21 December 2009

The 2009 Devil's Dining Awards

I handed out a lot of recognition to Boston restaurants and bars in 2009: the annual Stuff Magazine Dining Awards; a Boston-centric “Ten Worst Dining Trends of the Decade” essay; and "2009: The Year in Cheap Eats", a year-end best-of list from my "On the Cheap" column for The Boston Phoenix. Seems like there's never enough room to shower kudos on every restaurant that deserves it: ditto the loud raspberries that ought to be sprayed at the crass, the ridiculous, the fraudulent and the shameless. But my blog has no space constraints or gentler-minded editors, so herewith I present a few more citations at year's end: call them the Devil's Dining Awards.
  • Best new cocktail trend. Authentic Tiki drinks. Forget about Scorpion Bowls at the Hong Kong and Mai Tais at suburban Polynesian restaurants: craft cocktail bars like Drink and Eastern Standard are reviving the authentic, 30s-vintage Tiki-bar mixology of Don the Beachcomber and his heirs. This is not a trivial endeavor, requiring house-made infused syrups, fresh juices, and many obscure spirits and non-alcoholic ingredients, including a battery of unusual rums, pimiento dram, Cherry Heering, Velvet Falernum, etc. But the results are breathtakingly complex, beautiful, and potent. Kitsch plus craft equals serious fun.
  • Worst new cocktail trend. Bars aping the trappings of craft cocktail bars and speakeasies but forgetting to bring the craft. Golden Age cocktails on your drinks menu, Prohibition era décor, and passwords at the door aren't enough. Building a real craft cocktail program demands training, hard work, study, and commitment, much like a fine-dining kitchen. Here's a hint: if you don't know how to consistently make a decent Sazerac, what glass it should be served in, why you might use Cognac instead of rye, and why the hospitality with which you serve it is as important as how well you make it, you're a faker with a very short shelf life. Here's another hint: if local cocktail maven Lauren Clark of the inestimable drinkboston.com isn't writing favorably about you, you probably suck.
  • Saddest budget-restaurant closings. Oran Café, a homestyle Moroccan restaurant in East Boston that only lasted for an eyeblink; Uncle Pete’s, a fine little purveyor of barbecue in Revere that could not survive its owner/pitmaster's passing this year; Rangoli, the Allston restaurant that introduced dosas and other South Indian specialties to Boston; Reef Café, a fantastic Syrian joint in Allston that was the definition of family restaurant: mom in the kitchen, son out front; and Poppa B’s, the Mattapan soul food standout that served Boston's best fried chicken (and by extension its best chicken & waffles) – but at least will survive as a Codman Square takeout place.
  • Worst trend for occasion diners. The death of the restaurant dress code. Nowhere in Boston does this hurt worse than at L'Espalier, whose new landlord, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, nixed a longstanding jackets-required rule. You can now spend $400 commemorating your silver wedding anniversary while staring at a table full of louts bedecked in Ed Hardy ballcaps, t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. One hopeful counter-trend, as recently reported in a New York Times feature, is that a younger generation, taking cues from pop-culture touchstones like Mad Men, is finding that a slightly nattier style distinguishes them favorably from older schlubs who can't be bothered to don a jacket. Here's hoping that inclination gains momentum: no one needs to see tracksuits and hoodies when they're dropping a bundle on a big-number birthday dinner.
  • Local restaurant blog of the year. The tandem of Boston Restaurant Talk and Boston's Hidden Restaurants, a trove of restaurant reviews, discussion boards, and news of Boston-area restaurant openings and closings. Required reading for anyone obsessed with finding (and writing about) hidden gems in Greater Boston. Marc also does a great job of covering restaurants in lesser-known stretches of New England beyond the 128 beltway.
  • Proof that the South End is over. The March arrival of Stephi’s on Tremont, an injection of bleached-blond Newbury Street faux-glamour into a once-colorful ‘hood already overrun with white-bread Chads and Muffys. Meanwhile, atmospheric inky-hipster hangout Pho Republique, an original trailblazer on now-restaurant-lined Washington Street, closed after eleven years of upholding the neighborhood's artier, funkier, more multi-culti heritage. Sic transit gloria.
  • Best replacement for a departed star. Trina’s Starlite Lounge. Cambridge and Somerville heshers and hipsters alike lamented the death of the Abbey Lounge, a unique hybrid of townie dive and live indie-rock club. Then an all-star lineup from renowned neighborhood-bars-with-great-food (like Silvertone, Highland Kitchen, and Audubon Circle) stepped in to create a retro-cool haven of lawnmower beers and casual Southern-inflected cuisine. Manny, I mean, Abbey Who?
  • Nose Cut Off, Face Spited Award. To the former landlord of Bella Luna, the Milky Way Lounge & Lanes, and Zon’s, whose 85% rent increase convinced Bella Luna and the Milky Way to relocate (sans tenpin lanes) to a splendid new space in The Brewery complex, and forced Zon’s out of business. Cunning revenue-enhancement plan there, fella.
  • Best use of a potato (tie). Tater tots at Garden at the Cellar and potato pancakes at Café Polonia. The lowly kiddie-meal croquette and the usually-soggy hash brown get exalted treatment at these two underpraised spots. In both cases, the result is ungreasy, crunchy outside, creamy inside -- tasty enough to mitigate a thousand freezer-case insults. Spuds got respect.
  • Jean-Paul Sartre Memorial “Hell is Other People” Award. To Lord Hobo, for the licensing tribulations it endured from its abutting neighbors and the City of Cambridge, who apparently believe that all bars should close at 10pm and only serve food. We presume these folks have forgotten the Windsor Tap, the frightening drug bar that used to occupy the spot where Lord Hobo now serves fine food, classy cocktails, and what may be Greater Boston's best lineup of craft beers. Ingrates.
  • Foie Gras Poutine Award for Extraordinary Food in an Unlikely Setting. To Pupuseria Mama Blanca, a superb little Salvadoran joint in a remote residential corner of Eastie, further camouflaged by operating in a space that looks like someone's house. Easy to miss it, but don't.
  • Best actual poutine. The so-called “mix grill sausages” at Pops Restaurant in the South End, which tops beautiful hand-cut fries with cheese curds, short ribs, and sausages of rabbit, duck and wild boar. With too much quality in the ingredients and refinement in the preparation to be mistaken for the classic cheapie Québécois drunk food, it still hits all the requisite animal-fat-laden, guilty-pleasure notes. Fernet-Branca, please!
  • Most Biblical disaster. The January fire that destroyed an entire block of beloved independent restaurants: Thornton’s Fenway Grill, Umi Japanese Cuisine, Sorento’s Italian Gourmet, The Greek Isles, Rod Dee Thai II, and El Pelón Taqueria. The fact that no one was hurt is small comfort to devastated owners and bereft locals. If there is a God, he’s an angry God, one who probably dines at Applebee’s. (Some faith-restoring news: a long-delayed rebuilding program for the block is apparently back on track.)
  • Most lopsided hotness-to-skills ratio. The bar staff at Whiskey Park: undeniably fetching, but seemingly hired with mixology experience optional. With luck, your stylin’ barmaiden’s $300 hairdo, bewitching décolletage, and almost hoohoo-level hemline will distract you from the fact that your $14 Manhattan is as warm as bathwater, and possibly made with gin.
  • Tom Brady Award for Best Upgrade at a Position. To Coppa Enoteca, the Italian small-plates spot that just opened in the South End in the former home of The Dish. The latter was a lovable but uneven little neighborhood joint that eked out an existence from its great patio and spillover trade from the Franklin Café across the street. Judging from the consistently amazing food (with house-made salumi and pastas a highlight), terrific cocktails (making the most of a beer/wine/cordial license), and early patronage by seemingly every chef in town, it's hard to imagine how Coppa's team of Ken Oringer (owner), Jamie Bissonnette (chef), and Courtney Bissonnette (GM) doesn’t repeat its flaming success at Toro.
  • Most deserving of a wake-up call. Any restaurant in 2010 that still has a busy, gimmicky, Flash-heavy website. If you have a slow-loading video for a top-level landing page, your web designer has sold you a bill of goods: Web surfers have hated that hokum for ten years now. If diners can't access it on an iPhone or Blackberry, your whizzy, music-playing, over-animated website is putting you behind the times – and deflecting potential customers.
  • Smartest decision by a big local chain. Legal Sea Foods' hiring of Patrick Sullivan, former owner of The B-Side Lounge and a major progenitor of Boston's craft cocktail revival, as its beverage program manager. That's good for Legal, and good for anyone who wants to see serious cocktails brought to a wider audience.
  • Wrong Place, Wrong Time Award. To Guillaume Schmitt, food/beverage manager at Sensing Restaurant, the Fairmont Battery Wharf's pricey, pedigreed French restaurant, who greeted a guest wandering around the bar looking for help with a snarling “Go wait back at the front door!” That guest turned out to be Mat Schaffer, the Boston Herald's lead restaurant critic, who duly name-checked Schmitt to lead his review of Sensing. Oopsie.
  • Most wished-for return. Copley Square's charming food stand Jack & the Bean Bowl, which brought some much-needed al fresco deliciousness to the stodgy and street-food-averse Back Bay. Their summertime run of serving up fresh, tasty, cheap bowls of vegetarian and vegan beans, rice and fixings was way too brief. Come back, Jack!
  • Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy Award. To the Brothers Andelman of Phantom Gourmet fame (Dan, Dave and Mike, a/k/a Smarmy, Greasy, and Bobbleheady), for their lucrative whoring on behalf of their TV show’s advertisers. This kind of naked money-grubbing ineptly fig-leafed as unbiased reviewing might be easier to take if the boys could authoritatively discuss anything that wasn’t “ooey-gooey, smothered with cheese”.
  • Best doubling of menu options. The new charcoal-grilled pastrami sub at Speed's Famous Hot Dog Wagon, which before served only a hot dog, albeit Boston's best hot dog. Grilling makes this sandwich a bit lean for deli purists' tastes, but terrific pastrami from Newmarket Square neighbor Boston Brisket Company helps. We'll be keeping our ear on the rumor that Speed's may seek a permanent home in a South End storefront, which would make its fabled street food accessible to many more Bostonians.
  • Most embarrassing bit of Bostonian provincialism. The pitiful hand-wringing accompanying the news that legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer might convert the Pink Palace, a shuttered Boston Common restroom, into a Shake Shack. Sample objections: “He's from, gasp, New York!” “We call them 'frappes', not 'shakes'.” “We need something 'Bostonian'” – never mind that the competing proposal is from a one-time operator of a failed New York restaurant whose theme-parky concept includes hawking “Freedom Trail ketchup”. Forget about doing actual research on Meyer's reputation for restaurant hospitality (on which he literally wrote the book), sustainable sourcing, and upstanding citizenship in the neighborhoods in which he operates – let alone actually sampling the food that his much-admired kitchens produce. How did we get our reputation as unworldly, navel-gazing bumpkins, again?
  • Cleverest new street-food concept. Clover Food Lab, a vegan/vegetarian food truck for people who aren’t vegetarians or vegans. With the vivid flavors of Clover’s sandwiches and salads, nobody seems to miss the meat, and its fresh-baked popovers and hand-cut fries are shockingly good.
  • Funniest unattributed restaurant criticism. Found in TV ads for Strega, in which owner Nick Varano continues a longstanding promotional campaign based on third-rate mobster-wannabe shtick that leans heavily on paid-for endorsements by bit players from kaput-in-2007 series The Sopranos. The hilarity stems from one TV spot in which Verano claims, “Shtrega serves what some people call da bes' Italian food in da city." This conveniently ignores the large body of professional and amateur critical opinion that calls Strega's décor hideously kitschy, its Italian-American fare thuddingly average, and its prices breathtaking, e.g., $43 for a veal chop. There's “some people”, and then there's “some other people”.
  • Best tribute dish. Short-rib tacos at Myers + Chang, which accurately mimic the phenomenal flavor of Kogí truck tacos, the L.A. street-food sensation. Unlike many of its upmarket-taco competitors in Boston, M+C has memorized a crucial page from the taco-truck handbook, the one that specifies two tortillas per taco to avoid a drippy, disintegrating mess. And like Kogí, M+C tweets a lot, though arguably this seemed hipper before nine hundred other Boston restaurants got on Twitter, too.
  • Gigantic Balls Award. To Barbara Lynch, for moving forward with plans for a springtime opening of Menton, her empire's new flagship restaurant in Fort Point. This luxury establishment will feature Italian cuisine, French rigor in the preparation and service, and eye-goggling prices: $85 for a 4-course tasting, $145 for a 7-course tasting. The online kibitzers seem evenly split between “That's insane in this economy” and “If anyone can make a success of it, Lynch can.” Me, I'd welcome another occasion-dining venue in Boston that isn't a steakhouse and maybe asks guys to wear a jacket. Whichever camp you fall into, you have to admit: gigantic balls.
  • Little Guy Triumphs Award. To South Street Diner, for successfully defending its right to operate 24 hours a day, something it has done since 1947. Rich-jerk owners of nearby luxury condos, newcomers to the diner's Leather District neighborhood, tried to crimp its hours to 2am but couldn't turn back the tide of popular support. Moral: folks that crave perfect silence shouldn't move to dense urban neighborhoods.
Here's hoping 2010 finds you not believing the hype, supporting local establishments, getting out to Chinatown, Eastie, Allston and Dorchester to sample authentic traditional cooking, treating servers with respect (as documented in Patrick Maguire's fascinating new blog Server Not Servant), and tipping large. Na zdraví!

10 December 2009

Shark Fin, Foie Gras, and the Conscience of a Gourmand

A finned shark lies dying on the ocean floor
I was recently interviewed by Tiffany Ledner, a Boston University undergraduate, for a class project and story she wrote for The Daily Free Press, BU's student newspaper, called Shark Tails. (A longer version of the piece appears on the author's "Twenty-Four Hour Diner" blog, entitled Hook, Line and Sinker.) Her subject is shark fin as a foodstuff and finning, the notoriously unsustainable and horrific practice by which a shark is caught, has its fins cut off, and is then thrown back alive to die a terrible death on the ocean floor. Both the newspaper story and the blog piece did not reflect my feelings or actual statements with perfect accuracy, I imagine due to some combination of deadline pressure, changes made by some unseen editor, and space constraints.

As I conducted the interview by email, a practice I've adopted to help preserve my anonymity as a restaurant reviewer, it's easy for me to present my full responses to Ms. Ledner's interview questions here. In addition to clearing up some of the confusion that a few of my readers had expressed in the wake of the story's publication, I think it's a topic worthy of further thought and discussion, as it presents some queasy ethical questions to those of us for whom eating well is an obsessive pleasure.


Tiffany Ledner: Have you ever consumed or prepared shark fin soup or any other dish that requires shark fin as a main ingredient? If so, please explain where, when, the circumstances, cost of, preparation of, any other important details.

MC Slim JB: I have never eaten shark fin in the States, but have been served shark-fin soup in restaurants on several occasions at banquet-style business dinners in Hong Kong and mainland China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzen).

TL: Does shark fin have any sort of significance to you?

MCSJB: I understood that it was one of many luxury foods that were intended to demonstrate my hosts' benevolence toward me as an honored guest: a business partner who had traveled all the way from the USA to help them woo their customers, consummate deals, etc.

TL: How would you describe your position on environmental activism? Passionate, undecided, apathetic, etc?

MCSJB: I'd say I am supportive but not especially active. I donate to various environmental causes. I've read Schlosser and Pollan. I'm educating myself on sustainability issues, reading and promoting bloggers like Boston's Jacqueline Church. I carry the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list with me to avoid ordering seafood species that are caught or farmed in ways that harm other species or the environment. I buy local produce, meat and fish when I can. I'm planning to join a CSA and possibly a CSF next year. If I ever get the outdoor space, I will grow some of my own vegetables. But there's clearly a lot more I could be doing on this account.

TL: Did you enjoy shark fin? What did you take away from the experience? Would you sample it again?

MCSJB: It reminded me of many Chinese luxury foods: I didn't mind eating it, and it was more palatable than some costly foods I've been served over there, but I didn't find it wonderful. It's a dish that is mainly about texture, as it gets all its real flavor from the broth it's served in. But I think it's like a lot of luxury goods: the Veblen effect is in full force. That is to say, it's expensive mainly because it is rare, and it is valued primarily because it is expensive, enabling the diner / host to consume / entertain extravagantly in a conspicuous manner. If it were as cheap as pollock, people wouldn't get excited about it.

TL: What do you think about banning shark fins from dinner tables?

MCSJB: I am in favor of banning finned shark: finning seems an especially egregious example of unsustainable harvesting and animal cruelty.

TL: If shark fin soup becomes illegal, do you think a black market will develop for the delicacy?

MCSJB: Of course: this would be inevitable. But there is still value in making it illegal. Aside from the criminal and civil sanctions on finners and retailers (on which enforcement would be difficult), it would help increase the social stigma of consuming it. Of course, to certain diners, the fact that it is illicit and more expensive only heightens its appeal, but I think the net effect would be positive.

TL: Have you ever traveled to China? If so, what were your experiences there with shark fin soup, if any? Your experiences with Chinese cuisine?

MCSJB: I have traveled to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (and throughout Northeast and Southeast Asia) many times. I always eat like a local as much as possible there. At home in the States, I spend a lot of time in comparatively authentic Chinese restaurants of every type, primarily in Boston's Chinatown. But I still feel like a neophyte: the collection of rich, distinctive cuisines that we call Chinese food is something I feel I've just scratched the surface of. I really wish I could read Chinese, have considered studying it just to be able to decipher menus better.

TL: What are your experiences with bird’s nest soup or other delicacies taboo in mainstream American culture?

MCSJB: Is there really a taboo on bird's nest soup here, or do you mean that most Americans would find the idea of eating bird saliva disgusting? I've had that dish in China, too: not really a big deal, though I suspect it meant a lot to my hosts that I ate it and feigned relishing it (it is punishingly expensive). I've eaten many foods that would be considered Fear Factor foods by most Americans. (My favorite anecdote for this purpose is stag's penis soup, which really wasn't bad, a sort of gamy consomme.) I had a harder time with sea cucumber (highly prized, also unsustainably harvested, and with a texture I find unpleasant), a curry of many tiny fish-heads, sea snake (a bright-green scaly skin still on it), and other dishes.

TL: Many people are vehemently against the practice of shark finning because of how the fins are procured; however, some see no difference with this type of “torture” and the production of foie gras or veal. Do you eat foie gras or veal? Do you believe that this is unnecessary cruelty or a Darwinist advantage or something between the two? Please explain in detail.

MCSJB: I find the practice of finning abhorrent: it seems particularly cruel and wasteful as well as terribly unsustainable, threatening the extinction of many species. I eat only humanely-raised veal, which I believe is sustainable within the limits that meat-eating as a whole is. But I eat foie gras, and have no excuse for it. It's hard to see how you could justify its production as humane. (I guess I could defend it somewhat on sustainability grounds, but that argument seems feeble. The real issue is animal cruelty, and in that context you might argue that eating any CAFO-produced meat is equally reprehensible.) It's a fundamental hypocrisy I have about such foods, a stain on my conscience that I brook because I find the products so delectable.

TL: It has been stated that the wild capture of sharks merely for their fins is unsustainable. What do you feel about this? If sharks could be farmed, would it make a difference in how you feel about the production and/or consumption shark fin soup?

MCSJB: If it could actually be done sustainably (which is not true of all fish farming), the idea of farmed shark seems much better. It would be less wasteful (much more of the animal would be used), less cruel, and more defensible on sustainability grounds. It would not change my ambivalence about the product as a bland, unremarkable foodstuff.

TL: You are well known for frequenting Chinatown and have written about the importance of stepping out of one’s culture-Americana comfort zone and sampling cuisine from different cultures. Does your empathy towards other cultures have an effect on your opinion towards shark fin consumption? Please explain.

MCSJB: In general, I think eating traditional foods is one of the best ways to get inside the soul of a culture, and that greater experience of the world has many benefits to the individual. It certainly chips away at the tendency that we Americans have to see our culture as ascendant – an idea that many of us cherish who have never actually traveled anywhere to test the theory. I think developing that kind of empathy is more important now than ever, for a lot of reasons.

Having said that, the fact that I eat foie gras and some CAFO-produced meats means that I don't really have a leg to stand on in accusing other cultures of odious animal cruelty simply for the pursuit of pleasure. But I feel bad about it and ponder a day when I give it up for ethical reasons, and think that consumers of shark fin should, too.

TL: What changes would have to be made to the shark-finning industry for you to feel less guilty about eating shark fin soup (assuming it was something that you enjoy eating)?

MCSJB: If shark finning were successfully banned in favor of ways to sustainably catch or farm shark, I wouldn't object to its consumption, though I wouldn't go out of my way to eat shark fin myself.

TL: Finally, if foie gras were banned in the US, how would you react? Would you continue buy/consume it?

MCSJB: I'm not sure how I'd react to a foie gras ban. I suspect I would view it as I do certain other vices: I would mostly honor the proscription, but hold out the possibility that I might go off the reservation on select special occasions. As it is, I do not eat it very often, so making it forbidden might actually heighten its appeal in some ways. Consider absinthe: much less exciting now that it's widely available. Forbidden fruit shouldn't taste better just because it's forbidden, but sometimes it does.

25 November 2009

From the Archives: Learning to Take the Bitters with the Sweet

Image courtesy of AllPosters.com
I hope my friends at Boston's Weekly Dig won't begrudge my republishing a piece I did for them way back in April, 2007, an early cocktail feature I did on bitters. With Thanksgiving and the general roundelay of holiday overeating imminent, I thought now might be a good time to take another look at the wondrous world of herbal digestivi:

Drink like an adult: leave the booze Slurpies to the wide-eyed naïfs
by MC Slim JB
[originally published April 11, 2007 in Boston's Weekly Dig

I remember my first exposure to bitters, a freshman-year swig of a louche college pal’s Campari and soda. “That’s the single worst thing I’ve ever tasted,” I laughed, retreating to my watery lager. I’ve had some regrettable flirtations since: white Zinfandel, frozen Margaritas, that girl who drank Mudslides. But I’m more hard-boiled now. I’ve forsaken sweeter tipples for the bracing and the sharp -- drinks that not only perforate my social inhibitions but remedy my occasional foie gras overdose. I’ve learned how to take my medicine, the same bitters I once mocked.

Initially, I tiptoed down the bitters path with cough-syrupy Jägermeister, then known as the kind of chic German pick-me-up you might sip from your flask on the St. Moritz ski slopes, and a very effective digestif. Alas, some American marketing genius hyped it into a frat-boy’s guzzle, boosting case sales to the millions but ruining it for sophisticates.

Casting about for a replacement, I discovered Fernet-Branca, a potent Italian bitters that looks like Moxie and tastes like, well, poison. My first gulp was like an uppercut to the nose, its overwhelming medicinal bitterness leaving me stunned and scrunch-faced. But there was no denying Fernet’s restorative powers. One dose could magically rouse me from an overfed couch-bound stupor to dance-ready vitality in ten minutes. I grew to love its opaque otherness, to relish its assaultive flavor.

My own bar now features a dozen bitters, each a unique infusion of roots, herbs, spices, fruits, and other botanicals in a base of neutral spirits. Potable bitters like Campari and Meletti are intense but sippable by themselves, often poured freely into cocktails like Negronis and Americanos. Non-potable bitters like the ubiquitous Angostura and the obscurer Fee Brothers Orange are highly concentrated, administered in dashes to old-school cocktails like Sazeracs, Hoskinses, and Martinis.

Many countries produce bitters, but Italy is the motherlode, home to scores of potable amari, beloved as apertifs with soda or fruit juice, and as digestifs served neat. Scan the cordials shelf of your liquor store or Italian restaurant bar for Averna, Nonino, Ramazzotti, or Montenegro. They’re good bitters for beginners, a mellower breed of amaro with some sweetness to balance their astringency and herbal complexity.

Non-potable bitters have been bar staples since the 19th-century Golden Age of Cocktails, when the term “cocktail” implied their presence. Wherever cocktail craft is revered as an art form, they’re an indispensable pigment in the bartender’s paintbox. At No. 9 Park (9 Park St, Boston, 617.742.9991), John Gertsen’s scholarly mixologists are so steeped in cocktail lore they seem to have bitters in their bones. Their genteel Seelbach Cocktail ($14) spikes bourbon and Cointreau with seven dashes each of Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters, finished with a big Champagne pour.

At Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks (528 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, 617.532.9100, easternstandardboston.com), Jackson Cannon’s elite crew wields potable bitters in some arresting cocktails. Straw-hued, sweet-spiced Becherovka from the Czech Republic meshes smoothly with honey syrup and fresh lemon juice as The Metamorphosis ($10), a refreshing original. Bitters are everywhere in their new “Lineage/Legacy” line of Golden Age-inspired cocktails, too, like The Little Italy ($10), in which artichoke-flavored Cynar adds an acerbic interrobang to a Manhattan-like blend of rye and sweet vermouth. Then there’s The Rat ($8), an affectionate homage to this location’s ghosts, a Fernet-Branca and Coke highball that’s as brash and insistent as the hardcore kids who once rocked the basement here.

In short, bitters are the punk rock of liquors: a rebuke to insipid conformity, a necessary corrective to self-indulgent excess, an echo of its forebears’ formative heyday. Before you order another Top-40 cocktail, credit your hard-won wisdom, embrace the bitterer things in life, and drink bitters. It’s at once a rebellious and grown-up thing to do.

02 November 2009

Yet Another "10 Worst Dining Trends" Blog Post

Top 10 lists are justifiably popular: they're simple, quick to read, and fun to argue about. In the food writing world, a recent Chicago Tribune article interviewed various culinary hotshots like celeb chef/owner David Chang of NYC's Momofuku to compile a list of “ten worst dining trends of the last decade”.

Predictably, this inspired of a lot of knock-offs and disputatious blog responses: I know I disagreed with a lot of it, like its broad-brush dismissal of molecular cooking. So I'm belatedly chiming in with my own not-especially-original list that includes a few tropes that regular readers of this blog will recognize as old hobbyhorses of mine. Here's my Boston-flavored 10 Worst Dining Trends of the Past Decade:
  • Egregious markups on ordinary wines, especially American ones. As I've documented at length elsewhere, certain restaurants in Boston get away with murder on this score, apparently because their clientele is too undereducated on wine pricing or entranced by atmosphere to realize they're being swindled.
  • Bashing of molecular cooking. It's easy to be dismissive of foams and other chem-lab approaches to cooking, at least as employed by chefs who use them as gimmicks to mask their lack of traditional cooking fundamentals. But to my ear, a lot of anti-molecular gastronomy rhetoric sounds like culinary anti-intellectualism, effectively “Haw, haw, that foo-foo food stuff is fer fags!” The truth is that molecular cooking as employed by masters like Grant Achatz or Wylie Dufresne can be a beautifully artistic (and delectable) application of food science. Still, innovation in the kitchen has always met with reactionary resistance: cooking raw animal flesh over fire was probably pshawed by some cavemen. In the less-distant past, once-edgy technologies like the food processor, stick blender and dehydrator were used only by professionals. In short, your mocking of molecular cooking today may look pretty stupid five or 10 years from now when you're buying a home sous-vide machine.
  • The rise of casual-dining chains, with their emphasis on portion size over quality, their dumbing down of regional and traditional cuisines (more on this below), and their crushing of more worthy, idiosyncratic, locally-owned independent restaurants.
  • The grotesque swelling of portion sizes, pioneered by the chains and often forced upon independents as a competitive response. I hate the consequent expectation now carried around by most diners that they will leave with enough leftovers to make three more meals.
  • The ongoing debasement of distinctive regional specialties and traditional cuisines (again with national chains as a major culprit). The ignominies of American Chinese food are an ancient example, but there are plenty of newer abominations against authenticity: par-boiled grilled meats char-grilled with a finishing sauce burnt on and called “barbecue”; breaded chicken wings referred to as “Buffalo wings”; chain-level Tex-Mex posited as Mexican cuisine; the suburbanization of Thai food; P.F. Chang's.
  • The proliferation of national luxury-steakhouse chains, a format that I find boring and mostly a ripoff. For example, Boston already has a half-dozen good locally-owned platinum-card beef palaces. No city of our size also needs a Smith & Wollensky, a Plaza III, a Fleming's, a Ruth's Chris, a Palm, two Morton's and three Capital Grilles.
  • The term "foodie". I think this label had some positive connotations once, but it has since been claimed by the kind of fools who think beating their friends to the latest overpriced It Place somehow makes them special, and dopes who watch 40 hours of Food Network programming a week but would never dare venture into Chinatown. Nobody I know who is really adventurous and single-minded about finding extraordinary food calls herself or himself a foodie anymore. (One might argue that the rise of the “foodiot” – a term coined by Joe Pompeo in a funny New York Observer piece for the kind of annoying food-obsessive who won't shut up at parties or on their blog about where and what they've been eating lately – is equally lamentable, but I'm not calling that particular kettle black.)
  • The Phantom Gourmet, for: a) fooling some naïve viewers into thinking the show provides unbiased restaurant reviews when it actually spends most of its time giving tug-jobs to its advertisers, b) spreading the notion among viewers sophisticated enough to recognize the Phantom's grifting that all restaurant reviewers might be whores, and c) those hairdos.
  • Food-centric reality TV, epitomized by the appalling crapfest that is Hell's Kitchen. The patently bogus, manufactured drama, as well as the casting of hosts like Gordon Ramsay and some chef contestants for their sheer obnoxiousness, are lowering the bar further for reality TV's already subterranean level of insults to viewer intelligence.
  • The death of restaurant dress codes. I understand it's difficult for restaurants to turn away any business in these brutal economic times, and that dress codes merely reflect our society: we customers are the ones wearing sweat pants, hoodies and flip-flops to church, the mall and the workplace. But I still think it's a damnable shame that our top-flight destination restaurants can't enforce some minimum level of decorum (as in, “Take off your baseball cap in the dining room at L'Espalier, asshole”) for the benefit of other patrons who are celebrating big-number anniversaries, birthdays or other special occasions. Too bad it's a fallen world.

14 October 2009

You don't really hate curry: reconsidering Indian and other South Asian cuisines

Dining out with friends who aren't particularly adventurous eaters can be a chore, but I understand what it's like to be afraid of unfamiliar foods. I was a timid eater through my teens, didn't really start expanding my culinary horizons until I first moved to a big city. So while I will try to cajole you into trying a bite from my plate of crispy-fried pigs' tails (an incredible dish at Cambridge's Craigie on Main), I won't press the point if you demur. But there's one statement that really galls me: “I don't like curry." Most frequently, I hear this from friends as their blanket excuse for never trying Indian food.

Saying "I hate curry" is like saying, "I don't like sauces", or “I don't like gravy". What many Americans don't understand is that curry is not a flavor, it's not a spice, and it certainly isn't that yellow powder in your spice rack.* It's a generic term: there are literally millions of recipes for curry. A sweet green curry from Central Thailand and a Kashmiri rogan josh are both curries, but have almost nothing in common except that they are richly-spiced gravies served with some kind of starch (rice, potatoes, bread, pancakes or noodles). The particular combination of spices and other ingredients in a specific type of Indian curry (of which there are thousands) varies almost literally by family, and there are over a billion souls there. And by the way, there's way more to Indian menus than curry dishes. But let's start with this one stubborn American misconception.

You simply must stop thinking of curry as something that comes from a McCormick's jar. This is exactly like thinking a can of Spaghetti-O's represents Italian food. That supermarket spice-aisle junk is a 19th-century British bastardization of one very specific style of Northern Indian curry, from a time when English cookery sucked really hard. It's likely a stale blend of turmeric, cumin, and fenugreek, with a lot of salt, MSG and anti-caking agents mixed in: no wonder you don't like it! Decent pre-made curry bases do exist -- jarred powders, canned pastes, shelf-stable bars that break into squares like baking chocolate -- but serious cooks put these in the same category as frozen food or jars of Prego: strictly for students, kitchen naifs, camping, the lazy, the time-pressed, and emergencies.

Pre-fab blends are scorned because the true flavors of spices fade quickly as essential oils evanesce after grinding. Any self-respecting cook from South Asia toasts and grinds their spices fresh daily. Some use a mortar and pestle, but there's also a specialty appliance, the Sumeet grinder, a wet/dry electric blender optimized for grinding spices, aromatics, and other ingredients into pastes. Real local chefs with curries on their menus aren't reaching for a jar. So if you've turned your nose up at Indian food because your mom once sprinkled Durkee's curry powder on your chicken wings or tuna salad and you didn't like it, it's time for a reconsideration.

And another thing: Indian food is no more a single cuisine than American food: like the US, it's a big country with a diverse collection of many regional cuisines. Indian restaurants have come a long way in Boston; unlike 20 years ago, you won't find the same dozen Punjabi and Mughal dishes everywhere you go today. It's now possible for Bostonians to enjoy regional cooking from all over South Asia. Partly this is because American diners have gotten more sophisticated; partly it's because high technology, healthcare and other industries have brought professionals from all over the sub-continent to New England, and these ex-pats are driving demand for greater regional diversity.

Here are a few South Asian restaurants in Greater Boston that I enjoy, identified by one feature I especially value:
  • Take-out: Guru the Caterer (though it has expanded recently and now has sit-down space)
  • Desi Chinese (Chinese food as prepared in India, a unique and wonderful creature): Namaskar, Indian Dhaba
  • Balti (a creation of Pakistani ex-pats in Birmingham, England): Bhindi Bazaar
  • Borrowing of Indian technique in the service of a Western restaurant: tandoor at Scampo
  • High-end, fusion-y small plates: naan bar menu at Mantra
I find it helps to start exploring with a friend who knows a little about the cuisine. But it's worth noting that chicken tikka masala is now the most popular restaurant dish in the UK. This "Indian for beginners" dish appears on a lot of local menus: chicken roasted in a clay oven and served in a mild, creamy tomato sauce. It's perhaps a bastardized example of the cuisine, purportedly invented by an ex-pat chef in Birmingham or Glasgow, but you have to start somewhere, and authenticity aside, a well-done chicken tikka masala is really delicious. So shake off your Western ignorance about what a curry is all about, and give Indian cuisine a shot. There's a whole new world waiting for you there.

* Yes, I am aware of the curry leaf, a/k/a sweet neem, a tree leaf commonly used in South Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani cooking, but if you know about that, you probably don't need to be reading this particular essay.

18 September 2009

Check out "Teach a Chef to Fish" on Sept 28, 2009

I haven't been particularly active on sustainability issues (though I'm learning), but I can plug worthy events on the subject by other folks who are, like this upcoming roundtable on seafood sustainability aimed at professional chefs:

Teach a Chef to Fish: A Roundtable on Seafood Sustainability for Industry Professionals
Monday, September 28, 2009, 3pm to 5pm
Fairmont Battery Wharf Hotel, 3 Battery Wharf, Boston, MA
Cost: $50 (50% of proceeds to benefit the New England Aquarium)

Fact: Almost 90% of diners say they want restaurants to serve only sustainable seafood, but nearly 75% are unaware which fish are close to extinction.

The Teach a Chef to Fish roundtable will be a "roll up your sleeves and learn" session. Attendees will hear from a panel, get introduced to a new state-of-the-art sourcing service, and learn how to redo seafood recipes to include on their own menus just in time for October's National Seafood Month.

Event highlights:
  • The Fairmont Hotel will open with their story of how the resort chain began to integrate sustainability into their practices 20 years ago, and how the Battery Wharf property in Boston decided to remove bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass from their menus.
  • Attendees will hear about sustainable aquaculture from the example of Australis Barramundi, "The Better Fish". Not all aquaculture is problematic. Attendees will learn why and how this fish is an example of a sustainable aquaculture.
  • The New England Aquarium will share insights from its sustainable sourcing initiatives and give examples of what innovative companies are doing to help busy culinary professionals adopt sustainable seafood sourcing practices.
  • Attendees will learn about new tools like "Green Chefs, Blue Ocean", a joint venture between the Blue Ocean Institute and the Chefs Collaborative; review their seven-part online tutorial; and walk through their new sourcing service, FishChoice. Now in live field testing, FishChoice aims to give culinary professionals real-time information about sourcing sustainable seafood from a large database of purveyors, many of them already-familiar names. Chefs will have the rare opportunity to shape the service by offering feedback.
  • Attendees will gain insights into workable solutions for offering the sustainable seafood that diners prefer. Participants will then work together using the new tools to apply their creativity to redo existing recipes, working through actual menu items to take the first steps toward more sustainable menus.
Presenters include chefs from top restaurants in Boston, MA and RI. Attendees will receive sponsors discounts and materials in a USB flash drive to take away.

Register here via PayPal

Please contact the event organizer with any questions:

Jacqueline Church
On Twitter: http://twitter.com/LDGourmet
Teach a Man to Fish!

13 September 2009

"Feeding Celine": my guest post in The Leather District Gourmet blog

I just contributed a guest post to my friend Jacqueline Church's very fine Boston food/drink blog The Leather District Gourmet. It's called Feeding Celine -- Eating Well on an Engineer's Student's Budget, and it's basically more advice to incoming college students on dining out in Boston, much like my recent blog essay Wear Sunscreen in the Restaurant, or, Words of Advice for Hungry Young People.

Feeding Celine adds specific recommendations on cheap-eats dishes and venues within a short distance (a few T stops) of M.I.T., where a young friend just matriculated.

Be sure to check out Church's other blogs, notably Pig Tales & Fish Friends, on sustainability issues.

02 September 2009

Wear Sunscreen in the Restaurant, or, Words of Advice for Hungry Young People

Allston Christmas
Photo courtesy of The Boston Herald
Here are a few dining-out tips for you kids who've just arrived in the Hub of the Universe to start school, from a longtime chaser of the high life who's lived in Boston forever -- like, since before PlayStation II, when the Internets were all 110 baud (don’t Google that now, pay attention):
  • Get the hell out. Boston is no New York City, but it’s still a pretty great restaurant town, in part because you students support some excellent cheap-to-moderate places. But you'll still have to duck the many miserable ones aimed at the sorry philistines among you. If you have the iota of adventurousness necessary to rise above a life of mediocre food, you'll have to occasionally get on your bike or the subway or the bus to visit places like Chinatown, East Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, East Cambridge, East Somerville, and Allston. If you get off your ass, you can eat fantastic food for your entire four or five or twelve years here. Don’t blow this opportunity by settling for so-so burgers, pizza, and burritos. Example: check out the Super 88 Market at the corner of Commonwealth Ave and Brighton Ave in Allston. Its ten-stall food court offers phenomenal cheap eats from China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and India. It’s a low-risk, incredibly tasty way to start exploring. 
  • Don’t overlook old media. While you still can, take advantage of professional restaurant reviews in publications like the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and The Improper Bostonian, where I currently serve as professional restaurant critic and food/drinks feature writer. 
  • Check out local bloggers and social media. In addition to the MC Slim JB blog, Boston has many useful food and drink blogs -- start with my WORTHY BLOGS / LINKS section on the lower left -- and unlike this one, most have attractive photos, video clips, and illustrations. Hundreds of Boston restaurants, bars, food retailers, and the writers who cover them are now on Twitter and Facebook: you'll quickly figure out which ones are worth following/friending and which are annoying, one-note self-promoters. Two helpful primers on my blog include an intro to Boston's craft cocktail scene and a humorous look at the Phantom Gourmet, a cheesy local TV show that reviews Boston restaurants (sort of).
  • Try to observe some of our quaint, Colonial-era dining customs. Take off your baseball cap in the dining room, don’t spend the entire meal blabbing or texting on your phone, limit your public drunkenness to the pre-projectile-vomiting stage, learn how to tip properly, curb the public displays of affection, and consider that other patrons might not find your bare armpits, navel, or toes an appetizing sight, especially at swankier venues. I won’t tell you to sit up straight, but you really should do that, too.
So welcome to Boston, kids: it’s a wonderful place to eat, and we’re really glad to have you here. Now get off my lawn.

06 August 2009

“But There Is No Mr. L’Espalier!”, or, The Bane of the Grammar-Stickler Restaurant Critic

I believe most people are like me in that they harbor secret pet peeves, petty grudges against their fellow human beings that they hide because airing them would reveal them as cranks, obsessives, nutballs. “Really? That tiny issue bothers you? Who the heck cares about that? Who the hell even thinks about that?!” Luckily, I have a blog, and blogs were practically made for confessing these kinds of niggling idiosyncrasies. My private hell is being a grammar stickler, the kind that Lynne Truss describes in her slim, hilarious volume “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves”. Further, as a restaurant critic, I chafe at a very particular sub-order of grammatical irritant: the way people turn restaurant names into possessives.

It has bugged me since I was a kid: why do people have to append an apostrophe/letter-S to every restaurant name? Legal Sea Foods becomes Legal’s. Sonsie becomes Sonsie’s. It’s like people can’t wrap their minds around the notion that not every restaurant is named after an owner. The doofus logic seems to be, “This dude Sal owns a pizza place and calls it Sal’s Pizza, ergo it's L’Espalier’s, as in Mr. L'Espalier's Place.” Hearing this makes my blood boil. I know for a fact that it is L'Espalier, not L'Espalier's.

Brooking this solecism is a daily trial. Consider these renditions of popular Boston restaurant names as frequently spoken aloud by locals: Mistral’s, Beehive’s, Neptune’s, Silvertone’s, Pigalle’s, Aquitaine’s, La Voile’s, Douzo’s, EVOO’s, Hungry Mother’s, O Ya’s, Vlora’s. Yet if you go to the restaurant and look at the sign, you'll find no apostrophe+s in its name. To me, that errantly tacked-on possessive is as stupid and grating as a promo for The Real Housewives of New Jersey, only I can’t just turn it off. Everybody, but everybody, does it.

Does this common habit make you wince, clench your teeth, growl inwardly? If not, you are a normal person: move along. But if you’re a budding restaurateur who shares my absurd affliction, I believe I can help. Free of any consulting fees, I offer the following guide to selecting a restaurant name that won’t get you a damnable apostrophe+s wrongly bolted on, with real-life examples and counter-examples:
  • Don’t pick anything that can easily be mistaken for a girl’s name. It’s not Clio’s, Sorellina’s, Regina’s, Carmen’s, Stella’s, Laurel’s, or Mamma Maria’s, but people love saying them that way – apparently they just feel better thinking some lady owns the place. Masculine names aren’t much better: people still refer to Dali’s and Da Vinci’s, even if they suspect that the famous dead guy doesn’t really own a piece of the joint.
  • Avoid words that end in a vowel, especially Italian and Spanish ones; they’re too easy to pronounce with the bogus possessive attached. That way you won’t be seething like the owners who have to endure malapropisms like Cuchi Cuchi’s, Vee Vee's, Scampo’s, Rocca’s, Grezzo’s, Sportello’s, Erbaluce’s, Grotto’s, Picco’s, Pomodoro’s, Via Matta’s, Toro’s, Rialto’s, and Chacarero’s.
  • Try tongue-twisters: choose a word ending in “s” (ideally non-plural: see below) or a difficult consonant cluster. Who can be bothered with the lip-work necessary to pronounce Radius’s, Meritage’s, Tossed’s, Rendezvous’s, or Les Zygomates’s? No one.
  • Use physical locations: no sane person would think that Green Street might be the owner of a restaurant and so call that restaurant Green Street’s. Try rooms with “The” in front (The Oak Room, The Wine Cellar, The Blue Room), buildings (Church, Banq, House of Tibet, Peach Farm, Roadhouse), or addresses (Tory Row, No. 9 Park, Scollay Square, Kingston Station, Deep Ellum). No one comfortably says, “I just adore that place, The Butcher Shop’s.”
  • Consider vague nouns, the more abstract the better, like District, Equator, Clink, Sage, Blue Ginger, Coda, Drink, Elephant Walk, Gaslight, Greek Corner, and Summer Winter. You won’t hear, “Let’s go to India Quality’s!”
  • Befriend non-Latinate foreign words like Uni, Dok Bua, Kaze, Lala Rokh, Mela, Oishii, Tashi Delek, and Teranga. Those could be names, but most Anglophone Americans will feel uncertain about them, and thus be less likely to slap on the possessive.
  • Use numbers to repel the apostrophe+s, like Bin 26, Cambridge, 1., and Grill 23.
  • Even if you're comfortable with possessives, think carefully before you include an apostrophe. Is there really a Mr. Soya at Soya’s? Does a Ms. Zebra sit on the board of Zebra’s Bistro? I’d love to believe there’s a Pepper Sky running Pepper Sky’s Thai Sensation – she sounds like the star of a 1960s TV show about a secret agent who favors Mod fashions – but I suspect the truth is duller.
  • To discourage unwanted written possessives, employ weird spellings, shouty ALL-CAPS, mixed case, all lowercase, and/or gimmicky punctuation, like Jer-Ne, OM, LiNEaGe, dbar, Mooo…, ZuZu!, and STIX. These already look bizarre enough; maybe folks will resist putting the extra crap on the end.
  • Watch out for plural nouns; idiots may pronounce them properly, but in writing will jam in unwanted apostrophes. Just ask the poor souls at Pops (the chef/owner’s nickname), Josephs Two (run by two guys named Joseph, like Wise Men Three), Salts, Olives, Ten Tables, Anchovies, and Gargoyles on the Square. (Honestly, there’s no Uncle Gargoyle, so why would you write it as Gargoyle's?)
Phew, that made me feel better. Next, I must attempt to cleanse the English-speaking world of the Superfluous Pop-Culture “The”. You know, as in: the names of those movies are “Big Night” and “Alien”, not “The Big Night” and “The Alien”. Also, the name of that band is Talking Heads, not The Talking Heads. (That must have chapped their hides, too, as they used an album title to point this out.) Then I have to get Bostonians to stop referring to our central parks as the Boston Commons and Public Gardens: it's Boston Common and the Public Garden, you know. What do you mean, you don’t care?!

10 July 2009

An encomium for Icarus: a watershed fine-dining experience

“Nostalgia: it's delicate, but potent… in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” -- Don Draper, “Mad Men” Season 1, Episode 13: “The Wheel”

I had a last meal at Icarus the other night, just before it closed for good after 31 years of operation in three different locations in Boston’s South End. When you spend as much time dining out as I do, you get used to a certain ebb and flow, a sense of the inevitability that most restaurants, even the great ones, don’t last more than a few years. You’re sad when favorites go, but you know it’s the nature of the business. But I felt a sharper-than-usual stab of nostalgia at this particular last meal, as Icarus was a restaurant that changed my life.

Everyone has life-altering moments: the inspirational lecture from a beloved college professor, the high school sports failure that quashes your Hall-of-Fame fantasies, the instant you realize you’ve found someone you could spend your life with. For me, one of those moments was my first dinner at Icarus, many years ago. My culinary experience to that point was meager: my mom’s cooking had made me like a cat, salivating at the sound of the electric can opener. Dinners in the homes of childhood friends with Azorean immigrant parents, communal meals prepared by better-traveled fraternity siblings, urban street food, and cheap Italian, Greek, and Puerto Rican joints: these circumscribed the narrow range of my food world.

That first meal at Icarus really bowled me over, upending everything I knew about fine dining. It wasn’t a posh chophouse or a kitschy upscale Italian-American joint. It sat in the South End, a neighborhood that had hip bona-fides as Boston’s gay ghetto but was still scarily crime-ridden, where the unwary were routinely robbed. Somehow I’d heard that this Icarus was terrific in a new kind of way, so I brought a date I wanted to impress with my sophistication and boldness. We’d risk getting mugged for a great meal together.

I don’t remember the girl, or what I ordered beyond the appetizer including some foie gras (itself shocking to see outside of a luxury French place), but the room certainly impressed me: Old Hollywood, Art Deco glamour. The crowd was young and urbane, gayer than I was used to. Service was attentive but markedly unstuffy. The menu took pains to describe the composition of each dish and the provenance of its ingredients. Here, new to me, was New American cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh local ingredients and globetrotting eclecticism, proffering a new kind of connoisseurship. The chef obviously loved introducing diners to novel ingredients in fresh preparations; he wasn’t showy about his classical French cooking skills, but he could bring them when needed.

That meal put the hook in me the way no swank dinner had ever done. It snapped off and discarded my simple notions of what fine dining should be about. Everything about it excited me. I peppered my server with questions: What’s that ingredient? What does this word mean? How is that prepared again? At the same time, it was relaxed, unpretentious: it expected its customers to take outlandish influences and components in stride. It was a peek into a broader, wilder world of possibilities, and it changed me. I utterly lost interest in Boston’s elite restaurants of the day – the creaky temples to haute cuisine, the sclerotic Continental places, the ostentatiously dull steak and seafood palaces, the suffocating old-boys' dining clubs. I suddenly found myself obsessed with finding restaurants as fresh, entertaining and challenging as Icarus, devoting a huge chunk of my disposable income to their pursuit. In an instant, dining out became my primary hobby.

We've come so far from Icarus’s early heyday that it’s easy to forget how radical it once was. Consider an Icarus appetizer from way back, grilled shrimp with mango/jalapeño sorbet. That would hardly raise an eyebrow today, but every atom of that dish was strange at the time: grilling (not boiling or steaming) shrimp. Sorbet – sorbet?! – of tropical fruit and burning-hot chili on your entrée: it was bizarre, fantastic, crazy! Having summoned your courage, ordered it, and taken your first bite, you were dazzled by its contradictions. East/West! Hot/cold! Sweet/fiery/salty/sour! It kicked old notions of classic European cuisine and heartland American convention in the crotch. It was sassy, it was beautiful, it was sublime. Eating it made you feel brave and cool, like being let in on some outré, slightly dangerous secret.

Times have changed mightily. Our supermarkets now stock an astonishing array of produce, meats, artisanal cheeses, and other groceries from around the world. Americans prepare Peruvian and Vietnamese and Indian food at home. The Food Network fills 24 hours a day with gourmet dining and cooking programming, making national celebrities of local chefs. A plebeian take on the creativity that Icarus and others spearheaded now shows up in casual-dining chains: you can order wasabi-crusted rare ahi with miso beurre blanc at The Cheesecake Factory, and macadamia-crusted tilapia with coconut shrimp and mango puree at the Rainforest Cafe.

In the wake of this evolution, Icarus’s menu no longer wowed -- by 2009, it had come to look sort of tame. Chasers of avant-garde novelty had long since moved on to edgier places like Clio and O Ya. The South End had become a thoroughly gentrified, mostly wealthy neighborhood with dozens of fine-dining restaurants. And Chris Douglass, originally Icarus’s chef, later its chef/owner, had decided that running an upscale restaurant was no longer the fun it once was, especially in a dire economy. Selling Icarus allowed him to focus on his newer, downmarket Ashmont Grill and Tavolo restaurants in the Dorchester neighborhood where he lives. But before Icarus fades from the local dining consciousness, I want to remind Bostonians how thrilling, how pioneering it once was. It helped catalyze an enduring interest in creative cuisine that has enormously enriched my leisure hours since.

I made that last reservation hoping to hear an echo of that first dinner, the genesis of the fixation that ultimately led to my current jobs reviewing restaurants for publications like the Boston Phoenix and Stuff Magazine. I got a little misty as I savored a last Negroni at that cozy bar, luxuriating one final time against that romantic backdrop of Deco luster and live jazz, a trio led by a melancholy baritone sax. Moving to the dining room, I noted many similarly verklempt patrons, mostly older couples, getting in their last licks. I ordered a few favorites: polenta with braised exotic mushrooms and fresh thyme, followed by crisp-grilled local bluefish with smoked mussels and tomato salsa, then a perfect lemon panna cotta with blueberry compote.

As ever, these were meticulously plated, skillfully served, fully delicious. I ate in wistful silence, slowing as the meal went on, reluctant for it to end. Finally, I paid the check, took a last stroll around to admire the gorgeous old art and lamps and statuary, then walked up the stairs and out the door, murmuring my appreciation to Douglass and the staffers who'd given me so much joy over the years. This place, I thought, really left a mark on me. So long, Icarus, and thanks for diverting me down that curious, delectable path, for which I will always be grateful, and always remember you.

20 June 2009

There’s a riot going on in the cocktail world

John Gertsen, Misty Kalkofen, and Jackson Cannon getting down.
Photo courtesy of Jackson Cannon
There’s a renaissance in bartending going on right now, and it’s the most exciting thing to happen to sophisticated drinkers in decades. As a sometime bartender and longtime cocktail nerd, I witnessed the beginnings of this movement in Boston with the 1998 opening of The B-Side Lounge in Cambridge, a venue that pioneered a kind of scholarly, high-craft mixology I'd never seen before. I’ve been gratified to see its influence expand, but for some reason, not everyone has followed along.

Consider the estimable Robert Nadeau, the lead restaurant critic at the Boston Phoenix for over 25 years. In my view, he's the best food writer in town, an éminence grise with nonpareil range, that rare character who can write authoritatively and evocatively about everything from fine dining to authentic Chinatown holes-in-the-wall, and wine and beer, too. But at dinner the other night, when I started gushing about the recent uptick in local craft bartending, Nadeau admitted this wasn't an area he'd been following closely; he'd thought that Boston bartending was still stuck in a pink-tinged, icky-sweet vodka cocktail moment.

I happily demurred on this point, convincing Nadeau to let me drag him to a nearby craft-cocktail bar, where over a couple of beautifully made drinks originally conceived during the late-19th century Golden Age -- a period when America's best bartenders garnered the same devotion and fame that our current Food Network celebrity chefs do -- I continued to sing the virtues of Boston’s cocktail revival. I'm pretty sure he caught some of my excitement, that sense of a wild frontier worth exploring. But afterward I thought, “Nobody's more plugged into Boston’s restaurant scene than Nadeau; if he's a half-step behind me on this craft cocktail thing, then the typical bar patron must have no idea.” So I decided to offer a few tips here for curious beginners on how best to enjoy what's happening at the leading edge of Boston bartending:
  • Forget “Sex and the City”. Nadeau’s take isn’t entirely unfounded: many Boston bars are still hawking specialty cocktails built on flavored vodkas, sweet liqueurs, and cream-based cordials. The sloppily-made Cosmopolitan is emblematic: sugary, pretty, potent, and profitable. These are aimed at novices, often younger drinkers who want sweetness to mask the taste of alcohol. The cool triangular glass may make the imbiber feel sophisticated, but its contents shouldn’t: a key hallmark of serious cocktails is balance -- an interplay of sweet, sour, bitter, and/or savory flavors in which no single element dominates. If you’ve ever looked at those candy-colored and –flavored drinks with disdain, or found them cloying after one or two, you’re a good candidate for the genuine old-school article.
  • Expect a different kind of bartender. The pros behind the stick at craft cocktail bars are a new breed: serious and formidable, a combination of fine-dining chef, lab chemist, and history geek. They go to extreme lengths to source high-quality ingredients from all over the world, uncovering exciting and original spirits, fortified and aromatized wines, exotic liqueurs and cordials, and aromatic bitters. They use fresh fruits, fresh-squeezed juices, fresh herbs. They make their own syrups, infusions, bitters, and cocktail cherries. They assemble drinks with great precision, measuring everything. They worry about the proper manufacture, shape, and size of ice for each drink, and fret over the right serving glass. They study cocktail history, collect vintage bartending guides and barware, learn the origin stories and recipes of hundreds of classic drinks, labor to create new ones that respect the history of the craft. And they take hospitality seriously, recognizing that the ability to make a superb drink means nothing if the customer doesn’t feel welcome, valued, well cared for.
  • Be assured that there’s a craft cocktail for every taste. While it might seem abstruse at first, this game is like bocce: you can have no idea what you’re doing the first time you play and still have a blast, but it gets richer and more interesting the deeper you get into it. The quickest entrée? Visit a craft cocktail bar at a time when it isn’t particularly busy, when you can have a leisurely discussion with a bartender about your likes and dislikes. These folks will find ways to gently ease you out of your well-worn rut to explore new alleys. Maybe a Manhattan variant will hook you, or a recreation of an authentic Tiki drink, or a long drink based on some obscure Italian amaro -- maybe even a carefully-conceived Boilermaker. It’s a strange new world, but the right guide can swiftly open it up for you. Don't be surprised if they try to wean you from vodka, which most craft bartenders consider too featureless a spirit, too blank a canvas, to merit inclusion in interesting cocktails.
  • Understand that the scene is nascent and dynamic. The bygone B-Side fired the opening salvo in the battle to bring back 19th-century verve, skill, and sophistication to cocktail making. Talent honed there fanned out to places like Green Street, the bar at No. 9 Park, and Eastern Standard Kitchen. Subsequent waves kept rippling outward, with Golden Age inspired programs emerging at Deep Ellum, Drink (perhaps Boston's foremost incarnation of the revival), Hungry Mother, Craigie on Main, and others. Now the friendly local competition, level of serious training, growing enthusiasm and awareness among consumers, and greater availability of interesting spirits and bitters are all combining to help the scene rapidly evolve and grow. It’s like the drinking equivalent of the advent of Dada or the Lost Generation: tremendous artistic ferment and technical accomplishment effected by idiosyncratic and unique characters -- a fascinating scene.
  • Look to the Internets for help. If we’re at the dawn of a boozy Nouvelle Vague, our Cahiers du cinéma is drinkboston.com, Lauren Clark’s acclaimed blog that limns the Boston cocktail landscape (and to which I occasionally contribute). This is a swell starting point, a way to get to know the key venues, star players, events, and recipes before you venture out. (It's also great fun; don't miss the hilarious comments from local bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts.) LUPEC Boston's website is full of edifying entries by members of a local classic-cocktail appreciation society comprised of lady bartenders and other women connected to the scene; it regularly sponsors terrific craft cocktail events. Cocktail Virgin Slut is another eye-opening read, a log of craft drinks sampled all over Greater Boston by four local cocktail mavens, with recipes and photos.
Like jazz music and basketball, the cocktail is a thoroughly, proudly American invention, one with a tradition that dates back 150 years. Prohibition gave it a sucker punch that has taken nearly 70 years to recover from, but it is bouncing back with a vengeance. This is not your auntie’s Raspberry Mojito – it’s more like your great-great-grandfather’s Martinez Cocktail (the historical predecessor to the Martini, made with Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters, a drink you might love even if you profess to dislike gin.) Now just might be a great time to sneak a sip for yourself.

01 June 2009

Terror Waiter and the issue of really bad restaurant service

At least he's wearing plenty of flair.
(Photo courtesy of Deep Dish Creative)
A recent discussion on the Boston board of Chowhound.com got me thinking about the issue of bad restaurant service and how to deal with it. In that online discussion, a Chowhound regular recounted his awful service experience at Neptune Oyster in Boston’s North End, and how he’s finished with the place because the server who treated him so badly turned out to be the owner. (My own view of Neptune Oyster is markedly different: it’s my favorite European-style seafood restaurant in Boston, and when he has served me, the owner has always been great.) But I do have some empathy for this fellow Chowhound: I too have had a service nightmare in a Boston restaurant, an evening so bad that we still refer to it as the Terror Waiter Incident.

Terror Waiter was a young man who worked at the Hungry I on Boston’s Beacon Hill when I visited a few years back, on a busy weekend night when he was obviously hating his job, the patrons, and life in general. Our evening started badly at square one: I pointed out that my charger was food-spattered and asked him if he could replace it; he whisked it away with a look on his face like I had just loudly broken wind. I watched him serve a woman coffee who then pointed out that she had ordered tea; he responded by dumping the coffee into an empty salad bowl on the table, pouring hot water into the just-emptied cup, and flinging a teabag next to it. No dish was served without a slam; every request was met with an eye-rolling sneer.

He was basically a miserable, nasty bastard to everyone in the room, to the point where some customers seemed genuinely afraid of him, while the rest of us wavered between bemused incredulity and outrage. I was seething at first, but wanting to salvage something of Date Night, decided to laugh it off, make a game of noting to my companion how brutally awful this waiter was. We marveled at how someone whose job title was “server” could provide what was effectively the opposite of service. But ultimately I was really unhappy, to the point where I wrote a letter to the chef/owner documenting our evening of service horrors, and vowing to never return -- a promise I have kept.

Everyone in the industry has a bad night now and again -- maybe our server’s dog had died, or he was suffering from massive hemorrhoidal flare-up, or he’d just gotten dumped -- but he was unforgettably, excruciatingly inhospitable. It’s too bad: I had been a big fan of the Hungry I’s country French cuisine, found the atmosphere quaint and romantic, and particularly loved Sunday brunch in its tiny interior courtyard. But some service experiences are so terrible that they ruin a place for you forever, and I imagine my recounting this story over the years has steered many friends away, too.

That said, most of my service experiences are pretty good: Americans enjoy some of the best restaurant service in the world, and the majority of our servers are professional, well-trained, and well-meaning. If you’ve ever spent any time working as a waiter or bartender as I have, you know that it’s really, really hard work for scant wages ($2.63/hour in Massachusetts, far less than the minimum wage of $8.00) plus tips. And in any restaurant meal that doesn’t turn out well, the customer is frequently complicit, as outlined in this hilarious post from Steve Dublanica’s peerless Waiter Rant blog: “50 Signs You Might Be An [Impolite] Customer.”

The best way you can help your servers maximize your enjoyment of your meal is to communicate clearly with them. This includes complaining about kitchen mistakes (like the wrong order, or an underdone steak) right away, while they can be fixed in a timely fashion. This is why a good server always checks back with your table a couple of minutes after serving a course: to give you a chance to do exactly this.

Sometimes, though, a server does screw up badly in ways that can’t be blamed on the kitchen or the pressures of serving a big section full of demanding customers. If you have serious problems that you attribute to the server’s lack of professionalism, attentiveness, or commitment to hospitality, have a word with the manager after your meal is over. If you have business clients or other guests you’d rather spare this spectacle and its potential accompanying drama, make a follow-up phone call to management the next day. Don’t do this to solicit compensation, but because you believe a well-managed place will work to address this issue with its staff and strive to make your next experience better. (If the manager doesn’t think you’re just an abusive or exploitive customer, he or she will often offer some kind of comp anyway.)

In the end, try to remember that your servers are human beings with high-stress jobs who must deal with a public that is not always on its own best behavior. Don’t penalize them for mistakes the kitchen made. Tip generously when service is good: you might be surprised at how small the difference is over the course of a year between being a barely-adequate tipper and a magnanimous one. Be grateful that when you have a workday when you’re not at your shiny best, it’s usually not reflected directly in your compensation. And consider that it always could be worse: you could have gotten Terror Waiter.

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.