Boston: Recapturing our Old City, Exploring the New One

Although we get back to Boston at least once or twice a year, it is never the same city that we saw the previous trip, much less the same city we left eight years ago.

Our Town

Don’t get me wrong. Some of our favorite old memories remain intact. Our Back Bay neighborhood, the Public Gardens, Fenway Victory Gardens, Beacon Hill and the quite residential streets of the South End looked pretty much the way we left them. So too did Copley Square Quincy market, other than for their periodic facelifts.

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The New City

But, when we venture out of the confines of our previous existence, into areas that were just beginning to develop when we left, it appears to be an entirely different city, with a character unlike that with which we were familiar. The new SoHa (South of Harrison) neighborhood had just begun to gentrify as we were leaving. It is now an entirely new area: home to some of the city’s most interesting new restaurants and hottest nightspots and the de facto center of avant garde art and design. This is exemplified in the block that built up around 450 Harrison Street.

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And then there is the huge Fan Pier Area, a huge area, just across the channel from downtown. It had been a virtual wasteland, filled with parking lots and a couple of old-line waterfront seafood restaurants in which no self-respecting Bostonian would be seen. Although a few of the parking lots and one of the aforementioned restaurants (Anthony’s) remain, the area has been transformed. It is now filled with a huge convention center and federal courthouse, dozens of office buildings and a few high-end hotels. It has also become an emerging center of art (with the Institute of Contemporary Art), fashion (with Louis Boston, a high-end clothing store) and the newest, most lavish branch of the venerable Legal Sea Foods.

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Restaurant Experiments

Although we had little time in Boston, and most of the time we did have was taken up at friends homes, we did have a chance to try a couple of new (at least for us) Boston restaurants. Although we were tempted by Menton, Barbara Lynch’s luxurious (not to speak of expensive) French-Italian fine dining establishment, we kept our aspirations (not to speak of our wallets) in check. Besides, we went to another of her then new Fort Point Channel restaurants (Sportello) less than a year ago.

This trip, we went to a couple places that are much more casual:

  • Tico is a casual, Latin-inspired American restaurant and nightspot from long-time Boston chef Michael Schlow (Radius and Via Matta) located in Back Bay. Although the restaurant serves all day, from 11:30 AM to 2:00 AM, we arrived at the awkward hour between lunch and dinner, when the menu was limited to tacos and a handful of small plates. Even so, Joyce and I were able to construct an interesting meal consisting of Lobster and Avocado taco, spicy octopus with peppers and citrus, fried calamari with ancho-lime aioli, and tuna tartare tostadas. We agreed that tuna tartare was our favorite, and the lobster taco (not, by any means bad, but certainly less inspired) our least, we disagreed on the octopus. Joyce, who does not eat peppers, found the marinated octopus somewhat lacking in taste. I, on the other hand, thought the combination worked well. A light dusting of chili powder added a nice tang to the calamari. All went well with a Dale’s Pale Ale.
  • Island Creek Oyster Bar. Although we passed (this time) on the extensive selection of oysters, we did enjoy the pilsner-steamed littlenecks (with bacon lardon and scallion) and skate wing (with saffron quinoa, baby bok choy and scallion raita—whatever that is!) with a 2009 French Chablis. Our problem came when we tried to reprise one of our traditional, New England guilty pleasures, fried belly clams. Since we experienced mixed results with our Maine efforts to reacquaint with these bivalves, we planned to leave Boston with a fond memory. Unfortunately, it was not to be. We felt like we were in the old Woody Allen joke, in that they were not very good (overdone and no real bellies) and there just were nowhere near enough of them for the very steep $27 price tag. Our server, however, immediately remedied the situation with a razor clam ceviche.

But for all these new dining experiences, there was one more guilty pleasure that we just had to relive. With all due respect to our neighborhood Swensen’s, San Francisco is simply not the type of ice cream city that is Boston. We just had to return to one of our favorite places, J.P. Licks. Although Joyce did exercise some self-restraint with a homemade cookie dough ice cream with a sprinkling of tiny Reese’s cups, I have no such self-control. I went for a coconut almond chip hot fudge sundae with Reese’s, cookie dough pieces and blueberries. But, to prove (if only to myself) that I wasn’t a total glutton, I did have no-fat hot fudge!

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