Restaurant Review: Beacon Hill Bistro

By Corby Kummer | Boston Magazine |

A NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT has a few duties to its regulars: Recognize them; welcome them; give them reliable dishes they can order again and again knowing they’ll be as good as they were the last time, plus a few new things for variety. Meanwhile, a hotel restaurant has a couple of duties: Welcome guests as if they were regulars, and provide food that will appeal to a wide range of tastes yet also be reassuring and familiar.

[sidebar]Beacon Hill Bistro has managed to do double duty for 10 years, tucked into a room in the heart of Beacon Hill’s main drag that attracts well-to-do neighborhood residents and tourists, including the ones who stay in the cozy boutique hotel above it. I love the room, which seems exotic and vaguely Parisian; when I first reviewed the restaurant six years ago, I described it as resembling a car on the Orient Express.

But at that time, I didn’t love the food. Enter new chef Matt Molloy, who came onboard in August to replace departing chef Jason Bond, who has opened his own place in Cambridge. A seven-year veteran of Newton bistro Lumière, Molloy knows how to cater to demanding and affluent locals, and he’s obviously succeeding in his new job: Whenever I’ve dined there recently, I’ve seen plenty of Hill residents. And as far as I could tell from nosing around their tables, they were tucking into the same tried-and-true dishes that I found to be the high points of the new menu. (Maybe they got treated better than I, a newcomer; it was uniformly hard to get a server’s attention, even when the place wasn’t busy. At one point, after I’d asked three times for the same thing and been told, “Right away” with no follow-through, our waiter put his hand on my shoulder and, with a patronizing “It’ll all work out, bud” manner, promised to get whatever it was for us.)

Even with an ambitious new chef who’d like to make his mark, Beacon Hill Bistro won’t turn into a destination restaurant. That’s not in its DNA. What Molloy has done is upgrade the ingredients and modestly update the offerings. That’s all the owners are up for, I’d wager. So the menu plays it mostly safe and delivers lackluster dishes — alongside a couple of standouts with clear, strong flavors that make you think, This is a chef I need to know about.

The food isn’t flashy. This is Beacon Hill, after all. And Molloy has been schooled in chef Michael Leviton’s philosophy at Lumière (he ran the kitchen while Leviton cooked at Persephone), where local ingredients and technique come first and a quiet, confident sense of luxury dominates. Molloy hasn’t yet developed that confidence. His execution is uneven, particularly with fish, and he sometimes seems careless in gauging the overall balance of flavors in a dish. An entrée of seared scallops with corn purée, lobster, bacon, and potato ragout ($29) featured overcooked, tough scallops, and was so overwhelmed by smoke and salt from the bacon and by cream — Molloy described it to me as a deconstructed chowder — that I wondered if anyone in the kitchen had actually tasted a completed version of the dish before it went out. (It has since been changed.) A generous fillet of sautéed Chatham cod ($27) tasted salty and greasy, with unpleasantly fatty skin, but the accompanying shell-bean ragout with Swiss chard and a mild-flavored romesco sauce was good enough that Chez Panisse itself would be proud to serve it.