Dining Out: Grand Plan
Just when we think we might see a return to prosperous (or at least less dire) times comes Excelsior, Lydia Shire's festively revamped Biba. The good times people hope for again, of course, are the late 1990s, our last opulent era. But Excelsior goes back a little farther. The orange, fuschia, and brown décor is pure early '70s, a period in design that many who lived through it would prefer to forget. The food is a less obvious revival—of the mid-to-late '80s, the last affluent era before the dotcom boom and the time when Boston food exploded into local, then national, consciousness.
Shire helped put Boston on the American food map. She became a pro at classic Boston hotels in the 1970s, when women were generally not welcome at restaurant stoves. When she and Jasper White cooked together at the Bostonian Hotel, they reinvented New England cooking. Fusion cuisine was cutting edge: Asian and Indian ingredients were starting to turn up in markets and on fancy menus, and Lydia and Jasper played with them all. White hewed close to New England (and still does, as anyone knows who goes as happily as I to his three Summer Shack locations). Shire went instead for glorious excess, an evolution most obvious today in Todd English's 10-things-on-a-plate style. The idea is to cook as many delicious things as you can think of with pow! Each plate should be like a fireworks finale. To my mind, all this excitement on a plate cancels out any impact. Give me one thing at a time, or at least a manageable number.
But the uncorking of Excelsior has surprised me into realizing that I've come to appreciate this style—at least in the hands of someone who loves food the way Shire does. Her years of honing her palate mean she can make things taste good as few other chefs can. So what if restraint and focus aren't her thing? Maybe it's time for razzle-dazzle again.
Shire likes to go for big, and she's going for it at Excelsior in both flavor and price. This is the restaurant where she could show her stuff again after putting a Boston bonnet on her creative instincts at Locke-Ober, where she and executive chef Jacky Robert serve calm versions of Boston classics.
The change from Biba, a place I thought beautiful, is startling. With its handsome wood floors, cheering bright colors, and kilim patterns on the ceiling, Biba set the standard for a bold new kind of luxury. I miss it. Excelsior feels smaller: The upstairs dining room, with its unparalleled view of the Public Garden and swan boats (a view, Shire points out proudly, that neither the neighboring Four Seasons nor the Ritz can boast), has lost its sweep by being divided into several zones. The thick carpet (which does make for quieter dining) and shiny cerise vinyl-like ceilings make everything feel, if not cramped, then like a low-ceilinged 1960s luxury building.
Shire told me she instructed Adam Tihany, architect of the original Biba, to remake the room by thinking of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, with its drop-dead international-style cool. She meant exotic-grained dark woods; Tihany took off into James Bond–land, with a wild geometric brown carpet and metallic mirrored columns and stair treads, all done with a contemporary wink. It's where Austin Powers might take his dad, as played by the truly sixties-suave Michael Caine, for a man-to-man.
Manliness is part of the plan. Excelsior is Shire's venture with her old friend Tim Lynch, impresario of Grill 23 & Bar and Harvest, and his longtime partners and investors. So there's good steak on the menu, and an angular, three-story “wine tower,” a glassed-in metal structure you can ride an elevator through on your way up to the dining room. (It's the perfect place for a James Bond encounter—either romantic or violent.)
In a Shire joke, the “lady's steak,” with its smashed raw hot green garlic and strong wild leeks, packs much more of a punch than the “man's steak,” with Roquefort butter piped into a petticoat shape and waffle potatoes stained with beet to look, Shire thinks, like sexy lace. Both steaks are 14 ounces of the same top-grade sirloin, the lady's sautéed, the man's grilled. Each costs $36.
Luxurious whim at a price—that's Excelsior, at least so far. It can be as sumptuously good as it is expensive. I found the sauternes-poached lobster succulent: nuggets of meat poached in sauternes butter until sweet. It's really a kind of confit, and it's yet another demonstration of Shire's mastery of lobster. Shire does know how to gild a lily, and you pay for the gilding. The famous Shire grilled lobster with Thai spices at the Bostonian Hotel was pathbreaking in both concept and price. So I probably shouldn't have reacted with the surprise I did to the cost of this new Shire signature lobster: $39. Must be a sign of those good times around the corner.
All the entrées start out with rich ingredients. The black cod, for example, also called sable (and entirely different from Atlantic cod and scrod), is the oiliest of the oily fish, so it's no wonder Shire imports it from the West Coast. It's a luscious piece of fish, and the additional rich elements come as little surprise: asparagus deep-fried in a tempura batter and the cleverly named “sauce chlorophyll,” bright green herbs suspended in olive oil ($28). The pigeon is all dark meat, meaning it's as rich as poultry gets, served with fresh morels steeped in armagnac butter—a potent match for the meat ($34).
These were the most focused and successful of the main courses. I found the sugar-cane roast chicken with whipped parsnips ($27) under-flavored and wet; I never thought roast chicken, usually so dry, could be too moist, but this seemed watery. A thick cut of swordfish with chile-spiced white grits ($29) was nicely moist but disappointingly flavored, though this could have been more a reflection of the swordfish available lately than the technique.
I take up the appetizers after the mains because they show Shire at her most brilliant—and, for me, frustrating. They're full of flashes of brilliance: bites like the butter-poached lobster that make you think, Hey, how did this get to be so good? Plates jam-packed with ideas and sauces are confusing, though, at least to me. A tart of white asparagus got second billing on an appetizer of wood-roast porcini ($16). It was perfect: buttery and with an intensification of the mild, bitter-sour flavor of white asparagus, the crust wonderfully brittle and fresh.
Similarly, the crushed artichoke salad was listed as a sort of side dish to an appetizer of warm mozzarella ($13) but turned out to be a powerfully flavored relish of garlic, anchovies, and capers. These were pow! components. But the porcini and mozzarella were nothing more than okay, seemingly there just to prove that everything at this restaurant is luxurious. The same philosophy seems to apply to the lobster pizza ($22), made famous at Biba.
But you'll be knocked out by one small spoonful of concentrated soupe de poisson ($14) and wonder what the unmolded ramekin of fennel custard is doing floating in the middle—or wish, as I did, that you could have three more spoonfuls of the soup instead of the custard. Appetizers are where Shire's imagination is running free, and less breakneck diners might wish for a slower pace.
The marvelous Biba bread basket, with its naan from the tandoor oven, is a victim of Shire's restructured menu. Instead, there's a basket of new breads, all of them made by Kilian Weigand, the pastry chef. None is yet as notable as Biba's, but they probably will be. That's because Weigand already makes some wonderful desserts.
Weigand cooked with Shire at the Copley Plaza 28 years ago, and I can only grieve that I've been unfamiliar with his work. He's as inventive and expert as Shire, with a similar interest in bold flavors. I fell in love with his saffron ice cream ($10), its strong and curiously right-seeming saffron flavor rounded out by hints of honey and vanilla. His fromage blanc ice cream, made from nonfat cheese plus cream and buttermilk, is rich and refreshing. Both have a silken texture. Weigand 's sourdough chocolate cake offers another take on the ubiquitous warm, semibaked chocolate cake, using sourdough bread starter to achieve its somewhat spongy, soufflé-like texture (there's nothing bready about it), and it has an intense chocolate flavor. But those ice creams show dessert greatness.
Excelsior is a big deal and a big show, with a big check at the end. It's also the home of a vibrant talent getting to do what pleases her most—more than reason enough to celebrate, and to hope that someone who's already seen that return to prosperity takes care of the check.