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Talk of the Town

Alden & Harlow, Kristin Teig

Photo by Kristin Teig

Smoked Moosabec mussels with parsley crostino, tarragon and aioli at Alden & Harlow.

Beantown’s food scene is hot right now—and for reasons beyond oyster shooters, clam chowder and grandma-approved Italian cuisine.

Some of the country’s most important chefs call the city home, including Barbara Lynch, who in the late ’90s opened No. 9 Park, a Mediterranean-inspired Beacon Hill restaurant that’s as relevant today as ever. Around the same time, Ken Oringer debuted Clio, the French fine-dining concept that earned him a James Beard award. More recently, we’ve seen Tim Cushman redefine Japanese food at O Ya and Jamie Bissonnette (along with Oringer) open Coppa and Toro, inspiring a new generation of chefs to make serious food in a less serious way.

But to understand what’s happening in Boston right now, look to two chefs who have recently made their mark with restaurants of their own, where they’re creating some of the best food in America.

Michael Scelfo grew up in a food-obsessed household, which helped ignite his love affair with the culinary arts. He attended Western Culinary Institute, cooked at Wildwood Kitchen in Portland, Oregon, and then started to look for a place to plant some roots. “My wife and I were newly married and were looking for a place to settle down. Boston seemed like a cool place,” says Scelfo. “Then Jamie Bissonnette started getting a lot of recognition for his cooking, and that really opened the door for other chefs to start branching out creatively.”

Scelfo worked in some of the city’s best kitchens, most recently at the always-bustling Russell House Tavern. In January 2014, he opened Alden & Harlow in the iconic former Casablanca space in Harvard Square. The menu showcases simple and delicious dishes inspired by family meals. “It’s an extension of your family’s kitchen table,” says Scelfo. “It’s about passing and sharing plates in a lively environment. We wanted the food, drinks and service to all be top-notch but certainly not get in the way of having a great time with people.”

Alden & Harlow’s design draws inspiration from Scelfo’s home. “I live in an old colonial house outside of the city, and it’s kind of mishmashed,” he says. That style is reflected in the restaurant. “There’s subway tile, wood, brick, leather and iron. We’ve got cookbooks on display. We’ve filled the restaurant with the things we care about.” The menu is equally homey, bringing to life inventive twists on mains and sides. Scelfo says vegetable dishes continue to be the most popular, especially the charred broccoli served with butternut squash hummus, bianco sardo and cashews. Other favorite dishes include crispy baby bok choy with a 60-degree egg and walnuts; chicken-fried rabbit with celery, apple and blue cheese; and crispy pork belly with Anson Mills grits.

It’s the kind of food diners love—and critics, too. In its first year, Alden & Harlow made Bon Appétit’s list of nominees for best new restaurants in America. “It’s so great to see that when your head is down, working,” says Scelfo. “The fact that people around the country are talking about what’s happening in Boston is really flattering.”

Another chef that Bostonians are talking about is Matt Jennings, my choice for “best chef more people should know about.” After an incredibly successful run with Farmstead in Providence, Rhode Island, Jennings relocated his family to his hometown. “Moving to Boston was more of a personal lifestyle decision than anything,” he says. “Our family is here, and we missed the vibrancy of the city. There’s an energy in Boston right now. It’s palpable.”

In February, Jennings opened Townsman, which sits on a busy corner of downtown and boasts floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Rose Kennedy Greenway. “I wanted to do a lively brasserie,” he says. “It’s a little more spirited [than Farmstead], less fussy, more bold, full-flavored. We’re having fun with it.” The 4,500-square-foot space includes a lounge for after-work drinks, a dining room and a patio. However, the 10-seat crudo bar is Townsman’s shining star. “It’s a tip of the hat to the diner culture I grew up with in the Northeast,” says Jennings, who designed the diner-style counter with swivel stools to provide a ringside look at the kitchen. The food, however, is anything but short-order offerings: house-made charcuterie, cheeses and crudo (try the hamachi with rhubarb, beets and green garlic). If you’d like something a bit more substantial, Jennings is especially proud of the Amish hen for two, served foot-on, drenched with black trumpet mushroom gravy and paired with chickpea gnocchi.

Of course, food is only part of what makes Boston a great place to cook and eat. “The thing that really sold me on moving back here was the conviviality,” says Jennings. “The restaurant industry here is incredibly supportive. I think that’s the most exciting aspect of owning a restaurant here right now.”

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