by Christine Legros ’17
From the moment they place the pan-seared, bread-and-sesame crusted slices of tuna in front of us, the fish visibly coated in a crunchy crust but still raw and juicy in the center, I cannot help but congratulate myself on choosing a vegetarian friend to accompany me on this culinary tour of Harvard square. The tuna, whose portion my friend graciously transfers onto my plate, is so soft that the pink fibers of flesh seem to melt away under the slightest pressure of fork or tongue. It is served over a rice pancake, a lightly spicy pureed carrot swirl and little punctuations of “salsa verde.” In Grafton Street Pub & Grill, a restaurant that prides itself on its quality ingredients, this dish is an ode to New England’s fall. It seems to imitate the hues of the leaves that flutter right outside the locale’s entrance.
This is our first stop in what soon proves to be a fast-paced, taste-bud-exalting, all-senses-stimulating tasting tour, sponsored by Trademark Tours. After hurriedly finishing up our tuna and “Barber’s Advice,” a pear-vodka cocktail made with sage, cumin, clove, all-spice, vermouth, maple bitters and prosecco, we head over to nearby Salt & Olive, an olive oil and vinegar seller. The manager gives us a brief history of olive oil, which was a source of currency, energy and heat in Antiquity, until the Greek Hippocrates discovered that olive oil was, in fact, particularly pleasant to the palate. She tells us what to look for in good oil: “mouthfeel, fruitiness, consistency and viscosity.” Freshness, we learn, is key to the quality of olive oil: the younger it is, the more flavorful and peppery it will taste. She gives us instructions on how to taste it: hold the cup in between your palms and swirl it so that the aroma develops. Smell. Sip. Coat your tongue. Exhale through your nose. The decisively fruity flavor of the oil soon covers our noses and tongues.
Balsamic vinegar follows different rules. Like wine, it must be sufficiently aged. The shopkeeper demonstrates the difference between commercial vinegar and one of their house varieties: when she swirls them in transparent glasses, all visible trace of the store-bought kind disappears from the glass in a few seconds, while the house vinegar coats the entire surface in a deep red hue.
“This is what ageing does for you,” she concludes. “It’s pretty spectacular.”
Our faces all light up when we taste the vinegar, which is surprisingly rich and balanced, full of complex aromas.
“I didn’t even know I liked vinegar!” a woman explains, in awe. “This is amazing!”
We have time to wander through the store for a few minutes. We dip bread in oil and strawberries in vinegar, taking as many sips as we can from varieties that include “Eureka lemon fused extra virgin olive oil” and the rich, dark, woody “espresso-aged” balsamic vinegar. We are then directed to our third stop: “Follow the Honey,” a warm, tea-smelling store belonging to a “small family beekeeper and artist group.” We are introduced to two honeys: a light, crystallized one from Vermont and a darker Mexican concoction. The store emphasizes their commitment to conservation and sustainability. “All the collection,” we are told, “depends entirely on seasonality.” Today, for example, they have just received a lavender honey from Provence (“our most sought-after honey”) which tastes, as our group unanimously agrees on, like perfumed bushes and summer.
We then visit two other Grafton group destinations: Russell House Tavern and—after a brief stop at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, the square’s specialist in international delicatessen—PARK Restaurant & Bar. At Russell House, we sample a spicy cocktail made with green chili vodka, and jalapeño and green bell peppers, aimed at “breaching the gap between the bar and the kitchen,” as one of the chefs explains. The cocktail elicits a variety of comments from our group. “This tastes like something you should eat,” my neighbor comments. A friend adds: “Like tacos or something.”
The drink is served in combination with fried oyster. “You’re just supposed to shoot,” our waited informs us. “Just shoot.” The oyster’s fried saltiness, combined with the radish—crunchy, watery and fresh—and the exotic miso broth at the bottom of the oyster shell, is perfect when paired with our dry, peppery cocktail. At this point, my friend, who is having sudden doubts about her vegetarian commitment pulls out her phone to look up “The Ethical Case for Eating Oysters and Mussels.” She ultimately capitulates and decides to abide by her principles. While she sips her cocktail, I “shoot” both of our oysters with evident satisfaction.
PARK is our last stop. We are presented with an assortment of toasts—grape, cheese and shredded tuna; cheese, blackberries, and honey; and a warm biscuit topped with apple sauce and cheddar—alongside one of their most popular cocktails, the “Tender Whim,” known to adapt to individual clients’ desires and the chef’s inspiration of the moment. Ours consists of Bourbon, cinnamon syrup, lemon juice, and a strong-smelling orange peel.
The tour ends at 5:20 p.m., but in the dark, musky comfort of PARK’s leather couches, no one seems to complain. My friend and I pick up a book from one of the elegant shelves, but our waiter points toward a more mysterious object: a secret cigar box where clients leave notes. With our stomachs and minds inspired by the shopkeepers’ and chefs’ passion for their products, by our brisk, guided walk through Harvard’s autumn air, and by the excited, hectic, sensory overstimulation of the afternoon, we write down our impressions of the tour.