Dining Out: The Marliave

Of course I want to see the Marliave succeed. Who could wish anything but success for a historic Boston restaurant that opened in 1885 and sits right in the middle of Downtown Crossing, an area that badly needs locally owned businesses?

[sidebar]

The challenge of reviving the long-shuttered landmark attracted Scott Herritt, a mostly self-trained chef who owns Grotto, a hidden gem of Beacon Hill that serves a fresher version of the North End Italian he learned while cooking at the Florentine Café. If he can make a semi-basement behind the capitol succeed, turning a big downtown bar and restaurant near City Hall into a hit isn’t too far-fetched.

Herritt dug into the task with imagination and respect, transforming the downstairs bar into a photo-filled tribute to the Prohibition era. The black-and-white-tiled, brass-railed space seems constantly lively and filled with people enjoying carefully made cocktails and a wide choice of simple bar food. (The full menu is also offered downstairs.) The upstairs is the fine-dining experience, and it represents Herritt’s aspiration to compete on the high-price, high-stakes level of Boston’s top dining destinations, with the kind of continental polish that the Marliave embodied in its beginnings as a French restaurant.

As it happened, the dining room underwent a substantial change soon after it opened—not usually a positive sign. But it was a good change: from a confusing menu whose main courses were all split into two (making a meal with an appetizer and dessert four courses, not three) to a more familiar, better-timed setup. The next change should be a similar streamlining of the prices, along with some of the chef’s grander ambitions.

Herritt obviously can cook, and he clearly cares about buying top-quality, local ingredients and preserving their integrity. However, in undertaking a complicated menu—most entrées have at least three components—he can’t seem to maintain consistency in seasoning or preparation. There’s inconsistency in the cost-to-quality ratio, too. The starters are reasonably priced for the portions they offer: between $13 and $17, with an outlier at $30, a caviar-laced egg dish that happens to be the best one. But the main courses are way too expensive at $29 to $44. And too many are not just underseasoned but also unsatisfying, with underflavored meat and underimaginative vegetables.