11 October 2011
The Boston-San Francisco mash up
Many people compare San Francisco and Boston, so it was interesting to spend a few days there recently to check out the food scene. It’s obvious the food community is enamored by the farm-to-table movement, just as we are, though it’s not nearly as ingrained on the East Coast as it is in Northern California.
However, the idea is encapsulated by Bondir, the tiny Cambridge restaurant that just about every critic and knowledgeable food person thinks is the place to go if you have only one night in the area. I went with colleagues from other cities to check it out.
Chef Jason Bond sources his products locally. His menu, which changes daily, featured mutton, scallops, mushrooms and vegetables that are still in high season on the East Coast. All plates are offered in two sizes.
While I applauded the effort, on my visit the execution was uneven. I found some preparations too salty or not salty enough, even in the same dish. The scallops ($16/$30), for example, were like cutting into a salt lick, while the eggplant brulee puree underneath seemed to have no seasoning at all. However, his talent was evident in such dishes as the Westport mutton ($16/$30) pairing chewy slices of meat with parsnips, Asian pears and triticale berries , which are similar to wheat berries.
On another night I ended up on a bar tour and found that the cocktail culture is as vibrant in Boston as it is in San Francisco, with such places as the thoroughly modern Drink, courtesy of Barbara Lynch, and the more rustic Green Street Grill that looked like an old fashioned bar/restaurant but could compete with anybody on such drinks as the Corpse Reviver 2, a drink made with gin, Lillet, absinthe and lemon.
Three restaurants absolutely blew me away: O Ya, Oleana, and its new more casual cousin, Softa.
At O Ya, Tim Cushman creates some of the best Japanese-inspired food I’ve tasted, whether it’s crisp bacon-like salmon skin ($10) with a smear of smoked aioli, secured to the rice with a strip of dried seaweed; or the slightly chewy foie gras gyoza ($18) with the lush gush of melting liver inside, modulated with the sharp contrast of pink peppercorns and Kyoto sansho.
It’s all served in a beautifully refurbished firehouse, where you can still see the arched entry and the cement floor, but with luxurious touches at the sushi bar and at the wood tables that seem to point all eyes to the pristine food.
There’s the creamy wash of uni butter in the ika, or squid, reinforced with uni powder and the saline bite of micro sea beans ($16); and the subtle flavor of fish sauce emerges on the Hue-style shima aji (jackfish) with kaffir oil. On dish after dish, Cushman creates a symphony hitting all the high and low notes so the complexity unfolds with each bite.
His wife, Nancy, is the sake mistress. She matches the food perfectly, starting with a sparkling sake that she rightfully characterized as having a yogurt flavor. She sets a warm and informed tone that permeates the entire restaurant; servers seem always to have smiles on their faces as if they can think of nothing better than to be working there.
Cushman offers a chef’s tasting menu that will set a diner back more than $200 for 16 courses, and smaller menu that’s still in the stratosphere. Or the waiters let diners know they can construct their own tasting menu from the 85 or so selections for far less. It’s amazing to me that the kitchen can be spot on with just about every dish.
Like the servers, I could think of no better place to be.
Octopus with crispy Brussels sprouts from Olenea
When I tasted Ana Sortun’s Eastern Mediterranean and Turkish food at Oleana in Cambridge, I flashed back at a meal I had a year before at the Israeli Zahav in Philadelphia and some of the combinations I’ve had at the Moroccan Aziza in San Francisco. Sortun, Michael Solomonov and Mourad Lahlou are all furthering and enhancing their respective cuisines in a way that feels like a revelation.
I still dream about Oleana’s whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers ($5) and the warm buttered hummus ($5). They’re familiar, but Sortun has the touch that makes them special. Every dish is beautifully conceived: octopus heaped in a handled skillet with crisp Brussels sprouts, cranberry beans, dices of pancetta and pepperoncini ($14); fried mussels tossed with hot peppers and a Turkish inspired tartare sauce ($12); and the Sultan’s Delight, a chunk of tamarind-glazed beef on smoked eggplant puree with pine nuts. Another clever dish is trout spanakopita ($24), thin fillets of the fish that serve as a sandwich for greens, cucumber, avocado and salmon roe.
The dining room of this decade-old restaurant is modest. It’s a neighborhood-looking type of place, with an impressive garden patio when the weather permits. Yet while the interior is cramped, the flavors of the food are a big as Sortun’s talents.
Sortun has carried over a casual feeling to her smaller Middle Eastern-inspired Sofra, which concentrates on the cuisines of Greece, Turkey and Lebanon. Diners order from the counter and sit around low tables if they want to eat on the premises, although many people get the food to go.
Here you can get exceptional moussaka, a collection of five mezzes ($9), including smoky eggplant, black-eyed pea and carrot salad, and a red pepper and walnut puree, all served with zaatar-dusted bread; shawarma ($8-$9), meat stuffed pita-like sandwich; or a crisped flatbread ($8) rolled like a burrito around such fillings as sausage with cumin, orange, olives and feta or red lentils with hot sauce and celery root slaw.
At dessert, an orange cornmeal cake ($3) made me ponder how one person can turn out so many complex and compelling tastes with what is ostensibly simple fare.