One last thing. I’m surprised there aren’t one or two vastly better restaurants. I don’t think of SF as being a great high end restaurant town, but between Saison, Manresa, Medowwood, Benu, Coi, Quince, Acquerello, Crenn… or even a cut down at Commonwealth, Commis etc… really? boston doesn’t have one restaurant in that league? Does SF spoil me? Or did I miss something - and if so - what was it?
that’s why i suggested O Ya. There are a few others (NOT Oleana) but Boston excels more in mid range gastropub/bistro type places (as well as Italian, Thai, Taiwanese, cocktails) than SF. A couple more recent places i would consider (have not been to yet) would be Tasting Counter and Asta, also old favorites L’Espalier, Troquet.
A second for Troquet. Others that weren’t mentioned that should be: Row 34; Menton; No. 9 Park; Liquid Art House; Sycamore (burbs, I know, but a T ride suffices); and Yvonnes.
Boston has fewer high-end restaurants of that nature, admittedly, but the two that come to mind in that league are O Ya and the new Tasting Counter. The latter was just named Best New Restaurant in Boston as well as Best Restaurant and it’s unique, innovative, and delicious. The former served me what’s still the single best bite of food I’ve had (the foie gras sushi).
Thanks for the report! Here’s a ridiculously long reply.
It’s interesting to read your reviews, and the questions your visit has prompted. Speaking for myself, I didn’t see in your original request that you were looking for high-end restaurants - you mentioned that as an option, but the restaurants that you said you were considering (which guided my recommendations) were not what I’d call high-end, except maybe No. 9 Park. It’s true that Boston doesn’t have heaps of high-end places, but there are some (many of which have been suggested in replies, and I would add Deuxave); but the vast majority are not especially ‘local’ in feel or concept, which may be another reason they weren’t suggested.
I’m sorry you didn’t love Oleana. When you posted about your past ‘meh’ reactions to Middle Eastern restaurants, I did consider suggesting that you go somewhere else instead, but I figured that you knew what you were getting into. To be clear, I’m not saying that your entire experience is down to your not being so hot on that cuisine, but I do wish in retrospect that I had spoken up. The odds were stacked against you from the start, I think.
I also wish you had done the vegetarian tasting menu there, because with all due respect to Alden and Harlow - and I have lots, I’ve been a Scelfo fan since the Russell House days, and omigod those corn cakes - what Ana Sortun does with local produce is tough to match. She grows much of what she uses, and I suspect that with a winter as mild as ours has been, she’d have even more than usual to work with. They also would have given you more of the complexity that you said you liked. But you were never going to get the ‘high-end’ experience there because like most of the best of Boston, that’s not what it’s about. Barleywino was exactly right: Boston specialises in mid-range places; that’s where you’ll find the most creativity, diversity, and value-for-money.
Decades ago, Calvin Trillin wrote that when he asks for a local’s recommendation, he wants ‘not the place you took your parents on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, [but] the place you went the night you came home after fourteen months in Korea.’ That stuck with me because that’s what I look for as well, and that has become how I give recommendations to other people. This can be very useful in helping visitors find less-discovered gems, but it also has its limitations. For example, I rarely suggest Big Fancy Places, and I almost never suggest anything downtown.
I also found your comments about the ‘Boston voice’ to be quite thought-provoking. Who gets to define that, and why, and how? For example, most visitors will ask about seafood restaurants, because that’s something they identify with Boston. But until Neptune and ICOB, we really didn’t have much to offer there. A lot of restaurants did good work with local seafood, but visitors wanted Seafood Places, and often seemed more interested in going to a Legal’s outpost than trying, say, Peach Farm (a Chinese restaurant known for its seafood specialties), which didn’t seem ‘Bostonian’ enough.
As a Bostonian, yes, clam chowder blah blah blah. But the things that mark out Home to me, the answer I’d give Calvin Trillin? Sichuan Chinese. Red-sauce Italian. Greek-style pizza. The Pleasant Cafe in Roslindale. The smell of Modern Pastry in the dead of winter. Neptune’s hot lobster roll, but also their cioppino. Pupusas. Ok-dol bibimbap from the Allston Super 88. When I’ve lived overseas, those are the things I miss, and the things I seek out when I’m home. And the next time I move away, I’ll be adding Dumpling Café’s XLB and hot-and-sour soup, M&M Ribs, Loyal Nine, and Oisa Ramen to the list. These restaurants, and their people and their products, are what mean Home to me.
But it’s hard, because when visitors post here or on CH asking for the essence of Boston, that’s not the answer they’re looking for (in my experience). You alluded to this with Loyal Nine: they are very specifically New England Cuisine, but it’s New England Cuisine from 300+ years ago, with the very specific aim of resurrecting ingredients and recipes that have fallen by the wayside. I’m thrilled to bits that they’re doing it, and I think they do it really well; their food also tastes good to me, and that’s always going to be what trumps concept. But it’s also hard to say that they’re more ‘Bostonian’ than Oleana, or Peach Farm, or Clover, or any of the other dozens and dozens of restaurants that are inspired by local ingredients and communities. It’s a complicated thing and definitely not one I’ve wrapped my head around, but this thread is making me look at it all again and I appreciate that.
And thank you for the best large-format and tiki drinks I’ve had in Boston! I definitely look forward to getting more drinks by you in the future.
Shhh…do not Drink and Tell
It’s A Matter Of Some Concern that I have yet to be able to try any of the large-form drinks. It’s usually just my wife and me. Clearly I need to recruit some drinkers.
The large format has (both the one on the menu and the one on the old Yacht Rock Sundays menu) have been drank by 2 people (4-5 recommended with as many as 8 partaking). I have done them in single or double sized offerings if asked (although single/double straw versions instead of punch bowl style).
I will second this. A friend and I had a cocktail apiece and then shared a punchbowl at a Yacht Rock Sunday. It was delicious but not potent enough to make us regret our decision.
It is an interesting question of what “Home” is.
In California, we do have a cuisine we call Californian. It’s what happened at Chez Pannisse, has been incubated at Manresa, and then mutated and took over the world so that we can’t quite call it californian any more with a straight face. Most people would say Benu, Saison, State Bird, Cotogna, Commis, are exemplars ( and dozens on dozens you haven’t heard of - Mua and Hopscotch and Flea Street for example ). Tasting menu is often a part, because it’s not really about having a day-in , day-out menu with just a few specials.
What’s Boston food? I don’t know, and I’m not in a position to say.
I don’t think it’s XLB, though. I’ve been to shanghai at the famous places, I’ve spent the afternoon in the San Gabriel valley eating nothing but dumplings, I’ve been to shanghai joe’s ( NYC XLB is different from anywhere else ), I’ve gone to most of the places in Sunnyvale and the south bay with excellent dumplings - and I have my favorites. Would you really say that XLB is such a Boston specialty, or there’s a special XLB form in Boston, to compete with all of that?
Most places have a sense of “uniquness”, a thing that is theirs and not someone else’s. When someone asks for what is uniquely boston - I do hope there’s something you’ve incubated, some idea you have, that isn’t part of what my place has.
I hope we’ve not gotten to a point of globalization where Boston is the same as NY or SF or Portland.
Well, but that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? As you said, ‘California Cuisine’ can no longer be called Californian with a straight face; I feel similarly about ‘New England Clam Chowder’. Just because you developed something doesn’t mean it’s yours forever, or that you should be defined by it forever. Let’s be real: New Englanders weren’t the first to combine shellfish and potatoes and cream, any more than Californians were the first to eat vegetables in tiny, fastidious portions. Fashions cycle through cultures and time periods; some of them catch their moment.
And it has got to be obvious that I’m not claiming that XLB are uniquely Bostonian, any more than I’m claiming that red-sauce Italian is, or pupusas are. But the XLB at Dumpling Cafe are the best I’ve ever had, and a bowl of hot-and-sour soup followed by an order of XLB there is one of my favourite treats on a crappy day. That feels like Boston to me, and I will miss that when it’s not available to me. This is not a symptom of globalisation, or an indication that Boston is exactly like everywhere else on the planet.
I think my fundamental problem here is that to try to find a single dish or restaurant that represents what is unique about a place is a fool’s errand. I reckon that a coconut almond chip cone with jimmies from Christina’s, eaten at 10:00 at night in the middle of a blizzard, is the most Bostonian food experience I could imagine. Not because any of the individual ingredients is especially Bostonian, but because the whole deal - the best-of-the-best ice cream; the eating ice cream in cold weather; the braving a snowstorm to get a cone to try to beat down the effing cabin fever - is a distillation of what is wonderful and terrible about this place. That is what is unique about Boston, way more than any bowl of chowder is. The uniqueness is never going to come from, or be reflected by, any single dish or restaurant. How could that be possible? All I can do, then, is try to point out the things that I think are good here, the things that I seek out as someone who lives here.
This has all turned weirdly philosophical. I might need a nap.
Or some ice cream
…Then I reckon I know what I’m ordering next time I’m in. Please set aside a frangipani flower for my hair to really get the vibe.
Talking of Bostonian-ness, MC Slim JB and I once got into an epic CH chat about crappy Bennigans-style ‘cocktail’ programs, which got deleted pretty quickly because the mods were having a no-fun day… anyway, it ended with a description of what I think he called a ‘Plum Island Iced Tea’, our imaginary bartender’s signature drink: a Long Island Iced Tea, but with Moxie instead of Coke. I giggled for ages and was about to post a reply challenging you to make this, but by the time I went to do it, the posts had been disappeared.
In the spirit of Loyal Nine’s devotion to all things local… I’m just saying.
Well, it is a day that ends in ‘Y’.
I have no doubt that you know food, at least in your mind’s eye. You seem to relish expounding on your experience of the gamut of drinks, appetizers, entrees, desserts, etc. You CAN eat and drink! Perhaps I am jealous? Unlike you, I cannot do this for days on end.
I think you are very savvy, well written man and I appreciate your effort. I find, as a displaced Texan in New England, where Boston is my fav place outside of New Haven, that I find your frequent references to San Fran a bit provincial and smack of “localism” when you have the touchstone of how great the restaurants in SF are.
Just a thought.
I could mention Houston, NYC, or LA but the SF scene is well enough known that mentioning those seems to often have global recognition. I’m sorry if it feels off to you.
I consider SF to have a reasonable restaurant scene, but not excellent. There’s a lot of ways to consider the size of a city. If you take the Neilson TV housholds, Boston region is about the same size as SF region ( and SF and Boston proper are about the same size - 600k and 700k ). In other metrics, the boston area is half the size (3.5M to 7M). However you count it, I generally would expect if SF has 10 restaurants at a certain level, Boston should have at least 5, maybe more, and it’s only my lack of information that prevents me from finding them and eating them - and in increasing my information, I thank all of you for your help.
I am happy to consider ice cream a boston thing. I believe the boston ice cream scene certainly was excellent ( Steve’s ), probably is excellent ( Tosca’s ), and likely has more places that I don’t know about. SF tries on the ice cream side, but doesn’t get 'er done.
But I’m not going to get a Caravelle Clown because locals think it’s good. There’s a point I won’t go do.
We have probably gotten overly philosophical. Thank you for the tips, and I’ll make my way back to the SF board. Please feel free to say HI next time you’re travelling in that wayward direction.
Having moved to San Francisco after 10 years in boston, I could make a long list of places and dishes I miss (ranging from pizza and ice cream to fried clams, lobster rolls and pasta), but probably most of all I miss the gastropubby places where I could just drop in, have a great cocktail or two and something tasty to eat, where both food and drink received the same degree of care and attention to detail (russell house tavern, craigie on main, sycamore, bergamot, hungry mother, island creek oyster bar, eastern standard, etc etc)