Restaurant Review: Clio
Prediction: Today’s cutting-edge, El Bulli-influenced cuisine, characterized by an emphasis on novelty, exotic ingredients, and labor-intensive complexity, will eventually seem as archaic as the food of medieval times. But like the classic French fare codified by Escoffier in 1903 or the nouvelle cooking of the 1970s, the most significant components will endure. The restaurant in town to figure out what will stick around — and what will one day seem excessive — is Clio.
Ken Oringer — Boston’s most serious student of the Catalan cuisine perfected by the now-closed El Bulli restaurant — translated his time in and around Barcelona in the late ’90s into the Spanish-style tapas bar Toro (which is scheduled to open a location in New York later this year). Then came Fenway taqueria La Verdad and downtown steakhouse KO Prime. And in 2009, Oringer teamed up with Jamie Bissonnette to create southern Italian pastas, pizzas, and cured meats at the South End’s Coppa, one of my go-to restaurants.
But Clio has always been Oringer’s showcase, his place to demonstrate his virtuosity and the extent of his imagination. He recently refurbished the space in time for its 15th anniversary, and it looks elegant and refreshed — a bit more somber than before, all cream and brown and polished wood, with an expanded bar that offers a more-affordable menu than the dining room. Clio 2.0 is designed to dazzle.
And some of the food is dazzling (all of it is expensive). Many dishes have leaves and herbs and powders and sauces and dabs of bright-colored gels and parabolic swipes of black at the bottom, all of which you want to discover and taste. Some of the flavors come together in the surprising, subtle ways of cuisine practiced on a higher and more-refined plane. But not everything works: The smears can seem silly, the number of sauces excessive, the textures not quite suited to the main ingredient. And then there are the servers, always in view but with uneven attention and knowledge of the menu.
Oringer and chef de cuisine Douglas Rodrigues often use the latest techniques on their seasonally changing menu to make the familiar seem wondrous. A powerful example is the buttermilk-braised chicken ($37), for which the chefs use the natural lactic acid in the marinade to tenderize the chicken breast, then heat it sous-vide style (sealed in a heatproof plastic bag, at a low, controlled temperature) just long enough to cook it through. I generally find the texture of sous-vide meat to be mealy, but this was beautifully tender, the most persuasive argument for the method I’ve tasted. To lend crunch, the cooks take large pieces of skin and slow cook them, weighted, on a plancha — a searing-hot flat-top grill — till they’re thin and crisp. This is chicken reinvented.