19 December 2010

The 2010 Devil's Dining Awards

2010 was both brutal and promising for Boston’s restaurant industry. I handed out my usual professional accolades: the annual Stuff Magazine Dining Awards (with my friend and frequent collaborator Ruth Tobias); some year-end highlights from Food Coma, my biweekly fine-dining column for Stuff Magazine; and a year-end retrospective of On the Cheap, my budget-dining perch at the Boston Phoenix.

But there's never enough room to laud the praiseworthy or take a prose scimitar to the crass, the ridiculous, the fraudulent and the shameless -- except here, where space is free and no editor frets about whom I might offend. So for the second year running *, here’s my personal take on the extraordinary, high and low, in Boston’s dining and drinking scene: the 2010 Devil's Dining Awards!
  • Funniest Bid to Attract an Industry Crowd Award: to The Citizen Public House and Oyster Bar, for serving draft Fernet Branca at $3 a shot. At this terrific new Fenway joint from the Franklin Café gang, it takes eighteen 750ml bottles to fill the reservoir of Fernet, a tipple favored by bartenders, servers and cooks as an after-work cool-down chased by a High Life or Bud Lite Lime. I've advocated the joys of this poisonously-bitter Milanese digestif for years, so I’m gratified by its surging popularity. But the day it began flowing cheaply from a tap? I did not see that one coming.
  • The Horror Behind the Mask Award: to the Brothers Andelman of The Phantom Gourmet, a local restaurant-review TV show. No, it’s not for polishing the knobs of their advertisers: even their dimmest viewers recognize that the Andelmans are shameless whores. Rather, it’s the phony gusto with which the boys smack their lips on-camera over the fatty/starchy fare in which the program wallows: cupcakes, ribs, chicken parm, anything deep-fried and drenched with syrup, gravy or melted cheese. The truth is that Dave is a fitness fanatic, Mike a vegetarian, and Dan (judging from the places I routinely ran into him when he lived in town) more fond of tony fine-dining establishments than dripping steak bombs and glazed donuts. It’s like discovering the Red Sox color guy is secretly a Yankees fan: the Phantom loves arugula!
  • Ballsiest Debut Award: to Somerville's Journeyman. Sure, Barbara Lynch showed cojones by opening super-pricey Menton in the middle of an endless recession, but her backers have deep pockets: a flop wouldn’t kill her. Journeyman’s chef/owners Tse Wei Lim and Diana Kudayarova abandoned careers for which they’d earned MIT PhDs to open an expensive, ambitious restaurant in a modest corner of Somerville. The venture sometimes bespeaks an amateur’s learning curve, but the food is often breathtaking: snout-to-tail, intensely local and sustainable, occasionally molecular. As important, they’re doing what every gifted home cook fantasizes about, and in following their bliss, have mounted an enterprise that is at once humble and audacious. Bravo!
  • Saddest Closing Awards:
  1. Gitlo’s Dim Sum Bakery in Allston, which never recovered from the departure of its brilliant opening chef
  2. Beijing Star in Waltham, a superb traditional Northern Chinese restaurant
  3. Terrie’s Place, a Southie diner that referred to customers living more than a few blocks away as being "from out of state"
  4. The Forest Café, a long-running Cambridge townie dive / Mexican joint
  5. Café 57 & Grille, a fine indie breakfast/lunch place in Brighton that a competition-wary Dunkin’ Donuts apparently sued out of existence
  6. St. Alphonzo’s Kitchen, an amiable, eclectic Southie neighborhood spot; and
  7. Chef Chang’s House, a faded Brookline American-Chinese institution I’ll always remember from days long past when the venerable Grandpa Chang carved Peking duck tableside. RIP, all.
  • Biggest (Qualified) Surprise Award: to Strega Waterfront. I’ve hammered Nick Varano’s flagship North End restaurant Strega for its hideous décor, awful website, overpriced and inconsistent food, and stale-as-yesterday's-cannoli Hollywood-mobster theme. Varano calls it “Da bes’ Italian food in da city”; I call it “Artie Bucco’s Cheers Bar”. But while the new Strega Waterfront commits familiar sins – too many TVs, dubious red-sauce dishes (see below), portraits of Pacino and DeNiro apparently painted by the bastard offspring of Jackson Pollack and LeRoy Neiman – the kitchen occasionally sticks a landing, like with its lobster risotto. I can’t give the whole package a rave, but the food does ascend at times to trump the tacky shtick.
  • Don’t Let the Door Hit You Award: to Don Otto’s. After closing for good, this short-lived South End gourmet grocery/deli penned a snotty website broadside that blamed its failure on disloyal, philistine customers and the perfidy of Wal-Mart (closest outlet: a half-hour drive away). Me, I ardently support local merchants, shun Wal-Mart and gladly pay a premium for quality, but I was done with The Don after I spied rotten, moldy fruit there. I’m sorry, Don Otto: it’s not me, it’s you.
  1. Deuxave -- a delightful restaurant with great food, service, wines and atmosphere, but “Douche Ave” just comes to mind way too easily
  2. Waxy O’Connor’s -- ugh, just… ugh
  3. Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill -- I loathe that song, and celebrity-owned chains
  4. Twitters Bar & Grill -- three words: Not On Twitter
  5. Pasta Beach -- maccheroni is not good for your swimsuit figure; saucy foods and sand don't mix.
  • Most Futile Hail-Mary Pass Award: to North End restaurant Davide for its pending appearance on Kitchen Nightmares. Fox’s restaurant-makeover show follows Gordon Ramsay, the talented but money-grubbing British chef, as he expresses disgust at a struggling restaurant's food, then profanely tongue-lashes the incompetent owners, cooks and waitstaff into submission. He then oversees a perfunctory menu and dining room face-lift before exiting triumphantly. The show's dirty secret is that Chef Shouty McSpittlefleck never addresses the business management issues at the root of most restaurant failures. So Davide will likely suffer the same fate as most of Ramsay's Cinderellas: a brief bump in popularity after the episode airs, failure within a year or two anyway, and the eternal afterlife of its public humiliation on YouTube. If you're a restaurateur in similar straits, consider preserving your dignity by just closing quietly.
  • Most Passé Bill-Padding Gambit Award: to pushing bottled water. Trying to make customers feel like peasants for choosing Boston’s excellent tap water over some pricey import is not only a dreadful first service interaction, but also out of step with the times. Smart places like The Russell House Tavern are doing the green thing, filtering and bottling their own still and sparkling water and serving it gratis. I’ll have the local, sustainable choice, thank you very much.
  • Lead Balloon Awards. If you write 70 or so professional reviews a year and dine out a lot more just for fun, you’re going to be served some dishes that fail unequivocally. Mine included porchetta at Towne Stove and Spirits (dry and inedibly tough, a $35 fiasco), bucatini amatriciana at Strega Waterfront (overcooked, oversauced, overdosed with pecorino and lacking guanciale), and seared skate at Sam’s at Louis Boston (bludgeoned to death with a salt shaker). Those are all kitchens with talent, but boy, did those plates flop hard.
  • Most Sobering TV Story Arc Award: to Season 4 of Mad Men, AMC’s acclaimed drama set in a 1960s Manhattan advertising agency. In Seasons 1 to 3, the show so glamorized old-school boozing that you wanted to head directly to Deep Ellum or Green Street after each episode for a classic cocktail, or to eBay to bid on some vintage highball glasses. This year it followed brilliant and troubled ad man Don Draper’s grim downward spiral into alcoholism. So depressing were Don’s rye-soaked travails that we considered quitting drinking altogether. Not even an actor of Jon Hamm’s considerable skills can make sweaty projectile vomiting the morning after an extremely ill-considered hookup look sexy.
  • Happy For You, Not Me Award: to Rino’s Place, the family-run Eastie spot that serves excellent Italian-American fare and fabulous traditional Italian specials. A spate of critical raves (mea culpa: I lauded it in The Phoenix, as subsequently did the Boston Herald, Phantom Gourmet, and most fatally, Diners Drive-Ins and Dives) has engendered three-hour waits on weekends. Rino’s deserves the crowds; I just can’t spare the time to get a table there anymore. (Personal Hell Sub-Award: I'm the one who tipped off Guy Fieri's producers about Rino's.)
  • Ludicrous Food-Nerd Elitism Award: to anyone who dismisses gussied-up versions of lowborn food as “inauthentic”. In my accounting, the urge to glorify foods originally served from street carts, food trucks, carnival tents, and ballpark concession stands isn’t pretension. Rather, it's natural for creative, restless chefs to apply skill and quality ingredients in the interest of elevating ignoble dishes. By all means, diners should understand and appreciate these foods in their traditional incarnations. But spare me the reverse snobbery that says that poutine stops being poutine the minute you add foie gras. If you’ve ever paid more than eight bucks for a burger, you’re already down that rabbit hole.
  • Burn Your Own House Down Award: to The Upper Crust pizzeria chain, excoriated in a devastating Boston Globe story for allegedly engaging in ruthless, systematic exploitation of its Brazilian kitchen workers. Bad enough that a 2009 US Labor Department investigation awarded workers $350,000 in back wages, but now a newer investigation and class-action lawsuit depict management as trying to sidestep that settlement and continuing its other abuses. [Update: a former longtime Upper Crust manager who blew the whistle to the Labor Department is now suing, saying that owner Jordan Tobins retaliated against him by falsely accusing him of robbery, withholding hundreds of dollars from his last paycheck, and threatening to kill him.] The restaurant’s public demurral looks pretty feeble, effectively, "Sometimes people say untrue things." Many customers are buying their pies elsewhere until the dispute gets its next day in court.
  • Worst Enduring Cocktail Trend Award: to drinks that pander to one’s inner sugar-craving adolescent. The now widely-banned Four Loko was obviously targeting idiot youths with its 23.5-ounce can, Slurpee-inspired flavors, 24-proof strength, and double-Red-Bull stimulant dose; no wonder it induced blackouts and alcohol poisoning. Meanwhile, 30-proof alcohol-infused canned whipped cream and 80-proof chocolate milk remain on the shelves. Worse, some imp is goading the otherwise estimable Lydia Shire to create libations like the Holiday Macaroon, a froth of coconut and chocolate vodkas, crème de menthe and cream that looks like a Shamrock Shake in a cocktail glass. Unless you’re a grandma having one for dessert, I’m begging you: can we please just drink like grownups?
  • Charm Is Tough to Replicate Award: to Kelly’s Roast Beef, which opened a new store in Allston with the same menu as the 1950s-vintage Revere Beach original, including the famed North Shore-style roast beef sandwich it invented and some excellent fried clams. But the new outlet, like every Kelly’s except the mothership, has all the allure of a slightly-upscale Burger King. This food just isn't the same if you’re not perched on a seaside bench, defending your fries from aggressive seagulls.
  • Humankind Is As a Plague of Locusts Unto the Earth Award: to the perilous lurching of bluefin tuna, caviar sturgeon and other coveted food fish toward extinction through overfishing. It’s like we’re all in that scene in The Freshman, gloatingly eating the last of each species out of spite and self-satisfaction in our dominion over the biosphere. Seems like Homo sapiens needs to be shoved down a ring on the food chain, maybe by some War of the Worlds style blood-sucking aliens, to better appreciate the virtues of sustainable eating.
  • Even Chains Get It Right Sometimes Award: to the roast beef on kümmelweck sandwich at Bleacher Bar, a Lyons Group establishment best known for its center-field-wall view into Fenway Park. A Buffalo specialty rarely seen in Boston, "beef on weck" features a caraway-and-butcher-salt-topped roll, lots of thin-sliced rare roast beef, plus some jus and horseradish. Bleacher Bar's rendition hits all the right notes, and the bar shows Bills games and serves wings in season. Pretty fine work -- or so say my cousins from Buffalo.
  • Budget-Restaurant Personality of the Year Award: to Winston “Al” Niles, the garrulous, courtly Jamaican ex-pat behind WAN Convenience Store and Deli. With a steady stream of affable patter, Mr. Niles keeps a queue of Mission Hill regulars enthralled as he leisurely assembles delicious, messy, Dagwood-like sandwiches. Note that Al still operates on island time, meaning his posted opening and closing hours are more like suggestions than rules.
  • Most Delusional Customer Award: to the party at Myers + Chang who requested a doggie bag, forgot it, called to learn it was being held for them, and rather than return, demanded a gift certificate for the value of the food. (M+C declined. I suggested they mail the leftovers via Parcel Post.) This kind of outrageously grasping, absurdly self-entitled behavior keeps Boston civility advocate Patrick Maguire clacking, dumbfounded, on his Server Not Servant blog.
  • Big in 2010, Bigger in 2011 Award: to the influence of technology on restaurant/customer interactions, from Facebook and Twitter marketing, to Groupon-like email promos, to online booking via OpenTable and Rezbook, to billions of amateur food blogs and online consumer reviews. Maybe restaurants will finally figure out that hyper-animated websites are less useful than plain ones that merely deliver contact info, hours and menus – especially since iPhone and other popular mobile platforms don’t support Flash. Maybe diners will grasp that location-based check-ins say, “Burgle me, I’m not at home.” And with any luck, the bright minds at Quest Visual will do a Han character version of their astonishing Word Lens app, so I can easily translate Chinese restaurant signs, menus and specials boards. I’d take that over a personal jetpack any day.
Here’s hoping that 2011 ladles you up a nice cup of punch, tweets you the location of your favorite food truck, keeps the neighbors from bitching about your CSA crate in the hallway, convinces you to try the roast pig’s-head entree, and feeds your kid a healthier school lunch. As my friends in Natal say, Oogy wawa!

* Last year's awards are here.