Here is Totoro at No. 9 Park on the Boston Common. He had a great time, but didn't eat much. I don't think he likes uni emulsion. I told you I had reservations for the first and second of January; on the 1st, we went to L'Espalier; on the 2nd, we went to No. 9 Park. Both times Totoro and I had the tasting menu, but the experiences were different. Getting ready was the same as on New Year's Day. So if you want to know how the night started, you can get an idea by reading Part One. This time my phone's GPS system was really confused, but it got me through town well enough and in time to get seated a little early. This was good, because I got home from L'Espalier past 10 p.m., which as many of you know, is way past my bed time. I get up at 5 a.m. on work days, and I got addicted to sleeping in on vacation and knew it would be extra hard to get up in the morning, so I didn't want to be out as late on 2 January as I was on the 1st.
Imagine my happiness when the tasting menu only had 7 courses (8 total courses with the supplementary foie gras, which I couldn't pass on, so I had it) instead of the bonkers number of courses at Craigie and L'Espalier! No extra appetizer, no intermezzo, and I waived the supplementary cheese course (having learned my lesson with the Grand Fromage the night before). I did not leave the restaurant in distress from overindulgence. Here is the menu:
Chilled Nova Scotia Lobster - hearts of palm, lemon vinaigrette, arugula.
Sturgeon en Papillote - American caviar, Savoy cabbage, bacon (bacon!)
Grilled Abalone - spot prawn, bay scallop, sea urchin veloute
Carnaroli Risotto - Perigueux truffle, Parmigiano-Reggiano
Seared Foie Gras - pistachio, grapefruit, gluten free brioche
Berkshire Pork Shoulder - grilled mushroom, crosnes, Honeycrisp apple
Prime Beef Ribeye - Macomber turnip, bone marrow, beet jus
Cassis Ice - Champagne, orange blossom
White Chocolate Bavarian - cocoa nib, black olive powder, Meyer lemon sorbet
The food at No. 9 Park was wonderful, but the strange thing I have to say about it is that it seemed more like food than what was served at L'Espalier. I enjoyed it more. It landed somewhere on the spectrum between REALLY FANCY FANCY ART FOOD and GOOD GRUB and now that I've said that, I suspect I might spend some time later defining points on that spectrum. For now, let's say that if I were going to illustrate the spectrum using restaurants I've dined at in recent years, it would go like this, from FANCY^2 to GOOD GRUB and down to CALORIES FOR SURVIVAL:
10. L'Espalier (Boston)
9. Morimoto (Manhattan)
8. No. 9 Park (Boston)
7. Craigie on Main (Cambridge)
6. Bravo (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
5. The Mill at 2T (Tariffville, CT)
4. Toro (South Boston)
3. Rani Indian Bistro (Brookline, MA)
2. Soma (Beverly, MA)
1. Sugarcane (Peabody, MA)
0. Tennessee BBQ (Danvers, MA)
-1. Rickshaw Dumpling Bar (Manhattan)
-2. Outback Steakhouse (Danvers, MA)
-3. Omega Pizza and Subs (Salem, MA)
-4. McDonald's (Everywhere, USA)
-5. Fresh City (I-90, Massachusetts)
My companions and I debated heatedly over the order of this list. Admittedly, it's a terribly, terribly subjective list. What I'm trying to get at here is not about good food versus bad food. It's much more about food as art object versus food as calorie delivery system. At L'Espalier, the edibles were not at all about getting nutrients into a body; that's not why you put an oyster on a crystal pedestal with dry ice and LEDs. When I stopped at Fresh City on the way home from my recent trip to Troy, NY, there was absolutely NO REASON for me to eat the terrible terrible salad from Fresh City (hah!) except that my belly was rubbing my spine in an unpleasant manner and it had to stop. The chicken had been cooked sometime that week, I'm sure, and the green stuff had probably been pulled from the earth and sprayed with chemicals at least two weeks before to help it weather the trip from some aggro-conglomo-giant in southern climes. So, I actually kind of like McDonald's sometimes, especially since they got a conscience and started putting apple fries on the menu, so it's not about like. If I want a chicken nugget, I go to McDonald's for extruded chicken-product deep fried in salt-lard. (Have you noticed McNuggets come in four shapes? Parallelogram, oyster, dinner plate, and the state of Mississippi? This was hotly debated too--are there three McNugget shapes or four?--my house is SO FUN.)
L'Espalier is an institution of haute cuisine. That's what they're there for. They serve art, call it food, and charge you $250 per person. Morimoto is a vehicle for a celebrity chef. They serve somewhat more funky art, and charge you $200 per person. No. 9 Park starts to actually be food more than art, but there are still emulsions and foams and gels and things, but the pork shoulder tastes like pork. Craigie on Main is even more foodlike, with regional ingredients and more earthiness. This is dinner theater, where inventiveness is really important. From there on down the list each eatery (at least in my opinion) becomes less about food as art, and more about food as calories. Strangely enough, the further you travel in either direction in my spectrum, the less foodlike the food gets, from olive powder sprinkled over a White Chocolate Bavarian (Powdered olive, really! On a dessert! Woo!) to preserved poultry cubes on a bed of chemically treated greenery, all entombed in a corrugated plastic container (uck, urk, bleck).
Back to No. 9 Park, which is getting lost in all this marginalia. The wait staff was friendly and young. They smiled a lot, which the people at L'Espalier did not. The food there was Serious. No pork. No capes. The cocktails tasted as though they had booze in them, instead of the purple-silver lychee fairy liquid served at L'Espalier and Morimoto. I had BIG bites of good gluten free brioche at No. 9, and swirled it on the sturgeon plate to sop up the caviar without feeling even a little bit gauche. It was more yummy at No. 9 Park, less glossy and studied and none of the servers looked like s/he was wearing a ballroom dance posture brace under coat and tie. I liked it there. I liked looking out the window at the Christmas tree in the Boston Common, at the lights still in all of the trees. There was some uni emulsion, and so it's clear you can't have everything you want at No. 9 Park, but you know what? They asked me if I had any allergies OR AVERSIONS when they took my order, so I totally could have told them I think eating uni emulsion is like licking the smell of a bait bucket and they probably wouldn't have put any on my grilled abalone. But you know, I like the whole fancy art food thing, and you never know; I might actually grow to enjoy uni emulsion. Seaweed wasn't so great the first time I tried it either, and it grew on me. Not literally, seaweed growing on me, like Aquawoman or something, but it's tasty. I actively like seaweed now, although I thought it was gross the first time I tried it.
You know, I think the uni emulsion at No. 9 Park was actually much palatable than the one at L'Espalier. I don't know why. (Author's note: because it was uni veloute; that's why.) Maybe some day, I'll look at that bait-bucket smelling foamy stuff sitting all yellow and baleful on top of my poached seafood served in the cupped hands of an underwear model, and I'll go, "Oh, I LOVE UNI EMULSION!!!" You never know. It could happen.
Me and Totoro, signing out. We've blown our budget for anything higher than a 4 on the scale, for at least a while. So maybe me and the blue guy will take in a movie next time after scarfing a little Tennessee Barbecue.