Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Durgin Park, Boston MA
For my very last meal in Boston I took a chance on Durgin Park; sure its location, reputation, and fame screamed “tourism” but then again how could a space in operation since 1827 not be? With a sign reading “Established before you were born” and street performers, kiosks, and crowds dominating the exterior I will admit my skepticism on approaching the only restaurant my mother remembered visiting in Boston 30+ years prior but something told me to press on if only for nostalgia factor.
With my plane leaving at 8:05pm my arrival at Durgin Park would occur between lunch and dinner and while the streets outside were bustling the restaurant itself would prove largely uninhabited. Greeted first by a man at the bar and then by a hostess in a long Quaker-style dress I was given the option of sitting indoors or on the patio and although the weather was gorgeous the loud crowds outside and desire to see the aged interior led me to choose the upstairs indoor dining room – an area that would turn out to be completely empty throughout the duration of my seventy minute visit save for the cooks and servers arriving and preparing for dinner service.
Seated at one of the myriad long communal tables near the open windows with ceiling fans churning overhead I browsed the heavily wooden and tile room for a bit before my server, a nice young woman named Shively approached with a pitcher of water and the restaurant menu. Expecting the gruff attitude some say that Durgin Park encourages from their servers I’ll note that I received no such behavior but rather smiles and “you’re welcomes” throughout the meal and with the full pitcher of water left on the table refills were never an issue. With the menu filled with “traditional New England-style” options and a focus on that which is broiled, boiled, or fried accompanied by side dishes largely reserved for Thanksgiving dinner in the Midwest I weighed my options for a bit before making my decisions – an order declared “all the classics – good choice” by Shively.
With the restaurant reportedly functioning with “one chef and only a couple servers” due to my time of arrival I was told it would take “about half an hour” to put my order together but with plenty of time before my plane was to arrive I had time to waste and set to reading the extensive beer list and a small book about Durgin Park’s history while I waited. Expecting the whole order to take thirty minutes I was surprised when Shively returned with my first course less than ten minutes later; Clam Chowder with Oyster Crackers and Corn Bread with a pat of butter. Beginning first with the cornbread – nice firmness and a touch of sweetness, plenty toothsome but unfortunately a bit dry even with added butter. Moving on to the chowder – definitely a step in the right direction and much more as I’d expected from the clam chowder in New England – thick, creamy, loaded with potatoes and clams – but unfortunately just a bit too bland, a situation I remedied by adding the salty oyster crackers which definitely helped.
Moving on to my main course which would indeed arrive approximately thirty minutes after I placed my order, Baked Boston Schrod with seasoned Breadcrumbs, Boston Baked Beans, and Butternut Squash was two hits and one epic failure. Beginning first with the miss – the butternut squash – a soupy unseasoned mess that I can only imagine being palatable to babies; it honestly tasted like chunky water and had someone in the kitchen tasted it I cannot imagine this dish being sent out. Moving on to bigger and better, first off were the beans served in a small bowl and bursting with flavor. Soft without being mushy, fibrous without being chewy, sweet while still savory, and all with a light undertone of pork filling the palate. Last but not least, the Schrod with seasoned breadcrumbs reminded me strongly of the battered Yellow Perch my grandmother used to make during summers back in Ohio – flavorful and light, flaky and delicate, and great alone but better with ketchup.
With the schrod all gone and my feelings about the squash noted by the still full bowl dessert would arrive quickly on the heels of my main course. Ordered at the start of the meal as to avoid delays and essentially the impetus for my visit in the first place, “Indian Pudding” would appear in a bowl much larger than anticipated and as a fan of bread pudding, pudding in general, polenta, cornbread, maple syrup, and cinnamon the dish really had no chance to fail. Steaming hot and absolutely slathered with quickly melting vanilla ice cream this was exactly the sort of dish I’d hoped for – a dish that could double as breakfast, dessert, or a side dish with minimal difficulty and absolutely loaded with texture, nuance, and sweetness; sure it isn’t going to win praise as the most attractive or artistic dessert out there, but for me it just might have won out as the most utterly satisfying.
With the bill paid – an admittedly steep $40 after tax and tip – and more smiles and thanks from my server I made my way to the top of the stairs where the chef yelled to me from the kitchen to ask me how everything was. Responding that everything was good (I didn’t have it in me to complain about the squash after the Indian Pudding) he asked where I was from and stating “Ohio” he responded “yeah – ya ain’t going to find Indian Pudding there” and thanked me for coming in even though he didn’t have to; the thanks was mine to give for sending me home from Boston on such a fine note.