It's said that every seven years the human body renews itself on a cellular level. Never mind the science. This year Boston's restaurant scene did something similar. So many new restaurants opened, it sometimes feels as though we are eating in a whole new city.
And eating better than ever before.
Despite the closing of many longtime, high-end establishments in recent memory, the caliber of cooking has never been so great. Talented, creative chefs have simply moved into more comfortable, casual, often boisterous environments. Along with food, drink has been elevated; a rigorous cocktail program now seems the rule rather than the exception. Serious (yet sometimes playful) wine lists are having a resurgence, and our widespread obsession with craft beer is reflected in what's on tap. Hospitality, too, is getting a makeover — less formal, more personal, but just as focused on providing customers a high-quality, pleasant experience. With so much competition, it matters more than ever.
Amid general excellence in 2013, some stars burned brighter than others. It is the time of year to look back and recognize the best of the best.
Expectations were high for Tim Maslow's first independent venture. The young chef made waves when he returned from New York, where he worked for the famed Momofuku restaurants, and transformed his father's Watertown sandwich shop into a cult dining destination. Could Ribelle live up to Strip-T's? Yes, and then some. Here, cooks take license with Italian food, spinning it into something new. Think meatballs with turnips and parsnip cheese; rye bigoli; and rigatoni with octopus, fennel, and smoked tomato. A crack hospitality team, one of the most creative wine lists in town, and excellent cocktails complete the picture. In a year of exciting restaurant openings, Ribelle stands out for its creativity and care right off the bat. 1665 Beacon St., Washington Square, Brookline, 617-232-2322. www.ribellebkline.com.
Right now, Asta might be the city's best chef showcase. The bar faces directly onto the kitchen, offering an up-close view of Crabb and his team at work. The former L'Espalier sous chef serves nothing but tasting menus, which range from beautifully homey (three courses) to wonderfully creative (five courses) to all-out adventuresome (eight courses). Each illuminates Crabb's talent from a different angle. 47 Massachusetts Ave., Back Bay, Boston, 617-585-9575, www.astaboston.com.
Pictured, braised celery with black garlic gnocchi and chicken skin as served by Alex Crabb at Asta.
WASHINGTON SQUARE, BROOKLINE
Fort Point is the obvious choice, with its abundance of restaurants, bars, breweries, coffee shops, bakeries, and specialty stores. (Breath.) But Washington Square is the better story. No one would have expected this Brookline neighborhood, out on the Green Line, to become such an interesting place to eat and drink. It's the perfect mix of stalwarts and recent arrivals. The likes of Washington Square Tavern, Rod Dee, the Publick House, and the Abbey have been making the neighborhood delicious for some time. And establishments such as Ribelle, Fairsted Kitchen, and Barcelona Wine Bar bring a jolt of new excitement.
There are so many stellar beverage programs these days, one could hit a new place every night of the year without a repeat visit. How to stand out in this landscape? With personality, a point of view, and perhaps a certain degree of obsessiveness. These establishments distinguish themselves as drinking spots for the wine, beer, and cocktail geek.
Ribelle, where Theresa Paopao's by-the-glass list is pared back and ever-changing, described by flavor profile rather than varietal, producer, or region. (Example: "light + vibrant, racy acidity, all mineral all day long; CRUSHER.") It's a labor of love. 1665 Beacon St., Washington Square, Brookline, 617-232-2322, www.ribellebkline.com.
Row 34, where Megan Parker-Gray is a curator for the art of brewing. You'll find offerings from near (Trillium Brewing Co. is a neighbor) and far, many discovered in Parker-Gray's own travels. There are more than 20 offerings on tap alone. Ask her and she'll tell you their stories. 383 Congress St., Fort Point, Boston, 617-553-5900, www.row34.com.
Fairsted Kitchen, where "master of ceremonies" Patrick Gaggiano and crew serve up potions like the bourbon-based No Sleep Till Brookline and the frothy Alamagoozlum for Two, made with egg white. They also bottle a rotating selection of cocktails and offer one on draft. There is a staggering array of niche spirits, and staffers are excited to share information and tastes. 1704 Beacon St., Washington Square, Brookline, 617-396-8752, www.fairstedkitchen.com.
Pictured, guests enjoying a meal at Fairsted Kitchen in Brookline, where the cocktails reign supreme.
This year saw many chefs with established restaurants debuting new ones, from Jason Bond's Concord branch of Bondir, to State Park from the people behind Hungry Mother, to the Island Creek Oyster Bar team's Fort Point seafood spot, Row 34. None captured the spirit of dining circa 2013 better than Kirkland Tap & Trotter, from Craigie on Main chef Tony Maws. Relaxed, loud, and friendly, it showcases the craft of cooking with addictively delicious dishes such as house-made spaghetti with chicken liver cream, pumpkin, and brown butter; grilled salmon head; and giant pork chops for the whole table to share. The food is great, and the joie de vivre is infectious.
425 Washington St., Somerville, 857-259-6585, www.kirklandtapandtrotter.com.
Pictured, Tony Maws (left) and Dan Scampoli of the relaxed, loud, and friendly Kirkland Tap and Trotter in Somerville.
One of the Boston Marathon bombs exploded directly in front of it, and Forum was closed for months, fronted by black plywood with a sign that read "Forum Strong. Coming Back Soon." And come back it did. The remodeled restaurant opened again in August, with a new chef and menu. These days it's packed with after-work revelers. 755 Boylston St., Back Bay, Boston, 857-991-1831, www.forumboston.com
It's no surprise to find the food so headily fragrant, so beautifully flavored, at a restaurant that is a collaboration between Oleana's Ana Sortun and Cassie Piuma, the former chef de cuisine there. But it's still a pleasure. This is one of the year's most winning openings, out of the way in Somerville's Winter Hill, featuring Turkish-inspired small plates, and making every dinner feel like a festive cocktail party with passed platters of specials. The likes of pumpkin fritters, sesame fried chicken, spicy Brussels sprouts, and lamb kofte sliders make one want to go back again and again. 249 Pearl St., Winter Hill, Somerville, 617-764-4464, www.sarmarestaurant.com
The food and drink of Germany and Central Europe aren't a strong point of the area's restaurant scene. With Bronwyn (the restaurant is named for his wife), T.W. Food chef Tim Wiechmann shows just how excellent sausages and beer can be. His currywurst and lemon weisswurst will make you swoon. But there's more to Bronwyn than sausages: Regional specialties such as rosti, jagerschnitzel, and knodel shine, too. 255 Washington St., Union Square, Somerville, 617-776-9900, www.bronwynrestaurant.com
Lucky Newton saw the opening of Sycamore, where chefs David Punch and Lydia Reichert serve chanterelle mushroom soup; grilled squid with Satsuma tangerines, chickpeas, and green olives; buckwheat crepes; and cassoulet. Boards designed to feed two feature several preparations of the same ingredient. A recent version showcased duck: in sausage form, with hand-rolled couscous, as tender slices of breast meat, and stuffed inside phyllo triangles. It's the perfect meal to share with someone you love. 755 Beacon St., Newton Centre, 617-244-4445, www.sycamorenewton.com.
Pictured, Spanish seafood cassoulet at Sycamore in Newton Center.
At his cozy and distinctive Italian restaurant, former Via Matta chef Michael Pagliarini serves beautiful small plates and a gorgeous monkfish piccata. But nothing could trump his handmade pasta, from spaghetti with clams and oyster crema to pappardelle with wild boar. 1682 Massachusetts Ave., between Harvard and Porter Square, Cambridge, 617-441-2800, www.giuliarestaurant.com.
The influence of the Momofuku empire is felt in Providence, too, at North. Here, alum James Mark and compadres Tim Shulga and John Toon Chester set up shop, serving a delirious mash-up of Chinese, Korean, Cambodian, and other flavors: ham biscuits; "Burmese style (kinda)" roast cabbage with chile-maple vinaigrette, apple, and peanut brittle; dan dan rice cakes with goat, squid, and fermented chiles; chickpea kimchi jigae with creme fraiche and grapefruit. They call it American food. I call it so, so delicious. 3 Luongo Memorial Square, Providence, 401-421-1100, www.foodbynorth.com.
As we salute the openings of 2013, we must also bid farewell to places that closed. From the high-end restaurant (Radius) to the long-lived watering hole (the Quencher Tavern), they will be missed. Among the businesses that shut their doors is Chez Henri, whose red front always beckoned welcomingly. After 19 years, the Cambridge restaurant closed in November. So long, and thanks for all the Cubanos.
Pictured, Francesca Clotrera and Andrew Cornell dug into the duck tamale at Chez Henri.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.