Food & dining

dining out | devra first

In 2015, thankful for local dishes that hit the spot

STRIP by Strega’s serving of porchetta.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/file

STRIP by Strega’s serving of porchetta.

I have a spotty record when it comes to names, birthdays, and last known location of my keys, but I always remember what I ate. This isn’t selective memory. It is the result of living in a city that regularly produces unforgettable food. Each year at this time, I look back at the inspired plates of the past 12 months and feel fortunate. Here are 15 dishes I was particularly thankful for in 2015:

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Kouign-amann pastries at Ames Street Deli.

Ames Street Deli, from the people behind Journeyman, isn’t a ham and cheese, tuna melt kind of deli. It’s more of a beef with scallop mayo on crispy plantains or carrot sandwich kind of deli, with cocktails named things like No Novocaine and The Most Interesting Man in the World. It also offers all manner of baked goods, from kaffir lime-poppy seed muffins to chai spice elephant ear cookies. Amid all of this excellent creativity, one finds glorious traditional French pastries like kouign-amann and caneles. Well-made examples are hard to come by in these parts, and the ones at Ames Street Deli are worth going out of your way for. 73 Ames St., Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617-374-0701, www.amesstreetdeli.com

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Celebrity chef Mario Batali arrived in Boston with Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca, and surprised everyone by creating one of the Seaport District’s better values. There’s all the pizza and pasta you’d imagine, along with great sausages, sweet-and-sour duck leg cooked in a wood oven, and glorified ice cream sundaes featuring olive oil gelato. Among it all, I had a soft spot for the chopped salad, the kind of thing you might overlook on the menu, to your detriment. It’s a version of a dish created by Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton, who co-owns the Mozza restaurants with Batali. A blizzard of iceberg lettuce, cheese, salami, chickpeas, and more, it is retro Italian-American perfection. 11 Fan Pier Blvd., Seaport District, South Boston, 617-421-4466, www.babbopizzeria.com

Chef Joshua Smith, known for his charcuterie at Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions, expanded to open a restaurant this year. The Backroom doesn’t serve fancy food — you’ll find salads, flatbreads, smoked brisket, porchetta — but it does serve really, really good food. The meatballs are a prime example, with a coarse texture, as if chopped by hand. Cloaked in red sauce and showered with cheese, they taste more like steak than spaghetti topping. 468 Moody St., Waltham, 781-216-8732, www.moodyswaltham.com

Mushroom carpaccio with cabbage at BISq.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Mushroom carpaccio with cabbage at BISq.

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Bergamot’s little sister, BISq, specializes in charcuterie. But many of my favorite things at the Inman Square wine bar were vegetable dishes — a salad of heirloom tomatoes with house-made burrata and tomato molasses; mushroom carpaccio with cabbage, peanuts, and omelet, a study in textural contrasts; grilled peaches with house-made ricotta, salt-roasted turnips, basil, and pistachios. Of course no one would fault you for adding guanciale, an option on the last dish. 1071 Cambridge St., Inman Square, Cambridge, 617-714-3693, www.bisqcambridge.com

I ate many lovely things at Cafe ArtScience, from the most velvety, balanced artichoke soup to a black-tie beef carpaccio spangled in truffles and lobster. But what I most enjoyed were the weird-science cocktails from bartender Todd Maul, who makes gimlets with lime juice clarified in a centrifuge and vaporizes booze in a bonglike device called Le Whaf. None of the technology would be any fun if the cocktails — both cooked-up and classic — weren’t some of the best in town. 650 East Kendall St., Kendall Square, Cambridge, 857-999-2193, www.cafeartscience.com

Chicken ramen at Hojoko.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Chicken ramen at Hojoko.

The O Ya team, Tim and Nancy Cushman, gets casual with Hojoko in the Fenway. It’s the perfect place to eat crazy maki and drink sake bombs before the game. You wouldn’t think such a raucous place with such a wide-ranging menu would serve a memorable bowl of ramen, a dish restaurants often specialize in to the exclusion of anything else. But the funky chicken ramen is a winner with its extra-rich chicken broth, perfectly cooked noodles, soy egg, and robata-grilled chicken. 1271 Boylston St., Fenway, Boston, 617-670-0507, www.hojokoboston.com

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Loyal Nine draws on history and New England tradition, offering the likes of pondemnast (a porridge) and braised lobster with hickory nuts and mead. There were many moments of inspiration here: salty fried soldier beans; a scallop served still attached to the shell, with pear and poppy seeds; brown bread topped with “soused” mackerel in horseradish sauce and sliced radishes; a fish skeleton with head and tail meat intact and a sauce ravigote made with hops. But the dish that delighted everyone was the sourdough chocolate brewis, “properly garnished” — essentially bread pudding served with little dishes of honeycomb brittle and spicy pumpkin seed brittle, toasted yeast streusel, brandy marshmallows, smoked toffee sauce, and salted chocolate sauce. Garnish to your heart’s content. 660 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-945-2576, www.loyalninecambridge.com

Meju, named for the bricks of dried, fermented soybeans that are one of the building blocks of Korean cuisine, serves intensely craveable dishes. I loved flat dumplings filled with pork, slices of braised pork belly folded in lettuce leaves with pickled radish and pear, spicy pork bulgogi. At some point I started feeling sorry for the pig — you’re so tasty, buddy! So it was a relief, upon ordering a relatively dull-sounding dish called mushroom bokkeum, to find my taste buds entirely engaged. A mixture of oyster, shiitake, enoki, and other mushrooms stir-fried in garlic and soy, it was a simple, smoky stunner. 243 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville, 617-764-3053, www.mejudavis.com

Former Neptune Oyster chef Michael Serpa boldly opened his own place, Select Oyster Bar, without a lobster roll on the menu. With prawns a la plancha, whole roasted sea bream, and an assortment of elegant raw dishes, I didn’t miss it. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t glad to see on the lunch menu a lobster sandwich that featured sweet, fresh meat on warm, crusty bread along with plenty of avocado. It might be the best non-lobster roll I’ve ever had. 50 Gloucester St., Back Bay, Boston, 857-239-8064, www.selectoyster.com

When Susan Regis (UpStairs on the Square, Biba) and Rene Becker (Hi-Rise Bread Company) join forces to open a restaurant, one strongly suspects it is going to be good. And the food at Shepard is fairly magical, kissed with smoke from live fire and adorned with fairy garlands of fresh herbs. The dish I can’t get out of my mind is one I had on my first visit, and never saw on the menu again: tender, almost stretchy gnocchi with morels and peas. I’m already looking forward to spring in the hopes of its return. 1 Shepard St., between Harvard and Porter squares, Cambridge, 617-714-5295, www.shepardcooks.com

A plate of Nashville hot chicken at State Park.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File

A plate of Nashville hot chicken at State Park.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that I can inhale a plate of Nashville hot chicken at State Park and experience an invincible internal heat wave. This pseudo dive bar with great food really came into its own this year, and this incendiary fried chicken, red with spices, made me weep, then take another bite and weep some more. Hurts so good. 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617-848-4355, www.statepark.is

STRIP by Strega, from restaurateur Nick Varano, is about the closest Boston comes to Vegas. There’s a DJ. Local newscasters and athletes relax in the curved white booths. The women who work here wear exceptionally tiny outfits. One doesn’t expect the genuinely warm hospitality, or the genuinely great food. The porchetta was a favorite, a rich, crisp, tender serving of roast pork in a swirl of barbecue sauce, topped with a cube of Stilton and dollops of mustard and shallot jam. 64 Arlington St., Boston Park Plaza, Back Bay, Boston, 617-456-5300, www.stripbystregaboston.com

The sea scallop at the Tasting Counter.

Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

The sea scallop at the Tasting Counter.

Chef Peter Ungár brings his experience at Aujourd’hui and Michelin-starred restaurants in France to a tiny, experimental restaurant inside a Somerville brewery. Tasting Counter features one tasting menu each night, with nine elegant courses that change with the seasons. Two dishes particularly stood out — a scallop in its own shell with citrus and avocado-oil cream, and hand-rolled seaweed pasta in bonito broth with mushrooms and anchovy. 14 Tyler St., Union Square, Somerville, 617-299-6362, www.tastingcounter.com

With bar snacks, deep-dish pizzas, and well-composed bistro fare, Worden Hall should be every South Boston resident’s new regular. The restaurant operates in many modes, all of them successful. I particularly loved the polenta fries — crisp exteriors, creamy interiors, the right amount of salt, a sprinkling of grana padano, and two flavor-packed sauces, a smoky tomato and a mellow black-garlic aioli. 22 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-752-4206, www.wordenhall.com

At Yvonne’s, where Locke-Ober lingered through its final stodgy phase, people now come to look fabulous and share dishes like the crispy tuna fregola feast — a platter of sliced tuna, breaded on the outside and raw on the inside, served over a salad of Sardinian couscous with arugula, cauliflower, olives, and pine nuts. It’s very good on its own, but even better drizzled in a brick-red sauce of Calabrian chiles, the heat balanced by ample acid. 2 Winter Place, Downtown Crossing, Boston, 617-267-0047, www.yvonnesboston.com

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.
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