Coming to you from the Amtrak between Boston and New Haven, with really lousy, spotty wi-fi, but, hopefully this will all work, even if it takes three times as long to make edits and posts.
I’d been to Boston twice in my life before this weekend. Once was back in the mid-80s, an invite from my friend David Branscombe, to spend a day or so with him at his family home somewhere, if memory serves, in Back Bay. It was midwinter, we had a nice but chilly walk along the Charles, ate somewhere nondescript for lunch, wandered a little more, had dinner at the family home, and, I think, I headed back to NY the next morning. I don’t even recall the occasion for the visit, if there was one, and, David disappeared from my life shortly thereafter – I’ve heard rumors of everything from that he simply up and disappeared to his passing away, and no one ever seemed able to confirm one story or another. (Hey, if anyone knows him… it’s amazing, over the seven years of this blog, I’ve rediscovered two different friends, both of whom I was under the impression had died years ago).
The second time was, I think, about 8 or 9 years ago, another David, co-wine aficionado, sommelier, friend, all around good guy, who up and decided to move to Boston and get married. I went up for the wedding – which, given the restaurant owner I was working for at the time, required calling off sick for a day, flying up on a shuttle, going to the wedding, the reception dinner (at Union Oyster House), and then flying back for work the next day – I don’t even recall if I stayed the night in town – I do know I saw nothing of the city. So, with limited folk in NY seeming interested in getting together this trip – everyone is SO busy, you know, and it is a holiday weekend (none of them seem to be visiting their mothers, but it’s a good excuse for claiming holiday privilege, right?) – I thought a side trip for a couple of days would be fun. I contacted a few friends, found a place to stay at a nice hotel on the river, and took the Bolt Bus up the other morning (quite comfortable, not quite as cheap as the infamous “Chinatown” bus, the Fung Wah line, but, provides wi-fi and a lovely and exciting stop enroute at a Roy Rogers for those who couldn’t wait another hour to Boston and had to load up on sandwiches, fries and sodas). It left over half an hour late, which set back plans for the day a bit.
Into Boston and met at the station by friend Ed, who often comments on these pages, who had offered to meet up and give me a bit of a tour of the city. He recommended, given the logistics, that we lunch first, at Union Oyster House, 41 Union Street, and then head to my hotel to drop stuff off. Ostensibly a good idea, though I think dragging my bags through the streets the distance from South Station to the waterfront (yes, he offered to help carry, but it’s actually easier to stay balanced with a bag on each shoulder) was a bit further than he was thinking. He started the tour as we walked, though I must say those gears hadn’t quite yet engaged yet. But, about 40 minutes in, we arrived at the place, to find a 20 minute or so wait for a table. Ah well. They kindly took my larger bag and stored it behind the counter while we were there – we popped outside for a look at the holocaust memorial. I have, by the way, decided not to pepper the two posts of Boston that I’m writing with photos of all the typical touristy, historical stuff – all fascinating and all stuff you can find anywhere – I’m going to focus on food, and odd things that caught my eye.
We started off with a heaping platter of piping hot steamers – large clams – with clam broth and drawn butter to dip them in. Simple but luxurious, a perfect start. I’d told Ed I wanted to just sample something innately Bostonian.
A cup of classic clam chowder was rich with cream, packed with potato and clam, but surprisingly devoid of seasoning. Salt and pepper from shakers on the table more or less solved that, but a bit of a disappointment.
A huge lobster roll – had to be at least half a lobster chopped up and packed onto the plate, maybe a whole one. Good, but the style of lobster roll I’m not overly fond of – the glistening, fresh, and perfectly cooked meat left completely undressed – no mayo, no seasoning – a few flakes of unidentifiable herbs, maybe tarragon, maybe parsley, the split buttered bun below bordering on stale. The coleslaw, sweet and forgettable, the fries very nice…. Ed had a salad with grilled scallops which he seemed to enjoy.
…and I had to sample some traditional Boston Baked Beans, right? A little sweeter than I like, but quite good. Overall, the steamers were an absolute winner, the rest of it, fine, but nothing to get excited over.
After lunch a little wander in the area. There’s a nice fruit and vegetable market, which I found out next day is where the suppliers sell the stuff they can’t sell to the stores – it’s all stuff that’s at the peak of ripeness and won’t last more than another day or so, and the stores don’t want it because they want to be able to put things out with some “shelf life”. So the farmers and suppliers sell their wares at reduced prices to the public in the know.
Though I was looking forward, after dropping things off at the hotel, to a walk along the Freedom Trail or touring the historic district(s), after a longish T ride, found ourselves taking a look at the Gardner art museum and Museum of Fine Arts. Interesting to see, though the former was basically closed by this point in the afternoon (going on 5 p.m. already), and I’m glad I saw them, just not quite what I’d envisioned for the afternoon.
Somewhere a bit after 6 we headed back into the city center on the T again and picked up the Freedom Trail, which we wandered a nice portion of over the next hour and a half – unfortunately by that point in the day everything was closed up. I took lots of pictures of the outsides of closed buildings.
We did get to wander the food court at the Quincy Market, which was still open, offering a selection of fast food of all types.
After a “visit” to the Paul Revere House in North End, also sealed up tight, we decided to ditch our idea of returning to the waterfront area for more seafood, and try something from the Little Italy-ish North End.
In a place like this, it’s a good bet that a large number of spots are going to be very basic, non-interesting Italian-American food. And after all, it wasn’t Wednesday, it wasn’t Prince Spaghetti Day, nor were we on the South Side of Boston. But, following the nose, as we wandered about in the area, I smelled garlic and wood smoke – good signs. We ended up in a small place, maybe 20 seats, called Carmen, 33 North Square. As charming as it could possibly be, friendly staff, an interesting looking menu, and a great little wine list. Ordered a bottle of the Montefalco Rosso 2009 from Arnaldo Caprai, a gem at $46. I decided on a trio of small plates, while Ed went with a seared tuna and mashed potatoes – not exactly Italian fare, but what caught his eye. I started off with a roasted golden beet salad with ricotta salata, pickled red onions and mint. Absolutely delicious.
Not quite what I was expecting when I ordered the “flatbread”, but a winning grilled pizza, smoky and charred, topped with robiola cheese, caramelized onions, mushrooms, grapes, walnuts, balsamic and just a faint hint of truffle oil. A complete wow!
The dish that actually caught my eye from the menu posted in the window and in addition to the aromas wafting from the inside, convinced me to try this place. Rabbit ravioli topped with fried sage, toasted hazelnuts, and brown butter. There was, perhaps, a touch too much drizzled balsamic on the plate, but not so much as to be a problem, I just would have liked a lighter hand with that. But really good ravioli – interestingly, not available from the pasta selection, but just in this small three-ravioli sized plate as an appetizer. I could have gone for just a large plate of those. Winner, however, was the flatbread – if you’re in the North End, check it out, and also the great wine selection at reasonable prices.
And by this point, though it wasn’t late, I was flagging – I’d been up since 6 to get ready and then head to the bus, plus all the various delays and tangents – so I returned to the hotel via the T, caught up on some reading (and finished posting the previous post), made some phone calls and got a good night’s sleep, ready for an early start to the next day. Coming soon…..