Best of Boston All-Stars: What’s New at Clio
This December, Clio goes out with a bang to make way for a newly expanded Uni. We look back at its nearly 20-year history.
Welcome to Best of Boston All-Stars, a series that takes a closer look at what’s new at longtime Best of Boston favorites.
Boston has lost many landmarks this year, including T.T. the Bear’s, Louis Boston, and one particularly iconic orange dinosaur. And in November, we had to add yet another to the list, when we got word that Clio would close at the end of the year, just shy of its 20th birthday. Chef Ken Oringer opened his groundbreaking restaurant in the Back Bay’s Eliot Hotel in 1997; and two decades, five restaurants, countless awards, and many suckling pigs later, Oringer’s decided to close the book on this particular chapter of Boston culinary history.
The Boston restaurant landscape back in the B.C. era—Before Clio—is vastly different from the one we know today. Reading through the food journalism of the time is like inspecting a science-museum diorama of the late Cretaceous period: We see a vaguely familiar yet alien world of now-extinct primordial megafauna (like the dearly departed wood-paneled Locke-Ober) and scrappy young evolutionary upstarts that, unlike some of their lumbering predecessors, would survive—even thrive—after economic meteors hit. And so it went for Clio.
“It’s like night and day,” Oringer says when he compares the late ‘90s Boston restaurant scene to the one we know today, remembering it as a time when thrill-seeking diners had flush expense accounts and fewer restaurants to spend them on. And such was the moment that Oringer chose to unleash his avant-garde food on an unsuspecting Boston culinary scene.
“Chefs like Lydia Shire and Jasper [White] and Jody [Adams]—they set the tone,” Oringer says. But his approach to French cuisine immediately blew the minds of Boston restaurantgoers—including those at Boston magazine.
“Oringer is known to turn tomato consomme into a faux cocktail complete with stirrer, roast a baby suckling pig and serve it atop chickpea puree and glazed spring vegetables, and top a miniature pancake with a fried quail egg and a touch of caviar,” we wrote in baffled amazement when we handed Oringer an early Best Chef award in 2000 (immediately followed by a Best Restaurant award in 2001). “We love it that someone is pushing the edible envelope to such glorious effect; eating at Clio is an experience full of surprises,” we concluded.
“There’s some crazy stuff in there,” Oringer says of his old menus, adding that going through his archives “always puts a smile on my face.”
For Clio’s last month, Oringer has resurrected some of these throwback items—including one of his most visually striking dishes, Clio’s trademark uni: a live sea urchin, served with nori croquant, green apple wasabi foam, and fresh yuzu, and devoured straight out of the spiny sea creature’s own trephinated shell. A prized delicacy, urchin roe is also noted for its euphoric qualities—making it a fitting namesake for Uni, the sashimi bar that Oringer opened in Clio’s lounge in 2002.
Serving transcendent sashimi, mad-scientist cocktails, and late-night ramen, Uni soon became just as much of a draw as its parent restaurant—if not more so. And as Clio abdicates the throne, Uni is assuming mantle: When Clio shutters, Uni will be taking over the whole space.
For Oringer, this is less an ending than a new beginning. “Clio is such an important part of me,” says Oringer. “It doesn’t go away that easily.” You can certainly see its indelible mark on the current restaurant landscape. Its alumni list is a who’s-who of industry heavyweights—many of whom are coming back to Clio for one glorious, impossibly decadent final hurrah.
This week, Clio hosts a 19-course tour de force—complete with a $250 price tag—guest-starring a slew of Oringer’s protégés, including Alex Stupak, Tony Maws, and Monica Glass. They’ll be serving up such Clio classics as that suckling pig, plus giant clam with ricotta, kimchi-brined fried chicken sliders, and much more.
As for Uni’s next incarnation, what should we expect? As Oringer said in the announcement for the restaurant’s closing: “Just as Clio was of a certain time and place, this new spot will showcase the best of today’s innovative dining culture and the style of food I like to eat now.”
To answer the one burning question on everyone’s minds, Oringer assures us: “We’re not going to be giving up late-night ramen, that’s for damn sure.”
Celebrate Clio: $250/per person plus beverages, tax, and gratuity; December 15, seating begins at 6:30 p.m., 370 A Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, cliorestaurant.com.