Dining Out: A Mediterranean Stew
Something about Avila works. The menu is way too long, the Mediterranean countries represented on it too numerous, the room too big, and the prices way high. And yet, aside from the prices, I could pretty happily dine there several times a month.
Something about Avila works. The menu is way too long, the Mediterranean countries represented on it too numerous, the room too big, and the prices way high. And yet, aside from the prices, I could pretty happily dine there several times a month. The service is good, the range of dishes large enough to please practically anyone, even if none are particularly memorable. It’s as if everything at Davio’s, the big establishment hangout up the street, had been made a notch less formal, though not cheaper.
Davio’s is very much the frame of reference: The owner of both is the smiling and expert Steve DiFillippo; the chefs, Rodney Murillo and Paul King, have long worked with DiFillippo and were chefs at Davio’s. The level of execution is far more consistent than in the months after Davio’s moved into its grand new premises, four years ago. But the food at Avila seems just a few steps up from a corporate hotel’s—with no particular identity, whatever the ethnic menu descriptors may be. Murillo explained to me that he and DiFillippo picked the five countries they knew and liked best: Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, and Greece. That’s a lot to try to do in one restaurant, and almost guarantees that everything will meld (especially when the menu is just divided by standard categories like “small plates,” “first courses,” and “entrées”). Mediterranean roaming aside, the food is a lot like that at Davio’s, but with reliable technique from the get-go.
Paying Park Square rents and having to please but not challenge the tourist trade militates against dining with any particularity. The new space, in a luxury condo building that seems to have gone up overnight, has something of the scope of Davio’s, with sweepingly high ceilings and an expansive, hotel lobby–like bar and lounge. The sinuous, long bar has stools that face a big open kitchen like the one at Davio’s. Though plush, Avila is simple and bright, with un-Mediterranean high-backed Charles Rennie Mackintosh–style chairs, plain walls painted a pretty sand color, and polished wood floors.
Murillo is careful about getting good ingredients and treating them well.There’s no arguing with several of the appetizers, like baked Spanish olives and fresh herbs ($4), Serrano ham and manchego cheese ($8), and fried halloumi ($8), the meaty, dense fresh cheese that is surprisingly good fried, finished with a hot splash of ouzo and served with dates and toasted cashews.
Adventure goes just so far though, even if you’re feeling venturesome. Crispy cod cheeks ($14), for instance, may seem a little out there, but dusted with semolina and sautéed, they are really sweet nuggets (not the least cartilaginous) of richer-tasting-than-usual cod—this is something more chefs should use. Even the “garlicky shrimp” ($10) is pretty delicate, though it does have nice tomato and fresh garlic flavor, and the three medium shrimp were red and fat.
Pasta is made with a surer hand than in the early days of the Park Square Davio’s (I still haven’t shaken the memory of distressingly soft string pasta). Spaghetti with jonah crabmeat, yellow tomatoes, and guanciale ($25) was a model of Italian technique, the dried pasta cooked exactly al dente, and sautéed with a simple and abundantly flavored sauce before being sent straight to the table. The delicate crabmeat, from Maine—which more and more chefs seem to be using in cooked dishes lately, though it first appeared on Boston menus as a raw delicacy—was overshadowed by the porky guanciale. But the flavor was superior, and I’d happily have it again.
The prices climb high and fast for the entrées (most in the thirties). Raised Right chicken under a brick ($25) was both the least expensive and best of the ones I tried, the meat light-flavored but moist and nicely crisp from its being griddle-sautéed under a weight. But the next least expensive entrée, beef short ribs ($26) in a Madeira sauce with fava beans and corn colada (fresh kernels very slowly simmered with cream and salt and pepper), didn’t live up to expectations. The ingots of beef carefully taken whole off the bone after being chilled were neither as succulent nor soft as you want from short ribs; the beans were flavorless, and the corn was oddly sweet and tasted like canned creamed corn.
You’ll do well with the “grilled specialties,” a list of simply prepared proteins that you order with separate sides, as in a steakhouse. And the sides are good and rich enough to serve the table. Mediterranean spiced swordfish ($27) was the best chunk of fish I’ve had in a long time, huge and succulent and perfectly cooked, with a mild rub of spices including za’atar and chili; it came with a nice little golden beet salad. Similarly, lamb tenderloin souvlaki ($29) had been marinated just enough to give some oregano-mint flavor to the lamb and take some of the lambiness out; the flavors paired well with the accompanying roasted-pepper salad. Neither halibut ($27) nor New York sirloin ($41) was as distinctive or exemplary, and at these prices they should be both.
The sides could easily make an entrée—and not necessarily a meatless one. My favorite was moussaka ($8), with a half-and-half base of ground lamb and beef, and the kind of eggplant and tomato you hope to find in eggplant parm but seldom do. Fried yucca sticks ($6) are magically kept firm outside and creamy inside (they’re often floury), and couscous, olives, and pine nuts ($9) made a fresh hot summer salad that would be great year-round.
Wines are surprisingly moderately priced, maybe by comparison, and a 1998 Marqués de Griñón rioja ($50) was a superb and memorable red wine perfectly suited to the menu. Desserts, by the always reliable Tom Ponticelli, are crowd-pleasing and unobtrusively Med-themed. The newest item in his repertoire is a good, flaky custard tart ($8); the best is a Greek-diner rice pudding with rhubarb compote and rhubarb sorbet ($8). I can never resist his cookie plate ($8), and even though I can always resist molten chocolate cake ($10), his is fine. Like so much in this very agreeable, kind of corporate, surprisingly expensive place.