Monday, June 6, 2011

No. 9 Park, Boston MA

While many touristy stops such as Durgin Park, Mike’s Pastry, Pizzeria Regina, and Union Oyster House come to mind when thinking of the Boston dining landscape there is perhaps no other location (save for the currently closed Olives) as significant as Barbara Lynch’s No 9 Park in terms of putting Boston on the “fine dining” map. Sure fancier restaurants have entered the dining landscape in recent years (Including Lynch’s own Menton) and some suggest that the Beacon Hill location is not what it once was, but with Chef de Cuisine Patrick Campbell still serving many of the dishes that won Lynch attention from Food and Wine, the Beard Awards, and countless other publications en route to beginning her empire I thought the old townhouse would prove a fitting close to my first exploration of Boston’s world of haute cuisine.

With reservations made well in advance and a request for a table with adequate lighting having heard that the space could become considerably dim I approached the unassuming building at 9 Park Street mere moments before my 7:00pm reservation and with the Bruins first NHL Finals game in nearly twenty years about to begin the city was electric. Entering the small doors and greeted by a friendly young man at the podium I was told it would be a few moments before my table was ready and asked if I’d like to take a seat in the lounge while I waited. Never really a fan of this tactic as I could see a few open tables to my right (including the one I’d be sat at fifteen minutes later) I consented to the request and after declining cocktails twice and having my water knocked over by a tipsy elderly gentleman I was finally rescued from purgatory and shown to my table hoping that the night would improve substantially from here on out.

Making my way through the low ceilinged room the noise from the bar quickly dissipated and with deep wooden floors and ancient crystal chandeliers above I suddenly understood the comments about the lighting and realized there really was not a seat with “good lighting” save for those nearest the large windows looking out into the street – the two-top of which would be mine for the evening. With padded wooden chairs, thick double linen tablecloths, crystal, and silver the room was one that felt formal without being stuffy and old without being dull. Greeted soon by the sommelier I was offered a wine and cocktail menu which I perused but declined and moments later I met Matthew – a young charismatic server who would provide not only great service throughout the evening, but also interesting stories of the restaurant and substantial knowledge of the menu.

Having acknowledged my interest in some of Lynch’s classics I will note here that the menu at No 9 Park is not exactly the most intrinsic in that there are two options – a tasting or a prix fixe, but for the tasting two of Lynch’s “classics” as well as cheese come at an additional supplemental charge of $15 each. Never one to skimp and finding the night’s tasting quite favorable save for the main course of beef it was without question that I was allowed a substitution of the main and opting for the full tasting with all three supplements the night began quickly without an amuse, but instead with the first of many warm house made Buttermilk Biscuits with creamy unsalted butter.

Beginning the tasting my first menu course would arrive and while I personally feel it would have been better suited as an amuse it would not have been very good either way. Titled “Striped Bass Crudo with fava beans, green garlic, crème fraiche” this two-part presentation featured a tasty ceviche at the left and a terrible tartare to the right – flavors so dissimilar I actually found it hard to believe they came from the same fish. Beginning first with the crudo, the bass was clean, smooth, and nicely matched to its accoutrements while the tartare tasted fishy, nearly “pickled,” and downright sour from the crème fraiche. Not wanting to judge too quickly I will note that when Matthew returned to find 3/4 of the tartare still on the plate his inquiry as to whether I enjoyed the course was answered honestly (and apparently reported as such to the chef.)

Moving on to bigger and better things, course two would be more of what I expected from a restaurant so highly regarded and once again it would arrive as a duo on a single plate. Titled “Dayboat Sea Scallop with potato mille feuille, chanterelles, baby leeks, and mushroom puree this clever dish featured a beautiful caramelized scallop to the right and to the left an equally attractive round of creamy potatoes that looked nearly identical. Pairing each with savory leeks and woodsy mushrooms I really enjoyed this dish and in all my times fine dining I have never seen this playful trick before.

For my next dish I was served an ingredient I don’t traditionally fancy that was prepared so well that it didn’t even matter. Given the option to swap this course when I asked for a different main course in place of the beef my decision to keep Stinging Nettle Gnudi with ricotta, smoked veal belly, and sage was based largely on Lynch’s roots in Italian cooking and thankfully while the veal was a mere undertone the five creamy orbs of Gnudi were immensely flavorful with notes of sage, smoke, and salinity all in perfect balance.

Beginning the supplemental dishes it seems crazy to me that one should have to “add” the restaurant’s most famous dish and it seems even crazier that one would ever consider not doing so. Ordered with all intent to pay the $15 surcharge but instead served “on the house” due to my displeasure with the bass “Prune stuffed Gnocchi with foie gras, almond, and vin santo” was the perfect marriage of two of my very favorite foods and the sort of dish where although the portion size was ample I could have easily eaten it all night. On one hand intensely sweet from the potato dumplings wrapped around prune preserves and on the other smooth and savory with a gossamer finish from the liver the true brilliance of this dish was actually the vin santo sauce bringing both together while bits of crunchy almond added texture.

Not to be outdone by the gnocchi, my second supplement was an absolute steal for a mere $15 as it featured an easily 3-4oz slice of pan seared Hudson Valley Foie gras perched atop “baked fig en croute” and alongside dollops of pistachio puree and drizzles of reduced port. Clearly intended to be served as a one-two punch with the gnocchi this dish was every bit as delicious but nearly the exact opposite in texture with the liver more firmly cooked and the figs still fibrous in their skins beneath the flaky pastry shell. Less reliant on the sauces for balance than were the gnocchi I will note that while I enjoy foie gras paired sweetly the port was almost too much in this preparation while the pistachio puree was creamy, subtle, and restrained.

Continuing the hit parade with another of my favorite ingredients, “Native farm egg with house made sausage, spinach, and truffle brodo” was essentially a soup or broth that I’d have normally expected earlier in the menu but given the heft of its ingredients it also served as an appropriate sixth course. Arriving as three overlapping rounds topped with shaved summer truffles tableside this hearty amalgam first featured a disc of cooked spinach topped with a creamy golden egg, and finally by a pan seared slice of crispy sausage. Running the gamut from vegetal to creamy to savory to earthy this was a well crafted dish even with the truffles less aromatic than optimal.

For my final course in place of the beef I was served, by request, Peking Duck Breast with confit leg, baby root vegetables, chestnut puree and sour cherry. Having gotten somewhat used to the complex flavors of aged duck breast during recent dining experiences (namely Paris and the night prior at L’Espalier) this fresh preparation was surprisingly tasty and although a bit “chewy” the skin was immaculate and crisp thanks to what I was told was a few hours of brining in soy, sugar, and Chinese Five-spice. Moving past the breast to the molten confit and the sweet/savory balance of accoutrements on the plate I really liked the way each ingredient seemed to pull a different flavor from the duck – particularly the cherries which highlighted notes of cinnamon and clove in the crispy skin.

With the cheese cart arriving tableside next I will fully admit I was stunned by Matthew’s knowledge of the selections as most servers Stateside can barely pronounce the cheese let alone describe its province, notes, and their personal opinions on it. Again suggested as “on the house – Chef Campbell feels bad that you did not enjoy the bass” each cheese was described at length and after some debate I opted to allow Matthew to choose and as such was served Monte da Vinha, Tomme de Chevre au Muscadet, and a phenomenal Cow’s milk cheese titled Dom Villas from Portugal with notes of grass and spice enrobed in a silky texture and a rind with crystallized bits. Served with the cheeses were a plate of accoutrements described as honeycomb crunch, grapes, hazelnuts, wheat toast, and peanut butter apricot fig terrine – the latter of which was spread on a buttermilk biscuit to great effect.

Moving on to desserts I can only say that it is rare for me to be impressed by savories and let down by sweets but that is exactly what happened at No. 9 Park. Arriving first and declared a palate cleanser Cherry Soda with Shiso foam was precisely as described – a bit bubbly, plenty tart, but no better than the cherry limeade at Sonic (at least so far as my memory of 5-6 years ago serves me.)

Arriving quickly on the heels of the palate cleanser, “Native Strawberries with Saffron, Vanilla, and Lychee” would definitely prove more interesting than the cleanser with the strawberries served in three forms – frozen, cooked, and raw – beneath a gelatin infused with saffron and a dollop of vanilla cream smoothing out the citric punch of lychee sorbet. Tasty and interesting I cannot say this was a bad dessert, nor a boring one, it just wasn’t my style and it was far too similar to the Soda and Shiso in citrus/berry composition to serve an ample closing to an otherwise well designed and diverse menu.

With a table of lawyers behind me checking the Bruins score frequently and the local team winning in a landslide I sat and finished my water while debating coffee until Matthew arrived with my check and some mignardises – a Raspberry gelee on shortbread and a chocolate mousse with chocolate ganache that saved the day for those of us who prefer our desserts laden with cocoa, caramel, or nuts. Requesting a menu and paying the bill I thanked Matthew for the excellent service and en route to the hostess stand to gather my bag I was met by Chef Campbell who wanted to “personally apologize for the tartare – I think we may have gotten a bit of tail meat in a couple the servings tonight” – a very nice gesture that although totally unnecessary was a classy touch.

With bag collected and a cab easily hailed within seconds the drive back to my hotel was a long one due to traffic leaving the Garden but with windows down and a cabby born and raised in the area the scene and conversation were lively and memorable and having heard where I’d just dined my driver informed me that No. 9 Park was the very place he and his wife had celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary 8 years prior. Asking me if they should go back for their tenth I hedged my bets and said it was certainly worth considering both for the nostalgia and the food to which he asked “Do they still have that gnocchi? Its one of the best things I’ve ever had!”

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