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Boston Revisited

Where to Stay

Hotel Commonwealth

After being shown to my room at the Hotel Commonwealth I tried to log on to the Internet from my laptop using a wireless connection. No luck. Like many in my generation I am somewhat technologically challenged and my skills are mostly limited to sending and receiving email, checking stock prices and financial sites, shopping and doing searches on Google.

Lobby, Hotel Commonwealth

Since I wanted immediate access to a working computer, I phoned the front desk for help. Within minutes General Manager Tim Kirwan, who is known for his availability, hands-on managerial style and high standards of service, appeared and solved the problem.

In years gone-by reviewers would stress the Frette linens and towels, L’Occitane toiletries, the Euro-style marble bathroom with a separate W.C., the very large TV screen, the tasteful furnishings and choice of colors and the comfort of having a separate sitting area, king-size bed and view of the Avenue.

Today advanced technology is a factor in choosing accommodations. Hotel Commonwealth is the first to deploy SIP (Session Initiation Protocol.) The system allowed the hotel to create a range of personalized services through the Pingtel telephones. The phones have screens that display Internet sites and concierge-type information, such as events, restaurants and weather. Every room also has an Alcatel wireless phone, which can be used anywhere on the property and features voicemail, dual-line, call waiting and caller ID. The system can be upgraded continually by adding more software capability.

When the independent luxury property opened its doors to guests in May, 2003 it was a major step in the gentrification of this slice of Commonwealth Avenue, a once grand boulevard that had slipped into shabbiness.

Boston University was part of the group of developers that undertook the project. Four stories were built on top of the ground floor structure. The Commonwealth’s facade matches that of its neighbors, a row of townhouses distinguished by bay windows on all floors. Only the canopy on the corner building singles it out as a hotel.

If you look for a unified decorating theme, there is none. Yet, the distinctive elements do not fight each other. Traditional furnishings and modern convenience define the one suite and 149 guestrooms. The lobby with its red seating and rug is contemporary Italian, as is the reception area and staircase. Looking down the vibrant corridors on the guest floors, you see a minor architectural feat. Because the doors are set into protruding alcoves, the hall looks like a row of boxes, with each one inside the one behind it. A function room with a gas fireplace recalls the 19th century. Another larger one with a glass floor is of this era.

With its proximity to Boston University, Fenway Park, major museums and Newbury Street, this new kid on the block is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Hotel Commonwealth, 500 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215. Tel. 617-532-5005. www.hotelcommonwealth.com

Where to Dine

Raw Bar, Great Bay

Great Bay, the restaurant attached to the Commonwealth Hotel, seems less like a hotel dining room than most. Located in a corner of the lobby that fronts the street, you can enter from the hotel, but most diners don’t. They may only be vaguely aware of the connection between the two. With its dramatic nautical theme, both in decor and food, Great Bay reminds me somewhat of Farallon in San Francisco, which is housed in the Kensington Park Hotel. However, the door leading into Farallon is on Post Street and in this case at hand the ownerships are separate.

When Great Bay opened, its future seemed uncertain because of its location in a changing area and because filling 170 seats each night is no easy chore. But just as Farallon, where it is difficult to get a reservation, caught on so has Great Bay. A seafood restaurant that prepares fish properly and innovatively and uses products that are the freshest and finest makes perfect sense on either coast. Executive Chef Jeremy Sewall’s resume includes a stint at an inn north of San Francisco. Esquire recently named Sewall Best New Chef of the Year.

Ed and I like to try each other’s dishes. My smoked trout must have been prepared in-house as it was delicate and did not have the too salty taste of a commercial smokehouse. It sat atop frissee tossed with almonds and tangerine vinaigrette. Ed began with seafood salad, a snappy combination of squid, shrimp and scallops enlivened with mint and carrot dressing. He doesn’t like skate, which I ordered, and I don’t care for halibut, which he chose. But when we sampled each other’s main courses, we were both surprised. The pan-roasted skate wing, which was served off the bone and lightly breaded, was silken and tasty. The meaty halibut had a nice texture and good flavor. Finished in a lobster stock and accompanied by fall vegetables and lentils, it was a satisfying entree. Large and unusually formed dishes are good canvases for the artistry with which the food is plated.

A horseshoe shaped raw bar with a separate menu is the focus of the front room. Soaring windows curtained in sheer fabric, a brightly painted vaulted ceiling and metal fixtures suspended on rods are a few of the flourishes in this striking space.

Great Bay, Hotel Commonwealth, 500 Commonwealth Ave. Boston, MA. Tel. 617-532-5300

Aujord'hui, Four Seasons

One year ago following a dinner that was prepared by the chef of The Four Seasons Boston at New York’s James Beard House, I wrote (when in Beantown) "head for Aujourd’hui. " On this visit to the city I heeded my own advice. The party atmosphere at the former home of the dean of American cooking and the outstanding food made that long ago meal a special one. Now the stylish surroundings at Aujourd’hui transformed this evening into a noteworthy dining experience. The restaurant holds 130, but because of its spaciousness tables are set far apart.

We were seated next to ceiling-height windows overlooking the lovely Public Garden. This corner of the paneled restaurant felt almost like our own private dining room. And it seemed as though our waiter had been assigned to serve just us.

The tasting menu was printed with our names at the top. The menu changes seasonally, but Chef Fannon tries to present foie gras most of the year. We ordered the four-course autumn tasting menu, which turned into six courses with the addition of an amuse bouche and the chef’s wish to include his prized foie gras. The wine pairings amounted to seven as Aujourd’hui offers some excellent vintages by the glass and the waiter poured one as an aperitif. He even switched to a red zinfandel when I said that the original choice for the beef, a cabernet sauvignon, did not complement the sirloin.

Some patrons do not like talkative waiters, but we appreciated friendliness and attentiveness of ours. The first course of crabmeat bound with olive oil, an unlikely fusion, was flat, but it gave us a chance to sip a Louis Roederer Brut Premier that balanced fruit and acidity. Ahi tuna, cauliflower puree, raisins, capers and curry emulsion was a properly thought-out combination and was well-matched with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. That precious foie gras sat on brioche and was accompanied by poached fall fruits and napped with spiced syrah reduction. Many people think of Sauternes as a dessert wine, but the accord between silky foie gras and cold unctuous Sauternes started the fashion for this pairing.

Tender aged beef with confit potato, charred wild mushrooms and sweet onion jam was another harmonious mix. We would have been satisfied to drink more Sauternes Rayne-Vigneau with the warm molten chocolate cake, ice cream and petit fours, but our server insisted on opening yet another bottle, Muscat Beaumes de Venice. We were glad he did for the thick rich dessert wine with orange and violet aromas was a delightful nightcap.

Oh, what a meal! Oh, what an evening! One downer, weather and wind come early to Boston and we could not walk back to our lodgings in the darkened city.

Aujoudhui, Four Seasons Hotel, 200 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116. Tel. 617-338-4400

Winter 2003-04