Though Boston has generally been considered a bastion of hidebound tradition, the home of the bean and the cod actually has nurtured a disproportionately large number of innovative chefs, many of them women. The best offer the reassuring flavors of much-loved local ingredients presented in exciting new forms. And in a relatively short time, their restaurants have become classics—understandably so, as I recently discovered in this handsome, landmark-rich city.
Both a culinary and an architectural landmark, Locke-Ober is a 128-year-old hot spot that less than two years ago came under the management of Paul Licari and Lydia Shire, the latter one of Boston's most accomplished chefs. Shire, along with the renowned restaurant architect Adam Tihany, refurbished both food and decor, a change I approached with trepidation. Set on a narrow street of the sort that Jack the Ripper might have stalked in Victorian London, Locke-Ober has been an essential part of my Boston experiences ever since my first dinner there in 1951. Having been dazzled by the baronial dining rooms with their carved dark-mahogany paneling and stained-glass windows, the massive silver plate covers lowered from the ceiling on pulleys along the service bar, and the antique, men's-club feel of the place—not to mention the lavish richness of sherry-and-cream-glossed lobster Savannah—I forgot to resent being relegated to the second floor, as the main dining room was off-limits to women (even accompanied by men) until 1972. Although food and housekeeping declined through the years, I returned, choosing simple dishes so I could bask in the atmosphere that I feared would be destroyed by "improvement."
Fortunately, I needn't have worried. Describing his mandate, Tihany says, "I had to make the place sparkle without taking off the patina." The same might be said of Lydia Shire's efforts. In fact, both architect and chef have succeeded admirably, providing me with a welcome shock of the familiar. The new menu, realized by executive chef Jacky Robert, offers light and refreshing updates of house classics such as tripe and calf's brains; the cool and pungent crab Louis; snails in the Burgundian haze of garlic, parsley, and butter; icy New England clams and oysters; and JFK's lobster stew, a luscious bowl of tender lobster chunks adrift in a bisque that the late president so favored when he was the senator from Massachusetts. More modern entries are salt-and-pepper-spiced soft-shell crab with dandelion tempura and tuna sushi with miso, but I could not tear myself away from the golden oldies.
Nor could I from the main courses. I chose the now more subtle lobster Savannah, the meat in larger chunks and the sauce enhanced by a delicate blend of sherry, port, and cognac along with mushrooms and pimento. Boston's own schrod (scrod to the rest of us) gained luster from a dab of hot crabmeat, and the traditional Wiener schnitzel, sautéed only on one side and topped with a fried egg and anchovy, was bedded on freshly made noodles. All proved better choices than a somewhat dry pork chop, however refreshingly astringent the homemade sauerkraut and quince purée served along with it. I will return to try the calf's liver with bacon and the crisp duck aux cerises.
A retro baked Alaska would have been perfect had the ice-cream center not been so frozen under the blazing meringue, but warm cornmeal-and-molasses Indian pudding could not have been more satisfying, nor could the lovely soft macaroons. Only the service and the wine list are not yet up to their long-ago aplomb: The former is unpolished and overly casual; the latter needs some more decent, modestly priced entries— although, among reds, there's a nice Gigondas (Domaine Raspail-Ay, 2000) for $45. Dinner, $150. At 3 Winter Place; 617-542-1340. although, among reds, there's a nice Gigondas (Domaine Raspail-Ay, 2000) for $45.
Boston's poetic bean and cod have never seemed so enticing as when combined in the savory garlic-breadcrumb-and-tomato cassoulet at the casually stylish Oleana. The gently saline, pearly salt cod atop cranberry beans is complemented by escarole scented with garlic and walnut oil, all dramatically served in a domed copper casserole. The dish is a perfect example of the Mediterranean-Middle Eastern fusion so expertly interpreted by Seattle-born and Paris-trained chef-owner Ana Sortun. With its glowing spice-colored walls, two convivially crowded rooms, and an outdoor summer garden, this charming updated café attracts sophisticated Cambridge diners as well as others from across the Charles. The appetizers alone are good enough for a lusciously satisfying meal: spicy carrot purée, heady with Egyptian spices and nuts; hot goat cheese dolmas with a beet-and-yogurt tzatziki salad; warm olives redolent of oregano; wisps of crisp pasta (fideos) with chickpeas and Swiss chard; and a house-cured beef soothed by buttery, warm hummus.
But restrain yourself so you can sample main courses like the crispy, golden, lemon-accented grilled chicken served with a cheese pancake that suggests a phyllo-wrapped blintze, or the juicy spiced lamb steak with fava bean moussaka. The embarrassment of choice continues with pastry-chef Maura Kilpatrick's desserts: lemon-pomegranate frozen bombe; baked Alaska with coconut ice cream; an improbable-sounding but addictive salted-almond ice cream with warm chocolate soufflé cake; and brown-butter bread pudding with mulberries. Dinner, $70. At 134 Hampshire Street, Cambridge; 617-661-0505.
No. 9 Park
You have three choices at the sophisticated No. 9 Park, created by chef-owner Barbara Lynch, a Boston native. There is the front bar-lounge, a very casual inner café and, my favorite, a formal, soigné dining room done up in soft grays with crystal chandeliers that overlooks the Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House.
In this room, with its supper-club overtones, we sampled Lynch's exceptionally refined, eclectic Euro-American dishes. Interesting starters include the silky bay scallop ceviche perfumed with lime and black truffles, the poached foie gras in Gewürztraminer glaze, and the prune-stuffed gnocchi with seared foie gras. Those who opt for crystal-clear oysters would do well (as usual) to choose full-flavored New England varieties over their blander West Coast cousins.
Chatham cod and Maine lobster gain new respect here with original presentations. The cod is made with a clam ragout, peppers, and a pungent touch of Spanish chorizo (an homage to the Portuguese who brought their cataplana to New England); the lobster is poached in sweet butter and garnished with truffles; a cassoulet of borlotti beans comes in a chiffon-light lemon beurre blanc sauce. The duck is as moist and crisp-skinned as one could hope for, and the chestnut-crusted venison served with roast pears and celery-root purée is admirably set off by a hint of red currants.
As pleasant as some of the daily pastas were, I found them tentative in flavor and would rather save room for more wondrous alternatives. That also means saving room for desserts, such as the towering dark-chocolate "spoon" filled with milk-chocolate sorbet, the cozy warm spice cake with quince confit and ale sorbet, and the semolina cake with citrus fruits and creamy panna cotta. Dinner, $90. At 9 Park Street; 617-742-9991.
One of Boston's most justly celebrated and successful chefs is Jody Adams, a creative partner in the Sapphire Restaurant Group that includes blu as well as Rialto, a stunning and urbane dining room in Cambridge's Charles Hotel, where I never miss sampling the tuna tartare, the grilled littleneck clams with andouille sausage, or any codfish, lamb, or duck dish. Although I was only able to have brunch at blu, where Dante deMagistris executes the modern fusion dishes created with Adams, I instantly found a few favorites worth returning for, especially since this giddy, futuristic setting is right in the middle of the best walking territory in the city, just off the Boston Gardens and Common.
Here again, local ingredients get nouvelle renderings: Outstanding dishes include smoked Maine mussels in a cauliflower bisque with crunchy hazelnuts, and smoked haddock (finnan haddie) in a spicy hash mellowed by poached eggs. Polenta and blueberry pancakes, lusty frittatas, and enticing bruschettas are also on hand, and they are a better choice than the sliced skirt steak and soba noodles, which are no more distinguished than your neighborhood take-out Chinese stir-fry. Desserts such as chocolate puffs filled with both pastry and chocolate creams, nicely glazed crème brûlée, and a delicate lemon-curd tart should put you in the mood for more walking—or for an afternoon nap. Brunch, $44. At 4 Avery Street; 617-375-8550.
Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity.
Member of Fine Dining.