Dining Out: High Expectations
Gabriel Frasca is ready for his butterfly moment. One of Boston's most talented young chefs, Frasca has shown he has the skill to master the menu of Radius, where he was chef de cuisine. Along with Clio, Radius is probably Boston's highest-wire act for personalized, trend-conscious haute cuisine. (Frank McClelland, whose cuisine at L'Espalier is undeniably haute, has created his own lovely world.) Frasca came up through the ranks, running the kitchen at Aquitaine Bis in Newton. To follow the standards set by the exacting Michael Schlow and run a kitchen of Radius's ambition means you're playing in the big leagues and ready to be boss.
Now Frasca is building his own team at Spire. I've long been impressed with his local-farm values and his articulateness, and waiting for him to step out on his own. At Spire, in Nine Zero, the preciously named boutique hotel in Downtown Crossing, he is starting to do just that, focusing on cutting-edge techniques, new flavor combinations, and polished, trim-lined presentation.
I hurried to Spire in January, barely two months into Frasca's tenure, and decided to give him more time to evolve. The menu lacked nothing in interest. It was filled with elegantly spare dishes reminiscent of Radius, each including at least one surprise ingredient that made me want to try everything. The somewhat blurry execution of the dishes I did try, though, made it hard to guess how long it would take the rest of the cooks to catch up with Frasca. I waited. Two months later, the kitchen was far better able to follow his direction, and the potential of his first menu was being realized. What I hope comes next is a more striking conception more clearly removed from Radius. I'm more than willing to wait a bit longer when there are already a few fully realized dishes—not to mention the most perfectly textured ice creams I've had in Boston.
One soup, for example, is so beautiful in appearance and flavor that I had to have it twice, and the second time I wouldn't share. Chantenay carrots, squat and deep orange, are appearing in local markets, with a flavor like that of regular carrots squared. Frasca buys bagfuls from a Maine farm and cooks them with carrot juice and a few sweet spices, puréeing the soup in an old secret he's revived: a Vita-Mix juicer. As a cook who went through a Vita-Mix phase, I can attest that nothing produces such a velvety texture or mysteriously full, mousselike body. At Spire, waiters pour a perfumed, warm cloud of the soup over fresh lobster meat, a few polished-looking heirloom cranberries (I wanted to taste a difference from standard cranberries, but I couldn't), and whole hazelnuts glistening with a caramel coating. This is a winning dish ($14), one that should become a signature.
A sillier starter charmed my companions: a “bloody mary” of bay scallops and poached mussels sitting in a martini glass over which the waiter pours from a martini shaker an unexpectedly clear liquid that is tomato water (juice without the seeds or skin) mixed with horseradish, ginger, celery, and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce ($14). There's a lacing of vodka, too—but not as much as it looked to my alarmed guest, who understandably thought she was being served sloshed seafood. It's fun, and the horseradish and ginger juice add some zing to the mild-flavored seafood. But the concept-to-flavor ratio is a bit high.
Perhaps dating from his time cooking at the Straight Wharf Restaurant in Nantucket, Frasca's main courses are heavy on fish. Two dishes showed the balance of expertise and creativity I hope Frasca will carry forward at Spire and beyond: striped bass with baby turnips, puréed spinach, and citrus-juice reduction ($27), and king salmon with winter citrus salad, spinach, and béarnaise sauce ($25). The big bass fillet, basted on the stove with butter, lemon, and thyme, happily reminded me of the great days of the Straight Wharf, where freshness was all and butter reigned. The dish's sweetness of vanilla sugar (in the glazed turnips) and mandarin-orange juice (in the glaze) were kept in check by sherry vinegar and, perhaps most important, by moderation in the saucing. An unsweet endive marmalade with shallots and champagne vinegar and just a few spoonfuls of buttery béarnaise seemed a canny counterpoint to the salmon. (Why is king salmon, which should be much leaner and stronger flavored than the hopelessly farmed Norwegian salmon, getting fattier and duller every time I taste it?) But the salmon was slightly undercooked, and the bass terribly so—I could eat only the edges and had to leave the rubbery, cool, unpleasantly translucent center on the plate. That kitchen team—which Frasca described on our first visit as baffled by his requests and on our second visit as wonderfully enthusiastic and curious—still requires supervision.
Desserts seem a bit high in concept, with too many fiddly elements to remain memorable: A plate with pear variations, for instance, included a frozen charlotte, a chocolate and roasted-pear tarte, a slice of spiced pear cake, pear granita, and crème caramel ($15). Go straight for anything with ice cream. Perhaps that Vita-Mix inspired Frasca to focus on texture, because his ice creams are an ethereal balance of air and solid, with subtle, singing flavors. Frasca told me that they're built on a simple gelato base of egg yolks and milk and were inspired by Martín Berasategui, a Basque chef in San Sebastián he worked with years ago and describes as “stylish, passionate, successful, brilliant—all things good.” Spain is the news in the food world, and if the only direct inspiration he took from his apprenticeship was those ice creams, they're enough to send me to Spain, too.
Spire is still the same odd room it was when it opened, designed on a grand scale yet not actually grand in size. The tables and banquettes are comfortable, though, and the service, already very attentive when it opened nearly two years ago, is even more gracious. There's still a cool wall of glass behind the liquor bottles at the bar that glows different colors. Frasca has brought something iridescent to Spire, too: the chrysalis from which his talent is still emerging.