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.