WELCOME RETURN: Anthem is our comeback restaurant of the year, partly on the strength of its fried Twinkie dessert — it’s even better than the original.
It's not hard to name the restaurant trend of the year, which is gastro-pubs. Or rather, it is hard to name it, because that is such an unappetizing name for what has been a very revitalizing short-menu format. The only difficulty I have with these places is that many are serious about beer and wine and craft cocktails, forcing a reviewer to try to remember what the food was like after an evening of imbibing. Some of the best skip dessert altogether. Or at least that's what I thought.
The oddest trend of the restaurants I reviewed in 2010 (and your dining-out year could have been altogether different) was that they ran reverse to the economy. The restaurant of the year was among the first reviewed, and as the economic numbers got better, the quality thinned down, although not to the real disasters of some years past. What I thought was the best dessert idea of 2009, a small portion at a small price, reappeared only once in 2010, as "sliver of dark chocolate cake" at Post 390. The ecology movement has made a major contribution to dining culture this year, by suggesting that up-selling bottled water is politically incorrect, and that putting a carafe of tap water or ice water on the table is the locovore thing to do. Given how salty restaurant food is, I'm grateful for the extra water, even if it was piped in from Cleveland.
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR is Il Casale, which other critics reviewed in 2009. Dante de Magistris saves his wilder ideas for his namesake restaurant in a Cambridge hotel, but his hometown headquarters is solid at every course.
ASIAN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR Ariana. Afghan food is the farthest west I have reached in this category.
THE RESTAURANTS OF THE MOMENT are the top gastro-pubs: Lord Hobo and American Craft. Both are truly beer gardens of delight, but each has excellent food as well. First one to break down and put in a dessert menu breaks the tie.
THE HOWARD MITCHAM MEMORIAL MEDAL FOR INNOVATION IN SEAFOOD COOKERY (THE MOST SERIOUS AWARD IN THE COLUMN) goes to Keith Pooler of Bergamot for Manila clam ragout, cheffed-up fresh sardines, a remarkable halibut entrée, pan-seared sea scallops in a sauce of green garlic tops, and monkfish medallions worked into a stew with artichoke hearts, bread sauce, and fresh capers.
THE "IT" RIBBONS It's hard to define what "It" is, but you know it when you walk in: to Al Wadi, where at last Lebanese-American food and culture have arrived; to Foundry on Elm, where the sheer stretch of the space implies vast satisfaction; and to Regal Beagle, which uniquely captures the soul of its neighborhood.
COMEBACK OF THE YEAR Anthem. I don't know why they brought it back, and I don't know why they fixed the original fried Twinkie into a truly excellent dessert, but they did both.