Thursday, April 19, 2007

The De-Crappification of Kenmore Square

When I first moved to Boston almost 6 years ago (whew), Kenmore Square, the home of Boston's iconic Citgo sign and adjacent to the famed Fenway Park, was not a place one could calmly walk through unarmed, much less hang out and grab a couple of drinks (unless forties are your thing). Things have really turned around since then. There are nice shops and great restaurants opening up. Scary people still inhabit the square at night, but they are mostly drunk Red Sox fans and are only a hazard if you happen to step in their vomit (oh how I wish I were exaggerating. The streets of Kenmore Sq and environs are paved with vomit).

The de-crappification of Kenmore Sq began with the opening of the upscale Hotel Commonwealth. Restaurants followed suit: first came Petit Robert Bistro, then Eastern Standard and recently, Lower Depths Tap Room. Out of these, Eastern Standard (ES) is my favorite because it has fantastic food, a gorgeous room, and a story. What you are about to read is almost too fantastical to be true, but true it is. Ask any Bostonite and they will confirm it.

ES is owned by a tall, skinny woman with flaming red, curly hair. I have trouble turning my eyes away from her – she really is striking. Besides being striking, she also happens to be a fairy tale lucky woman. Once upon a time, this woman (don’t know her name) was a waitress. One evening she was serving a businessman that came in to dine alone. He was miserable. She treated him well, was kind and attentive. They talked about what he did and how he hated it (he was earning a ton of money but disliked what he did – I have no sympathy for him), and about how she would like to open a restaurant of her own one day. At the end of the evening, the businessman was feeling a smidge less wretched. He wanted to do something for the server that was kind in his time of wretchedness. He left her a 1 million dollar tip. Yep, wrote her a check for a million dollars. (Isn’t it odd when real life resembles TV life?)

She used the money to open her very own restaurant, a fairy tale dream come true for many a waitress. That restaurant tanked – quickly and spectacularly. Tongues were a-wagging, people were a-laughing at the million dollar waitress. She gave the unforgiving restaurant business one more shot – I guess she still had some of that tip left over. She opened Eastern Standard in Kenmore Sq, adjacent to the brand new hotel, and about one block away from Fenway park. Smart woman.

Eastern Standard is booming. Last time I was there, I was informed that there was a one hour wait for a table. At 6:30PM. On a Wednesday. Like I said, booming. The restaurant is huge and tastefully decorated, with enormous glass globe light fixtures hanging down from the tall ceiling and red leather banquettes and chairs surrounding dark wood tables. There is a large and well-stocked raw bar, a daily offering of offal (which is near impossible to find in Boston), and an extensive and unique cocktail menu. The menu is French-tinged, with the obligatory American comfort foods (mac and cheese, burger on brioche, and grilled cheese sandwich with Grafton cheddar) thrown in. ES is uninhibited enough to offer roasted bone marrow on the permanent menu – I have never seen it on a menu in Boston before and I am thrilled (I am weird that way).

The roasted bone marrow is served as three bones cut in half vertically, along with a very salty parsley salad (the traditional accompaniment to roasted bone marrow being a parsley salad and salt), two different types of mustard, and toasted bread.

Bone marrow has the texture and melting point of pure fat and tastes like essence of cow. There is no other way I can describe it. It is a very potent and concentrated beef flavor shoved into a small piece of fat that melts in the mouth. [Note: immunologists will not order this dish, no matter how hard you try. Kinda makes sense, I guess.] The bread serves as a vehicle for getting the gelatinous stuff to your mouth; the vinegary mustard helps cut the almost overwhelming richness of the marrow (and this from a girl who could eat seared foie gras for breakfast… if given the opportunity).

I am grateful to the strange man who hands out million dollar checks and to the owner (I actually don’t know if she is still the owner) of ES who gave restaurant life one more shot. I am also pretty happy that I am no longer afraid for my life when walking through Kenmore Sq... although I still have to watch for the vomit puddles.

Brunch at ES: smoked salmon on toasted rye with lemony ricotta and giant capers.

Salt cod fritters - crispy on the outside, buttery and velvety on the inside, with a spicy ketchup and tartar sauce.

P.S. So proud of this – check out my new profile pic.

P.P.S. An update is in order. I spoke with a friend of mine who happens to be a chef and man about town (if you're reading this, Jim, Hi) about this Eastern Standard/waitress/tip business and he said he hadn't heard about it. This casts serious doubt on the story, as well as my source (I know you're not reading this, Ayesha, Hi). So, take it all with a grain of salt (or perhaps with a salt-rimmed margarita). The BS story doesn't detract from ES, however. It's still a great place, even without a movie kind of beginning.

P.P.P.S. Yet another update - I was right all along! Scroll down the Chowhound thread for an update on the million dollar waitress.


JC said...

What a cool story about the restaurant.

Marrow is one of those things that kind of freaks me out. Although I do like the idea of how primal it is - I can just see a caveman breaking a giant in bone in half and sucking out the marrow.

Dang, I can't see the profile pic. It must come from flickr or somesuch. I'll have to check it out when I get home. I can only imagine it's like my SPC pic this week.

Anna said...

There is something truly animalistic about eating bone marrow. It kind of tastes that way too.

The profile pic is indeed on Flickr. Blogger picture hosting is making me insane. Why can't you see it? Sadly, I am not nearly as daring as you are. My reveals do not go beyond my ears. Not yet, anyway.

JC said...

They block flickr at work, I can't even go to the flickr page. And on sites that link to flickr pics the photos don't even show up, they are replaced by plain white squares. It sucks. I will check it out when I get home though!

You're right, that is sad. I like your use of the word "yet" though! :D I found the experience strangely exhilarating.

atp said...

Where are all the generous customers in my line of work? Blimey, I can't quite believe that.

As for the bone marrow; Eugh - I'm slightly grossed out. There's not a chance in hell you'd get me to order that. Unless....okay yeah, you probably could, but I'd hate every minute of it.

Your ear looks fabulous, new piercing or just new photo? I think I am the only female I know who has never had anything pierced. Looking forward to the implied further reveals.

Anna said...

You've never had anything pierced?? Not even your ears? Wow. I started at 12 years old and kept on going. The picture is a new piercing. It's almost a week old now and feeling great, albeit a little bulky. Here's a tip - large piercings and hair brushes do not get along. At all. Ouch. It's pony tails for me for the next few months.

atp said...

Never, not a one. I've always thought I'd look ridiculous with earings for some reason. Maybe I'll try it someday; wouldn't have the problem with hair brushes, I'm fashioning dreads (of sorts, it's a work in progress) at the moment and haven't seen a brush since November.

Jonathan said...

I am glad you got to try bone marrow. Surprisingly it's a major part of Korean cuisine. And the ear looks lovely. I'd love to go back to Eastern Standard with you, but that place must be crazy when there's a home game.

JC said...

Wow, I always wondered what your other ear looked like. Now I know. Or did you just reverse the image? In any event, I love the spiral!

Tyler Balliet said...

Well, the "Million Dollar Waitress" story is partially correct.

Here is a Boston Globe interview with Gwen Butler:

She didn't own Eastern Standard but was the GM for a while.