BOSTON AND CAMBRIDGE SERVE UP UNPARALLELED HISTORY MATCHED WITH SIDES OF IMPRESSIVE FOOD & CULTURE

In the course of seeking out my family members for recommendations for our upcoming vacation, I naturally talked to my nephew who had lived in Boston for a few years while going to graduate school. He promptly told me “Boston is my favorite city in the world.” After a week in the most historic of American cities, I can see why he would have that opinion.

 

Actually, I should say “Boston area” because we spent some time in Cambridge and other nearby cities. I had been once before but not for this long and I was really looking forward to the trip, for three basic reasons: The history and culture, the food and the beer.

 

History, Culture and Art

 

I had taken the “Freedom Trail” before. It is a 2½-mile walking route that covers sixteen historically significant sites, many among the most important in our nations founding. It is a must for every first time visitor. This time I opted for a walking market tour of the North End, Boston’s “Little Italy,” offered to me by “Michele Topor’s Boston Food Tours.”

 

I was struck by how isolated this area seemed from the rest of the city, almost like another world … but a well preserved and fascinating world. To see the Old North Church and Paul Revere’s House makes one take pause and ponder our country’s beginnings. But this tour was mostly focused on the neighborhood’s Italian food and wine culture.

 

This has got to be one of the highest concentrations of food shops and restaurants anywhere. Our tour wound through the neighborhood visiting six representative stores. We began at Maria’s Pastry Shop, moved a few doors down to De Pasquale’s
 Homemade Pasta Shoppe, then sampled bread at Bricco Pantteria, coffee at Polcari’s, salami and prosciutto at Sulmona Meat Market, veggies at Alba Produce, and cheese at Monica’s Mercato. You get the idea. And these places are only the tip of the iceberg in this fascinating neighborhood.

 

Boston also is home to world-class art and theater. We found a good way to access some of the most important institutions was with the “Boston City Pass,” The pass affords general admission to five attractions – New England Aquarium, Museum Of Science, Skywalk Observatory, Museum Of Fine Arts, 
Harvard Museum Of Natural History, and The Old State House – at close to half the price of the individual admissions.

 

 

We were especially impressed with the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, which included works by Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, Callebotte, Cézanne, and Van Gogh, not to mention an extensive antiquities collection and, during out visit, a special exhibition of Sixties fashion called “ Hippie Chic.” I also recommend everyone check out the Skywalk Observatory on the 50th floor of the Prudential Center (an office building and a giant indoor mall). Great 360° views of the city and surroundings, including Boston Harbor, the Boston Common and Fenway Park are enriched with displays – dubbed the Dreams of Freedom Immigration Museum – recounting important developments in the city’s history.

 

 

We also took the opportunity to attend a performance of the acclaimed Blue Man Group. BMG performs regularly at the historic, 175 year-old Charles Playhouse in Boston’s Theater District. The show featured innovative performances involving music, technology, and comedy. And it did not disappoint.

 

We also were glad we decided to venture down to the crowded waterfront to see the Institute for Contemporary Arts. It’s in an impressive setting with views of the Boston Harbor. We viewed works from the collection by Phillip Taffe, Paul Chan, Annette Lemieux, and Mickalene Thomas. And we were really impressed with the Barry McGee Exhibit. Barry McGee is “street artist” or “graffiti artist” (I’m not sure of the proper term). He uses found materials, leftover paint and other tools of the tagging trade to create explorations of urban life, in this case mostly the Mission District of San Francisco.

 

Dining – Boston

 

 

During our visit, we were hosted for a dinner at Osaka Japanese Sushi & Steakhouse in Brookline. Osaka is the only Japanese Steak House (Hibachi restaurant) in the area. Osaka offers diners two different but complimentary dining options: entertaining Hibachi grill show and quiet sushi rooms. Osaka also has extensive menus of traditional and creative Japanese cuisines.

 

We began with a rather impressive “Tomo” roll that was spicy, crunchy salmon and mango topped with seared salmon, white tuna, avocado, crispy rice, and honey wasabi sauce. It was almost a meal in itself. We also enjoyed a Shrimp Hibachi entrée and the Chefs Special char-grilled Chilean sea bass, marinated in sake sauce. Although it is a bit of a distance from the center of the action in Boston, if you find yourself in or near Brookline, Osaka is worth a stop.

 

 

We also appreciated a lunch invitation from The Palm. Located in the Financial District (of course), this outpost of the national upscale steak and seafood chain presented atmosphere to more than match its fare. It was amazing to learn The Palm began 87 years ago as an Italian restaurant in New York and is still family owned. The Palm restaurants may be most famous for the caricatures of local notables and celebrities on the walls but I’ve always appreciated the professional and attentive service. And the Boston restaurant lived up to the reputation. Here, everyone is made to feel special.

 

As for the food, my wife raved about her bountiful Jumbo Lump Crab Cake sandwich, while I opted for the Three Course Power Lunch. I started with a fresh Gazpacho; then savored a moist Cod special and finished with the signature Flourless Chocolate Cake. After all these years, The Palm continues to provide its guests with an all round fine dining experience.

 

For good food and a great view it would be hard to beat Legal Harborside. We were excited to be invited to Legal Seafoods’ new 20,000 square foot flagship property
 on the Boston Waterfront in the bustling Seaport District adjacent to the historic Boston Fish Pier (the oldest continuously working fish pier in the United States). Legal Sea Foods started as a fish market in Cambridge, MA in 1950 and, still family-owned, now operates a chain of restaurants along the Eastern Seaboard.

 

Legal Harborside really is an impressive building, with three floors featuring three distinct dining concepts. We ate on the first floor where the menu reflects the company’s heritage of casual fresh seafood favorites, an oyster bar and an old-fashioned fish market. From the extensive menu, we started with Baked Stuffed Artichokes with shrimp and scallop stuffing and while my wife couldn’t resist the fresh cold-water north Atlantic lobster, I chose a seasonal soft shell crab special. The second floor menu features a fine dining experience. And the third floor rooftop lounge actually has a retractable glass roof and walls making it usable year-round. Quite impressive.

 

Finally, we made time before the Blue Man Group to have a delightful brunch at Market by Jean Georges, a casual but elegant space in the W Hotel from the superstar New York chef.

 

Dining – Cambridge

 

We also made a point of venturing over to Cambridge a few times to sample the culinary offerings in this city best known for its institutions of higher learning. Next time we come to the area, we also will have visit its art and other cultural attractions. We had two fantastic meals in the Harvard Square commercial district.

 

 

And, as it turned out, both restaurants are run by chef’s who have been named Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chefs. At Harvest, a Harvard Square favorite since the 1970s, chef Mary Dumont continues a tradition of employing well regarded and award winning chefs, such as Barbara Lynch, Bob Kinkead and Lydia Shire. Dumont’s contemporary New England food proved I made the right choice for our dinner with a friend who lives in the area. I also was excited to finally eat at Rialto, Jody Adams’ restaurant of twenty years. I have been reading about this restaurant and Chef Adams for almost that long and was not disappointed. Her contemporary Italian food was impeccable, as were the New England–style dishes.

 

We also were lucky to find Catalyst in Kendall Square. Chef William Kovel, who has worked at some of Boston’s best restaurants, produces what probably is best described as modern American with Italian influences. We enjoyed brunch so much we went back for lunch. As a bonus, all of these restaurants work with local producers and use organic and sustainably produced products as much as possible.

 

Beer, Beer and More Beer

 

I cannot conclude an article about Boston and Cambridge without at least a few words on the beer culture. Although that beer culture has a long history, I submit its modern history begins in 1984 when Jim Koch established the Boston Beer Company. His Samuel Adams Boston Lager wasn’t the first contemporary craft brew (I’m thinking Anchor Steam beer has that credit.) but it did emulate its namesake and brew a revolution in the American beer industry. Today, it is the largest craft brewery in the U.S. and the fifth largest brewery by production.

 

We enjoyed an informative tour of the original brewery (located in the suburb of Jamaica Plain) made really special, as our guide was head brewer Jennifer Glanville. Even if your tour is not lead by the head brewer, a visit here is a must. There are numerous displays explaining how beer is made and Sam Adams beer history. And this location is now the company’s experimental brewery. You just might get to taste some of the new creations.

 

We also made time to venture back to the Seaport District for a visit to Harpoon Brewery, Boston’s other famous brewery. Harpoon is the ninth largest craft brewery in the U.S. and the sixteen largest by production but unfortunately is not available in Colorado. So, it was extra special to try a taster of six beers at the brewery’s Beer Hall. This is another place worth a visit.

 

Back in Cambridge, the Cambridge Brewing Company should be on any beer fan’s itinerary. Located in Kendall Square not far from the Catalyst, this place combines excellent beer with equally good food. I still remember the Cioppino I had. Proof beer and food pairing can be as satisfying as wine and food pairing.

 

In fact, the whole week was satisfying, even though there are about two dozen other restaurants I wanted to try and at least a dozen other sites I wanted to visit. Our only complaint for the whole week was the traffic. I thought it was bad in Denver. This was worse. Still, I can’t wait to go back.

 

 

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.