The Five Seasons
A macrobiotic warhorse goes '90s -- and upscale
by Robert Nadeau
The Five Seasons, which originally opened in Jamaica Plain in 1981, was one of
the last and best of a wave of very influential Boston health-food restaurants
serving food based on the "macrobiotic" diet. It had a somewhat novel spin on
Boston's 150-year fascination with health food, emphasizing Japanese foods and
whole grains, and banning all dairy products. The system gradually evolved --
there was a stretch when adherents could smoke a few cigarettes -- and the
restaurant has done well over the years with seafood and free-range chicken.
1634 Beacon Street, Brookline; (617) 731-2500 |
Open for lunch Mon-Fri, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.,
and for dinner daily,
AE, DC, DI, MC, Visa
Access to some tables up a slight bump
from sidewalk level
This year the Five Seasons finally closed its crowded location in Jamaica
Plain and moved to Brookline. The new restaurant, which has many of the
strengths and quirks of the old, presents some contradictions and difficulties.
For one thing, we now have a health-food restaurant that serves French fries
(organic potatoes); beer and wine (organic); coffee, including decaf and
espresso (organic); vodka (with carrot juice in the "screwdriver"); and bottled
soda (Natural Brew "Outrageous Ginger Ale"). I guess it's only a matter of time
before Coca-Cola puts out an organic version -- "Neo-Classic Coke" -- to go
with the new brown-rice Pringles.
That said, the new Five Seasons is an attractive, loud grill with an open
kitchen and some excellent food at modest prices. The tabletop condiments are
eclectic: tamari, olive oil, salt, pepper mill. Given that dishes fall way
short of five seasonings, I wouldn't mind a bottle of hot sauce as well. But
you don't need anything to enjoy the superb, crusty sourdough rye bread that
comes in thick slices in a basket.
The potato flavor of the French fries ($4) is front and center, and you get a
lot, but they're somewhat limp and pale, and the homemade ketchup is too sweet,
like tomato paste. We did better with fried calamari ($6), also not browned,
but lightly battered and entirely tender and sweet. This also had a better dip,
which tasted like a rémoulade with some added hot-pepper sauce.
Chowder of the day ($3, included with some dinners) never includes milk. We
had one "Sicilian" chowder based on tomatoes and vegetables (no potatoes) that
was impeccably fresh and delicious, but it had exactly one scallop, one mussel,
and one squid ring. Another night we had a "Portuguese soup," in which the fish
had fallen apart by 9:40 p.m. and the tomato base was a little too sweet.
Salad ($3, $5) is an excellent mix of field greens. A sea salad ($4, $6) adds
the sea vegetable of the day; one day it was green sea palm, with a texture
like chewier chard ribs. The contrast of sea and land greens is excellent.
Recent menus have featured mostly seafood entrées, with two vegetable
platters and one chicken dish. Pan-blackened bluefish ($14) was an excellent
piece of fish and not overdone. The blackening, however, had no residual spice
-- it tasted like charcoal. A lively fruit-and-tomato salsa was a big plus; a
mound of brown rice was sticky and a little cold. This dinner brought a choice
of soup or salad.
Szechuan-style tofu ($11) was the kind of dinner one expects here, a medley of
vegetables (a few too undercooked) and fried tofu squares over organic brown
rice. The rice was perfectly cooked -- not so easy at home without a rice
cooker. The only weakness was the tomato sauce -- a little spicy, but not in
the style of the tomato-based sauces of Szechuan, which would use cilantro and
ginger instead of sesame seeds. Of the vegetables, bok choy, pea pods, spinach,
red bell peppers, and asparagus were better at this level of undercooking than
broccoli and carrots.
Baked stuffed organic acorn squash ($12) was a failed effort at solving the
problem of making a vegetarian platter look as impressive as a
meat-and-potatoes entrée. Two stuffed halves of an acorn squash looks
like a lot of food, but the squash itself tasted weak and watery. I don't think
it needed chemical fertilizer and pesticides, just more ripeness in the field.
(For home cooking, by the way, always buy winter squash with brown stems, not
greenish.) The stuffing, a pilaf of chopped pecans and rice, was almost
tasteless. There were some nice slices of shiitake mushroom, but we needed
vegetables with more flavor -- dried mushroom, celery, onions, parsnips. The
sides, undercooked asparagus spears and baby vegetables (zucchini, yellow
squash, carrots), were welcome and flavorful.
The Five Seasons has a genuinely interesting list of organic wines and beers.
The Golden Promise Ale ($5.50) from Scotland was a classic dry-yet-malty
Scottish ale served in a tall glass. If this is health food, sign me up.
Desserts are where macrobiotic cooking tends to break down, under the triple
burden of no eggs, no sugar, and no dairy. One picks around for something that
doesn't usually rely on one (or all) of the delicious deadly trio. Plum and
berry crisp ($5) might normally use butter and sugar, but if you like your
fruit on the tart side, and your crisp somewhat granola-esque, this is a
wholesome dessert, much improved by the optional whipped cream ($1 for either
real maple whipped cream or whipped tofu). Gingerbread ($5) with hot pear sauce
was spiceless, and the pear sauce had no zip. Next time, it'll be the chocolate
sauce -- I don't mind bitter chocolate. Tea and coffee ($1.50) are good, served
black, of course.
The new room is on two levels, with blond-wood tables and chairs, square
floating ceiling lamps evoking rice paper, and some other Japanese ideas (black
plates). The open kitchen makes it loud, so you don't usually notice the
background music, which runs to jazz guitar. The old restaurant was crowded,
and one overheard a lot of earnest conversations. The new one keeps tables
small and close enough together so that one still overhears a lot of earnest
A remaining problem is that the new restaurant, like the old, doesn't take
reservations. The old waiting room was the sidewalk of Centre Street. The new
waiting area is the juice (and booze) bar and a little stand-around space.
Maybe waiting for food is part of the diet.
A note about the new Five Seasons juice bar. The regular juice combinations
($3 for 12 ounces, $3.50 for 16 ounces) and smoothies ($3.50, $4) are made
fresh and unsweetened, with plenty of lemon juice to pick up the natural fruit
flavors. But I have a problem with regard to the 50-cent add-ins and $2
combinations that give you doses of medical herbs like St. John's wort and
gingko biloba. My concern is that these drinks don't just taste bad but
actually affect the human body. St. John's wort is an antidepressant not
unlike Prozac. So, on the one hand, seeing any benefits requires weeks or
months of use -- not a single drink in a restaurant. And on the other hand,
even the quackiest books about St. John's wort include a warning against using
it if you take a prescription antidepressant, since they could interact -- a
warning posted nowhere at the Five Seasons.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at email@example.com.