Dining Out: English Lessons

64 Arlington Street, Boston
Chef: Todd English

Of course I admire Todd English. Who doesn't? He's our chef-entrepreneur, our tall, dark, and handsome success story. Plus, I'm fond of him. He brings spark and pizzazz to the many, many restaurants he opens, and his food makes many, many people happy.

You know the “buts”: He opens too many restaurants to keep close and personal control over any one, however intense his focus may be when he's opening or fine-tuning a new one. I have my own prejudice against chefs who shuttle from kitchen to kitchen, especially in far-flung cities and states. Their names often get spread around far more than their talent. It's possible to succeed (Wolfgang Puck and Alain Ducasse are two of the most famous exceptions) if you come up with a winning and workable formula and know how to train a crackerjack staff to execute it.

English worked out a winning and workable formula at Figs, his pizza-plus-a-few-specials chain that brings gladness to Charlestown, Beacon Hill, Chestnut Hill, and Wellesley. And his longtime fans are happy to find their favorites on the greatest-hits menu at Rustic Kitchen in Faneuil Hall, where he also runs KingFish Hall. I wanted to try his newest effort, Bonfire, because it aims to be a wholly original idea; because I so like the Park Plaza Hotel and its attempts to build attractive bars and restaurants on its gigantic ground floor; and because Boston can use a new and different steakhouse.

Different Bonfire is, and very attractive. It has a vaguely Moorish-Southern California interior: plush and alluringly dark, with lots of maroon brocade on heavy wooden chairs, twinkling filigreed ceiling lights, and a great-looking serpentine bar that runs the length of the room and offers views of the kitchen and grill. It's comfortable, a nice place to hang out — just like the bar across the lobby, Whiskey Park, in its brown-leather 007 way.

The service at Bonfire is welcoming and relaxed. This is a change from the English-empire philosophy, a tenet of which has generally been, as an insider once put it to me unapologetically, “Crank up the music and turn those tables.” Instead, Bonfire is quiet and friendly and warm. Let's hope this is a harbinger of future empirical directions.

That leaves the formula and the kitchen staff. Neither has been worked out. When Bonfire opened last fall, it was reviewed fast, and the judgments were harsh. The theme was unwieldy and vague, critics said, and the execution, muddy. The restaurant itself called its theme “ranch cooking around the world from the U.S. to Australia.” This was fairly baffling. Cowboy food? Recipes from a campsite for Pampas gauchos? Signaling real trouble, the announcement continued: “With a nod to Argentinean flavors and a fusion of American and European influences, Bonfire's vast menu offers something for everyone.” That usually means nothing much for anyone. I waited a few months and heard encouraging reports of clearer focus and more reliable execution.

I have a long-standing aversion to the Todd English approach to restaurant food, in which the chef piles one thing after another on the plate until the diner is overcome by bilious incomprehension — or by oversatiated joy, as the stream of waiting diners has proven for years at Olives (whose lines were recently slowed by two shutdowns ordered by the city's health inspectors). I've always thought that his approach used great sophistication in ingredients and techniques and styles of cuisines toward an unsophisticated end, tarting up plates and rendering each of the multiple components, no matter how good, unappetizing by sheer agglomeration.

There's an argument on the other side, of course, and you can find it by going on to the official English Web site, where “Todd's Tip Number 48” (the “Secret to a Great Dessert”) recently suggested: “Take very simple, often very common things and layer them together to compose a more complex dish.” He believes in this for all his dishes — except the things he layers are seldom simple or common.

At Bonfire the components are salsas and Southwestern and South American ingredients, which English has explored little in his other restaurants. But, as usual, there's too much of everything. It's hard to single out the many things on a plate, even when it's right in front of you: They literally run together. In addition to the takes on Southwestern classics you would expect from English — jalapeño mayo, red wine aïoli, habanero blood-orange mojo — there is, in just one dish, espresso-dusted rib-eye steak with red-wine braised oxtail vinaigrette and fried oyster salad. You can order a side of any of a number of sauces, including bordelaise and bŽarnaise and hollandaise and wild-mushroom stroganoff. You see why it's hard to get a handle on the place. Also, as usual, there are slicks of fat as far as the eye can see. Plates glisten all 'cross the room.

I tried treating Bonfire as a simple steakhouse and still could not escape the heaping on of ingredients and immoderate lashings of fat. Let me first signal the good news: There are fine tacos, including a recognizably Mexican-style pork and pumpkin with apple salad ($8) and char skirt steak with avocado, lime, pico de gallo, and jalapeño aïoli ($8), as well as English reminders such as duck confit and foie gras mousse in one and grilled lobster in another (both $12). These are the most successful and, not surprisingly, the most popular parts of the main menu. And there's an exciting new talent in Heather Macdonald, the pastry chef who manages to translate the English-empire philosophy into fascinating and beautifully made desserts.

The kitchen is buying top-notch ingredients. I tried beef and pork from Niman Ranch, whose owner, Bill Niman, recently came to Boston to explain the particulars of his humanely raised animals and why their treatment and carefully selected feed (not organic, as the Bonfire menu claims) makes the meat taste so much better. Cooking them is another matter. An enormous slab of tuna ($29) arrived unappetizingly rare when we asked for it done medium. Disappointingly, the “honeymoon steak,” ($24), a skirt steak marinated for several days with Southwestern spices, mustard powder, and balsamic vinegar, was stringy and a bit tough — admittedly a hazard with nonindustrial meat and especially with that cut. The char from the wood grill was lovely, though, and the huge Niman Ranch double pork chop ($27) showed just why older breeds result in really superior meat.

The side dishes that would elsewhere be steakhouse standards have been Englishized, for better and worse. Garlic-smashed red bliss potatoes ($6) were boiled exactly right, their surfaces only lightly broken to allow in the subtle, good garlic butter. Potatoes roasted in salt ($5), a great idea, had good texture and flavor but too much compound butter. And parmesan creamed spinach ($6.50) and Bonfire “steakhouse” salad ($9) showed the heaping-on principle at its most clogged: Good fresh spinach was almost caked solid with Parmigiano-Reggiano and white sauce, and the salad was overwhelmed by a cream-bound Roquefort dressing. What lettuce and tomato there might have been somewhere at the bottom were obscured by the salty white mortar and the onion rings heaped over it.

Desserts are layered, yes. But they're mostly bliss because Macdonald has a talent for letting clear flavors sing through the signature layering. Try the “tangy, creamy lemon cake” ($9), which lives up to its title — with a tall twist of lemon mousse mixed with Italian meringue-like frozen custard made dreamy, and a marvelously fresh lemon pound cake with a tart lemon and yogurt-cheese filling. There are lemon cookies on the plate, too, and seven-minute icing slathered over the whole thing — she's an English adherent, after all. But that terrific lemon dessert, and a “creamy-crunchy chocolate cake” ($9.25) with Venezuelan chocolate cream and cocoa meringue, manage to put technique, thought, and first-rate ingredients at the service of flavor and focus. That's what English can do at his nonoverextended best. With time, perhaps all of Bonfire will do that, too.