Tradition with a Twist
Have you checked out hotels for the holidays?
by Clea SimonHenrietta's Table offers a mix of tradition and innovative side dishes. Photograph by David Carmack
Food, fun, and family, beloved traditions and golden memories: all these are part of the New England holiday spirit. For many of us, the ideal Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanzaa surrounds us with the people we love. But that gathering no longer has to take place around a familial hearth. For an increasing number of people, home for the holidays is not an option--and hotel and restaurant celebrations are amply taking up the slack.
Revelers who want to celebrate a truly regional Thanksgiving, for example, may find themselves at Henrietta's Table in Cambridge. Local fruits and vegetables, traditional fowls and New England cheeses take center stage at this popular restaurant. With a daylong buffet offering everything from the customary turkey and stuffing to apple-cider-braised pork loin and smoked fish, this Harvard Square eatery has seen its holiday crowd grow steadily, says Peter Davis, executive chef for the restaurant and the Charles Hotel.
"We're getting lots of families," says Davis, who notes that most diners, in the holiday tradition, opt for an early meal. Although the buffet is open from noon to 8 p.m., many groups make reservations to dine between 1 and 6 p.m. And the hungry patrons are not only hotel guests, though parents with children at college make up a reasonable percentage. "Mostly," he says, "we're seeing local people who just don't want to deal with a big meal at home."
What these families look for, says Davis, is tradition with a twist. Innovation has its place in the side dishes. Salads, for example, show off a chef's creativity in tossing together oven-dried pears, roasted walnuts, and red-leaf lettuce, or mushrooms and artichokes, or even cucumbers, tomatoes, and squid.
When the December holidays roll around, Henrietta's Table and the Charles Hotel continue the festivities. The hotel hosts a plaza tree-lighting ceremony, and the fully decorated spruce overlooks a Christmas Day buffet of smoked duck, balsamic rack of lamb--and more turkey. Davis tops this meal off with more tradition, including apple and pumpkin pies, holiday cookies, and a mocha bûche de Noël.
A few innovations are also making their way onto the holiday menu at the Aujourd'hui restaurant, in Boston's Four Seasons Hotel, according to executive chef Edward Gannon. This year, as for the past two, he will oversee five Thanksgiving seatings at the upscale restaurant, a special holiday menu in the Bristol Lounge, and the ballroom brunch buffet. "Some of the traditional things, like pumpkin soup, we'll put a little twist on," he says. "This year, we'll add a ginger crème fraîche." In Aujourd'hui, in particular, he will play a bit with some of his longtime favorites: known for his risotto, for example, he will make the rich Northern Italian dish this Thanksgiving with seasonal butternut squash. And his crème brûlée, long a favorite with customers, will be updated into a holiday specialty with sugared corn.
Patrons can expect the main entrées for all the holidays to be straightforward, whether enjoyed at the prix-fixe Aujourd'hui dinners on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day ($71; $31 for children under 12), in the Bristol Lounge ($45; $24 for children under 12), or at the more elaborate Christmas Eve dinner or ballroom brunch. Although Gannon will be preparing quail and fish dishes, his turkey with a chestnut and sage stuffing sets the standard by which the majority of his guests mark their holiday. "When it comes to turkey," he says, "you don't want to mess around."
Holiday celebrants looking for something more than a great meal may want to ask area hotels about catering services. At the Charles, Peter Davis oversees cooking for private parties of just about any size. Downtown, options expand even further. The catering staff of the Four Seasons, for example, recalls a corporate holiday party for 575 guests that was designed with Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" as its theme. Working with a local theatrical properties company, the entire second floor of the classic hotel became a Dickensian set, says Barbara Spencer, director of catering for the hotel. The foyer held Christmas trees, benches, and lanterns, like an English city square, and each of the rooms became a different "home" that revelers could visit.
Although the biggest clients are the many corporations who book December weekends up to a year in advance, Spencer says smaller private and family groups also use the hotel's catering facilities. The Four Seasons offers a four-course meal for a range of $66 to $90 per person, and newer trends--such as post-holiday parties to brighten up January's dull days--are attracting new clients.
That mix of innovation and tradition distinguishes the Fairmont Copley Plaza as well. Witness its new "turkey to go" option--"all the things you'd want for Thanksgiving dinner," promises director of sales and marketing Jon Crellin, "including reheating instructions!" Halfway between a restaurant celebration and a home-based holiday, these fresh, packaged dinners ($120 for four people, $150 for eight) include everything from meat (turkey with stuffing) and potatoes (mashed and sweet) to rolls and pies. There's even seasonal potpourri and a chef's toque to help the host get in the mood.
For those who like their holidays with full service, the hotel goes all out, decorating its lobby, suites, and restaurants with gold and maroon, and hanging huge bows in the big front windows on Copley Square. That helps make it a welcoming place for the growing number of families who use it as a holiday base. "We have one family that comes every single Christmas for a four- or five-night stay," says Crellin.
Bigger functions, including corporate parties, are also part of the holiday planning, which starts months ahead. Some clients use the private rooms attached to the hotel's restaurants. Others rent the big function rooms for lavish spreads. One firm, Crellin recalls, laid on a $30,000 shrimp display for clients and guests.
Those looking to sweeten their holidays may choose to do so at the Regal Bostonian Hotel. Guests celebrating at the Seasons restaurant or in one of the hotel's private rooms can enjoy a traditional holiday meal, or opt for somewhat more unusual flavors. Give thanks with squab confit, for example, or potato-wrapped sea bass. Walnut-crusted cod will show off the bounty of New England seafood, as will a lobster and acorn squash bisque, topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and crème fraîche, all prepared by Seasons' new chef, Michael Taylor. Be sure to save room for dessert: pastry chef Christophe Feyt plans a pumpkin crème brûlée with spiced mango sorbet and a molten chestnut mousse with chocolate sorbet and Irish cream to make the holidays special.
Those who want to share the bounty may also do so, sweetly, at the Regal Bostonian's annual Habitat for Humanity fundraiser, taking place this year on December 8. For $50, partygoers enjoy hors d'oeuvres and cocktails and vote for their favorite gingerbread house in the veritable village created by 30 or so sponsors. Last year, the Union Oyster House won the contest by reproducing its own historic building in spicy cake. Such a party promotes the real benefits of the holidays: a chance to gather with friends and family, a festive celebration, and a way to share the season's warmth with the world.
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