Five classics revisited
There's a reason the city's signature restaurants - and dishes - retain their status
In a newspaper, you expect to read about new, dare I say, "hot," restaurants. After all, the chic Bostonian eco-foodie needs to know where to strike a pose this week. Where is everyone dining on terrine de mango with parsnip and urchin-roe foam?
But this in-with-the-new hype tends to overlook iconic restaurants - Boston institutions really - the places that spring to mind when you think about dining out here, the ones that make you feel like a Kennedy or a tourist hoping to run into a Kennedy.
These are the restaurants that still manage, after years - in some cases, centuries - to fill the house if not nightly, then certainly on weekends. A sterling reputation can rest on its laurels, even as it raises an obvious question about change: If something's been working for 97 years, why adjust it?
So in the spirit of casting a fresh eye on an established place, we head to five of the city's most venerable dining rooms and reconsider them through their signature dish.
Other items on the menu are competent, but not as miraculous as the chicken. Chef and co-owner Gordon Hamersley has a sense of humor about this. "It's a simple dish, and it's a good dish," he says. "I'm a two-bit singer with a hit song." The roast chicken isn't just a hit, it's the restaurant's glorious national anthem. And the staff treats it with reverence. The same chef is not allowed to make the dish for more than six months, and Hamersley often personally supervises the preparation (he's the one in the kitchen wearing a Red Sox cap).
Originally, Hamersley's goal was to create a chicken dish every bit as good as the roast Bresse chicken at L'ami Louis, a renowned Paris bistro favored by Bill Clinton and French politicians. Bresse, of course, is located in France - so Hamersley cannot roast those celebrated birds. Instead he uses a 3- or 4-pound Bell & Evans chicken.
Even if your version of the dish manages, by some miracle, to come sort-of close, it's just not the same as being there in that quirky, famously yellow dining room, enjoying this dish for the first (or 20th) time.
Honestly, I am so enthralled that after we are seated I simply settle in and forget we were here to eat. The waiter seems used to this. "Welcome to the Oak Room, sir." We're off to a good start. I like being called "sir." I am wearing black pants, so I get a black napkin (to avoid lint and to match as you sit). I'm trying to be critical, but I'm already smiling.
The vast majority of the menu is local and organic, but I am told, apologetically, that the rarity of Chateaubriand ($95 for two) requires importation from Kansas. After appetizers, the steak is wheeled to our table on a dramatic silver cart and cut in front of us so I can verify the doneness. If you are not fully pleased, send the cart back to the kitchen to address the problem before it ever hits your plate.
This is the real deal. The beef is not mega-sized, it's not molecular-ized, it's not swimming in some high-concept sauce. It is that most classic and treasured cut, marvelously simple and wonderfully cooked, and accompanied by an entire bulb of fragrant roast garlic, cut open to accent the delicious aroma of the steak. I don't know if you are supposed to eat the steak and the garlic together - the Oak Room does not presume to give its guests dining instructions - but I eat each tender effortless slice of steak with a bit of the roasted garlic and it is heaven.
The dish is marvelously clever. Light, expertly made gnocchi are stuffed with a soft prune filling. Each gnoccho is topped with a small slab of foie gras, then drizzled with a beurre blanc made with vin santo. Tiny cubes of prune - precision-cut and jewel-like - decorate the plate with tinier sprigs of chervil. It's a beautiful presentation, but you might think it would only be eaten by those who like prunes and foie gras - i.e. someone else's grandparents.
The genius of this dish, is (1) it is truly delicious and (2) you get to enjoy eating foie gras. It makes foie gras accessible to everyone, by offsetting its sometimes off-putting fatty richness with sweet prunes, and mitigating its unique animal taste with equally rich starchy gnocchi. My 14-year-old niece gobbles them up, calling them "soft pillows of pure happiness." Really. She even stops texting until they are gone. Just try getting your 14-year-old to eat foie gras on its own (or to stop texting). This is quite an appetizer.
But it is only an appetizer, and because it's so rich, one that is typically shared. Its fame gets people talking about and into the restaurant, where the superior service and very good menu have managed to keep them coming back.
The dish is too dense and too much for most people to make a dent in. My waiter, who has been with the restaurant since 1968, still calls this the "small lobster." The large (3-pound) lobster was downsized in 1976 due to "health concerns."
The body of the 2-pound lobster is removed from the shell, cut in pieces, and cooked with a sauce made from a four-hour reduction of lobster bodies, sherry, port, and heavy cream. The amalgam is stuffed back in the lobster shell, and served. It's no wonder most diners do not finish the dish. The heavy pinkish-orange sauce militates against the delicate lobster meat, rendering it an intolerably-rich sauce-substrate. Lobster Savannah does not taste good, it's excessive, and very expensive.
Wealthy Harvard students reportedly host traditional and lavish invite-the-dorm dinners at the private "a la carte" dining rooms upstairs, to leverage the restaurant name and outspend one another on conspicuous excess (expensive lobster, wood-paneled rooms, trademark pink sauce). It just might be the best use of this restaurant.
Since 1826 the restaurant has occupied a roomy historic Faneuil Hall space with large wood and mostly communal tables. Side dishes are good, and taste as if served in a very competent college dining hall; there are even little white flume-proof bowl-plates. New England classics like Indian pudding (slow-baked molasses and cornmeal mash served with ice cream) are faithfully and well prepared. Wine and beer lists are limited but adequate. The crowd on our night is a mix of local steak-lovers and tooly business-trip types.
This place is all about beef, mostly the aged-on-premises prime rib ($29 and $40). At the entrance to the restaurant, you pass a glass see-all meat-locker-as-exhibit, which, I assume, entices the very carnivorous up the stairs. There are two sizes of prime rib. I had the well-prepared, less expensive "Yankee Cut," which, at 1-pound, seems stressfully large. A 2-pound "Durgin Cut," the main feature at the meat-museum downstairs, is being devoured by some of the much bigger guys nearby. Three sauces are available for your steak (which arrives unseasoned). Don't taunt the waitress with polite questions about what "peppercorn sauce," "Bearnaise," and "Bordelaise" are. Just order one. Then relax and enjoy the steak. Once you've gotten your food, the waitstaff is not going to disturb you - maybe for a long time.
"People like Durgin-Park because it's simple and New England, and because it hasn't changed," says general manager Seana Kelley. "It's familiar, and it's comfortable."
I'm with her. Old is the new new.
Ike DeLorenzo writes about food and wine. He can be reached at email@example.com. Restaurant critic Devra First returns next week.