Restaurant Review: Clio
After a major revamp, Ken Oringer’s flagship still dazzles with complex, modern (though sometimes overcomplicated) cuisine.
Prediction: Today’s cutting-edge, El Bulli-influenced cuisine, characterized by an emphasis on novelty, exotic ingredients, and labor-intensive complexity, will eventually seem as archaic as the food of medieval times. But like the classic French fare codified by Escoffier in 1903 or the nouvelle cooking of the 1970s, the most significant components will endure. The restaurant in town to figure out what will stick around — and what will one day seem excessive — is Clio.
Ken Oringer — Boston’s most serious student of the Catalan cuisine perfected by the now-closed El Bulli restaurant — translated his time in and around Barcelona in the late ’90s into the Spanish-style tapas bar Toro (which is scheduled to open a location in New York later this year). Then came Fenway taqueria La Verdad and downtown steakhouse KO Prime. And in 2009, Oringer teamed up with Jamie Bissonnette to create southern Italian pastas, pizzas, and cured meats at the South End’s Coppa, one of my go-to restaurants.
But Clio has always been Oringer’s showcase, his place to demonstrate his virtuosity and the extent of his imagination. He recently refurbished the space in time for its 15th anniversary, and it looks elegant and refreshed — a bit more somber than before, all cream and brown and polished wood, with an expanded bar that offers a more-affordable menu than the dining room. Clio 2.0 is designed to dazzle.
And some of the food is dazzling (all of it is expensive). Many dishes have leaves and herbs and powders and sauces and dabs of bright-colored gels and parabolic swipes of black at the bottom, all of which you want to discover and taste. Some of the flavors come together in the surprising, subtle ways of cuisine practiced on a higher and more-refined plane. But not everything works: The smears can seem silly, the number of sauces excessive, the textures not quite suited to the main ingredient. And then there are the servers, always in view but with uneven attention and knowledge of the menu.
Oringer and chef de cuisine Douglas Rodrigues often use the latest techniques on their seasonally changing menu to make the familiar seem wondrous. A powerful example is the buttermilk-braised chicken ($37), for which the chefs use the natural lactic acid in the marinade to tenderize the chicken breast, then heat it sous-vide style (sealed in a heatproof plastic bag, at a low, controlled temperature) just long enough to cook it through. I generally find the texture of sous-vide meat to be mealy, but this was beautifully tender, the most persuasive argument for the method I’ve tasted. To lend crunch, the cooks take large pieces of skin and slow cook them, weighted, on a plancha — a searing-hot flat-top grill — till they’re thin and crisp. This is chicken reinvented.
As it happens, the rest of the dish was less successful (tough gnocchi that didn’t taste of the toasted oak-chip infusion and black truffle touted on the menu). But pretty much everything on the standout lamb assiette with 17 vegetables ($41) was triumphant. The lamb, prepared three ways, proved that avant-garde cooking methods can produce fireworks. The modernist aspect is the transglutaminase (“meat glue”), used here to bind thin strips of belly into a thicker, meaty steak that’s full of rich lamb flavor. But the best parts of the dish came from classic preparations, particularly the lamb tongue confited in duck fat, and the soft, fatty shoulder braised in lamb stock with lavender and rosemary. Rodrigues says the vegetables are each cooked separately, and while there’s no way I could have identified all 17, I noted the hay-braised baby carrots, buttery pea purée, dramatic cylinders of parsniplike salsify, and white-wine-and-olive-oil-poached artichokes. It was an impressive balance of the forward-thinking and the traditional.
But Oringer’s virtuous technique and expensive equipment can sometimes result in precious, overcomplicated dishes that lack impact. Milk-braised salmon ($38) was baby-food soft, and couldn’t be rescued by the accompanying chard-chive emulsion and bonito flakes. Perfectly seared fried-garlic-crusted scallops over cauliflower purée with undercooked roasted cauliflower and romanesco broccoli ($37) could have been a simple dish — instead it was complicated with odd smudges of blackened olive oil and roasted-lemon and date purées (which have since been replaced with a tomato jam), none of which registered separately or cumulatively.
First courses had the tendency to fall victim to the same overfreighted attention to exoticism — with some delightful exceptions. A Clio classic that’s still on the menu is marinated yellowtail and yellowfin, presented in an elaborate checkerboard pattern and accompanied by opal basil, garlic, and ginger with flecks of cilantro, mint, and scallion ($19). The dish is served with a tiny tube of tuna tartare topped with tobiko and sesame oil and wrapped in deep-fried spring-roll paper — just a few bites of fresh perfection. Foie gras “lacquered” with chrysanthemum syrup ($22), meanwhile, contains elements such as beet juice, tonic water, and squared-off rods of compressed rhubarb — you’ll barely notice them, though, because the sautéed chunks of foie gras, garnished with a mixture of honey and star anise and sprinkled with bee pollen, chives, and sea salt, are so good. A cold foie-gras terrine ($22), however, was a misfire: Served with an acidic Chartreuse concentrate, pickled green strawberries, and kiwi purée, it tasted like Hawaiian Punch.
Vegetable appetizers were equally uneven. The roasted onion with smoked trout and radish ($17) was dressed with a vinaigrette of tarama, buttermilk, and yuzu that intensified the flavor of the onion and of the salty, moist pieces of smoked fish. Unfamiliar, strong-flavored herbs and greens — wood sorrel and baby sorrel — were bracing counterparts. Fresh-dug beets with turnip, Thai peanut, and glace de viande ($18), though, had too many components — infused sassafras, raspberry powder, chili-oil-roasted peanuts, and malt chips, just to name a few. So many of these items were cooked down, intentionally burnt, or turned into dehydrated chips that it seemed less like a molecular take on the ubiquitous beet salad than a jewel-tone curiosity.
Desserts give pastry chef Chris Cordeiro free rein with his modernist tool kit. Lovely surprises included a citrus assiette ($13) with hibiscus sorbet,tart aloe ice, and olive oil powder; the lemony sorbet carried the dessert. Best was kouign-amann ($12), a French-bread dough laminated with butter. It tasted like a lush, syrup-soaked almond pastry.
Dining at Clio, then, is a bit unpredictable. But it’s always interesting. Oringer has been restless and ambitious for a long time. Here’s hoping he stays just as experimental and open to the new for a long time to come.
Citrus assiette, $13
Foie gras laquée, $22
Roasted onion with smoked trout, radish, and tarama vinaigrette, $17
Lamb assiette, $41
Buttermilk-braised chicken, $37
370A Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-536-7200, cliorestaurant.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 our pages since 1997.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/07/dining-out-clio/