I always wanted to go to Boston. Years of hearing about its history always ensured it had a spot on my bucket list. But in the past few years, particularly due to the demise of my beloved Vancouver Canucks to the Boston Bruins during the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, I turned away from the city of Boston. It became a place I did not care to venture to any longer. This year though, the pain began to subside and my dislike turned to indifference. So when the suggestion for the destination of an annual trip with University friends fell to Boston in July, I had no major objections.
Because of the nature of this trip, my partner-in-crime was left back in Vancouver and the focus was less on gastronomic experiences and more on catching up with friends, and exploring the city and its history. Nevertheless, we still had to eat, and although we barely scratched the surface of Boston’s culinary scene, there are still some places and dishes to touch on.
We started our culinary journey at No. 9 Park, a member of the Barbara Lynch empire, located in the historic Beacon Hill neighbourhood. Although cozy and quaint, my meal here was mildly underwhelming, treading the line of inconsistency, and made enjoyable mostly by the presence of my dining companions. But with strong market penetration in her niche, I can see why Barbara Lynch has been extremely successful in extending her brand to various establishments in Boston. Perhaps Menton would have been a better alternative, or perhaps it was an off day. But until I revisit, certain details such as the duet of succulent juxtaposed with the overdone and barely palatable Rohan duck, and petite fours that seemed, though may not be, an ill-executed plagiarism of David Kinch’s work at Manresa, will remain etched in my memory.
The next day took us over the Charles River to Cambridge, where a visit to the Harvard campus was mandatory. Though nothing remotely close to the sprawling campus I attended during my undergrad, the memories of being a student came flooding back. Dining at Russell House Tavern, an organic, sustainable and biodynamic gastropub along Harvard Square, only solidified those memories even more. Their oyster roll, served in a whole grain bun, took me back to the good old beer drinking and carbo loading days of my undergrad – although this experience was a little less messy.
When it comes to seafood, Island Creek Oyster Bar is the epitome of fresh and local. As in their name, oysters are their specialty, but I opted to start with their clam chowder – a modern interpretation to the classic concoction who’s flavours were brought in part by hand dug clams, the smoky goodness of bacon bits and an additional submerged buttermilk biscuit. My main of the evening, Mrs Bennett’s seafood casserole, initially seemed small and unfulfilling, but parting the red sea in front of me yielded a seemingly endless bounty of New England sea creatures – massive pieces of silky scallops, buttery lobster, overdone rubbery shrimp and flaky haddock. Overall, it was a wonderful time only too quickly forgotten thanks to the throng of revellers simultaneously leaving a Miranda Lambert concert at nearby Fenway Park.
The tourist hub known as the Quincy Market was visited several times on this trip. Not only for a historical lesson at nearby Faneuil Hall but also for the stalls of food lined one after the other within its small congested hallways converging at a communal dining hall. Here we got our hands on various bites and snacks, but most importantly a traditional “New England Clam Chowda” (their spelling not mine). Served oozing out of a bread bowl, it was a complete contrast to the chowder I had at Island Creek Oyster Bar – thick, rich, chewy and most of all, soul warming, getting me ready for the tourist itinerary we had the rest of the day.
A bit out of an outlier to our culinary agenda was a meal at Toro, which brought both traditional and modern tapas to our time in Boston. I can be quite pedantic when it comes to Basque cuisine and was initially confused by the pinchos misnomer at the header of section on their menu. Nothing under that section of the menu is remotely close to what pinchos truly are, but looking past the header and reading the menu further revealed classic tapas that took me right back to bars of Spain. Some modernized dishes had its strengths such as the beef tongue served with lentils and salsa verde. Although others, such as their take on an empanada, made me feel that some classics are better left untouched.
Our final meal took us full circle, bringing us back to the Beacon Hill neighbourhood where we brunched at Parker’s Restaurant in the Omni Parker House Hotel. Old school in all its glory, this place is stuck in time. Rightfully so as it was the history of the place that brought us here, not the food. Having just visited the the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum the day before, we felt the impulse to eat at the venue where JFK proposed to Jackie O and also had his bachelor party. Luckily, it also had some significance to the Boston culinary scene as it is the birthplace of the official Massachusetts dessert, Boston Cream Pie. A very fitting way to end the trip.
The historical aspect of Boston most definitely did not disappoint, with the highlight coming from a participative reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. For an American city, I was also pleasantly surprised by its cleanliness, the kindness of its people and its overall intimacy. In terms of the food, its dedication to local ingredients and strength in seafood is admirable. And though I would like to come back in the near future, with no direct flights from Vancouver, only three weeks of vacation each year and so much more of the world to discover, I do not think a return is imminent. Perhaps the winds of chance will bring me here sooner rather than later, but in the meantime, I can only look back at my time here fondly.
Thanks for reading,
C & S