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Clio - 2003 Fine Dining Hall of Fame

When it comes to cooking, Kenneth Oringer loves to take risks. In his quest to bring his unique culinary experiences to patrons at Clio, Oringer seeks out ingredients not likely to be found in other upscale kitchens.

A barnacle from Chile called pico roco, argan oil, grains of paradise, long pepper and live sea urchins are just some of the obscure ingredients Oringer uses to set the menu at his contemporary French restaurant apart from those at other highly acclaimed Boston eateries.

"The more exotic, the more I like to work with them," Oringer says of ingredients. "And the more-simple, the more I like to work with them."

Since Clio opened its doors in 1997, Oringer's ability to build culinary masterpieces out of the offbeat has wowed critics and customers near and far. In its infancy the restaurant made the best-newcomer lists of both Gourmet and Esquire magazines. Boston magazine dubbed Clio the "Best Restaurant, General Excellence" in 2001 and the "Hottest Restaurant" in 2003 and named Oringer the "Best Chef, General Excellence" in 2002. In 2001, the James Beard Foundation voted Oringer "Best Chef in the Northeast."

"Ken has his own style and travels a great deal, so he sees a lot of different things," says Michael Schlow, a friend and similarly vaunted Boston chef. Schlow co-owns Radius, Via Matta and soon-to-open Great Bay, all in Boston.

"He's not afraid to eat at street carts as well as three-star Michelin restaurants," Schlow says. "He'll find ideas and then do it in a little different way. And he loves the search for exotic or offbeat ingredients. When everybody else is using calamari, he's using giant squid."

Oringer sensed that Boston was ready for something slightly different when the possibility of opening a restaurant arose. At the time, Dora and Arthur Ullian, owners of the high-end Eliot Hotel, were looking to renovate the Eliot Lounge, a space in the hotel that previously had been a favorite hangout for Boston Marathon enthusiasts. The Ullians wanted to develop a restaurant that would appeal to both their upscale clientele and the affluent neighbors around the corner on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston's Back Bay. Schlow introduced the Ulhans to Oringer, and the idea for Clio was born.

"I felt the city was changing," Oringer recalls. "There had been a lot of incestuous food. Many of the chefs opening restaurants had worked with Todd English, Gordon Hamersley, Jasper White, Lydia Shire. I wanted to combine the casualness of San Francisco and the cutting edge of New York."

Oringer had honed his skills in those cities and others with an impressive list of chefs. After graduating in 1989 from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.--where he was voted by his class "Most Likely to Succeed"--Oringer worked under David Burke at River Cafe in New York. He went on to pastry work at Al Forno in Providence, R.I., and then moved north to Boston to work with Jean Georges Vongerichten at Le Marquis de Lafayette.

He opened Terra in Greenwich, Conn., before heading west to San Francisco, where he served as chef de cuisine at Silks at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

"It was incredibly fun," says Ming Tsai, chef-owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., and a familiar face to cooking-show viewers. In July Tsai will begin taping a new series called "Simply Ming" for public television.

Tsai first met Oringer when they worked together at Silks, and the two have remained friends since. In fact, Oringer encouraged Tsai to move to the Boston area when he was looking to open a restaurant.

"I credit him, along with Ken Hom," a renowned East-meets-West chef who was consulting at Silks at the time, "with getting my food to the next level," Tsai says. "[Oringer] had learned about purees, essence and oils from Jean Georges, and I learned from Kenny."

He adds: "I think he's one of the top five chefs in the country. He even sleeps with a notepad by his bed so if he thinks of an idea at 3 a.m. he can write it down."

Oringer's passion for cooking was sparked early in his childhood. Raised in Paramus, N.J., he and his twin brother had two older sisters and parents who often took the family into New York to eat in Chinatown and Little Italy.

"I have known that I wanted to be a chef since I was about 6 years old," Oringer says. "My parents encouraged us to be in the kitchen."

His parents also encouraged him to go to business school. So before landing at the CIA, Oringer attended Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., where he earned a business degree that he notes has been invaluable in running restaurants.

After Silks, Oringer returned to the Northeast, becoming chef and partner at Tosca in Hingham, Mass. He already was widely recognized by the media before Clio opened. Traveler magazine had placed Silks among the top 20 restaurants in the country while Oringer was there and The San Francisco Chronicle had named Oringer "Best New Chef."

Located in a building built in 1925 in Boston's historic Back Bay neighborhood, Clio was named after the Greek muse of history. Construction took about six months, during which the worn Eliot Lounge was transformed into an elegant 60-seat eatery that quickly became a favorite gathering place for power breakfasts and lunches and special-occasion dinners. Oringer also oversees room service for the 95-suite Eliot Hotel.

Clio's contemporary French menu boasts, among other items, an appetizer "sandwich" of foie gras with crunchy potato, medjool dates and candied kumquats for $20, as well as a salad-of roasted cipollini onions and cardoons with anchovy dressing, $13. Among the entrees are sweet butter-basted Maine lobster with chanterelles, fava beans and "yin jaune d'arbois" for $36 and aromatic glazed short ribs with shiitake crust, pea sprouts and potato puree for $34. Clio's check average for lunch and dinner with beverages is $85. Tasting menus are available nightly for $95 and $125.

While Oringer has taken knocks from some customers about his small portions, no one questions the competitive streak that keeps him working to best himself.

"There is a visual aspect to his food," Schlow notes. "It's very colorful and garnished beautifully. You know Ken's food when you see a picture of it."

Tsai agrees: "His food is always executed perfectly. As a chef I say, 'How did he do that?' And that's what he's going for. He wants a chef to say, 'How did he do that?'"

"I love his short ribs," he adds. "It's one of his signature dishes. And I love anything he does with an Asian influence.

Last year, Oringer bowed to his love of Asian cuisine and opened Uni, a sashimi bar located in Clio's former lounge. Uni allows Oringer to give full vent to his artistry and love of the not-so-common delicacies he finds globally.

The menu includes, among other items, mirugai, a marinated giant clam with white soy, lemon, seaweed and fresh wasabi for $13 and octopus seviche featuring Japanese octopus with yellow-pepper juice and Vietnamese coriander, $12. He also offers live Santa Barbara sea urchin with hamachi, aji vinaigrette, radishes and onion seeds for $16 and salmon carpaccio with black-truffle vinaigrette, lemon zest and sansho pepper, $17.

"Some of Boston gets it, and some don't," notes Tsai. "But, obviously, I've always thought his best food was East-West food--and he doesn't really look Asian," he quips.

Alison Arnett, restaurant critic for The Boston Globe, writes that she was impressed with the textures and flavors at Uni and found many of the plates delicious but was just as content to return to Clio's main dining room.

"Oringer still layers on his ingredients and his flavorings, but seems to have grown in control and authority over the years," she writes. "This has always been a well-run dining room, beautifully appointed without being splashy. The wait staff manages to be solicitous with no hovering. And with a fairly small room, a rather low ceiling, and plenty of padding, it's never noisy--an adult's room. The wine list, however, is a shock--there's nothing under the high $40s--and that's the regular list. The small reserve list climbs quickly into three figures."

She concludes: "Oringer dazzles quite often, and sometimes he overdoes it. His prices are high, and I see the point of those who disdain the portions. But his talent infuses this handsome restaurant. You know you won't be bored."

The promise of culinary excitement and a loyal clientele have kept Clio's sales strong despite the stalled economy.

"We've actually been very, very lucky," Oringer says. "We're ahead of last year. I don't know why, but I'll take it. We're small, we're consistent and we're a restaurant that really bends over backwards to make people feel special."

And as Oringer looks back over a career that has taken him to destinations like Singapore and Thailand and soon will find him in South Africa, he can't quell his enthusiasm.

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