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.