The Boston Phoenix
December 17 - 24, 1998

[Food Reviews]

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No. 9 Park

The summer's big opening hits its stride, mostly

by Stephen Heuser

(617) 742-9991
9 Park Street (Beacon Hill), Boston
Open daily for lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
and for dinner, 5:30-10 p.m.
(Café open for dinner until 11 p.m.)
Full bar
AE, DC, Di, MC, Visa
Ground-level access

Barbara Lynch first came to public attention as the executive chef of Galleria Italiana, a previously obscure restaurant near the Theater District. It was there, starting in late 1995, that Lynch, a native of South Boston who'd worked her way through various well-regarded kitchens before becoming Galleria's executive chef, began to be anointed a Talent by various local reviewers, and quickly ascended to name-chef status.

Her attention-grabbing run at Galleria was followed by a falling-out with the owners, and then by rumors in food-gossip columns that she had a new project under way, a restaurant of her own. Word trickled out among foodies. It would be on the Common, next door to the Union Club. It would be not exactly Italian. It would be named for its address. It would open sometime in the summer of 1998.

This was all before the first official notice crossed my desk. That first official notice came in June, and it said, "No. 9 Park Now Taking Reservations."

It did not say, We are opening a restaurant. Or, Barbara Lynch is pleased to announce. It assumed you knew all that and were just waiting for the gun to go off so you could book a table.

Man, I thought. If that's their PR campaign, they have to be pretty confident.

The initial reviews came in. Inconsistent-but-promising was the word from Lynch's friend Corby Kummer, who reviewed No. 9 Park for Boston magazine. Alison Arnett, over at the Boston Globe, kept visiting the place until she liked it. To me, people seemed to be dancing around the issue: they had just eaten at a very expensive restaurant that didn't rock their world.

By now Lynch's place has settled in as the downtown restaurant, with a bustling bar and full tables even on a Monday night, and Bon Appétit has just named it one of the country's most important openings this year. The food is undeniably tasty, and if not every consistency problem has been ironed out, it's clear that Lynch can work magic when she's on. Still, the entrées are very expensive; unless you are feeling particularly flush, my advice would be to sit at one of the marble-topped tables in the café/bar, order appetizers and one of the excellent Belgian beers on the menu, and absorb the in-ness of the place, the clean sage walls and cherry-wood trim, the square plates, and the throngs of well-heeled downtowners mingling around the bar's dollhouse-white bar chairs, under its nine beaded amber lamps.

Lynch's food is a distinctly American fusion of ideas, drawn mainly from Italian and French traditions. Perhaps in part because it's winter, the menu seems to hit the bass notes of truffle oil and cream and foie gras more than any perky top notes. To Lynch's credit, she manages to pull this off without excess.

For instance, the "pizzette" ($9) is your typical high-end small pizza, done with a delicacy you don't usually see. A stylish oblong of flatbread is carpeted with thinly sliced mushrooms over white cheese, then sprinkled with a bit of fresh flat-leaf parsley and more than a bit of white-truffle oil. The result is woodsy-tasting and crisp, deep without being heavy.

The tagliatelle ($12) is rolled very thin but still retains a nice bite. The flat noodles are gently tossed in a "Tuscan meat sauce" with a light tomato-cream feel and a lot of ground meat, with a sprig of basil on top.

I'm not sure what to think of the steak tartare ($11). The version here was, as you'd expect, a glistening disk of brilliant red ground beef. But the capers mixed into the meat, and the bit of truffly-tasting crème fraîche hiding underneath, did more to cloak the meat in a generic veil of gourmet-ness than to bring out its singular, barbaric buttery taste. It didn't taste bad -- it just didn't quite taste like steak tartare.

The spirit of inventiveness is served much better in the chestnut bisque ($10). The soup is presented with a little ritual: the bowl arrives dry, with a handful of chanterelle mushrooms, and the liquid is delivered by a waiter from a white porcelain ewer. Pretentious? Maybe. Then again, maybe keeping the ingredients separate means that the mushrooms can retain their earthy taste, contrasting with the sweet, mild, slightly chalky chestnut purée rather than leaching into it. A salad ($8) was uncomplicated -- a pile of mesclun greens, no adornments -- but the dressing, made with olive oil and chopped olives, really made it jump.

The highlight of an entrée of "crispy duck" ($27) wasn't so much the skin, which didn't quite reach crispiness, as the intense game flavor of two deeply colored duck legs. They were served with fresh black figs cut open to reveal their rather suggestive insides. They were also served on top of something: as I moved the duck aside, I found a kind of slaw flavored with mustard seed, and then a bright pink substance -- foie gras! The thing under the duck was a giant, disintegrating ravioli filled with slaw and a piece of what seemed, by color and texture, to be quite raw foie gras. I moved back to the duck and left the rest of the foie gras alone.

That was probably the roughest edge we encountered at No. 9 Park. A plate of scallops ($29) had five big scallops, with those perfect grill stripes that scallops acquire, each mounted on a little bed of mashed potato studded with lentils, surrounded by a watercress purée, with a nutty tangle of fried parsnips on the plate.

Along with the scallops we had a half-bottle of a very nice, unusually round and fruity Sancerre, a Lucien Crochet 1996 that wasn't too terribly marked up at $22. (The wine list, assembled by Lynch's former sommelier at Galleria Italiana, is impressively rangy, though the "values" seem to be mostly in the expensive bottles.)

It is hard, even if you are so curmudgeonly as to worry about raw foie gras and $6 scallops, to leave with a bad feeling if dessert is good. And all of our desserts were good: an excellent pear sorbet ($8), lilting and light, with a cute pear chip on the plate and a gewürztraminer sauce; a wholesome vanilla-flavored bread pudding ($7) was molded into an oval, with a crisp crust and fine caramel sauce. The most run-of-the-mill was probably something called the apple terrine ($8), which was a square slice of sweet, soft bread laid on its side and framing a single round slice of baked apple, all in a pool of liquored sweet-cream sauce. The strangest-sounding dessert was in some ways the most impressive: "sweet-potato pithivier" ($8), a puffy golden pastry flanked by two little scoops of coconut ice cream and a wash of light ginger sauce. The sweet potato inside the pastry was caramelized (or brown-sugarized) to the point where it tasted genuinely desserty. This is exactly the sort of bright sleight of hand -- unexpected, but suddenly obvious in retrospect -- that differentiates chefs who merely try hard from those who have a real gift. Even if the wrapping is a bit loose.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@phx.com.

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