***Note to readers: After my epic jaunts to Chile & Boston this spring, I’ve got loads to show & tell—but rest assured I haven’t abandoned Denver! New posts on the local dining scene to come too.***
I have a confession to make that may ring scandalous to those who knew me back in Boston: in all my years of covering the dining scene there, I never ate a meal in the dining room at Barbara Lynch’s French-Italian institution No. 9 Park. Sure, I scarfed my share of eats at the bar, being among the early aficionados of the cocktail program started by then–bar manager John Gertsen (now running Drink, a more recent outpost of the Lynch empire). But I’d never had the full No. 9 experience until just a couple of weeks ago.
And what an experience it is.
Due to the ever-changing nature of the business, the tip-top tier of dining in Boston—as in most cities—includes only a handful of destinations that have been there for more than a few years: L’Espalier, Hamersley’s Bistro & Ken Oringer’s Clio all come to mind. And so does this subdued gem at the edge of the Common & the foot of the State House. How Lynch, like Oringer, manages to spread herself so frankly thin between a number of properties yet maintain such extraordinary quality at her flagship is anybody’s guess—her one-time boss Todd English couldn’t do it, that’s for sure—but I suspect it requires some combination of the knack for nurturing talent & tough, tight oversight.
In any case, the difference between running by rote & running smoothly is made clear here. No one at No. 9, FOH or BOH, seems to be operating on autopilot, no matter how long-established their routines may be; dedication to service & sharp attention to culinary detail are invariable. It’s incumbent upon the diner to dedicate him- or herself to attentiveness in kind; the critique most often leveled at this restaurant & many like it—that you pay out the nose for portions that barely pass your lips before they gone—is thus, I think, way off-base. If you’re using all 5 senses to take them in to the extent the food itself asks you to, you won’t leave wanting, physically or psychically. (Then again, if you must leave groaning to feel you got your wallet’s worth, just keep tearing into the French country rolls; the bread guy will wordlessly keep them coming—with excellent room-temp European butter, of course.)
Take the salade jardinière, artichoke en barigoule & nairagi (striped marlin) sashimi (not to mention the signature prune-stuffed gnocchi, already covered here).
Now, I’m really no firm believer in the idea that less is more (see: TAG); if there’s anything this blog as a whole goes to show, it’s that I can & all-too-often do put it away with reckless abandon. And at $19 a pop, the above appetizers indeed constitute a whole lot less for a whole lot more in the most mundane sense. But just look at them. There isn’t a tendril out of place, not a single ingredient that hasn’t been presented with the utmost care—from the radish slices so thin they’re translucent & the fresh green peas returned to their pod to the sculpted artichoke heart to the light-golden slivers of garlic. Of course, all that precision down to the last granule wouldn’t matter a whit if the granules themselves didn’t approach similar perfection in flavor. But they do. And when something’s near-perfect, 1 bite is enough—if, again, you’re taking it in complete consciousness & with all your heart. If, say, you spear that quail egg to watch the yolk spill out over the scraping of Green Goddess dressing, then swirl the single fiddlehead into the mixture before biting crisply into it. Or if you follow a morsel of the tender-as-butter heart with another of the carciofo fritto (creamily batter-fried artichoke) with a dip in the punchy salsa verde, comparing, contrasting. Or if you let that raw marlin (see here for another superb marlin crudo) just melt on your tongue for a moment, appreciating how its clean tang is only highlighted by just the tiniest touch of truffle vinaigrette & green garlic.
though a lovely piece of fish, might actually—I never thought I’d say this—have been cut a little smaller to pinpoint its sea-delicacy, played against by earthy accompaniments—a spoonful of veal jus, thick fingerling coins & meaty porcini. A couple of bites in, I “got” it—criminy, was the kitchen at No. 9 Park actually teaching me, gimme gimme me, a lesson in the value of appreciation in the now over anticipation of the next? For the duration of the meal, at least, yes.
On the other end of the spectrum from the simply prepared tautog were the complex, rich guinea hen with foie en crépinette (essentially a liver sausage), cauliflower & black trumpets
So much (but never too much) going on in both cases: the crisped, the glazed & the unctuous; the sweet & the pungent; the root & the flesh. For all the thrilling bells & whistles (that’s right, pork rinds!), it was the actually the meat of the hen that most caught my tongue: if I said it tasted pink, would I be understood in the deeply contented way intended—not, obviously, undercooked but rather rosy, spunkier than chicken, exactly like that of a fowl that scratches around in thickets & scrub?
I’d been sure I was going to end with a cheese plate—enthralled as I was whenever the cart rolled past us with all those wedges of blue-green & wheels of old gold & cylinders of wrinkled silver-gray from, no exaggeration, 1 of the world’s greatest cheese retailers in Cambridge—until the last moment, when the thought of black olive clafoutis with vanilla ice cream & Meyer lemon sorbet suddenly sounded so soul-soothing & palate-cleansing all at once.
And so it was; the fruit (which olives are, don’t forget—probably candied vanilla-poached here) adding a darker tang to the still warm, crunch-lidded custard than the more traditional cherries would have, enhanced by the garnish of port reduction but lightened by the scoops, especially of lemon.
Throughout it all, our server, Abby, young as she was, was a true pro—not just well-trained in terms of timing & graciousness but showing real talent in her ease with & enthusiasm about wine pairings.
The bill comes with gelatine di frutta & bite-size chocolate sandwich cookies.
Look, in the end, I’m not saying anything new about No. 9 Park here—just once more, with feeling. But that the place should inspire such feeling 12 years after opening its doors, in someone whose personal preferences & prejudices lead her to come-what-may places far more than gourmet landmarks, hopefully says a whole lot, unexpected or not.