Ken Oringer opens up on why he’s shutting down the restaurant that made him famous
‘I’ve devoted almost half my life to [Clio]. I had this restaurant long before I knew my wife or had my kids.’
Ken Oringer is shutting down Clio , the acclaimed restaurant that made him famous. Oringer opened Clio on the ground floor of the Eliot Hotel in 1997. On New Year’s Eve, Clio will serve its final meal, and will reopen in a matter of weeks as an expanded version of Uni, the 18-seat sashimi bar currently tucked in Clio’s lounge area.
We talked with the father of two about his decision to close (‘it’s actually a very emotional time’), his favorite things to eat (‘White Castle cheeseburgers’), and what the James Beard award winner packs in his 7-year-old daughter’s lunchbox (‘she made a list of things she will eat’).
1. You’re not from New England – how did you end up opening a restaurant in Boston?
Oringer: I went to school in Rhode Island at Bryant College, so I always had a little bit of a love affair with New England. When I graduated, I ended up getting a job as a pastry chef at Al Forno in Providence. But Providence is a small town to stay in. So I ended up talking my way into a job in Boston. This was 1991. Jean-Georges had a restaurant here called Le Marquis de Lafayette. And it was the fanciest of the fancy. All the chefs were from France. No one spoke English. After a few years, I ended up moving out to San Francisco for a number of years.
When I was ready to open up my own restaurant, I thought – I think I’m gonna come back to Boston. You could sense the city was started to change a little bit, becoming a bit more international. The space where Clio and Uni are now — it was this legendary place called the Eliot Lounge, a sports bar with no windows. The dungiest, darkest type place, but legendary. I met my partners who own the Eliot Hotel, and the rest is history.
2. How has the Boston food scene changed in the 19 years since you opened Clio?
Oringer: It’s just night and day. Back then, there just wasn’t that much in Boston in terms of fine dining. When we opened Clio, basically it was just L’Espalier, Rialto, and Biba [now closed]. That may have been it. It was unheard of really to have good neighborhood restaurants. Now it’s so amazing. On every corner in every neighborhood there are amazing restaurants. Anywhere you look there are amazing young chefs doing amazing things.
3. When did you decide to close Clio, and what prompted the decision?
Oringer: It’s something I had been toying with in the back of my mind for a little bit. And then this spring, I went to Japan and I was eating there in different places and I thought it would be so nice to do something more with Uni, because it’s such a tiny space. The more I traveled around Japan and the more time I was spending at Toro New York and Toro Boston, I started thinking – my restaurants are more casual now. So I think if this is the way I’m eating now, with more variety and small plates, and less formal, then having that reflected in my restaurants makes sense.
I’m the type of person who loves to challenge myself and loves change. I don’t like to be stagnant. A white guy from New Jersey opening up a Japanese restaurant 15 years ago didn’t make as much sense as it does now, but times have changed, and I’ve changed, and it’s just time.
4. Do you have a favorite all-time dish from Clio’s 19-year history?
Oringer: One of them – which we brought back a couple days ago – is live sea urchin with fresh yuzu and white soy, nori croquants and green apple wasabi. I love sea urchin.
5. How does it feel to close the doors on the restaurant that launched your career?
Oringer: It’s definitely bittersweet. I’ve been going through filing cabinets full of notes and memories and menus. It’s actually a very emotional time. I’ve devoted almost half my life to this restaurant. I had this restaurant long before I knew my wife or had my kids. We’ve had over 20 guys who worked here and went on to win awards all over the world.
6. You’ve said in years past that you aren’t incredibly concerned with only buying locally. Has that changed?
Oringer: I’m friendly with every farmer within 30 miles of Boston. But again, there comes a time – for instance now, going into winter – that if I can get these amazing tangerines from San Francisco, I’d be stupid not to. It’s like being in France and saying I’m only going to get product from Alsace and not Provence. You’re too limited by the seasons in the Northeast not to look beyond it.
7. What are some of your favorite places to eat in and around Boston? And do you have a guilty food pleasure?
Oringer:Sarma in Somerville and Blue Dragon in the Seaport District. And I had an amazing meal recently at Giulia in Cambridge. Also West Bridge [in Kendall Square]. And Shojo [in Chinatown]. And my two favorite foods are microwave White Castle cheeseburgers from 7-Eleven and any kind of hot dog.
8. I’ve heard you don’t eat eggs. What do you have against eggs, and is there anything else you won’t eat?
Oringer: My mom will never admit it, but I think I was forced to eat eggs as a kid. I have a memory of that. And to this day, I would eat elephant testicles, but I’m not gonna eat a plate of scrambled eggs. But I cook probably 10 varieties of eggs for my kids. I love cooking eggs.
I also don’t drink coffee. I remember every morning, my parents would grind beans and make their own coffee. I would wake up to that noise. And I always associated that smell of coffee with ‘Ugh I have to get up.’ I’m one of four [children], and none of us drink coffee.
9. What’s it like cooking for a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old? What does a James Beard winner pack in a lunchbox?
Oringer: It’s a little like the show Fear Factor. My kids will sit at Uni and I’ll have them look at the fish case, and I’ll say ‘What looks interesting?’ You have to throw it in front of them. My son loves salmon roe. He thinks it’s so cool that these things pop in your mouth. And they eat wagyu beef. It’s like $80 a pound. When I cook steak at home, they won’t even eat it. They want the wagyu. They eat a ton of raw oysters. They eat escargot.
I had the proudest day of my life the other day. I opened up an urchin, and I told my daughter ‘You have to go fishing.’ I showed her how you pull out the orange stuff with your fingers. And she tried it and said ‘You know, I kind of like it.’ And I thought ‘Yes!’
I pack my daughter’s lunch box every day. She made a list of things she will eat. She doesn’t like to eat all the weird stuff in front of her friends. So I make little spanicopita, or chicken cutlets. Sometimes I’ll make little steamed pork dumplings. Or because of all the allergies, I’ll make a sandwich, but with sun butter.
10. Aside from expanding Uni, what else is in the works?
Oringer: We have a restaurant opening in Cambridge on Mass. Ave. in Central Square called Little Donkey. I’m opening that with Jamie Bissonnette. We’re aiming for the spring. It will be global small plates — breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
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