12 December 2011

The 2011 Devil's Dining Awards

Illustration by Natalie Dee

It’s time once again for my annual mapping of the peaks and valleys of Boston’s dining and drinking scene. Here, I summarize the research I’ve accumulated in the past twelve months writing my fine-dining restaurant review column for Stuff Magazine (as well as its annual Dining Awards), budget restaurant reviews for the Boston Phoenix (including my retrospective "2011: The Year in Cheap Eats"), and bar reviews for Serious Eats -- not to mention my own devoted, non-paying pursuit of good food and drink.

As another extraordinary year for Boston’s industry scene wanes, I come not only to praise the worthy individuals, dishes, trends, and venues, but also to highlight the lowlights: the frauds and the hucksters, the follies and fiascoes. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce and the bygone Esquire Dubious Achievement Awards, I present for the third year running my personal take on the awe-inspiring and the awful in Boston’s dining and drinking scene: the 2011 Devil's Dining Awards!

  • Well-Scuffed Media Punching Bag Award: to Todd English. English’s travails with Olives Charlestown (which nearly lost its liquor license for English’s dithering on a post-fire rehab), Kingfish Hall (where he was $40K in arrears on his rent), the Sal DiMasi corruption trial (in which he was subpoenaed as a defense witness), the New York Post’s Page Six (for his telenovela-worthy love life) made him a tabloid staple this year. Even Boston Magazine, long a shrieking fangirl, tore down her Todd poster this year, writing an acidic “Dear Todd” breakup letter. Can’t a handsome, globetrotting, millionaire celebrity chef get a break? That would be a no: we’ll be back slinging the snarky cheap shots as soon as English, who once shilled for the execrable Michelob, proceeds with bruited plans to turn Kingfish Hall into a beer-geek bar.
  • Purple Heart on a Paper Napkin Medal: to Heidi Watney, NESN’s intrepid on-field reporter during Red Sox broadcasts, for her series on concession-stand specialties at ballparks around the country. Watney earned her combat pay during one standup segment at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, where a bite of a disgusting-looking fried chicken and waffle sandwich caused her to painfully, visibly gag. “Not my first choice,” she diplomatically opined after regaining her composure, “But I got it down.” Just barely, it seemed. That’s taking a bullet for the squad. We hope NESN bought her a big shot of Fernet-Branca afterward. (Best of luck with the Lakers, Heidi!)
  • Yogi Berra Award for Fractured Food English: to Billy Costa, host of NECN’s weekly restaurant-review show TV Diner, for consistently mangling common food words. We’ll give him a pass on künefe, but how does a kid from East Cambridge mispronounce the Portuguese sausage chouriço as "chew-ree-ko"?
  • Charles Bukowski Award for Entertaining Literary Drunkenness: to Anthony Bourdain, whose late-winter No Reservations visit to Boston blended a three-day Southie dive-bar bender with a loving pastiche on overlooked Boston-lowlife crime novel and 1973 Robert Mitchum vehicle The Friends of Eddie Coyle. To the chagrin of local Chowhounds, Bourdain barely talked about our food, though visits to East Cambridge Azorean spot O Senhor Ramos and Eastie’s Belle Isle Seafood were appreciated. But by the abysmal standards of most food-TV programming, this episode was funny and original, a wide-lapelled, bleary-eyed travelogue of a grittier Boston that few tourists ever see.
  • Grand Mulligan Award: to Dave Andelman for his advocacy work on behalf of Massachusetts restaurants. Andelman owns The Phantom Gourmet, a local restaurant-review TV show whose ethos might best be summarized as The Deep-Fried, the Honey-Glazed, and the Ugly, one which suspiciously gives endless rave reviews to its advertisers. But we want to give Boston's Pay-For-Play High Priest of Lowbrow Foods a bit of a pass. After all, Andelman successfully campaigned this year for the Restaurant Rejuvenation Act, which legalized pre-noon alcohol service hours for weekend brunch, a profit booster for Massachusetts restaurants in a stricken economy, and is now advocating for a restaurant tax holiday. We believe it was Mary Poppins who sang, "A spoonful of good deeds helps the smarmy pimpin’ go down."
  • “Mariah Carey in ‘Glitter’” Award for Most Unintentionally Hilarious Vanity Project: to “The Strega Life with Nick Varano”, Nick Varano’s video love letter to all things Nick Varano, starring, you guessed it, Nick Varano. A monthly episode of Dirty Water TV, a phenomenally cheesy-looking NESN show that covers Boston nightlife, “The Strega Life” debuted with Varano narrating a mawkish tribute to his humble upbringing that segued into a wannabe Rat Pack-style look at the ring-a-ding swingingness that is his Strega Waterfront restaurant. The show devotes plenty of screen time to the sundry sports celebs that bob in Varano’s considerable wake (see the Anything for a Comp Award below). Along for the ride is gushing sidekick Christina DelGallo, a crossed-eyed, cantilevered, Real Housewives of Revere styled blond with a smoker’s rasp and a thick Chicago accent. Must be seen to be believed.
  • Anything for a Comp Award: to Red Sox captain Jason Varitek, who proposed to his new bride-to-be over dinner at the kitschy, Vegas-ish Strega Waterfront, which cultivates the custom of local sports celebrities with copious freebies. We hope the horse head scene or the various bloody assassination scenes (like Moe Green’s bullet through the eyeball) from The Godfather Saga, a DVD of which runs on a continuous loop on Strega's many TVs, didn’t spoil the romance of the moment.
  • Most Anticipated Episode of Law & Order: Boston: the pending legal actions against highly-profitable gourmet pizza chain The Upper Crust, which was convicted in 2009 of ruthlessly exploiting its Brazilian ex-pat kitchen crews, resulting in a six-figure-settlement for unpaid back wages. This year, UC is the subject of a new US Labor Department suit for not only failing to pay the old settlement, but continuing to abuse its immigrant labor. Further, a separate action accuses owner Jordan Tobins of withholding the wages and threatening the life of a former manager turned whistle-blower. The result will either vindicate Tobins or earn him a first-ballot entry into Boston’s Asshole Restaurateur Hall of Fame. We’ve already set the DVR.
  • How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? Award: to Tim Maslow, the new chef at tiny family-owned Watertown joint Strip-T’s, taking over from his veteran-chef father. To a solid but dull American menu (most popular entrée: plain grilled salmon), Maslow has added a range of far more innovative fare, like charred baby octopus in smoked-tomato / wasabi sauce, and grilled romaine with oxtail and poached egg. Turns out that Maslow Fils just came off a five-year stint in Manhattan superstar David Chang’s restaurant empire, most recently as chef de cuisine at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Who could do just turkey tips, tuna subs, and quesadillas after that experience? Expect this extravagantly talented young man to get offers at bigger, shinier spaces in Boston very soon.
  • Nice Guys Finish First Award: to chef Jamie Bissonnette of Toro and Coppa Enoteca, who competed earlier this year on Chopped!, the Food Network's cooking-competition reality show, and refused to let its producers goad him into trash-talking his fellow contestants. (Compare with fellow Boston-area chef Stephen Brand of UpStairs on the Square, who came across in the same episode as kind of a hyper-competitive dick.) Biss won, then used his $10K prize to buy his wife the engagement ring he couldn’t afford when they got married. We were also gratified to see him win Food & Wine’s “The People’s Best New Chef” Award. Pretty good year, chef!
    • Jacoby Ellsbury Award for Most Welcome Comeback: to Michael Leviton of suburban Newton's Lumiere, for returning to the in-town restaurant scene with his new Kendall Square restaurant Area Four. (Leviton’s first crack at urban fine dining, the star-crossed Persephone, appeared to be slightly ahead of its time in the Seaport.) Fans are also ecstatic that he has revived the Persephone baked-to-order pretzel – now nugget-sized and served with pimiento cheese – a dish we once called the Bar Snack of the Year.
    • Light the Pyre of Saugus Wings Award: to the memory of William Wong, founder of unutterably tacky Route 1 eyesore and landmark to gloppy Sixties-vintage American-Chinese food that is The Kowloon. Wong went to that Great Steam-Table Trough of Moo Goo Gai Pan in the Sky this past summer.
    • Nice Work If You Can Get It Award: to Will Gilson, who retired from his role as chef of Garden at The Cellar to open a summer-long pop-up restaurant at Adrian’s, a waterfront motel restaurant in Truro.
    • Amen, Chef! Award: to Jasper Whitefor his loving appreciation of the soupe de poisson, a/k/a fisherman’s soup, at Jody Adam’s Rialto, as reported by Grub Street Boston. Local celeb-chef White is America’s foremost expert on the preparation of Homarus americanus (Maine lobster). Of Adams’s rendition – whose deep flavor she attributes to the use of codfish frames and lobster bodies -- he observes, “She just nails it. It tastes like you're in Marseilles.” We have no pretensions to Chef Jasper’s discriminating taste, but heartily concur, making an annual pilgrimage to Rialto just for this dish.
    • Bartender of the Year Award: to Scott Marshall, formerly of Drink, now behind the stick at the Hotel Commonwealth’s brand-new basement bar The Hawthorne. Like most of his brethren in the top tier of Boston’s craft bartenders, he has encyclopedic knowledge and amazing technical chops. What separates him from that elite company is a welcome sense of humor and lack of self-seriousness that the best of the best occasionally could use a little more of.
    • Tavern Proprietor of the Year Award: to Jeremiah Foley of J.J. Foley’s Café. Grandson of the original J.J., he’s a living repository of the Runyonesque history of the South End, and hard-working owner of its most egalitarian hangout, still a watering hole for cops, Herald and Weekly Dig staffers, Gillette factory workers, and residents of the nearby upmarket condos. If you find yourself being hustled bodily out the tavern’s side door by one of Foley's strong sons, you’ve been 86’d, and had better find somewhere else to drink for a few months. Foley's has served more gangsters, toughs, grifters, and sharpers than you’ll ever know, and Jerry knows how to keep an orderly public house (with surprisingly good food).
    • Iggy Pop, Godfather of Punk Award, Cocktail Edition: to master mixologist and musicologist Brother Cleve, whose pioneering work at the Lizard Lounge and especially the bygone B-Side Lounge spearheaded Boston’s craft cocktail revival. Youngsters who want to drink at the feet of the master should check out the old-school Tiki drinks and classic cocktails he's now slinging at Think Tank. (He still spins a mean DJ set, too.)
    • Welcome Diaspora of the Year: the ongoing migration of veteran bartenders from Drink, Boston's premiere craft cocktail bar, to new posts around town. For example, bartending stalwart and B.A.R. graduate Misty Kalkofen just relocated to Central Square’s new Brick & Mortar; Sam Treadway and Bryn Tattan surfaced at Union Square, Somerville's new Backbar. With his nonpareil training ethos, manager John Gertsen will backfill their ranks with fresh talent. This ongoing cross-fertilization of the city's craft cocktail revival has a happy result: expanding the number of bars where cocktail geeks can enjoy delicious, exactingly-made drinks. Now do your part, and bring an Extra-Dirty Grey Goose "Martini" drinking friend to one of them for a tipple upgrade.
    • Brillat-Savarin Award for Meritorious Service in Restaurant Criticism: to Mat Schaffer, who took an austerity-minded Boston Herald’s offer of early retirement this summer. We long admired Mat for his honesty, efforts to remain anonymous, obvious pleasure in eating, penchant for the pithy turn of phrase, and aplomb reviewing everything from luxury fine-dining palaces to Chinatown dives. Friday mornings feel strangely empty without a witty Schaffer review to kick them off. The sharp old pro will be much missed. And no, having local industry celebrities contribute to the Herald’s Fork Lift food blog doesn’t quite fill the void.
    • Elvis/Beatles Award for Legendary Meeting We’re Sorry We Missed: to the May evening that Jonathan Gold dined at Craigie on Main, the day after Craigie’s chef/owner Tony Maws won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef, Northeast. Gold is the brilliant restaurant critic for the LA Weekly and the only food writer in history to win a Pulitzer. (We think every aspiring food writer should be reading his work religiously.) Maws, as he had promised in his acceptance speech in New York the night before, was already back on the line cooking. Our hero dining at one of Boston's best? Wicked.
    • Umberto Eco Award for Whimsical Restaurant Semiotics: to local food writer Jolyon Helterman, who offered a hilarious taxonomy of Boston restaurant menus in a December 2010 Boston Magazine piece. Do Boston restaurants really fall into only four basic types signaled by their menu typography and design: locavorish, Francophilic, gastropubby, and upscale-minimalist? No, but avid restaurant-goers had to chuckle in recognition of how much ground Helterman’s satirical archetypes covered.
    • Mitt Romney in Overalls Award for Flimsy Blue-Collar Shtick: to Alex Beam for a comically awful anti-foodie rant ("He's had his fill") in his Boston Globe column in March. In it, Beam took weird, off-kilter potshots at the sustainability movement, food-TV programming, and general foodie pretentiousness while bragging implausibly about his Panda Express intake. And here we thought Howie Carr owned the prep-school-alum-posing-unconvincingly-as-Joe-Sixpack beat.
    • Annoying Industry PR Buzzphrase of the Year: “farm to table”, essentially another way to mouthe that old hobbyhorse, “seasonal and local”. Our favorite ridiculous variants included “farm to fork” (used by Ken Oringer’s new Kennebunkport restaurant Earth) and “oven to table” (from Area IV’s new restaurant Area Four). For PR flacks running out of ideas for 2012, we’re here to help: how about “mud to maw”, “field to pharynx”, or “grange to gullet”?
    • Virgil Award for Hell's Tour Guide of the Year: to Luke O’Neil’s "Boston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in Beantown", an entertainingly written and thoroughly researched crawl through the short hairs of Boston’s fetid underbelly. Thanks to O’Neil’s vivid and harrowing field work, you can experience the brain-numbing existential purgatory and threat to life and limb that is Parrotta’s Alpine Lounge in Chelsea without hazarding a visit there yourself.
    • HGTV Award for Best Repurposing of a Hall Closet: to Avery Bar, a cozy small bar with gorgeous fireplace and comfy lounge seating that the Ritz-Carlton Boston Common installed in a formerly disused corner of the hotel’s main lobby.
    • About Effing Time You Showed Up, Godot Award: to Island Creek Oyster Bar, for providing a long-overdue counterpoint to the argument that -- outside of Neptune Oyster and Chinatown live-tank Hong Kong style joints like Peach Farm -- Boston has been seriously overrated as city with great seafood restaurants.
    • Saddest Closing Award (tie): to Ken’s Ramen, whose owner took Boston’s greatest bowl of noodle soup back to Japan; to Scup’s in the Harbor, a humble, charming eatery set in an Eastie shipyard, sunk by family medical difficulties; to Tawakal Halal Cuisine, a rare local outpost of Somalian food that only lasted an eyeblink; and to Don Ricardo's, a South End Brazilian / Peruvian / Mexican place that was modest, high-value, run by the sweetest old couple in the neighborhood, and criminally underpatronized by locals. R.I.P, all.
    • Most Anticipated Opening Award: to Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, the new pop-up venture (location still TBD) recently announced by folks affiliated with downtown luxury avant-Japanese restaurant O Ya. In addition to the obvious (it will serve Japanese noodle soup at odd hours), the owners are promising serious broths, tares, and handmade noodles. Might ease some of the pain from the closing of Ken's Ramen.
    • Top of the Bandwagon Award: to the South End’s El Centro, one of a dozen new restaurants that jumped on the year’s most overheated restaurant trend, upscale Mexican. El Centro created some separation between itself and the rest of the pack with an actual Mexican-native chef/owner and more traditional cuisine than most.
    • Amy Winehouse Memorial “Talent Ain’t Enough” Award: to Rocca Bar & Kitchen, the upscale South End Italian restaurant that had all the ingredients to be a long-running success -- a beautiful space, great patio, award-winning chefs, and veteran management -- but shuttered last New Year’s Eve, undone by an inability to deliver a consistent service experience.
    • Best New Gastropub Award: to The Abbey in Washington Square. Brookline will never have enough neighborhood joints with excellent upscale-tavern fare and good drinks that serve till 1:30am.
    • Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya Award: to Shangri-La, the oh-so-seedy Beacon Hill temple of terrible Chinese food, every underage Suffolk and Emerson student’s favorite place for a sure-to-be-regretted-tomorrow Scorpion Bowl. It was also notorious for allegedly hosting a brothel in its basement for years. Its replacement, the forthcoming Tip Tap Room, cannot help but be less unsavory.
    • Mobile Restaurateur of the Year Award: to Staff Meal Truck. In a year where Boston finally got a raft of worthy food trucks, Staff Meal served innovative, delicious, yet budget-priced food like head cheese sandwiches, Chinese sausage and choy in mu-shu wrapper, foie gras baklava, chicken paprikash sub with bacon jam and fried shallots, and trotters and sardo with preserved-lemon vinaigrette and spicy kale on a roll. Consistently original and astonishing. This ain’t your grandfather’s dirty-water-dog cart.
    • King’s Chapel Burial Ground Award for Most Interesting Ghosts: to The Wholy Grain, the South End bakery / café that opened this year in the former "social club" where notorious local mobster Philip "Sonny" Baiona held court for decades. With the once-thriving (and now also-defunct) Waltham Tavern down the block as his primary retail outlet, Sonny was doing a brisk business in drug dealing, bookmaking, and loan-sharking in 2006 when the DEA and FBI put him in MCI-Walpole on a five-year bid; the 83-year-old wiseguy died there a year later. We’re guessing that few of the yoga moms and other new South Enders who have quickly popularized this now-charming spot have any idea of its sordid history.
    • Manny Ramirez Award for Least Likely Future Comeback: to Anthony’s Pier 4, the Waterfront institution that was Boston’s It Place in 1976, but 35 years later has still not gotten the memo that the restaurant world has moved on. Slated for demolition to make way for another glitzy Seaport redevelopment project, it promises to relocate nearby. With its fly-in-amber menu, welter of fresh new Waterfront competitors, and longstanding troubles with the tax man, we’re thinking that ain’t happening.
    • Franz Kafka Award for Nightmarish Bureaucratic Malevolence: to the City of Boston’s Inspectional Services Division, which has crushed eat-in business at South End Spanish deli/grocer Las Ventas by forcing it to remove its table seating. The reason? An opaque certificate-of-occupancy issue that ISD’s own inspectors apparently cannot explain themselves. Said one regular customer who must now find another place to eat Las Ventas’s excellent bocadilloes, “It sounds like a naked attempt by ISD to solicit some graft.” We suppose the good news is that owners Julio de Haro and Lara Gaffigan, who also own the popular Spanish restaurant Estragon next door, have not yet awoken to find themselves turned into giant cockroaches.
    • Cracked & Moldy NKOTB Lunch Box Award: to Helen Mont-Ferguson, longtime director of food and nutrition services for Boston Public Schools, who was removed from her post in May after it was discovered that frozen foods with 2008 expiration dates were being served to school children. “Thanks, but Mom wants me to eat healthy, so she brown-bagged me a Fluffernutter, Ritz Handi-Snack, and some Hostess Sno Balls.”
    • Better Five Years Behind New York Than Never Award: to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, for finally getting behind the food truck trend, with very happy results for local eaters-about-town. Next on your to-do list, Your Honor: make that long-promised Boston Public Market, an in-city farmer’s market akin to Manhattan’s Greenmarket, happen next year in Boston.
    • NIMBY D-Bags of the Year Award: to the "North End Ten", members of the North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association, for getting the already BRA-approved Doc’s Restaurant on Long Wharf un-approved, after restaurateur Michael Conlon had spent years and tens of thousands of dollars developing it. Already home to a hulking, hideous Marriott, the tourist-trap-chain Chart House restaurant, a welter of vendor carts, and an otherwise-unused building that hides an emergency egress from the Blue Line (which Doc’s would have supplanted), locals complained the new burgers-and-lobster-rolls joint would have “eliminated prime public space” and “spoiled the view”. Another explanation? The neighbors are just control-freak pricks.
    • Hipster Jets vs. Sharks Awardto the Jamaica Plain residents who packed Neighborhood Council meetings to conduct unruly, rancorous debates on the merits of a Whole Foods replacing longstanding Latino-focused Hyde Square grocer Hi-Lo Foods. Turns out that even as diverse and progressive-seeming a community as JP can struggle unattractively with gentrification issues.
    • “Sam Bowie Drafted Ahead of Michael Jordan” Award for Tragically Botched Opportunity: to the City of Boston for awarding the Pink Palace, a long-disused Boston Common structure it offered for use as a restaurant, to dull airport-food-court chain Earl of Sandwich. Of all the things we might have done to show off Boston’s culinary uniqueness to tourists, this is the best we could do? As the kids say, Fail
    • Cast of Jersey Shore Award for Most Hoped-For Early Death: to Groupon, the coupons-by-email phenomenon that has been the bane of many local restaurateurs. It puts butts in seats, but is a drag on profitability, and few coupon-clippers ever return to pay full price. Our prayers for Groupon to run out of cash before it could get to an IPO went unanswered, but at least its stock price has tanked, so it may yet meet its deserved fate.
    • Hooters on the Waterfront Award: to Seaport chain steakhouse Del Frisco’s, for its gimmick of maintaining a squad of comely female servers in fishnet stockings and micro-minis. Their primary role appears to be delivering highly profitable side dishes like $11 creamed spinach to tables of lecherous businessmen on expense accounts. Classy!
    • “Bite the Wax Tadpole” Award for Brand Blundering: to Back Bay restaurant Mass Ave Tavern. The space formerly known as Match relaunched under new owners in January simply as Mass Ave, which made it impossible to find online, then swiftly changed its name to 94 Mass Ave, then almost as quickly renamed itself as Mass Ave Tavern. As of press time, that last one has stuck, but don’t hold us to it. Pretty sure Restaurant Branding 101 these days opens with, "Think about The Google first".
    • Count to Ten Award: to Emma’s Pizza in Cambridge, which generated a mini-firestorm by engaging in a real-time Twitter flame war in August with an unhappy jerk of a customer. Probably felt good at the time, but this move earns a failing grade in Fundamentals of Restaurant Social Media.
    • PT Barnum Award: to the prankster who punked the Boston Globe’s biweekly online food chat by posing as Barbara Lynch and promising a free tasting at Menton, one of Boston’s costliest one-percenter hangouts. We love a deal as well as anyone, but our bullshit detector is sensitive enough to recognize that Babs and Free Food are two things that do not go together.
    • Donald Trump Award for Profligate Bad Taste: to David Schuler, a Massachusetts native now living in Mississippi, who drove 1400 miles to spend $1200 on 150 frozen pizzas from Stoughton’s Town Spa Pizza. Dude, seriously: we get nostalgia, but frozen pizza?
    • Silly Bandz Award for Fad That Was Cute for About Three Minutes: to Temazcal Cantina, the Seaport upscale Mex joint, for its iPad-based menus. Presumably these can be praised for making the kitchen live up to high plating standards (so the dish that arrives at your table looks as good as its food-porn menu photograph), but quickly wear out their welcome once you get to the cocktail menu and are forced to Peruse. Only. One. Drink. At. A. Time. Worst application of technology in a restaurant setting since the Keno feed.
    • Charlie Sheen Award for Grandiosity of Self-Delusion: to ancient North End tourist trap Joe Tecce’s Ristorante, which blamed its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing last May on the Big Dig, which ended in 2007. It couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with Tecce’s menu of superannuated red-sauce-and-melted-mozzarella clichés, featuring specialties like batter-fried sweet and sour chicken and veal, could it?
    • As If! Award for Restaurant Futility: to Canadian pizza chain Boston Pizza, which temporarily changed its name to Vancouver Pizza as a show of support for the Canucks over the Boston Bruins in the 2011 NHL Finals. It didn’t help: the Bruins took the Stanley Cup in seven games anyway. If only Boston Pizza had changed its name to Somebody Wake Up the Sedin Twins Pizza.
    • Pu Pu Hot Pot Award for Dubious Restaurant Naming (tie): to Blue Inc., which begs the question, “Which marketing genius thought it would be a good idea to ask Herald readers for naming suggestions, and then actually use what they came up with?”; to Sweet Caroline’s, the Fenway-adjacent eatery which unwisely references Neil Diamond’s numbingly overplayed stadium anthem and creepy adult mash note to an 11-year-old girl; and to A @ Time (we’re not making that up), a new Thai joint in Allston that sounds like a pad gaprow-induced case of the hiccups.
    • Bull & Finch Award for Worst New Tourist Restaurant (tie): to Max Brenner’s, the Israeli chain whose chocolate-overload novelty concept might be more interesting if its food weren’t so uniformly mediocre; and to Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill at Patriot Place, which combines a theme based on a schlock-country anthem with a menu worthy of a Ninety-Nine, complete with potato skins and fried mac ‘n cheese. Pro tip: most restaurants with entertainment or sports figures on the marquee suck hard.
    • You Can Dress Them Up Award: to Mike Andelman of the Phantom Gourmet, for engaging in an ugly public spat in January with a Grill 23 hostess who refused to seat him in the dining room before it opened. On the Phantom’s weekly radio program, Mike petulantly referred to the “dumb hostess” as a “little monkey” and a “never would talk to me in high school type girl”, then slagged all hostesses as attractive incompetents. When the story drew wider media attention, the restaurant issued a press release expressing dismay at the personal attack and defending their employee. Under pressure from civility advocates like Server Not Servant, brother/boss Dave Andelman forced Mike to issue a public apology, which lamely excused his rant as “satire”, not the bitterness of a grown man still smarting over teenage dating humiliations.
    • Tuxedo-Print T-Shirt Award: to Locke-Ober, for dropping its storied dress code and letting shlubbily dressed tourists into its dining room. This marked the inglorious end to an era of civility in Boston fine dining, as L-O was the last room in town to insist that gentlemen don jackets for dinner. Heaven forbid you should ever have to leave the sweatpants at home.
    • Orange-Stained Underwear Award: to the Boston restaurants that were revealed in a Boston Globe exposé ("On the menu, but not on your plate") in October to be mislabeling cheaper fish as fancier ones for profit, e.g., selling escolar, known for some very unpleasant side-effects, as “white tuna”. Others were caught selling farmed tilapia as wild red snapper and frozen Pacific cod as fresh and locally-caught. Even exurban celeb-chef Ming Tsai was red-faced, having to explain that technically it’s okay for him to call the humble sablefish in his signature $41 entrée at Blue Ginger by the loftier “Alaskan butterfish”, even though the FDA considers it misleading and illegal to use vernacular names for fish as market names. (Apparently, the embarrassment stung: Blue Ginger’s menu now reads “Miso-Sake Sablefish a.k.a. Butterfish".)
    • How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away? Award: to Gargoyles on the Square, the beloved Davis Square fine-dining restaurant that announced its closing after 15 years in September, causing a rush of tearful farewell dinners, only to keep reopening each weekend until nearly November.
    • Sisyphus Finally Crushed By Giant Boulder Award: to Joe Cimino, the would-be operator of Back Bay’s Saratoga Restaurant. “Never heard of it”, you say? It’s the one that recently was on the verge of losing its liquor license after failing to open in its Fairfield Street space after 12 years – that’s right, 12 years -- of wrestling with building wiring, ADA access requirements, groundwater, and other issues. Sorta makes the food truck thing look pretty sweet, don’t it?
    • Foie Gras Poutine Award for Culinary Excellence in an Unlikely Setting: to Victor’s Italian Restaurant, a tiny, family-owned restaurant with the look of a plain-Jane sub shop, tucked away in a residential corner of Saugus, for its scallopine. Pounded, breaded, and sautéed to order (even for subs), they’re a minor epiphany for anyone who has ever ordered a cutlet and been unable to tell what animal it comes from. Veal parm that tastes like veal? Revelatory!
    • Fenway Park Award for Most Overdue Facelift: to the bar at Clio and Uni, Ken Oringer’s acclaimed fine-dining tandem in the Eliot Hotel, which had long been stuck in a mid-90s, Sex and the City, flavored-vodka rut. Then Oringer hired idiosyncratic, innovative bar manager Todd Maul, who quickly elevated the bar into the top tier of Boston’s craft cocktail purveyors with a history-hopping, 100-entry, modernist-cuisine-inflected specialty cocktail list. About frickin’ time. (The pending physical-plant makeover is pure gravy.)
    • Ephemeral Pleasure of the Year Award: to the lightly-pickled fresh local herring, a rare and extraordinary delicacy, only available for a few days this past spring at The Gallows in the South End.
    • Eagles of Death Metal Award for Misleading Nameto Thailand Café, a Central Square restaurant long known for sub-mediocre Thai food that got a new owner and concept a few years ago but didn’t bother to change its English-language sign. What’s entirely easy to miss from the curb is the new half of the menu, an array of sensational, very traditional Sichuan dishes. Now slated for eviction (its landlord is redeveloping the building), we hope it finds a new home soon.
    • Titans of Industry and Street Food Award: to Boston Speed Dog, purveyor of what the Wall Street Journal called the best hot dog in America back in 2008, and which recently so impressed third-richest-man-in-the-world Warren Buffett that he jokingly threatened to buy the company. Not bad for a humble wiener cart usually parked in Roxbury’s dusty, industrial Newmarket Square. (Awesome side note: owner Greg Gale told the Boston Globe that he didn’t recognize Buffett, but that he "love[s] his music.")
    • Dish of Year (tie): a simple soup of broth, crouton, poached egg, cheese, and white Alba truffles at Erbaluce; handmade burrata with shaved vegetable salad, pistachio vinaigrette, and aniseed tuile at Bondir; roasted apple salad with corned beef tongue, horseradish, and beet broth at Strip-T’s; crudo of striper collar at Coppa Enoteca.
    • Manny Pacquiao Award for Disputable Championship: to Menton, which in eighteen short months may have achieved Barbara Lynch’s goal of unseating L’Espalier as Boston’s best-regarded luxury French restaurant. Menton’s recent accolades include Boston's only five-star restaurant rating in the Forbes Travel Guide, the highest service and décor ratings in the latest Zagat Boston Survey, and inclusion in Gayot’s 10 Best New Restaurants in America. It’s also rumored to be up for a coveted designation as a Relais & Châteaux property, which would be a first for Boston. We’d rate the contest a draw: both restaurants have deservedly-lauded food and service, and L’Espalier’s superior desserts are matched by Menton’s better cocktails. But both get our booby prize for cold, charmless, colorless dining rooms. (We never got over the old L’Espalier.)
    My sincere thanks to Boston's many great food journalists who make tracking the local industry scene so easy and entertaining, including: Devra First and the Dishing bloggers of the Boston Globe (also deserving of special kudos for its crack investigative reporting this year), Kerry Byrne of the Boston Herald's Fork Lift food blog, Marc Hurwitz of the indispensable Boston Restaurant Talk & Boston's Hidden Restaurants, Kara Baskin of Grub Street Boston, Adam Gaffin at Universal Hub, Aaron Kagan at Eater Boston, Dan McCarthy at Urban Daddy Boston, Lauren Clark of the much-missed Drink Boston, Leah Mennies and Donna Garlough at Boston Magazine's Chowder Blog, Jacqueline Church of The Leather District Gourmet, the folks at WBUR's Public Radio Kitchen, Patrick Maguire of Server Not Servant, Richard Chudy of Boston Burger Blog, Gary of BBQ blog Pig Trip, Penny Cherubino of BostonZest, Kitty Amann and the other lovely ladies of LUPEC Boston, the iron-livered Cocktail Virgin gang, the brilliant amateurs of the Boston board of Chowhound, and my esteemed colleagues at the Boston Phoenix (notably the magisterial Robert Nadeau), Stuff Magazine, and Serious Eats. Extra-special thanks to the great Natalie Dee of the webcomics Natalie Dee and Married to the Sea for her amazing illustration.

    And thanks most of all to the Greater Boston industry folks -- the chefs, line cooks, garde-manger, pâtissières, dishwashers, hosts, servers, backwaiters, busboys, bartenders, barbacks, managers, phone attendants, PR people, as well as the fisherman, farmers, foragers, distillers, winemakers and brewers who supply them -- who made so many nights in 2011 memorable for me.

    Here’s hoping that 2012 finds that everything on your plate and in your glass was locally and sustainably produced, trucked into town in gossamer hybrid vehicles fueled with recycled argan oil, and brought to you by a server willing to pretend to believe in your fictional food allergy, overlook your date's sorry dress sense, and ignore that blob of sage pesto in your teeth. Một hai ba, yo!

    04 October 2011

    The Stuff Magazine 2011 Dining Awards

    [Photograph by Conor Doherty]

    For the fifth year running, I got to write the annual Stuff Magazine Dining Awards cover feature. Longtime readers (of the 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 editions) will remember that my take on this hoary old standby of food journalism aims for irreverence, drawing inspiration from sources like Esquire's bygone "Dubious Achievement Awards". There are no traditional best-of categories, and I assiduously try to avoid self-seriousness as I recognize some of my favorite chefs, venues, dishes, drinks, charities, farmstands, trends and moments from the past twelve months of Boston's ever-evolving dining and drinking scene. (Editorial director Scott Kearnan wrote a funny introduction to the issue here.)

    The biweekly Stuff Magazine focuses on Boston nightlife, fashion, food and drink, and is the home of my recurring Food Coma column on Boston fine dining restaurants. I'm grateful it gives me the leeway to recognize both the refinement of a fabulous new chef-owned fine-dining establishment like Bondir, as well as the humble charms of its neighbor Camie's Bakery, a modest Haitian restaurant. I'm pretty sure Stuff will be the only local publication to hand out awards for fried bologna, insects served as food (on purpose), Salvadoran sopa de mariscos, and Australian meat pies this year -- and of course, the annual Biggest Balls Award for a bit of questionable audacity on the part of a local nightlife operator.

    The balance this year is more laudatory than critical, but fear not; I save the most antic snark for my annual Devil's Dining Awards (as I did in 2010 and 2009), which I'll publish on this blog in December.

    Many thanks to photographer Conor Doherty, who lent me one of the outtakes from his hilarious cover shoot for the issue. Left to right, that's chefs Louis DiBiccari, Will Gilson, and Jamie Bissonnette (in the lucha libre mask), winners of my "Kia Soul Giant Hamsters Award for Funniest Ad" (rendered by my editors as the "Clio-Goes-Culinary Award for Funniest Ad".)


    22 September 2011

    Defending Boston's Restaurant Scene (Part 1)

    [Photograph by MC Slim JB]

    If you don’t think that most online “Which city has the best restaurant scene?” arguments are idiotic, consider Travel & Leisure Magazine’s recent list of “Americas Best Cities for Foodies” (yeah, I know, they said “foodies”). In it, Boston comes in it at #23, behind such culinary meccas as San Antonio, Texas and Savannah, Georgia. While I claim no authority in such matters, I spend a fair amount of time traveling around the US on business, and I rate this list as dubious at best, more like a crazy bit of hokum.

    In fairness, it’s just a survey of Travel & Leisure readers, most of whom are over 50 and pretty prosperous. I doubt they’re the kind of adventurous eaters who would visit Boston food-nerd haunts like Angela’s Café, Baraka Café, or S&I Thai. Nope: they’re going to whichever Barbara Lynch place the hotel concierge is taking the graft to steer them to. (No aspersions on Babs’s restaurants, which I mostly think are pretty fine, but they hardly offer a proper sample of the Boston scene: they’re glossy, expensive, and known for the kind of high-touch service that wealthy tourists tend to favor.)

    But slagging this list and its ilk isn’t really my point: such arguments are boring to food geeks. Sure, New York is an amazing restaurant town compared to Boston – I’m grateful it’s so close, so easy to gastro-tour -- but at 13 times Boston’s size, with a top two percent that is way richer than most of the country, it ought to be a lot better. The fact is that food nerds are capable of unearthing the culinary gems hidden in any city, however small, remote, or unpromising.

    My purpose here is not to praise Boston at the expense of other cities. Rather, I want cite a few positives beyond the usual tourist-guide gaggle of celeb-chef joints, places with historical interest but bad food, and chainy slingers of clam chowder and lobster rolls. Herewith is a non-exhaustive list of a few of our important but lesser-known strengths in dining and drinking:
    • A plethora of ex-pat communities served by modest restaurants doing the traditional cuisines of their homelands, largely for their fellow immigrants, so not dumbing down the food for Americans. Consider that Bostonians can enjoy Afghani, Albanian, Algerian, Argentine, Armenian, Australian, Azorean, Brazilian, Burmese, Cambodian, Cape Verdean, Chilean, Colombian, Cuban, Dominican, English, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Greek, Guatemalan, Haitian, Hungarian, Irish, Israeli, Jamaican, Korean, Lebanese, Malaysian, Mexican, Moroccan, Nepali, Persian, Peruvian, Polish, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Russian, Salvadoran, Scottish, Serbian, Spanish, Syrian, Thai, Tibetan, Trinidadian, Tunisian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Vietnamese cuisines, among many others. It’s nice to see real Sichuan making a resurgence in town, and the new presence of Egyptian and previously little-seen African cuisines like Senegalese. These represent a hugely important strain of Boston's culinary richness, the treasure most often overlooked by casual observers.
    • Many independent chef-owned small restaurants doing New American with a seasonal, local emphasis. This is probably our greatest wellspring of creativity and value in fine dining.
    • A solid assortment of regional French cuisines.
    • A handful of well-regarded small restaurant empires headed by semi-famed chefs like Barbara Lynch, Ken Oringer, Jasper White, Lydia Shire, Michael Schlow, and Todd English (though English has mostly abandoned Boston to build a much larger national empire).
    • Local seafood restaurants. Frankly speaking, Boston has long been a bit overrated on this score, but that's improving with the opening of several mid-priced places that are neither chain outlets nor faux clam shacks. This is in addition to our usual overlooked good-seafood spots: Portuguese, Azorean, and Brazilian restaurants (of which Cambridge Street in Cambridge has a useful concentration) and Chinatown’s Hong Kong-style live-tank seafood joints.
    • An improving breadth in regional Italian cuisines, including Emilia-Romagnan, Tuscan, Roman, Campanian, Sardinian, Abruzzese, and Sicilian. This new focus on traditional Italian cookery is a welcome counterpoint to Boston’s longstanding reputation for Italian food, which is built on the kind of safe, tourist-friendly, red-sauce-heavy Italian-American fare that dominates our famous North End neighborhood.
    • A mini-boom in the gastropub movement, mid-range places taking American tavern fare to a higher level with old-fashioned care and craft: in-house pickling, smoking, curing, charcuterie-making, whole-animal butchery, etc.
    • A pretty strong Chinatown, though there are some regional Chinese cuisines that could be better represented.
    • A wide range of sub-continental cuisines, including Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and especially regional Indian cuisines, including Punjabi, Mughal, Hyderabadi, Mumbai, Tamil, Bengali, and Indian Chinese. For this, we can thank our universities and local biotech, high tech, medical, and other industries that draw many students and H-1B workers here from South Asia.
    • New strength, quality and diversity in the food truck category, a boomlet only abetted by our mayor’s decision a couple of years ago to cut down a longstanding thicket of municipal red tape that was hostile to mobile restaurateurs.
    • Vegetarian and vegan options that are improving steadily, as well as more restaurants that accommodate folks with other dietary preferences or restrictions: gluten-free, seafood-free, halal, etc.
    • A strong craft cocktail movement led by a solid core of serious Golden Age revivalists. A second generation that trained under these folks is fanning out, spreading the wealth to other bars and restaurants. There are still way too many flavored-vodka concoctions flowing about Boston, but we've come a long way in ten years. Our elite craft cocktail bars rank with the best in the country.
    • A pretty good and improving set of restaurants and bars that cater to beer geeks.
    • A small but growing number of cafes featuring artisanal, hand-crafted coffee.
    Boston still has some soft spots: Jewish deli, diners, regional Mexican, Austrian, German, Czech, izakayas and ramen stands, Indonesian, Laotian (unless you count the city of Lowell 30 miles away), Scandinavian, soul food, slow-smoke barbecue, many African cuisines, and so on. We lack world-class high-end dining; our best-regarded luxury restaurants might rate a single Michelin star. Nobody has gone all-in on modernist cuisine, though there's some molecular dabbling here and there. We could do with more and better wine bars.

    We have far too many expensive chain steakhouses, fake Irish pubs, upscale Yanqui-Mex joints, and national casual-dining chain outlets. Worthy family-run places like Tawakal Halal Cuisine, a fine little Somalian restaurant in East Boston, close after only a few months in business, while lines still form out the door of our several Cheesecake Factories. P.F. Chang’s draws crowds of customers who have never set foot in the real Chinese restaurants that sit a stone's throw away in Chinatown.

    But those are quibbles, or reflections of a corporatization of restaurant culture that is epidemic in America, not unique to Boston. When you look at the entire spectrum from high to low, I believe we have a tremendous dining scene for an American city of our size. It helps that Boston’s dining populace has come a long way in adventurousness and sophistication from the bad old days of 20 to 30 years ago, though we still have some headroom there.

    Spend some time traveling around North America, to cities that are within five or ten spots of us in the population ranking, and it's easy to be grateful you live here, especially if you're willing to go a little bit out of your way to dine out. You just have to be just slightly more daring and catholic in your tastes than the typical Travel & Leisure subscriber.

    In an eventual Part 2 of this essay, I’ll offer specific examples of restaurants I think represent Boston's lesser-known dining and drinking assets well. In the meantime, check out the links to my professional reviews in the column at the left. I also recommend searching and posting specific queries to the Greater Boston Area board of Chowhound.com, where many of Boston’s most sophisticated and wide-ranging amateur restaurant reviewers hold forth.

    09 August 2011

    Green Street in Cambridge, MA: Sterling Cocktail Craft in a Plain Brown Wrapper

    [This is a reprint of a piece I wrote for Serious Eats, originally published on May 23, 2011. All photos by MC Slim JB.]

    Acolytes of Boston's craft cocktail revival periodically bow in the direction of Cambridge's bygone B-Side Lounge, which in 1998 debuted the area's first modern bar program focused on lovingly-made pre-Prohibition cocktails and modern drinks inspired by them. Equally significant, the B-Side trained a generation of bartenders that have since fanned out to evangelize the craft cocktail movement at bars all over the city. One of its first true progeny was Green Street, a venerable old haunt in Cambridge's Central Square that B-Side alumnus Dylan Black bought in 2006 and thoroughly reinvented. Green Street still attracts a local crowd that reflects the remarkable diversity of its Cambridgeport neighborhood, but also now ranks as one of Boston's foremost places to get a serious drink.

    Green Street's weathered brick façade nestles between an ancient Greek-American club and a featureless parking garage on a nondescript block just off Mass Ave. Nothing about its exterior suggests it might compete with swank Boston craft-cocktail kingpins like Drink and Eastern Standard. Granted, its current interior is handsome compared to its prior incarnations: the funkily run-down bar / live-music venue / tropical-food joint Green Street Grill, or the gritty workingman's tavern Charlie's Tap. But it still has the casual, inviting feel of a local hang: a long, narrow, dimly-lit bar that leads to a bustling open kitchen at the back, with a quieter, more spacious dining room a few steps up and to the left. At its face, you'd never guess its bar program might be remarkable. Ask the barman for a bourbon cocktail, watch him stir up a beauty like The Hague ($8.50: W.L. Weller Special Reserve, green Chartreuse, French vermouth), and you might start to wonder otherwise.

    Another reason that Green Street flies under the radar is that craft cocktails aren't its only draw. The kitchen turns out a popular menu of mid-priced, updated New England cuisine with plenty of local seafood ($8-13 starters, a terrific $11 burger, $17-24 mains.) There are also fine simple bar snacks like housemade potato chips and dip ($4). The geeky beer list favors small artisanal producers: ten on tap ($5.50-$7) and another couple dozen in bottles and cans (mostly $4-$6), including some large-format and high-ABV entries ($10-$21). Wines are well-suited to the straightforward food: four whites and four reds by the glass ($8-$10), a dozen whites and another two dozen reds by the bottle ($31-$56), plus a few sparklers and dessert wines. Green Street wants all comers, not just the cocktail nerds.

    But cocktail aficionados will quickly notice the presence of craft touchstones like the 30s-vintage Zombie, an authentic Tiki drink, and the Golden-Age classic Monkey Gland ($8.50: gin, absinthe, fresh orange juice, house-made grenadine). Cognoscenti know to ask for the "Big List", which features 100 entries. (Changed a few times a year, it's actually a subset of an even-larger master cocktail list.) The range here is staggering, covering the length of the quality-spirits waterfront, showcasing Black's globetrotting interest in rum but also touching every of-the-moment craft-bartending staple.

    There's pure-agave tequila and single-village mezcal; American straight rye, bourbon and applejack; British gin and blended Canadian whisky; monastery cordials and bracing bitters; interesting aromatized and fortified wines. There are hot drinks, Champagne-topped drinks, and drinks with raw eggs, like the refreshing fizz that is the Taxco ($7.50: silver tequila, fresh lime juice, agave nectar, orange bitters, egg white and seltzer). The Big List runs the gamut from the Colonial period through the Golden Age right up to the modern moment. It's a wonderland, an imbiber's amusement park with too many rides to explore in a month, let alone a weekend.

    In addition to simpler snacks, the bar menu reflects the old-time kitchen craft of the gastropub, as evidenced by nightly-changing $5 plates of offal (like one evening's Buffalo-style fried chicken livers) and charcuterie (like gorgeous pork rillettes with rhubarb chutney). As important as quality drinks and food, Green Street embodies a humble hospitality ethos that makes it an excellent venue for introducing the uninitiated into the sometimes daunting world of craft cocktails. For example, it carries a decent selection of vodka, a hugely popular spirit that many craft bartenders sneer at as too featureless to merit shelf space. You can peruse Green Street's short cocktail list in a couple of minutes, finding plenty of accessible if not familiar choices, like the Bohemian (gin, St. Germain, fresh grapefruit, Peychaud's bitters), Stone Fence (bourbon, cider, Angostura bitters), and Aqueduct (vodka, apricot liqueur, Cointreau, fresh lime juice). Non-beer-geeks can comfortably order $3 Buds and High Lifes.

    Even the most pedestrian cocktail order is filled with precision, quality spirits and fresh ingredients, as in the Margarita Bermejo ($8) of pure-agave silver tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lemon and lime juices. Green Street's bartenders are serious and scholarly, but they won't try to shame you out of your regular tipple, or regale you with an unsolicited lesson in cocktail history. This is first and foremost a neighborhood bar; it just happens to select and pour its drinks with extraordinary care and creativity, as in Avery's Arrack-Ari ($8.50: Batavia arrack, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and a rinse of Talisker 10-Year-Old single-malt Scotch.)

    You don't have to be a connoisseur to appreciate this place, but there's a reason you'll spot many of the city's best bartenders drinking here on their own time. In creating a bar program that is at once ambitious and highly accessible, Black had done both the neighborhood he grew up in and his B-Side roots proud. Cloaking its reverence for cocktail craft in unpretentious conviviality, Green Street is slyly advancing the movement, reaching a cross-section of customers that might never patronize its tonier peers across the river. It's a lively tent-revival meeting, not a grand cathedral—a welcoming place to bring your cocktail-skeptical pals, where Green Street's gifted staff can work their understated, friendly proselytizing. Say amen, somebody.

    Green Street
    280 Green Street, Cambridge, MA 02139- (near Pearl Street; map)
    617-876-1655; greenstreetgrill.com

    18 May 2011

    Drink: Boston's Single Most Essential Craft Cocktail Bar

    [This is a reprint of a piece I wrote for Serious Eats, originally published on March 31, 2011. All photos by MC Slim JB.]

    Walk half a mile from Boston's South Station, over a bridge into the Fort Point section of South Boston, and you'll happen upon a bleak former warehouse district that is slowly being rehabilitated into an upscale residential and destination-dining neighborhood. Enter a door marked Sportello, an Italian eatery in local celeb-chef Barbara Lynch's empire, and head not upstairs to the restaurant, but downstairs and through a door, and you will arrive at Drink.

    This spare, industrial-looking room still has much of its warehouse-basement skeleton of exposed brick, big wooden beams, and rough-hewn granite intact. Three U-shaped, connected bars line the front wall, forming three service and five seating/standing areas. With large soapstone workspaces behind the bars (recalling chem-lab tables) and bottles stowed out of sight, the space is remarkably uncluttered, a spanking-clean mise en place. Aside from bowls of fruit and fresh herbs, there's little to distract the eye beyond a collection of vintage barware and tools along the back work counter. Customers sip cocktails from unique vintage glasses and mugs.

    I'm greeted by Misty Kalkofen, one of the star-studded team of bartenders here that boasts names like Josey Packard and Scott Marshall. (This includes most of Boston's BAR certifications, the profession's most coveted credential.) There's no cocktail list, though a letter board on the wall lists recently-popular drinks, few of them likely to be familiar (ever tried a Maximilian Affair?) "What are you thinking tonight?" Misty asks.

    "How about something with mezcal?" I reply, knowing she loves this spirit and has created many originals with it.

    "Have you tried Nux Alpina? It's a walnut-based liqueur from Austria."

    I'm game.

    Misty precisely measures and stirs up one of her own creations, In Vida Veritas ($11), which combines Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, Zirbenz (an Austrian liqueur with the scent of pine resin), the aforementioned Nux, Benedictine (the sweet/herbal French monastery cordial), a dash of The Bitter Truth's Xocolate Mole Bitters, and a spritz of orange oil. It's mahogany-toned, smoky from the single-village mezcal, and reveals layers and layers of herbal complexity, something different hitting the palate with every sip. I've never tasted anything like it. This is exactly what I come here for.

    Where on earth did this place spring from? Its origins lie in manager John Gertsen's prior stint at Lynch's restaurant No. 9 Park on Beacon Hill, where he combined polished bartending skills with a subtle showman's hospitality. What really distinguished Gertsen's program at No. 9 was his nerdy technical obsessiveness: sourcing high-quality spirits, bitters, and other ingredients from around the world; always using fresh juices and produce from No. 9's larder; studying and relating cocktail history and origin stories; reviving 19th-century classics and creating new cocktails in their mold; fretting over tools and garnishes and glassware and ice. No. 9 took Boston's then-embryonic cocktail renaissance up another level, and did it in very tight quarters with just a handful of seats. When Lynch embarked on an ambitious three-venue expansion plan in Fort Point, she opened Drink to give Gertsen a bigger, shinier stage.

    Misty asks my companion what she's thinking.

    "Something fresh and springy, like a Mojito?"

    Misty probes further: "How do you feel about genever?"

    "Um, not sure?"

    "Give this one a try," she says, and returns with a Bols Smash ($11): lemon, sugar, a lot of genever and fresh mint shaken together and strained over hand-crushed ice, garnished with another bouquet of impeccable mint. It's beautiful and refreshing, and the malty, almost-whiskeylike undertone of the genever adds a heft and balance that the typically over-sugared light-rum Mojito lacks.

    Next round? "How about something with gin?", I venture.

    Asks Misty, "Have you sampled Ransom Old Tom gin? You must try a Martinez with this stuff: it's from Oregon, and it's amazing."

    The resulting Martinez ($11) is a mix of Ransom Old Tom, Cinzano Rosso vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, a dash of Jerry Thomas Decanter bitters, and a spritz of lemon oil. It's easy to see what Misty is excited about: this proto-Martini is much improved by the richer, dryer, barrel-aged Ransom.

    Drink also serves punches, a specialty older even than Golden Age cocktails, one that few other Boston bars attempt. Most can be made to scale from two drinkers to much larger groups. One evening, Will Thompson concocts an unnamed punch for two ($24) that begins with lemon peels muddled with demerara sugar and macerated in tea. To this he adds Batavia Arrack, Jamaican and Barbadian rums, Cognac and fresh lemon juice. It's stirred with big, hand-carved chunks of ice in a lovely vintage bowl with a sterling ladle, finished with a flurry of fresh-grated nutmeg. It starts strong and delicious, gently mellowing over time, the ice cut large enough not to dilute it too quickly.

    That highlights another detail that Drink sweats like no other Boston bar: ice. It sources 50-pound blocks from an ancient local icehouse, and makes Kold-Draft ice in crystal-clear, geometrically-perfect cubes. Bartenders wield antique ice tools to create a wide array of shapes and sizes carefully matched to the needs of each drink for cooling, texture, and dilution speed. It's a marvel to see a miniature blizzard of ice being planed off a giant block to make a mist, and startling to hear the thwack of a mallet on a Morris bag to produce ice with the texture of gravel.

    Drink's no-set-menu philosophy aims to get drinkers out of their well-worn ruts, but I've noticed that some customers find it frustrating. They just want their usual, not a give-and-take to arrive at something unfamiliar. Vodka drinkers, beer lovers, and oenophiles are often flummoxed to learn that Drink offers them very few (and almost no familiar) options. I'm not certain why anyone would come here to pay $11 for a vodka and soda—it seems like going to a Chinese restaurant and ordering the hamburger —but Drink draws crowds of such drinkers on weekends, to the point where it must limit capacity, creating a queue on the sidewalk.

    I guess they come for the cool vibe, not the chance to get into the spirit of the place. Quieter nights tend to attract more serious cocktail geeks, and that's when I encourage you to go. For although it has been joined since its opening by some fantastic places in the top tier, Drink remains the sine qua non of craft cocktails in Boston, the single best place to explore the near-infinite richness of the craft cocktail world. Having experienced it, you may never order another thoughtless Dirty Vodka "martini" ever again.

    348 Congress Street, Boston, MA 02210-1236 (near A Street; map)
    617-695-1806; drinkfortpoint.com

    17 April 2011

    Jackets-Required Fine Dining Is Dying. Does Anybody Care?

    You don’t have to be very old to remember a time when certain Boston restaurants had a jackets-required rule. Locke-Ober, the Dining Room at the old Ritz-Carlton (now the Taj), and L’Espalier (in its original location) were three notable examples of rooms that insisted that male customers wear a tailored sport coat or suit to gain admittance. The maître d' literally would not seat you in the dining room without one. If you didn’t have the foresight to wear a jacket, or were arrogant enough to think they’d bend the rules for you, you faced a choice: go home and change, don one of their humiliating, ill-fitting loaner blazers, or dine somewhere else.

    And they were dead-serious about it. Mick Jagger was famously denied entrance to even the bar at the Ritz in his t-shirt and jeans; being rich, famous, and a guest at the hotel didn’t matter. At Locke-Ober, that hallowed Downtown refuge for Boston’s vanishing Brahmin class, I witnessed many a host-stand scene featuring a young, well-heeled customer arguing in vain that his jeans cost $300, why couldn’t he get a table? But the jacket was non-negotiable. The owners were throwing a specific kind of party, and the invitation said “semi-formal attire”. You could get with the program, or take your business elsewhere.

    That once-sacred condition of entry to the city’s temples of gastronomy is rapidly going the way of the dodo, the travel agent, and the landline phone. L’Espalier moved from its romantic but cramped quarters in a Back Bay mansion three years ago to spacious (if comparatively charmless) digs in the nearby Mandarin Oriental; dropping the dress code was a condition imposed by the hotel, which wanted its guests to have unfettered access. Before it became a Taj, the old Ritz closed its dining room and dropped the bar’s dress code; to the chagrin of old-timers, you could get a drink there in jeans and no jacket. But the true death-knell just sounded this month: Locke-Ober, the last restaurant in Boston to enforce a strict dress code, recently reopened after a brief hiatus, and its new owner has shot the jackets-required rule, though jeans and sneakers remain verboten.

    Today, a few Boston restaurants say “jackets suggested”, but even the most casually-dressed patrons rarely get turned away. I recently dined at luxury steakhouse KO Prime next to a large table of businessmen in golf shirts and baseballs caps. In the new location of L’Espalier, one of the most formal and expensive restaurants in the city, I’ve seen customers in hooded sweatshirts, rocker gear (ragged jeans, motorcycle boots, band t-shirts), track suits, and head-to-toe Ed Hardy, complete with matching trucker hats. In the summer, it’s not unusual at places that charge $40 for entrees to see men wearing shorts and flip-flops that expose gnarly, ungroomed toes. (There’s a reason most fancy-restaurant dress codes are aimed explicitly at men; women seem to dress better without coaching.)

    How did fine dining go from an occasion for your Sunday best to the equivalent of a Jersey Shore casting call? A few things are going on:
    • American dress sense has gotten steadily more informal. A hundred years ago, a gentleman wouldn’t think of dining out at a fancy restaurant in less than white tie – the Fred Astaire tailcoat, white pique formal shirt, vest and bowtie. To the horror of many at the time, this gave way to the tail-less dinner jacket, white pleated shirt, and black bowtie. Eyebrows were raised and tongues clucked again when men stopped “dressing for dinner”, i.e., changing into a tux from their daytime business suit and necktie. The next horror showed up only in a sport coat and slacks, first with a tie, but soon in a turtleneck or open-collared shirt. From there, it was a few short steps to no jacket at all, just a golf shirt, then t-shirt, then neon mesh wife-beater.
    • High-end dining is changing. Many restaurateurs, younger independent chef/owners especially, have fled the formality of the old Michelin-starred haute-cuisine palace, with its stiffness, white tablecloths and 20-piece place settings, preferring the casual conviviality of the bistro. While the food itself isn’t necessarily casual– it may in fact reflect just as much laborious technique, costly ingredients, and artful plating as the old school -- owners want the ambiance to be more relaxed. Even Boston’s Oak Bar, one of the city’s last surviving stately old rooms, is about to undergo a casual makeover. The tuxedoed waiter armed with a silver crumber has been pink-slipped.
    • Restaurants can't afford to turn away the business. Between the depressed economy, rising food costs, and new expenses like OpenTable and Groupon, many restaurants are struggling to stay profitable and win new customers. Given similar choices, customers will often opt for the restaurant that doesn’t make them dress up. As a recent Wall Street Journal article noted, even restaurateurs who cherish tradition and think that well-dressed patrons improve the atmosphere can no longer bear the competitive disadvantage of a dress code.
    Many customers argue vehemently against dress codes, too. “I hate dressing up; I’m so happy I can have a nice meal and feel comfortable.” “Dress codes are elitist, designed to keep the hoi-polloi out. We’re a democratic society; you should be able to dine wherever you want to without owning an expensive suit.” “Go ahead and dress up if that’s what floats your boat, but don’t make me do it. You should be focusing on your companions and your dinner, not what I’m wearing.”

    At the risk of sounding like a creaky grandpa, moaning that the world is going to hell and young people these days don’t know how to behave, I confess to some regret over this development. Americans have progressed with informality in dress to the point where we appear to have lost our sense of occasion entirely. We go to church in sweatpants, answer court summonses in novelty t-shirts, wear pajamas to the supermarket, sport jeans at funerals. More formal dress once symbolized the differentness of certain occasions from the humdrum social interactions of quotidian life. We’ve flattened that out to one loose, casual one-size-fits-all.

    A consequence of this uniformity is that special-occasion dining doesn’t feel as special anymore. I think a roomful of dressed-up patrons feels very different from one in which some folks are dressed up and others down. I get annoyed by people who show up at a Halloween party, black-tie wedding, or opening-night gala without applying enough effort to their attire to reflect the spirit of the occasion. A jackets-suggested restaurant is also a sort of costume party, and folks that flout the dress code are detracting from the atmosphere. That couple over there is trying to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, and you look like you just strolled off the 18th hole? That strikes me as lazy and ungracious.

    In certain settings, overly casual dress can be like too much perfume; there are limits to how much you can consciously shut it out of your senses. Try not to think about an elephant; it can be hard to pretend you can’t see that dude’s armpit hair right in your line of sight. Good manners are designed to help minimize the inevitable friction that results in public life, and they used to imply more effort than simply asking your neighbors to ignore you. Nice restaurants have joined the growing ranks of places in which American men no longer feel obligated to put on long pants, and I think that’s a shame.

    I also worry that our all-casual, all-the-time sensibility is related to a broader coarsening of our culture, the decline of civility toward strangers in public life, the bubble of self-entitlement that a growing number of people appear to live in. I suspect the absence of a sense of decorum, an underdeveloped belief that some situations demand more formal behavior and dress than others, might be of a piece with our society's increasing rudeness and self-centeredness.

    Ultimately, the death of jackets-required won’t make a huge dent in my life. I spend most of my time in and generally prefer more casual places. My professional restaurant reviewing duties are evenly split between fine dining and budget-priced restaurants, but even in the fancy joints, what excites me most is the food, not the ambiance. I understand how we got to this point, and respect restaurateurs' decisions to relax their standards. I personally wouldn’t mind if we rolled the sartorial clock back to the Mad Men era, arguably the last high point in American dress sense, but I know that ship has sailed.

    Still, I can’t shake the feeling that something small but significant is being lost, and once gone, it will be gone forever. What remains of our dining-out culture will be slightly sadder, shabbier -- a bit more vulgar. It’s not the end of civilization, just the passing of a small grace, another tiny corner of a more genteel world sacrificed for our schlubby comfort. I think maybe I’ll put on a suit, head over to the Oak Bar, and have a drink there before it becomes just one more place where a jacket looks as quaintly old-fashioned as Don Draper’s tie bar. Sic transit gloria.