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Back to the future

By Ruth Tobias
SOME SAY THAT irony's chokehold on our postmodern society has been loosening since the millennium (not to mention 9/11). Our entry into a post-postmodern era, it's said, will be accompanied by a return to a simpler life. A milk-drinking, slipper-wearing, knock-knock-joking kind of life.

Don't you believe it, not just yet. But there are at least some indications that, perhaps, certain old-fashioned American sensibilities can co-exist peacefully, even fruitfully, with progressive ones. These days, we seem to be attending to our more artless and provincial yearnings even as we continue to cultivate our wireless worldliness. Here in Greater Boston, our dining choices provide one clear example.

Consider what the city's leading chefs are doing these days. On the one hand, rarefaction runs rampant: if our food gets any more refined, we'll have to start lugging around reference works and copies of the periodic table just to make sense of the menus. Clio's Ken Oringer may be our foremost advocate of alimentary arcana, fond as he is of incorporating ingredients most of us never knew existed (and may yet have our doubts about): grains of paradise, bee pollen, argan oil, yuzu. Likewise, judging by Robert Fathman's repertoire, the clientele at Azure possess palates so jaded that only the most jarring of juxtapositions will jolt them into excitement, be it quail eggs and fava tendrils over agnolotti or potato-crusted "oysters in bondage" drizzled with caviar oil. On the other hand, Fathman is having a ball serving lemonade, po' boys, and fried Twinkies at his new downtown lounge Anthem; meanwhile, Seth Woods, the restaurateur behind ever-elegant Aquitaine and Newbury's chichi Armani Café, has found success sweet and simple over at Union, where grilled Reuben sandwiches with homemade coleslaw, sausage-studded macaroni, and pecan pie all make the short list of familiar faves.

Another apparent trend might be called the surf 'n' turf phenomenon, whereby some of our most Euro-minded chefs are turning their attentions to the oh-so-old-school-American pairing of steak and seafood. It began a couple of years ago when eternal standard-setter Todd English opened Bonfire right on the heels of KingFish Hall. Recently, flush with the success of the original Blackfin Chophouse & Raw Bar location in Hingham, Anthony Ambrose prepared to open a second by shutting the doors of Ambrosia on Huntington. And now there's Barbara Lynch, the wizard of No. 9 Park, whose latest brainchildren are B&G Oysters, a swank South End raw bar, and -- right next door to it -- the Butcher Shop, a meat counter and charcuterie. As the complementary-cocktail craze shows no signs of abating -- with sidecars and Manhattans joining martinis in the comeback line-up -- it's as though we're having a collective culinary flashback to the '50s, when fine dining meant coat-checks and red-leather banquettes, caesars prepared tableside and prime rib or lobster for two, plus Scotch on the rocks from start to finish. At the same time, however, we know the future of food lies in fusion, as surely as the future in general lies in global multiculturalism. It was not so long ago that we were being seduced by the exoticism of, say, Thai and Portuguese cuisine on the one hand and East-West gastronomy on the other; today we're going out for everything from Croatian to Somali fare, and fusion is an ever-more localized and subtle affair -- be it the Southern Italian-Peruvian stylings of Taranta or Saint's simultaneous sailing on the Mediterranean and South China Seas.

Finally, the 2003 Readers' Poll itself provides proof that we Bostonians are finding ways to reconcile our fealty to the familiar with our taste for adventure, our emotional attachments to food with intellectual detachment. It hardly seems a coincidence that, in several categories, the winners represent the yin and the yang of the American culinary experience. Take this year's pizza champs, Pizzeria Regina and Cambridge, 1; whereas the former is a local institution and a symbol of Italian Americanization, serving home-style pies-o'-plenty lovingly laden with meat and mozzarella, the latter, a newbie, cultivates the urban mystique that is minimalist chic. Neither place can claim total allegiance to the Neapolitan ideal of pizza; both, however, could be said to come honestly by certain Italian attitudes -- Regina in its display of gastronomic gusto (a word that, after all, derives from the Latin for "taste"), C, 1 in its consummate stylishness.

Or take our Chinese-food faves, Changsho and Peking Tom's. Changsho presents the cuisine as it was developed not in China's mainland provinces but in the Chinatowns of US coastal cities. Peking Tom's presents that same cuisine in quotation marks -- which is to say in the awareness of its inauthenticity, an inauthenticity we nonetheless rightly refuse to equate or treat with insincerity, rather holding it dear for its comforts. Consider, too, our appreciation, down and up the scale, of that amorphous cuisine we call simply "American"; while we love UpStairs on the Square for its New American flamboyance -- try chicken-mousse/foie gras ravioli on for size -- we also love the Rosebud Diner for its good old American white-bread ways. In the end, you could say Americans' newfound culinary sophistication is predicated on a playful recognition of our lack thereof. Isn't it ironic?

Ruth Tobias can be reached at

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