This year, Boston restaurants had burger fever. Japanese ramen arrived on the scene. The Oak Room reinvented itself, while Locke-Ober closed. Kendall Square blossomed, and the already burgeoning South Boston waterfront prepared to explode. The constant amid changes and passing trends? Some really good food. With Thanksgiving upon us, it’s time to reflect on the larger things for which we are grateful. The smaller pleasures are worth remembering, too. Here are 15 dishes I was thankful for this year.
Amsterdam Falafelshop, 248 Elm St., Somerville, 617-764-3334, www.falafelshop.com
Long a fan of D.C.’s Amsterdam Falafelshop, I couldn’t have been happier when a branch of the pita purveyor opened in Somerville’s Davis Square. The falafel itself is delicious, cumin-scented, crisp on the outside, and properly cooked on the inside. But it’s the toppings bar that makes this the best falafel sandwich in town, with more than a dozen pickles, sauces, and salads to choose from.
Casa B, 253 Washington St., Somerville. 617-764-2180. www.casabrestaurant.com
This Latin and Caribbean tapas joint is one of the best date-night restaurants around. The place is stylish and sparkling, modern and romantic. And the food is great. One standout is the carne mechada, a Puerto Rican version of pot roast. The deeply flavored beef stew is served with gnocchi made from yuca, cloaked in brown butter and garnished with sage leaves. It’s a delicious fusion of bistro and Borinquen.
Roast Autumn Squash
Farmstead Table, 71 Union St., Newton Centre, 617-928-6000, www.farmsteadtable.com
What a joy to find vegetables so beautifully and simply showcased on a restaurant table. Buttery, velvety roast acorn squash (pictured at right) spills over with kale, Brussels sprouts, and carrots. It is far more satisfying than it has any right to be, each ingredient cooked to its ideal point, a true portrait of the bounty of the season.
The Hawthorne, 500A Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-532-9150, www.thehawthornebar.com
Both polished and relaxed, the Hawthorne is one of the best bars in town. It serves great snacks to match. For instance, Reuben toasts, which offer the flavors of the sandwich in a much tinier package: smoky meat, melted cheese, sharp kraut, and a bit of tangy dressing. Perfect with whatever potion the skilled bartenders are shaking up for you.
JM Curley’s, 21 Temple Place, Boston, 617-338-5333, www.jmcurleyboston.com
Located solidly between the fast-food burger and the upscale $20 burger is JM Curley’s just-right burger. A beefy 9-ounce patty on a toasted sesame bun with thin-sliced pickles, caramelized onions, cheddar, and Russian dressing, it isn’t anything fancy. It’s simply really satisfying, what you want when you want a burger.
Kitchen, 560 Tremont St., Boston, 617-695-1250, www.kitchenbostonmass.com
History is on the menu at Kitchen, which lists the dates that dishes such as mock turtle soup and tournedos Rossini were created. Lobster Thermidor may be from 1894, but it certainly doesn’t taste old. It’s a rich casserole of lobster meat, flour-based gnocchi, and spinach, all bound together with cream and cheese, brightened with mustard and topped with breadcrumbs. Decadent and delicious.
Fried Maine Lobster Caramel
Nix’s Mate, 89 Broad St., Boston, 617-348-1234, www.nixsmate.com
When I reviewed this restaurant in the Financial District Hilton hotel, I named this the strangest and most strangely compelling lobster dish of the year. It was only June. With a month to go in 2012, I stand by my assessment. Chef David Nevins batters and fries lobster, then serves the golden nuggets of tail and claw meat in a caramel sauce augmented with cheddar cheese, green onions, and chilies. The flavors swirl into a cosmic, wonderful weirdness that seems inspired equally by Vietnam, New England, and the kingdom of Bong-landia.
Tagliatelle with Lobster and Short Rib
Oak Long Bar, 138 St. James Ave., Boston, 617-585-7222, www.oaklongbarkitchen.com
I approached this dish with skepticism, as I’ve been fooled by similar surf-turf-and-pasta constructions before. They sound so promising, and then they don’t deliver. This version sings, handmade tagliatelle with sweet, tender pieces of lobster, craggy chunks of beautifully cooked short rib, zucchini, and pecorino.
Mini Lobster Roll
Olives, 10 City Square, Charlestown, 617-242-1999, www.toddenglish.com
Todd English’s revived Charlestown restaurant still emphasizes big flavors, but a new focus is small plates. This was a particularly clever and tasty presentation — a perfect little lobster roll served with a jar of rich lobster-corn chowder and potato chips dusted with Old Bay.
Shrimp and Grits
M3, 382 Highland Ave., Somerville, 617-718-6666. www.imwithmeat.com
This trendy dish has cropped up on menus all over town. Many of the versions disappoint, but not the one at Southern restaurant M3. The luxurious, creamy grits are topped with perfectly cooked shrimp, laced with cheese, and studded with okra. The dish is surprisingly, excellently spicy.
Park, 59 JFK St., Cambridge, 617-491-9851, www.parkcambridge.com
Mussels get the clam shack treatment. Freed from their shells, they are battered and fried into crisp, juicy bites, intermingled with sweet-tart pieces of preserved lemon, also battered and fried. The mixture is served in an authentic cardboard carton, white with red stripes, with pungent horseradish dipping sauce on the side.
Uni Sashimi Bar, 370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, www.unisashimibar.com
Good ramen has been hard to come by in Boston, but that is beginning to change, thanks in part to Uni’s late-night ramen. Served Thursday through Saturday after 11 p.m., the steaming bowls of Japanese noodle soup come in two flavors. One is more traditional, with roast pork. The other, called umami ramen, features barbecue eel and a rich, intense broth. Both are wonderful.
Crema de Platano
Vejigante, 57 West Dedham St., Boston, 617-247-9249, www.vejigantesrestaurant.com
At this warm little Puerto Rican restaurant in the South End, the most warming thing on the menu is also one of the best: soup. The cream of plantain is comforting yet nuanced; there is a backbone of garlic, plus a pleasant sourness and complexity. It’s just the thing to get you through the Boston winter.
Grilled Veal Chop
West Bridge, 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617-945-0221, westbridgerestaurant.com
At one of my favorite new restaurants of the year, flavors don’t just coexist, they complement. A veal chop is perfectly grilled, but it is the combination of the meat with bits of dried olive and almond touched with brown sugar, with chard laced with candied orange peel, that makes it mind-blowingly delicious.
Yakitori Zai, 315 Shawmut Ave., Boston. 857-350-4450. www.yakitorizai.com
Many dishes make me thankful at this Japanese restaurant one might actually find in Japan. It specializes in skewers of chicken parts and more cooked over charcoal. But it seems fitting to conclude with dessert. At Yakitori Zai, that’s annin dofu. This isn’t tofu but a panna cotta-like custard, made with agar agar rather than gelatin. Wobbly, rich with cream, lightly almond flavored, it is a perfect, cooling end to a meal.