Craigie Street Bistro – Boston

It’s been a long time in coming, but while I was in Boston for a conference, I finally made it to Craigie Street Bistro which is run (and cooked) by Tony Maws. Amanda is friends with the Maws family, and we’ve benefited form Tony’s expert recommendations for French dining before.

And in the month since I’ve eaten there, CSB (to insiders) has won some major awards and accolades. So I figure I’ve got to get this post up in order to support their well-deserved reputation.

Unfortunately, the timing for my trip was lousy – not only did I just recover from being sick for almost two days, but Tony was on his first well-deserved night off in 4 months. On top of that, I was alone – a couple of understated invitations to what is essentially Boston’s best French restaurant conflicted with colleague’s plans, and the list of people I wanted to invite to the best 4-course meal of their recent memory was fairly short.

Nonetheless I persevered. The place is small, about 20 tables, and the first thing I noticed is that it’s understated. It’s in a walk-down space under the corner of a large old brick apartment building, but immediately it feels cosy. And there are wait staff everywhere – I think I counted 6-8 for what was apparently a slow night. They all looked like they could have been recruited from any number of the colleges nearby, but they were all relaxed, very well informed, and so comfortable with the foreign words in the menu I sometimes had to ask them repeat something because they glided through the descriptions so effortlessly. Tony’s printed claim that all staff went through intensive training was in evidence (the staff also eats at the restaurant on Tony’s dime).

Tony focuses on sourcing a lot of local food, as much of it organic and biodynamic as possible. As with anything, though, when he needs something superlative, he’s not above importing it, as attested by his Wine Spectator-approved French wine list, or the offer of fresh shaved (and freshly imported) Perigord truffles – the last of the season, apparently.

However, for those more fastidious about being truly local, there’s plenty to crow about. The menu is created new every day – in fact, my menu stated it was printed at 5:07 pm that day, after all the products had been delivered and inspected. That’s fresh food.

So not only does Craigie Street Bistro have a new menu every day, he also has a daily “menu” – i.e a suggested 5-course meal (including a completely separate full veggie version). Oh, with a short list of 10-15 suggested wines that would work with that suggested meal. I got stuck on the appetizers, so I decided to make a small tapas meal out of it.

I started with house-cured Portuguese sardines, which looked like they had been barely seared – they were still reddish, meaty but tender, and not flaking and falling apart like cooked sardines. The sardines sat on tiny cobblestones of preserved lemon, pickled peppers and artichokes, a combination that reminds me of North Africa… (Yes, the cobblestones too, for those of you familiar with their war of independence….).

Next was the octopus, a single tentacle nearly 8 inches long with cipollini onions and hearts of palm (Palmito!), incredibly tender except, well, yes, the crunchy sucker parts. Hmmm. I wasn’t sure I had been prepared to go that far because I’m a little squeamish about fish parts, but I finished it all.

I had accompanied this by a glass of rosé, a great and dry sample from – I actually don’t remember. The wine list is several pages long (his half-bottle selection has over 20 wines, and his glass list easily a dozen). However, I wasn’t that focused on the wines since I was still sick, and really what interested me after a day and a half of eating nothing but peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, miso soup and tea was … food!

Then the ragout came out. I don’t know what I was expecting form a ragout – some sort of down-home stew something or other – but this wasn’t what I was expecting. It was a delicate arrangement of house-made venison sausage, sheets of brussels sprouts (yes, just sheets, not the whole thing), honshi meji mushrooms, with a split-pea purée. Oh, and a poached egg on top. Whatever it was, it was unlike anything I’ve had before. And surprisingly, given all that was going on, everything tasted distinct – it wasn’t a blend of toppings like an “everything” pizza.

I had ordered a side of pomme aligot, which was made with so much laguiole cheese that I was forewarned it would come out almost gummy. Yup, that rhymes with yummy. I had actually canceled my order of the potatoes since I realized quickly the food was so rich I would be stuffed by then – but instead they came out with a “taster” version, and the chef (whoever it was that night) even threw in some of the famed truffle shavings.

I had finished my courses, but had a considerable amount of my second glass – a classic spicy and somewhat grassy Chinon red – left to go, so I relaxed and took in my surroundings. What I had noticed was that a good portion of the clientèle that night was the same kind I’ve seen in upscale restaurants near higher education institutions in the Bay Area (read: Berkeley). I know, people from East Coast academia hate being compared to their slacker casual West Coast brethren, which is partly why I’m doing it. Because the upshot is the same – there’s an demographic of landed intelligentry that eats at upscale restaurants near well-heeled universities as a given. Very polite, even politically relevant conversations, but the evening is nothing special, just another pleasant meal out.

I mean, celebrate the food, people! This is damn good, and it’s not a given that you should have access to this. I was ecstatic. The time and energy that went into the preparation – not only by the chef(s) and wait-staff, but the people listed on Tony’s short-list of preferred farms and all their staff – this means something to them. They are putting a lot of their energy and soul into this – the least you can do is feel something! If you’re not ecstatic, at least engage! I would bet Tony would really appreciate someone who was passionate about something wrong with the place (price, quality, service, whatever) after months of scores of people coming through, dropping a couple of bills, and leaving with only a “value” memory of what they liked that night. No one inherently deserve this food; it’s a gift, a privilege – appreciate it, celebrate it!

OK, sorry, rant over. I finished – uncharacteristically – with a tea, and as a consolation prize they brought out a single pear gelato ball – covered with a caramel made of, get this, reduced goat’s milk. Only – no added sugar. Bra-a-a-ah…. ‘Twas excellent. And that goes for the whole experience. I think I smiled the entire T ride back….

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