Dining Out: Paradise Found
We wouldn’t be surprised if the Michelin people head straight for Dante should they ever decide to publish a guide to Boston. Original, homegrown talent eager to make a national mark—and up to the challenge—is rare, so of course they would find their way to the new restaurant at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge.
Dante de Magistris made his mark at Blu, the cool, cool restaurant in the Sports Club/LA complex that opened in 2001.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Michelin people head straight for Dante should they ever decide to publish a guide to Boston. Original, homegrown talent eager to make a national mark—and up to the challenge—is rare, so of course they would find their way to the new restaurant at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge.
Dante de Magistris made his mark at Blu, the cool, cool restaurant in the Sports Club/LA complex that opened in 2001. His food there was an excitingly tense balance between the classic, ingredients-forward cooking of his southern Italian father and the New Wave French influences he had seen on stints working abroad. He was finding his way toward his own identity, and it was modern and demure, yet bold.
At Dante he has spread his wings, packing his menu with new ideas from all over. It makes for provocative, always expert cuisine. I thought for days of the mascarpone spumas, herb flower garnishes, vegetable gratins, Gorgonzola toppings—the separately conceived, sauced, and dressed components that characterize cooking of great sophistication.
With 200 seats to fill and a bar scene to keep thriving, de Magistris and two of his brothers have set high goals. Davio’s survived in this location by serving comforting, familiar, unchallenging food. The de Magistris men have something altogether different in mind. Damian, wavy-haired and suave, is general manager; Filippo has devised a really original wine list that is particularly good on Italy and especially southern Italy; paterfamilias Leon drives down weekly shipments of whatever is growing in his Vermont garden. They’ve also renovated the sweeping space. Both the bar, in cool beiges with teal bucket chairs, and the dining room, with two-story windows, overlook the tranquil marina with a view of downtown and Back Bay on the right bank. It’s a ’70s-overtoned setting for serious food with an edge.
De Magistris actually does have Michelin-star experience. For a year he worked at Don Alfonso, south of Naples, Italy. (Inspectors visited while the owners were away and de Magistris manned the stoves; the two stars were increased to three.) At Dante, de Magistris tries to live up to his mentors, from whom he embraced a slight French fussiness, and his father and grandmother, both food lovers who helped guide his approach.
De Magistris, naturally, wants to create his own identity with new flavor combinations: coffee bean–crusted veal T-bone ($29), yuzu-marinated merluzzo, or black cod ($29). He wants to flirt with Asia: flash-seared tuna with sesame seaweed ($12). He wants to have fun with small plates, naming a menu category “play pen” and listing, say, a mini lobster “clambake” with an andouille sausage corn dog ($12). Many of the dishes at Dante are strikingly original, and I found many components of them terrific. Still, I’d like to see de Magistris rein himself in a bit and offer a clearer vision after his breathtaking Blu debut. Maybe something, I can’t help thinking, closer to his grandmother’s and father’s food, without slighting his own experimental bent.
When de Magistris keeps sharp focus, the results are phenomenal. From Blu he took the caramelized onion tarte Tatin ($7), an irresistible puck of deeply caramelized sliced onion with a thin disk of baked goat cheese. Our waiter said that diners regularly demand seconds, and I see why—it’s perfectly conceived and executed. Basil-roasted guinea hen may be expensive ($31) for a chicken alternative, but it is sumptuous meat: De Magistris told me that he slathers the breast with Thai basil butter, then wraps it in caul fat before roasting. The result, served with leg meat separately roasted, arrived over a sauce of satiny, cooked-down stock brightened with the chef’s trademark verjus (the juice of unripe grapes, both sweet and sour) and beside a ragout of spring vegetables, including meaty wild mushrooms, fava beans, and fiddlehead ferns from Leon’s farm. This was a serious, beautifully made dish.
Grilled beef tenderloin ($36) is another luxury dish with succulent flavor, great vegetables, and a spark of imagination. The center-cut beef comes from Wolfe’s Neck Farm, prized by chefs who want organic New England beef with a buttery texture. After marinating, seasoning, and grilling the meat, de Magistris sprinkles the top with a secret ingredient to make the outside just a bit crunchy. You wonder why it’s so good, as you do the warm potato salad with black olives and the cheesy, bread-crumb topping on the fat, fresh asparagus.
Sometimes, however, de Magistris falls prey to a piling-on tendency that has long been a bane of Boston cooks. (Todd English is generally blamed for these types of deluges.) Mustard-glazed Norwegian salmon ($27) arrived with a cardoon and salsify gratin, layered with cooked-down heavy cream and shallots, and a pool of pistachio pesto that, tempting as it looked, was extraneous. Similarly overdone was the phyllo-wrapped crespelle ($22): A very good ratatouille, bound with goat cheese, is stuffed into phyllo, then pan seared. It is served with sautéed vegetables dressed with a cabernet vinaigrette, and set over a mascarpone-feta foam. The dish is topped with spinach and pea tendrils that have been separately dressed, and not lightly.
If you’ve lost track just by reading, you’ll be equally lost navigating the plate. I did like that mascarpone-feta foam. But the butter, cheese, and oil mixed together in so many dishes can be wearying, and sometimes the admirable ingredients and carefully thought-out flavors have trouble being heard.
But there are always pastas: the gnocchi from de Magistris’s grandmother, spaghetti alla chitarra, and the superbly flavored pasta di Gragnano, made in factories south of Naples. On the opening menu, the flavored pasta had incongruous crème fraîche and butter, but the chitarra, with resilient lardoons of homemade guanciale, Maine crab, sweet peas, and lemony crumbs ($12), was awfully good.
With summer has come more fruits of his family’s labor. A minute or two after the (young, knowledgeable, opinionated) waiter set that great guinea hen down, de Magistris appeared at the table with a small glass bowl of African basil flowers that had just arrived from his father’s farm; he thought they would go perfectly with the hen. (It was only then that, startled, he recognized me.) His enthusiasm and sincerity were endearing. He’s an exciting and talented chef, and I’ll be returning to Dante as his identity forms—and as his father keeps delivering both fresh bounty and paternal wisdom.