The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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Tastes of 1997

Robert Nadeau

As always, these are not necessarily the dishes and restaurants of your year, but of my half of the Phoenix reviewing year -- a year in which a wave of Euro-Asian fusion food engulfed the last crumbs of gourmet pizza, in which more sauces chased fewer species of fish, and in which you apparently could not get a restaurant license without pledging to serve some kind of raw-tuna appetizer and play a background tape of the Gipsy Kings. I usually remind readers that there are no great restaurants, only great dishes. But 1997 was a year of memorable restaurants with clear themes, and of dishes that blur in memory despite the relentless innovation applied to them.

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Bridge to the Past award: Sandrine's Bistro, in Harvard Square, for the most un-Mediterranean French restaurant possible.

Bridge to the Present award: Zaftigs (despite the nostalgic Yiddish name), in Coolidge Corner, for taking the schmaltz out of Jewish food and the sentiment out of presenting it.

Bridge to the Future award: Cena (despite the Latin name), in the Fenway, for opening a trendy bistro without red meat or much cheese.

Certified for Progress in Human Rights: the fish chowder (not the clam chowder) at Jimmy's Harborside.

Trend of the Year: clear-broth sauces, a specialty of Marcuccio's, in the North End.

Fusion Restaurant of the Year (Euro-owned): tie between Bok Choy, in Brookline Village, and Red Herring, in the Theater District.

Fusion Restaurant of the Year (Asian-owned): Ducky Wok, in Allston, which fuses Chinese and Vietnamese dishes of the highest caliber.

Vegetable of the Year (appearance): Chinese long beans.

Vegetable of the Year (texture): farro.

Vegetable of the Year (taste): sautéed pea tendrils.

Salad of the Year: Malaysian Yee Sang at Pandan Leaf -- or you could just remember it as "tossed-to-prosperity raw-fish salad."

The second annual Howard Mitcham Memorial Medal for innovation in seafood cookery goes to Jasper White for the wood-grilled scallops at Legal Sea Foods and for backing the Legal C Bar. (Last year's award went to Chris Schlesinger of the East Coast Grill.)

Stephen Heuser

The past year saw more high-end restaurant openings than any sane reviewer could cover. One could make a claim that 1997 was the year Boston really discovered eating out, but to me this was the year that restaurateurs discovered Bostonians will pay almost anything for a Francophone name and a nouvelle-Continental menu. Restaurants like Zinc, Clío, La Bettola, and Mistral have become stand-ins for big-city nightlife, reaping large quantities of gossip-column attention and larger quantities of business -- even with dishes that break the $30 barrier. For my money, which is generally less than $30 a plate, here were some of the top moments of the year:

Best Soup (winter): lobster bisque at Angelo's, in the Back Bay, if for no other reason than that whole cooked rock lobster in the bowl. Messy eating, but worth every wet finger.

Best Soup (summer): melon soup at the Vault, downtown. Sweetness, light, and a dollop of crème fraîche.

Best Free Food: the breadbasket at Tremont 647, in the South End, a mix of flatbread, cumin-jalapeño corn muffins, and beautifully yeasty sourdough.

Cockiest Presentation: "day boat scallops" at Clío, in the Back Bay, a $12 appetizer consisting of exactly two scallops, each laid on a white half-shell balanced on its own pillar of salt. Arrogant but perfect.

Best Sauce: mole poblano at Palenque, in Somerville. Imagine chocolate and orange without a hint of sugar, served over marinated pork.

Dumpling of the Year: vareniki at Salts, in Cambridge. A Ukrainian name for pumpkin skins around a spicy eggplant filling -- just the thing for winter on the steppes of Kendall Square.

Wine List of the Year: Silvertone, downtown. Every bottle on this short, thoughtful wine list sells for $10 over cost. (Normal restaurant markups are three, even four times cost.) Somehow, drinking wine becomes a lot more fun when you don't feel as if you're paying off a restaurant's loans.

Least Welcome Trend: main courses served in broth. Here I disagree with my colleague; nothing makes me less happy than discovering a half-chicken or a plate of roasted vegetables adrift in liquid. What did sauce ever do to us?

Next-to-Least Welcome Trend: the $30 lobster. The offenders are too numerous to mention. We live in the one part of the country where lobster should be less expensive than an aged porterhouse.

Restaurant of the Year: Clío. When you're paying 1997 prices, you don't want to take a chance. Ken Oringer's food is clever, precise, attractive, and dead-on successful. Anyone can sell a piece of beef short rib for $26, but this is one of the few restaurants that can make it worth $26.