Boston — home to the namesake baked beans and cream pie. And lobster rolls, brown bread and clam chowder. Also, a vibrant Little Italy (the North End), where after 25 years of taste-testing the cheesecakes and cannolis of rival pastry shops Modern Pastry and Mike’s Pastry I still don’t have a definitive favorite. “Comforting,” “filling,” “no nonsense” and “predictable” described Boston food as I had experienced it since I started coming here regularly, first to visit friends in college in the mid-1990s and, later, family. But a funny thing happened when I finally showed up last month in Beantown looking for more than cream pie and comfort: “The Boston food scene is really interesting right now,” Jason Arias (born and raised in New York City), the general manager of the newish hyper-seasonal restaurant Cultivar, told me as he delivered sweet rolls and a bee-pollen-dusted slab of butter to my table. The venerable restaurant-rater Michelin might still not bother sending any reviewers to Boston, but after several days eating around the city I had no doubt that interesting things are indeed happening there. Still, I couldn’t totaly stay away from Boston cream.
Although it’s in the heart of Boston’s Italian North End, North Street Grille (bestbrunchboston.com; 617-720-2010; 229 North St.) is 100 percent American. Portions are huge. The menu includes a “steak bomb” omelet ($12.95) and 12 types of pancakes (from $9.95). You should go for the Boston cream ones, of course, as inspired by the double-layer sponge cake layered with vanilla cream and glazed with chocolate that was first served in 1855 at the opening of the Parker House Hotel. Otherwise, there also are 11 varieties of French toast (from $9.95). Servers are busy but friendly and greet you with hot coffee and fresh housemade banana bread. It’s no surprise there’s usually a crowd of people waiting out front for one of the cafe’s 44 seats (10 of which are pleather-topped stools at a bar topped with polished stone). Don’t let this deter you. Did we mention the lobster Benedict ($20.95)? While you wait, explore the nearby Freedom Trail, a 2½ mile, red-lined walking route past 16 historically significant sites between Boston Common and Bunker Hill. The Old North Church — where, in April 1775, two lanterns were briefly placed in the steeple to alert one Paul Revere that the British were approaching by sea —is a five-minute walk from North Street Grille. You’ll want to do something to work up an appetite anyway.
Yes, those are Prince’s famous symbols on the doors of both restrooms at Myers + Cha ng (myersandchang.com; 617-542-5200; 1145 Washington St.) in the city’s South End neighborhood. There’s also a blood-red decal of a dragon stretched across two of the restaurant’s giant front windows, a checkered tile floor and pink chairs set at a linoleum-topped bar that faces gas burners equally crowded with cooks and woks. If this decor sounds eclectic and whimsical, wait until you settle into the menu, which is inspired by Taiwanese and Southeast Asian street food. Our order of a side of Hakka eggplant ($9) arrived after my boyfriend and I had already shared the Tiger’s Tears appetizer ($13, a salad of grilled skirt steak, Thai basil, lime and roasted rice), and had eaten a full entree each. Derek’s was a flavorful twist on the traditional Indonesian dish of nasi goreng ($17) and mine was a generous bowl of Taiwanese-inspired wild boar dan dan noodles ($16). Stuffed, we began to hope that our waiter had forgotten the vegetable. But no. I was going to have only a taste, but the eggplant, first deep-fried and then stir fried with a spicy chile-garlic sauce, was too flavorful to leave any behind.
Cultivar (cultivarboston.com; 617-979-8203; 1 Court St.) is delightfully contradictory. The restaurant, by chef and co-owner Mary Dumont, a native of New Hampshire, serves gorgeous food — dishes bordering on works of art — that is sophisticated, rustic and reasonably priced in a setting that is swank, yet warm. Moss, seasonal flora and twig-inspired chandeliers hang from the ceiling above plush velvet benches, a 12-seat, live-edge bar and butcher-block tables. Early last month, the menu, which changes based on what’s fresh and in season, included Burgundy snail toast ($18). Thick cut and topped with pureed English peas, prosciutto, and purple and yellow flowers (the latter being edible and sometimes grown in the hydroponic garden adjacent to the restaurant’s patio), the toast was less intimidating and posh than its main ingredient usually is. It also was the first time I’d really enjoyed eating snails. The roasted chicken ballotine for two ($52) is delicate, served atop locally grown asparagus and with a pearl onion au jus — and, considering it was stuffed with herb sausage, quite filling. (But not so filling that we skipped dessert.) Don’t be ashamed to lick the last tastes of the black currant panna cotta ($13) off your plate. Thanks to us, it won’t be the first time the staff will see that happen.
Mishev is a writer in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Find her on Instagram: @dinamishev.More from Breakfast, lunch and dinner Chicago; Prince Edward Island; Denver