Three days exploring the restaurant scene in Boston last month turned up a surprise accompaniment everywhere I visited: stellar service.
Distinguished hospitality flowed at the enticing new Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square, where the hostess cheerfully found space at the bar for a dozen walk-ins (!) and the server explained the local oysters as if she had harvested them herself. A sense of generosity marked my interaction with Drink in South Boston, where the woman answering the phone took five minutes to explain to a stranger that the menu at the lounge consisted of “finger food a friend would serve if you came over for cocktails” — and then went on to provide a party’s worth of examples.
Attention to detail and easy warmth also seasoned my meals at the following trio of noteworthy destinations:
Before charcuterie plates became staples on every restaurant menu, Jamie Bissonnette was the guy in the kitchen — first in Hartford, Conn., later in Boston — whose job it was to pluck the wings from chickens and trim the scraps from pork loin and figure out how to turn these lesser parts into something delicious for staff meals. He was also the butcher to ask his bosses, “How come we’re not using the pig feet?”
Such resourcefulness proved good training for the celebration of snout-to-tail cooking at Coppa, which Bissonnette opened two years ago with one of Boston’s best-known chefs, Ken Oringer. Their spare, pie-shaped venture in the South End is not your Olive Garden-variety Italian restaurant. Although two of Coppa’s most popular dishes are the margherita pizza and the cavatelli with chicken sausage and broccoli, some of the most intriguing grazing is found among the offal.
Get your tongue around the lardo (cured pork fat), whipped to the texture of Marshmallow Fluff and streaked with chestnut honey. Make room for pig tails, roasted in Coppa’s wood-fired oven and sweetened with mustard fruits. You can have your pizza dressed with slices of smoked beef heart and bone marrow. Spaghetti carbonara is tossed anew with smoked pancetta and sea urchin that, together with an egg, create a marvelous, slightly briny sauce for the pasta.
None of the offal goodness might have happened had Bissonnette, 34, not decided in 1998 to give up the sometimes vegan/sometimes vegetarian diet he had followed for seven years. (He says that he got by in culinary school by tasting and spitting and that he started eating meat again only after mentors told him he would never be widely received if all he cooked was meatless food.) Stuffed as the menu is with fleshy parts, Coppa attracts vegetarians who know they can find plenty to eat among the roasted vegetable dishes, eggless pastas and pizzas.
To widen the sliver, the owners painted the brick walls white, hung a mirror and kept the space mostly free of clutter. Indeed, the most prominent prop in the restaurant is the bright red Berkel meat slicer behind the bar. Following the Italian custom, the chef shuttles between Coppa and the older establishment he and Oringer own, the tapas restaurant Toro, on a baby blue Vespa.
253 Shawmut Ave.; 617-391-0902; www.coppaboston.com. Pizza and pasta $14 to $16.
I wasn’t inclined to book a table at a down-home restaurant specializing in fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits during too few days in Boston. But Hungry Mother in Kendall Square was on the lips of every local food fan, and who could resist the name?
Any reticence I had was erased at the door, where the greeting was properly gracious, and at the small bar, where I made a mental note to adopt the restaurant’s clever design trick at home: upside-down water glasses make fun light fixtures. “Be sure to check out the restrooms,” a friend had tipped me off. Their walls are papered with pages from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Cambridge icon Julia Child, or the more rustic recipes taken from “The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook,” published in the 1830s.
It came as no surprise later to learn that chef and co-owner Barry Maiden had served as chef de cuisine for four years at the esteemed Lumiere in nearby Newton and that he was a son of the Old Dominion — specifically Marion, a rural town in southwest Virginia. Three years ago, when he and his rebels at heart were trying to come up with a name for their Southern tribute, Maiden pulled out a map of the area he’d grown up in and spotted Hungry Mother State Park. “That’s a no-brainer,” he recalls thinking.
Loud and small and lighted as if by candles, the former dive bar is best experienced in a corner nook. By chance, my trio scored the space that had once served as a stage for Elvis Costello and Ben Harper, among other musicians.
Dinner should commence with smoked beef tongue canape. It sounds fancier than what it looks like — roast beef piled atop a bread chunk — but to miss the sweet-and-sour snack would be to forgo a signature of the kitchen. The combination of shredded tongue and a gooey bit of local Swiss cheese piled on a crisped baguette that swells with juices is irresistible. I could easily make a meal of them.
Maiden’s shrimp and grits with house-cured tasso would taste at home in New Orleans; garlic, rosemary and shrimp stock made from the shells of the seafood infuse the entree. “I like bold flavors,” says the chef. Pork shoulder is rubbed with chilies, brown sugar and salt before going into the smoker; the pulled meat is crisp, tender — sensational. Catfish drizzled with lemony brown butter and sprinkled with pecans is another fine catch. Even Hungry Mother’s collard greens show tender, loving care. To retain their vibrant color — and, Maiden admits, add a little buzz — the side dish is splashed with vinegar at the last minute at the table. “People eat with their eyes.”
The service, like the food, is soothing. As Maiden puts it, “How pretentious can you be when you’re serving boiled peanuts?”
233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave., Cambridge; 617-499-0090; www.hungrymothercambridge.com . Entrees $21 to $25.
The latest contribution to the city’s dining scene comes from native daughter Barbara Lynch, whose cooking at No. 9 Park earned her a regional James Beard award in 2003. Her luxe Menton opened during the recession in the spring of last year in Fort Point, a neighborhood still in the development stages.
The restaurant was my first stop after landing at Logan International Airport and the finest example in months of why luxury restaurants matter. From the illuminated steps leading up to the front door to the glass bowl of miniature macarons that close dinner, Menton reminds us that high-end dining rooms are distinguished from those lower on the food chain by more than their prices.
Consider the hand-blown Austrian-made stemware for the wine, so delicate you wonder why it doesn’t levitate off the table. Bask in a service team that seems unable to say no to any request and might react to a diner’s indecision by bringing out the two dishes he thought he had to choose between.
Heading up the kitchen is Lynch protege Colin Lynch (no relation). He’s a mere 29 but already cooking as if he were in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. Tautog, the local fish whose rich flesh brings black cod to mind, gets basted with butter and honey and presented with meaty matsutake mushrooms. Roast squab is enriched with blood sausage and chestnut puree; its forbidden rice has a mysterious Asian accent that is later revealed to be XO sauce. But my favorite dish of the meal was a beautiful appetizer of poached wild shrimp from the Sea of Cortez that gets a kick from jalapenos and lime juice and a light crunch from puffed wild rice. Mint and cilantro are in the picture, too, as is a vinaigrette coaxed from golden raisins and dried figs. Divine. The same adjective could be applied to the warm hazelnut financier garnished with icy Concord grape sorbet shot through with fresh ginger.
The view from my window on a rainy fall night didn’t hurt the cause. Looking across the street into a tall red brick building where only a few lights shone, I might have been feasting my eyes on a solemn Edward Hopper oil.
354 Congress St.; 617-737-0099. www.mentonboston.com. Three courses $80, four courses $95, seven courses $145.