food

10 Thoughts About Boston for a Friend Who's Moving There

A friend is moving to Boston so I gave her some thoughts about my hometown. I haven’t lived there for many years, but I get back every so often and love to experience new places and old. Some people will find this list clichéd or surely incomplete (no mention of public transit? I love the T). So be it for now.

(I’ve gotta say, the other day I got a lump in my throat when the Patriots came back to win that AFC championship game. The Pats are not exactly my first team, but I was a little surprised to sense the hometown pride. Turns out I’ll be in New York on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s not quite halfway between Foxborough and Philly, though close enough, and I suspect there won’t be many Patriots fans in the sports bars. We’ll see.)

So here goes. Not in any particular order.

Fall in love with the ocean. Sandy beaches on Cape Cod to rocky coast of Maine. Find the places that move and mesmerize you.

Neptune Oyster Bar, North End. Yes it's tiny and sometimes takes hours to get in, but I like the place, especially sitting at the bar. Some of the freshest oysters, etc., in town. Lobster rolls two ways. Good beer and wine.

Harvard Square. Overly gentrified and sorta too trendy, but it's the heart of intellectual and multi-cultural Cambridge. Bookstores, shops, restos, coffee or tea and the leafy pleasure of walking around Harvard Yard. I bought my first jazz albums at the Coop just about 50 years ago (Coltrane, Monk, Cannonball Adderley) and my first copy of Howl at the newsstand outside. The vibe remains if you know where to look. Try the Red House (was closed for renovation last time I was there) or new place, Waypoint. Always new restaurants opening.

Speaking of which: Craigie on Main. Between Central and Kendall squares in Cambridge. One of my go-to restaurants. Again, I like the bar: creative cocktails, good wines, French-style cooking. Pricey, but you can get a burger too. One of my Boston faves.

The Granary Burial Ground. When you walk the historic streets of downtown Boston take a stroll through this quaint old cemetery. It'll put you in touch with the spirit (and spirits), you know, names like Adams, Franklin, et al. (Photo)

Boston Common. One of the nation's truly great public spaces. Parkland, pond, etc. On northeast corner, on Beacon Hill across from Statehouse, don't miss the bronze sculpture (by Saint Gaudens) commemorating the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the black soldiers fighting for the Union in Civil War (photo). And a few steps away from there is another great (and expensive) Boston restaurant: No 9 Park, one of restaurateur Barbara Lynch's signature places. Thoughtful, creative, potentially romantic.

The art museums: Museum of Fine Arts and the Gardner (photo) are mere blocks apart, so plan a twofer. (At the MFA, don't miss the sublime installation, "pivot blue green," by former Kansas Citian Anne Lindberg, in the contemporary wing; look up. Photo) Harvard's museums also worth checking out. And the ICA, near the Seaport (take the Silver Line!), is cutting edge in a cool building (photo).

Bukowski. OK, not every joint has to be expensive. This great dive bar and griil will appeal to your inner beer nerd. It's up a side street from Prudential Center (where you can indulge in the new Eataly). Good burgers and sandwiches; sassy servers. Pretty sure Bukowski, named for the grimy LA poet, is cash only.

JFK Library and Museum. To be a real Bostonian you must make a pilgrimage (via Red Line and a shuttle bus) to this important place of local and national history. The library also houses one of the most significant collections of Hemingway material, in the non-public research rooms upstairs. Let me know if you go and I will try to drop a word and get you a peek into the Hemingway Room. Also new out there is a Ted Kennedy center, but I haven't been there.

Fenway. Quirky and iconic. Surely you'll go there to see the Royals. Fun option: try the Bleacher Bar. Some seats have a window view overlooking center field, or there's TV above the bar. It’s open year round if you’re in the neighborhood. Also in the neighborhood: Eventide Oyster, a Boston branch of the well-regarded Portland (Maine, of course) restaurant, opened to wild expectations in 2017.

This food thing: A sweet and melancholy affair

I have a large appetite. Food is not just nutrition but celebration. And life is too short to eat boring food, just as it’s too short to drink unremarkable wine. So I splurge sometimes. I cook with focus, adventure and a kind of subdued passion. I go for new tastes.

Yet, lately, I tend to eat less. Call it diabetes discipline. That’s optimistic. The numbers are good, though my liver would tend to disagree. Still, if tempted with a whole roasted fish or an oozing burrata with smoked trout roe, I’m all over it, at least for a few bites. Turns out that a heaping plate of crispy beef from a local, old-reliable Chinese restaurant can remain the centerpiece of four leftover lunches. I mean, why stuff yourself?

These thoughts began arising as I read a new collection of the late Jim Harrison’s food-and-life essays. The book’s title, A Really Big Lunch, refers to a spectacularly excessive, 37-course feast (or was it 42?) put on by a French chef and friend of Harrison’s. Even Harrison, whose appetites clearly were larger than mine, felt overwhelmed, almost defeated at one point. Harrison holds nothing back as a writer, and some readers might be turned off by his lecherous confessions and old-school impropriety (the essays reach as far back as the 1970s). But looking past all that, which, in the current sexual-harassment environment, becomes admittedly harder to do, he has wise and entertaining things to say about food and wine. I plan to cherry-pick some of Harrison’s wine writing for a paper I’m planning to give at a Hemingway conference, in Paris, in 2018. And imagine my surprise when I realized recently that in my modest collection of bottles I’ve got a Domaine Tempier Bandol from a few years back, which apparently was Harrison’s favorite wine in the world.

So, food, wine and cooking. From time to time I pay attention to the appetites.

On a fall Saturday, with nothing much else going on, I turned some of the last of our yard tomatoes into a marinara. They were not lovely orbs. They weren’t even deeply red, but they would do for a kitchen improvisation. It took a while in boiling water to loosen their skins, but when that was done I set them aside to cool. Chopped onions and garlic and the last of some baby carrots in the fridge. I was hoping to add tomato paste to the simmering stew, to add some color and heft, but alas I could find none on the shelf. Here’s a suitable substitute: a small jar of prepared tapenade; hmm, red peppers, some kind of cheese, why not? The tapenade turned the marinara a bit orange, but with salt, pepper and dried herbs, it all tasted pretty fine nearly two hours later when I turned off the burner. I put some of the marinara in a bag to freeze, and held out a good portion to eat the next day.

One Sunday, we found some frozen lamb chops in the freezer. I chopped onion and garlic. I opened a red wine (a mass market red Zinfandel) and a jar of vegetable stock I’d made around Thanksgiving. Ta da: braised lamb, with little potatoes and carrots. We ate lamb chops for days.

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As a onetime restaurant critic, my radar remains fairly well tuned when we go out to eat. Yet, I failed myself on a recent trip to Toronto. Though I managed to sample a decent variety of tastes in a couple of days – pub food, tapas at a trendy Sherry bar -- I missed the hugely important world of alluring Asian cuisines that seem to define dining in that capital of cultural diversity. Next time, for sure. A recent trip to Atlanta gave us a sampling of that city’s burgeoning fine-dining scene, though we barely scratched the surface. In Boston this fall, at the Neptune Oyster Bar (pictured), I managed to consume some of the finest oysters on the half shell I’d ever met. In Kansas City, I’ve sampled a couple of promising new restaurants lately and always find pleasure and creativity when returning to old favorites (Novel, the Rieger, the Antler Room, to name just three). And I had one of the best meals of the year when birthday splurging in Corvino’s Tasting Room (details in a previous blog). But I always have to remind myself that some of the other best meals of the year occurred in domestic settings: A humbly generous and bustling family meal around an extended kitchen table at the Zia Pueblo in New Mexico; an intimate and poignant Thanksgiving tribute with family members of a close friend who had died just the week before.

With the holidays in full swing, I expect much feasting ahead, some of it happy, some, so it goes, melancholy. The warmth of the kitchen, the clink of glasses, all that love on our plates – sure, we can’t help but feel grateful for what we have.