returns to Boston to discover a side of the city its many students miss
I DISCOVERED MANY things in Boston, mostly during my years in prep school and college. The first was that Hongkongers love Boston – even if only to send their children there. With the highest concentration of universities in the world – 100 campuses and 500,000 students – that’s certainly no surprise. In my high school alone there were more than 30 local transplants, a good half of whose parents (and now themselves, too) appear regularly in the social pages of this magazine.
We didn’t know or care about that back then, of course. We knew about dining-hall hours, exams, parental permission slips and Newbury Street, the place to which all affluent Asian students escaped on weekend excursions. It was the closest we got to home, a bastion of consumer familiarity, what with its preponderance of international labels: Marc Jacobs, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Armani and more. We were there every weekend, a swarm of Hong Kong students from prep schools all across the state, making our weekly pilgrimage to retail Mecca.
In college, the situation worsened, with more colleges and more Hong Kong students making the journey to Northeast USA for education. Occasionally, we went to Porter Square for Japanese food, but more often Chinatown for a taste of home. We went to Do Re Mi for Asian karaoke and Club Nicole’s for “Asian nights.” Our parents visited from home and took us to the Asian supermarket, and then back to Copley Square again. And it was great. We were no different from the first wave of Chinese immigrants who created their own cultural enclaves – nostalgic for home, adventurous in education but not in palate. I began to understand how people could live in Vancouver for 10 years and still only speak Cantonese.
Over a decade later, I returned to Boston for this story and learned more about the city in a three-hour walking tour than I had during my entire tenure in New England. And it struck me – how many other Hongkongers had ventured to Boston over the years, to attend school or to visit family or escort children on college visits, without truly understanding the potential of the city that lay before them?
WHERE TO EAT
Anyone landing in the city affectionately known as Beantown knows that the city’s signature delicacy is lobster. If you didn’t, then the mountains of crimson-clawed stuffed crustaceans at the airport and any tourist kiosk are a dead giveaway. You haven’t done Boston right unless you’ve unsheathed a buttered bad boy served in all its natural splendour, but there’s not much art in a steamed whole lobster: it’s the lobster roll that really counts. Some might consider the differences between various incarnations to be academic, but those are the people who say all char siu tastes the same. It doesn’t.
Neptune Oyster consistently tops lists with its two, equally delectable lobster rolls. Served hot or cold, both arrive atop a butter-soaked brioche – a divisive move both lauded and denigrated by Bostonians, as the original recipe calls for a hot dog bun – and feature just an appropriate sprinkling of celery and chives. Perhaps one online reviewer put it best: “Goddamn you lobster roll. You are expensive and delicious.” Besides the lobster roll, the oysters and other raw shellfish are renowned the country over, and the fried clams are well worth the indulgence, too.
Fancier food isn’t in short supply in Boston, but it can be difficult to veer from the mainstays, chief of which include French stalwarts L’Espalier and Radius as well as Barbara Lynch’s No 9 Park and Menton. Japanese cuisine is always in demand, and not just what’s known as the Boston roll (a maki featuring tuna and a large hunk of cream cheese).
Oishii Sushi Bar in the South End may be Japanese-owned, but it certainly takes risks with the rigidities of sushi-making. The appetisers and the special maki are the most fun – think otoro sashimi on summer truffles with sushi-rice risotto, seared abalone tempura maki or the Kobe beef maki featuring shallots, arugula and menegi.
About a decade younger is Oya, which has been giving Oishii a run for its money (tying for top new restaurant in America in 2008 as named by the New York Times) with an even more alternative approach to taste juxtapositions. Santa Barbara sea urchin is served with Valencia orange; venison tataki comes with porcini cream and ponzu oil; and foie gras gyoza are stuffed with Kyoto sansho and pink peppercorns. Further afield, there’s fusion in Wellesley courtesy of celebrity chef and Emmy winner Ming Tsai, whose East-West cuisine at Blue Ginger has been a suburban sleeper hit since 1998.
Then again, sometimes a more traditional experience is in order. The Oak Room is a steak-and-potatoes kind of joint, full of bygone glamour, moody lighting and dismembered, mounted animal heads, as well as steaks the size of your face. Actually, pretty much all the portions are larger-than-your-average-Hong-Kong-stomach (and particularly if your stomach is jet-lagged). Steaks are also served at the whimsically (or tragically) named Mooo at boutique hotel Beacon XV, which is a great spot for date night and serves up a lunch set that’s easier on the budget but no less in quality.
No matter which meal on which you munch, finish up at Finale’s, a desserterie with multiple locations in Boston and Cambridge. Virtually every dish is sweet success, but wait a while before ordering, so you can ogle dishes as they’re plated in the open kitchen. The Boston Cream is an haute take on the classic, featuring yellow cake, Bavarian cream and chocolate – but if you miss out on that, you can always stop by Dunkin Donuts on the way to the airport. The leading purveyor of edible sin has adapted the recipe into a convenient portable donut version at locations all over the world.
WHAT TO SEE
It can’t rival New York when it comes to culture, but if you’re talking history, Boston has the Big Apple beat. So maybe the Boston Tea Party Ship Museum isn’t quite your cup of tea (it’s reopening later this year after a multi-million dollar renovation) – but the impressive Boston Public Library is as worth visiting as any other landmark. The oldest municipal library in the United States is a labyrinth of shadows and light, creating striking chiaroscuros as breathtaking as the Renaissance-style architecture itself. The interiors draw together sweeping murals and frescoes, ornate vaulting and sculpted coffered ceilings in a hush more typically observed in sacred venues. In summer, the courtyard is dotted with students, their hands filled with textbooks and their heads with daydreams.
Another major area specked with book-burdened scholars is Cambridge, home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which are celebrating 375th and 150th birthdays, respectively, this year. It isn’t just the Ivy-League reputation that draws students and visitors here; the campuses are picturesque year round, and you’ll find more than just potential leaders of tomorrow signing up for campus tours.
Just outside Harvard Yard, Harvard Square is quaint, colourful and somewhat commercial. Red brick lines streets and buildings as far as the eye can see and every manner of individual can be spotted – grungy alternatives, preppy sweater-clad types, suits, Goths – even, if you’re lucky, Shaquille O’Neal, who one fine October day last year tweeted that he was headed for Harvard Square to sit like a statue, as inspired by the discipline of the royal guards at Buckingham Palace. “I wanted to tell people I went to Harvard,” the Boston Celtics player laughed.
The Au Bon Pain cafe is most popular for people-watching, or check out the shops: Curious George Books and Toys is a mustsee for the young at heart; Joie de Vivre has bizarre knick-knacks, and Hidden Sweets is, as its name suggests, a dangerous avenue for candy lovers (or diabetics, for that matter). If your sweet tooth isn’t satiated, Burdick’s serves the best hot chocolate in town – try the white hot for a twist on the original.
More modern attractions also await. The Institute of Contemporary Art sits right on South Boston’s harbourfront and has featured works from an eclectic mix of living artists, including the likes of Cindy Sherman and Anish Kapoor. Nearby, another version of modern art exists, in the form of LouisBoston (pronounced like the Sun King’s name), a luxury multi-brand retailer founded in the 1800s, now with seaside views, a restaurant, salon and (according to its website) inner peace and happiness.
If it seems like Boston is all high-falutin’ art and schmancy history, guess again. A favourite activity of locals – and a must-do for tourists with enough time – is to take in a game at Fenway, where the beleaguered Red Sox play before rabid fans who cheer vigorously for their home team, win or lose. Bostonians are known to be some of the most dedicated baseball fans in the world, with every single home game sold out since the early 2000s. Just make sure you don’t mention the Yankees.
WHERE TO STAY
There’s no shortage of top accommodations in the city, whether it’s venerable grand dames, hip new boutique hotels or charming little suites. There are two Fairmonts in the city – the younger, Fairmont Battery Wharf, exudes the kind of low-key luxury that makes you feel right at home; but the elder, the Fairmont Copley Plaza, has a different draw – a fourlegged one. Catie the Black Labrador “works” the lobby of the centrally located hotel, acting as surrogate companion for travelers who miss their pampered pets back home, available for neighbourhood walks or just some stationary cuddling.
Beacon XV takes a mercifully different approach to the boutique concept, eschewing minimalism or colour-mania in favour of a discrete darkness reminiscent of a speakeasy, though the rooms themselves are a little Mondrian- inspired. The classic cage elevator reeks of old-world gimmickry (not that that’s a bad thing), but contemporary creature comforts are also available, such as chauffeured cars to shuttle you comfortably downtown.
Of course, there’s always The Langham in Boston, which you can read about in the feature overleaf.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO