When food as a science experiment is a good thing
By Poornima Apte
A booming technology sector. The world’s best engineering school. Boston—and its sister city across the Charles River, Cambridge—boasts some of the brightest science and tech talent in the country.
For a city this tech-heavy, some of that experimentation is bound to spill over into its food scene. Indeed, Beantown has incubated some fine dining trials that have turned into creative and beloved local fixtures. Experimentation is a key ingredient here, either through culture or food—or both.
Little Dipper669 Centre Street, Boston facebook.com/Little DipperJP
The first thing you notice when you walk into Little Dipper, which opened last July in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, is the décor—it’s out of this world. Founder David Doyle has gone to infinity and beyond, indulging his love of rockets, astronomy and science fiction in the cozy and casual neighborhood diner. Over 50 model rockets, built by Doyle, hang in four squadrons from the black ceiling and futuristic travel posters from the Jet Propulsion Lab dot the walls. Most of the rockets have flown, under the supervision of Doyle’s six-year-old son, Dylan.
Chef Robyn McGrath goes all-out with classic diner dishes such as pancakes, eggs any way (and all day), veggie and meat burgers, chicken and fish sandwiches, salads, meatloaf and pasta. The team plans on occasional in-house pop-ups featuring regional cuisines, such as Cajun or southwestern.
Also in the pipeline are events with Astronomy on Tap, the goal of which is to give NASA-funded scientists opportunities to share their research with the public. Doyle says the restaurant will host film screenings of space-related documentaries, as well as feature films that celebrate space exploration. To help inspire young people in the neighborhood to learn about flight and science, Little Dipper raffles off a complete model rocket launch set each month. Looking to indulge your rocket obsession? Doyle has you covered: The restaurant will host regular rocket launches for anyone interested.
Clover Food Lab12 locations in the Boston/Charleston area cloverfoodlab.com
Ayr Muir was convinced he was going to work with wind power and clean energy after he graduated from MIT. But then he learned that food production, especially the growing of livestock, has a major environmental impact, so Muir decided to focus on developing plant-based food. The material scientist, used to laboratory experiments, launched a food truck in Boston as a testing lab to develop the fast-casual restaurant’s menu.
Since then, the idea of testing and experimentation has stuck, says Lucia Jazayeri, creative director. Clover runs weekly food development meetings, which the public is free to attend, to generate ideas for new menu items. Winning concepts then get tested at a live location— Clover has 12 restaurants in the Metro area—and winners from this round make it to the actual menu. (Clover’s popular Japanese sweet potato sandwich is the product of such experimentation.)
Clover buys its produce from local farms, and menus reflect New England’s seasonality. However, Jazayeri says, Clover also is keen on getting its customers out of their comfort zone to try something new. My favorites: the chickpea fritter sandwich (fast becoming a Boston icon) and the Venezuelan plantain.
The best part about Clover is its emphasis on community. For example, its restaurants offer pickups of farm shares as part of community supported agriculture (CSA), in which consumers purchase a share of a farmer’s crop before it is grown each season.
Catalyst 300 Technology Square, Cambridge catalystrestaurant.com
The address says it all: 300 Technology Square. It’s part of Kendall Square in Cambridge, the heart of the Boston area’s tech mecca, with the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology right around the corner. The creation of chef and owner William Kovel, it is dedicated to pairing fresh, local ingredients with serious French technique.
The location makes it a hub for some of the brightest minds working on science and technology startups. They often congregate at Catalyst for business lunches, after-work gatherings and meetings in the restaurant’s private dining spaces, which feature state-of-the art amenities such as flat screens and high-speed Internet access.
A two-way fireplace and reclaimed barnwood fixtures accentuate the décor of this popular lunch and dinner spot. Seasonal dishes abound: Spring favorites include goat cheese ravioli and spring vegetable salad with salmon. My personal favorite is the charred shishito peppers with burrata.
Arguably, the most dramatic experiments at Catalyst come from the inspired cocktails. Ask for The Undecided, which allows a full display of creativity; notes of lavender and lemon infused my drink the last time I was there. Another of my favorites: Chilicillin, or “Just what the doctor prescribed,” with Redbreast Lustau, ginger beer, confit lemon chili, honey and Laphroaig rinse.
America’s Test Kitchen 21 Drydock Avenue americastestkitchen.com
America’s Test Kitchen is not strictly a restaurant, but you can’t mention food science and Beantown without a nod to every home cook’s favorite institution. Situated right in the booming Seaport district of Boston, ATK is a mini-media conglomerate, with not only the PBS cooking show of the same name but also three magazines, roughly 10 new books a year, websites and an online cooking school.
ATK rigorously tests all its recipes but also conducts run-throughs of cooking equipment that are beloved by many home cooks. “We believe that science is an essential component of our mission, which is making home cooks confident and more successful in the kitchen,” says Lisa McManus, executive tasting and testing editor. A high rating from ATK is an automatic indicator of quality. After all, very few can pass the rigorous (often 20-page long) testing protocols.
McManus’s recent endorsement: carbon steel skillets. “I tested several and loved the way they transfer heat like cast iron and become naturally nonstick, while being as light as traditional skillets,” she says.
What’s more, ATK has a food truck (often parked at the Seaport location) that sells a lunch special or dessert from the classic ATK recipe library. Even better, foodies get to rate the recipe using the iPads on hand.