It’s Thanksgiving, and once again we come together at the table to count our blessings while eating our weight in pie. It’s not so easy to practice gratitude while in a turkey coma, but there’s plenty of time to reflect during the 78 football games of the day, somewhere between tryptophan-induced naps. So here goes: some of the many things I was thankful for this year, food-related edition.
First, and most obvious, was the widespread return of dining out. Many people are comfortable eating in restaurants again, and dining rooms are full. (Good luck making that prime-time reservation.) I was grateful for the delicious food being served, but that was only part of it. When I look back at the year, what stands out are all the moments that were enabled by breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Although the beef Wellington and Eton mess at Ramsay’s Kitchen were a good time, my night there was truly rich because I shared it with (and later wrote about it with) Hamersley’s Bistro chef Gordon Hamersley. Did I love the frozen drinks at the Beachcomber in Wellfleet, or did I mostly love talking to random bar patrons while getting brain freeze with traveling companion extraordinaire Christopher Muther? (Both.) I was thankful to meet a simpatico stranger to share pancakes and conversation with at the Moonakis Cafe in Falmouth, to reunite with a long-unseen friend from LA at Dear Annie, to debate the merits of so many meals with BFFs and passing acquaintances alike. Here’s to the year’s best cocktail: the COVID-19 vaccine, a potion that really packs a punch.
The delicious food, of course, matters. It matters a lot.
I was thankful for Mahaniyom, the standout Thai restaurant in Brookline I ate at more than any other place this past year. I just can’t get enough of the rambutan salad, crab curry, and beef massaman — symphonic flavor experiences all. Whole fish dishes in restaurants are often expensive, but here the fried whole fish, loaded with chiles and herbs, is a lesson in value ($32). The exchange rate of USD to pure enjoyment is extremely favorable. I’m glad for Mahaniyom in and of itself, but also for what it represents: the evolution of the local Thai food scene, as customers indicate a hunger for tastes beyond the Americanized cuisine we have known and loved. Another favorite: BoonNoon Market in Arlington, where owner Nutthachai “Jeep” Chaojaroenpong serves dishes fresh, homey, and complex from behind the counter; you can also purchase everything from pennywort drink to instant noodles to house-made fruit pickles at the market.
I was thankful for the passion and persistence of chefs who have somehow pushed through this pandemic with continued excellence. One example is Rachel Miller, who pivoted to an all-tasting menu model at her Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn. It’s a place I always want to refer to as a jewel box, even if that description is overused for this kind of tiny, sparkling gem of a restaurant. It just fits. The food is creative and unique, from percebes (a.k.a. goose barnacles) on ice to Marblehead sea urchin with red curry hollandaise and torched cinnamon to rice cakes with confit duck tongues and fermented green chile sauce. It’s daring, and thrilling, and delicious to boot. At Urban Hearth — another intimate space — chef-owner Erin Miller makes thoughtful, seasonal, skillful dishes. The menu is changing all the time, but don’t miss the big buttermilk biscuit with smoked maple miso butter. Dang was I thankful for that biscuit.
I like biscuits I guess? Another standout dish this year was at Dear Annie, where the flaky pastry sandwiched thick-sliced heirloom tomato, dolloped with basil aioli and smoked trout roe. I also loved the clever “sea dog,” a beautifully light seafood sausage on a bun. But most of all I loved the vibes, which are what Dear Annie does best. It feels good and cool and fun and right to be here. Likewise the Koji Club, a Brighton bar that pours an intriguing array of sake and serves yummy snacks: Japanese curry empanadas from nearby specialist Super Bien, perfect rice with umeboshi and cucumber pickles. Again, it’s cozy and cool and … vibe-y. That’s a word now. If karaoke’s your jam, visit sister lounge She’s So Lucky and enjoy caviar with Japanese potato chips beneath the glittering disco ball. Vibes!
I was thankful for ice cream — from peppermint stick shared with Muther at Cape Cod’s old-school parlors (Four Seas in Centerville was an unmatchable favorite) to gorgeous gelati compositions made by talented pastry chef Renae Connolly at Moëca. The smoked vanilla mascarpone gelato with spicy caramel popcorn is stunning.
I was thankful for vegetables — from the baller crudite platter at Ken Oringer-Jamie Bissonnette joint Faccia a Faccia (f.k.a. Faccia Brutta) to the 100 percent plant-based comfort food at PlantPub.
I was thankful for New England seafood done right — from the brimming excellence of the best-lobster-roll-of-the-summer at the roadside Seafood Shanty in Bournedale to the class acts on the menu at Little Whale. Chef Michael Serpa showcases best-practice chowder and fried clams alongside fancy fish dishes and lobster spaghetti. The little oyster bar might just put out Newbury Street’s finest interpretation of the Fishwich.
And I was thankful for places like Antonio’s Restaurant in New Bedford — serving Portuguese specialties and preserving Portuguese culture since 1989. Where would we be without such community mainstays? Eating less spicy, saucy, buttery, bright orange shrimp Mozambique, to be sure. We would be bereft. I was thankful for the old-school, because it survives.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.