Restaurant Review: 88 Wharf
Milton’s 88 Wharf smacks of the suburbs. The desert-red walls, brown carpet, and round, beige chandeliers are right out of a ’90s Pottery Barn catalog. There’s no Mad Men retro here; that would be edgy. The big square room and spacious bar seem squarely aimed at the empty-nesters living in the upscale condos above.
Judging by the happy salt-and-pepper heads having fun at the bar and occupying the tables at 6 p.m. — the height of the dinner rush, chef Josh Ziskin explained later — they’ve hit their mark. Ziskin was brought in to add some style and artistry to a menu that, he told me, had been assembled largely from premade components. (Before his arrival, the three-year-old restaurant’s greatest asset was the view of sailboats on the Neponset from the large deck.)
That choice of chef was a logical one: For eight years Ziskin has had a magic touch pleasing Brookline and Newton residents with his consistent menu at La Morra. He’s devised a new set of dishes for 88 Wharf that’s a canny cross between La Morra’s sophisticated Tuscan rusticity and the steak/fries/wings familiarity of the old menu. But so far what 88 Wharf lacks is La Morra’s consistency — probably because, as he told me, Ziskin works in the kitchen only one or two days and nights a week. The rest of the time the kitchen is run by chef de cuisine Christian Ellis. This means you can get very different dinners on different nights. Even the good dishes — and there are a number of them — can be hot and well seasoned one night and cold and utterly bland another. Everything’s either oversalted or has no salt at all.
The unpredictability extends to the dining room, which is in the hands of a friendly but young staff. When the lights are low, it feels like a warm, easygoing adult restaurant. When they’re high, as they were on one recent Sunday, it’s more like an Olive Garden, with many big tables full of children younger than 10 (we saw no “kids’ night” sign or specials). Both ways, it can be impossible to get a server’s attention. Requests for, say, utensils are forgotten, and the waitstaff spends a good bit of time apologizing for kitchen flubs. My favorite gaffe: A pizza topped with pear and Robiola ($13), one of several Ziskin created to take advantage of the restaurant’s pizza oven, arrived too blond (we’d asked for it to be well cooked). Back it went — and vanished. As we were finishing our main courses, the server appeared and explained that indeed it had gone back into the oven, but when it was done, “The cook dropped it on the floor. So we made you another one.” It came out just before dessert, sweet with a nicely chewy crust and drizzled honey — fairly appropriate for dessert, actually — and we took it home. My second-favorite flub: When we were ordering dessert, the waiter said, “Sorry, no crème brûlée — the kitchen ran out of gas.”
For all this, though, the new menu sometimes rises to near lyricism, or at least to freshly made, satisfying food. Red wine–braised meatballs ($7) may have been overtly jumping on a trend, but the garlicky all-beef globes were moist, tasting of the milk-soaked bread that extended them, and comforting. Chicken-liver bruschetta with a salad of shaved Brussels sprouts ($9) had only a few dull-tasting leaves, but featured generous slabs of grilled bread. They’re spread with a thin layer of sweet, crumbly liver so mild you don’t have to love liver to enjoy it. The dish was just plain good, and reminiscent of La Morra’s Tuscan leanings.
The two fish entrées, sophisticated in their simplicity, would be welcome at any downtown restaurant. Grilled trout with Swiss chard and couscous ($21) was fresh, the meat sweet and moist, the skin crisp, and the light glazing of tarragon beurre blanc a lesson in saucing. The trout’s accompaniments, braised chard with tomato and garlic, and couscous with golden raisins and pine nuts, added texture and sweetness. It was a lovely, home-style dish. Pan-seared sole ($20) with tater-tot-like fried cauliflower nuggets came with a well-conceived salad of baby spinach, grilled slices of Meyer lemon, and shaved turnip. It’s a salad I’d copy at home, though one night the leaves were soft, warm, and wilted, and another night they were raw, cool, and oily. The cauliflower tots are virtually unidentifiable as cauliflower, which makes them widely appealing, but not when they’re served cold (as they were on one of my visits).
With the exception of an order of pleasantly oily Tuscan fries ($8), the fried foods were surprisingly ungreasy. Fried mac and cheese ($8) was an odd idea — though not much odder than fried risotto, a.k.a. arancini, if you think about it. Unfortunately, the pieces were heavy and bland, with a sauce that looked and tasted like Cheez Whiz. Calamari rings with cherry-pepper aioli ($12) were expertly fried, but strangely soft. And like the cauliflower tots, the breading and frying rendered the featured ingredient unidentifiable.
Uneven execution did in much of the rest of the menu. The spaghetti with perfectly cooked shrimp, chili, and prosciutto ($12 for a small portion, $20 for a large) was the best of a disappointing category of oil- and butter-slicked pastas. A grilled pork chop ($21) was the standout meat dish, then a huge double-cut T-bone tenderloin of medium-cooked, flavorful meat. (They’ve since changed the cut to a basic chop.) But the brick-size slab of shallot-and-chestnut bread pudding beside it was cold and tasted of nothing but sage, like a Thanksgiving stuffing someone forgot to finish seasoning. Brandt Beef flatiron steak ($24) arrived cool at two dinners, as did the colcannon potatoes — mashed with cream, butter, and cabbage — which were also underseasoned. “Shepphard’s pie [sic]” — a dish of braised beef chuck and lamb shoulder baked in a tough pie crust with mashed potatoes on top ($22) — is an idea that shouldn’t have left the kitchen.
One of the desserts shouldn’t have left the kitchen, either: apple biscuits with pears and raisins ($7). The three strange rectangles tasted underbaked and were presented over a brown mess of stewed fruit in thick syrup. But the crème brûlée ($7), on a night when the kitchen had gas, was just fine, and a sundae consisting of a big, gooey homemade brownie, vanilla ice cream, and ganache that hardened on the surface ($7) will appeal to all those kids — and their grandparents.
With its pretty views and relaxed vibe, 88 Wharf already appeals to plenty of people. But for a while, at least, it will benefit from a lot more visits from the new chef.
88 Wharf, 88 Wharf St., Milton, 857-598-4826, 88wharf.com.
Critic Corby Kummer — an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food — has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in Boston, magazine since 1997.