Restaurant Review: BoMa in South End

This South End newcomer has some work to do before it can become the next neighborhood success story.

By | Boston Magazine |

boma south end

The dining room at BoMa, the latest addition to Washington Street. (Photos by Kristen Tieg)

Over the past few years in Boston, the idea of a neighborhood place that serves elevated bar food has become a go-to model for restaurateurs. They think gastropub and see dollar signs—high profit margins on relatively modest fare, à la the Spotted Pig, in New York. Three years ago Russell House Tavern and the Gallows showed that the model could work here, and soon afterward came JM Curley, in Downtown Crossing, and Park, in Harvard Square.

The South End’s BoMa is the latest entry in the gastropub genre. And it seems to be aiming for exactly what the Gallows, on the same block, has already claimed: a noisy crowd that likes the food enough to stay awhile but not too long. Some of the dishes are tantalizingly interesting—ambitious and so close to exceptional that you want the owners and staff to make their goals bigger. First, though, they need to make the food and service consistent, and cultivate some regulars. This is a competitive stretch of Washington Street where restaurants regularly fail. The former occupants of BoMa’s space, Bombay Club and Pho Republique, were frequently packed, but never enough to keep them in business, and on the next block, Boston Chops just opened in the building that once housed Banq and Ginger Park. It’s unclear whether this area even needs another friendly joint serving nice food.

The man who’s taken on the challenge is co-owner Shane Manfred, who has run several restaurants outside Boston and still operates Bellino’s, in Wakefield. For his first in-town venture he’s created a dark, somewhat cavernous space that looks like a sports bar minus the big TV screens. (The name isn’t the play on “Boston, Massachusetts” that it seems to be—rather,  it’s an East African word, derived from ancient Persian, that means “safe haven.”) Manfred is a strapping, welcoming host who circulates the dining room most nights, but he doesn’t stay on top of the many service glitches. The uniformly friendly staff is inattentive, and not in close communication with the kitchen, which turns out dishes in an either unexpectedly rapid-fire or strangely lagging fashion.

Manfred did show ambition by hiring Chris Bussell, who was previously the chef-owner of Butterfish—a restaurant in the space once occupied by Craigie Street Bistrot and currently home to Ten Tables Cambridge—and who more recently worked in several straight-ahead Italian restaurants in the North End (Terramia, Bacco). Bussell utilizes the French technique he learned from the master chef and teacher John Vyhanek, of the Ritz in its continental-cuisine glory days, and melds it with his North End experience. He’s emphasizing thoughtful touches such as house-roasted olives and homemade chili paste and stocks—the types of things that have become de rigueur at restaurants like Strip-T’s, another example of a bar/diner that pole-vaulted to dining-destination status.

Some of the dishes on Bussell’s menu (divided into “tiny” and “small” plates, “light fare,” and “large plates”) show evidence of that care. One is a “small plate” of short-rib tacos ($11). The pulled meat, slow-roasted for six hours, is so good that Bussell should be serving a short-rib entrée. In taco form—topped with house-pickled cabbage and carrots with some jalapeño for bite—it makes for a satisfying snack. So do tacos with thumbnail-size rock shrimp ($10), sweet treats available only in the coldest winter months. Bussell deep-fries them like popcorn shrimp, then adds them to a base of cilantro mayonnaise, shredded carrots cooked in honey-agave nectar, and habanero peppers.

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Charcuterie plate, $14.

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Grilled hanger steak, $25. Another menu highlight: short-rib tacos, $11

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Linguine with clams, $19.

boma south end

Lemon-pudding cake topped with an airy lemon foam, $9.

Sometimes the chef turns out plates that could be from a corner bistro in Paris, like a selection of charcuterie ($14) that features a ramekin of homemade chicken-liver mousse coated with a clear cap of duck fat; a simple but silken round of perfectly spreadable foie gras; and long triangles of crisp pork belly. A “tiny plate” of duck-confit hash with sautéed root vegetables is not just more mastery than $6 should buy, but more meat, too—generous amounts of soft confit and plenty of bits of crisped duck skin.

Occasionally, though, technique fizzles into outright boredom, as in a “warmed medley of roasted beets, Vermont goat cheese, and greens” ($11), really just a tired stack of poached beet rounds layered with bland goat cheese. Every part of the pizzetta with spinach and seasonal mushrooms ($14) might be homemade, including the béchamel and caramelized onions, but the slices were gloppy and uninteresting—and their being served cool and coated with a vinyl-like carpet of semi-congealed Val d’Aosta fontina didn’t help. Otherwise-okay duck-fat fries with house-made ketchup ($8) also arrived cold, as did a plate of tater tots ($6). Better to order the very fresh salads, which feature leaves of mesclun with an acid-bitter-mineral tang: a simple green salad with tiny plum tomatoes ($8), or kale with shaved fennel and heirloom radishes, blood orange, and chili-lime-roasted almonds ($9).

“Light fare” items are generally more successful than the “large plates,” which is a good thing considering their moderate prices and generous portions. Best were two pastas that tasted made to order: bucatini with more of those sweet Maine rock shrimp and a brightly herbal homemade pesto, the pasta wonderfully al dente ($18); and linguine with clams in a broth fortified with hot-pepper flakes, garlic, brandy, and white wine ($19). As with the fries, the display of technique in a mushroom risotto with shaved pecorino Romano and drizzled balsamic vinegar ($12, or $18 as an entrée) was undercut by the fact that the dish was served cold.

Bussell’s shepherd’s pie ($15) was the best rendition of the English winter standby that I’ve had in a long time: a buttery, winey lamb stew with the sheen of fresh veal and chicken stocks. It’s baked to order with a mashed-potato coating that gets nice crunch from a dusting of herbed panko crumbs. Though listed as “light fare,” the pie isn’t light at all. It was more satisfying than any single “large plate,” even the tasty grilled hanger steak ($25) with a barbecue-like demi-glace, served southern-style with sweet-potato fries and collards braised with bacon and chili butter. Yes, the steak had too much going on. But unlike most of the other entrées (say, grilled swordfish and a pasty, oily sticky-rice cake in a Thai yellow curry, inexplicably topped with a fried head-on shrimp, $25), the majority of the elements were good, particularly the tender, salty-spicy meat—and, as a bonus that shouldn’t be a bonus, it was served warm.

Bussell makes the desserts, too, and he’s better at it than most savory chefs. A brown-sugar-streusel-topped bread pudding ($9), layered with pieces of leftover homemade brioche, had the spongy, light texture of a tres leches cake rather than the dense and buttery consistency bread pudding often has. Even lighter and more refreshing was a dessert I had to keep ordering whenever I went: lemon-pudding cake ($9), a custard aerated with beaten egg whites and served with a lemon foam Bussell described as his one foray into molecular gastronomy: whipped fresh lemonade that keeps its froth thanks to the addition of soy lecithin.

I kept looking forward to that lemon-pudding cake. And to the pastas, confit hash, and salads that brightened every meal. I also kept waiting for the staff and kitchen to mesh their gears. I’ll keep waiting—and hoping that BoMa will work to succeed on a South End strip where the competition is only growing stiffer.

 

1415 Washington St., Boston, 617-536-2662, bomarestaurant.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.

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