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"Where should we eat?" A Lesson In Food-Research - January 08, 2007

People ask this all the time.  "I'm hungry, where should I go to eat?"  They ask me, you, strangers (hopefully),  and friends. This question comes with certain unspoken rules.  The field must be narrowed: "ethnic" or american/french? Casual or fancy?  Kid-friendly or tie-only?

Many times, the choice ends up being one of the old standards - the pizza place around the corner, chinese delivery, with maybe a deli or (god-forbid) a home cooked meal thrown in for good measure.

When you decide to go out, there are again regular choices that can be made.  The steak place?  Sushi?  What about that bistro we go to. . .it's always good.

No bistro around you?  Hmm. . .

Can you get to Rye, NY and go to Ruby's?  No?   Damn. . .

Well. . . can you get to Kenmore Square?  If you can, the most constantly satisfying french-inspired american-spirited dining experience in Boston is available to you.

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Eastern Standard is the red-bannered bistro holding Kenmore together. Located in the Hotel Commonwealth, and featuring the best bar in the city, ES is guaranteed to impress.


Click "Continue Reading" below to read the rest of the review.

Before we go in, lets chat.

What do you expect from a restaurant?  Do you want to be waited on by efficient, quiet service?  Are you looking forward to talking about the food and asking questions?  Have you looked at the menu and made basic assumptions on what you might be interested in?

I very rarely eat in a restaurant that I have not heard about.  With careful perusing of individual restaurant sites (compiled on pages like BostonChefs.com), occasional checking of Chowhound and eGullet's regional boards, and conversations with other like-minded individuals, I manage to at least hear about most of the restaurants that I end up eating at.

In a city like Boston, however, its nearly impossible to know every single restaurant, especially if you include hard to find gems such as Coriander in Sharon.  For every Coriander, however, there are ten crappy chinese places and twenty sub shops.  Now, americanized supervalue chinese has it's place in my diet, but thankfully not a big one.  As for sub shops: I'd take a Publix sub over any sandwich in this city.  (With the possible exception of Super 88's Bahn Mi's and the Parish Cafe...)

There are very successful restaurant chains out there that appeal to the majority, and succeed in doing so.  "The Cheesecake Factory : Something For Everyone!" is a great example: their menu has more variety than an international food festival.  Unfortunately, they end up sacrificing taste for perceived "value" and service speed; (cheap, overflowing dishes).  If I wanted a crappy, giant bowl of edible food-meal at bargain-bin prices, I'd find everything I was looking for in the frozen section of Shaws.

A Boston-specific chain that commits to this same mantra is Sunset Grill/Cantina/Big City.  While I think their beer selection is great, I think they should drop some of the dead weight off the menu, and focus on making a small selection of excellent dishes.  You are not selling enough swordfish to convince me its anything less than long-frozen.  I don't even want to talk about the crab cakes.

Anyway. . .got a little distracted there.  Back to the good stuff.

Let's have a look at the Eastern Standard website for a moment; you can often learn quite a bit about both the quality and the feeling of a restaurant from their website.

Wait, where is it?

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Oh, it must be this first one here.  Well, I guess this is their website:

"Eastern Standard offers casual fare breakfast, lunch, dinner and pre/post Red Sox games. It also features the only al fresco dining experience in Kenmore Square!"

Pretty standard: lets have a look around for more info.

Chowhound:  Seems to have fairly good general reviews all 'round.

"Everything on the menu that I have tried has been great. The mussels are wonderful, as is the salmon. My husband enjoys the porkchop. The raw bar is always very good. Truth be told though, they have one of the best burgers in Boston. Not exactly what you want to have on your anniversary I imagine, but it is DELICIOUS." -mem53

"Oh yes - that was DEEEEEEELISH! I don't recall having it on other charcuterie plates in the past, just at Eastern Standard. I really liked it." - lisa13

"Extraordinary bartending: learned, passionate, skillful, creative. Get there early enough to have a drink and a conversation with the staff at the bar." - MC Slim JB

Now, I know it may seem strange listening to the reviews of people with names like "MC Slim JB," but I find these reviews to be the most candid and honest than the ones that appear in magazines and newspapers.  While most people wont always go online to talk about a good restaurant experience, bad ones tend to make their way to the surface.  In addition, people are forced to defend their opinions.  MC Slim JB criticised ES for being "not especially high on technique or presentation."  Another member of the boards, fullbelly, called him out on it, "It's rare I disagree with MC Slim above, but I have to disagree on his comment."

And whaddya know: Slim came back to elaborate:

"My comment probably came across as more dismissive than intended. I mean to say that ESK's food is comparatively unfussy, with fairly simple preparations and sauces. It mostly eschews rarified ingredients, complex sauces, and elaborate platings. That's mostly a virtue in my book." - MC Slim JB

Let's look at another page, comparing ES to Petit Robert Bistro, located just down the street (and certainly competition for ES):

Christina had a strong (but unsupported and second-hand), initial reaction, "I've heard nothing but disappointing things about Eastern Standard from friends who have been there."

Interestingly, the following posters had differing (and more well informed) opinions.

"Au contraire!! I've been to Eastern Standard about 5 times, and totally love it. The service has been super friendly (I've sat in the bar area), and the food right on the mark. Cod fritters - delicious. I've had a couple of the daily plats du jour, all have been very nice. I also really like the vibe of the room, you can really relax. Desserts are a bummer, if that's your thing, but the rest outshines most. Give it a shot." - Lilyliver

While I will agree about the desserts (often beautiful and always tasty, but never mind-blowing -- but I'm spolied.  Come back to Boston, Stupak!), I'll save my comments for the food section of this review.

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I think it's time we move on to Eastern Standard's official site.  In my opinion, ES is suffering from a lack of web optimization.  I have eaten there dozens of times, and even google them occasionally to see what people are saying, which is how I found the Chowhound reviews.  Until writing this post, I actually had no knowledge of their website.  Their official site (separate from the hotel's) shows up 8th in a google search for eastern standard.  Since the hotel website shows up higher, and doesn't link to the restaurant site, I assumed it doesn't exist!

Now that I've found it, I want you to compare it to the websites of your favorite go-to spots.  Are they as well-designed, easy to use, and most of all as beautiful as theirs?  The only critique I can find for it is that it certainly needs a non-flash version to access the menus.  The photo shoot looks fantastic though, and makes some of my photos look less than spectacular by comparison.

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Let's talk about the food.  Of all the people I have gone to Eastern Standard with, the only regular complaint I get is that the food can occasionally be too salty.  While I have only had one dish ever taste overly salty (a late-lunch burger), I think it has more to do with the people eating being overly sensitive to salt than the people cooking overly salting.

Basically: do you put salt on your food?  If you do, than theres no way you'll find ES salty (unless you salt it before you taste it).  I adore salt, and everything at ES comes perfectly salted.  Salty martinis, salt on chocolate, pass the salt please!

Even if salt isn't quite your thing, I guarantee you can find something you like on the menu.  From Mac and Cheese to Marrow and Charcuterie, it runs the gamut.  When I go to Eastern Standard, I have a serious problem: there are far too many "must-order" dishes on the menu.  When I first started dining there, they included the short ribs, the calamari, the burger, the mussels (not pictured), the raclette and the tartare.

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The burger was my original fixation there.  I would be sitting in class, attempting to pay attention, but all I could think about was the juicy, tender, cooked-to order (for real -- you want it rare? you get it rare.), crispy delicious burger.  Eventually, I weaned myself off, and got hooked on other things.  This was a good thing since it's hearty, and filled up space that could be occupied by so many other dishes.  Whenever anyone else order it, however, I always attempt to barter a bite.

Let me walk you through a meal at Eastern Standard.  Ride the T to Kenmore and come up on the Hotel Commonwealth side (towards Fenway).  Look for the bright red awning.

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Speak to one of the lovely hostesses, and decide if you want to sit in the lounge, the dining room, or the patio.  I generally prefer the lounge or patio, but the truest dining experience is only to be had in the dining room.

If it's crowded, you wait perhaps a few minutes for your table, but you'll have a chance to look at all three of their menus.   In my opinion the most important one warrants the most time, but the wine list and cocktail list are quite interesting in their own rights.  Perhaps a fine South African Rose will catch your eye, as it did to this lovely lounge patron.

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As is the trend these days, you'll be asked if you want sparkling or still water.  This is a choice that I appreciate, but scoff at restaurants who have gone so far as to hire a "water steward."  That is some serious tomfoolery.  What I like about ES is that choosing tap water is completely acceptable, even normal; something I tend to feel is looked down upon in other restaurants.  I drink a lot of water, and I can't afford to be paying $7 for half a liter.  Just doesn't work for me.  I appreciate not having virgin-harvested glacial moon-rock water pushed on me.

After you finally figure out the menus, and start to get hungry looking at all the delicious choices ahead of you, you'll be presented with a bowl of house-pickled fennel.

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I believe they used to served pickled veggies, but I far prefer the current iteration.  Crisp and slightly sour, it's a perfect way to pique your appetite with some of their bread and a signature cocktail:

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Now you need to select your food.  Make sure you check the daily specials at the bottom of the menu (the Saturday Beef Wellington and Meatloaf are both perfectly executed), and ask your server about the ceviche and the offal of the day.

Monday? Make it meatloaf! (freakin awesome meatloaf, and look at the portion size!  I enlisted the aid of my tablemates to even make a significant dent.  Honey glaze + creamy mashed potatoes + succulent ground beef + seasoning = pure satisfaction)

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Unless they're very new, all the servers know the food and wine lists fairly intimately, and are not shy about telling you their opinions.  What I love is that they are just as eager to explain bone marrow to a newbie as they are to discuss the finer points of tripe-preparation with a offal connoisseur.

Have you ever had bone marrow?  Do you agree with Emeril that pork fat rules?  Well let me tell you that bone marrow is the ultimate unctuous delicacy. 

"Bone marrow is a source of protein and high in monounsaturated fats. These fats are known to decrease LDL cholesterol levels resulting in a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, prompting some to make bone marrow a dietary staple." -- wikipedia.org

It's not even sinful!  I have ordered the marrow every single time I have eaten at ES in the last year, and loved every plate of it.

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Bone Marrow Breakdown:

1) Pick up the little spoon

2) Scoop some of the mustard

3) Apply to a piece of bread

4) Scoop marrow

5) Apply marrow

6) Top with parsley/shallot/grapefruit salad

7) Take blurry photograph

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8) Devour with glee

While many restaurants in Boston are known for their seafood (Legal, Union Oyster, McCormick etc), the raw bar at ES is always extremely fresh and satisfying.  Until recently, a selection of half a dozen oysters was my appetizer of choice.  Then one day a few weeks ago I was introduced to the Alaskan king crab legs they carry regularly.  Now I have to convince myself to avoid the rather expensive ($7/leg -- but these are the "Deadliest Catch") crab to indulge my other obsessions.

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My most recent obsessions at ES have been the Baekoffe and the Frisse aux Lardons.  Now, the Baekoffe (which i find nearly impossible to pronounce. . .Bee-coffee? Bay-koe-fuh?  I still don't know.) has tripe in it.  I do not like tripe, have not liked tripe, and did not think I ever would like tripe.  The stomach lining of a cow both did not appeal to me, and did not taste good to me when I had it elsewhere.  Somehow, when Chef Jamie Bissonnette puts tripe in his Baekoffe it becomes delectable; tender, mild, and perfectly at home in the stew.  This is, to this day, the only restaurant in the world in which I have enjoyed tripe, both in the Baekoffe and the offal special that he runs from time to time.  Jamie, I don't know how you do it, but I'd love to learn the secret.

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Chef Jamie Bissonnette

The Frisse Aux Lardons was voted the best salad in Boston, but I didn't care.  I didn't used to order salads in restaurants.  This salad changed that.  The bitter frisse, the acidic vinaigrette, the salty, chewy, crispy bacon, the oozy perfectly cooked poached egg, the hazelnuts and the sweetbreads all combine to form the ultimate balanced-contrast salad experience.  I'm not joking -- this is the best salad in Boston (that I've had).

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Beef Heart Salad -- This is the BEST VALUE IN BOSTON.  Let me say that again; for your money, you will not get more effort and ingredients anywhere else than you do with this dish.  Beef heart (tender, extremely beef-y), blood orange, shaved black truffles, AND foie gras. . .for $9.  N.I.N.E. D.O.L.L.A.R.S.!  I can spend nine bucks at Wendy's without blinking an eye.  How can you turn this down?  Even if you don't like it (which would be hard, cause foie + truffles + beef = winning combo), you just paid under ten bucks for a dish that probably would cost you fiteen to make yourself.  The Beef Heart Salad is occasionally to be found as a "Daily Offal" and is not available on the regular menu.  Ask about the offal!

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Charcuterie (char-KOO-tuh-ree) Plate: this may or may not be for you.  If you like housemade proscuittos, terrines, pates and sausages, Chef Jamie will not dissapoint you.  Some people need a bit of warming up to some of the pates (especially the liver varieties), but will eventually be piling it just as high as the rest.  My current favorite?  The duck proscuitto -- the fat dissolves at mouth temperature, in the same way that $100/lb iberico ham does.

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Go to Eastern Standard, let them feed you.  You will be glad you did.  If you're not, come back and tell me why.  Try the bone marrow, the tripe and the beef heart salad (if you're lucky enough to find it) and if you like it, good!  If you don't like it, think about why you might not like it, and tell me.  I want to know these things, Jamie wants to know these things, and most of all, ES wants to know!