25 January 2006

Dining review: No. 9 Park (Boston, Massachusetts)

What makes No. 9 Park the best restaurant in Boston?


The first few times I dined at No. 9, I wasn’t impressed. (These were free lunches dinners, paid for by various wine entities.) The food was too restrained, the atmosphere a little too stuffy, and the then-new restaurant had yet to achieve a comfort level; everyone seemed to be trying so hard, to so little effect. But it didn’t take long for my impression to change, and I think it paralleled some sort of final confidence hurdle at the restaurant. Suddenly, “restraint” was understated brilliance. The service was no longer stuffy, but as formal or relaxed as the diner preferred…and the adjustment was made with that amazing sort of ESP that the best waitstaff possesses. And the wine list, full of brilliant moments without consistency in the first few months, found its groove.

Those who seek a culinary experience with a strong “wow” factor usually do not, and probably never will, like No. 9. Chef Lynch will occasionally hit on a particular flavor combination with surprising palate impact, but her true skill is in drawing forth the fundamental essence of ingredients, then blending them in subtle ways; familiar enough to be comforting, but deft enough to entice. It’s not “exciting” cuisine, and it’s certainly not trendy, but it is the practiced art of excellence. Influences are pan-European and American, but most clearly Italian, and Lynch’s great affection for pasta is frequently put to good use (just try to resist the special offerings during white truffle season)

The décor is subdued, riding a line between “formal” and “power” (the latter may derive from the restaurant’s next-door proximity to the State House) but without frills; a simple space that calms. Sound is absorbed well in the side and rear dining rooms, though the bar (open for drop-in business, with a more limited menu available) can be noisier. As for price…it is by no means an inexpensive restaurant. I feel that it’s well worth the tariff, and one can easily eat more cheaply in the bar or by careful wine selections (see below), but the full No. 9 experience is best supported by a willingness to spend what’s required.

Special mention must be made of the wine list. Wine director Cat Silirie has done something rather remarkable for a restaurant of this caliber and at this price point. There are few big-ticket Bordeaux and only a small handful of big-name California cabernets. Instead, Silirie pursues her love of crisper, more aromatic wines – riesling, grüner veltliner, chenin blanc, nebbiolo, gamay and…most of all…pinot noir – whose elegance and delicacy is a much better match with the food. Further, she has a keen eye for value, and the prices on this list are far, far cheaper than one would ever expect. One way she achieves this is through careful and extensive tastings of wines from what would otherwise be mindlessly-rejected off-vintages; Silirie finds the overachievers in each region and puts them on her list, giving her diners early-maturing wines from fantastic terroirs at much-lowered prices. Silirie remains one of the very few restaurant wine people anywhere to whom I will cede the selection of wines. The level of recommendation that implies cannot be overstated.

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