Dining Out: From the Gecko
If Boston has a nicer and more generous chef—let's make that person—than Stan Frankenthaler, with his ever-present, embroidered Tibetan cap and beatific smile, I don't know him. Simple esteem and affection were the first conflicts of interest that kept me away from Salamander soon after it reopened last December in a sumptuous new location in Copley Square after a year's changeover from its former headquarters in Cambridge. I remember an unusually long breaking-in period at the original Salamander seven years ago, when Frankenthaler finally opened his own restaurant after so many shifts filling in for Boston's big-name chefs on their nights off that he became the much-loved “One-Night Stan.”
Frankenthaler pursued his own style at Salamander I, and that's where my real conflicts come in. Frankenthaler believes in building communities—communities among everyone who works with him, among his customers, among his colleagues around the city and even the country. He has been a leader in the Chefs Collaborative, a group that encourages chefs to buy from local farmers and to help each other. He has been a champion of Community Servings, a group in which I have long been active. And I'm about to rave about the new restaurant's décor, which was designed by someone else I personally esteem, Ray Kinoshita.
Before I do, I'd better discuss the food. I never got very far into the first Salamander's aesthetic. It was rooted in Frankenthaler's very solid training in classical French and Italian food—he was first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America at a particularly competitive time, when the likes of Todd English were training and setting themselves exceedingly high goals—and his love of Asian food. Frankenthaler fell in love with the food in neighborhood Chinese restaurants while growing up in the South. In college, he applied his keen curiosity to studying Asian languages and then experimented with every sort of Asian ingredient and cuisine once he decided to become a chef. While he was turning out crack Italian and New England and French food in his stints in everyone else's kitchens, he was dreaming of his own brand of Asian food. The problem was, he was also learning in the most direct way what Boston customers would pay a lot for—a style that reached its apogee in English's nothing-succeeds-like-excess dishes. And he applied many of those lessons to his first menus. I'm always happy to be educated in unfamiliar styles, but it was just too hard to make sense of many of the main courses at Salamander I, which mixed Vietnamese, Thai, and Indonesian techniques with Western ones, not to mention plenty of Japanese and Chinese influences. Even if I have little to no interest in the promiscuous mixing of Italian, French, Spanish, and Greek elements in the dishes at, say, Olives, I can at least recognize most everything on the plate. I felt at a loss at Salamander I and was also put off by a very heavy hand with salt.
Salamander II was born different, and the design by Kinoshita, who also designed Salamander I, embodies that difference. It's sleek, assured, utterly individual, at once seductively lush and simple—obviously Asian, but with no single culture dominating. Frankenthaler's approach, too, is more confident and straightforward. A few dinners six months into his new reign and I was actually understanding nearly everything on the plate, though I confess to heavy tutelage from the waitstaff and tableside refresher courses after the food arrived. I don't think this is only a matter of concentrating harder than I used to. Several delicate and true flavors remain piercing, pleasant memories—memories I don't have from the original Salamander. Too many dishes, though, are muddy, the result of over-conception and over-enthusiasm. And the prices are high for such a partial success rate.
In Sal II's first months, this success rate was far lower than even his friends and fans expected it might be, and Frankenthaler has obviously been working to improve it. The changes are striking. A few of the dishes are so lovely, so fresh and distinctive, that the time has come to call and make reservations. (And the salt is under control—a giant step forward.) Chilled asparagus soup ($9) was porcelain-white, just flecked with green, and had a wonderfully silken vichyssoise texture and rich flavor. Not a drop of cream in it, Frankenthaler later told me—just puréed jasmine rice. Seared tuna tataki ($11), that now-familiar appetizer of slightly charred-on-the-outside and raw-on-the-inside fish slices, is here coated in black sesame seeds and served with a salty, yes, but fresh-tasting lemon and jalapeño sauce. Frankenthaler likes mixing soy with dashi, the seaweed broth that beefs up many Japanese dishes without actually adding meat; the shot of citrus makes this sauce both hearty and refreshing. Over-the-top creativity of the kind I remember from Sal I returns with the crab-wrapped crispy whole shrimp spring roll ($16), which is shellfish mousse stuffed into a soybean wrapper where a prawn body would be and then deep fried. It's something like a 19th-century food joke; I like the chewy, somewhat salty flavor of the wrapper and the light, very slightly rubbery mousse of mushroom, shrimp, and crab, with touches of ginger and curry. Others at the table were dismayed to see prawn eyes staring up at them, but were convinced by the mousse filling once they closed their own eyes. Diners would be well advised to avoid the other deep-fried foods on the menu. Those I tried had absorbed too much oil and had a wet rather than crackling texture.
Two main courses stood out as happy, focused stages in Frankenthaler's Asia-West evolution. One was pork loin ($31) marinated with sweet spices and chiles, breaded with dry Japanese panko bread crumbs (a chef's darling for a crunchy crust that reliably clings) and served with a sweet curry sauce. I bet this is an adult version of sweet and sour pork Frankenthaler mopped up when he could get his parents to take him to the local Chinese restaurant. It was subtle and blessedly not too sweet, but still had that familiar and irresistible combination of salt, crispness, and sweet tender meat that can make anyone miss their local, very inauthentic Chinese places. The other was pan-roasted halibut fillet with scallion popovers ($33), which showed Frankenthaler's very sure hand in cooking tender, crisp-skinned fish. I found the popovers tough and salty—they're baked in miniature muffin pans and are really a kind of Yorkshire pudding—but they were fine for dipping into a sauce freshened with that spring tonic, sorrel.
Other main courses were spotty. The really well flavored, citrus-brined Summerfield Farm lamb rib chops ($36, an excessive price for an excessive portion) came with great mashed organic potatoes, but also with mint, chiles, and morels—too many things on one plate. Wild king salmon fillet ($32), the very mention of which would induce me to travel far in its very short time of legal fishing, was disappointingly under-flavored. Too many main courses still leave you unsure of what country you're supposed to be in. It's like a tour of Asia without a map.
The idea behind the desserts is to continue the Asian influences to the end of the meal, and Frankenthaler works closely with pastry chef Tim Macklin to make sure nothing standard or clichéd slips through. Sometimes this is a mistake, as in pistachio and almond dumplings in a clear pineapple coulis with Thai basil ice cream ($10)—frankly repellent white things floating in sweet water that tasted too much like the juice from a can of lychees. But then there is a powerfully ginger-packed tapioca ($10) in a mango and kaffir lime leaf sauce, just as zingy yet creamily satisfying as an Asian-themed Western dessert could possibly be. And although Macklin tires of making them and periodically yanks them off the menu, the “chocolate pillows” named for him ($12) are just what a Sicilian pastry chef would make after a trip to Asia: wonton skins stuffed with a bitter chocolate ganache and deep fried until the skin is as moonscape-pitted as a cannoli shell. The chocolate oozes into your mouth and lasts a good long time. There's cassia, the powerful and less expensive cinnamon substitute, in the filling, for a terrific punch.
The wine list is imaginative and reasonably priced, and Frankenthaler has lately become interested in high-quality sakes, a new Boston frontier. Service was predictably careful, as I was recognized on my visits. But the people who answered the phone for reservations were a few times unhelpful to the point of being condescending—a far cry from Frankenthaler's unfailing courtesy and generosity, which he tries to instill in his staff.
I haven't mentioned the elaborate satay bar, where you can watch food being grilled in front of you, or the marvelous harlequin diamonds of the wine-bottle shelves above the bar, or the very large number of design details—the slate tile all up and down the walls on one side of the restaurant, the cool touch of the zinc on the tabletops and the bar, the neat corner tables that look like they're in a Thai boathouse but were designed as serving stations. On several recent visits I always found something else I wanted to study or touch. And I found something I wanted to eat more of—along with what I must say were still too many miss and just-miss dishes. But I'm confident now of the kitchen's growing confidence. Salamander is starting to fit right into its grand and distinctive new surroundings.