Restaurant Review: No. 9 Park in Boston

Fifteen years later, has Barbara Lynch’s original flagship been reborn?

By | Boston Magazine |
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Crisp-skinned branzino with romesco, grilled scallions, and “jambon royale.” (Photographs by Angela Coppola)

How does a storied restaurant renew itself? Short of renovations, chef changes, and concept overhauls—tactics that places like Clio, UpStairs on the Square, and Oak Long Bar + Kitchen have tried—the frequent answer to the question is another question: Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Chefs and owners will tell you they’re constantly tinkering and refreshing and making improvements. But that doesn’t always translate into results a diner can see and taste.

The question comes up as No. 9 Park marks its 15th birthday this month. Barbara Lynch has moved forward and outward, with her shrewd sense of style and business and her rigid discipline. More of the Italian expertise she learned while cooking the city’s best pasta at Galleria Italiana, and later at No. 9? That’s now at Sportello. Fish, oysters, and casual excitement? B & G. Artisanal meats and farm-to-table cookery? The Butcher Shop. Spectacular, dramatic, expensive luxury in the middle of the worst economy since the Depression? Menton. Lynch tries what she wants and doesn’t listen to others, as she proudly told a group of international chefs in August at the Noma/Momofuku–sponsored MAD conference, in Copenhagen. The word she kept coming back to was “ballsy.”

But No. 9 hasn’t evolved with her. Menton is clearly her flagship now. No. 9 still has good service, if not quite the seamless, silken perfection it once did under the duo of Kerri Foley, Lynch’s childhood friend from the South Boston projects, and Garrett Harker. The wine service, under Cat Silirie, who now directs wine for all BL Gruppo restaurants, is as low-key and expert as ever. No. 9 is still full of businessmen and pols who love being able to walk a few steps to the front door, and young couples who’ve saved up. This is still a place to pop the question.

Lynch, one of the city’s champion nurturers of talent, is now “founder and CEO,” though, and not executive chef (a title that Ken Oringer has kept at Clio, which last year celebrated its own 15th birthday). This year, following the departure of chef Patrick Campbell to Eastern Standard, Lynch bestowed the mantle of “chef de cuisine” on Scott Jones—who, like Colin Lynch, the executive chef of the entire BL Gruppo, is a house-grown talent. Is No. 9 recognizably Jones’s? Fifteen years later, has the restaurant been renewed?

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Salade jardinière with fried Ipswich clams.

Not yet. The physical space looks just the same as I remember it from when the restaurant first opened—the same dove grays and subtle browns and oddly formal beaded-glass sconces and chandeliers. And to my eye it all looks tired, particularly the room facing Park Street: The floor’s dark stain has worn so much that the dull, light original shows through where people walk. Two sets of guests called it intentional, a sign that the place has history. It didn’t look that way to me.

As a restaurant, No. 9 feels like it’s in search of a new identity—on its way to someplace new but not there yet. The dishes on the $69 three-course prix fixe are often unfocused, with a couple of elements more complicated than you wish they would be (a seven-course chef’s-tasting menu is also available for $112). The variability of doneness and flavor, the monotonous presentation along one side of a plate—whole dishes huddle in a diagonal corner—aren’t what you associate with Lynch’s need for variety. Which isn’t to say that you won’t have memorably good dinners here. You will, and they’ll feature impeccable ingredients. But until Lynch decides what the new stamp on the menu will be, and whether that stamp will really be Jones’s, it’s a work in progress.

Worry not: The kitchen still turns out superlative pasta. The signature gnocchi filled with prune purée and foie gras in a butter sauce is as well made as ever, and there’s always another pasta on the main menu (as well as a pasta-tasting menu on Sundays and Mondays). Recently, Jones filled plump cappellacci with the freshest and sweetest corn and butter, and paired them with grilled calamari and baby artichokes. It was the kind of dish that makes a restaurant.

Where I could recognize Jones’s own tastes, I got interested. He says that he likes proteins firm, which I find as refreshing and welcome a declaration as his saying that sous-vide-style meat is banned in his kitchen. “I feel strongly about real cooking,” he told me. He wants his cooks, and himself, to be strongly in touch with the food they’re preparing. Yes! Every piece of meat and fish is roasted in a pan on the stove, not in the oven, so cooks can keep an even closer watch on it.

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Sweet-corn cappellacci.

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Cocoa pain de GĂŞnes with smoked vanilla ice cream.

I admired the crisp skin on hake served with saffron-aioli-smeared grilled bread and an olive-y bouillabaisse-like broth, the fillet translucent to highlight the delicacy. And sautéed striped bass over romesco, the Catalan almond-pepper-roasted-tomato sauce, was particularly meaty, with a dense flesh that pulled apart in strands like skate wing. Warmed “jambon royale” from Niman Ranch made it a successful take on Portuguese cod with chorizo. But you have to be ready for dry fish, too. When the season ended and Jones replaced the bass with less-flavorful imported farmed branzino, the firm flesh was less persuasive.

Lamb worked when cooked medium well, served in chunks in one of Jones’s neat rectilinear lines, like de-shished shish kebabs. Though the date, ginger, shallot, and curry paste sounded odd, it brought out both the sweetness and the meatiness of the lamb, and could even be called inspired. But the pine nuts, anchovies, and sunflowers on the same plate only added confusion.

Jones, who studied biochemistry as a Harvard undergraduate and cancer biology as a graduate student at the Harvard Medical School, has plenty of ideas (and with his spouse, Ben Wolfe, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, writes about some of them on bostonmagazine.com). He told me that he loves both hazelnuts and mayo, and there were indeed aiolis and green goddesses and plain peppery mayos on many of the appetizers, appearing to best effect as a garlicky green-goddess-like dressing over heirloom tomatoes, and a buttermilk-dijon dressing on a baby-vegetable salad with buttermilk-and-semolina-dredged Ipswich clams. Those clams would hold up well in a North Shore taste-off, and could be a plate all on their own.

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The best idea Jones mentioned, though, was one that will let him work with guests to tailor menus that will suit both them and him. Jones told me that he wants to give customers more control of what they eat, by asking what they do and don’t like, how many courses they want, and whether or not they want to be surprised.

That’s for the future. For now, you can eat at the bar and change up the appetizer-entrée-dessert parade, but you won’t save money: À la carte appetizers are $21, entrées $39, and desserts $14. The three-course prix fixe, however, locks in a lot of food and expense. (And obliges you to order dessert. Perhaps because the longtime pastry chef was about to depart when I visited, few desserts were remarkable, the most interesting being squares of almond-flour cocoa cake with tonka bean, white chocolate, and an applewood-smoked vanilla ice cream—a subtle, expertly matched combination.)

When Jones comes into focus as a chef who owns the menu, and puts his new custom-tailoring plans into place, No. 9 will truly be reborn—and again show Boston new ways to satisfy customers.

9 Park St., Boston, 617-742-9991, no9park.com.

Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/article/2013/09/24/restaurant-review-no-9-park-boston/