Décor Prize: minimalist, as done by Middlesex Lounge. Almost no sign; low, rolling, bench-like seating platforms; square tables the exact same height; no wall art; no TV screens over the bar — that’s it, but it’s so stark it leaves room for people to become the décor. Runners-up: techno, as done by Mare and Domani — two very good restaurants with very weird, futuristic décor. Finally, we have styles that are not a revival of anything; it’s so new it’s otherworldly, and that anchors you to the food, so it works.
The Ninth Annual Howard Mitchum Memorial Medal for Innovation in Seafood Cookery: Marisa Iocco, at Mare. Obviously a major restaurant dedicated to seafood has an edge, but chef Iocco would’ve won this award on a single item on a tasting plate of raw and cured seafood: the swordfish "pastrami." It’s thin-sliced white fish with all the salt, smoke, and coriander flavor of beef pastrami. And this in a good year for seafood chefs.
The First Annual Anthony Athanas Memorial Medal for Sheer Excess in Food, Décor, and Concept: Smith & Wollensky. True, it’s part of a chain, but Athanas’s Anthony’s Pier 4 was part of an empire. In every other respect, "the steakhouse to end all arguments" (their motto) is in the spirit of Anthony. The setting is the old armory castle on Arlington Street, with museum intact and four floors of everything from old uniforms to old baseballs. If you don’t order the 55-ounce aged porterhouse for two, you’re not a real American.
Best Seafood Entrée: fried-clam roll at Neptune Oyster. Even during the red-tide period when the prices were sky-high, this was amazing.
Weirdest Appetizer I Liked: pig-foot salad at Pierrot. They do it boned, breaded, and fried, with a parsley-onion dip. Delicious. Runner-up: roast bone marrow at Eastern Standard, with an actual marrow spoon and a bit of Maine sea salt.
Technical Trick of the Year: "watermelon steak" appetizer at the Metropolitan Club. Somehow, they cook a slice of watermelon so it loses its granularity and tastes a little bit meaty.
Best Potato Dishes (and Best Restaurant Below Street Level): Stanhope Grille. Generally a better restaurant than one expects from the basement of an Irish-owned hotel, but superb blue-cheese potato croquettes stole the dinner.
Best Restaurant Below Street Level, Runner-Up: BarLola. And Gourmet Seafood makes three.
Best Topical Sushi: last year it was Red Sox maki at Umi. This year it’s the Symphony roll at Symphony Sushi: fried shrimp, peach (!), cucumber, mayonnaise, and bean sprouts with a few leaves — all rolled up with rice in a skin of algal seaweed.
Best Pasta Dish: tortellini at Domani. The filling is a minted purée of peas and green soybeans, the pasta is soft and luxurious, and the trimmings are a bit of sour-orange syrup, a few peas, and some fava beans as visual clues. I just about inhaled this dish.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com