Second in a five-part series: Paused during the pandemic, restaurant reviews return with a celebration — five consecutive 5-star reviews, the highest possible ranking. It is a salute to the region’s culinary excellence; it also tells a story about what excellence means in 2022.
Is food art? We can debate that till the grass-fed cows come home. What I am sure of is this: Some chefs are artists. They can improvise, recalibrate, evolve. But they cannot compromise on vision, because that is them. It is their very selves.
Nightshade Noodle Bar is the product of a vision so personal and specific it could belong to no one else. Rachel Miller is the chef and owner, vision-haver and chief bottle-washer. After years working in high-end kitchens around Boston — Bondir, Clio — in 2017 she started a pop-up called Nightshade. The name is so perfectly evocative: something that blooms, something nocturnal, something a little bit occult. When a small coffee shop became available in downtown Lynn, she took it over, transforming it into an intimate, atmospheric, plant-filled gem with a menu inspired by Vietnamese and French cuisine. On any given night, a diner might discover chilled percebes, goose barnacles from Portugal that look like baby dragon toes, to be twisted messily from their skins and dipped in lime-pepper sauce; lobster glace, like a savory seafood cappuccino, aromatic with butter and vanilla; grilled coconut sticky rice with caramelized clay-pot foie gras and Amarena cherries.
The restaurant opened three years ago, in October 2019. Ambitious, chef-driven, off the beaten path, it weathered the peak of the pandemic with takeout, delivery, outdoor dining — the pivot playbook, tailored to its location. Miller has been an industry leader during this time, speaking out about the challenges facing restaurants and the need to prioritize COVID safety. Nightshade requires proof of vaccination from indoor diners; a 20 percent administration fee added to the bill is shared among the entire staff.
Circumstances have transformed the restaurant, which now serves tasting menus and nothing but — of seven, nine, 12, and 14 courses, with a five-course option available on Thursdays. Diners can request up to two dishes from the menu be included; the rest is decided by the bare-bones kitchen staff. Miller and her partner, service and beverage director Alexandra Caruso, also work as line cooks, in addition to making the baguette sandwiches and other prepared foods for their adjacent Sin City Superette, opened in July and selling everything from Campbell’s soup to caviar. Finding experienced kitchen staff is difficult, and dividing their already stretched attention between a la carte dishes and tasting menus unworkable. Besides, their customers naturally gravitate toward the tasting menus. “I had no intention of coming out here and opening an expensive tasting-menu restaurant,” Miller says by phone. “But it’s working. It’s the biggest menu I’ve ever had. It’s insane, overwhelming, and weird, but I really love it.”
So will you. Or else you won’t. There’s no in between: Nightshade is for you, or it’s not. A meal here is an experience. The portions aren’t huge. The bill isn’t small. The food is beautiful, creative, delicious, varied, and not like anything else. From the first bite of a 14-course tasting menu, dinner is special. It might include a face-off of East Coast and West Coast oysters, a Beausoleil bathed in foamy cranberry nuoc cham and a Kusshi topped with aloe and a sliver of red pepper. The percebes on ice, with a finger bowl and hand wipes that expand in the water. A caviar course: royal white sturgeon on a milk glass pedestal, a light, frothy dip that tastes like whipped egg salad, and a plate brimming with potato chips.
It’s when the Marblehead sea urchin arrives that the satisfying, Depeche Mode-heavy soundtrack fades into the distance. I scoop creamy richness from a spiky shell with a tiny spoon. The urchin is bathed in red curry hollandaise, sprinkled with torched cinnamon. The bonfire spice reaches my nose first; the warmth of the curry lingers after I swallow. After one mouthful, I put down my spoon in bliss and surprise. I can’t remember the last time a taste made me do that. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten in a while.
A few courses later comes the next best thing, kabocha bot chien — rice cakes with cider-braised squash, crisp, juicy confit duck tongues, scrambled duck egg, fermented green chile sauce, and pickled vegetables. It is a perfect, precise riot of textures and flavors, utterly delicious.
More follows: a green wreath of ginger-scallion Chinese broccoli festooned with dill; a chestnut dumpling with Harbison cheese from Jasper Hill, smoked dates, pear, and a pow of black lime; cabbage slaw with green apple and maitake mushrooms, dressed in buttermilk-maple nuoc cham; egg noodles with braised beef, a spicy-numbing, deep-flavored situation both craveable and made with finesse — what you might want to eat after getting drunk on very expensive wine.
The rich and unctuous alternate with the crisp and vegetal. There is crunch and acid, warm spice and heat. Throughout, there are well-paired things to drink: the Saigon Cigar Club, a cocktail of bourbon, black cardamom, and Thai banana I have to order every time I visit; the 2021 Brooks “Amycas” from the Willamette Valley, a blend of white grapes that seems made for this food. Caruso previously worked at Fox & the Knife, and like the South Boston restaurant, Nightshade Noodle Bar features a strong amaro program. The staff is informal and informative; we’re all hanging out, appreciating food together.
Multicourse tasting menus often leave me feeling physically terrible, my taste buds blown out and my curiosity deadened: I just want to go home and go to sleep. At Nightshade, it’s the opposite. I’m still excited when that 14th course — a wee pot of salted chocolate mousse — hits the table. I’m still marveling over the food with the friend I’ve shared it with, as well as the couple at the table to my right. They’re here celebrating a birthday. To my left, it’s an anniversary. This is a wonderful place to come with someone you love when both of you love food. What better praise could there be, really?
NIGHTSHADE NOODLE BAR
73 Exchange St., Lynn, 781-780-9470, www.nightshadenoodlebar.com
Wheelchair accessible; seasonal outdoor seating. Reservation and proof of vaccination required.
Prices Tasting menus $85 (seven courses), $110 (nine courses), $140 (12 courses), $160 (14 courses). Five-course tasting menu ($50) Thursdays only.
Hours Thu-Sun 5-10 p.m.
Noise level Midrange
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Excellent | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.