The next stage of our trip involved flying from Charleston back up the east coast to Boston, a city I’ve always wanted to visit. A little odd, mind you, that we left New York and headed south before hitting up Boston back up in the north east. I guess that’s how things were panning out.
A relatively late arrival gave us enough time to catch the Copley Square Farmers’ Market before its vendors packed up and left town. Somehow, after the market, we ended up in the South End tucking into pints of Samuel Adams, wondering where we’d end up for dinner.
It was then that I remembered I had a few places in the neighbourhood pinned on my phones food map. No point in wasting all the time I put into researching places and compiling an eating map, right?
“Fancy a little Spanish?” I asked.
As the sun was about to set we turned up at Toro. No reservation; just feeling a little hopeful that they had a couple of spare seats. Not that you can book, anyway.
Inside was heaving. A very dark candle-lit room buzzing with locals trying to yell over the top of one another. Hmm, maybe not a good idea. An outside table it was, out in the cool air where we could sit and enjoy a bottle of Spanish San Clodio and nibble on a few tapas beneath the street lights. A rather large menu meant we had to be selective. Pinchos, tapas, charcuterie – there was too much I wanted to sample at this South End institution that has been going strong for almost a decade.
We didn’t want to pass up the jamón de pato (9). Impossibly thin slices of cured duck breast scattered with espelette pepper and orange zest; so delicate that it virtually dissolved in the mouth. Pan con tomate (4) joins the set, toasted and topped with beautifully garlicky tomato with olive oil and sea salt. For an extra $1 you can add anchovies.
I personally couldn’t ignore the mollejas (15); a trio of crispy sweetbread lightly glazed in blood orange reduction with peanuts, fermented black beans and a swipe of puréed celeriac beneath it all. Sweet, salty, sour. The tastebuds were jumping.
A tapas menu is bound to have a croquette of some description, so here we have the croquettas de bacalao (10). Salt cod fans can rejoice in the creamy innards and crunchy exterior; dunking away in the aioli and finishing with some tempura lemon rings. We couldn’t quite get the flavour of lemon, nor the texture, which led us to believe it was a vegetable we’re more familiar seeing in such an outfit.
Well hello there, panza de cardo (14), you sexy lump of crisp pork belly. The yellow street lamps may have drowned out the colour but they had no chance in drowning out the flavours. Things veered from Spanish to Korean with the inclusion “kimchi” vegetables that were basically like a pickle spiked with ginger, rather than the complex kimchi flavourings. A vermouth and carrot purée is there, as well.
Our final plate is the pato con membrillo (9); two smoked duck drumettes loaded with smokey bbq flavours. A sticky, sweet and tart quince glaze makes for some messy finger food, which is half the fun.
Toro – 1704 Washington Street, South End
Staying at the Loews Hotel gave us a relatively central location to many parts of town. Ten minutes to Downtown and very close to the South End; an area that reminds me a little of Sydney’s Newtown, yet not as busy and much more spread out. Breakfast wasn’t covered in our room rate so that meant one thing. Finding somewhere close enough to grab food and a coffee. And naturally coffee was the biggest concern.
Down on Berkeley Street is the appropriately named Berkeley Perk Café, a busy little place that’s a convenient spot to hit up for a cheap breakfast. The small counter overflows with home-baked cakes, cookies and sweets, flasks of coffee and a small espresso machine sit beneath chalked drinks menus and breakfast offerings are scribed on another board.
My macchiato comes delivered in a large mug, filled to half-way point. A layer of airy foam blanketing a rather long pour of espresso. When I saw a mug coming our way I almost said it was probably for another table; until I looked inside and noticed this was how a macchiato was made at Perk. Perhaps a single shot espresso should have been ordered.
Our food is unfancy and very much like you’d knock up in your own home kitchen. The Berkeley omelette special (5.95) is filled with tomato, bacon and onion and topped with a little avocado. A coffee is included with the smoked salmon bagel (6.5); an everything bagel lightly toasted with tomato, onion and cream cheese. A comfy café, very pleasant service and clearly popular with the locals.
Berkeley Perk Café – 69 Berkeley Street, South End
Anyone that’s up for a serious coffee made by serious coffee nerds ought to look up Render, down on Columbus Avenue. It’s housed in an old Victorian brownstone with a sunny entrance and front seating area that overlooks the street. Most of the food in the cabinet is made in the minuscule open kitchen behind the counter, with some exceptions like the pastries from local baker hero, Iggy’s.
The macchiato is done “noisette” style and packs a real punch; something we returned for a few times during our Boston visit. Pity we weren’t around long enough to partake in a little free coffee cupping. And you’ve got to love those Iggy’s bagels; toasted and spread with a normal amount of cream cheese. Not those artery-clogging mountains you get in NYC.
Render Coffee – 563 Columbus Avenue, South End
The city of Boston drips with history so a visit to at least one of its cemeteries ought to make it to the agenda. What used to be part of the Boston Common, the Granary Burying Ground, was instituted in 1660 thanks to overcrowding at nearby Kings Chapel. Ordinary folk, three signers of the Declaration of Independence (Hancock, Adams & Paine), industrialist and patriot Paul Revere, members of Benjamin Franklin’s family and many more. It’s a fascinating place to explore, read grave stones and see a whole lot of inscribed skulls, crossbones and winged death-heads.
The burying ground at Copp’s Hill is worth exploring, as well.
A little too much talk about dead people? Then a short walk down Tremont Street for a coffee may be a better way to fill the time.
Thinking Cup overlooks the Commons and is a decent contender for those amongst us that quite happy turn a nose to the consistently ordinary Starbucks empire. Oregon’s Stumptown Roasters provide the beans, there are baked goods galore, and no wifi. No wifi means there isn’t a sea of laptops taking up tables in this slightly Euro-feeling set-up. And that’s a bonus, in my caffeine-induced opinion. The cafe does feel a tad “high-density” thanks to its size and popularity, but when you’re lucky enough to nab a table or stool, the coffee is worth it.
Thinking Cup – 165 Tremont Street
With lunch-time fast approaching, consideration was given to Daddy’s Fried Dough across the road in the Commons, for a bit of a snack. Nah. We were craving something Asian, so walked down towards Chinatown.
South Street Diner caught my eye, but I stuck to my cravings as we scoped the streets of Boston’s rather small Chinatown. And then we came across Hong Kong Eatery. Perfect.
An obligatory Tsingtao, or two, cool us down in this eatery that claims to have Boston’s best Chinese food. One thing for sure is the look of the place transports me back to any one of the beaten-up eateries you can find all over HK. Nasty bright lights above-head, chair legs that screech across floor tiles and locals slurping away on one thing or another.
All the Cantonese favourites are there for the picking. Jellyfish with shredded duck, anyone? A massive menu that takes a little time to get through; plus a bunch of American-Chinese dishes for those that can’t veer from the food hall staples.
For such low prices I wasn’t expecting as much food as what we were given, and when it came to those pork spare ribs (8.95), they were exactly what my body needed. A light crispness on the outside with incredibly juicy meat that slipped off the bone with ease. A liberal salting, loads of fried onion and garlic and minimal chilli made for some serious lip smacking.
The bbq pork (6.5) may have been generous in size with some really good crispy skin, but the meat was fresh from the fridge and unpleasantly cold. I’m used to this being either room temperature or a little warm, not colder than the beers we were drinking.
Hong Kong Eatery – 79 Harrison Avenue, Chinatown
Across the channel in Fort Pond is Barrington Coffee, the café and retail store of this local roasting company. A big open space, shiny Synesso, a few single origin beans to choose from, there’s drip and flash brew as well. Really good macchiato and a nice little place to drop in for a quick pit stop.
Barrington Coffee – 346 Congress Street, South Boston
Once again the South End was our saving grace when it came to dinner. I’d already known about The Butcher Shop so it was almost by default that we grabbed a couple of seats before the place filled with carnivores.
This fully functioning butcher shop is like something in Italy or France; providing not only fresh meat and smallgoods, but ready-to-take-home prepared meals, condiments, breads, oils, even a cookbook.
We gave our livers a rest from the vino and settled on a couple of cold brews; which is a given when there were sausages in our sights.
Heirloom tomato salad (14), a bit of a favourite for this pair, swiftly landed on the table. A few shavings of parmesan, chunks of balsamic-soaked baguette, and a good glug of olive oil helped make those impossibly sweet tomatoes shine.
I’m also a bit of a sucker for steak tartar (17) and here they don’t mess around with the portioning. There was a lot. And thankfully enough toasted bread to pile it all onto. Some pickled onions sit to the side and my only gripe would be that there weren’t enough capers mixed into the meat.
There’s not a great deal you can do when it comes to presenting a sausage on a plate. So snaps to the chef for not doing a smiley face. Not that he would have. First we have the prosciutto sausage (19), house-made of course, served up with arugula, fig mostarda and more of those tasty little balsamic croutons. Nice sausage, chef.
Mine was the hot dog à la maison (16), a fairly decent sausage presented on rather dry bread and topped with pickled fennel. There’s a little seeded mustard plus some not-so-crispy pomme gaufrette; or waffle fries for us non-French speaking folk.
The Butcher Shop – 52 Tremont Street, South End
The city’s oldest residential neighbourhood, the North End, is also known as Boston’s Little Italy. The first Italian immigrants arrived in the mid 1800’s and by the 1930’s the area was almost exclusively Italian; a bustling community that was teeming with small grocery shops, bakers, butchers, tailors and services.
Today much of the area has been retained. It may no longer be exclusively Italian, but the narrow streets and lanes are still home to many shops, grocers, providores and dozens of Italian restaurants. And at times it really does feel like you’re wandering the streets of an Italian city or town.
A little bonus came our way when we stumbled upon the second outlet of Thinking Cup. Whether it was the time of day or just the area, this one was quieter and more laid back than the downtown outlet. And the village atmosphere of this part of Hanover Street makes it all the better. Once again it was a couple of macchiati that did the trick in putting a little more bounce in our step. And with lunch time fast approaching we were keeping an eye for a nice little restaurant around the neighbourhood. Italian lunch, of course.
Thinking Cup – 236 Hanover Street, North End
This part of Little Italy was my favourite. A tight cross of streets that almost felt like Rome or Naples. Elderly Italian folk standing and chatting in doorways, deliveries of fresh vegetables to corner shops, even a guy going from door to door selling loaves of fresh bread.
One place that stood the test of time, since 1932 anyway, is Polcari’s Coffee. Stepping into this corner grocer is like taking a step into decades past. Not only do they stock almost thirty varieties of imported coffee, but it’s a one-stop shop for loose leaf tea, legumes, nuts, flours and a dazzling array of spices. Even shaved ice slushies.
Polcari’s Coffee – 105 Salem Street, North End
Feeling a little spoilt for choice with the abundance of Italian restaurants, it was Trattoria di Monica that took our pick as a lunch venue. The display of pumpkins helped in getting our attention, as well.
This cosy little restaurant is one of three businesses owned by local boys, the Mendoza Brothers. Over the road from the trattoria is Monica’s Mercato, a gorgeous and recently expanded providor. A few blocks away is the sprawling Vinoteca di Monica, the original restaurant that moved from the small space the trattoria now calls home.
Lunch was a relaxed and delicious affair. A simple spaghetti aglio e olio (16) – garlic, olive oil, chilli flakes and parmesan. Just what the other half was craving. For me, an oozing meatball panini (12) loaded with homemade meatballs, tomato & basil sauce and mozzarella. Not the daintiest object to eat, but when something is that delicious, who cares what my face and hands look like during the process.
Trattoria di Monica – 67 Prince Street, North End
Once again we end up in the South End for an evening meal, this time across the road from where we’d eaten the night prior; The Butcher Shop. Somehow we’d ended up at two places owned by local chef Barbara Lynch, without even knowing it. And it appears she has several more places about town
B&G Oysters is all about the bivalves. Well, that seems to be the main attraction at this subterranean neighbourhood restaurant. The sunken rear courtyard was already teeming with early diners, so it was a lucky strike that we were able to nab a seat inside at the marble bar, sans reservation. Best seat in the house? I guess it depends on how you look at things. The way we were looking at things involved a whole lot of shucking action.
A few oysters landed in front of me – from Dabob Bay, Miranda Bay and all the way from the northwest coast, the Olympic Miyagi. I’m not connoisseur enough to taste much of a difference between each variety, but I must say they’re pretty damn special.
Whilst the menu is predominantly seafood centric, there are a few items for those that shun the creatures from our oceans and estuaries. The reoccurring menu choice on this American trip seemed to be tomato related. And why wouldn’t we when they were at their seasonal best?
Heirloom tomato salad (14) with yellow watermelon, feta and pistachio. Lovely combination, even if it did lack some seasoning.
The Atlantic blue cod (29) comes crisp-skinned, resting on green and yellow beans in bagna cauda, a “hot bath” of olive oil, butter and perhaps an anchovy or two. There’s grapefruit in there as well, making for a really tasty dish.
My Jonah crab tagliatelle (26) was all about sweet crab meat poached in butter, but sadly let down by overcooked pasta. With more hits that misses, this is one eatery I’d gladly welcome to my own neighbourhood.
B&G Oysters – 550 Tremont Street, South End
With the weather gods on our side we thought we’d head out early one morning and explore Back Bay; in particular Newbury Street. There’s a whole lot going on along the eight blocks of this bustling thoroughfare. Boutiques, restaurants, cafés, galleries, you name it. Most of which are housed in gorgeous 19th-century brownstones.
A post-breakfast second coffee hit occurred at a popular little café tucked down a few steps from the street. Pavement Coffeehouse uses robust Counter Culture coffee, and for those that prefer leaves to beans, Risha Tea may be of interest. Something tells me there are edibles on the menu but I didn’t really pay attention to anything other than my rockin’ macchiato.
Pavement Coffeehouse – 286 Newbury Street, Back Bay
With the morning sun ablaze over the city, it was when we walked across the Harvard Bridge that we appreciated the beauty of this waterfront city even more. Barely a breath of wind, the Charles River almost resembling a mirror and the sparse city skyline stretching to the east. Stunning.
For those unaware, two of the worlds most prominent universities can be found on the north side of the river in Cambridge – Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We were heading into uni territory to see what else went down outside of these massive learning institutions.
Boston may not have much to offer when it comes to African restaurants, but I did notice there were a few on this side of the bridge.
Asmara is the capital of Eritrea, a small African country barely twenty years old. It’s also the name of this friendly restaurant on busy Massachusetts Avenue. The set-up is cosy – cane furniture, a collection of traditional artefacts and a television playing Eritrean music videos. There’s the option of sitting at regular tables or the more traditional mesob; a woven wicker basket on which food is placed and eaten communally using your fingers and a flatbread called injera.
Both of our dishes arrive on a platter which is placed on the mesob. Time to get dirty. Stuffed green pepper (7.95) with spiced ground beef is a beautifully savoury appetiser served on injera with a house salad.
My desire to try a few things was satisfied with the sega bebaynatu (15.95), a meat combination plate featuring a few of the curries. Tsehbhi derho – chicken marinated in garlic & herbs in a slightly splice red pepper sauce. Timtimo – yellow split peas cooked in a mild sauce. Atkilt begeeh – lamb in mild yellow sauce. Asmara tibsy – cubed beef sautéed with onion, peppers, chilli and garlic. Alitcha ahmilti – vegetable stew. Most are quite tasty and mildly spiced, yet the beef was nothing more than boiled meat with onion and barely an ounce of flavour.
Still, a pretty good lunch.
Asmara – 739 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge
I took us on a little detour in search of this café on Broadway. Dwelltime. With previous incarnations as a grocery store and then an auction house, the cafe is open, light-filled and dripping with students socialising or with eyes transfixed on a laptop.
A large island service counter takes up the centre of the maplewood floor. Cabinets with snacks, La Marzocco Strada machine, pour-over station, shiny brass tap for cold brew and a row of seats for onlookers. The beans come from local Arlington roaster Barissimo, a bunch of folk that clearly know what they’re doing. And an added bonus for people like us … no wifi during lunch hours. That means less people setting up office, sitting on one drink for hours and taking up seats.
dwelltime – 64 Broadway, Central Square
Our final meal in Boston was spent in casual style at the iconic Craigie On Main, also on the Cambridge side of town. Cheffed by Tony Maws and a kitchen brigade that works like a well-oil machine, this is a place that firmly believes in gathering the ingredients and then creating the days menu.
We were here to try the 3-course prix fixe menu (67); a line-up of food where concentration and effort is clearly evident in each plate set before us.
This would have to be the first place to send out an amuse bouche that differs to the one your companion received. A one-bite-and-it’s-gone chilled Maine mussel with fennel foam for him, and a beef heart pastrami for me.
I could tell someone was getting a tad enamoured with the Spanish octopus a la plancha. A couple of impossibly tender tentacles twisting beneath a pickled lemon salad, micro basil and a cushy bed of green pepper romesco. Great stuff.
I did a little swooning myself when I sunk my teeth into the meaty, fatty, rich and sweet fried pig’s tails. Seriously? The ass-end of a swine tastes this good? Halo’s of fried onion brought some crunch and some Vietnamese nước chấm, pickled peanuts and coriander made everything shine even more.
The swine party continues with a Vermont pork 3-way. First there’s a juicy rib crusted in coriander seed & other spices, a hunk of confit belly and another hunk of confit suckling pig. Some wheat berries, baby yellow carrots and maitake mushrooms join the party as well.
Some rather large chunks of swordfish à la poêle are spruced up with braised alliums, bacon lardons, tomatillo and barley couscous. Some very clean flavours, yet quite filling with the meaty fish.
A trio of house-made sorbets does some cleansing action with raspberry, cucumber and peach flavours. A rather simple dessert addition compared to the miso cheesecake I ordered. The cake itself is beautifully fluffy and a touch salty from the miso, but I wasn’t entirely in love with the daigaku imo (candied sweet potato); that wasn’t sweet at all. Akin to eating fried pieces of yam that’s still a little soft. I think the herb was baby amaranth. The best part? The chunks of caramelised puffed rice.
Craigie on Main – 853 Main Street, Central Square