Do your trips to Boston revolve around the past? You usually walk through Boston Common and Faneuil Hall. You see ships and reenactments, monuments and plaques no matter which neighborhood you designate as your short-term home. You eat the usuals: baked beans in little Irish pubs, cannolis in the North End, and New England clam chowder just about everywhere else. Even Fenway Park counts as a historic site. This time, you’re determined not to get stuck in your old rut, though. You can start your first night in the city with a reservation in Back Bay.
With its 19th-century Victorian brownstones along the Charles River, the Back Bay neighborhood doesn’t ensure a modern take on Boston. But don’t judge a place by its façade. Asta is one of the most interesting restaurants in the whole city. Its small dining room is pretty bare with exposed brick walls and reclaimed wood panels. The space is decorated with an open kitchen, a horseshoe-shaped bar, and blond-wood tables, whose little drawers open to reveal your silverware. So far, Asta looks like a normal, though cute, restaurant. The food is about to change that.
After you shed your heavy layers, you’re welcomed to Asta with a glass of Cava and a peek at the three menu options. You have a choice of three, five, or eight courses; the latter two can be paired with wines. Surprisingly, none of the dishes on the three menus are repetitive. Even more surprisingly, your entire party doesn’t have to eat from the same menu. You can easily try 13, if not 16, dishes this way.
Regardless of your selection, each meal begins with the same crusty bread, rich butter, and flavorful, one-bite amuse-bouche. The meal that follows uses local inspiration, overlooked ingredients, and artful presentations. Vegetables, from turnips and beans to baby onions and new potatoes, are the stars. There are foraged greens and a variety of mint of which you’ve never heard. The cheese and the eggs are fresh from a nearby farm. The pork is topped with spices, harissa to be exact, that will shock Bostonians used to boiled, unflavored meat. The seafood, especially the oysters, tastes the way it smells along the coast. While the desserts—canelés and sweet corn pudding—feel like the only ways to end the meal properly.
It’s only after you finish your last sip of wine—a funky, not-too-sweet one from Austria—that you overhear that the chef, already well-regarded in Boston, spent a few months at the famed (and soon-to-close) Noma. He certainly discovered new techniques in Copenhagen. But it’s his appreciation for unheralded native ingredients that really makes the meal stand out. For a trip to Boston, there’s no better or more modern way to eat.