Postcard From Tom: Boston

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema's monthly report from the road.

On a recent trip to Boston, I devoted most of my time to exploring the work of relatively small neighborhood restaurants. These three charmed me the most.

Neptune Oyster (63 Salem St., 617-742-3474)

From clam chowder to lobster rolls, an honor roll of seafood classics makes its way onto the menu at this slip of a spot in Boston's North End. But chef David Nevins likes to push the envelope, too, with such innovations as cioppino garnished with saffron rice, and fresh sea urchin served atop a salad of grilled eggplant, fried chickpeas and fresh mint. From the street, you can watch a shucker prepare oysters in the window; from a perch inside, you can admire the joint's marble counter, pressed-tin ceiling and genial service. Entrees $21.50-$38.

Pops (560 Tremont St., 617-695-1250)

Felino Samson believes that "good food shouldn't be exclusive to fine dining." So no entree at his new South End restaurant costs more than $20, and the options run to a world of comforts: cheeseburgers, duck confit, pasta and "stuffies," a nice nod to the region that finds chopped clams, Portuguese sausage, herbed bread crumbs and toasted corn stuffed into clam shells. A fashion designer in a previous life, the chef has an eye for detail that extends to the setting, which resembles a supper club in miniature. Entrees $16-$20.

Rendezvous (502 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. 617-576-1900)

What used to be a Burger King in Central Square is now an ode to the fresh and seasonal. The water in your carafe comes from a spring, the greens in your salad hail from area farms and even the honeyed lighting suggests a sense of purity. "We've moved from fast food to slow food," jests the discerning owner and chef, Steve Johnson. His cooking looks mostly to France and the Mediterranean; the result is wood-grilled baby octopus, pork belly punched up with kumquat pickles, striped bass with fava beans -- and some very pleasant memories. Entrees $20-$26.

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