06 January 2015

Friends of Eater Boston 2014 Year-End Questions: My Responses, Plus Some Honorable Mentions

Illustration courtesy of Eater Boston
Eater Boston, the local affiliate of the national Eater network of city-based blogs covering restaurants, bars and nightlife, is essential reading for local food dorks. Editor Rachel Leah Blumenthal and a cast of contributors cover the length and breadth of the Boston dining and drinking waterfront with impressive depth and welcome sly humor. I've participated in a few of these year-end retrospectives of and looks ahead at the Boston scene, featuring a small group of local professional food and drink feature writers, restaurant critics and bloggers. It's great fun, and I'm always honored to be included. I'm collecting my answers here, including some Honorable Mentions that didn't make it into the Eater features. Check out the whole motley group's responses as well as Eater Boston's other 2014-in-review coverage here.

Eater Boston: What were your top restaurant standbys of 2014? 

MC Slim JB: Friends envy me my restaurant-reviewing gig, not understanding that continually having to research the next new place crimps the time I have to devote to established places I already know and love. Here are a few I managed to get back to repeatedly in spite of that:
  • Café Porto Bello, City Point, the kind of modest, old-school, red-sauce Italian place your grandparents would love, with a welcome bit of Old Southie sass in the service. Pro tip: upgrade to the house-made pasta.
  • J.J. Foley’s Café in the South End, a nonpareil family-run Irish-American tavern with a palpable hundred-plus years of history. Puts the city’s countless dull fake-Irish bars to shame and disgrace.
  • The Franklin Southie, a more modern neighborhood joint with a genuinely loveable bartending crew (one example here). I mourn its imminent passing, though I’m hopeful for its successor, Moonshine 152, from first-time chef/owner Asia Mei. Her cooking at Sam’s at Louis Boston was about the only thing I’ve ever liked about the Seaport.
  • Gene’s Chinese Flatbread, DTX and Woburn Center, lonely local outposts of Shaanxi cuisine, with its emphasis on hearty wheat-based foods like astonishing hand-pulled noodles and mind-blowing accents of garlic, chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Soulful, satisfying and cheap: a food nerd’s dream.
  • Dumpling Café, Chinatown. I’d go just for the best soup dumplings in Greater Boston, but its long menu of Taiwanese fare is consistently rewarding and a great bargain.
  • Moody’s Delicatessen, Waltham. The one new place on my list. It plugs a giant hole in our scene with astonishing Jewish deli meats like brilliant pastrami and corned beef, but offers so much more, drawing on French, Italian, Spanish, German and other notable traditions of cold cuts, sausages, and pâtés. If the Food Dork Gods are just, Moody’s expanded wholesale operation will mean you can buy their singular artisanry from your local market soon.
  • The Hawthorne, Kenmore Square. Absolutely brilliant craft bartending on both the technical and hospitality sides of the coin, in a lovely, dimly-lit, hiding-in-plain-sight setting. The short menu of bar snacks is very nice, too. Long, slow kowtow to its sublimely talented bar manager Katie Emmerson (whom I called Boston's best bartender in this year's Boston's Best issue of The Improper Bostonian), who decamped to L.A. late this year.
EB: What were the top restaurant newcomers of 2014?

MCSJB: My favorite new places included:
  • Alden & Harlow. Folks who have been reading me for a decade know I’ve long tried to bring attention to the assiduous work of Michael Scelfo, who elevated a succession of other owners’ restaurants out of deserved obscurity. His first place of his own got my Best New Restaurant of the Year nod in The Improper Bostonian back in July, and I stand by that in December, despite some stiff competition. A humble, dedicated craftsman is finally getting his due. About effing time.
  • Sarma, which I know opened in late 2013 but I was slow to get to, so please indulge me. Running delectably around the Mediterranean, with some emphasis on one of my favorite underrated-by-Americans cuisines (Turkish), this ultra-cool Somerville place makes every sequence of small plates a memorable night out. Vik Hegde’s terrific bar program is another huge plus. One protracted, 20-plate, overstuffed January evening there – did we really say yes to four helpings of the Turkish-style fried chicken thighs with yogurt remoulade? -- was a close second on Single Best Meal of 2014. 
  • La Brasa. Beautiful, eclectic, inventive food, much of it kissed by wood fire and smoke, with another fine bar program. I don’t live in Somerville, but places like this and Sarma make me wish I did.
  • Thao Ngoc. Humble room, incredible Vietnamese fare from a huge menu, and prices so low it feels like theft. Don’t call yourself a food geek if you haven’t been here.
  • Moody’s. I’m no longer bitching about the lack of a proper delicatessen in Boston, even if it means I have to extend my definition of Boston to Waltham. Feast on one of their shockingly good sandwiches on premise if you can, but regardless, don’t leave without an armful of sausages, charcuterie and salumi. No deli in my experience this side of New York or Montreal holds a candle to it.
EB: Describe 2014 in one word.

MCSJB: Smoky! The flavors of wood fire and smoke beguiled me at dozens of places, including Alden & Harlow, La Brasa, Pastoral, Viale, River Bar, the Stoked truck (with its genius wood-fired Neapolitan pizza oven on wheels), Row 34, and many others.

EB: What was the best dining neighborhood in 2014? 

MCSJB: I say it every year: Allston. The most diverse concentration of affordable restaurants serving amazing traditional cuisines from all over the globe. I’m hopeful it can sustain more grownup, Western-tradition restaurants like the fine new Glenville Stops, too easily overlooked in its location on an obscure side street. 

EB: What was the biggest dining surprise of 2014?

MCSJB: I was gobsmacked that in the age of Yelp and Instagram I could still uncover a new restaurant that had been open for eight months yet was entirely overlooked by the local press and barely acknowledged by amateur reviewers: Thao Ngoc, a homey Vietnamese place in Fields Corner. One of my favorite new restaurants of 2014: a place to bring six friends, feast like a king, and collect $20 apiece to cover the check, including a fat tip. I’m truly grateful that The Improper occasionally lets me review more modest places like this in sorely under-reported neighborhoods like Dorchester.

EB: What was your single best meal in 2014?

MCSJB: A tasting menu at Giulia in Cambridge. Gorgeous, ravishing yet subtle from start to finish, notably in the house-made pastas that were rolled out earlier in the day on the very table at which we dined. Just a fantastic, traditionally-centered, chef-owned Italian indie, with evident love and long-honed finesse in the cooking. Mike Pagliarini is another original who toiled for years in service to more-famous owners (I long admired his work running Michael Schlow’s Via Matta) that I’m really gratified got the chance to helm his own place.

EB: What was the biggest restaurant grievance of 2014?

MCSJB: The proliferation of popular but mediocre chain restaurants in tourist neighborhoods like the Seaport, which is inflicting a line cook and server shortage on far worthier independent restaurants around town. I cringe at the advantages that deep-pocketed nationals have over home-grown talent. Every dink city in the US has those chains; the quality of Boston’s currently-fantastic scene depends on its indies. Support them, I beg you.

EB: What are your headline predictions for 2015?

MCSJB: I'm not a prognosticator, but I'll offer a few hopes for the new year:
  • Against a welter of evidence to the contrary, I hope that Uber will retire the “Be Evil” plaque that seems to currently inspire its executives, and become a more ethical thorn in the side of our corrupt, deplorable taxi system. Affordable ride-sharing alternatives are not just a boon to customers, but to the many restaurant employees who work past the T’s closing.
  • I firmly expect that the legacy of the great John Gertsen, whom I literally wept to see leave Drink for San Francisco this year, and still-here peers like Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard, Row 34 and The Hawthorne – specifically, their indispensable training of successive waves of highly-skilled craft bartenders -- will continue to be felt in the presence of fine cocktail, wine and beer programs in bars and restaurants all over the city. The next time you raise a glass here with something really good in it, remember how uncommon that was ten years ago, and thank those folks and their gifted lieutenants.
My honorable mentions that did not make their way into Eater Boston's year-end questions:
  • Shojo, already a unique venue for Chinatown with its hip atmosphere and superb cocktail program, getting a serious kitchen upgrade with Mark O’Leary’s smashing, street-food-driven cookery. The most memorable, delicious iteration of the wildly-overblown burger trend I had in 2014 was his witty, mantou-based gloss on a McDonald’s Big Mac. 
  • Chef Chang’s on Back Bay, which offers Bostonians rare glimpses of the foods of Henan, Shaanxi and Xinjiang, among other more familiar regions of China. I’m hopeful that this represents growing local desire to visit the lesser-known corners of the world’s greatest collections of regional cuisines, but at the very least, it’s a huge addition to the Back Bay, a neighborhood that has long been a food-nerd desert.
  • Erbaluce, to my mind the single most consistently soul-satisfying Italian restaurant in Boston, if for nothing else than the way that chef/owner Charles Draghi quietly makes the case for sustainable seafood. One sure way to get people eating less-familiar species is to present them so deliciously that you don’t necessarily notice that the chef’s sourcing choices are better for the health of our scarily-overtaxed and increasingly global-warming-damaged fisheries. Not hurting the cause: Draghi’s impeccable grounding in Northern Italian tradition, nor partner Joan Johnson’s heartfelt hospitality and extraordinary, idiosyncratic Italian wine list.
  • Viale, for hitting the ground running with exceptional food, drink and service, admirably filling some very big shoes: the former home of the long-running, beloved Rendezvous in Central Square. Having a team of old pros at the wheel doesn’t guarantee that you will avoid some ugly shakedown-cruise bumps, but Viale crushed it from about Week Two on. 
Happy 2015: good eating and drinking in the coming year!