Did you know that Massachusetts has one of the country’s largest concentrations of people of Portuguese ancestry? Not only that but, like the Bay State, Portugal has a rich history of fishing and a cuisine steeped in the bounty of the sea.
With those strong ties, it’s surprising that the state doesn’t have a wealth of Portuguese restaurants. Michelin-starred chef George Mendez thinks so too, and he has done something about it. His high-profile Amar restaurant—housed on the 17th floor of the even higher-profile Raffles Boston hotel—mixes twin influences of his youth: his Portuguese heritage and his New England upbringing. “This feels like I’m coming back to my roots,” says Mendez of opening the seafood-forward modern Portuguese restaurant in Boston. “I felt this natural connection, and it made sense to me.”
A first-generation American who grew up in Connecticut, Mendez says the area’s Portuguese community, combined with Boston’s local bounty, make it the ideal spot for this new endeavor. “Seafood in Boston is some of the best I’ve seen in the world. Period. Hands down,” the chef says. Indeed, the opening menu makes use of a multitude of local delicacies, from lobster and clams to sea urchin and bluefin tuna.
The idea of Amar is thrilling to Simon Rodrigues, Raffles director of sales and marketing. Also a first-generation child of Portuguese immigrants, Rodrigues says that until now, there just weren’t a lot of local options for high-end Portuguese dining. “Portuguese food was understated,” Rodrigues says, adding that it mostly was the kind of old-school restaurant he would go to with his parents.
“Now to have this elevation of [the cuisine]—so many of us are proud and excited to see this come to fruition.” Elevated is exactly the right word across the board. Amar is situated adjacent to the hotel’s “Sky Lobby.” The cozy, double-height space features soaring floor-to-ceiling windows with stunning views of Copley Square, along with dark, hand-painted walls and moody lighting that puts the focus on an eye-catching crystal chandelier inspired by the palm styling of the Raffles logo.
Mendez comes to Boston with an elevated resume—he worked for celebrated French-American chef David Bouley at his original New York City restaurant, then cooked at a three-Michelin-starred spot in Spain. Upon returning to New York, Mendez opened Aldea, which combined Spanish and Portuguese influences, and earned a Michelin star that he maintained for more than a decade.
Any aspirations for another Michelin star will need to be set aside for now, as the storied guide doesn’t currently cover Boston, but the chef wants Amar to be a blend of special occasion grandeur and a place to stop in for a delicious weeknight meal. “There are no white tablecloths,” Mendez says. “We are building this very energetic vibe in the restaurant, fine dining but in a laid-back way.”
To that end, he intends to offer a tasting menu alongside à la carte options. “We don’t want to tell the customer making a reservation that they have to eat a certain way,” Mendez says. “We want to be able to say, you can have dinner in an hour if you want. But we also want an opportunity for the foodie to go full on and have a tasting menu, which will be anywhere between six to nine courses, a total immersion in the dining experience.”
Building Amar’s kitchen came with its own challenges, including working out the mechanical systems to allow for cooking with wood and charcoal. “We’re really excited about that,” Mendez says. “We can literally buy firewood and cook in the medieval way.”
The grill is a star in the chef’s vegetable-forward dishes, featuring farmers market squash and pole beans, but also delivers perfect heritage duck and monkfish. Overall, the chef envisions very few meat dishes on his menu. “Probably only one or two meat offerings at any given moment,” Mendez says. “We’re really putting seafood on a pedestal and [using our] modern Portuguese lens to heavily show off Boston’s and New England’s bounty.”
40 Trinity Pl., Boston, 617-351-8888, rafflesboston.com/dining/amar