I wonder how many people out there are like me: when my birthday comes around (or within 4 months…) my mind immediately turns to restaurants. Rather than thinking about holes in my summer wardrobe or dropping hints about my need for a new iPod, I go online and search for the location of my birthday dinner. This year, while I was well underway with making my June 22nd reservation, my husband pre-empted me with a surprise the week before — a dinner and birthday gift rolled up into one.
He took me, and two friends, to Stir — Barbara Lynch’s new venture in the South End. Not only did we eat a great meal, but we watched it being cooked in front of us by two of Ms. Lynch’s skilled chefs. The concept is straightforward and brilliant: each class is based on a different cookbook, selected from one of the many stacked on the bookshelves on one wall of the cozy kitchen. Two talents from the Barbara Lynch Gruppo choose 3 or more recipes from the cookbook to demonstrate and serve to the guests, who number no greater than nine. My birthday dinner, based on The River Cottage Meat Book, consisted of french fries, charcuterie (cured meats, salami, and pork rillettes), sweetbreads with bacon and fava beans, and crispy pork belly with apple sauce. It was not to be believed. Of course, the entire meal is paired with excellent wines by the course, and a copy of the cookbook is yours to keep. I left Stir that night with a smile from ear to ear and a book called Meat under my arm.
My mother’s birthday followed closely behind mine, and I borrowed RJ’s wonderful idea. For Mom, the cookbook du jour was A16: Food + Wine, named for the famed San Francisco restaurant. Nate Appleman, the chef/owner of A16, was recently named Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation and ranked as one of Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs 2009. The featured recipes included pizzas (bianco – with green olives, parmesan and chili oil; Romana – with tomatoes, anchovies and oregano; and margherita – with mozzarella, basil and tomatoes); halibut with a preserved meyer lemon, caper and pistachio crust and a side of delicious kale; and chocolate budino, the most heavenly chocolate-on-chocolate tart I’ve ever tasted, topped with olive oil and sea salt.
What is so lovely about Stir is that it feels like a dinner party among friends. They only allow 8-9 people at a time, and the chefs encourage questions and dialogue as they cook their way through the menu. Of the people around the table at my mom’s birthday dinner, half were repeat attendees (one guy was on his fourth visit) and the rest was my family. It felt very familiar and casual, despite the decadent food and wine.
There’s also a tactile element I really enjoy – at my first Stir experience they passed around raw pork belly so we could feel the skin before the cooking process made it crunchy like candy, and the other night we handled pizza dough at different stages of rise so we could understand the results of proofing and kneading.
Best of all, however, is the staff. In June, we met Molly, the executive sous chef at Stir, and Jericha, one of the butchers at the Butcher Shop. This month, Molly was again regaling us with her fun tales of culinary school but stationed just to my left was none other than Barbara Lynch! I can’t tell you what a treat it was to watch and learn from this master chef. She forced the elastic pizza dough into submission, loosed handfuls of kosher salt with abandon, and divulged some of her favorite places to eat in Boston/Cambridge: Oleana, Hungry Mother, and Sel de la Terre (plus Cambridge One and Upper Crust for pizza). Personally, I must confess that my favorite place to eat in Boston is Stir. The experience is unique, unpredictable, and fun – it would be perfect for a first date if it weren’t so gosh darn expensive. While you’re saving up, however, consider buying the book, due out in the fall, to tide you over: STIR: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition. While I haven’t seen it, I would bet the farm that it is fabulous, and will be appearing soon on the shelves at my house.