The restaurant business is just that: a business. Which is why many restaurateurs play it safe with dishes that fill seats and make customers happy. Caesar salad, charcuterie, oysters on the half shell, pasta Bolognese: These are staples at many Boston restaurants.
“It’s low hanging fruit, it’s something that everybody is going to eat, and it’s going to cast a wide net,” explains former chef Ed Doyle, now of Cambridge-based restaurant consultants RealFood Consulting.
“I look at menus, and it’s almost like there’s a checklist of stuff that you have to have on menu, before you get to the things that you want to put on the menu. Part of that is driven by trend and part is driven by a lack of confidence in what you do.”
In contrast, there are restaurants that dare to be different—helmed by chefs who push gastronomic boundaries in the pursuit of culinary excellence. Whether it’s creative locovorism, an overriding aesthetic, modern traditionalism, mastery of an international cuisine, or a kitchen predicated on playfulness, five such chef driven restaurants inspire the Boston dining scene.
Ingredients and Imagination at Waypoint
Michael Scelfo’s new, sophomore effort, Waypoint, couples imagination with uncompromising commitment to seasonality and locally sourced ingredients, resulting in super fresh, unexpected food combinations that make your mouth pop. The ocean kisses almost everything on the menu. There’s spaghetti (well, technically, spaccatelli) and octopus meatballs, chopped clam and smoked white fish topped pizzas, chicken fried oysters and citrus grilled prawns with cilantro raita. Even the bread is on board in the form of squid ink batard served with smoked seaweed butter.
Perfect Pizzazz at O Ya
It’s been a decade since Tim and Nancy Cushman opened o ya, a Zen-like Japanese restaurant in an old firehouse, a few blocks away from South Station, but the influence of their picture perfect, ingredient-centric small plates is ongoing. Cushman’s carefully constructed dishes—black sea bass tartare, torched local swordfish belly, avocado tempura, roasted beet sashimi, kushiyaki of strip loin with maple soy—are like a gallery of miniature paintings, each lovelier than the next. Tim plays at chef, while Nancy is the city’s first sake sommelier; both understand that we eat with our eyes as much as our palates.
Embracing Tradition at SRV
Where does tradition fit into the modern kitchen? Chef/partners Michael Lombardi and Kevin O’Donnell refuse to cut culinary corners at their Venetian bacaro SRV (Serene Republic of Venice). They mill the flour to make their own pastas. Risotto is cooked to order. Polenta is slow simmered, the old fashioned way. More importantly, Lombardi and O’Donnell enthusiastically embrace the Italian gastronomic ethos that less is more. From whipped baccala mantecato and tender pork and beef polpette meatballs to snail-shaped lumache pasta tossed with snails, shrimp, mussels, and vermouth, and a stew of striped bass in savory broth, these guys leave their egos in the kitchen and let the ingredients take center stage.
Meze Mastery at Sarma
Perhaps reincarnation can explain chefs who master a foreign cuisine so thoroughly that they make it their own. Ana Sortun (Oleana) acolyte Cassie Piuma follows in her mentor’s footsteps at Sarma, Somerville’s Winter Hill neighborhood hotspot, which dishes up Eastern Mediterranean meze small plates designed to be shared. With ingenuity and intuition, precision and passion, Piuma uses New England foodstuffs to create riffs on Near Eastern classics—crab and red lentil kibbe, scallop grape leaves, kohlrabi fritters, lamb kofta sliders, brisket shawarma, shrimp tagine. It’s what a Turkish usta sef (master chef) might make if she (or he) lived in Boston.
Big and Bold at Little Donkey
And then there’s something exhilaratingly liberating when chefs have both the cheekiness and the checkbook to do whatever the hell they want, naysayers be damned. Enter James Beard award-winning chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette and what they do at Central Square’s Little Donkey with a menu that’s defiantly global gaga featuring small plates that travel from New Jersey to New Delhi and other parts unknown: matzo ball ramen, halibut biryani, lamb bacon BLT lettuce wraps, Istanbul meat ravioli, and snapper nachos. It’s an ever-changing gustatory adventure that boasts more hits than misses.
But for many restaurateurs, adventurousness doesn’t come easy. In the highly competitive Boston food world, steamed mussels, steak frites, Margherita pizza and a burger on the menu can pay the rent.
“Different for the sake of different is no reason to be different, “ cautions consultant Doyle. “You need to be confident in the fact that you can get people to reach a little bit, that you can do something different, and that you can take people a little outside their safety zone—but you’ve got to do that within a business environment.”