So I need to explain right up front that I have no pictures of Thursday night’s dining experience at No. 9 Park in Boston. Because
sometimes I still forget my camera we were planning on eating in the restaurant’s cafe section, which would have meant a well-prepared but fairly straight-ahead 3 course prix fixe of dishes like pasta bolognese. Since I can and do take pictures of pasta bolognese at home, I thought I’d ditch the camera and have a relaxing, critique-free dinner. Once I realized the folly of this line of reasoning it was too late, and I was stuck with only a cellphone camera and insufficient lighting. Ergo, no photos.
In retrospect, I find it quaint that I thought I could go to No. 9 and restrain myself to the cafe menu, and even more precious that I thought I could go an entire evening without critiquing something.
Predictably, we got there and decided to throw all caution to the wind by taking on the regular menu. Once seated, we took any remaining vestiges of caution, pried them loose with a crowbar (a metaphorical crowbar; No. 9 is a fine dining establishment) and hurled them into the void along with our wallets and credit rating, and decided to do the 8-course chef’s tasting. And then I went back to the hotel room and died, and I’m writing this to you from heaven where I’m floating on clouds made of prune-stuffed gnocchi with vin santo and foie gras. St. Peter will still let you in if you’ve eaten foie gras, as long as you’ve had it in this form.
No. 9 Park opened in the late ’90s and generated instant buzz; it’s still considered one of the best fine-dining restaurants in Boston and the gnocchi has long been Chef Barbara Lynch’s signature dish. I’ve long wanted to go there, but dining at No. 9 does not marry well with the graduate student budget, so it took me a few or eight years to get there. Though some say that the restaurant is slipping as Chef Lynch spreads herself across other projects, I have to say – and I mean this completely non-hyperbolically – that Chef Lynch is a latter-day Mother Theresa.
Kidding! But it is true that our experience at No. 9 was a truly exceptional one, ranking in the top 5 meals of my life. Although some points were higher than others and I do have some quibbles, they’re relatively minor in the greater scheme of excellence here.
One refreshingly quibble-free aspect of the evening was the service. Maybe it’s because I’m used to eating out in NYC, where service is notoriously shitty, but the staff at No. 9 were uniformly outstanding. We were walk-ins, a bit on the late side for dinner, and noticeably schlubbier-looking than
most all the other patrons. Still, we were seated instantly and treated with the utmost courtesy and lack of attitude. Our main server (I’m so sorry I can’t remember your name, tall curly-haired server!) was friendly, knowledgeable and perfectly attentive without being the least bit overbearing. Courses were well-paced, dishes were cleared and silverware replaced instantly and non-obtrusively, and any request was either quickly handled or had already been anticipated. Had the food been sub-par, the service alone would have made it a noteworthy night.
Servers of New York City: You’re on notice. The staff at No. 9 Park kicks your sorry, too-cool-for-school asses. Pick up the pace.
I started with a flight of three specialty cocktails, each of which were well-balanced and flavorful; my favorite was a mix of gin (which I normally don’t really like), Campari and grapefruit that TCHS somewhat preciously described as “activating all the taste senses.” True but twee, although I’m perfectly willing to overlook that – especially after polishing off the gimlet and pear vodka/pear puree, both of which were above average specimens of those fairly standard drinks. When the head bartender saw we were doing cocktails rather that wine, he came over to introduce himself and chat about our drink choices; we chatted with him several other times throughout the evening.
Now that I’ve forced you to read all that, I’ll give you the food play by play. I know it’s why you come here. You might want to go to the bathroom and get yourself a snack first.
One: Wild Ramp Vichyssoise, pickled Island Creek oyster, paddlefish caviar, celery
My first ramp, and the first of several food firsts for me. Ramps are a member of the onion family and have a faintly scallion-y flavor; they’re one of the first green things to pop up in the spring, making them the darling of seasonally-oriented chefs’ spring menus along with fiddlehead ferns. Servers brought out bowls containing a caviar-topped oyster sitting on a base of thinly shaved celery and poured the soup tableside.
Pros: The soup was a stunning saturated green, simultaneously deep and bright. The fresh, spring flavor of the ramps had been concentrated down to a fragrant green essence, and a beleaguered sous chef had clearly spent no small amount of time hunched over a chinois or tamis to achieve the soup’s incredibly smooth texture. I can’t speak to the oyster, which I handed off to Brian – I can only handle so many firsts in one night – but the caviar added a nice little salty punch, and the celery was something of a revelation. (Brian’s note: Oysters were kick-ass.) Who knew celery could taste so good? It had been macerated in something sweet and sour (vinegar and fruit, or sugar?) and was well-balanced but punchy.
Cons: Okay kids, I know it’s a tasting menu and I expect portions to be small; hence the word “tasting.” But if you’re going to serve me a small portion of soup in a wide, shallow bowl, you force me to tip the bowl and scrape it with my spoon in a way most unbecoming of a lady. I’ll do it, because it’s fucking good soup and I have no shame. But consider not putting me in that position next time, m’kay?
Verdict: A great start! Fresh and light, but substantial in a way that a consommé is not. I learned that I enjoy ramps. A++, would scrape bowl embarrassingly with spoon again.
Two: Roasted Black Cod, porcini, olive oil, grains of paradise
This was one of the simpler things we ate, but it remains my favorite dish of the evening. A rectangle of perfectly cooked cod – meltingly moist inside, crisp skin outside, seasoned just right – atop a rich porcini puree with some scattered porcini confit and a foam that I don’t know what it was but man was it good.
Pros: Layers and layers of impossibly earthy mushroom flavor. Confit. The different mushroom preparations brought out different characteristics of the porcini, and the fish was just substantial enough to complement them without being over or underwhelming. On the whole, No. 9 does a tremendous job of seasoning (I’m always shocked at how many good restaurants seem to forget how to use the salt and pepper), and nowhere was that more evident here. The flavors in this simple, minimal-ingredient dish were unbeatable.
Cons: They wouldn’t give me a second plate of this. In their defense I didn’t ask, so I can’t list this as a definitive con.
Verdict: This is the point where I started to suspect I would probably die upon returning to the hotel. I love a fucking mushroom. Plus, confit. Sign me up.
Three: Fava Leaf Tortellini, lamb shoulder, agrodolce, ricotta salata
This was Brian’s top dish of the night: tender, house-made pasta filled with a puree of that spring ramp colleague, fava beans. The nutty, slightly bitter flavor of the fava offset some rich, tender and slightly sweet chunks of lamb; the ricotta salata (the boot’s version of feta) added salt and squeak. A little pool of the braising liquid coated everything, bringing it together. There was something a little spicy in there as well, which was a whimsical touch.
Pros: It was fucking amazing.
Cons: For me, the heat lingered a bit too long in the back of my throat ultimately obscuring the flavors of the lamb and more delicate pasta, which really were the stars of the plate.
Verdict: I still would not kick this dish out of bed for eating crackers.
Four: Prune-Stuffed Gnocchi, foie gras, toasted almonds, vin santo
This is the restaurant’s signature dish, available on the standard menu and always an optional addition to the tasting, and with good reason. It’s tender, rich, sweet and salty. It can drive princes to madness and set oceans to boil. It will make you do its bidding, and it is an exacting master. This was my first foie gras, and my first time was gentle but insistent.
The prunes are macerated in an excellent vin santo before being tucked into light little gnocchi pillows. The wine is reduced to a glaze, and then enriched with FOIE GRAS BUTTER.
Let’s all bow our heads for a minute while we think about that.
The gnocchi are tossed in the glaze and topped with some almonds and slices of seared foie.
Pros: It’s prune-stuffed gnocchi glazed with vin santo and FOIE GRAS BUTTER, FOR GOD’S SAKE.
Cons: If you are a person of scruples, you may object to the whole force-fed goose thing. (I suggest that you get over your scruples just long enough to eat this, and then immediately take them up again. It’s working for me!)
Verdict: Prune stuffed gnocchi glazed with vin santo and foie gras butter is my new god.
Five: Veal Sweetbread Cassoulet, Maine lobster, spring-dug parsnip, vegetable ragout
Another of my firsts: sweetbreads. I wasn’t totally sure what frightening part of the animal sweetbreads come from, and wisely refrained from asking our waiter until after I ate them. Because if I had known I was eating the intestines of a baby cow I don’t know that I could have done it. I now understand the “sweetbread” moniker, because there’s something about “intestines” that’s exponentially more icky than “liver” or “kidney.”* Browned sweetbreads sat atop delicate lobster, surrounded in turn by a springtime veggie mix (english peas, the parsnips, fiddlehead ferns) and a stew-like brown sauce (demi-glace? maybe a little tomato?).
Pros: I like eating intestines! Who knew? I also like eating lobster, but that’s less groundbreaking.
Cons: This dish was a study in contrast between rich and delicate that didn’t quite pull itself off. The sauce was too hearty for the dish, and gave the plate much more of a fall/winter stew vibe than I assume Chef Lynch was going for on this very spring-centric menu. Also, a ping on the service here, as I’ve just learned that sweetbreads are not, in fact, intestines, but a thymus gland. Still gross.
Also, fiddlehead ferns: meh. Their texture wasn’t particularly appealing, their color post-cooking is dingy, and their flavor is blandly vegetal and adds little other then causing one to say, “Hey look, fiddlehead ferns!” I declare them to be a greenmarket racket.
Verdict: At any other restaurant, I’d have been totally happy with this. At this restaurant, I was a little disappointed by the lack of balance in the dish. A for effort.
* Not that I love eating those things either, unless in the form of foie gras butter (see: my new god, foie gras butter is).
Six: Berkshire Pork Loin, housemade boudin blanc, kimbe carrot, stinging nettle
This dish made me sad. Dare I say it? It was not that good.
You know that commercial where the couple are out at the fancy restaurant they’ve been waiting to get into for months, and they’re served the “elf food,” and they look at each other all “the fuck”? And then they go to a deli for chips and sandwiches? That’s what this dish was like, down to the 2 inch long pygmy carrots and 1×2″ square of pork.
It could have been redeemed had it tasted good. But it didn’t. The pork loin had been sitting around for a little while and was both lukewarm and overcooked. The carrot puree was a beautiful bright orange, but was also tepid and lacked nuance. The boudin blanc (boudin is a french sausage made with the pig’s blood; boudin blanc omits the blood) was good but unconnected to the pork, as were the shitake mushrooms scattered across the plate.
At the risk of being overly harsh, it was kinda like a first-year culinary student’s idea of what a fine-dining plate should be. But we should be harsh, for with great power comes great responsibility. If you’re going to seat me later in the evening, you sure as hell better be prepared to serve me fresh, properly-cooked pork.
Pros: There wasn’t that much of it.
Cons: I still felt compelled to eat it all.
Verdict: Not every recipe can be a keeper, y’know?
Seven: Passionfruit Sorbet
It was bright, happy yellow and pleasantly, puckeringly tart. My palate was duly cleansed.
Eight: Exotic Petit Gateau, white chocolate mousse, coconut
I’m not totally sure what made this a petit gateau (usually a small chocolate cake with a crisp outside and smooth, creamy filling), but it was damn good. The cake was coconutty and dense, the white chocolate mousse was relatively tame in sweetness and balanced the aggressive sugar in the cake, and the coconut sorbet added a nice refreshing blast. A bit of passionfruit coulis on the plate added color and a little tartness.
Pros: One of those dishes where when you take a bite with a little bit of everything, you realize exactly why the chef put those components together and you swoon a little. Plus, Brian’s not really a dessert person, so I got to eat his. Score!
Cons: No complaints from me. I could have eaten a third.
I had a fantastic Italian white dessert wine – layers of apple, pear and apricot flavor, but with a crisp finish and lacking the tongue-coating syrupy sweetness that often accompanies late harvest whites* – while the bartender hooked Brian up with a trio of rye whiskeys that he enjoyed but that made me tear up from across the table.
*This is the ONLY knowledgeable statement I am capable of making about wine.
We skipped the optional cheese course despite the fact that No. 9 Park is known as having an excellent cheese plate. As we were preparing to leave, our server came over with a goodie bag : a cheese course to go, on the house! He’d prepared a selection of cheeses, labeled them with their names and countries of origin and included some toast. We also got the recipe for the gnocchi dish, and had a nice talk with the bartender about other good Boston cocktail bars. I’m not saying any of this stuff happened because I was taking notes all night and the staff thought I was industry. But it totally did. THIS BLOG RULES.
No. 9 Park
9 Park Street (T: Park Street)