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From Boston:

Boston's Seafood

Where Clambakes and Shore Dinners are Weekend Rituals

by John Mariani

Boston's finest

Ever the enthusiastic gourmand and entrepreneur, Captain John Smith sent a dispatch from New England back to Queen Elizabeth in 1606 with the giddy announcement that every "man, woman and childe, with a small hooke and line, by angling, may take divers sorts of excellent fish, at their pleasures. And is it not a pretty sport, to pull up two pence, six pence, and twelve pence, as fast as you can haule and were a line?"

Smith was hardly exaggerating, for the waters off the New England coast teemed with two-hundred pound cod and its shores were littered with lobsters—some six feet long—piled two feet high.

The oldest restaurant in Boston

The sea is inextricably tied to the gastronomy of New England, where clambakes and shore dinners are weekend rituals. From the lobster shacks on the coast to the fine dining restaurants throughout the region, New England menus specialize in seafood of every imaginable form. Boston not only pulls in the best of the catch but also exports much of it.

For a real rush of historicity you can do no better than to hit the shucking bar at Boston’s Union Oyster Bar, since 1826 occupying premises where in 1771 the first issues of the radical Massachusetts Spy were published. Later it was headquarters for the first paymaster of the Continental Army and guest quarters for France’s Duke of Chartres, who became King Louis Philippe. Maine entrepreneur Charles Foster, who invented the toothpick, paid Harvard men to dine here and demand a toothpick at meal’s end. Everyone from Daniel Webster to the Kennedy clan has bellied up to the oyster bar here, where there is an upstairs "Kennedy Booth," carefully maintained by current owners Joe and Mary Ann Milano, who also serve a good chowder and a platter of lobster Newburg.

Shucking away at Union Oyster House

A year after the Union Oyster House opened, along came Durgin-Park in Faneuil Hall, a true eating house with communal tables that is famous for its cadre of carefully coached, brusque waitresses who are part of the fun. The food after all these years is basic and flawless old New England favorites like hot cornbread, succulent baked scrod, steaming Indian pudding and some of the last surviving Boston baked beans in a city once called "Beantown." Touristy, yes, but locals know to come up in through the downstairs bar to avoid the lines out the front door.

Incidentally, the classic scrod in white wine and lemon—as well as the Parker House roll—was a dish created at the Parker House in the 19th century and still going strong. An interesting historical fact about the Parker House is that both Ho Chi Minh and Malcom X once worked there!

No. 9 Park

Right around the corner is the charming No. 9 Park, whose windows overlook the Common. New England ingredients underpin everything on Boston-born chef-owner Barbara Lynch’s "European bistro" menu.

Pray that she’s serving her bacon-wrapped monkfish with lentils and baby carrots. Also delicious are her Arctic char with braised beets, fresh horseradish and potato nests; and her halibut with morels, ramps and pea coulis. Seafood entrees average in the mid-$30s.

In Boston’s Little Italy section, the North End, Bricco has emerged as one of the best Italian restaurants in America. Marisa Iocco and Rita D'Angelo break free of the clichés of the neighborhood's menus, and their Italian seafood is superlative, like pappardelle with scallops and wild asparagus in a lobster broth; rigatoni teeming with lobster meat with golden pea tendrils and a saffron sauce; and a whole grilled sea bass with "Easter egg" potatoes, olives and herbs. There's an $85 five-course menu worth every penny. Otherwise a three-course meal will run about $45-$50

Meritage

I’ve admired chef Daniel Bruce at the Boston Harbor Hotel, and now he has his dream restaurant, Meritage, where his menus are match-ups with wines based on flavor components. Dishes, available in small or large plates (priced at $15 and $29 respectively), are designed, according to Bruce—a native New Englander and head chef for the annual Boston Wine Festival—to be "flavorful but subtle, not allowing any flavor to overwhelm the wines." That philosophy is evident in his black and white shrimp cannelloni with saffron cream and sautéed spinach; his wood-grilled Atlantic swordfish in a spiced Riesling, with orange and coconut essence; and his grilled sea scallops with morels and sugar snap peas, class acts all around.

Incidentally, despite its name, situation and publicity, the tourist-driven Anthony’s Pier 4 is not worth the wait, the money, or the time. But if you do go, stick to the raw bar, the boiled lobsters and a great bottle of wine.

John Mariani is well known for his frank and poignant writing in Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion and the Harper Collection. He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and co-author, with his wife, of the Italian-American Cookbook.

Planning a trip to Beantown? Check out our Boston travel guide!


* Top image by www.bostonseafood.com

(Updated: 09/13/10 NW)

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