TICO SHOULDN’T BE GOOD. Despite the big-name talent behind it — Michael Schlow, of the highly successful Radius and Via Matta — it seems like a formula restaurant. Schlow has recently hit the casino trail, opening an Alta Strada at Foxwoods’ MGM Grand to follow the one in Wellesley. His now-closed seafood restaurant, Great Bay, never found its feet.
[sidebar]Whether Tico turns out to be a Great Bay or a Via Matta remains to be seen. After all, Schlow didn’t make his name on Spanish and Latin-American food. He did that with the Italian food that inspired Via Matta and Alta Strada. And at Tico, he’s mixing and matching and Americanizing, something he never did with Italian cuisine. Not even Ken Oringer, the Boston restaurant operator Schlow seems to be following in extending his ethnic range, varies the dishes at Toro and Coppa quite as much as Schlow does at Tico.
Which brings me back to my initial skepticism. Tico is in the somewhat-corporate Back Bay space long occupied by Cottonwood, and its natural audience is office workers and businesspeople who’ve come to relax during or after work — people who don’t want to be challenged by food that’s too odd or too spicy, or by much of anything, really. The room is slick, a bit dark, and comfortable in a Westin sort of way. And the Americanness I detected in the Mexican, Costa Rican, Peruvian, and Venezuelan dishes on Tico’s menu seems to be aimed at blunting raw spice or rough sauces, at smoothing out all the edges on the plates and making the mild dishes go down easy.
It works. I’d heard mixed reports before going, particularly about the service, but even with the numerous glitches, I thoroughly enjoyed much of what I ate at Tico, and found myself happier to go back than I thought I would be after an uneven first dinner. Joshua Smith, Schlow’s main cook at Tico, and a longtime associate, Luis Morales, the director of culinary operations, are looking to build a crowd-pleasing menu. (The restaurant’s name is slang for someone from Costa Rica — a local — explained Morales.)
And what could be better received than, say, a BLT taco? Smith’s variation ($9) featured shredded cabbage marinated in lime juice, chipotle aioli standing in for mayo, and green-tomato jam; it was just enough of a change to make this its own dish. The tortillas, from the local company Cinco de Mayo, were fresh and good. I asked for so many that eventually the manager solemnly informed me I’d have to pay for them. (I did, and gladly.)
Because the kitchen plays it safe, the trick is finding dishes that deliver flavor and don’t crumble into blandness. On the taco list, crunchy edamame, tomatillo, and cucumber ($8) was all cool crunch and no depth; even chipotle aioli couldn’t rescue the lobster-and-avocado taco ($12) from seeming like a caterer’s conceit. But one filled with tender pork and spicy cucumber ($9) was a smart mix of tastes: Mexican cilantro, poblanos, tomatillo, Spanish cayenne, and Japanese rice wine vinegar came together to make something ethnically unidentifiable but both sweet and piquant.