Snails, Nettle Pesto, and Chickpea Crepes: Exploring Boston's Explosive Culinary Scene

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and FIAT USA. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

In partnership with FIAT USA we asked photographer and globe trotting food writer Bonjwing Lee (also creator of the restaurant travel blog The Ulterior Epicure) to book his ideal summer road trip. With only a brand-new FIAT 500X Crossover and the open road for inspiration, Lee chose to drive through scenic New England. In this four-part photo travelogue, we follow him as he stops at picturesque points along the region’s rocky coastline, pauses at historical landmarks, and meets up with friends along the way to do what he does best: eat.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve been in Boston. The last time I was there, I was a student, whose only indulgence were late-night cones at Herrell’s Ice Cream near Harvard Square (sadly, now closed) to escape my air-conditionless dormitory. In the two decades since, the restaurant scene in Boston has exploded. So, my second major stop on my road trip with the FIAT 500X was a two-night stay in the city.

Home to over thirty universities and colleges, Boston and its restaurants were flooded with graduates and their families during this graduation week. My friend Tomo had just finished her last final at Harvard’s School of Public Health the day that I drove into Boston, so we celebrated together at Hungry Mother in Cambridge. Just a week earlier, I had watched the restaurant’s chef and owner Barry Maiden accept the James Beard Foundation’s Award for Best Chef Northeast at the annual awards ceremony in Chicago. Among the many great dishes we had was a bowl of peas "à la française," with smoked ham and morels. We also had tender snails in garlicky butter, with fried gnocchi.

Down the street from Hungry Mother is West Bridge, a restaurant in a brick building dating to the 1880s, once home to the Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company. The chef here is Matthew Gaudet, one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2013. My friend Tomo and I only intended to share a couple of plates, but the weather was so nice that we lingered on the patio, and ended up have a second dinner. The highlights included a terrific lamb tartare topped with crunchy sunchoke chips and a beautifully cooked slice of suckling pig with a nice, crackling crust.

Sportello, in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood, is chef Barbara Lynch’s take on a modern diner. At lunch, the menu leans heavy on pasta. I couldn’t decide which pasta to get, so I ordered two half portions. In one bowl, there were tender tripe-filled agnolotti with mussels and pancetta. In the other, garganelli — ridged tubes with pointed quill-like ends — were tossed in an emerald-green nettle pesto, with walnuts and Parmesan. Both were excellent.

After lunch at Sportello, I grabbed a cup of coffee downstairs at Barrington Coffee Roasters (its roastery is outside the city in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts). Turning the corner, I found one of Joanne Chang’s highly popular bakeries, Flour Bakery & Café. The Boston Cream Pie there was light and fluffy, and, with a bit of coffee syrup, had a tiramisu-like flavor. It was terrific.

Housing many great works of art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts also boasts one of the largest collections of paintings by one of my favorite portraitists. Not only did John Singer Sargent paint the murals on the museum’s dome, but many of his portraits hang in the museum’s galleries. Most notably, his painting of the sisters Boit ("The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit") makes an impressive greeting to visitors as they enter the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro gallery of American art. Around the corner is the quieting pair, "Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel." And across from those two beauties is the awe-inspiring portrait of "Charles Stewart, Sixth Marquess of Londonderry…" carrying the Great Sword of State at the coronation of King Edward VII of England.

For dinner, I hit both of chef Ana Sortun’s restaurants. First, I visited the newer Sarma, in Somerville. Parking was especially scarce in this neighborhood, and having a FIAT 500X, with its Blind-Spot Monitoring and ParkView Back-Up Camera features, made it easier for me to squeeze into a tight space on a side street. "Sarma" refers to something that is wrapped or "enveloped," a bite-size meze common in the Eastern Mediterranean cultures. My friend and I shared a few of these small plates, including a delicious chickpea "crêpe" that was folded over a filling of braised lamb and house-made harissa.

My second stop was at Sortun’s first restaurant, Oleana, in nearby Cambridge. Nazars (glass amulets depicting a blue, teardrop-shaped "eye") hanging on the wall gave this restaurant a distinctly Turkish feel. Like Sarma, Oleana had quite an extensive menu. So, as my server advised, there was "good wisdom," indeed, in reading over the entire list of meze and larger plates before ordering. Of the dishes I ordered, I especially loved a bowl of spicy fideos threaded with wilted chard and enriched with a dollop of orange aioli. I capped the night with a beautifully bronzed cloud of meringue, inside of which was a passion fruit bombe — a baked Alaska for one.

I handed the FIAT 500X over to the valet at my hotel for the evening, grabbed my tripod, and headed out into the city on foot for a little night shooting. Across from the Union Oyster House — the oldest, continuously run restaurant in America (it dates back to 1826) — is the New England Holocaust Memorial. A series of glass structures form a long, narrow corridor. Steam vents on the ground produced a haunting affect in the night, making silhouettes out of visitors as they walked through, reading the names and words etched into the glass walls.

Further down Congress Street, I happened upon the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a clearing in the forest of glass and metal high rises around it. Suspended high above this urban green space was a breathtaking installation art piece by sculptor Janet Echelman entitled "As If It Were Already Here." The multi-colored mesh netting — a symbol of knitting together a space that was once divided by the John F. Fitzerald Expressway, which now tunnels underneath this park, named after his daughter — swayed gently in the night’s breeze. I laid down in one of the hammocks in the park and enjoyed one last moment in Boston.

— Bonjwing Lee

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and FIAT USA. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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