The picture-perfect rolls, warm from the oven, came on a cloud of pressed white cotton cradled in a silver basket. These weren’t just any rolls, they were Parker House Rolls – baked, served and soon-to-be-devoured at the Parker House Hotel.
The Omni Parker House at the corner of Tremont and School Streets, a bastion of tradition and old-world elegance founded in 1855 in Boston, is still thriving in the 21st century. It’s a culinary landmark, as well as an historic hotel. Along with the famous rolls, the Parker House claims to have perfected Boston Cream Pie and coined the term Scrod.
I’ve long pursued the grail of an authentic and delicious Parker House Roll – light and fluffy with a slightly crisp crust and buttery flavor. My modest success at home never hit the mark. Some local bakeries make fine examples. But I was eager to make a pilgrimage to the source in Boston.
I wasn’t disappointed.
After a sumptuous brunch, restaurant manager Scott Culhane took us to where the rolls are produced. Down steep stairs and through narrow corridors below street level we found the gleaming bakery.
Long wooden tables and industrial-sized mixers were clean and ready for early-morning action the next day. On the counter, a venerable dough-divider sat ready to cut rolls with a pull on its long handle. We were left to imagine the bustle as rolls, pies, cakes, and more were prepared every day.
The breakfast/lunch/brunch menu emphasized the traditional in favor of the trendy. There was award-winning clam chowder ($10) elegant in its simplicity, and scrod ($30) baked with buttery cracker crumbs.
The blueberry-buttermilk pancakes were appealing for brunch, but when the server recommended the corned beef hash ($22), I was all in. It came in its own cast-iron skillet with two eggs (over easy for me), breakfast potatoes, and toast – a hearty brunch indeed. The hash – shreds of corned beef and diced potatoes flecked with red and green peppers and flavored with onions – nestled in the pan with the hash browns under a cap of eggs.
The individual Boston Cream Pie, befitting the elegant surroundings, was more stylish than the typical diner variety. The chocolate top was artistically swirled like a fancy cappuccino, chopped toasted almonds dusted the sides, and a swirl of fruit puree with a clutch of raspberries framed it all. But under the friperie was a heart of tender, flavorful cake with rich custard between the layers.
The Parker House has carefully preserved its historic feel while updating to avoid any sense of fusty or frayed. The wood-paneled entrance leads through a two-story lobby with carved details and an elaborate tray ceiling lit with crystal chandeliers. Ahead is the eye-catching bank of bronze elevator doors. You can easily imagine past regulars like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes conversing in deep leather armchairs.
Parker’s restaurant continues the same high style with crisp white table cloths, upholstered chairs and monogrammed silver. It’s not hard to conjure up Jack proposing to Jackie at table 40. Over the years, Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, and Bill Clinton have all held forth over a meal.
While the Parker House is the standard bearer for New England dining tradition, there’s a lot more good food in Boston.
Seafood is abundant, fresh and local. Jasper White’s Summer Shack is notable for its impeccably fresh fish, oysters, and lobsters served in a comfortable, beachy atmosphere. Try the grilled salmon ($28) with apple fennel slaw and parsnip puree or pan-roasted haddock ($26) with mushroom-sherry butter. (There’s also a convenient Summer Shack branch at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville.)
In Boston, they’re particularly proud of the great Italian food in the North End. On a recommendation we went to Vinoteca di Monica. The extensive menu took a deep and delicious dive into Italian eating.
Boston is packed with history going back to the earliest days of our founding. The Freedom Trail is a good place to start. It takes you right past the Omni Parker House – be sure to step inside and sit down to culinary history.
Frank Whitman can be reached at NotBreadAloneFW@gmail.com.