No. 9 still tops
Barbara Lynch’s flagship is a true classic
Do too many restaurants spoil the cook? That’s always the question when a chef builds on success by opening a second restaurant, then a third, and a fourth. Before you know it, the offspring have spread across the country like an infection, eventually lodging, fatally, in Vegas. As for the chef, she’s more likely to be on television than behind the stove.
Unless she’s Barbara Lynch, whose second and third and fourth restaurants didn’t even spread across the Charles. Lynch is Boston through and through - why would she want to leave? Since opening No. 9 Park more than a decade ago, she’s debuted B&G Oysters, the Butcher Shop, and Sportello, plus the bar Drink, the demonstration kitchen/cookbook store Stir, and the fruit-and-vegetable museum Plum Produce (currently closed for renovation). She just released a new cookbook, “Stir: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition,’’ and another high-end restaurant is slated to open in early 2010: She describes it as grown-up and glamorous, with French and Italian food and an emphasis on service and hospitality.
With all of this on her plate, how has No. 9 Park stood up? It’s been 11 years since the Globe last reviewed Barbara Lynch’s flagship. It’s time to take another look.
If we can get in. Amid all the talk of restaurants suffering as a result of the economy, and as establishments rush, lemming-like, to lower their price points, No. 9 keeps drawing a crowd with $39 entrees and $96 tasting menus. The bar area at the front of the restaurant seems prime hunting grounds for someone hoping to meet a well-off future spouse, while the dining rooms are likely places to spot the famous and semi-famous. It’s the kind of place where people at adjacent tables strike up a conversation and are quickly trading pedigrees. (New York prep school? Check. Harvard? Yes, what year?) On a recent evening, a group of Young Turks in tweed savor a gents’ night out, while a fellow with wavy, steel-gray hair expounds on political strategy to his tablemates. A woman with tattooed upper arms takes a dainty bite of dessert as she gazes into her date’s eyes. At the bar, the elegant, the arty, and the BlackBerry-obsessed drink well-balanced cocktails such as the Palmyra (vodka, mint, and lime) and the No. Ten (gin, Campari, and grapefruit). They can again eat from a bar menu with somewhat lower prices, which the restaurant did away with briefly then reinstated; one can now also order off the regular menu in the bar room.
No. 9 Park’s food reads like New England on vacation. Dishes might be embroidered with vin santo, ras al hanout, or unagi, and they tend to be plated with the scattered spareness of a Zen garden, but underneath there is Yankee structure, classic as a saltbox house. Think partridge with squash and carrot, or salmon with poached oysters, leeks, and hazelnut. At this time of year, the menu has a Thanksgiving festivity to it, replete with chestnuts, Brussels sprouts, and root vegetables. And there is an air of the family holiday to the restaurant, with everyone dressed up and celebrating with civility. One feels privileged to eat at No. 9 Park, in both senses of the word.
Lynch’s most famous dish is the prune-stuffed gnocchi, and the salty, sweet, rich creation is all it’s cracked up to be. Gnocchi dough is wrapped around wine-sweet prunes, and the dumplings are glazed with a sauce of vin santo, foie gras, and butter. Rosy little slices of seared foie gras sit atop the gnocchi. It is possibly one of the best dishes ever served in a Boston restaurant.
The kitchen’s way with liver is demonstrated even more directly in a dish of seared foie gras. Served with pain perdu, pork belly, and pear, the foie gras is perfectly silky. The sweet French toast and crispy pork are worthy complements, like the most decadent epicure’s breakfast.
There is lightness, too, on the appetizer menu. Beets in party hues are sandwiched together with ricotta, saved from too-prettiness by Moroccan spices. Hamachi tartare features a round of chopped fish and slices of raw fish, paired with Honeycrisp apple, wasabi, and the Japanese herb shiso. One expects more crunch and texture from the apple, and the horseradish and shiso are whispers. Both dishes are lovely to the eye, but the hushed flavors don’t ping off one another. On the flavor wheel, they sit side by side, shades apart rather than in complementary opposition. The dishes are fine, but not fabulous.
What is fabulous is an entree of lamb - tender, pink slices from the loin and braised shoulder - with turnips and squash, all brought together with a yellow brush stroke of curry. The meat is pure deliciousness; this dish is one you’ll feel reluctant to share. Its rival for most memorable entree is a salute to Alsace and Austria: milk-fed piglet, served both roasted and battered as schnitzel, with lovely, mildly liver-scented boudin blanc and sauerkraut. Grainy mustard lends a beer-hearty, wursthaus note, while caramelized endive parries with bitter-sweet elegance.
Not all main dishes achieve those heights. Fluke served with spinach, bearnaise sauce, and buttery, browned potato fondant is a quieter pleasure, simply the sum of its parts. Braised veal shank fails to knock one over with slow-cooked flavor; it needs more of a jolt than the accompanying gremolata offers. Duck served with celeriac and chestnuts is tough. Surprisingly, chicken winds up one of the more exciting entrees, a place it deserves to land every once in a while. Cylinders of meat are wrapped in bacon (which, admittedly, can make just about anything more interesting). This bird in pig’s clothing is impossibly tender and flavorful; it’s served with Brussels sprouts and hen of the woods mushrooms.
The ever-changing seven-course chef’s tasting menu can mirror the a la carte menu, sometimes bold, sometimes skillfully subdued, sometimes so subdued dishes seem drab. The best courses are pasta, including those prune-stuffed gnocchi. One night we find chestnut cappellacci, served atop braised red cabbage with shreds of tender pork and a heady, truffle-scented sauce Perigueux. There’s also a lovely bouillabaisse-without-the-broth, rose fish with saffron aioli, clams, and scallops. Later, rare roasted sirloin is served with intriguing pickled slices of black radish and sweet-sour wax beans.
Other dishes fail to intrigue. In baby octopus confit, the leggy creatures are lightly breaded and taste more like fried chicken than seafood. They’re paired with cepes, matsutake, and espelette aioli, none of which has much taste. The best thing on the plate is the green, zingy parsley goo drizzled and dotted around the other ingredients. Our server promises wild Scottish partridge will taste wonderfully gamey, as it’s roasted with its innards intact. It doesn’t. It tastes like turkey that’s spent its life snacking in front of the TV; it’s fatty, and with a slightly stronger flavor, but it still tastes like turkey. The meat is served downright bloody, over spaghetti squash, with rainbow carrots.
More exciting than the partridge is the wine it’s paired with, a fantastic Blaufränkisch. The octopus goes wonderfully with the slight salinity of sherry. The non-bouillabaisse is matched with a non-South of France rose (it’s Italian). And the autumnal cappellacci are drawn out by the nebbiolo blend with which they’re paired. The selections of wine director Cat Silirie and her staff - from a crisp, refreshing 2006 Maison Vevey Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle ($29) to (what I imagine is) a majestic 2001 Comte de Vogue Bonnes Mares ($875) - are always inspired, at either end of the price spectrum. This is one of the not-so-numerous restaurants in town where the wine is as much a part of the experience as the food. So is the excellent service, a hallmark of No.9 Park.
The bounteous cheese cart doesn’t hurt, either. Oozing triple cremes, semi-firm sheep’s milk cheeses, stinky blues, and more are served with flatbread crisps, jam and honey, and nuts and grapes. On the sweeter side of dessert, mousse-like coconut cremeux transcends the merely tropical with cashews and smoked bananas. A carrot biscuit coulant is cooked a bit too long, so the heart is moist but not molten. It comes with ice cream that tastes familiar . . . is that miso? Yes, it is. Concord grape clafouti with peanut ice cream tastes like a warm and cozy PB&J. And the tablet d’or, an oblong black sesame parfait paired with cardamom-chocolate sorbet, does what the best savory dishes at No. 9 Park do: It brings together tangentially related ingredients as if they’ve always belonged together.
Not every dish on the menu shines, but the cumulative experience does. A meal at, say, the Butcher Shop or B&G can be a mixed affair. No. 9 Park remains remarkably consistent. After 11 years, this flagship hasn’t flagged.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.