“very thin robiola and beet ravioli with poppy seeds & drops of strawberry balsamico”
Doesn’t that sound delicious? Even if you hate beets, as ELV does, don’t you just want to order it? And doesn’t it sound unlike anything you’ll find in a Las Vegas restaurant?
Agreed. True. Yes, and sadly, yes.
Vegas menus are so stuck in the pizza, pasta (and not even interesting pasta) chicken, steak and seafood rut that such ingenuity flies out the window faster than you can say: “Let’s turn Brasserie Puck into a pizzeria.”
Pity, because it means, with several notable exceptions, any true gourmand has to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to meet cooks and food that disdain the same old, same old.
One such cook is Lydia Shire — a lady whose food ELV has been eating since the mid-1980’s. This grand dame of Boston’s female chefs is a creative and restless soul who knows how to entice and please palates of all stripes.
“spinach gnocchi gnudi w/ a winey Verdicchio..green garlic/squid butter.”
Think anything like that will ever make it into a Vegas Italian restaurant? Doubt it.
We first ate Shire’s food at the Copley Plaza — the grand dame of Boston hotels — back around the time she was being “discovered” by Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. We’ve since followed her food to Seasons, BIBA, the Locke-Ober and now to Scampo, and have always been impressed by what we call her rather “busy” cuisine, that somehow always seems more pristine and measured that that of that other Bostonian: Todd English. Maybe if Lydia had a big, photogenic head, a giant chin, and a sexy square jaw, she would now be flying around the world managing an overwrought brand whose reach always exceeds its grasp. As it is, she appears happy to run her Boston empire, and oversee food that successfully straddles the line between the intriguing, the complex, and the customer-friendly.
“cod crisped in flaked potato w/smoked bacon puree – fried parsley – golden tomato butter”
Lydia insisted we have the cod: “You’re in Boston, you have to have some cod!” And so we did, all the time wondering why the only fish you ever see in Vegas is salmon, sea bass and tuna. “Because that’s all that will sell,” a notable local chef told us. Pity.
We had never met Chef Shire, even after twenty-five years of eating her food, until serendipity stepped in almost as soon as we stepped off the plane. On the flight, panic had gripped us as we realized we’d be arriving in Boston around 8, starving, and without a clue about dinner. We didn’t even know where or what the Liberty Hotel was, and became frantic imagining a mini-bar meal of Pringles and Snickers (not bad if you’re close to death, especially with a Diet Coke of appropriate vintage). But then we started wondering where Lydia Shire was cooking these days, we glanced at our confirmation, and lo and behold right there on the travel voucher were the words: “Enjoy some of Boston’s most exciting cuisine at Lydia Shire’s Scampo, located right off the lobby.”
It was fate. We checked in and hustled to the restaurant and just as we’re being seated, she walks right past us, and in a startling, embarrassing, too loud voice we blurt out: “Lydia Shire,” start gushing like a schoolgirl, and within minutes, she’s ordering and serving us, and we get the best waiter in the house for the night.
“rum brined kurobuta pork chop w/ fried peanuts & muscovado sugar baked ripe plantains”
Think you’ll ever find a rum brined pork chop in our humble burg? Dream on.
Our meal was so good we returned the following night to taste every mozzarella made in the house. But before we got to our quark, burrata, burala and house made, we chowed down on slices of that hairy pig from Hungary:
“amazing Hungarian mangalica prosciutto w/butter toasted almond cake, pickled white grapes & a shot of amontillado sherry”
It’s only a matter of time before this darling of the pork world makes it’s way to our humble burg, but our staff doubts that even our top chefs are going to pair it with something as scrumptious as above.
The point of all of this is: Shire cooks inventive, lip-smacking food for foodies and devoted customers — not a bunch of tourists who are happy just to be out of Sopchoppy (Florida, not France) for awhile. Our restaurants, with maybe a dozen exceptions, never met a cliche they didn’t like, and when ELV has to fly to Boston to read (and taste) an interesting menu, then a recalibration of what makes our food scene special is clearly in order.
Damn the carbon footprints! Full speed ahead! Chefs of Las Vegas: Go get some hairy ham and make it sing on the menu and the plate!
And Lydia, we love you.
At the Liberty Hotel
215 Charles Street
Boston, MA 02114
* Scampo: to escape. A simple Italian restaurant. As you have read/will read, it is and it isn’t.