Boston’s Restaurant Week
First Restaurant Week Offers Mixed BagBy Winnie Yang
After a tenth successful year in culinary giant New York City, Boston-area restaurateurs and chefs have finally decided to follow suit and offer their very own Restaurant Week. Nearly forty restaurants in the metropolitan area served up three-course prix fixe lunches for $20.01 from August 20-24. Sponsored by the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, American Express, and the Anthony Spinazzola Foundation, the list of restaurants included everything from Bob the Chef’s to the Top of the Hub. I managed to squeeze in visits to No. 9 Park, Maison Robert, and Aujourd’hui.
Famed Southie native Barbara Lynch rests her toque at No. 9 Park, a veritable Beacon Hill institution located at one end of the Boston Commons, specializing in European peasant fare (primarily of the French and Italian variety). The two separate dining rooms and adjacent bar have an appropriately Old World sort of feel, with all fabric-covered walls and mahogany wainscoting. No. 9 successfully removes the diner from the hustle and bustle of the Commons, while maintaining a comfortable, casual atmosphere. Lynch keeps an entire legion of servers, who are well trained, if a little cold. Unfortunately, the bread here is forgettable; just cold, pale and doughy french rolls.
No. 9’s menu for Restaurant Week was decidedly summery. To start, we tried the chilled corn soup and the chicken liver pÂtÉ. The soup was a gorgeous pastel yellow with a smattering of translucent olive oil droplets, a tiny cutting of purslane arranged artfully on top, and a couple of chanterelles swimming in the bisque. The soup had a lovely creamy consistency, but cold soups have an emphasis on lightness, which more often than not takes away from the body and flavor. The pÂtÉ came in an enormous slab, accompanied sparingly by a slice of grilled french bread, heavily seeded mustard, a sliced up fresh fig, and several tiny, highly-acidic gherkins. While quite velvety in texture, the richness of the pÂtÉ was a little too much for the portion served.
I’d been warned that portions at No. 9 are ridiculously small, but on the contrary, everything was just the right size in this age of Cheesecake Factory-excess. The roast Niman Farms pork tenderloin was smaller than a hockey puck, but a generous two inches thick, and it was very tender and complimented well by the wine-based stock. I was disappointed, however, by the braised vegetables piled under the tenderloin; they were suspiciously similar to the ones under the roast chicken my friend was having, with the addition of pommes purÉe (or mashed potatoes for us common folk). So often, this is the problem with prix fixe menus; the courses seem to be mass manufactured, individual touches compromised by lower prices and quick turnover. However, I would be remiss in failing to mention that the chicken was remarkably tasty and juicy. Probably the best roasted fowl in Boston.
I’ll be pleased when this flourless chocolate cake craze blows over. I find them mostly boring -- with or without the molten interior -- and this one was no exception. The cake came in a pool of black cherry and red wine sauce, garnished with two preserved black cherries.
The following day, we lunched at Maison Robert, just a few blocks down the street from No. 9 Park. The outdoor seating was lovely here, but the service left much to be desired. True, the sommelier was friendly enough, but he tries too hard to impress, and the servers are just badly trained. We were served more of the same cold, unappetizing rolls.
Our starters were fairly nondescript. The salade verte was downright disappointing -- just a pile of uninspiring romaine and some grated carrots doused with a little vinaigrette. Maison Robert would do well to switch to a mesclun. The vichyssoise was better; the chives added a little depth to the potato base, while the cream of spinach didn’t particularly stand out.
Among the main courses, the risotto was a bit bland. Accompanied by roasted artichoke and red pepper, it had the ideal creamy consistency, but verged on gumminess. The salade de canard was a nice idea, but, while the slices of pear and duck breast were delicious on their own and with the blackberry sauce, the disparate elements failed to make for a cohesive dish. The pan friend trout, however, was perfection. With a crispy, salty exterior and a flaky, yet substantially meaty flesh, the fish came with stewed beets that offered a bit of starchiness to the dish, though they were a little bland.
We weren’t at all happy to see our desserts sitting outside in the courtyard while we worked on the main course. The chocolate cake survived well, fortunately; it was an excellent piece of cake, both rich and tender, but nothing extraordinary. The fruit tart, on the other hand, had clearly been sitting in a refrigerator before being left out in the sun (to thaw?). The pastry crust was dense and tasteless, and the fruit and cream were not much of an improvement.
Thankfully, for the last day, we chose Aujourd’hui, undoubtedly one of the best restaurants in the Boston. Located on the second floor of the Four Seasons, the dining room is fairly dripping with opulence and excess, the seating is plush, and the service impeccable. Servers here are knowledgeable, accommodating, extremely well trained, and most importantly, not snobby in the least. Despite all the poshness, the scene here is laid-back. No old, anemic rolls here, either; instead, our waiter brought out a large basket stuffed with asiago cheese bagel chips, pretzel rolls, walnut-raisin cinnamon rolls, and onion focaccia, all still warm from the oven.
Aujourd’hui also offered five choices for each course, while the other two restaurants had two or three at most. For the first course, we tried the portobella mushroom carpaccio with shallot relish, arugula, and shaved parmesan. It could have used more parmesan, but the mushrooms were deliciously juicy and nicely sweetened by the relish. The heirloom tomato and fresh mozzarella salad consisted of vibrantly colored slices layered between creamy chunks of mozzarella. The aged balsamic vinegar added both a nice bite and depth, while the frisÉe lent crunchiness.
While both dishes were excellent, the grilled pizza with smoked salmon was definitely the highlight. The salmon combined nicely with the thinly sliced new potatoes and leeks, and the crust was perfectly done, slightly browned and crisp, with a nutty wood-fired flavor.
Of the main courses, the baked salmon with steamed lobster wontons and Asian vegetables was not all that memorable, but the lemon-soy vinaigrette accentuated the subtler flavors well. The grilled mahi mahi was substantial and meaty and the accompanying couscous superb -- tender and fluffy, redolent of herbs. The long beans alongside were a tad overcooked and bland, but the melon relish added a refreshing tang. The roast chicken breast was excellent, though perhaps not quite as good as No. 9 Park’s. The accompanying corn mashed potatoes, however, were incredible. The beef tenderloin was cooked perfectly (medium rare) but paled in comparison to my favorite, the grilled sweet potatoes, all richness and warmth wrapped in a slightly crunchy exterior.
The desserts were really extraordinary. The crÈme brulÉe arrived at the table in a sizeable portion and had the ideal crackly shell resting atop a light and creamy custard. Panna cotta with an espresso crÈme anglaise offered even subtler flavors. The coffee flavor was barely discernible through the silky egg custard. Dollops of raspberry coulis gave the pineapple upside-down cake a pleasing tartness. The crunchy chocolate cake consisted of layers of an airy mousse and a densely intense chocolate cream. Almonds sprinkled on top provided most of the crunch.
The most critical aspect of Restaurant Week is consistency, and clearly, Aujourd’hui wins there. Hopefully this festival will become an annual event and include more area establishments in following years.