2009: The year in dining

My year in food
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  December 28, 2009

0912_cragie_main
CRAIGIE ON MAIN Three superior sea scallops ($30) came with a more extensive garnish of artichoke hearts and tiny clams.

This was an unusual food year for me, in that the recession did not have the expected effect on the local dining scene. Expensive restaurants continued to open (though primarily in hotels) and several established chefs launched second restaurants in down-market formats. Italian food, and especially red-sauce Italian food, had a strong year, but so did steak houses and seafood palaces. Family-run ethnic restaurants proliferated, but so did rather fancy ethnic restaurants.

On the whole, it was a depression year in the sense that there were fewer four-star reviews and luxury restaurants. It was also a remarkably weak year for desserts.

(This reminds me to remind you that my reviewing year might not be the same as your dining-out year; yours ought to include a lot more proven winners, since I visit a new restaurant every week.)

The clearest recessionary tactic is an emphasis on small plates, wine by the glass, and similar moves to increase margins while reducing apparent sticker prices.

Food fads are abating, though if you see osso bucco over risotto on one North End menu, it will soon be on all of them. Crème brûlée is slowly giving way to chocolate pudding. But we are still being served vertical food: either a giant plate with small little repeated piles, or a long plate with two or three variations. Micro-greens refuse to die, and we are seeing more nano-food than ever.

Two downsizing trends I'd like to see more of are sub-price desserts like the three-bite specials at ArtBar, and three-ounce wine pours, as at Pairings.

Having now lost two successive restaurants of the year (Pava, winner in 2007, and Persephone, in 2008) — both of which were based in clothing stores — plus a couple of fine places housed in the Louis Boston building, I am hoping that the alliance of high fashion and food so good you can't fit into the accompanying store's clothes is finally over.

And so, the envelopes, please.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Craigie on Main, in Central Square. Chef Tony Maws has avoided most of the celebrity game, and stuck with one of the great formulas out there: New England food, presented as if New England was a province of France.

ASIAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Thaitation Thai Cuisine, in the Fenway. Owner Ratana Chourattana insists that one Thai curry style not taste like another.

NON-EURO/ASIAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Terenga, in the South End.

THE ANNUAL HOWARD MITCHUM MEMORIAL MEDAL FOR INNOVATION IN SEAFOOD COOKERY (THE ONE AWARD HERE THAT REALLY MATTERS) Maws, again of Craigie on Main, for tempura fish cheeks, Maine smelts, mussels, black sea bass, and sous-vide arctic char.

BEST MEAL ON DISPOSABLE PLATES New Rod Dee, in Brookline.

IF YOUR GPS DOESN'T KILL YOU, THE PORTIONS WILL Off the Boat Seafood, in East Boston's Central Square — a local Sargasso Sea for GPS devices.

DINING OUT ON BREAKFAST Cinnamon-raisin French toast at the Friendly Toast, in Kendall Square.

NOVELTY ITEM Blue herbal butter at Bina Osteria, near Downtown Crossing.

BEST BAR BITE Chickpea fries at North 26, near Quincy Market.

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