When the city of Boston, Massachusetts is mentioned, I naturally flip though a mental View-Master souvenir reel of its greatest “hits”—The Old North Church, Faneuil Hall, Fenway Park, Bunker Hill and Boston Harbor. And lobster rolls. Having never visited the place, I have relied on history books and the Travel Channel to inform me of its worth. That all changed in 2013 when my wife and I were given an opportunity to spend a long weekend in Boston with my brother and his wife, ostensibly to attend a college football game and to celebrate my birthday. But really, as is our style, we were going for the food, everything else was just an excuse to eat. And, of course, I documented every step, meal and drink. So, line up your salad and dinner fork (small fork to the outside), tie on your lobster bib and join us as we traverse the memories of a slow food crawl through one of America’s great cities.
Day One: We Came, We Saw, I Did Not Maintain…
Thursday, September 26, 2013
We met Kyle and Shannon at the airport at noon and were transported to town as one unit. Our accommodations were in the Hotel Commonwealth, a beautiful and stately hotel located on Commonwealth Avenue, also known as Comm Ave if you are a local which we were not so we never referred to it as such so never mind. Known as one of the most expensive streets to live on in Boston, I was initially intimidated but that eased when I spotted a Bruegher’s Bagels shop across the street from the hotel. Having cheap gluten nearby calmed my nerves. To be fair, “the street” was four lane with a large median that contained access to public transportation. And a lot of traffic. The setting was quaint but with a sinister edge knowing death by car strike was imminent if you were not careful crossing the street. I silently questioned whether bagels from a national chain were worth my life.
The Hotel Commonwealth is a luxury hotel, the first clue of its luxuriousness being the word placement in the title. If it was called The Commonwealth Hotel, it loses some of its luster. The second clue was the red awning at the front door and the doormen. Doormen are paid to assume a lot of good things about you if you are staying in their hotel and the game is to continue the facade via tips and pleasantries. The hotel was recommended by Conde Nast Traveler and Travel+Leisure magazines as well as the Boston Red Sox, and knew we had chosen wisely within two steps into the lobby. It was beautiful and smelled like lavender and old money with a faint whiff of port wine and non-aromatic pipe tobacco. Hope and I stayed in The Reading Suite, 600 square feet of book lined walls, writing desks and overstuffed leather chairs, each with their own reading lamp. Kyle and Shannon were staying in The Baseball Suite which was a mini homage to Americas pastime and a reminder that Fenway Park was just around the corner. I wanted to hang out in our room, touch the books and sniff the leather but everyone else was hungry so we took off on foot in search of our first Boston meal.
It was a stunning day, sun drenched, cloudless and cooler than the steamy Tallahassee Hope and I left the day before; it actually felt like fall. We had no sense of where we were going, assuming that, eventually, we would come across some establishment that would pique our taste buds. After a few blocks of wandering, our intuition paid off. The large sign outside the restaurant stated “Lovely Day for a Guinness,” marketing bait we could not ignore and that is how we ended up at Solas, an Irish pub serving not only draft beer but also traditional Irish pub food with a flair. After examining the menu on the wall outside the front door, we were drawn in, not only by the food options, but to their mission statement: A proper pint. A warm meal. A cozy table. It could have been a motto in the Shire so it seemed a fitting way to begin our food journey. Upstairs, sitting around a wooden table waiting on our drinks, surrounded by dark beams, tan stucco walls, stained glass and historic advertisements for Guinness, the four of us made a loose pact to try a lobster roll at every restaurant we visited for the remainder of the trip. It would be an unofficial compare-and-contrast tour of New England’s iconic sandwich. Starting our game at an Irish pub gave it a sense of adventure with a side of irony. After a toast to seal the agreement, we were ready to begin.
In its purest form, a lobster roll consists of a hotdog bun piled with chunks of fresh lobster that is minimally seasoned with mayonnaise and spices. The quality of the bun may change and the amount of dressing may vary but the ingredients and the rules are simple: the lobster is the star and does not require much help. The lobster roll at Solas was our first and its consumption established the approach we would employ the rest of the weekend. Each of us would take a bite, pass it to their neighbor and then Kyle finished whatever was left. This modus became our messy routine, our one rule, keeping the taste test simple. Fortunately, no one in our party has any qualms about sharing food. The four of us have fed each other all over the world with nary a cold passed between us. Our constitutions and immunities are strong.
The lobster roll was delicious which should not have surprised me since it is chunks of lobster piled on bread. It being my first lobster roll ever, I did not know what to expect but the millions of fans may be on to something. The lobster meat was flaky, not chewy, and the minimal seasoning allowed me to taste the lobster and not fight through a sea of sauce. I assume it was fresh lobster since we were in a local restaurant and not a chain and that should make a difference. I imagine eating lobster in St. Louis is probably a different experience than eating lobster in Massachusetts. We were cognizant that it was our maiden roll so we tempered our enthusiasm until more field data could be gathered. I accompanied my bites with a bowl of Guinness Onion Soup which is the Solas take on French onion soup, their advantage being the use of Guinness accompanied by house-made croutons, as well as a liberal lid of swiss and parmesan cheese. And I had a pint of Guinness because I enjoy meals with a theme. The table also shared a bowl of creamy, chunky New England clam chowder and I think I may have seen a mixed green salad but I ignored it. The meal was rich, thick, savory and perfect. Meal one was in the books; it was time to shop.