No. 9 Park
It’s summertime and that means it’s “Restaurant Week” for me and L (actually “Restaurant Month” would be a better term). It’s the time when we go to all the restaurants we wish we had time to go to during the rest of the year.
It had been two years since we’d been to No. 9 Park and the memory of that previous meal could always make us drool. Based on that experience (as well as several before then), we ranked Barbara Lynch’s establishment as one of the top 3 in Boston. Last week we returned with high expectations. I have complete details and pictures of the great, the good, and even the bad after the break.
At this kind of establishment, we pretty much go on auto-pilot and have the tasting menu since it tends to show off the best of the kitchen and exposes us to the largest number dishes (bonus: with smaller portions, too). For wine, our waiter generously let us taste three of the whites available by the glass. We both zeroed in on the same one, a 2009 Les Heritiers du Comte Lafon, Macon-Milly-Lamartine, with its great fruit and balance.
2009 Les Heritiers du Comte Lafon, Macon-Milly-Lamartine
So let the dishes begin. Oddly enough, there was no amuse bouche, a plate which I always anticipate and an omission which I found to be odd in the nine-course prix fixe environment. But no matter, the Peekytoe Crab Salad; chervil vichyssoise, American Caviar, creme fraiche soon arrived and immediately set us off on the right foot. This dish “took no prisoners” with its excellent execution. The creme fraiche was extremely fine. The vichyssoise was satisfying on the palate. The potato crumble (shown on the left side of the picture below, but not part of the menu description) provided diverse texture. The seasoning was excellent (in part due to the American Caviar). Overall, it was an exceptional bite when all taken together in one spoonful.
Peekytoe Crab Salad; chervil vichyssoise, American Caviar, creme fraiche
Second out was a Bluefish cooked “En Papillotte” (French: “in parchment”) with Raz El Hanout, crispy skin, smoked PEI mussels, raw baby shaved fennel salad, and yellow bell pepper nage. The En Papillottee preparation kept the fish moist, and while it was cooked through and to the correct doneness, it might have arrived just a few degrees warmer (I confess that’s a nit). Perhaps it had rested a bit too much during the plating. The smoked mussels’ light smoke flavor (probably a lighter smoke than most) was just right: enough to enhance the overall flavor of the dish, but not too much to overwhelm the fine flavors of the bluefish and the nage. The separately-cooked crispy skin was a fine addition in terms of texture, flavor, and use of what was once considered a “trash fish”. Personally, I love blue is one of my favorite fishes and I am gratified to see it showing up on so many menus.
Bluefish en Papillotte; Prince Edward Island mussels, tahini, bell pepper nage
According to the menu, the third course was supposed to be Seared Dayboat Scallop; corn pudding, crispy pork jowl, kohlrabi, but we didn’t get this course. Instead the Saffron Garganelli; sunflowers, rock shrimp polpetti, Fresno chili appeared. We actually didn’t know that the scallop was omitted from our progression until the next day when we were looking over the menu that our server had graciously given to us to take home. I had wanted to keep a menu at the table during the meal “to follow along”, but I didn’t push the issue so we ate the meal “blind”. Omitting a dish, especially so early in the menu seems like a pretty big blunder especially for a restaurant of this caliber; we’ll never know if it was the wait staff or the expeditor that made the mistake.
The Garganelli was definitely a nice dish, but I thought it was somewhat overseasoned and a bit too al dente (yes, I know how al dente is supposed to be). I can write off the overseasoning as being the style and therefore acceptable for this particular dish, but in fact it was part of a larger trend. L agreed that the dish just didn’t stand out as top drawer.
There were two optional “supplemental” items on the menu: Prune Stuffed Gnocchi foie gras, almonds, Vin Santo and Seared Labelle Farms Foie Gras; pine nut & current cake, black mission fig, Marsala. Per our waiter’s suggestion, we opted to order one of each and split them.
The Gnocchi (a No. 9 Park signature dish) were quite nice, especially when taken as a single bite with the foie gras, almonds and beur blanc (the “Vin Santo” part) Hey, what’s not to like when there’s foie gras involved? I thought it was a really nice balance of textures, especially the firm, yet extremely extremely tasty, gnocchi.
Prune Stuffed Gnocchi; foie gras, almonds, Vin Santo beur blanc
The foie gras was quite a worthy entry into the standard high-end restaurant “seared foie gras with something sweet” contest. Hey, don’t get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong with seared foie gras (the fat) with something sweet like figs (the sugar) and salt. It was good, well-cooked and well-executed. There was a lot of finishing salt on the foie gras (to be expected). Taken all together as a mouthful, it was more than good, and in fact, it was very good, but not extraordinary. Maybe the fig just wasn’t as sweet or as ripe as I had hoped. Something was just not A+ about this dish. Fois gras usually leaves me with a very strong lasting memory, but not this time.
Seared Labelle Farms Foie Gras; pine nut & currant cake, black mission fig, Marsala
Next up was the Rillette of Organic Chicken and Foie Gras; corn mousse, duck pastrami, Australian Winter truffle. The Corn Mousse was smooth, with big flavor and excellent texture. Check. The Duck Pastrami was solid. It tasted like pastrami, only more “ducky” than pastrami. Check. The Rillette, cooked in rendered fat (well duh, that’s the definition of a Rillette) had a good fatty flavor, smooth texture, and in fact, smoother than most Rillettes and more like a mousse. Check. Australian Winter Truffle? Wait. Where’s the truffle? Oh, tonight it’s shaved porcini mushrooms and porcini crumble. Huh. I was looking forward to some truffles. Nevertheless, this was a solid dish and the porcini ‘shrooms were a worthy substitute.
Rillette of Organic Chicken and Foie Gras; corn mousse, duck pastrami, Australian Winter truffle
On to the final savory course: Veal Loin en Crepinette; grilled artichoke, pancetta, arugula sformato. The sformato had Pecorino incorporated into it. This was a beautifully plated dish. L thought the veal was perfectly cooked, and indeed it was in terms of uniformity of doneness. But since I’m the one writing the blog, I’ll say that although it was uniformly cooked, the loin was not as tender as I would have expected. Instead it was just a little bit chewy. It was a solid dish overall, but I would have expected a texture like beef tenderloin. The sage rolled into the veal was a solid use of the herb and created a solid flavor profile. Pancetta: what’s not to like about that? The garlic chips were big (as garlic goes), crispy, and of course tasty. The grilled artichoke reduction sauce unified the whole plate.
Veal Loin en Crepinette; grilled artichoke, pancetta, arugula sformato
The palate cleanser was a cucumber sorbet with lemon curd. Using cucumber in the sorbet was innovative as well as flavorful. The lemon curd garnish was ingenious and tasteful. The cookie crumbs were definitely a nice touch which I don’t recall ever seeing before.
Cucumber Sorbet; lemon
The finale was Cherry Tart; brown butter, yogurt, Szechuan pepper. The yogurt bubbles (3 of them spread evenly across the picture) were interesting, and I mistakenly did not eat them with a bite of everything else (L reports that this really enhanced their flavor and texture). They made a little pop in your mouth once you punctured the skin and got down to the yogurt inside. The ice cream was solid; rich, flavorful, and the five spice in it was genius. The Rainier Cherries could have been a bit richer and sweeter. I’m assuming they were macerated, but they still didn’t come across as sweet as other Rainiers I’ve had. My objection was that the tart was more tart shell than fruit. L justified it as the cherries being well-incorporated into the tart, but it just didn’t cut it for me.
Cherry Tart; brown butter, yogurt, Szechuan pepper
For the record, here’s a picture I snapped of the cheese cart on a trip to the loo. It definitely looks interesting and although I love cheese, L has convinced me that it’s not worth having the cheese course at a restaurant because one can get the same specimens, or at least just as good fromages, at Formaggio.
The Bottom Line
This was a solid meal. The dishes used top-drawer ingredients and were generally well-executed. But there was just too much lacking to justify the $$$$+ price tag. To compete at the highest level, every course, every detail has to be near perfect. But there were too many nits and exceptions to make the cut this time.
The wait-staff was casual. I get it. That’s the trend. But there’s casual, and then there’s a smart and casual with a well-dressed uniform. Many of the customers were better-dressed than the wait-staff and that says to me that they were anticipating something a big more worthy of No. 9 Park’s reputation and price tag.
Back to the issue of the missed Scallop dish. I’m not sure what happened here. Maybe it was a simple mistake, I don’t know. But I just can’t see that happening at an establishment like (e.g.) Chez Panisse where they keep a chalk board in the kitchen of who has already served what and to which table. Maybe we were the 1 out of 1000 diners who had a fluke. Still.
I went into this meal fired up and predisposed to think that No. 9 Park would serve us an extraordinary, unforgettable meal, just as they had 2 years ago and the times before that. To throw in an obligatory sports metaphor, this game was theirs to lose. Yes, many of the dishes were top-drawer and some even extraordinary. But in the end, L and I came away thinking that we could have gone to Rialto twice for the same price. I asked L to compare the Porchetta at Rialto to the Veal that she liked so much at No. 9 Park and she had to agree that the Porchetta won out. Yes we understand that it’s an exponential scale when you’re in this lofty price-range, but we also still believe that when one pays $$$$’s for a meal, everything — no exceptions — has to be perfect to warrant returning.