It’s an afternoon in the middle of November, and Ken Oringer is in his basement office below Clio, poring through file cabinets full of memories — menus upon menus, photographs, thank you notes, magazine covers. A week earlier, he had announced that the 19-year-old restaurant would serve its last dinner on New Year’s Eve, closing to make way for the growth of its tiny sister restaurant, Uni, which began its life as a waiting lounge for Clio, nestled at the bottom of stairs carpeted in leopard print.
"I get very nostalgic with all this crap I've saved from the years," he says, flipping through photos that include so many big names — Julia Child, Ferran Adrià, and Jacques Pépin are just a few who have dined at Clio over the years. The restaurant’s alumni list is also impressive, turning out well-respected chefs who have gone on to do big things in Boston and beyond. To name just a few: Tony Maws (Craigie on Main, The Kirkland Tap & Trotter), Alex Stupak (Empellón in New York City), J. Kenji López-Alt (Serious Eats), and Andrew Taylor (Eventide Oyster Co. and more in Portland, ME).
Julia Child with Oringer (far right) and Victor LaPlaca, Eddie Britt, Alex Talbot, Rick Edge, and Eric Island.
"She loved coming here and being able to eat things like bone marrow and foie gras and black truffles," Oringer says of Child. "Back in the day in Boston, there weren’t a lot of restaurants where you can get those type of things. She was so French and just loved rich, fatty dishes." As Oringer looks through countless old menus, he digs up more evidence that he was making use of some really interesting ingredients that weren’t common back then.
"Fifteen-plus years ago, I was starting to get into the offal phase," he recalls, "serving tripe consomme, for instance. Duck tongue. Suckling pig. Offal’s such a big deal now, but I think back in the day we were one of the first places to be able to serve some of this stuff, especially at the prices we were charging. We had a pot pie of cockscombs with black truffle and root vegetables. We had wild hare. It was a fun time to be cooking."
"We were doing calamari with grains of paradise," he continues, "and nobody knew what these spices were." Coconut water was popping up on the menu years before every supermarket became inundated with it. Clio was the first restaurant in the United States to use argan oil, he says; he smuggled it in from Montreal. And he was serving geoduck — that phallic, giant clam whose name sounds like "gooey duck," not "geo duck" — 15 years ago too.
He spots a butter-basted lobster dish on a menu from a time he cooked at the James Beard House during Clio’s early years. It’s still on the restaurant’s menu — "probably the only dish to make it the distance, one of my favorite, favorite dishes ever," he says.
Even in the early days, Oringer’s interest in Japanese food — which ultimately led to the opening of Uni in 2002 and now its overtaking of Clio — was poking between the lines of the contemporary French menu. "I was obsessed with Japanese-esque types of stuff and unique ingredients," he says, rattling off dishes with king crab, Japanese octopus, and more. The pre-Uni days saw lots of raw fish dishes on Clio’s menu as well.
It started even before that, though. Oringer traces it back to his days as a young cook under David Burke at The River Cafe in Brooklyn, where Burke was serving things like raw sea urchin and sashimi. Later, Oringer found himself at Al Forno in Providence where a Cambodian cook brought him to Cambodian restaurants. "I’d never eaten food like that, and I said, holy shit. The hot, the sour, salty, sweet — I’d never experienced anything like that. To eat that all at one time, it really started to shape the way I was thinking about food. I was like, I’ve got to work in something that’s a little more Asian-inspired, and Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] at that time had a restaurant in Boston called Le Marquis de Lafayette where he was cooking really true Asian-French food. I begged for a job there and got one, and after that, I just followed that path."
"That was the way my brain was starting to think about food," he says, referring to those pre-Uni days, "and I was like, you know what? I should get rid of that stupid lounge down there and open up something a little funkier."
This group includes Jacques Pépin (center, in the blazer) and Jean-Claude Szurdak (next to him, also in a blazer). Oringer is on the right, and others in the photo include Todd MacDonald, David Varley, and Nathan Tasato.
"I look at this stuff, and it just makes me smile," says Oringer. "We definitely did some pretty cool stuff back then, and I don’t think any of this stuff is dated at all, which is kind of fun."
So why close now? "I get bored very easily," says Oringer. "I love change. I love change. If you told me 19 years ago that I was going to be doing this restaurant for the next 19 years, I’d have said that there’s no way in hell. I didn’t even want to sign a five-year contract when I first started, because I didn’t even want to be somewhere for five years. It’s just come to that point where I want to do something a little bit different, and we’ve been looking to expand Uni for a long time. It’s going to be so nice. I want to serve nigiri; we’ve never had space to do it down there. When I first opened it up, I’d be down there three nights a week just to get me out of the kitchen so I wouldn’t be yelling at the guys every night, and I could really speak with our guests and have an interaction and see what people were eating. It kind of set the tone for Toro and a lot of my other restaurants after that."
Besides, fine dining is just not what interests Oringer these days. He thinks there’s still a market for it — "business has still been very strong for us," he says — but "it’s not the way I eat. It’s not the way I go out. I don’t want to be sitting in any restaurant, I don’t care how good it is, for four hours. Now I don’t go to three-star Michelin restaurants when I travel; I just want to go to places where I can have some fun, eat creative food, and have a cool wine or cocktail."
Given the chance to go back in time, Oringer wonders if maybe he would have done something different in the space, a Toro instead of a Clio. "It was so much work," he says. "I’m sorry to see it go, but in a way — and believe me, Uni is very labor-intensive also — but fine, fine dining and having the pastry chefs and this and that, it’s a lot of work, and it’ll be nice to not have to think about food that way anymore where people are spending $150, $200 a head and there’s no margin for error."
In the beginning, it was only Oringer (a "punk" at the time, he says) and four or five cooks in the small upstairs kitchen. (Now there's a larger kitchen downstairs.) "We used to plate desserts, we used to do all the production, we didn’t have pastry chefs, we didn’t have anything. We would do all the dessert stuff after service and stay until, like, four in the morning."
Oringer roasts a goat with Ryann Mann and Michael Ginor.
The neighborhood, that bit of Newbury Street beyond Massachusetts Avenue, was a little bit on the gritty side back then; Oringer saw hundreds of cars broken into over the years. But the Eliot Hotel, Clio’s home, was always ritzy. "Back in the day, I was so crazy," says Oringer. "We used to go in the back alley of the hotel, and I would have this one maintenance guy at the hotel bring a spit, and we would do whole baby goats and things like that. We would have all these people paying $300, $400 a night in the hotel complaining about the smell of this goat cooking on an open fire. Back then I didn’t give a shit. All I wanted to do was cook great, innovative foods, so we had to comp many hotel rooms because I was a punk back then."
Clio’s life began with an opening party that was the "shitshow of shitshows," and he’s never had an opening party since then for any subsequent restaurants. "It’s not worth it. We just open the doors when we open the doors, and we don’t tell anybody, and then a couple days later, we tell people."
A menu from a dinner that the Clio team served at the James Beard House in New York during Clio's early years.
"We just had no clue what to expect," Oringer recalls from the opening months. "None whatsoever. I was new to Boston, and we were just kind of in survival mode. We got so busy so quickly that I literally had to call chef friends and ask if they could send so-and-so up for three days; they could crash on my couch. We did that for months; people were crashing in my apartment. I had this little tiny apartment, and we would have people sleeping on the floor, couches, whatever, just to get bodies in here because we were (luckily) so busy when we opened. And then we finally started to stabilize a couple months in, and we were able to attract talent because at that time there weren’t a hell of a lot of restaurants in Boston. We were able to attract some talent and just build and build and build and build."
"It was a dogfight for a long time," he continues. "I was this tyrant in the kitchen, and it was fun and exciting and crazy, but those were different times. I’d be throwing côtes de bœuf across the kitchen if somebody overcooked them. It was an intense environment, but we really pushed for perfection, and we created an amazing legacy of 20 or so cooks who have walked through the doors here who have gotten Michelin stars and this and that and everything else. I think it was just a matter of people working together and really making great things happen, because there were so many talented people here over the years."
"We’ve definitely had our ups and downs," Oringer says when asked to recall the most difficult moments over the 19 years. "We’ve had some periods over the years when we had to close the restaurant a couple days a week because we didn’t have enough bodies, and those were always super, super hard. We’ve lost some key people at inopportune times, which is always tough. Christian Touche, my general manager from day one for over ten years — losing him was a real loss. We worked together conceptualizing this place, and then when he went on [to open AKA Bistro in Lincoln with Chris Chung], it was tough for me because we saw eye to eye on everything, and we built this thing together. He was the first person I called when I came up with the decision to change this and close down Clio."
Oringer and Jacques Pépin won Beards the same year. Christian Touche in on the right.
But the 19 years have been filled with plenty of happy memories as well, like Oringer’s 2001 James Beard win for Best Chef Northeast after multiple years of nominations. "Back then we used to close the restaurant, and I’d bring the whole team down," says Oringer. "We’d go out to lunch at a really great restaurant in Manhattan, the whole front-of-house and back-of-house team, and I’d say, ‘If we win, we party together, and if we don’t win, we party together.’" When we finally won, it was pretty amazing."
Now, after nearly two decades, it’s time to say goodbye. After renovations, the new and improved Uni is expected to open early in 2016, "reflect[ing] Japan’s modern-day food philosophy," as described by the November press release announcing Clio’s closure and Uni’s expansion. "This transition for Clio represents our drive to always push boundaries," Oringer said at the time, via the release. "I’m really inspired by my travels throughout the world and the constant evolution of the food scene in New York, Paris, Tokyo, and beyond — just as Clio was of a certain time and place, this new spot will showcase the best of today’s innovative dining culture and the style of food I like to eat now."
Bissonnette and Oringer.
Meanwhile, Oringer is also working on opening Little Donkey in Central Square with Jamie Bissonnette in spring 2016, where they’ll serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a "very comprehensive" late-night menu. As Cambridge Day reported in late September, Bissonnette provided a sample menu to the licensing board that included dishes like harissa barbecue lamb sliders, oxtail pierogi, snail fried rice, and crab nachos.
There’s about a week left to visit Clio, and Oringer hopes you’ll pay a final visit. "It’s been a pretty cool restaurant for a long time, and even if they just come for a drink or whatever, it would be nice to just have people and tell stories. Not a lot of restaurants go this long; it’s a lot of memories."
Photography: Main image of Clio's dining room by Eric Roth for Clio; provided by Clio. Photos of Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette by Nick Solares for Eater. Old photographs of Clio's pre-renovation interior provided by Clio. Photos of old photos and menu in Oringer's office by Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater.