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  Big Doings in Boston - A Night at the Hotel Commonwealth and a Dinner at Great Bay

It was late February, 2004, and the anticipation around Boston’s historic Kenmore Square was palpable. With Fenway Park virtually down the block, the anticipated kick-off of spring training and the spirited  rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees at fever pitch as a result of the Yanks’ recent surprise signing of A-Rod, Bosox baseball was topic number one. In a few months, the DNC would be convening in Boston where presumably Bay State’s favorite son John Kerry would be the party’s nominee. And in May, the long awaited, official and grand opening of the Hotel Commonwealth would take place symbolizing the restoration of the Kenmore Square-Back Bay environs to the stately elegance of their Boston-Brahman past. By then, the T-stop, presently across the street, will have been moved beneath the hotel, the sidewalk will be broadened, and a promenade along the Commonwealth Avenue façade will front a row of upscale specialty shops.

Unofficially opened since May of ’03, the Hotel Commonwealth has already been named one of the best new business hotels by Forbes magazine and included in the ranks of the exclusive Small Luxury Hotels of the World (the sole New England property in the collection). Sitting flat on Commonwealth Avenue, around the corner from Fenway Park and a few blocks east of Boston University, the 150-room property that rose up on the site of a former IHOP is state-of-the-art-modern down to its digital cable and DVD lending library, its wireless access and high-speed Internet connections. Yet with architecture that suggests something of French Second Empire, mansard roofs topped with rectangular chimneys, and bow windows culminating in ornate turrets, the hotel looks more old- than new-Boston and pairs comfortably with its 19th century neighbor, the Kenmore Association building, across the way.

Big Doings in Boston A Night at the Hotel Commonwealth and a Dinner at Great Bay

The vivid eclectic interior of the Commonwealth reveals itself gradually. You enter a vestibule facing a small stairway carpeted in a scarlet and ocher fleur de lys pattern that stops at a landing. It is only after you’ve climbed the stairs and turned at the landing that the space opens up into a lovely large salon. The dark woods and vibrant reds, the elaborate plasterwork ceiling and detailed moldings are reminiscent of late 19th early 20th century American decor. Tall velvet chairs in a shade of deep ruby and elaborately framed mirrors evoke Italian Renaissance design while an exotic armless and backless settee and a pair of torchères on either side of the window bespeak Art  Nouveau.

Deluxe guest rooms are a fusion of the traditional and contemporary. High-tech computing and communications features co-exist with moiré covered walls, Frette bed linens, antique-styled commodious writing desks, and distinctive decorative touches like a glass-paned door with an opulent marble bathroom on the other side. In the early hours of the morning, one of us got up to look out the window onto a deserted Commonwealth Avenue lit by streetlamps. Occasionally a car drove up from Beacon Street to where it converges with Commonwealth Avenue. It seemed a scene out of an Edward Hopper painting.

Tradition fuses with contemporary in Commonwealth guest rooms - click to enlarge
Tradition fuses with contemporary in Commonwealth guest rooms

Some overlook Fenway - click to enlarge
Some overlook Fenway

Not much later, a knock on the door announced the delivery of breakfast -- precisely at the requested, if ungodly, hour of 5 A.M. Soon after, the bellman arrived to take our bags. By the time we were ready to leave, they had been neatly stowed in the van waiting outside the hotel entrance waiting to take us to the airport. The fluid arrangement of this early morning departure was typical of the exemplary service experienced at the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth’s garrulous and hearty GM: Tim Kirwan  - click to enlarge
The Commonwealth’s garrulous and hearty GM: Tim Kirwan

The engaging staff’s efficiency was matched by its warmth and friendliness -- a reflection, in all likelihood, of the example set by general manager Tim Kirwan whom we had met for drinks the night before in Great Bay, the swanky seafood restaurant that anchors the east end of the hotel. Garrulous and hearty, anticipating what will be his seventh hotel opening come May, Tim is an enthusiastic promoter of the city as much as the hotel.

“We’ve not only built a hotel, we’re renovating Kenmore Square,” he said in a booming voice that rose up over the tumult of the crowded dining room. “And by doing that, we’ll be re-connecting the ‘Emerald Necklace,’ Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision for Boston.”

As he had with Central Park in New York, the great landscape architect designed a pattern of greenery that would run through the heart of Boston, Tim explained. Only instead of a huge park in the center of the city, this would be a chain of small parks that began at Boston Gardens, linked up with Boston Commons, and continued all the way up Commonwealth Avenue to the Fens and the Museum of Fine Arts.

“But in the 1950’s, there was a kind of disconnect,” he said. “City planners were less concerned with parks than the need to move traffic. All these highways were built, and at Massachusetts Avenue, the chain was broken by a highway overpass.”

We’d noticed it, a block from the hotel, one of those massive expressways that came up during the post-war decades and cut right through the soul of many an urban neighborhood. A consequence of this particular stretch of highway was the deterioration of Kenmore Square. From a dignified west Back Bay neighborhood, it declined into a dingy and underdeveloped section of town. But the presence of the Hotel Commonwealth has spearheaded revitalization.

“Kenmore Square is our primary boulevard,” Tim noted. “We’ve put in all new streetlamps and crosswalks. We planted 87 new trees, a new strain resistant to Elm tree disease. I had them all lit up for the hotel’s pre-opening last May and then decided to keep them lit.”

Some were visible through the restaurant windows. Garlanded with lights, they created an enchanting perspective down Commonwealth Avenue.

“And our designer has continued the theme by creating a miniature emerald necklace throughout the hotel,” he added. “A lot of Bostonians would never know this. It’s very subtle. But when you come into the lower lobby, there’s one look, a sense of eclectic modernism. When you come to the upstairs lobby, there’s a different, more traditional, look. When you transition from there up the grand stairs to the public spaces, a third look and from there up to the guest rooms, a fourth look. The Boston Garden and the Boston Common each had its own integrity, but they were tied together. The hotel has these four different design experiences but they are all connected in a kind of an interior version of the ‘Emerald Necklace.’”

And where does Tim see the Commonwealth in terms of all the activity that will be swirling around Boston in the coming months, we wondered. “At the hub of four to five roads; we’re right in the middle of it,” he said. “Our owners are very involved in the Democratic Party. We’ll be housing the Virginia delegation during the DNC; the governor will be in our presidential suite.  Prior to that, we have Opening Day at Fenway, and we are along the route of the Boston Marathon, one mile from the finish line.”

Which puts Great Bay in the middle of everything as well.  Part of and apart from the Commonwealth, this singular seafood sensation is attached to and can be accessed from the hotel. But it has its own entrance on Commonwealth Avenue, is independently owned by chef Michael Schlow and Christopher Myers (their other restaurants Radius and Via Matta are among Beantown’s premier dining rooms, according to our Boston cousins who were joining us for dinner), and is a destination as much as a hotel restaurant. The space is huge and vaulted like a grand ballroom. But the atmosphere is relaxed and bustling -- especially around the huge raw bar. It has a sportman’s  feel – to be expected with Fenway a block away.  But beyond baseball fans, concert-goers at nearby Symphony Hall, the extended B.U. family, and indeed -- as word has gotten out -- the larger Boston community are coming to define Great Bay as the place for great seafood.    

This is not an intimate or clubby dining room.  There are no booths or paneled walls. The interior is clean, sophisticated, and just a bit theatrical. Red-tinted glass tables are trimmed in steel. A long wall of floor-to-ceiling (and this is one high ceiling) windows are draped with some gauzy fabric and hit by amber spots. One of us saw in it the sweep of sails; another outlines of starfish and sea anemones. A series of irregularly hung stainless steel pin-point lights with little orange hoods suspended over the backlit bar looked to us like an Alexander Calder mobile. But according to Didi Lutz, the Commonwealth’s director of public relations, they represent the skeletal structure of a huge fish. The kitchen, half a floor up and invisible behind the soaring rear wall, is accessed by a very visible stairway that lithe and sure-footed servers ascend and descend. This unique setup had been mandated by executive chef  Jeremy Sewall – “for dramatic impact,” he told us.

Jeremy, who has to be years older than he looks (“It’s not the age; it’s the mileage,” he insists), comes from York, Maine, and several times a week, he travels up to his seacoast home town to visit his grandmother and purchase fish for Great Bay. Long ago, he decided working in a kitchen was much easier than working on a boat with his lobster-fisherman grandfather. He headed off to the Culinary Institute of Hyde Park and distinguished himself at important London and San Francisco eateries before taking over the helm at Great Bay.

Creative executive chef Jeremy Sewall – he knows his fish - click to enlarge
Creative executive chef Jeremy Sewall – he knows his fish

“But all my family still live up in York,” Jeremy said. “My cousins are third generation lobster farmers. This time of the year they are trapping live Maine shrimp which have a very short season before heading south. We’re also getting lobster, crab. . .” Here he paused, and added with a modest smile, “I know my fish.”

Indeed. And how to prepare them with new takes on standards, striking Asian touches, and unexpected pairings all of which delighted our group. Miniature ceviches of  lobster and bay scallops, very rare, cured with acid and lemon juice were refreshed and sweetened by black grapes (!) and presented on a lovely miniature scallop shell atop a fish-shaped glass plate.

Distinctly flavorful tuna tartare held together by sesame oil and sesame seeds was enhanced by soy sauce, lime juice, and cucumbers. Miniature shrimp of the kind currently running were quickly fried in a Japanese spice and served with blood oranges to complement the natural sweetness of the shrimp.

Two in our group ordered pasta -- which, of course everyone had to sample -- thyme-flavored ravioli filled with chestnut purée and scallops, and gnocchi with lobster and savory black trumpet mushrooms. And then there was the clam chowder, destined to become a Great Bay signature (if it is not already). An ample bowl with pieces of assorted clams, cubes of potatoes and celery, slices of onions and parsley root at its base had been set before each diner. A steaming broth was then poured from a small kettle over the mixture releasing an irresistible aroma. Inexplicably light and at the same time creamy, it combined with the ingredients and herbs to make for one terrific bowl of soup.

Why the pouring routine, we asked Jeremy. “We don’t want to risk spilling the bowls of soup as we carry them downstairs,” he joked.

If the clam chowder was one new take on a seafood classic, the baked stuffed lobster is another. It is deliciously decadent, made with cream and butter with a stuffing of herbed brioche and sourdough bread, and accompanied by haricots verts, onions and carrots. Since the clam chowder was light on the cream, we felt we could indulge with the lobster, although after the many courses we’d already consumed, each of us had decided on having a claw in lieu of the standard two-pound portion.

“I grew up at the mouth of the Merrimac River where Massachusetts meets New Hampshire,” said Christopher Myer who had stopped by our table. “My family had twelve lobster traps so I have eaten a lot of lobster in my day.  And I can honestly say this is the best lobster dish I’ve ever had.” Christopher might be just a little bit biased – it is his restaurant after all. But we were not, and we concurred.

Christopher Myer, Great Bay’s co-owner - click to enlarge
Christopher Myer, Great Bay’s co-owner

Before concluding with a dessert of passion fruit sorbet and a platter of pastries, we met restaurant manager Stuart Horwitz who had come to Great Bay from L.A. along with a group of friends and co-workers in January 2003. “The restaurant was supposed to open the next month, but as things turned out, we didn’t open until May,” he told us. “However, for those four months, we were paid exactly what we would have been paid had we been working,” he told us.

Such treatment undoubtedly inspires a sense commitment in a staff. Certainly everyone we met at Great Bay conveyed as much, and it translated into service that was attentive, professional, and enthusiastic. All seemed to share Jeremy’s credo: “I have a lot of passion for this work.”

Hotel Commonwealth
500 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston MA 02215

Phone: 617-933-5000
Web: http://www.hotelcommonwealth.com

Great Bay Restaurant
500 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215

Phone: 617-532-5300

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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