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The Food Issue

40 fantastic dishes

What offerings around town are an absolute must? We asked five foodies, and what emerged was one giant, irresistible menu – from appetizers to desserts – that gives a glimpse of Greater Boston dining at its boldest, cleverest, and most satisfying.

By Devra First, Alexandra Hall, Jolyon Helterman, Sheryl Julian, and Denise Drower Swidey
July 25, 2010

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Gumbo $12 at Tupelo A soup that’s fittingly offered as an entree. Fully loaded with smoky andouille sausage and teeming with sweet pulled chicken, it’s thick with okra, just enough Tabasco to lend a perfect bite, and enough garlic to frighten off all the vampires in New Orleans. 1193 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 617-868-0004, http://www.tupelo02139.com

Charred Romaine Caesar Salad $9 at the Washington Square Tavern Believe it or not, grilled lettuce can be delicious. A whole romaine heart is lightly oiled, flash grilled, drizzled with a traditional Caesar dressing, then served warm. You’ll need the serrated knife that comes with it to turn the heart into salad. 714 Washington Street, Brookline, 617-232-8989, http://www.washingtonsquaretavern.com

Sfizi Carne Meatballs $5 at Il Casale A comfort-cuisine staple gets elevated to micro-masterpiece: Rich-as-can-be pork and beef, flecked with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, beneath a velvety sauce. There are only a few on a plate – precisely enough to leave you wanting many, many more. 50 Leonard Street, Belmont, 617-209-3454, http://www.ilcasalebelmont.com

Pat’s Banana Bread French Toast $9.95 at Arthur & Pat’s Not for nothing is there a line spilling from the door of this beach-side shack on weekend mornings – much of it for this dish alone. Sweet and cake-like inside but feather-light as a brioche, it’s smothered in bananas and soaks up the perfect amount of syrup. 239 Ocean Street, Marshfield, 781-834-9755

Homemade Thick-Cut Noodles With Beef Shank $10 at East by Northeast You’ll get meltingly tender chunks of beef shank, along with a perfect poached egg (optional), ready to be punctured and released into lightly spicy, star anise-scented beef broth. But the beauty of this dish is the noodles, long, silky, and chewy. Completely, compellingly addictive. 1128 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 617-876-0286, http://www.exnecambridge.com

Chicken Ballotine $21 at Parsons Table This Winchester spot is making chicken interesting again. These medallions of rolled breast meat, banded by crispy brown skin, are tender and juicy in a way you didn’t know breast meat could be. Spring chicken, indeed. 34 Church Street, Winchester, 781-729-1040, http://www.parsons-table.com

Grilled Sea Bass and Slow-Cooked Fennel $25 at Bistro du Midi Locavore, shmocavore: This pristine Mediterranean species travels some 4,000 miles before getting paired with a pillowy mound of fennel confit. The former sous-chef at the world’s finest seafood kitchen (Manhattan’s Le Bernardin), chef Robert Sisca is as fussy about fish cookery as he is about authenticity, turning out ultra-crispy skin and impeccably nuanced flavors. 272 Boylston Street, Boston, 617-426-7878, http://www.bistrodumidi.com

Butterscotch Fondant, Black Truffle Ice Cream, Dried Strawberries, Snap, Crackle, and Pop Dessert $10 at Gargoyles on the Square Cleverly disguised as an overwrought gustatory disaster, this highbrow spin on brownies a la mode gilds the lily with freeze-dried strawberries, candied Rice Krispies, and schnapps-spiked creme anglaise. Improbably, it all coalesces into a thing of beauty you have to taste to believe. 219 Elm Street, Somerville, 617-776-5300, http://www.gargoylesrestaurant.com

Lobster With Butter-Fried Garlic $29 at Market Even the staunchest lobster purists would do well to put down their crackers and bibs, pick up a proper fork, and dig into this anything-but-basic creation. Gutsy and complex, it sings with bright flavors – a clarified butter jacked up with thinly sliced garlic, salt, minced dried Thai chili, a julienne of fresh ginger. The crowning glory? Farm-fresh basil that perfumes the lobster’s sweetness. W Hotel, 100 Stuart Street, Boston, 617-310-6790, http://www.marketbyjgboston.com

Bacalao $5 at Coppa If you can squeeze into the bar here, reward yourself from the snack menu with this heaping mound of pureed, garlicky salt cod on a slab of thick, rustic bread. It comes warm. And you’ll leave happy. 253 Shawmut Avenue, Boston, 617-391-0902, http://www.coppaboston.com

Lemon and Yuzu Crystalline $10 at Sensing Smash through the translucent pane of candy with your spoon and you’re rewarded with a citrusy smorgasbord: a bright lemon sorbet, cookies, and a gelee of yuzu (a Japanese sweet-sour fruit). Eaten together, it’s a brilliant mix of textures and temperatures. 3 Battery Wharf, Boston, 617-994-9001, http://www.sensingrestaurant.com

Roast Beef Sandwich $7.95 at Cutty’s Honestly, Cutty’s would find a cult following even if its signature slummed it with Wonder and bottled Wish-Bone – based solely on the beef. Salt-cured overnight, the slow-roasted chuck delivers remarkably concentrated flavor. House-made thousand island, toasted brioche, and shatteringly crispy fried shallots simply ensure longevity in the pantheon. 284 Washington Street, Brookline, 617-505-1844, http://www.cuttyfoods.com

Plantain Gnocchi $19 at Bergamot Plantains have much in common with potatoes. Turns out they, too, make wonderful gnocchi. Genius. The starchy dumplings speak Spanish, not Italian, however. They come with black beans, avocado, roasted red pepper, and more. But the plantain dough has enough personality to stand up to the big flavors. 118 Beacon Street, Somerville, 617-576-7700, http://www.bergamotrestaurant.com

Roasted Rack of Wild Boar $32 at Erbaluce Chef-owner Chuck Draghi sources his tender, not-at-all-gamy wild boar from Texas. But the mosto, a fruity but not sweet aromatic sauce, is his own innovation, created from fermented wild Concord grapes and lavender plus pan juices. 69 Church Street, Boston, 617-426-6969, http://www.erbaluce-boston.com

Anything in Mala Broth $13.95 (as part of a dinner combo) at Little Q Hot Pot Originally in Quincy, Little Q offered the best hot pot in town. Now it’s relocated to a smaller space in Arlington, but its mala broth tastes as big as ever. Fiery and numbing, it bubbles away as you cook meat, seafood, vegetables, tofu, and noodles in the liquid. Herbs and spices bob on its surface, and the longer it cooks, the stronger it gets. 196 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington, 781-488-3755

Paella $25 at Loco Tapas & Wine Bar The tapas are decent; the wine is fine. But the paella – robbed of equal marquee billing – is the sleeper hit. Devoid of the porridgey homogeneity plaguing lesser versions, the rice in this saffron-scented dream has just the right consistency and proves a proper bed for nestling garlicky chorizo, briny mussels, and tender smoked chicken. 520 Foundry Street, South Easton, 508-230-5626, http://www.locotapas.com

Molletes $8 at Mike & Patty’s The burrito meets the French bread pizza in this weekend breakfast special. A toasted baguette half is topped with refried beans, salsa, melted cheese, and a sunnyside-up egg, with poblano home fries on the side. Spicy and earthy, gooey and crispy, the Mexican dish is made extra-good by a vibrant house-made salsa. 12 Church Street, Boston, 617-423-3447, http://www.mikeandpattys.com

Shirin Polo Morgh $14.99 at Khayyam Restaurant Order this Persian dish as a kebab with succulent morsels of juicy chicken. It arrives with basmati rice sprinkled with orange rind, pistachios, grated carrots, and barberries. One bite and you’ll know why people have been eating this dish for centuries. 404 Harvard Street, Brookline, 617-383-6268, http://www.khayyamrestaurant.com

Pelano’s Mess $8.99 (single) or $35.99 (bucket) at Comella’s Can’t choose between ziti, lasagna, stuffed shells, or eggplant Parmesan for dinner? Then don’t – they all come mixed together in a gorgeous house marinara sauce, topped with two kinds of cheese. Personalize your own mess with extras – Pelano’s comes with extra eggplant Parm. 1302 Washington Street, West Newton (and other locations), 617-928-1001, http://www.comellasrestaurants.com

Empanadas

$5 at Scup’s in the Harbour These dark brown turnovers are always available at this East Boston restaurant-in-a-shipyard, but what’s in them changes each day: Asian pork, spicy beef with cheddar, roasted chicken with spinach, and more. The combination of hot, savory filling and crisp, flaky dough makes these snacks hard to put down. Take that, Hot Pockets. 256 Marginal Street, Building 16, Boston, 617-569-7287, http://www.scupsintheharbour.com

Crawfish with Asian Fusion Sauce $8.95 per pound at Brother’s Crawfish The Viet-Cajun craze hit Boston this spring, when brothers Long and Tuan Le opened their doors in Dorchester. Order by the pound (1 or 2). Slip the meat from the tiny red shells, swish it in the vinegary dip, and keep going until you’ve had your fill. 272 Adams Street, Boston, 617-265-1100, http://www.brotherscrawfish.com

Onion Rava Masala Dosai $8.25 at Udupi This thin, savory South Indian pancake is impossibly crisp yet still tender. All dosas are vegetarian; this one has a spiced potato and onion filling and is accompanied by an intense coconut chutney and spicy sambar stew. 378 Maple Avenue, Fair Lawn Plaza, Shrewsbury, 508-459-5099, http://www.udupi.us

Hashed Browns $9.90 at the Oceanaire Seafood Room If the butter industry ever goes bankrupt, it will be through no fault of this upscale chain. The luscious “side” contains so much you could kick-start a hollandaise with what’s left behind after slicing out a crusty wedge. Go “Oceanaire”-style – with bacon, onions, and Tabasco – for a truly, um, heart-stopping experience. 40 Court Street, Boston, 617-742-2277, http://www.theoceanaire.com

Cold Lavender Milk Tea with Large Boba $3.90 (16 ounces) at Lollicup What’s not to like about a drink you can also chew? With just the right amount of bitter and floral notes, this sweet beverage requires a fat straw to hoover up the starchy tapioca boba balls off the bottom. 1095 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (also in Quincy), 617-782-2622, http://www.lollicup.com

Hippie Crepe $6.50 at Arrow Street Crepes La Creperie Like your savory with a little sweet? This crepe (two hands required) is made to order, then finished with gooey sharp cheddar cheese and warm but crunchy apples. A clover honey drizzle and a dash of brown sugar are added before wrap-up. 1154 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617-661-6999, http://www.arrowstreetcrepes.com

The Italian $5.99 (takeout only) at Alfredo Aiello Italian Foods Sliced-to-order authentic Italian cold cuts are the stars in this sandwich: mortadella, Genoa salami, and hot sopressata mingle with sharp provolone on a fresh “spuckie” roll (hard exterior, chewy interior). It also features a tasty lettuce and tomato combo marinated ahead in seasoned extra-virgin olive oil. 2182 Washington Street, Canton (and other locations), 781-828-5600, http://www.aapasta.com

North Shore Bouillabaisse $25 at The Grapevine A bouillabaisse is only as good as its seafood ingredients are fresh, and this version is a stunner. Clams, cod, scallops, all locally caught, swim with shrimp and mussels in a broth delicate with saffron and fresh fennel. 26 Congress Street, Salem, 978-745-9335

Cucumber and Lime Agua Fresca $3.50 at Villa Mexico Cafe It’s an icy drink sold in a convenience store, but that’s where its resemblance to a Slush Puppie ends. Villa Mexico, a little restaurant located in a Beacon Hill gas station, offers an oasis in a plastic cup. What summer heat? You won’t feel it as ice blended with lime, cucumber, and sugar sloooowly freezes your brain. 296 Cambridge Street, Boston, 617-957-0725, http://www.villamexicocafe.com

Pizza Rounds $4.49 (for two), regular or whole wheat, at Iggy’s Bread of the World If you want to make pizza at home, Iggy’s gives you a headstart: They’ve shaped and pre-baked the crusts. Add a drizzle of olive oil, slices of tomato and mozzarella, and put them in a hot oven. Crisp, chewy, flavorful – and they’re (almost) homemade. 130 Fawcett Street, Cambridge, 617-924-0949, http://www.iggysbread.com

Branzino Sashimi $11 at Aka Bistro Japanese tradition meets Chinese technique. A sashimi chef lays slivers of raw branzino on a plate, topped with slices of jalapeno. Then, with the flair of a magician, he pours hot sesame oil over the fish. It warms the branzino without cooking it. An aromatic soy sauce infused with ginger, scallions, and cilantro lends richness and perfume. 145 Lincoln Road, Lincoln, 781-259-9920, http://www.akabistrolincoln.com

Pho With Chicken $6.25-$7.95 at Pho Hoa Restaurant At this chain, which recently moved to a larger Dorchester location, a steady stream of three-generation families can’t be wrong. These golden bowls of broth are filled with rice noodles and morsels of poultry. Add basil leaves, sprouts, and generous squirts of hot sauce and lime. 1370 Dorchester Avenue, Boston (and other locations), 617-287-9746, http://www.phohoarestaurant.com

Foul Mudammes $2.99 (side order) at Falafel Corner Plump and satisfying, these aromatic Egyptian fava beans (pronounced fool moo-dahm-es) can be a side for kebab, a filling for pita bread, or a vegetarian main course. 8½ Eliot Street, Cambridge, 617-441-8888

Kobe Mini Burgers $15 at Lucky’s Lounge Much as we hate to endorse diminutive burgers or gratuitous fancy-cow usage – the decade’s most tired menu trends – this slider rates a momentary breach of principles. Blame the slathering of intensely smoky bacon aioli, which, with melted Muenster, grill-crisped bun, and gooey quail egg, makes this three-biter the easy champ of its weight class. 355 Congress Street, Boston, 617-357-5825, http://www.luckyslounge.com

Warm Braised Shiitake Mushroom Nigiri $8 at O Ya It’s borderline sacrilege to forgo raw fish at such an exquisite sushi restaurant, but when it comes to this dish, we’ll swap uni for fungi any time. It’s earthy but sweet (courtesy of honey), with hits of aromatic anise and hysop. The result: flavors that are as unexpected as they are haunting. 9 East Street, Boston, 617-654-9900, http://www.oyarestaurantboston.com Lasagna Bolognese $15.95 (for two to three servings) at La Romagnoli & Son This is the lightest, most delicate Bolognese you’ll ever taste, layered between sheets of tissue-thin homemade noodles, ricotta, bechamel, Parmesan, and mozzarella. Owner/chef Anna Romagnoli makes her sauce with pancetta, ground pork, beef, and veal, chicken livers, and red wine. It isn’t better in Italy. 584 Mt. Auburn Street, Watertown, 617-393-0118, http://www.laromagnoliandson.com

Scallops Lemoncello $19 at Fiorella’s A masterful balancing act between sweet (lemoncello liqueur reduction) and heat (crushed red pepper flakes). The just-caught scallops and market-fresh asparagus and tomatoes all land on a soft bed of creamy risotto. 187 North Street, Newtonville, 617-969-9990, http://www.fiorellasnewton.com

Seared Tuna Flatbread $8.75 at Gaslight Inspired by Parisian schwarma stands, the late-night offering is a South End sot’s dream of garlicky aioli, pepper ragu, and – a twist – seared, spice-crusted tuna, loaded onto a griddled flatbread. The whole, wonderful mess is served with hot, salty frites. 560 Harrison Avenue, Boston, 617-422-0224, http://www.gaslight560.com

Tabouli $3.99 (side order) at Garlic ’n Lemons The exceptional, refreshing Lebanese salad at this Allston spot has only enough cracked wheat to hold together lots of hand-chopped parsley, tomatoes, onions, mint, lemon juice, and olive oil. Scoop it up with pita. You won’t find better tabouli in Boston. 133 Harvard Avenue, Boston, 617-783-8100

Fried Dough With Bourbon Glazed Peaches $8.50 at Bridgeman’s Upgrading fried dough could be as simple as giving the fairground favorite a plate to sit on. But leave it to a tony Nantasket eatery to recognize the innate dignity of the addictive foodstuff and do it justice with a gleaming, syrupy sauce. Worthy of fine china, all of it. 145 Nantasket Avenue, Hull, 781-925-6336, http://www.bridgemansrestaurant.com

Lamb/Beef Schwarma Salad $9.75 at Cafe Jaffa This hard-core Greek salad sports such a towering pile of potently seasoned meat – a succulent franken-mixture of beef and lamb – you can barely see the lettuce cowering (no pun intended) sheepishly (ditto) beneath it. The tender swaths of shaved schwarma are grilled to crispy-edged perfection, served with tahini and a house-made green sauce that packs creeper heat. 48 Gloucester Street, Boston, 617-536-0230, http://www.cafejaffa.net

Devra First is the food critic for the Globe; Alexandra Hall is the editor of Fashion Boston and writes frequently about food; Sheryl Julian is the food editor for the Globe; Jolyon Helterman and Denise Drower Swidey are food writers and frequent contributors to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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