As usual, 2003 was a year that confounded all my expectations. In particular, I was surprised by the overall good level of new restaurants. Reviewing Saint, Ten Tables, the revived Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, Quotes, Teatro, UpStairs on the Square, Bambara, Flux, Meritage, Somalia (alas), Great Bay, Birch Street Bistro, Arbor, Peking Tomís, the revived Rustic Kitchen, Epiphany, Ariadne, Red House, Istanbul Café, Elements (alas), Daliaís, Yanís Best Place, Union, and Excelsior was not a difficult job, especially in a year in which I also caught up to Carmen, Craigie Street Bistrot, Tea Tray in the Sky (alas), Jake & Earlís Dixie Roadhouse, Via Matta, the Vault (alas), and Figlia. While the truly amazing platters are still rare enough to savor, the average level of competence in new restaurants seems higher than ever. That said, this was also a year in which restaurants began to close, not because they werenít good, but because the economy couldnít support them. Twice, I wrote positive reviews of restaurants that then closed before the Phoenix went to press, so this will be my only chance to mention the fine meals I had at Elements and the Vault. Bad economies have some advantages for dining out, however ó one being that service has improved as restaurateurs focus on retaining customers.
My other surprise, perhaps related, is the relatively smaller number of new and exciting Asian restaurants in my ambit for 2003. The dispersion of Korean-Japanese sushi parlors to the suburbs is certainly a good thing, but none of the ones I reviewed lived up to my taste memories (and revisits on my own money) of Oishii and Tsunami.
As always, the choices below are from my reviewing year, which is necessarily biased toward new restaurants. Readers may well eat better in older restaurants Iíve reviewed in previous years, or by going deeper into menus to find better dishes. Most of the awards follow my theory that there are no great restaurants, only great dishes. That theory may have to be modified if the level of competence continues to defy the economy.
Restaurant of the Year: Meritage. This really may be a great restaurant, harnessing the resources of a luxury hotel to the brilliance and versatility of chef Daniel Bruce; the finest New England seafood, produce, cheese, and meats; and a superb international wine list. Despite a number of other openings at the top price level, there was really no competition for this award, and if there had been, I would have had to invent numerous other categories to cover the excellences of Meritage: best complementary appetizer (cream-of-fennel soup), best potato roll, best use of an exotic ingredient (cocoa-and-cardamom-crusted ostrich fan fillet), best fried food (soft-shell crab), and on through the already much-imitated menu. As it is, chef Bruce also takes the other major award of this column ...
The Seventh Annual Howard Mitchum Memorial Medal for Innovation in Seafood Cookery: Daniel Bruce of Meritage. All the fine restaurants feature lots of seafood now, but Bruce is the master enhancer of its natural flavors, whether seasoning the breading to tone up basically tasteless pan-fried soft-shell crabs; pairing grilled sea scallops with the similar deep flavors of Oregon morels and Virginia ramps in a wisp of beurre blanc; pan-searing superior red grouper in a light broth with sweet wild asparagus; or getting the worldís tastiest piece of scrod out of "flash-smoked pan-seared Pacific black cod."
Best ethnic restaurant: Istanbul Café. The move from a Beacon Hill basement to airier quarters in Brighton seemed to brighten all the food here, especially the eggplant salad, the grilled squid, and the superb donner kebab.
Best vegan restaurant: Grasshopper. I didnít review Grasshopper this year, but revisited to make a film for WCVB-TV. Since the opening, the menu has really developed, and the Buddhist fake-meat food now outdoes many of the originals.
Most comfortable restaurant: Ariadne. A very fine restaurant with superior service and a lack of loud-bar noise. Runner-up: Union Bar & Grille, which is loud, but less so and more comfortable than any other South End restaurant, and, again, very good food overall.
Best revival: the reopened Ritz-Carlton Dining Room. It kept the superior service and updated the beloved continental dishes with modern garnishes while retaining an emphasis on amazing beef and real Dover sole, so itís once again the ultimate hotel dining room with something excellent for everyone.
Best loud restaurant: Teatro. Most loud bars just deafen me; this one transports me to a loud but romantic city: Rome.
Best bar food: shrimp-, spinach-, and Boursin-stuffed potato skins at Sunset Cantina.
Best regional appetizer: chanterelle risotto with Maine rock shrimp at Elements. Except for the rice, this is what might have happened if Maine had been a province of France instead of Massachusetts. Hereís rooting for a new home for Elements chef Bill Flumerfelt.
Fusion appetizer of the year: duck-confit spring rolls at Birch Street Bistro. Chinese food with a French twist, held together with a Malaysian-style sauce.
Retro appetizer of the year: pu-pu platter at Peking Tomís. This is non-fusion, sort of like white guys doing revival barbecue, but everything was very tasty, from orange-tamarind spareribs to satay-spiced beef teriyaki, cunningly trimmed chicken wings, and crab Rangoon made, I think, with real goat cheese.
Best lobster: Cousin Markís dayboat lobster at Great Bay. They took the old baked-stuffed lobster and deconstructed it by placing the stuffing as a cylinder at the base, and piling up split-tail sections topped with claws out of the shell. Itís pulled together with a tarragon-butter sauce, and also features actual vegetables. Runner-up: lobster caesar salad at the Ritz-Carlton.
Best choice of lobster dishes: poached in Sauternes or hacked Chinese fashion, at Excelsior. Both splendid.
Salmon of the year: tie between grilled ivory salmon at Great Bay and sautéed wild Alaskan king salmon at Elements. Thereís a lot of good salmon out there, as the fat farmed salmon is harder to overcook than other seafood, and is especially good grilled or broiled. But what stood out were these two pieces of Pacific wild salmon, for their full flavors in a leaner fish. The ivory salmon, which looks like halibut but tastes like salmon, is a particularly surprising find.
Tastes-unlike-chicken award: chicken bouillabaisse at Arbor. Tomato sauce with saffron is an old Provençal dish, but a novel flavor for a Boston menu.
Best meat entrée: veal agnolotti dal plin at Rustic Kitchen. Pasta pouches stuffed with veal could be dull, but chef Bill Bradley concentrates the latent meatiness of the veal to a remarkable degree.
Best comfort food: beer-braised pot roast at George. It looks like Momís, but it had a deeper flavor, as did both the whipped potatoes and the fresh summer vegetables. Runner-up: chipotle meat loaf at Flux.
Best pasta: pumpkin capellacci at Saint. Runner-up: "chitarra with Nonnaís lobster and shrimp ragu" at Via Matta.
Best rice: "brown rice," actually Thai black rice, at Lamís.
Best tea: Tung Ting oolong at Tea Tray in the Sky (alas). Runner-up: champagne oolong at Elements (alas). Second runner-up: Nilgiri at UpStairs on the Square.
Best coffee and decaf: French-press coffee and decaf at Ariadne.
Best dessert: trio of three traditional semifreddi, especially the sesame, at Via Matta.
Best fusion dessert: coco boba at Peking Tomís, a kind of virgin-colada version of bubble tea, with pineapple bits instead of tapioca marbles and a rich coconut-milkshake basis.
Best crème brûlée: passion-fruit crème brûlée at Bambara, which highlighted the flavor of orange passion fruit.
Best ice cream: basil ice cream served as a garnish on a lemon tart at Union Bar & Grille.
Best sorbet: litchi sorbet at Red House.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.