Small plates, including the tacos and an assortment of dishes a la plancha, make up the bulk of the offerings. The latter are little bites of (chewy, uninteresting) cubed tenderloin in a green chili sauce ($7) or (good, if surprisingly mild) tidbits of boneless quail meat in a fresh mango–yellow pepper sauce ($9). These servings are even tinier and less substantial than the already dainty tacos. An additional selection of small plates offered a midpoint in quantity between those diminutive items and the entrées; three or so of these can and probably should make up a meal, given the variable quality of the main courses. (I wonder, though, why nowhere does the term “tapas” come up — perhaps because Schlow is ceding tapas to Oringer at Toro?) One standout small plate was barbecued shrimp accompanied by an irresistible mango salad with vinegar-honey-chili sauce ($9).
But the vegetables are the most reliably vibrant of all. Brussels sprouts caramelized in bacon fat ($8) were just as great as they sound, and were made even better by the addition of jalapeños, kumquats, mint, sherry vinegar, and thinly sliced red onion. Cauliflower roasted with thyme and finished with butter and a creamy sauce of crumbly, fetalike cotija cheese ($7) got its crunch from fried Peruvian fava beans tossed on top. It’s an original dish worthy of imitation. Even an extremely simple salad of shredded cabbage with a mint-parsley-cilantro salsa verde spiked with white anchovy and sprinkled with crushed almonds ($6) — a take, Morales told me, on an everyday salad his Costa Rican family used to make — had diners young and old vying for bites.
None of the other small plates I tried lived up to these. The Spanish tortilla ($8), that staple dish of tapas bars, was bland despite the inclusion of roasted poblanos, and lacked the lush eggy-potatoey comfort of the usual omelet-torte. Chorizo risotto with pasilla chilies, scallions, and Parmigiano ($11) succeeded in being comforting but wasn’t exactly interesting. A mushroom-and-cheese quesadilla with black-truffle salsa ($10) was a greasy, chemical-tinged failure, and came to the table nearly cold. Fried Manchego with spicy pomegranate-honey sauce ($9), which should have been a sure-fire hit, was instead boring and undersalted, something I very seldom say. And creamy gigante beans with chorizo and green onions ($10) were neither creamy nor cooked through.
Entrées were likewise unpredictable. Tender pork with white beans, smoked bacon, kale, and cumin ($24) was fatty and undercooked, with unpleasantly crunchy, also undercooked kale; the bacon seemed to have wandered in from some other dish. Seared branzino ($26) was flavorless and limp, though the accompanying salad of Brussels sprouts and bacon was welcome. Yet salmon with mushrooms, hominy, Swiss chard, and spicy shellfish vinaigrette ($24) was one of the nicest salmon dishes I’ve had in months, the sauce warm and deeply flavored, the fish medium rare and rich.
Desserts were more consistent. Peanut butter mousse ($10) looked awful and heavy but tasted creamy and good, and the chocolate gelato it came with happily dominated the peanut butter. And a chocolate tart ($10) was beautiful, with a perfect thin crust and an austere dark chocolate filling that would be at home in Paris.
Who’ll be Tico’s crowd? The twentysomething careerists Schlow seems to be after? Maybe. When I dined, the bar was populated but the dining room was nearly empty. It’s a big room, and will be a challenge to fill. But there’s lots to enjoy at Tico. With luck, and a bit more consistency, diners of all stripes will discover it.
Tico, 222 Berkeley St., Boston, 617-351-0400, ticorestaurant.com.