Restaurant Review: Tavern Road in Fort Point

There’s plenty to love already about Fort Point’s ambitious and earnest new culinary artwork in progress (including a stellar $19 steak).

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Photograph by Justin Hamel

Everything about Tavern Road feels earnest and well thought out—designed and painted and cooked and served with care. It’s the joint effort of a group of young, well-meaning cooks and managers who among them have apprenticed with many of Boston’s most seasoned, forward-thinking chefs and restaurateurs. They know quality. They’ve set a high bar. And a lot of what they serve falls just short of what it promises. But you have to like Tavern Road—and only partially because they really, really want you to.

Opened by brothers Louis (chef) and Michael (general manager) DiBiccari, the restaurant occupies a huge space in Fort Point—that waterfront neighborhood that at long last is coming to life and achieving the vision that seemed very remote when Barbara Lynch opened Sportello and Drink (and, eventually, Menton) across the then-dead-at-night street. Now Congress Street practically swings, what with Blue Dragon around the corner and, by day, Barrington Coffee looking like the very redefinition of an upscale SoHo artist’s loft.

Tavern Road feels a lot like a loft, too, with its gray tables and high, exposed-duct ceiling accented by industrial lights and period bulbs. It’s big and airy and buzzing. Dominating the back wall is an arresting full-wall mural painted by three artists handpicked by the DiBiccari brothers, who say that a key part of Tavern Road’s mission is to honor the creative types who long populated Fort Point—and still do, even if they’re slowly but surely getting priced out. For inspiration, the brothers gave the muralists sketchbooks used by their two uncles, who were working Boston artists starting in the 1950s. (The restaurant is named for the road near the Museum of Fine Arts where they kept a studio.) The resulting mural is gritty, urban, gray, and black, featuring street signs and architectural grille work: a veritable monochrome mash-up of Ruckus Manhattan (Red Grooms’s wildly cartoonish multimedia extravaganza depicting 1970s-era New York) and Lyonel Feininger’s 1930s Expressionism. It’s not very soothing to dine beneath, but it’s plenty energetic. That and the soaring windows that fold open onto Congress make this the most inviting urban café since Sonsie opened on Newbury.

Under Michael, who worked at Eastern Standard for Garrett Harker, Boston’s master of hospitality, Tavern Road’s front of the house makes everybody feel wanted and welcome from the moment they step through the door. Whether you cruise into the bar area or the dining room, the response from the host isn’t “May I find your reservation?”—it’s “Where do you want to sit, and what do you want to drink?”

Where that mural helps set just the right humming tone is the bar, out of the gate one of the city’s best-placed homes for craft cocktails, and among the most hospitable. Besides being bigger and brighter than Drink, the pioneering bar across the street, the counter at Tavern Road takes itself less seriously. Ryan McGrale, the beverage director, worked at No. 9 Park, and his cocktails veer sweet but with balance. Two standouts were the “Bumble Bee” ($10), with vodka, honey, ginger beer, and almost enough lemon juice to cut the sweetness, and the “Straight to Hell” ($11), a potent and novel combination of scotch, a bittersweet amaro digestif, Aperol (the softer, Campari-like apéritif of the moment), and lemon bitters.

Besides the two- and three-deep bar, Tavern Road has already knit itself into the still-forming neighborhood by offering an adjoining lunch takeout place, TR Street Foods, where the menu is a compendium of subs (like steak and cheese, $9); international offerings (oddly sweet lamb meatballs in pita with harissa, $9, and acidic, spicy cold Thai noodles with shrimp, $9); and sandwiches (an inspired, satisfyingly drippy veal Reuben, $10). Serving food-truck-influenced fare was a smart move, one that’s attracted both young office workers and the late-night crowd (the menu is offered at the bar after-hours as well). Unlike at most food trucks, you don’t have to go to a bench or back to your desk. Instead, you can open up your bag in the huge, airy dining room. Andrew Urbanetti, the lunch chef, cooked at the elegant Lumière (and, disclosure, was briefly a student of mine at Slow Food’s University of Gastronomy).

Like the lunch menu, the dinner menu is both unevenly cooked and friendly as all get-out. It shows elegance and technique beyond TR Street Foods, reflecting Louis’s long training with Frank McClelland at Sel de la Terre and L’Espalier. The chef told me that he sees the menu as a canvas, with the ingredients providing the palette. While an inspired notion, the improvisation is a bit scattered. So is the service, which is well meaning and eager to please. But servers occasionally forget a side order, or don’t remember to come by to ask if you need something, or (at another dinner) come too often. They’re aiming to be professional, but sometimes inexperience shows.

The dinner menu relies on a steakhouse model—a roster of simple, relatively modestly priced mains and substantial sides to mix and match—but in execution, the larger plates aren’t actually that simple, often freighted with so many ingredients that you can lose track of the intended concept. And the sides are so substantial that they can capsize dinner.

What’s more, sometimes the mains are badly miscalculated. Smoked chicken ($17), for instance, was brined and finished in the smoker for too long, so that it came off as rubbery and aggressively smoky—the reason smoked fish and meat are generally sliced thin. The sweetness of dehydrated lemon in the accompanying jus, as well as a buttery parsnip purée, seemed intended to cut the saltiness, but the richness and lack of texture didn’t help. A corn salad with kale, yogurt, honey, mint sauce, and blueberries ($14) embodied the rule—in theory, very sound—that Louis told me he took to heart early in his career: “What grows together, goes together.” Yet that salad exposed the dictum’s limitations: The crunchy and cabbage-y kale made a strange counterpoint to the yogurt and honey, and the soft, sweet blueberry and corn canceled each other out.

When the food does come into focus, Louis makes satisfying, clear-flavored entrées worth going back for. Whole fish (black bass, when available) prepared in the escabeche style ($21)—that is, simmered slowly in an herbaceous sweet-and-sour broth with tomatoes, fennel, and red onion—was served hot, not cold, as it traditionally is, yet it was an inversion that worked as beautifully as a warm caponata side with chickpeas ($7) did not. The fish was a meal in itself that needed nothing else.

Even the warm caponata, odd as it was, could make a meal, paired with, say, a side of hearty, heavy spaetzle ($8), sautéed with béchamel and cheese to make a sort of gloppy mac ’n’ cheese, and given relief by some home-pickled cherry peppers.

Flatiron steak, marinated with Thai red curry and served with vinegary chimichurri and steak sauce finished with marrow butter, is a contender for best bargain steak dish in the city, ringing in at $19. It is the rare main dish that comes naked but for sauce and demands a side: The best I tried was a salad of heirloom tomatoes with warm Romano beans ($9)—overfreighted, like much of the menu, with oil, pesto, and roasted almonds, but using carefully chosen, obviously farm-grown ingredients.

Desserts, in general, continue the recurring earnest-unfocused theme. But a frozen blackberry-yogurt sundae ($8), with a featured component that read as an acidic, crystally ice milk, was refreshing. The cocoa-nib tuiles with a Mexican-chocolate sundae ($10), meanwhile, were hard to resist.

Tavern Road is so friendly you also won’t be able to resist the welcoming urban vibe—and with some editing and discipline, the food will be more uniformly hard to resist, too.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

Whole-Fish Escabeche, $21
Flatiron Steak, $19
Spaetzle with Gruyère and Cherry Peppers, $7
Blackberry-Yogurt Sundae, $8

Tavern Road, 343 Congress St., Boston, 617-790-0808, tavernroad.com.

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