’s so versatile. People have so many negative thoughts about gin because of one bad experience in their youth. Screw vodka: I like to get every vodka drinker to at least try gin because essentially it's just flavored vodka. Start with something simple like a Tom Collins, because who doesn't like a Tom Collins? 

MCSJB: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

MCH: On a quiet night when it’s slow. Ask if I have the time first. I will always try to find the time to talk cocktails.

MCSJB: You may have seen this NY Times article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

MCH: Two words: “bar meeting”.

MCSJB: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

MCH: Beer and a shot: Rittenhouse straight American rye and a Notch Pils, please.

MCSJB: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

MCH: A piña colada. That love came from when I used to live and bartend in Puerto Rico. The difference is now I can use quality ingredients, none of that frozen nonsense. 

MCSJB: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had other than at your place?

MCH: Sarma. Delicious. Great staff. I can't wait to go back.

MCSJB: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

MCH: Tom English's on Dot Ave. Whitey's. Delux Cafe before it closed. 

MC, aside: Happily, the Delux Café has since reopened under new ownership.

MCSJB: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

MCH: Hair of the dog. Pedialyte and Green Chartreuse.

MCSJB, aside: I assume that’s a sequence, not a cocktail.

MCSJB: Most interesting current trend in cocktails?

MCH: Amaro-based cocktails are the jam right now. 

MCSJB: Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend?

MCH: Yeungling. Who cares?

MCSJB: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

MCH: Vermouth in the well.

MCSJB: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

MCH: Tavern Road, because every bartender there is amazingly talented. They make you feel like family as soon as you walk in the door. That's my kind of bar. 

MCSJB: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame?

MCH: Peter Cipriani [currently at The Franklin Southie]. He is the whole package. 

MCSJB, aside: I'm a big fan of Mr. Cipriani, too.

MCSJB: Offer a sentence or two of advice to aspiring bartenders.

MCH: Try and find the balance between hospitality and knowledge. 

MCSJB: Say a few words about your most influential bartending mentor.

MCH: Tom Mastricola [most recently of Commonwealth Cambridge, currently preparing to open Café Artscience]. I met him over three years ago and he's been my go-to guy since. He's legendary and has helped me become the bartender I am today. 

MCSJB: What’s the most surprisingly useful life skill that bartending has taught you?

MCH: Patience. 

MCSJB: Compose the question you think I should have asked, and answer it.

MCH: “What do you love the most about bartending?” Giving the best possible guest experience, making people smile, and learning.