Once again we reach year’s end, and I pass out some awards to summarize the year in restaurant reviews. It is of course only my year in reviews; I hope yours was better. I hope you used my reviews and your own taste to pick fewer restaurants than the 50 or so I review each year. Then you can really know the food in-depth, the restaurant can learn your taste, and wonderful experiences can result. For me, coming in as an anonymous stranger, a restaurant really has to be outstanding to provide me with a wonderful experience. Your restaurant of the year might be one I didn’t get to in time, or covered last year, or reviewed five years ago, or didn’t even like.
In honor of the vagaries of taste, let’s start with a couple of anti-awards for my own vagrant reporting:
My Worst Oversight of a Chef: Channel Café, where I credited long-departed chef Connal McCullough with a solid sense of meat, vegetables, and music. All that good taste should have been credited to chef Abraham Taghdis. Sorry, Abraham. Connal, drop me a line and I’ll give you a review based on your own cooking.
My Worst Display of Cultural Ignorance: in reviewing BarLola, I somehow got the idea that the Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar directed the film Run Lola Run. I got more messages on this inaccuracy than on any food dispute since the beginning of e-mail. As the wittiest put it, I should’ve known the film wasn’t Almodovar because it was in German and didn’t have any transvestites.
Now the real awards.
Trend of the Year: old chefs getting better, and veteran chefs scoring big with second restaurants. Jacky Robert came back in fine form at Pierrot, then got even better at his own Petit Robert Bistro. Secondary and tertiary restaurants like B&G Oysters, Mare, Pomodoro (in Brookline), the larger Piattini on Columbus, Middlesex Lounge, Tantric Bar, Prairie Star, Domani, and Ashmont Grill often exceeded their older siblings. And my heart was stolen at the end of the year by the return of Steve "Blue Room" Johnson and his Rendezvous in Central Square.
Restaurant of the Year: Rendezvous in Central Square. It’s not any one thing. It’s consistent excitement in all the courses, a maturing restraint and subtlety with flavorings and seasonings, a deepened commitment to regional and sustainable ingredients, the sure hand with seafood that any Boston chef must command, terrific and novel wines by the glass, and an informal dining-room style, including really well-chosen music.
Asian Restaurant of the Year: award not given. This was one of those years that saw great Asian dishes and no great Asian restaurant. Possibly the first such year, and hopefully the last.
Fusion Restaurant of the Year: Domani. This was supposed to be Rene Michelena’s return to Italian food, but his MediterrAsian flavors keep sneaking in there.
Best Non-Fusion Multi-Ethnic Combination: Pomodoro (Brookline Village). Really great Italian food, really great Irish hospitality.
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.