Hits and Myths

Michael Leviton has a noble ambition. Two, actually. The first is not to lose lots of money pursuing a sweetheart real estate deal in Fort Point Channel, as who knows how many other enterprising chef-owners have done. The second is to create a restaurant on the order of San Francisco’s Zuni Café, one of my favorite places not just in the country, but in the world.

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At first blush, Leviton doesn’t seem the obvious candidate. I’ve always found his restaurant Lumière, which brought fine cuisine to Newton, slightly starchy and, frankly, French. I’m in the minority, and I haven’t been there in a long time, but I never thought of Leviton—who has built a reputation as a champion of local ingredients—as being much in the Mediterranean swing, as Zuni firmly is, or being much interested in running a swinging place.

Persephone, Leviton’s new restaurant in the Fort Point neighborhood, certainly means to swing. It’s tucked inside a trendy clothing store, for starters. When Pava opened in Newton Centre two years ago, it was part of the fancy boutique Tess & Carlos, but it had its own entrance. Here, you have to enter through a store called Achilles and pass by tall cases in which clothes hang like art installations. Behind the cases is a lively bar with couches and intimate tables, and then comes the long brick hall that is the restaurant.

To get a foothold in Fort Point Channel, Leviton accepted the invitation of entrepreneurs Michael Krupp and Shaka Ramsay to establish a restaurant that would attract people from all over town to their retail-dining hybrid, the Achilles Project. No wonder Leviton took Zuni as his model: That café is the city’s crossroads, the place where a waiter getting off work comes for a drink and light meal at the bar and rubs elbows with the mayor, star chefs, and local style-setters.

Based on the three times I dined there, Persephone seems to be on its way to drawing a crowd like Zuni’s, the kind of people you find locally at the South End’s Butcher Shop. Certainly, foodies of note were present each time I went, as well as large parties that merrily—and loudly—filled the long tables that go down the middle of the room and give it the feel of a dining hall. A rowdy dining hall, that is, and one that an overworked staff has a fair bit of trouble keeping up with. On a Monday, servers were attentive, interested in us and the food; on a busy Wednesday, the too-few waiters frantically shuttled from table to table, interrupting orders and vanishing without explanation.

If the food at Persephone is to follow the Zuni model, it must be fresh, simple, reasonably priced, and strongly tied to local ingredients and Mediterranean traditions—and way better than you’d expect in a jammed place that stays open late. So far, Persephone is hitting a number of these targets while aiming for all of them. The fare is a touch pricey for the portion size, though, and uneven. And if there’s a money-in-the-bank dish to match Zuni’s legendary roast chicken with bread dressing, I didn’t find it.