Boston's summer pleasures: Swan boats , operating since 1887, lend a fairytale air to the pond in the Public Garden. Nearby are bronze sculptures of waddling ducks from the popular children's story, "Make Way for Ducklings."
Boston. Let me count the ways…
There’s a lot about Boston to love (especially in summer when Back Bay gardens are abloom with roses and the Swan Boats glide serenely against a backdrop of buildings from three centuries--but I haven’t always viewed the city through rose-colored lenses.
It was the site of my worst college date ever, (thanks, M.I.T.), one of my worst arguments ever (sorry, Mom), and a truly foul business trip. Flying from New York in a pelting ice storm, renting a defective car with lights that failed during an insane evening rush hour, and arriving at my client’s offices to find the VP in meltdown, lying on the floor, whining about not feeling “up to” talking to me: No, this was not the way to spend the day before Thanksgiving.
But we were there again last week, as we often are, visiting the chicks who have flown the nest, and I found myself thawing a bit. Here are a few things that I really like....
1. Triple Iced Lattes at Thinking Cup
What else would they call a coffee house in a city that has more colleges and universities than any other? This buzzy café has become my go-to-place for early morning caffeine. Everything's made with Stumptown beans, named “Best Coffee in the World,” and on a sweltering summer day, the triple strength iced latte is just what I need to cool down and wake up. If you get there before 9 AM, it’s fairly quiet; later it’s a madhouse.
Thinking Cup, 165 Tremont Street, 617-482-5555.
2. Strange Morning Events on Boston Common
At 9:36 AM it already feels like 101 degrees. So why are 40 to 50 deranged people standing in a circle under the blazing sun? Oh, they’re not standing. They’re following their deranged leader: jumping, crouching, whispering, slapping thighs, wiggling hips, shouting, hugging, dipping, chanting “Ole! ole!” and “Tiki, tiiki, wasa!” and other unintelligible phrases. Simon Says for 20-somethings? One of the entertaining mysteries of Boston.
3. Really cold chocolate at L.A. Burdick
There’s no one who makes hot or cold chocolate like Burdick’s. Last week Serendipity was deep into her chocolate frappe; for me it was all about an icy cold bittersweet glass of dark Ecuadorian chocolate.
The new Back Bay shop is adorable: Outside, it looks a bit like a Swiss chalet with chocolate-y trim; inside it’s light and airy, unlike the cramped cafe off Harvard Square. Only problem? The iced chocolate was too rich to finish….But no matter: I brought home a bag of chocolate shavings to make it here. (See next month's pause.)
L.A. Burdick: 220 Clarendon Street, 617-303-0113.
4. The Puppet Who Wants to Be a Real Girl
Doubletake on the corner of Clarendon and Beacon: I’d seen her before, many times, usually on Brattle Street in Cambridge. But here she was: White face, fat black curls, rosebud lips, strings attached to her hands. It’s the puppet who wants to be a girl. (The sign at her feet reads, “Puppet in Need. Magic Potions Too Expensive. Please Help.” ) Put a dollar in the box, and she comes to life, bowing in thanks.
5. Quirky Shops on Charles Street
I don’t know what I love best about Charles Street and its red brick, Federal-style row houses. At one end there’s Savenor's, the Beacon Hill outpost of Julia Child’s favorite Cambridge butcher. It’s a leisurely stroll to Beacon Street and the Public Garden at the other end, but along the way I always stop at Good (where I just managed to resist a fossilized mammoth ivory bangle inset with tiny diamond chips); Black Ink (for” unexpected necessities” like Tin-Tin posters and sea salt soap); and E.R. Butler (for years I’ve sighed over Enoch Robinson’s solid brass doorknobs, especially the one with the lion’s head.
This trip I flirted seriously with a stunning pair of slipper chairs at Cynthia Driscoll’s interior design shop. Covered with Jim Thompson’s eyepopping Enter the Dragons linen print, wouldn't they be just perfect in the library here at home?
6. Thousands Upon Thousands of Books at the Harvard Coop
Overheard amongst the stacks, a guide whispering to a prospective Harvard student: “Well, you know Barack Obama went to law school here.” (Beat to gauge response.) “Of course so did Mitt Romney…”
Even in this bookish town independent book stores are having a tough time. But the Harvard Coop, founded in 1882, goes on forever. Now managed by Barnes & Noble, it's still a college bookstore on steroids: Four floors, two of them handsomely wood-paneled, and thousands upon thousands of desirable books, from bestsellers to the truly obscure.
Forget the textbooks: I always scan the Harvard publications by the front door, then drift along the center tables to check out what’s new and intriguing. After that, there’s art, architecture and design along one side; history is way in the back. Upstairs I troll for fiction, new and old, and literary mags; on the bottom level are the cookbooks and travel.
On this trip, I picked up guidebooks to Bhutan, Qiu Xiaolong's Shanghai-based Inspector Chen novels, and A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, a biography of Heinrich Barth who traveled 10,000 miles through Islamic Africa from 1850 to 1855. What did I tell you?
The Harvard Coop, 1400 Mass Ave, 617-499-2000.
7. A Light Supper at Erbaluce
I love going to under the radar restaurants and Erbaluce is no exception. Named after a light, grassy white wine from the Piedmont (in the local dialect it means “dawn's early light”), this newish Italian restaurant in Bay Village has made local “best’ lists, yet there always seem to be a few empty tables.
No matter. The plain surroundings (creamy walls, recessive abstract paintings) create a simple backdrop for the somewhat experimental Italian-inspired dishes that emerge from chef Charles Draghi’s kitchen. A glazed pot of fresh rosemary, basil or sage sits on each table and in summer, herbs are the central theme of the menu.
Here’s what I had for supper last Thursday night:
A visually stunning appetizer of fresh roasted sardines with black olives; in the center, a tiny sunflower and raddichio leaves arranged like petals. Striking to look at, a bit less striking to eat since I was continuously picking out the fine bones from the fish.
Half moon pansoti (aka ravioli) stuffed with ricotta and tender greens in a silky walnut pesto, topped with thin slices of parmigiano and shredded basil, fennel and carrot leaves. A delicate dish I’d like to try making at home.
Baked peaches in mascarpone almond cream with fresh basil—interesting flavor echoes between the basil and almonds.
Accompanied by a very drinkable glass of 2010 Santa Tresa organic Purato from Sicily, a soft wine, tasting of dark fruit, made from Nero D’Avola grapes. Later, an intensely aromatic tisane of fresh herbs and their flowers.
Another evening, standouts included Duxbury razor clams steamed in a green peppercorn broth, with strands of fennel, leeks and lemon zest; a roasted bavette steak (a cut similar to flank steak) with a crust of parmigiano, thyme and crushed walnuts in red wine sauce; honey pannacotta with fresh raspberries and pickled green walnuts.
Up front, there’s lots of hugging and kissing; many patrons appear to be regulars. Through the wide doorway, you can glimpse the chef standing with his back to the dining room, plucking leafy herbs and flowers from a white plastic container at his elbow, adding them to the plates as they’re sent out from the kitchen.
Erbaluce, 69 Church Street, 617-426-6969.
8. Farmers Market at Copley Square
At the Friday Farmer’s Market in Copley Square, I was consumed with envy. These feathery sunflowers caught my eye from a block away….
Next my eye strayed to this beautiful butter and sugar corn from James Farm, still dewy from the fields…
Heirloom tomatoes from Atlas Farm were so exquisite I almost gnashed my teeth. A woman, watching me photograph them, remarked, “The next best thing to taking them home.” I agreed, “If only I had a kitchen here.” She sighed sympathetically.
This fairytale eggplant and basil is grown, along with many other herbs vegetables, on a 50-acre farm in the Sudbury River Valley named after their daughter, Siena.
Copley Square Farmers Market, along St. James Avenue, Darmouth & Boylston Streets, 165 St. James Street, Tuesday and Friday, 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM.
9. Asana’s Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato Salad
When it’s hot and steamy, there’s no cooler retreat than Asana, the serene Asian-inflected dining room at the Mandarin Oriental. Pale limestone walls, shimmering paintings, tall glass vases—it’s a visual exercise in chilly elegance.
My favorite summer dish: ripe red watermelon and heirloom tomato salad, sprinkled with feta cheese, topped with spicy baby arugula in chaat masala vinaigrette. Finely slivered mint, tucked all around the watermelon, was a refreshing surprise.
Oh, all right. Order some of the crispy artichokes if you must.
Asana at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 776 Boylston Street, 617-535-8800.
10. Summer Garden at Old South Church
Who would have thought, when this New England Congregational church was founded in 1669, that one day it would boast a Garden of Eden-like border of day-glo tropicals and riotous flowers?
Was it a gleam in the eye of Sam Adams who ignited the Sons of Liberty with "war whoops" in the church meeting building just before the Boston Tea Party? Probably not.
These days the church's light grayish-brown walls of Roxbury puddingstone are the perfect backdrop for white nicotiana which towers delicately over pale cleome. The current church (there have been three) is a National Historic Landmark built in the Italian Gothic Revival style in 1875.
Red-leafed bananas and striped cannas mingle in the same bed as bright zinnias and fluorescent pink coleus.
While I was photographing these gorgeous roses, a bearded man with a dusty backpack came up to me. “Do you know why you like to take pictures of flowers?” he asked. “No,” I said. “But I think you’re going to tell me.” He grinned. ”It’s because you look like a flower.” I do like Boston!
Old South Church, 645 Boylston Street, 617-536-8061.
11. An Exotic Dinner at Lala Rokh
Ah, vodka martinis flavored with pomegranate and rosewater. Turbaned gents gazing at us from the walls. A plate of coarsely mashed chickpeas with lemon and garlic. A dark-eyed server whose words about the menu are pure poetry…
Where are we? On Beacon Hill, actually, at Lala Rokh, a Persian restaurant named after an “epic romance by the 19th century poet Thomas More.” (Lala Rokh means, ahem,“Tulip Cheeks.”)
The story of the restaurant’s origins is a spice lover’s dream. “When our mother, Aghdas Zoka-Bina returned to the U.S. from Azerbaijan, Iran in 1995, she brought with her a bag of black pepper, along with dried lemon, rose petals, sumaq, barberries, plums, saffron and garlic marinated in vinegar for 35 years…” Read more here.
Here’s what Serendipity and I had to eat on a girl’s night out.
Mirza Ghasemi - a warm, smoky blend of grilled eggplant, roasted garlic and tomato.
Borani e Esfenaj – cold sautéed spinach, caramelized onions with chopped walnut and homemade yoghurt.
Mast Khiar – creamy yoghurt with cucumbers and aromatic green herbs.
Anbeh – a zingy sweet and sour “relish”—actually a very smooth sauce—of tamarind and mango.
Bademjam—chunks of beef, slowly braised until they fall apart, with roasted eggplant, saffron and tomato.
No room for dessert, but, happily, that means we'll have to return.
Lala Rokh, 97 Mount Vernon Street, 617-720-5511.