Best of Boston 2009
9 East St., Boston, 617-654-9900, oyarestaurantboston.com
It’s been two years since chef Tim Cushman’s refined sushi operation made a stealth entrance onto the scene, gradually picking up buzz until being “discovered” by gobsmacked foodies whose praise launched it to the national stage. Now, even as O Ya’s new-kid glow has faded (and despite its stunning price point), the wait list remains impressively long. And we’ll tell you why: Visit after visit, the hypnotic beauty of the food, seemingly simple but layered with clear flavors (white soy and yuzu glazing a sweet scallop, Thai basil and Szechwan pepper on sweet-salty eel), never fails to catch jaded palates off-guard—and has even been known to make some diners blush with delight.
LAST YEAR: O Ya
550 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-0550, bandgoysters.com
When summer finally arrives in Boston, every restaurant with a patch of sidewalk scurries to put out a few wrought iron tables and hang its “al fresco” shingle. Sure, we’ll take every ray of sun we can get, but our kudos in this category is reserved for spots with expansive, more thoughtful outdoor spaces. While Oleana’s courtyard has long been a standout, there’s just something wildly appealing and Secret Garden–like about the sunken back patio at the South End’s B&G. Almost primitive in design, with seemingly rogue vines gripping the stone walls, it feels the way a real outdoor eatery should: comfortable and slightly magical, a lovely aesthetic backdrop to the splendor on the plate.
LAST YEAR: Oleana
178 Thorndike St., Brookline, 617-739-0060, clearflourbread.com
Flour, water, yeast, salt. Four lowlier ingredients are hard to imagine—as are the heights to which they can rise in the hands of master bakers like Clear Flour’s husband-and-wife owners, Abe Faber and Christy Timon. Now in its third decade, their family shop turns out character-rich, deeply authentic European-style breads (pungent vollkornbrot, grassy sourdough) for Oleana, Toro, and other leading restaurants, as well as for a devoted walk-in clientele. Clinching the win is Clear Flour’s metro location, which puts all this yeasty goodness within easy reach of carb-starved Bostonians.
LAST YEAR: B&R Artisan Bread
One Belmont St., Cambridge, 617-661-3161, sofrabakery.com
Trailing orange blossom syrup and rose petal sugar, Ana Sortun’s year-old bakery-café comes on like a Salome of sweets, beguiling the cupcake-and-cookie crowd with such Middle Eastern–inspired delicacies as Egyptian bread pudding and Syrian shortbread with rhubarb-rose jam. To pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick, our oversugared palates owe thanks for a much-needed dose of spice.
RUNNERS-UP: Flour, Canto 6
LAST YEAR: Flour
774 Boylston St., Boston, 617-266-8800, seldelaterre.com
To go along with its spanking-new digs, the Back Bay outpost of this country-French standby has installed a smart but casual downstairs café with a menu to match. We’re partial to the za’atar-crusted wings and the two-handed burger with smoky bacon and Vermont cheddar (made positively gut-busting by a foie gras torchon), but since nothing tops $20, everything goes down easy.
RUNNER-UP: Garden at the Cellar
LAST YEAR: Blu
200 Hampden St., Boston, 617-306-0788
Over the past year, the mouthwatering aromas wafting from this rig near the corner of Hampden and Norfolk may as well have been smoke signals, announcing an upset was brewing in 2009. Indeed, this category’s long-reigning suburban champ has seen its eponymous blue ribbon go instead to a gritty city underdog, literally a truck stationed in a Roxbury sandlot. The former’s superior burnt brisket ends aside, recent visits found that its poultry had chickened out a bit on smoke flavor. By contrast, the succulent chicken, slow-grilled ribs, and tangy, faintly fiery sauce served up by M&M’s near-legendary pit master, “Big Moe,” stayed right on cue.
RUNNERS-UP: Blue Ribbon BBQ, Pit Stop Barbeque
LAST YEAR: Blue Ribbon BBQ
One Kendall Sq., Cambridge, 617-621-1200, thefriendlytoast.net
“Friendly Toast is coming!” “OMG! Friendly Toast!” Judging by the way local foodies were whipping themselves into a frenzy online, you’d think it was the second coming. But unless one finds salvation in pumpkin pancakes, pecan–caramelized banana waffles, and assorted scrambles, Benedicts, and omelets, the new outpost of this beloved Portsmouth, New Hampshire, institution is merely a really, really, really good place to have breakfast. The décor is retro and funky—all fifties dinette sets and Esso ads—and the food is a fresher, slightly fancier variation on diner classics, with homemade breads and sauces. The rapture? Maybe not. Divine? You bet.
RUNNER-UP: Deluxe Town Diner
LAST YEAR: Clio
1704 Washington St., Boston, 617-536-4300, toro-restaurant.com
A truly great brunch must hit four marks: a tasty and varied menu, a strong bar, a relaxed atmosphere, and outdoor seating. Over the past year, South End tapas joint Toro boosted its performance on the food-and-beverage front (it had already aced the chill mood and the patio), adding a selection of tapas and pinchos—tortilla Espanola, yellowfin crudo, etc.—to its regular lineup of vanilla-bourbon-banana French toast and huevos rancheros. It also hired bar manager Courtney Bissonnette (hubby is chef Jamie) to jazz up the cocktails. By so doing, Toro has cracked, poached, and scrambled its more conventional challengers.
LAST YEAR: Eastern Standard
92 Kirkland St., Cambridge, 617-576-6328, savenorsmarket.com
Boston has become a bona fide haven for conscientious carnivores, what with Whole Foods boasting displays packed with New England meats and Lionette’s Market touting pork from central Massachusetts and Vermont. Still, only Savenor’s hits it right on the snout, with its reasonable (for the quality) prices and wide selection, which includes grass-fed Vermont beef and lamb for the leave-tiny-footprints contingent, plus generously marbled wagyu and sweet wild boar bacon for the occasional indulgence. Call ahead to its Cambridge flagship or its smaller shop on Beacon Hill, and they’ll prep almost anything you’d want to roast or grill—from a trimmed crown roast to a trussed and ready-to-stuff whole goose.
RUNNER-UP: Lionette’s Market
2007 WINNER: Savenor’s
244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750, formaggiokitchen.com
When the French knighted owner Ihsan Gurdal, it became official: Formaggio is cheese nobility. The Cambridge store (with sister shops in the South End and New York) carries 300-plus varieties, representing nearly every region and technique, from Switzerland’s Försterkäse to Massachusetts’ own Carlisle Chabichou.
RUNNER-UP: Boston Cheese Cellar
2007 WINNER: Formaggio Kitchen
375 Main St., Malden, 781-388-3338, fuloon-restaurant.com
Chinese eateries have long been stuck between a wok and a hard place: hew to the Americanized hit parade, or risk alienating the crowds craving kung pao. Thankfully, a coup is afoot, with renegade restaurateurs positing fiery Szechwan as a sexier alternative to Cantonese lite. Fragrant camphor-smoked duck, velvety beef braised in mouth-numbing neon-orange peppercorn oil—all safely segregated, menuwise, from more broadly palatable fare. The newly chili-head-friendly New Shanghai wins points for Chinatown proximity and the addictive chung qing spicy chicken. Yet we’re irresistibly drawn to Malden for FuLoon’s haunting home-style bean curd, the entire “Wok Baked” series, and the bottomless pitchers of soothing H20.
RUNNER-UP: New Shanghai
LAST YEAR: Mary Chung
92B Pinckney St., Boston, 617-725-1900, beaconhillchocolates.com
As Boston’s artisanal confectioners trend toward ever-weirder flavor combinations (poblano pepper truffles, bonbons oozing with olive oil), Beacon Hill Chocolates has us falling back in love with the classics: fillings like salted caramel and hazelnut praline delivered in beautifully tempered shells. The competition can just eat their quirky-candy hearts out.
LAST YEAR: ChocoLee
27 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-876-2700, cremacambridge.com
By virtue of its excellence-obsessed baristas and premium roasters (Terroir, Barismo), our city is pouring itself a righteous coffee reputation that gives new meaning to the nickname “Beantown.” Coffee nerds adore the top-quality espresso drinks pulled at the tiny Taste Coffee House (Newtonville) and the crowded Simon’s Coffee Shop (Cambridge); however, only Harvard Square java den Crema has the full-service offerings impressive enough to take this year’s title. To wit: stellar brew (they serve French press!), abundant seating inside and out, made-from-scratch food, and an inspiring independent spirit.
RUNNERS-UP: Taste Coffee House, Simon’s Coffee Shop
LAST YEAR: Diesel Café
1:30–7 p.m. Thursdays through 10/29, Belmont Center, belmontfarmersmarket.org
Picking the best farmers’ market is like trying to pick the best heirloom tomato. What’s not to love in any of the forms and flavors they take? All typically have lovely selections of just-plucked fruits, veggies, and herbs; however, the Belmont agricultural get-together earns bonus points (and a loyal following of chefs) for the bumper crop of other regional goodies it has on hand. Stock up on Bay State–bred pork, lamb, beef, and chicken; raw honey from local hives; handmade mozzarella from Somerville’s Fiore di Nonno; brownies baked fresh at Malden-based Geoff & Drew’s; and gelato from Belmont’s own Angelato—and you’ll find that dullsville weekly supermarket run looking downright superfluous.
RUNNERS-UP: Union Square, Lexington
LAST YEAR: N/A
622 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-876-8227, newdealfishmarket.com
When trying to lay your hands on the freshest catch in Boston, you could get up at 4 a.m., pull on rubber boots, and clump along to the fish pier to haggle with salty characters. Or you could sleep in until a decent hour, then do what the city’s smartest cooks do: head to this venerable storefront in East Cambridge, where owner Carl Fantasia makes buying and preparing seafood a breeze, even for novices. He’ll not only steer you to the tastiest specimens in the display case, but also point out which Portuguese olive oil will bring out the best in those bright-eyed sardines, and supply the nori needed to turn that sushi-grade tuna into hand-rolled maki.
RUNNER-UP: Wulf’s Fish Market
LAST YEAR: New Deal
Eliot Hotel, 370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-864-1991, cliorestaurant.com
Ever since L’Espalier shed its homey brownstone for the aseptic Mandarin hotel complex last year, the Franco-frontrunner has struggled to recapture the magic, leaving the field wide open for numerous worthy rivals. Buckets of beurre into testing, we narrowed our list to Clio, Salts, and Sensing (a gem, after a sloppy opening), all of which are seriously reenergizing this oft-stodgy category. In the end, though, Clio rose to the top. Now that his mini empire (Toro, La Verdad, Uni, KO Prime) is running smoothly, chef Ken Oringer has refocused on his flagship, turning out the kind of startling gastro-invention—e.g., scallop-shingled cod with yuzu-pea purée—we first fell in love with.
LAST YEAR: L’Espalier
8 High St., Boston, 617-426-1234, radiusrestaurant.com
Burger slinging has come a long way from the Bartley’s-Sully’s turf wars of yore. Now a groundswell of ground-beef mania has chefs experimenting with custom meat blends, artisanal bunwork, and umami-boosting hocus-pocus. Along divergent paths, Middlesex (smoky bacon, griddled pickle, ciabatta) and KO Prime (foie gras, yuzu aioli, toasted-interior bulkie) raised mundane chuck to dizzying heights. But Radius (aged cheddar, lemon-horseradish mayo, housemade milk bun) tops them all with a mountain of crispy frizzled onions—which, as it turns out, is a little-known shortcut to gastro-enlightenment.
LAST YEAR: Mr. Bartley’s
75 Winthrop St., Cambridge, 617-491-4552, tamarind-bay.com
There’s plenty of tasty Indian food around town—witness the lines of hungry grad students at Cambridge’s Punjabi Dhaba, for one. But Harvard Square’s Tamarind Bay Bistro (along with its newer sibling, the seafood-oriented Coastal Indian Kitchen in Brookline) is in a class of its own because it treats Indian cuisine as, well, an actual cuisine. Here you’ll find regional distinctions more precise than "northern" and "southern," and taste the kinds of dishes, like butter chicken curry and the exceptional vegetable biryani, in which individual flavors sing out clearly, instead of fading into a haze of spice.
RUNNER-UP: Punjabi Dhaba
LAST YEAR: Tamarind Bay
Charles Hotel, One Bennett St., Cambridge, 617-661-5050, rialto-restaurant.com
Like a Verdian lothario, this town’s upscale Italian has a knack for breaking hearts. Leave a place transported by its pillowy gnocchi, and you can bet your Bolognese it’ll be dense as lead when you go back for more. Spending more while testing this category than for French and Steakhouse combined, we mourned the fall of every contender, with consistency issues (Bina), new-project distraction (Dante), service glitches (Sorellina), and failure to inspire (everyone else). Sorry for the lame valentine, Rialto, but we’ve got baggage. Just say your roast duck will remain tender and your stellar pastas will stay true, and we’ll break this serial-monogamy habit once and for all.
LAST YEAR: Dante
149 Alewife Brook Pkwy., Cambridge, 617-520-9500, summershackrestaurant.com
Talk about knowing your audience. With its giant bucket of crayons on the hostess stand and army of highchairs standing at the ready, this seafood favorite not only welcomes tots with open arms—there’s even a balloon sculptor and free sundaes on Sunday evenings—but it also serves the grownups in tow some very respectable chow (think ceviche and wood-grilled lobster). The latter accommodation, in fact, nudged the Summer Shack ahead of perennial pick Full Moon, which, while wonderful for its party vibe and fully stocked play area, keeps the food on the so-simple-you-could’ve-made-it-at-home side.
LAST YEAR: Eastern Standard
853 Main St., Cambridge, 617-497-5511, craigieonmain.com
Tony Maws isn’t one of those chefs who tries to make it look easy. In his new Central Square digs, the open kitchen takes center stage, providing an unobstructed view of exactly how that (Vermont organic) lamb three ways and (Maine dayboat) halibut get onto the plate. Maws even spells out his principles on the Craigie website, including "First we find the ingredients, then we create the menu"—which means that every day he’s sourcing what’s local, in season, and, for the most part, organic. By degrees, Maws takes it further than anyone else in town, and his work is your reward.
RUNNERS-UP: Persephone, T. W. Food, Beacon Hill Bistro
LAST YEAR: N/A
11 Springfield St., Cambridge, 617-492-4495, olegrill.com
In the quest for great Mexican, of which Boston has little (relative to, say, El Paso or San Diego), much recent praise has been heaped on the champions of "authentic" cuisine, and on pre-Hispanic recipes like cuitlacoche crêpes. But you know what? Sometimes we don’t want to munch fried grasshoppers. Sometimes we want enchiladas with damn good rice and beans. And so we’ve rediscovered our love for Olé, where chef Erwin Ramos serves mole and pozole as authentic as any out there, but isn’t too proud to serve chiles rellenos and shrimp tacos, too. (By the way: The latter, stuffed with pickled cabbage and gently fried camarones, are worth their weight in Spanish gold.)
RUNNER-UP: Angela’s Café
LAST YEAR: Tu y Yo
513 Tremont St., Boston, 617-927-0066, piccorestaurant.com
Previous years have seen this contest split into mini categories like "Best Thin Crust" and "Best Toppings." But it’s time to set aside compiled-ish things and commit to a single, superlative winner: namely, Picco, for combining the chewy-crisp crust of Santarpio’s with the fresh (okay, "gourmet") toppings that have earned Emma’s such a devoted following. It’s the best of both worlds on a 14-inch disk of dough, and you won’t find its match in the city.
LAST YEAR: N/A
14 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-232-0188, mattmurphyspub.com
Aside from a bounty of cheap burgers and greasy fries, this year’s tour of pub grub options turned up a surprising lack of substantial (read: tummy-filling) dishes. Except, that is, at Matt Murphy’s, where the farmhouse plate’s country-style pâté is the size of a small brick and the soup arrives in a bowl as big as your head. Besides which, the food is outstanding. Try the tender, relish-slathered lamb sirloin sandwich or the piping-hot, supercrispy fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper—they’re more than enough to make you forgive Matt Murphy’s for not serving burgers.
LAST YEAR: Bukowski’s Tavern
348 Congress St., Boston, 617-737-1234, sportelloboston.com
It’s a puzzle, how Barbara Lynch can manage to launch four restaurants, a bar, and two retail operations, all in different genres, while preserving the quality and essential Lynchness of each. And so we come to her most casual spot, Sportello, a minimalist midprice Italian diner—only here, the line cooks sling hiramasa crudo, chicken with dates and pine nuts, and mustard leaf agnolotti. It’s a testament to the power of the gnocchi alone that the place is bouncing, despite the surrounding Fort Point Channel neighborhood’s still-delayed gentrification. No other startup exhibited so much polish out of the gate, or such a pitch-perfect sense of the way we’re eating now.
LAST YEAR: L’Andana
134 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-661-0505, oleanarestaurant.com
Lovebirds find a year-round habitat in Oleana, which beckons with a lush hidden garden in summer months and a cozy fireplace when the snow flies, as well as a menu of eastern Mediterranean sumptuousness that sets the mood no matter what the season. Chef Ana Sortun does contemporary riffs on moussaka, kibbeh, bisteeya, and other exotica that beg to be shared (bonus for vegetarian couples: a tasting menu that marries sophisticated spice with produce from Sortun’s family farm). Should the evening’s canoodling lead to something more permanent, Oleana’s private-party setup and Sortun’s inventive menu planning make for a truly unforgettable wedding feast.
LAST YEAR: UpStairs on the Square
63 Salem St., Boston, 617-742-3474, neptuneoyster.com
Though we Bostonians are awash in seafood, there’s shockingly little variety among those serving it to us. There are the clam shacks (Morse Fish Company, No Name), the executive favorites (Legal, Turner, Skipjack’s, et. al), and the amusement parks (Barking Crab, Kingfish Hall). Only two restaurants truly cater to foodies—the South End’s B&G Oysters and the North End’s Neptune Oyster—and we love ‘em both. This year Neptune can credit its edge over B&G to a slightly less formal vibe (shared tables, dishtowel napkins) that feels right for the times. That, and the fact that we spent the winter polishing off glorious scallops, ceviche, and cioppino here, and left happy every time.
RUNNER-UP: B&G Oysters
LAST YEAR: B&G Oysters
1704 Washington St., Boston, 617-536-4300, toro-restaurant.com
A place needs more than good sangria and jamón to qualify as a genuine tapas joint: It must also be a lively gathering spot, not one that’s empty by 11 p.m. Toro has one of the most reliably bustling late-night scenes in the city—impromptu dance parties have been known to break out around the bar—and a calendar peppered with fun events, like last spring’s Calçotada (Spring Onion Festival) and an annual party to mark the running of the bulls. Just as important, chef Jamie Bissonnette strikes precisely the right balance between beloved Spanish recipes (griddled garlic shrimp, chickpeas with chorizo) and adventurous ones (head cheese with pickled ramps, crispy pork belly with snails). Need a hit of liquid courage before you’ll try the smoked beef tongue? That’s what the sangria’s for.
LAST YEAR: Toro
793 Boylston St., Boston, 617-536-6300, abeandlouies.com
It’s the oldest story in the book: Man tours steakhouses, steakhouses run gamut, man eliminates fading relics, lesser chains, and "modern" meateries where the flourishes outshine the beef. And by the final page, Abe & Louie’s and Grill 23 once again have emerged as the heroes of our tale. In terms of overall atmosphere, it’s a draw (lively merriment versus relaxed elegance), but Abe & Louie’s cuts are a touch more flavorful, the wine list a tad kinder to our bottom line, and the non-steak options—like the addictive crab cakes—a little nearer to perfection. After all, in a showdown this sizzling, victory is measured by degrees.
RUNNERS-UP: Grill 23
LAST YEAR: Grill 23
Eliot Hotel, 370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, cliorestaurant.com
O Ya may have the most incomparable raw-fish dinner in town, but the reality of its special-occasion status is that we tend to reserve it for exactly that: a special occasion. Chef Ken Oringer’s sashimi bar, Uni, on the other hand, presents haute touches with such nonchalance that we feel no guilt about stopping in on a Tuesday night for a cilantro-and-cumin-laced plate of tuna tataki with foie gras and strawberries, or for slivers of firm, fresh Japanese octopus in tangy soy, ginger, and hot oil. Which we do happily, and often.
2007 WINNER: O Ya
168a Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-254-8488, si-togo.com
Notwithstanding the beef tendon fire pot at Montien (still the hottest soup around, in both senses of the word), this unassuming Allston 12-seater is your first-class ticket to Bangkok. The Thai-language menu is filled with enough mild-mannered fare to sate even the most uninitiated of palates, while devotees can delight in rare finds like crispy double-fried catfish laced with whole sprigs of fresh peppercorns and volcanic som tums flavored with raw salted crab.
RUNNERS-UP: Montien, Rod Dee
LAST YEAR: Brown Sugar Café
26 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-426-4444, legalseafoods.com
Red wine with meat, white wine with fish—whoa, not so fast! Wine director Sandy Block has compiled 40 pages (because 41 would just be silly) of bottles selected in blind tastings for menu compatibility, resulting in the ideal muscadet for those oysters and the right sangiovese for that spicy cioppino. Some three dozen vintages are available by the glass, and there are five tasting flights (three priced under $10) that change from one visit to the next. The inventory at last year’s ace, Troquet, is still worthy, but at the end of the day the options and value are at Legal.
LAST YEAR: Troquet
341 Hanover St., Boston, 617-227-6607, thewinebottega.com
Considering all the foot traffic on Hanover Street, new owner Kerri Platt could be making a dandy profit selling straw-wrapped chianti and chardonnay butter bombs. Nothing doing: Her discerning palate has transformed the Wine Bottega into a jewelry box of hidden gems and more-familiar varietals that do well by our wallet—and in the process has stolen the spotlight from perennial favorite Bauer Wines.
RUNNERS-UP: Bauer Wines, Bin Ends, Brix
LAST YEAR: Bauer Wines