Christmas in July

As July winds down, and acorns start showing up on sidewalks, some leaves appear yellow, and neighborhood bunnies get bigger, one can’t help but think: Why, it’s almost Christmas!  I know what you’re thinking, and of course you’re right: Time is running out for gift buying, but there’s still a few months to spare!  So drop what you’re doing, go online, and start spending.

Between shopping sprees–the knitted wool socks are amazing–I’ve been reading and preparing for the future.  A literary festival in Colorado, a hospitality congress in Tokyo, and day to day lots of delicious vegetarian and pasta-driven dinners.

Why, just last week, though it seems long ago, I was in NYC and from Rotisserie Georgette to Il Buco Alimentari, Russ & Daughters to Second Avenue Deli, Lupa to Balthazar Bakery, one experience was as good as the next, and led to ideas for home cooking.

That home cooking will be enhanced by a big order of beef from DeBragga that arrives on Friday.  We’re talking steaks and burgers, dry aged prime and prime that isn’t dry aged.

Fire up the grill!  Deck the halls!  Ho, ho, ho!

Sometimes You Have to Eat Out

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make a decent version of cacio e pepe, but the one I had last night at a place I won’t name in Boston was gummy and unctuous, overwhelmed by a way too buttery sauce with so much cheese that strands of pasta stuck together.  The person I was with had trout swimming in olive oil, which had been added after grilling.  Throw in a glass of white Arneis from Piedmont and a martini?  $85 for two.

People think it’s easy to cook Italian.  It’s not.  It requires restraint. Johanne Killeen, who owned al Forno, in Providence, R.I., said to me years ago what best describes it: “You buy the best ingredients you can afford and do as little to them as possible.”  That’s so not Boston, in fact it’s the polar opposite of what passes for restaurant cooking here, Italian or not.

Look, it’s nice to grab a bite before a movie, right?  And Ghostbuster II made going out worthwhile.  But it’s pretty odd that Boston still has restaurants that are almost completely unfocused, with an emphasis on concept rather than execution or ingredients.  Or bad food.  Just really bad food.  There’s a reason why folks from out-of-town eat at Legal Seafood: Dependable, fresh, and delicious.  And frankly unique to Boston.

Meanwhile, on the home front, I received three ounces of black truffles and a pound of fresh, blond morels from Oregon, stopped by New Deal in Cambridge where I got flounder filets and tilefish filets (both cut then and there), and John Dory filets.  All told, fish and fungi: $150, and enough food, with vegetables, for four dinners for four people.  Throw in Kermit Lynch red, by the case, or a good Rosé from Provence, at $10 a bottle (case discount is 15%), and you get, let’s see…dinner for two is…$20.

And that cacio e pepe?   I make a version that’s a whole lot better…you need really good cheeses, two types, and not a lot, a wooden spoon to stir, pasta of high quality that’s not quite done when you add it to the sauce, lots of freshly cracked black pepper, a familiarity with great versions you had in great restaurants, and for goodness sakes, don’t add salt at the end!  The salt is in the cheese.

 

Front of the House

“You can get away with bad food, but you can’t get away with bad service,” said Ken Aretsky to me years ago for a piece I was doing on restaurants.  Mr. Aretsky used to manage “21” and owns Patroon, a terrific steak and American restaurant in Turtle Bay with a first-rate, hidden bar.

The cool thing about good service is that it generates income at no cost to the restaurant.  And it’s not related to the type of place.  Sure, the high end restaurants employ as many as a half dozen servers per customer who shuttle to tables and hover.  But even a hot dog stand, like Sullivan’s, in East Boston, on Castle Island, excels at making its customers feel welcome.

It’s a shame that most restaurants in Boston don’t have a front of the house that encourages people to come back.  Not much in the way of greetings or goodbyes, servers who don’t know what they serving, a real lack of enthusiasm, an inability to sell, and a kind of foggy outlook on the customer, a willful forgetfulness.

Think of dining as going into a new car showroom: Frankly, there’s not a whole lot of difference between cars within the price range you can afford.  Customers return to dealerships based on how they are treated: Friendly, as honest as possible, engaging.

Servers are salespeople who work on a commission basis, it’s as simple as that.

Hope for Restaurants in Boston

Throughout neighborhoods in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester are dozens of mom and pop restaurants serving delicious food that tastes of home.  We’re talking Cape Verdean, Vietnamese, Haitian, Cambodian, Salvadoran, Mexican, Cuban, Jamaican, Nigerian, Puerto Rican, and Somali restaurants, to name the most prominent.

Storefront and informal, priced so that a working person can afford a decent meal, the food served in these places brings you to nations and regions that reflect the city’s mosaic.  They don’t have media skills, they aren’t old school, they are off the tourist track, and if you want to know what many people will be eating in the future, all over the world, these are places worth exploring.

It’s interesting how cities like D.C. and NYC developed neighborhoods like Adams-Morgan and the Lower East Side, respectively, with restaurants serving locals as well as those who wanted to try traditional cuisines from other parts of the world.  This confluence led to more money coming into the neighborhoods, more jobs, and on a social level it meant that people whose backgrounds differed got to know a little bit more about one another.  All that leads to social change.

It would be lovely if Boston could embrace that trend.

Every City, Every Restaurant

Ruth Reichl, some years ago, said in an interview for a piece I did for The Boston Globe on restaurants here that “every city gets the restaurants it deserves.”  Eight out of the 12 restaurants in that piece that were scrutinized for high prices that didn’t seem to match what was served have closed: Rialto, Radius, Icarus, Pigalle, Sasso, Locke-Ober, Excelsior, Aujourd’hui.

Boston excels at lunch: No town in the United States offers a better and more affordable range of places where you can get sandwiches and pizza.  In the past few years, noodles have arrived: A big bowl of ramen will set you back between $12-15.  Not affordable day in and day out, but nice to enjoy once in awhile.

After reading the wonderful book by William Grimes about the history of dining in NYC, it’s apparent where Boston stands at this moment in time.  Long ago, NYC was a place for lunch–people went home for dinner or to private clubs.  It’s much the same here: The hoity-toity folks have private chefs.  Families eat as families at home.  When friends get together, it’s for dinner parties in homes.  (Ever been to a pot luck?)  It’s chiefly people dating or out-of-towners who as tourists or visiting kids at school that populate the restaurants for dinners.

That’s all changing:  Terrific informal places are emerging, and they are the future.  Chief among them is Babbo Pizzeria & Enoteca.  Added to this will be EATALY–not a restaurant, but an enormous store–that will influence how people think about food and what they expect from dining.

One big trend in NYC in dining is vegetarian dining or the appearance of vegetarian dishes on menus.  It’s a great approach, and clearly the future: A restaurant increases profit margins, it’s healthy, and it’s seasonal.  But it requires people who know how to cook.

 

SMOKE SHOP, KENDALL SQUARE, CAMBRIDGE, MA

So I got in last night, the place has only been open six days, and it was of course their first Friday night.  Folks: If you go, reserve in  advance or you’ll be waiting a long time.

The food is delicious.  Some BBQ has regionality or gutsiness or let’s say soul.  Not this place.  This place has great pork ribs with perfect texture and a dry rub followed by a light, sweet, and piquant sauce.  Generic.  It also has extremely tasty brisket sandwiches and pulled pork sandwiches: $11 each with one side, which is about 40% more than anywhere else outside of famous joints, but, hey, if you got it, flaunt it.  You could be anywhere in the USA eating it, it has no depth or character, which is something that will be of great help should they franchise, which seems likely.

Great sides though in tiny portions: Collards, mac ‘n’ cheese, cornbread, asparagus.

And just so you know you’re in Boston: About a half dozen T.V. screens showing sports.  Essentially, a reminder that this is a bar that sells food.

Of the bar: A very long and impressive list of American rye and bourbon–top drawer and down low so that if you want to have a big shot for $16 of Angel’s Envy rye, it’s yours.  They also list, “Andy’s Baller List,” (Classy, right?)  with whiskies in the high double digits.  (Google and Microsoft are down the street.)

FYI: The Mint Julep was pre-made, served from a squeeze bottle, and tasted as if it had as much bourbon as a one ounce pour.  If you’re not measuring per glass, it’s unlikely that the pour will be adequate.  On top of that, pre-poured drinks at something like $12?  You’ve got to be kidding.  (They’re not.)

Staff are really lively, extremely pleasant, and add an enormous amount to this venture.

This is not the kind of place that will attract regulars over the age of thirty-five, I don’t think, due to the fact that it’s chiefly pork, but it is the kind of place that could give Blue Smoke or Shake Shack a good run for the money–easy to envision a chain of these at airports.  Perfect food for flying.