Tastes of 1997
As always, these are not necessarily the dishes and restaurants of your year,
but of my half of the Phoenix reviewing year -- a year in which a wave
of Euro-Asian fusion food engulfed the last crumbs of gourmet pizza, in
which more sauces chased fewer species of fish, and in which you apparently
could not get a restaurant license without pledging to serve some kind of
raw-tuna appetizer and play a background tape of the Gipsy Kings. I usually
remind readers that there are no great restaurants, only great dishes. But 1997
was a year of memorable restaurants with clear themes, and of dishes that blur
in memory despite the relentless innovation applied to them.
the year in
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Bridge to the Past award: Sandrine's Bistro, in Harvard Square, for the
most un-Mediterranean French restaurant possible.
Bridge to the Present award: Zaftigs (despite the nostalgic Yiddish
name), in Coolidge Corner, for taking the schmaltz out of Jewish food and the
sentiment out of presenting it.
Bridge to the Future award: Cena (despite the Latin name), in the
Fenway, for opening a trendy bistro without red meat or much cheese.
Certified for Progress in Human Rights: the fish chowder (not the clam
chowder) at Jimmy's Harborside.
Trend of the Year: clear-broth sauces, a specialty of Marcuccio's, in
the North End.
Fusion Restaurant of the Year (Euro-owned): tie between Bok Choy, in
Brookline Village, and Red Herring, in the Theater District.
Fusion Restaurant of the Year (Asian-owned): Ducky Wok, in Allston,
which fuses Chinese and Vietnamese dishes of the highest caliber.
Vegetable of the Year (appearance): Chinese long beans.
Vegetable of the Year (texture): farro.
Vegetable of the Year (taste): sautéed pea tendrils.
Salad of the Year: Malaysian Yee Sang at Pandan Leaf -- or you could
just remember it as "tossed-to-prosperity raw-fish salad."
The second annual Howard Mitcham Memorial Medal for innovation in
seafood cookery goes to Jasper White for the wood-grilled scallops at Legal Sea
Foods and for backing the Legal C Bar. (Last year's award went to Chris
Schlesinger of the East Coast Grill.)
The past year saw more high-end restaurant openings than any sane reviewer
could cover. One could make a claim that 1997 was the year Boston really
discovered eating out, but to me this was the year that restaurateurs
discovered Bostonians will pay almost anything for a Francophone name and a
nouvelle-Continental menu. Restaurants like Zinc, Clío, La Bettola, and
Mistral have become stand-ins for big-city nightlife, reaping large quantities
of gossip-column attention and larger quantities of business -- even with
dishes that break the $30 barrier. For my money, which is generally less than
$30 a plate, here were some of the top moments of the year:
Best Soup (winter): lobster bisque at Angelo's, in the Back Bay, if for
no other reason than that whole cooked rock lobster in the bowl. Messy eating,
but worth every wet finger.
Best Soup (summer): melon soup at the Vault, downtown. Sweetness, light,
and a dollop of crème fraîche.
Best Free Food: the breadbasket at Tremont 647, in the South End, a mix
of flatbread, cumin-jalapeño corn muffins, and beautifully yeasty
Cockiest Presentation: "day boat scallops" at Clío, in the Back
Bay, a $12 appetizer consisting of exactly two scallops, each laid on a white
half-shell balanced on its own pillar of salt. Arrogant but perfect.
Best Sauce: mole poblano at Palenque, in Somerville. Imagine chocolate
and orange without a hint of sugar, served over marinated pork.
Dumpling of the Year: vareniki at Salts, in Cambridge. A Ukrainian name
for pumpkin skins around a spicy eggplant filling -- just the thing for winter
on the steppes of Kendall Square.
Wine List of the Year: Silvertone, downtown. Every bottle on this short,
thoughtful wine list sells for $10 over cost. (Normal restaurant markups are
three, even four times cost.) Somehow, drinking wine becomes a lot more fun
when you don't feel as if you're paying off a restaurant's loans.
Least Welcome Trend: main courses served in broth. Here I disagree with
my colleague; nothing makes me less happy than discovering a half-chicken or a
plate of roasted vegetables adrift in liquid. What did sauce ever do to us?
Next-to-Least Welcome Trend: the $30 lobster. The offenders are too
numerous to mention. We live in the one part of the country where lobster
should be less expensive than an aged porterhouse.
Restaurant of the Year: Clío. When you're paying 1997 prices, you
don't want to take a chance. Ken Oringer's food is clever, precise, attractive,
and dead-on successful. Anyone can sell a piece of beef short rib for $26, but
this is one of the few restaurants that can make it worth $26.