Tony Susi: Bringing it back to Boston

After four years cooking in New York, chef Anthony Susi returned to Boston last fall. And the former owner of the legendary Sage says he’s learned a thing or two. “Well, when you compare Boston Italian food and restaurants in New York, Chicago, and even San Francisco,” he says, “Boston seems stuck in the Middle Ages.”

susi's sweet pea risotto

Tony Susi’s Sweet Pea Risotto with Heirloom Zucchini and Chanterelles

Now freelancing at Tavern Road in Fort Point and doing some consulting, Susi is looking toward opening a restaurant of his own, back in his native Boston. And with it, he’d like to effect a renaissance. Known for his adventurous way with Italian food — where the traditions he grew up with in the North End were a just a stepping-off point for cuisine that mixed influences from many sources — Susi wants to go old school. “Old is cool,” he says, of today’s restaurants such as A16 in San Francisco and Nico Osteria in Chicago.

Too many places in Boston stick with winning formulas and recognizable dishes and ingredients. When opening a coastal Italian restaurant in the Mondrian in New York, “I dug up books I hadn’t looked at in years,” he says. Now he experiments with dishes such as spaghetti with bottarga, green olives, and green garlic. “It sold,” Susi says. “We added sardines and it still sold.”

Susi thinks Bostonians are ready for dishes like this that reconnect with regional Italian and challenge the diner a little. “Boston really has that potential.”

For now, he’s checking areas and looking for locations, maybe even in the North End where his first tiny Sage opened in 1999. Downtown Crossing has potential and he’s even open to the suburbs. A mid-sized restaurant, Susi says, would be the right scale for what he has in mind.

tony susiRecently, he cooked at a guest chef night at Tavern Road where one of the courses was a spectacular rabbit dish. “I’ve been playing with rabbit for years (his father used to have  them hanging in the window at his butcher shop on Salem Street in the North End),” says Susi. “Dante (his friend Dante diMagistris of Restaurant Dante, Il Casale in Belmont and soon-to-open Il Casale in Lexington) wanted to do a fried chicken dish at his new restaurant” so the two were working on a method. “I poach the leg in court bouillon,” he says, before braising. And then he soaks the loins in buttermilk, toss them in seasoned crumbs, and quickly fry them. The result is a contrast of crunchy and soft, and layered flavors that taste way more interesting than rabbit you’ve eaten elsewhere — except maybe in Italy.

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Not so easy for these farmers

You pride yourself on buying local foods — even meats from farmers’ markets or CSA. It’s good for you and your family, and you feel secure knowing where your food is coming from. But in New England, it’s not so easy for the farmer who has to figure out a way to get that meat to your table.  Read it here.

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Out of the way, but struck by Sortun’s magic

It’s been several years  since I’ve been a published restaurant critic. (Yes, sometimes I miss it, and sometimes I don’t). But recently I revisited the role as a auction prize for the Barbara Lynch logosarmaFoundation. I got lucky and scored Sarma, the new restaurant by Ana Sortun, and a very congenial group of diners.

So what is it like dropping back into being a critic for a night. Well, the instincts do kick in — details are what make the story, and you start at the very beginning.

Sarma is in a most unlikely spot in Somerville — on a corner off busy Medford Street with nothing around it. Big windows show an enticingly lively scene inside but it takes a while (and some pantomimed directions from staff) to find the blue door,  not terribly well lit. Once inside, I immediately forget the rather desolate street scene: A big rectangular bar, cozy seating, very welcoming staff members at the front desk. Sarma has that industrial-chic vibe, but includes the attention to the detail that make Sortun’s Oleana and Sofra so enticing — beautiful Turkish plates in blue along a long wall, pretty but discreetly-sized lights, warm wood floors, a glimpse of the kitchen. There’s enough space between the tables, and a lively buzz without a din of noise.

The menu has lots of explanations –about the restaurant name, about “meyhane” or snacks, and a glossary of ingredients and terms –maybe more than most hungry diners want to keep track of.

But the food comes quickly — spicy Anaheim peppers that must be from Siena Farms, owned by Sortun’s husband; lamb kofte sliders that are delicious on little fat buns that are really delectable; locally made yogurt cheese  that is almost too mild to register sprinkled with za’atar that perks it up; smoky grilled octopus with heirloom beans, celery and olives. Fluke nayeh ( as the glossary explains, this means raw) with fennel charmoula (like a salsa), grapefruit sections and sweet potato is a show-stopper — flavorful on the palate, with hits of citrus, and a pleasingly chew to the texture. I could have stopped there and eaten another portion.

Sarma adds drama and enticement by having servers drop by with trays of extras, marked on a tab just like dim sum. It’s pretty irresistible, and ultimately hard to know when to stop. When the table — and the room — are moaning over the fried chicken thighs, how can you pass them up, even though, in this case, the crunch topping overwhelmed the chicken. I turned back to the fluke.

As often happens in a small-plate setting with more than a couple of people — or even four enthusiastic eaters — it’s soon hard to keep track. Sarma’s flavors are vibrant — I really liked the harissa bbq duck with its sweet-hot flavors, and the spicy Brussel sprout bravas with hazelnuts (what  we should have had at Thanksgiving.) But this is place that you need to return to several times at your leisure.

I want to have a few plates, savor the flavors, luxuriate in the good service and the unusual wine selections, and contemplate the room. Will Sortun score high again even in a spot that seems out of the way? Well, say my young correspondents when the Orange Line is extended, and when Assembly Square is developed, this area will be cool. They’re right, I’m sure.

But I’m doubting that Sarma has to wait that long. If the food, the vibe and all the pieces are as good as this first bite, the crowd will find it.

 

 

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A good year for remembering

Marcella Hazan, Charlie Trotter, and now Judy Rodgers — 2013 is shaping up as the year the food

judy rodgersworld sheds tears for those lost. Each of these iconic figures had a special place in my life. From Hazan, not only did I learn the basics of Italian cooking, but how to really follow directions. Her recipes seem simple, and they work, but she was extremely specific about each step. You will have success if you follow my teaching, she ordered. And she was right.

Charlie Trotter, whose food was so exquisite and so complex that I really never tried to cook it (though I read the books), taught me the dedication of a chef who cares passionately about his craft and his restaurant. I once interviewed him in Boston when he came to an event that had him cooking in a tiny, hot kitchen on Columbus Avenue. He couldn’t talk until after 11 pm because he was committed to cooking through the dinner service. Then we talked for over an hour past midnight in a stuffy basement office. He was most upset that the hired valet at the front door had not greeted customers with enough sincerity and hospitality.

And Judy Rodgers, who died at only 57. When I interviewed her at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, she was disarming and unpretentious, and had written a cookbook published in 2003 that delved into the kind of technique that was dying out even then. Her Roast Chicken with Bread Salad is one of the best recipes ever — it’s complicated, and time-consuming, and delicious, and worth the trouble.

For all of these chefs, the food was what mattered — not the glory or the TV lights — but the food. What they taught us was that the food was infinitely worth the trouble.

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Congratulations to ChopChop

ChopChopI’ve been very remiss in posting. But I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to shout out congratulations to Sally Sampson and ChopChop Magazine for winning a James Beard Award for Publication of the Year. In a field dominated by money and glitz, ChopChop is a refreshing magazine with clear goals and an amazing trajectory. Started on a literal shoestring in Watertown in 2010, this publication is dedicated to the premise that kids like to eat and that they like to eat well. The first nonprofit to win the award, ChopChop is a bright, cleverly-written, and now well-endorsed answer to the sometimes gloomy view on childhood obesity. Yeah, ChopChop!!

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Trading up

Lamb Flatbread

My sister Leah visited last week from Albuquerque, and we spent an evening we wandering up and down the length of the Greenway and along the waterfront path. Boston looked beautiful, especially compared to the elevated highway that the gardens replaced. Then we joined family for dinner at Trade.

Bon Appetit mag just named Trade one of the best new restaurants in the US. When I first ate lunch at a pre-opening tasting, I remember wondering a little about Trade. With its eclectic small plates menu and its coolly urban vibe and high-decibel noise level, Trade didn’t call to me the same way Rialto, Jody Adams’s flagship restaurant, does. And the food was tasty, but a little all over the place, I thought.  Another early visit still left me slightly unc.

But all good restaurants need a little time to grow into themselves, even when the guiding chef is as genius as Jody Adams. And last week’s visit won me over. Trade and its food have gone from coltish and a little awkward to sleek, smooth and pretty marvelous.

 

Gazing out Trade’s floor-to-ceiling windows while eating fantastic roasted clams with tiny slices of  pickled okra and chunks of cornbread, lamb flatbread with eggplant and Manchego, and a truly delicious cold corn soup with shreds of smoked bluefish, well, all this and more made the evening more magical. (I didn’t get to taste the burger because my son wasn’t sharing). The young chef Andrew Hebert came out to say hello, looking tired, and the place was jumping — lots of tables of businesspeople, couples, young and old, a well-dressed and lively crowd. They were happy to be there, and so was I. The Bon App award was no surprise.

 

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Julia the curious

Julia Child in Cambridge kitchen

On what would have been her 100th birthday, Julia Child is remembered for her remarkable mastery of cooking, her bravery, her wit. But what I remember about her is her unfailing curiosity.

By the time I met Julia, her TV days were past, and she was feted as a legend, a sort of culinary fairy godmother. Though I had helped cover her 80th birthday party and had been to her house in Cambridge, I wasn’t  in her inner circle. But after her 9oth birthday, when Julia was moving back to California for the last time, packing up her Cambridge kitchen for the Smithsonian, Sheryl Julian, my editor at the Boston Globe,  invited me along on a last lunch with Julia.

The food at that lunch was unremarkable, though I do recall Julia’s pointed, if polite, comment when iced tea in a can was placed before her . “What, you don’t brew it here?” she asked with slightly raised eyebrows. And I also remember the conversation. Julia asked me all about my growing up, as intently interested in my rural, almost communal, upbringing in Kansas as I was fascinated about her storied career. She was engaged, funny, and observant. One couldn’t have had a better dining companion.

No wonder everyone loved her, I remember thinking. Yes, Julia irrevocably changed Americans’ idea of food. But her way of connecting vibrantly with almost everyone she met  made her a star.

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Wildflowers in a Kansas Field

My brother Chuck sent me an invoice for CRP grass and “forbs” to be interseeded on land in Kansas that my sister and I own. I started by glancing at the final cost — not much — and then realized what was being planted. Black-eyed Susans, Prairie Coneflowers, Coreoposis, Gallardia, Partridge Peas, Maximillian Sunflowers, Purple Prairie Clover.

I have to get out to see these fields — more beautiful than tended suburban plots,

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Farming lite

Williams Sonoma sells farming

A trend emerges and Williams-Sonoma is right on its heels.  Now farming comes in a box, cute, neat, and callus-free. (Leather gardening gloves, of course). To make it better, or at least fancier, it’s called “Agarian.” Probably the chickens even smell sweet.

 

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Feeling snubbed

The list of Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2012 was announced recently. There’s the usual smattering of New York chefs and West Coast chefs from Los Angeles to Seattle. And the obligatory Southern winners. Several women were included, which has been unusual in the last couple of years.

But no one from Boston — or even New England. Oh, yes, William Kovel (Catalyst) got a Regional People’s Choice, which is nice but not quite star status. Neither he, nor Jason Bond (Bondir), or a half-dozen more I could name rated the big-time. Even Jamie Bissonnette,(Coppa, Toro) who was last year’s People Choice and is on the James Beard finalist list for New England region, made it.

Boston is enjoying a raging hot restaurant scene and the depth of talent is strong. Why no love from the national stage? Maybe traveling to Boston to sample is not as exciting as Portland — or Dallas? Or even Nashville? Was this really a thorough vetting of the nation’s best, or somewhat more random?

 

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