A Great Food City

I was in Boston last weekend for an orthodontic conference.  I always look forward to visiting Boston; it’s one of the great food cities in the US.  I did some planning with Zagat before leaving Jax, and while I was traveling I sent Mario Batali a message on Twitter.  I’m pleased to say he responded, recommending Tico, Clio, Rialto, and #9 Park.

(Please excuse the time references- this post took some time to write.  It’s my longest by a good bit.)

I arrived early yesterday, and soon realized Tico was close to my hotel, so I headed there for lunch.  I started with corn chowder, which was delicious.  It was a little thinner than I’m used to, with a refined broth containing corn, intact pieces of potato (as opposed to broken down in the broth), and perfectly browned lardons of delicious bacon concealing a wonderful little fatty bite within.  It was a great illustration the fact that great dishes are balanced.  When I make soup I often make the mistake of going ‘a bridge too far’ with ingredients and overdoing it.  The chowder at Tico was the perfect balance of ‘broth and bites’.

Based on recommendations from the friendly and attentive staff, I followed the soup with roasted blackfish.  It’s a local fish, sourced from Rhode Island, and was described as being light and similar to halibut.  I was pleased to see it arrived skin-on (which concealed a thin layer of delicious fat underneath).  It was presented atop a black bean purée, amidst diced chorizo and roasted poblano peppers.  It was fantastic- perfectly cooked and utterly delicious.  Like the soup, it was a great example of a perfectly balanced dish, as disparate ingredients combined to create something beyond the sum of the parts.  The fish was rich and delicious, complemented by silky bean purée but punctuated by salty bites of chorizo.  The poblano was subtle, but provided a spicy backbone.

I am a born lover of gulf seafood, but New England seafood is fantastic!  The oysters here are undoubtedly better than gulf oysters- smaller, firmer, and a little more briny.  I know that may seem like blasphemy to some, but it is the honest truth.  The fish isn’t necessarily better, but it is different.  A little more toothsome, along with being richer and fattier. Note that I don’t mean fishy, just a little more rich and unctuous in the mouth.

For dinner on Thursday night, I had planned for L’Espallier, on Boylston Street in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.  Reviewing Mario’s recommendations, I considered canceling in favor of a dinner at Clio, another nearby French restaurant.  I’m pleased to say we stuck with the original plan, because dinner at L’Espallier proved to be the best meal I’ve ever had.

I am not typically a fan of tasting menus, which are all too often about what’s in the kitchen rather than what I enjoy.  The seven courses of the L’Espallier tasting, however, were listed in the menu, and they all looked fantastic, so we decided to give it a try.  Great decision!  We opted for a flight of 4 wines to complement the meal.

We started with a shared cocktail called a Red Sidecar, composed of dark rum, sweet vermouth, pomegranate juice, and blood orange juice.  It was shaken tableside and served ‘up’, and it was delicious.

The first course was butter poached lobster, presented with truffles and squash purée.  The lobster was good, but it was overshadowed by the squash purée, which was probably the single best bite of the whole meal.  Intense, rich squash flavor and smooth, luxurious texture with just a hint of vanilla aroma.  It was remarkable.  A local sparkling white accompanied the lobster, and it was surprisingly good.  Dry and crisp with the tiniest bubbles of any sparkling wine I’ve ever had.

Roasted foie gras came next, with toasted brioche, fruit compote, and granola.  It was paired with a rich, port-like Italian cherry wine.  The foie gras was, well, foie gras.  Rich, luxuriant, and buttery, it went perfectly with the oddly breakfast-like accompaniments.  A bite of brioche smeared with foie gras and topped with a little compote and granola might make the best breakfast ever!

The fish course was pan roasted halibut, presented with braised endive and lemon curd.  The fish was perfectly cooked, gently seared to a soft golden brown but moist and tender inside.  Halibut is perhaps my favorite fish other than snapper (although I love redfish and flounder, too!) and this was probably my favorite course of the night.  The beauty of this dish was it’s simplicity- a perfectly cooked piece of very fresh fish with little to detract from it.  It was paired with a French white described only as Chardonnay, which had a pronounced mineral flavor and was not particularly impressive.

Course number four was rack of Colorado lamb, accompanied by haricots verts, root vegetables, and a little cassoulet.  The lamb was shockingly tender, so much so that I asked the server if it was cooked sous vide and browned afterwards (she said it was not).  It was probably the most tender meat I’ve ever eaten.  It was delicious, although the cassoulet seemed to be little more than some cannellini beans hidden under the lamb.  The wine was a Bordeaux, big, tannic, and perhaps a little overwhelming.  Perhaps I’m a cretin, but I have to admit French reds are not typically my favorites.

A cheese course came next- six cheeses accompanied by various crackers and breads.  The cheeses were of mostly American origin.  The first was a soft sheep’s milk cheese, I think it was a comte, and it was terrific.  I can’t remember the second or third cheeses, which might mean they were fairly unremarkable.  Next came a five year aged Gouda from the Netherlands, which was very reminiscent of Parnmiggiano-Reggiano in its crystalline structure and rich, complex flavor.  Fifth was a washed rind, cow’s milk cheese from Virginia, which placed second at a national competition last year, per our server.  It was rich, pungent, and perhaps a bit too much.  Last was a rich French blue, which was sourced from the birthplace of Blue cheese.

We were presented with a green apple sorbet for course six, which was a pleasingly light diversion as the weight of the meal started to bear down on us.  Six cheeses was a lot!  The sorbet was crisp, tart, and delicious, and it concealed a bed of pop rocks hidden underneath.  That’s right, pop rocks, just like you remember from childhood.  The combination was actually terrific, with the tart coolness of the sorbet punctuated by sugary explosions from the pop rocks.  The sorbet was presented covered by an apple gel; Jen liked it, but I found it a little weird.  Still a great course, though.  Light, whimsical, and fun.

To finish, we had some chocolates, complemented by ginger ice cream that was absolutely delicious.  The ice cream was a close second to the squash purée for best single bite.  The chocolates were small, but rich and delicious, progressing from light to dark.  It was a rich but simple conclusion to the meal, and the ingredients complemented each other perfectly.  Dessert was unexpectedly accompanied by a glass of wine, a delicious sparkling Italian rose.  The arrival of our lamb preceded the Bordeaux by a few minutes, and this was our server’s way of apologizing.  It was not a big deal to us, but it was a thoughtful and attentive gesture from a great waitstaff.

So there it is, the best meal of my life in 1,000 words or less.  It was lengthy, and got to be a bit much at the end, but it was an utterly wonderful experience, and one I will remember for a long, long time.

We ate breakfast in the room every day of the trip, looking out the window at the Boston Public Garden.  It was well-prepared, expertly presented room service as you would expect from the Four Seasons.  The breakfasts were enormous, though, so lunches were lighter than we might otherwise eat.

On Friday we walked around the Public Garden and then headed to Charles Street to shop and look around.  Charles Street is an interesting mix of antiques and other shops, though most seem to be devoted to ladies apparel.  In my opinion, the most interesting thing about it is that it sits at the edge of the Beacon Hill neighborhood, so it basically runs through the middle of a residential district.  It’s a little reminiscent of the French Quarter, and it was interesting to wander around, checking out the various apartments and townhouses, wondering what it would be like to live in Boston.

We then headed back through the Public Garden to Newbury Street, which, in my opinion, is the coolest place to shop in Boston.  One of the first stores we meandered into was Nespresso, and after a 15 minute demo, we ordered an espresso machine.  It will be delivered next week, so I’ll post on it then.  We moseyed along Newbury, and were getting hungry by 2pm, so we stopped at a bar called The Met Back Bay, based on a recommendation by Greg, the manager of the Nespresso store (or boutique, as they call it).  Jen had a gorgeous bowl of clam chowder, which proved to be as tasty as it looked.  Perfect cooked clams in rich, refined broth.  I had rich, satisfying French onion soup, presented in a crock covered in browned Gruyere cheese.  The soup was a touch sweet, but still delicious.  We shared a salad of very thinly sliced (think shaved) root vegetables, composed of pumpkin, parsnips, apples, and other seasonal vegetables.  It was simply dressed, with a basic citrus vinaigrette, some fresh parsley, and some tiny chunks of semi soft cheese.  It was unique and absolutely delicious, and I look forward to trying to replicate it for our Thanksgiving table.  A couple of icy Stella drafts complemented the food perfectly.

Based on my Zagat research, I had planned Friday dinner to be at Sorrelina, a Back Bay Italian restaurant fairly close to our hotel.  After a brief meeting with David, the wonderfully helpful and efficient concierge at the Four Seasons, we ended up at B & G Oysters instead.  B & G is a tiny, semi-subterranean oyster and seafood place situated on ‘restaurant row’ in the South End.  We had a 7pm reservation for 2 at the bar, and it was probably the most fun meal of the trip.  The restaurant is tiny, low ceilinged, and cramped, but everyone was friendly and jovial, and it was fun to sit at the bar and watch as 2 cooks prepared impressive dishes on the tiny line.  We started with shellfish, 18 assorted oysters and clams, along with some shrimp.  Favorite oysters were the Peacock Cove and Wellfleet, and we liked the Cherrystone clams.  The only thing we didn’t like we’re the Littleneck clams, which had an unpleasant aftertaste.  The shrimp were also delicious, giant and meaty, almost more like crawfish or lobster than more delicate Gulf shrimp.  We followed the shellfish with a simple salad and a lobster roll.  The roll was good, but not great, although the French fries that accompanied it were among the best I’ve ever had.  I’m sure they were cooked in some sort of animal fat- you can’t make fries that good with vegetable oil.  It was perhaps the most enjoyable meal of the trip, shoehorned in at the tiny bar among the locals, bemusedly watching a subtle but intense spat between a waitress and her line cook boyfriend.

After breakfast in the room and another walk around the Public Garden, we bummed around downtown and the Back Bay before grabbing a late lunch Abe and Louie’s, on Boylston near Copley Square.  It was recommended by @JackFalcone, who saw my query to Mario and graciously offered a suggestion.  We started with a shrimp cocktail, the first I have had in years.  It was terrific, with 4 gargantuan, meaty shrimp presented with traditional accompaniments.  Jen and I both had salads, mine a Caesar and hers the Abe and Louie’s, containing Bibb lettuce with cinnamon tossed Granny Smith apples, toasted pistachios, and blue cheese tossed in a Dijon vinaigrette.  Hers was better than mine, but the food was all good, and the place was pleasant- a very old-school, clubby sort of joint.  Wood, brass, and a lot of history, or at least it seemed so (a little research yielded no history, it opened in 1998).  The tables were packed in pretty tightly, and the funniest moment of the meal was the look of disdain from the portly fellow seated next to us when he saw the salad in front of me.  It reminded me of the Seinfeld ‘Just a salad‘ episode.

Our penultimate meal was at Number 9 Park.  It is a tough ticket to come by, but David from the Four Seasons came through, once again.  Dinner started with 2 fantastic cocktails.  I had a Boulevardier, which was basically a Negroni made with Fighting Cock bourbon, and it was outstanding.  I’ve forgotten what Jennifer had, but she enjoyed it very much.  Still a little overwhelmed by the tasting menu at L’Espalier, we opted for the 3 course prix fixe menu instead.

Jennifer started with the house specialty, prune stuffed gnocchi topped with foie gras.  It was remarkable, and there is nothing I can do here to capture it’s essence in words.  The gnocchi was perfect, containing a sweet bite within, but topped with decadently rich foie gras.  I had parsnip stuffed agnolotti, which was good, but not the equal of Jen’s gnocchi.

I ordered elk Rossini next, and was not disappointed.  It was seared in duck fat and then cooked medium rare, topped with more foie gras, and served with mushrooms and some endive.  It was amazing.  The powerful rustic flavor of the elk acted as an interesting foil to the richness of the foie gras.  Jennifer had the hake, and it was outstanding.  Similar to halibut, it was presented with black truffles and celeriac.

No. 9 has a wonderful list of wine half-bottles, so we enjoyed a St. Innocent pinot noir from Oregon with the meal.  I wasn’t wowed by it initially, but it proved to be really good once it opened up a bit.  For dessert I had the vanilla bean chiboust, which was a little like a tart tatin or apple pie.  It was good; balanced and well-executed.  Jennifer had the pear crepes with molasses, which were also tasty.

The star of the dessert course, however, was the wine.  After an impromptu tasting prepared by our waiter, we each had a glass of Rare Wine Company Madiera Boston Baul, and it was remarkable.  Rich and port-like, it was a perfect complement to both desserts.  I liked it so much I ordered a couple of bottles yesterday to serve at Thanksgiving.

It was a memorable trip, and I hope some of this info helps to make your trip a success, as well.  The remainder of the Twitter recommendations I received are below.

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