Dining Out: The Marliave
A Boston classic gets a new lease on life with a dramatic overhaul that might be a bit too ambitious for its own good.
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?
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 CafĂ©. 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 openedâ€”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 menuâ€”most entrĂ©es have at least three componentsâ€”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.
Yet there’s hope. Herritt has a refreshing restraint that comes out in, for instance, that egg appetizer, served as a trio with a lovely poached egg on toast beneath a thinner-than-usual hollandaise, a bland but fine deviled egg, and soft–scrambled eggs with three kinds of caviar. Though the eggs were cool by the time they arrived, all had a beautiful and just-right texture that’s not easy to achieve. Herritt’s reimagined clam chowder ($14), already a signature dish, is a shallow pool of simple reduced-cream broth base below hand-cut carrots and potatoes, big squares of braised Vermont pork belly, and a few meaty littlenecks steamed to order. It was so good I wished for more of the broth, and it’s an example of where Herritt, reaching for elegance, succeeds.
EntrĂ©es could all use editing. The best so far are sweet Nantucket Bay scallops poached in an artichoke and leek broth, alongside seared diver scallops with slightly salty uni butter ($34)â€”as with the egg appetizer and the chowder, the flavor of the principal ingredient comes first. A black truffleâ€“stuffed leg of rabbit beside a prosciutto-wrapped loin ($34) is a bit precious, with the leg placed vertically like a cancan dancer’s, but has nicely flavored if slightly underdone meat.
No other main I tried warranted the price. Wolf Neck Farms tenderloin and braised short rib with sauce Diane ($42) and rack and braised shoulder of lamb ($42) are tender but so mild in flavor you can hardly tell them apart. Veal chop Milanese ($44) has too much breading and too little flavor, as does the overly rich risotto beside it, but at least the plate has some green asparagus, topped with a poached egg. The potpie ($29) keeps to local and in-season (unlike the asparagus) vegetables, including Macomber turnips and parsnips, but is almost completely unseasoned, with an underbaked round of puff pastry and not-very-truffley black truffle butter.
Have you noticed a white theme? (I know you’ve noticed the prices, unsustainable in this economy.) Aside from an arresting beet starter ($13), with borscht and a napoleon of thin-sliced beets and goat cheese, and salad with greens and heirloom tomatoes ($14) from Eva’s Garden in Dartmouth, nearly everything is white or light brown. Even the (three-part) desserts are monochromatic. The chocolate option ($10) has the most color, even if it’s brown, with a particularly good flourless cake made with superior Callebaut baking chocolate. The vanilla-themed plate ($10) comes with a curdy crĂ¨me brĂ»lĂ©e, tiramisu parfait, and dull vanilla cupcake with mascarpone frosting. The trio of house-made ice creams in vanilla, ginger, mint, or lavender ($9) is well executed, but picture it: three little white scoops in three little white cups on a big white plate.
If Herritt can keep the restraint, double the color, and roughly halve the prices, he’ll keep the upstairs dining room as lively and happy as the downstairsâ€”and give a grand old landmark the new life it deserves.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2008/12/dining-out-the-marliave/