Fish Out of Water

A brief stroll down Hanover Street in the North End would fool a casual observer into believing that Boston is
By Helen Springut

A brief stroll down Hanover Street in the North End would fool a casual observer into believing that Boston is rife with authentic Italian restaurants, each serving a credible interpretation of home cooking straight from the mother country. They would have you fancy that grandma is cooking in the kitchen, whipping up regional dishes from her youth, while her husband jovially greets customers out front and the grandkids wash plates and bus tables. But Boston is a far cry from Italy, and save a few notable exceptions, these restaurants are tourist traps, offering identical menus with adulterated American creations such as Veal Parmesan, Chicken Marsala, and Pasta Primavera. Baked ziti, anyone?

Given the North End’s reputation as a bastion of la cucina italiana, it’s peculiar that the most “Italian” restaurant in Boston is found not in this corner of the city, but in a sleek space overlooking Boston Common. And it’s even stranger that the guiding light in the kitchen is not a classically trained chef from the Old World, but an Irish girl raised in the projects of Southie.

While No. 9 Park may not be a traditional Italian restaurant, its cuisine exemplifies the best attributes of all great European country cooking—an emphasis on seasonal foods, a predominance of local products and supreme respect for ingredients. The chef and owner, Barbara Lynch, a 2001 James Beard nominee for “Best Chef Northeast,” adheres to these precepts, presenting a menu that highlights New England foods cooked so as to preserve each element’s unique flavor.

No. 9 conforms to the European taste for perfection in simplicity. It often seems that contemporary restaurants try to disguise their deficiencies by dazzling patrons with an array of choices and pretty feats on the plate. It’s refreshing to dine in a restaurant that is elegant, yet unaffected. At No. 9 Park, there is only one excellent kind of bread, not the whole bakery; the food is presented simply, not made to perform gravity-defying architectural feats; the service is attentive, not obsequious.

Only one concession is made to the diner, but, unfortunately, it’s a substantial one, and one that prevents No. 9 from being a truly great restaurant. It’s a nearly absolute rule that good restaurants in the Italian countryside serve either meat or seafood. Italians generally assume that restaurants serving both are catering to picky eaters. In many ways, the menu at No. 9 Park feels like it’s indulging people who are not content to eat the foods at which Lynch excels, but instead need a variety of options to satisfy their finicky tastes. The extremely skilled waiters know this, and are quick to push the kitchen’s strongest items, steering customers towards meat dishes, especially those of game and offal1, and away from anything centered around fish. It is the unwise diner who fails to heed these recommendations. Obey your waiter’s advice and you will have a fantastic meal. Otherwise, steel yourself for disappointment.

The Prune Stuffed Gnocchi ($17) are deserving of their reputation as No. 9’s signature appetizer. Although based on a Northern Italian specialty of fruit-stuffed dumplings, No. 9’s version is vaulted into a different realm by the addition of a foie gras beurre blanc and seared nuggets of foie gras that explode in the mouth under the gentlest pressure of teeth. The gnocchi2 are feather-light, without any of the gumminess that often weighs them down under less skillful hands. This is a decadent dish—layers of flavor unfold with each bite. The Oxtail Risotto ($16) is nearly as good, enriched with unctuous marrow and sprinkled with black truffles. It was perfectly al dente, each grain of rice still resistant in the center, although perhaps a little too much so for American tastes accustomed to overcooked pasta. The Crispy Sweetbreads ($15) were the only misstep from a kitchen that is usually strong with offal. The accompanying lentils were toothsome, the mustard greens offering a bitter counterpoint to the dish. The sweetbreads had the proper creamy texture but were surprisingly tasteless; I wonder if this lack of flavor stems not from the cooking, but from poor ingredients, as they appear to have been properly handled.

It’s the rare chef that creates entrees as satisfying as the appetizers; it takes great talent to imbue a dish with flavor that is sustained to the finish of an entree-sized portion. The Venison Sirloin ($35) is a masterpiece, briefly seared and served rare. The roast pears bring out the sweetness in the meat, and the acidity in the jus of red currants (a fresh take on traditional currant jelly) temper its gaminess. After small tastes, my companions were ready to fight me for the remainder of the dish. The Roast Squab ($34) was also good—another example of the kitchen’s sure hand with game. I was forewarned by our charming British waiter, but French Turbot ($36), a usually regal fish, was lifeless; its delicate flavor was no match for Lynch’s predilection for rustic flavors and ingredients.

Every single dessert was a standout. Since February, pastry chef Kristen Murray, formerly at Aquavit in New York, has been working wonders at the tail end of the menu. The Citrus Cheesecake ($10) is luscious, with salade, sorbet and jus presenting varying intensities of the same flavor. The Warm Spiced Cake ($10) nods slyly to the upcoming holiday season; with peppered pears and eggnog anglaise it’s a highly sophisticated rendering of traditional Christmas fare. Heirloom3 Squash Crème Brulée ($9) is perhaps the best I’ve ever eaten, with a custard so light and creamy it could have been whipped, and a chilled interior contrasting with the sliver-thin caramelized topping. There are few words to describe the perfect crème brulée, but I know it when I eat it. Cheeses come from the inimitable Formaggio Kitchen, and, served with flatbread and fig preserves, are always exemplary.

It’s a shame that Lynch feels she has to pander to her patrons. One waiter told me that she rarely serves pasta, for which she is justifiably famous, because diners do not feel they should be eating pasta in such a fine restaurant. It’s a double shame, because this restaurant has so much to offer, even aside from the food: a fantastic and highly personal wine list selected by reigning Boston wine queen Cat Silirie, a passionate and brilliant service staff that not only can describe every minute detail of a dish, from farm and forest to table, but has mastered the wine list as well, and a handsome dining room with the best view in Boston. And the food itself is very good, and sometimes excellent. If only Lynch would listen to her waiters and stop hedging her menu, the food would reach the dazzling level of every other aspect of her restaurant.