The complete foodie guide to Boston

The complete foodie guide to Boston

by Lucy Golding 27 January 2020

Lucy Golding travels to one of the USA's most historic cities and discovers a thriving multicultural food scene amongst the jumble of old and new architecture.

Lucy is a south London-based former news reporter turned food and drink publicist and writer.

Lucy is a south London-based former news reporter turned food and drink publicist and writer.

A city nicknamed after its invention of the baked bean has a lot to live up to when it comes to food. Yes, that is correct, Boston – aka Beantown – got there long before that multinational British tinned goods conglomerate did and has been banging on about it ever since. And whilst this hearty stewed snack may appear on a Boston bagel menu or two, it’s fair to say that the state capital of Massachusetts has since expanded its epicurean horizons.

From the tourist-packed pavements of the historic centre, to the film-set-ready streets of Back Bay and the suburbs of student Somerville, Boston’s food scene rivals that of New York and San Francisco, attracting chefs with some seriously impressive credentials. The New England staple dishes still have a place, although the city’s oyster shacks, lobster rolls and clam chowder spots are having to make room for a new wave of culinary experiments and international cuisines. The humble bean, it seems, has taken a back seat. If you find yourself in the city with an appetite, these are the restaurants to visit.

Asta

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Chef Alex Crabb has been appeasing the appetite of discerning Bostonians at Asta with his enigmatic French-inspired cooking style since 2013. Located downtown in desirable Back Bay, where the Victorian brownstone brickwork dominates, Asta merges the cosy and the contemporary, the silly and the seriously inventive – whilst keeping things close to its New England roots.

Embark on the five- or eight-course ‘culinary adventure’ with a sense of humour and an open mind. The menu itself gives little away, so take pleasure in the unexpected and revel in the colour of the flavourful plethora of dishes that are both technically accomplished and delightfully off-the-wall.

A Wellfleet oyster with a light blueberry foam kickstarts the fun, before a delicate cauliflower soup dotted with lobster bourdon brings just the right degree of decadence early on. Small bites follow: a dainty mushroom tart, Brussels sprouts and sablefish, a cod fritter with aioli – so crisp it snaps in the mouth. The main maintains a more classical style in the form of cuts-like-butter pork chops with sauce au poivre and a tender poached pear.

But it’s the puddings where the chef allows himself permission to play. Butternut squash meets a sphere of home-grown marshmallow fluff (another Boston invention); a spiced cocoa and cardamom bun on mismatched china accompanies a slice of sticky toffee pudding and a quince and apple tarte Tatin, with layers cocooned as tightly as a spiralled jellied sweet, are amongst Alex’s kooky, nostalgia-rich repertoire of dishes.

astaboston.com

Row 34

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For something a bit more East Coast, Row 34 is the New England culinary deep-dive every Boston novice should tick-off as soon as they arrive in town. Relish in the raw bar, of which its tick-sheet-style menu is delivered with a pencil and a smile. Avoid the temptation to scribble ‘YES PLEASE’ to all 10+ varieties of oyster on offer, a selection sourced from the bivalve goldmine of Massachusetts and neighbouring Canada. The Duxbury ‘Row 34’ oyster takes top spot, alongside options including the Beachpoint from Barnstable and the lauded Wellfleet (considered the state’s finest), each served with the optional extra of caviar.

Other fresh fancies include shrimp cocktail, the stately shellfish tower and lettuce cups, a Row 34 bestseller – a triumphant bite-sized construction of pickled cabbage, crispy breaded oysters and supremely crunchy leaves.

Save room for the lobster roll, a moan-inducing moment whether it’s your first or your fifteenth, and well worth the $30 price tag. Take an uninterrupted moment as you sink your teeth into the pillow-like consistency of the sweet and buttery brioche, which hugs the mayonnaise-lathered lobster like a luxuriously buttery sleeping bag. Pair with a glass of something cold from Row 34’s expansive collection of beers by the bottle and on draught. The Maine-born ‘I Believe in Love’ Wild Ale seems most fitting for a feast such as this.

row34.com

Puritan & Company

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Stroll north towards Harvard University and you’ll find Puritan & Company in Cambridge, located in a former 1930s bakery on eclectic Inman Square. Headed up by green-fingered chef Will Gilson, the son of a farmer, the location makes it a ‘take your intellectual offspring out to lunch’ kind of restaurant, offering all-day dining in a homely, thriving spot.

Will’s rural roots radiate through the menu, as vegetables and herbs play a prominent role. Starters such as an autumn chopped salad of kale, chicories, pear and whipped feta sit alongside the unmistakably American swordfish pastrami served with pumpernickel, mustard and pickle, or a plate of crispy octopus with chickpeas, peppers and herbs. A trio of raw options showcases smoked wagyu carpaccio with black garlic and greens, alongside an Ora King salmon tartare and, of course, oysters.

Mains are sturdy, hearty and protein-packed, including the likes of filo-wrapped cod with wild mushrooms, chowder bacon and sunchoke (Jerusalem artichokes); dry-aged pork chop with apple, fig and endive or semolina orecchiette with braised lamb.

Sunday brunch is big business in Boston, and Puritan & Co has got it down. Bloody Marys and Mimosas reign, whilst the restaurant’s long-standing specialities such as sourdough griddle cake with maple syrup, or pork belly and poblano hash with avocado-coriander cream keep the queues streaming out of the door. The pastries, artfully created and never far from eyesight, have garnered legendary status in the neighbourhood, so be sure to swipe a cinnamon bun for the road.

puritancambridge.com

Juliet

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Photo by Brian Samuels
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Photo by Brian Samuels

Hop over the border to neighbouring Somerville (dubbed ‘The Brooklyn of Boston’) to discover pioneering restaurant concepts around every corner. Juliet in Union Square is particularly good, where the food will shelter you from the slap of a Massachusetts winter like the bosom of a bohemian auntie you never had. Arriving at the New-England-cum-French brassiere you’ll be met with the organised chaos of a farmhouse-style kitchen. Think baskets of baguettes, sizzling frying pans and freshly baked pastries, whilst the clatter and chatter of chefs at work provides a soothing soundtrack to a dining experience as wholesome as they come.

Juliet specialises in ‘productions’ – seasonally themed menus theatrically named with titles such as A Roman Holiday: Winter in the Eternal City; Tracks North: Cuisine Quebecoise or Nowruz: A Persian New Year, with a four-course ‘prix fixe’ created accordingly. Whether it be pasta, poutine or saffron potatoes, chef-owner and culinary chameleon Josh Lewin’s ability to master a new cuisine is endless. But it’s French where he really shines.

For something a little less luvvie (but made with just as much love), go à la carte; a comforting plate of risotto, fat and juicy mussels served with toasted bread, rustic salads or cheese and meat charcuterie can be found amongst the mix. On Sunday, Juliet becomes ‘Romeos’, a designated pasta night, or alternatively at the weekend enjoy Juliet’s expansive, homely brunch menu – everything from eggs Benedict and po-boys to breakfast tacos and French toast.

Juliet prides itself on being ‘gratuity free’, meaning the chefs and servers are paid a fair wage without tips. This is just one of the schemes created by Josh alongside partner and co-founder Katrina Jazayeri, who place staff welfare above all else; an ethos which shines through every team member like the perfect glaze on the restaurant’s saffron chocolate tart.

julietsomerville.com

Tanám

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Photo by Rita Tinga
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Photo by Rita Tinga

Venture to bohemian Bow Market, Somerville’s artisan marketplace, to find Tanám – chef-founder Ellie Tiglao’s culinary love letter to the Philippines.

‘Tanám is a place for stories that don't often get told, shared by the people who live those stories,’ is the tagline here, as Ellie’s food connects to thought-provoking narratives, with prominent themes including politics, the planet and people. It’s also where you’ll find some of the best Filipino fare in the USA.

A former storage unit, Tanam just about fits its single table (seating ten) which is atmospherically encased by a translucent white curtain. You’ll be sharing with strangers here, but that’s part of the thrill, providing diners with a ready-formed focus group, to dissect which mouthful is most delicious.

Friday and Saturday nights are story time at Tanam, with a special themed menu rotating every few weeks. From dishes inspired by a Filipino artist and exploring the culinary memories of her childhood, to a menu influenced by ‘Women of Colour in Film’, the Filipino flavours remain very much the protagonist. On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, ‘Kamayan’ is served, meaning to eat with one’s hands. It’s a technicoloured sharing feast served on banana leaves and one of the city’s most Instagrammed food scenes. Surrounding a pineapple centrepiece, delights include roasted pork, coconut-steamed clams and giant lobsters.

tanam.co

Celeste

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When award-winning Peruvian film producer JuanMa Calderon put his skills into opening a restaurant in 2013, he turned out to be pretty damn good at it. Along with his wife Maria Rondeau, JuanMa opened Celeste and swooped into Sommerville to create what is now considered one of America’s most celebrated Andean food spots.

Celeste’s cinematic ties are evident from the get-go. The sign is reminiscent of the title from the faked space opera movie depicted in the 2012 Ben Affleck film Argo, whilst the décor reflects a similar sci-fi feel, as psychedelic purple lighting bounces off shiny white tables. Even the website is somewhat intergalactic. Sit at the bar for the best slice of the action and vicinity to the pisco sours which fuel the dining room (and perhaps the chefs), then buckle-down for what isn’t really a restaurant at all, but more like Boston’s best dinner party.

Ceviche, causa (a spicy potato terrine) and hearty seafood stews fly out of the open kitchen, where flames lap the frying pans and there’s barely space to swing a shrimp. A lomo saltado stir-fried sirloin beef stew comes highly recommended and sizzles with all the soul and flavour it was promised, as does the sudado de pescado, a Peurvian-Chinese fish stew.

With each portion generously oversized, it’s far removed from the new wave of over-conceptualised ceviche bars cropping up across the land, and a lesson to them all. Celeste doesn’t have time for micro herbs or mini portions; this is rustic, authentic and leaves-you-full-to-bursting kind of cooking. A mezcal to accompany dessert is a must – the Suspiro Limeno served with dulche de leche provides the perfect finale to a Peruvian fiesta.

celesteunionsquare.com

Vinal Bakery

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With the origin still hotly disputed, sources suggest that Americans first sunk their teeth into the English Muffin in the 1800s, following its arrival in New York thanks to a Brit called Samuel Bath Thomas. The country has loved them ever since, and in Somerville one woman is taking this multifunctional baked staple to a whole new level.

Pondering over who invented the thing is of little interest to Vinal Bakery’s owner Sarah Murphy and her team. All that matters is that they make enough of them, and that they’re squidgy and delicious, ready for the onslaught who pile through the doors from opening time.

Vinal Bakery’s quaint and spacious corner-site houses a bustling open kitchen and workforce churning out trays of five uniquely flavoured muffins every day. Take your pick from one of the perfectly formed flavours; classic multigrain, Anadama (a type of yeasted bread from New England), oat sesame, French toast or the monthly special, before the equally difficult task of choosing what goes in it.

Characterfully named and priced at around $6 a pop, flavours include The G.O.A.T; a concoction of goat’s cheese butter, spicy pesto and rocket; The Archie, which layers natural peanut butter and sweet-salty peanuts with Somerville’s native vanilla and marshmallow crème, or The Miss Marple, which brings together cheddar, maple butter and egg.

If you don’t find yourself ordering a second round, then make your way over to the pastry section. When in Somerville, one must order the oatmeal crème pie; a slathering of marshmallow fluff spread generously between two oatmeal biscuits, before grabbing a bag of English muffins to take away.

vinalbakery.com