You probably won't find Boston's typical top chef having his or her own national cooking show, peddling an expansive line of branded products, or opening flashy outposts in Vegas and Shanghai (OK, with the exception of Todd English or Ming Tsai). Instead, they stay home and cook. And when they're not cooking at their restaurants—as they are, night after night—you'll likely find them eating at each other's places. When it comes to trends, Boston may give a nod to what's current—even an occasional full-body embrace—but it often comes a year or three after trends start in New York City or the Bay Area, and not every trend makes it to town. Those that do are executed better here than anywhere else—and that's just the way Bostonians like it.
The New York Times (and many others) named O Ya (617-654-9900), with its accomplished pan-Asian and fusion sushi, the country's best new restaurant outside of New York in 2008. Chef Tim Cushman's nigiri menu includes 75 from-scratch sauces and novel combinations like baby mackerel with black olive puree and shiso. The new—and more modestly priced—place for alluring takes on Thai and Singaporean street food is Ginger Park (617-451-0077). Chef Patricia Yeo offers dishes like dan dan noodles with a Szechuan-style "Bolognese" sauce of pork, veal, fermented black beans, and caramelized onions. As if her food wasn't enough, Yeo's biochemistry degree from Princeton earns her bonus points in brainy Boston.
Slow to adapt Boston may be, but once the city tackles a trend, it's not just done more calmly (easily confused with "boringly"), but better. Take, for instance, the nationwide push for local, sustainable ingredients. Chef Peter Davis bought from local farms and put an over-arching emphasis on sustainability before it was trendy when he opened Henrietta's Table (617-661-5005) in 1995. You can't go wrong with Davis' deliberately simple fare, but he's particularly adept at chicken, whether rotisserie-grilled for a sandwich or mixed into a bridge-club-style salad with field greens that really come from a field.
The idea of cooking locally has two meanings for Dante de Magistris, who grew up between the Boston suburb of Belmont and the Italian region of Campania. He now runs the high-style dante (617-497-4200) with his two brothers, and he's made a jam-packed success of Il Casale (617-209-4942), located in a handsome former fire station in Belmont, and just a 15-minute drive from downtown. This is one of the country's best southern Italian restaurants: not one cliché or compromise, just vibrant tomato sauce, homemade pasta, and three kinds of meatballs (traditional beef, pork, and salt cod).
So Boston is late to the party sometimes, but it's a city that's loyal to talented chefs who stay loyal to it in return. A trio of influential trailblazers continues to have a profound effect on what and where Bostonians eat: Jasper White, who put New England local cuisine on the map, offers definitive lobster and seafood with his fun, picnic-style Summer Shack (617-867-9955). Lydia Shire makes bold, powerfully flavored Italian-inspired dishes at Scampo (617-536-2100), in the luxurious Liberty Hotel. And Gordon Hamersley cooks at the most reliably elegant but unpretentious restaurant in town, Hamersley's Bistro (617-423-2700), which paved the way in the late 1980s for Boston's superhot South End, still the downtown restaurant district.
BREAKFAST AT SOFRA
Start the day at Sofra. Chef Ana Sortun blends little-known Turkish regional and eastern Mediterranean cuisines with fantastically fresh produce in a way unlike anything other chefs are doing. Her skill with spices draws contemporaries from around the country to study. The breakfast that will redefine your idea of the meal is shakshuka, eggs poached in a thin, spicy tomato sauce with curry and pita crumbs. And the Greek yogurt parfait, made with creamy yogurt topped with grano and honey, tastes like decadent crème fraîche—yet is still light and refreshing in the heat of summer.
LUNCH AT WOODWARD
Although sourcing ingredients locally has become yesterday's news, Boston-area chefs were doing so before just about anybody outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, Boston is gloriously provincial. Jasper White, with his demand for local fish and direct buying from New England farms, was a pre-locavore locavore. New to the downtown scene, Chef Mark Goldberg is serving local fare family-style at Woodward in the hip Ames Hotel. He gives a New England classic—lobster salad—a modern update with crisp fennel and citrus aioli.
Go there: Woodward, 617-979-8200
Make it at home: Lobster Salad Rolls with Shaved Fennel and Citrus recipe
DINNER AT COPPA
Boston's devotion to its chefs is evident in a popular new string of casual spin-offs of fine dining spots. Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette, the duo behind Toro, opened Coppa last summer to almost-immediate acclaim. The casual trattoria offers house-made charcuterie, wood-fired pizzas, seasonal small-plate pastas, and a small sampling of snout-to-tail dishes (creamy calves' brain ravioli in browned butter) that more than hold their own against cult New York establishments.
Go there: Coppa, 617-391-0902
Make it at home: Ricotta-Pea Ravioli with Asparagus and Mushrooms recipe