date published: January 17, 2005

Everything you need to know about the great dining city that is Boston—including the hottest restaurants, chefs, trends and more
by Christine Celli and Christopher Wallenberg

Once upon a time, if you wanted great Italian food, you went straight to the North End. But now there are celebrated Italian eateries all over town, from Via Matta in Park Square to Teatro in the Theater District, and two newcomers have further stoked this fire. Umbria (295 Franklin St., 617-338-1000), which opened with a splash in the Financial District last fall, focuses on the nuances of the oft-overlooked Umbria region of Italy. The impeccable team of Marisa Iocco and Rita D’Angelo execute the more robust, meat-centric Umbrian dishes for hungry diners. On the other hand, La Morra (48 Boylston St., Brookline, 617-739-0007) reminds us that Tuscany is still a lovely place to be—except perhaps for Atkins dieters. Reunite with pasta made to perfection on a 1940s-era machine or savor the succulent roasted meats that have made this northern region of Italy a popular reference for Italian-American chefs for decades.

Beantown’s now got its own version of TV’s “The Iron Chef.” Brothers Bob and David Kinkead square off in a battle of recipes at Sibling Rivalry (525 Tremont St., 617-338-5338), a high-concept new eatery in the South End. What’s the hook? Each brother creates a dish based around a particular ingredient—be it beets, ginger, clams, cod or whatever else they decide. The results are tantalizing. While Bob uses duck confit to enliven a salad of red cabbage, endive, apple and Roquefort, David fashions an entree of laquered duck meat kissed with port and accompanied by chestnuts, sauteed quince and roasted vegetables. This is one familial food fight you won’t want to miss.

Whether you’re an oenophile, a wine novice who wants to learn more or just a fan of the critically acclaimed, hit movie Sideways, you’re sure to love Meritage at the Boston Harbor Hotel (Rowes Wharf, 617-439-3995). Nationally renowned chef Daniel Bruce has created an ingenious wine and food pairing menu that helps illuminate and enhance the flavors of both. Diners choose a wine category—sparklers, light whites, fruity reds, robust reds, etc.—then pick one of four corresponding dishes. Both small and large plates are available for each selection, so patrons can experience a number of combinations in one meal.

In 2004, the Hub bid au revoir to two classics in French cuisine—the landmark restaurant Maison Robert, and the legendary chef who brought French cooking into our homes for decades, Julia Child. Fortunately, just when we feared the Eiffel Tower would be the next to go, we spied the retro-esque menu of this new eatery in Beacon Hill (272 Cambridge St., 617-725-8855), full of dishes like coq au vin, chocolate mousse and duck a l’orange. Better still, the eatery is the creation of Jacky Robert, scion of the Robert family. Seems Julia is still shouting “bon appetit” from the heavens.

Boston may be known around the world for its seafood restaurants, but when it comes to sushi, the Hub usually bows to our California counterparts. So here’s hoping the arrival of this sleek little sushi bar marks the beginning of a raw fish craze in our seafood-loving burg. Located in the Westin Hotel across from Copley Place (refer to listing, page 57) with a new location downtown at 101 Arch Street, this cool eatery dishes up some of the freshest sushi around. But it’s the innovative maki rolls—creative combos like crystal rainbow (eel, avocado, cucumber and tobiko, topped with tuna, sake and white fish) and TNT (baked spicy salmon, lettuce, avocado and cucumber, atop homemade hot sesame oil)—that will make you forget all about that great sushi you had on your last visit out West.

Fad diets come and go, but some nutritional suggestions persevere. Keep it fresh, keep it low fat. Which is why the varied menu at Lucy’s (242 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-232-LUCY)—which includes everything from pizza and french fries to slow-cooked pork and an artisan cheese plate—gets our vote for the health-conscious. By preparing its food without butter or cream, Lucy’s lets patrons fulfill all their cravings without feeling like they’re denying themselves a thing.

A few things are key when it comes to finding the best spot for dinner before theater: location, convenience and cost. But since no one likes to sacrifice quality to satisfy those goals, we’re happy to report some restaurants embody all four qualities. If you’re in the Theater District, look no further than Teatro (refer to listing, page 56). Heading to the new theaters in the South End? Try B&G Oysters (550 Tremont St., 617-423-0550). Both offer a variety of quick bites at reasonable prices as well as flavors you’ll savor well through the first act.

Finally, jocks can combine date night with sports and still keep their pride thanks to the stand-out North Station-area eatery Anthem (138 Portland St., 617-523-8383), which combines the efficiency and fun of a sidewalk sausage vendor with some outstanding, upscale cuisine. That means Dude Food like meatloaf and beer-braised beef stew prepared in a way that won’t induce heartburn. Better still, the menu includes smaller plates like a Cuban sandwich and a poached pear and brie salad for those looking for a quick bite before tip-off. You can also head there after the game for innovative cocktails in its classy, plush velvet lounge.

A French culinary tradition meaning “amusement for the mouth,” these small, delightful bites, or mini-appetizers, are meant to whet the palate before the meal begins or cleanse it between courses. And the amuse bouche seems to be popping up everywhere these days. Of course, it’s the whim of the chef that will determine what appears at your table. But Pino Maffeo at L (see sidebar) seems to be having the most fun with the concept. Recent visits produced a shot of tomato water topped with a swizzle stick of prosciutto and cappuccino-flavored cotton candy.

With the non-stop deluge of war, politics and natural disasters, Beantown’s chefs seem to be retreating from all the bad news and getting in touch with their inner child. Look no further than their playful, whimsical dessert ideas—with grown-up twists, of course. The aphrodisiac milkshake at Union Bar and Grill in the South End (1357 Washington St., 617-423-0555) is a retro-concoction with a kick-start of Godiva liqueur that you drink through a big, fat straw. At Spire (see sidebar), the Manhattan float is awash in bourbon-flavored ice cream, homemade bing cherry soda and vermouth whipped cream. Meanwhile, the tattooed, motorcycle-riding chef Robert Fathman continues to push the envelope at Anthem with the fried twinkie, an actual Hostess treat topped with berry coulis.

There seems to be no limit to Bostonians’ hankering for red meat these days. Exhibit #1: Anthony Ambrose, the city’s king of Asian-influenced fusion cuisine, closed the doors on his acclaimed Ambrosia on Huntington last year to open Blackfin Chophouse and Raw Bar (116 Huntington Ave., 617-247-2400), a paean to surf and turf. Already bursting with enough chophouses to feed a small country, Boston recently welcomed another powerbrokers-haven, the Smith and Wollensky franchise, which moved into the historic Castle at Park Plaza (101 Arlington St., 617-423-1112). Later this year, the country’s biggest steakhouse chain, Ruth’s Chris, takes over the former Maison Robert digs at Old City Hall.

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