The other day Bryan and I were chatting and wondering who was the most famous chef in Boston. Boston has no shortage of local celebrity chefs, but we really wondered how many of them would be nationally recognized. We threw around a few names. Ming Tsai. Ken Oringer. Joanne Chang. Todd English. Or maybe Jody Adam and Ana Sortum, contestants in most recent Top Chef Masters.
After only a few minutes, we decided it was a toss up between Ming Tsai and Todd English.
Todd English has had questionable press lately. Between the tabloids pouncing on his failed engagement to foodies accusing him of being a sellout, things have not been the most pleasant for this once extremely popular and well-respected chef.
We wondered how true the rumors were about his once acclaimed restaurant - the one that brought him to fame. Is it really past its heyday? Is the food still as amazing as it once was?
Todd English opened Olives back in 1989 with his then wife, Olivia (yes, the restaurant was named after her). It quickly became locally recognized as the best new restaurant, and soon, lines were forming outside of this place. It was impossible to get into this restaurant. One critic said it took him a year to score a spot. Some will even venture to say that Todd English brought a new level of dining to Boston, and that before English, food in Boston was pretty boring New England fare. Same old scrod, lobster, chowder, and the like.
Twenty years later: Many more interesting restaurants have hopped onto the Boston dining scene, yet Olives still survives. So it must be doing something right . . . right?
Olives, tapenade, and olive oil
As we entered Olives, I was really not sure what to expect. I had perused some review sites online, only to find very, very mixed reviews. Some loved the food, while others were sorely disappointed. We had tried the Olives in Vegas for lunch, and we had enjoyed it a lot, but had never dined at the original Boston location.
Crispy Wellfleet oysters, beef carpaccio, truffle aioli...$15.00
The waitress recommended this dish, and I can totally see why - it was REALLY good! Imagine an empty oyster shell filled with a base of truffle mashed potatoes, then a deep fried oyster, topped with beef carpaccio drizzled with truffle aioli and some sea salt. It was absolutely delicious, and the presentation was pretty dramatic too. They are sitting on salt!
Yellowfin Tuna Tartare
Spun cucumber salad, crispy rock shrimp, whitefish caviar, warm sesame dressing ...$16.75
The appetizer had a nice mix of flavors and textures. It was nowhere near as good as the tuna tartare from Market by Jean-Georges (which actually only costs $14 at lunch), but it's not bad. The soft tartare, crunchy fried shrimp, and the cool cucumber work nicely together. I personally thought there was a bit too much sesame oil, which made the dish a bit greasy. I was also disappointed in the quality of the tuna, which by itself had little flavor. Nevertheless, it was a decent dish and reasonably enjoyable overall.
Asparagus, peas, pea shoots, guanciale, and parmesan cream sauce ~ $22
The agnolottis were filled with a mashed potato of sorts, which was mildly interesting. The guanciale (cured pork cheeks, sort of like bacon) added a nice smokiness to the dish. The parmesan sauce was fine, although nothing particularly exciting. I would say most dishes in North End would beat this any day.
Slow Braised Smoked Beef Short Rib
Blue cheese mashed, broccoli rabe & oven dried tomatoes ...$32.50
This was really really good. I really think Bryan scored much better than I did at this dinner. These short ribs were truly fall-off-the-bone-melt-in-your-mouth soft. Apparently they have been stewed for over 24 hours. We both agreed this was much better than the short ribs we had at Tom Coliccio's Craft Steak in Las Vegas. Beautiful flavors, rich sauce, amazingly soft meat - truly an excellent dish.
We really really enjoyed this! We got an assortment of cookies & ice cream for $16. Red velvet whoopie pie, two types of chocolate chip cookies, a snickerdoodle, and a ginger molasses cookie. There's also a chocolate cupcake and three types of ice cream (vanilla, caramel, and chocolate). The cookies were really good! Of course we could not finish, so we took home about half.
So is this a foodie paradise? Probably not, but the food is solidly prepared, with some real standouts. The prices are on the high side, (and there are probably better places in this price range), but you can definitely have a very enjoyable evening here. In fact, it will be much more enjoyable if you're not paying for the meal. I would definitely recommend asking your server which dishes are the best - Bryan did that, and he scored. I just picked stuff off the menu myself, and I was slightly disappointed with both of my dishes.
Todd English acknowledges that foodies are not his target audience. He's "aiming for the (upscale) masses, . . for the people who'd otherwise be eating at the Cheesecake Factory or McCormick & Schmick's." In that regard, this place goes above and beyond those types of restaurants. I'm mixed on whether I would consider it a destination restaurant - maybe not - though it might be worth visiting for the shortribs and the oysters (yum!).
Plus, Charlestown is really really quaint and cute, so it's totally worth visiting if you've never been there before. In fact, the Freedom Trail passes through it and basically leads right up to Olives. So, if you are walking the Freedom Trail, you could always stop by here for a meal.
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