Dining Out: ThirtySomething

33 Restaurant & Lounge
33 Stanhope Street, Boston
Chef: Charles Draghi

Charles Draghi is a man who can cast spells talking about food and wine, and he does enjoy talking. His understanding and appreciation of the spirit and practice of food, particularly Italian food, and of New Englanders who farm and forage for herbs and vegetables, is tireless and remarkable. Just one Côte de Nuits Burgundy can send him into rhapsodies about cassis and clove overtones, and how its similarity to a bucket of periwinkles makes it go perfectly with a scallop dish. He can sell you on almost anything.

The problem lies between conception and execution. In his four years at Marcuccio's in the North End, then in his eight months at the Ladder District bar Limbo, and now at the new South End bar-restaurant 33, Draghi's food has often fallen short of his persuasive ideas. It's hard to know just why – or how – someone who cares so much about ingredients, and the work that should go into every dish, has wound up working at restaurants where capturing the scene is the primary goal.

Since his parting of ways from the two owners of Marcuccio's (who, according to Draghi, had differing ideas of what the restaurant should be; one wanted tradition, he says, the other, innovation), Draghi has been looking for his own place, keeping up his warm relationships with local farmers all the while. Now he's in a hip neighborhood at a hip restaurant whose two young owners – both hovering around 33, speaking of capturing the moment – presented him with two menus of equal length to make every night, one listing French dishes, the other, Italian.

It's surely not how Draghi would have organized things. But at 33 himself, he has what appears to be a generous budget and a capable staff – including a chef de cuisine, Joshua Botsford, who previously worked at No. 9 Park. What he has been able to do is instructive and makes those of us who are fond of Draghi wonder what he'll do when all ties are loosened. As has been the case at each of his restaurants, the highs at 33 are encouraging, and the lows are disappointing. And there isn't much in between.

This restaurant had odd origins. It was supposed to be the $2 million tip place – Zita, the dream restaurant of a bartender whose work so impressed a visiting Swiss financier one night that he agreed to underwrite the idea. The African wood floors and glass sinks and series of other naive decisions that ultimately didn't work out became fodder for local wags for months. The new owners, Greg Den Herder and Igor Blatnik, say they were able to keep virtually nothing of the original work save for a $70,000 elevator (which, incidentally, they say had been billed at $300,000). They instead commissioned a completely new design, very cool in a mid-'90s way. The centerpieces are two chest-high curtain walls flanking a dramatic stairway to a downstairs club. The shoji-like screens covering the walls are lit from within by light-emitting diodes that are always programmed, as one of the many bouncer/greeters told me, with one of several hundred custom-lighting schemes. If you're seated near one of the walls (and it's likely you will be), you'll think you fell into a 1950s Wurlitzer jukebox or got trapped in some Edward Hopper Nighthawks hell as you watch your companions' flesh tones turn from one lurid pastel hue to another.

There's one completely salubrious innovation: handsome outdoor tables on a plaza shared with next-door neighbor Bomboa. The two restaurants have spiffed up the sidewalk and even put tall plants in front of the barren lot across the street where, eventually, a tall building will go up. At lunch, 33 has all 80 of the comfortable seats, and at dinner the restaurants go half-and-half. It's like coming upon a new, leafy mini-piazza.

The dual French/Italian menus force you to shuttle between the two cuisines, attempting to construct a meal. The greatest hits-style lists made me think of what a very sophisticated traveler and gourmet might write if holed up someplace without any good food for days. But it's not a terribly sensible way to think about making food in one place in one season. And what you get is unpredictable.

I wouldn't have guessed that coquilles St. Jacques ($16) would be the best of numerous dishes we tried, especially because there was no cheesy, gloppy Mornay sauce. But it was the most impressive example of Draghi's ability to find and serve the best of New England: whole, very fresh scallops with their roe broiled until they're cooked but not tough, with their marvelously fleshy and tender crescent-moon orange coral intact. They were nicely complemented by a subtle black truffle duxelles that actually tasted delicately of truffle, rather than of the blatant synthesized truffle oil other chefs use. Or who would have thought that a simple grilled tuna from the Italian menu ($32) would be the best tuna entrée I've had in a while? Its rosemary-and-orange-zest marinade stood up to but didn't domineer the generous slab of first-rate fish. The unbilled accompaniment to the tuna shows what wonders Draghi can perform with vegetables: giant-sized lima beans cooked with cinnamon and a bit of sugar so that they're a bit floury (like fresh chestnuts, as Draghi later described them to me) and so good you want to pick them up one by one and eat them like an hors d'oeuvre.

But then. Lobster carpaccio ($18) is an odd idea and not even true to the usual meaning – cooked rather than raw meat, pounded and served with a shrilly acidic coral and tomato vinaigrette. Draghi told me proudly that he has made several batches of fabulous vinegar with the leftovers of all the wine he sampled to assemble the wine list, but he's using too much of it in too many sauces. Also, the prices are high, especially for this, which amounts to a seafood morsel.

Then there are the plain failures, as dramatic as they are puzzling. The fat, fresh spaghetti (already risky, since spaghetti is better dried) is sauced with just a few sweet cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, and olive oil ($14). Sounds perfect, but the pasta arrived gummy and tough and barely lukewarm. The sole meunière ($24) was positively cool and unappetizingly mealy. The top-grade beef for the steak frites ($29) was good, tender, well-grilled meat with a sauce of reduced meat juices and not too much of that homemade red-wine vinegar, and herb butter. But the fries were soggy and tasteless and were a real disappointment to the eager fry maven at the table.

The wine list is full of interesting choices I was eager to try. But as I ordered one night from our friendly, well-meaning waiter of heavy and indeterminate accent, he solemnly disappeared, saying, “The verdicchio. Very good, sir,” or, “The moscato secco. Very good, sir,” and returned a while later full of apology that they didn't have it. This happened with fully 4 of the 15 Italian whites on the list until I settled on a Piemontese Broglia Gavi ($36) I already knew.

On another night, a waiter made it clear he thought a guest's request for a latte and a glass of ice at the beginning of the meal was quite peculiar and inappropriate, but, after a few minutes, he returned with the order and a very changed demeanor. “He was serving nothing but attitude,” my guest remarked. “Now you're his best friend. You're a made man.” And perhaps I was recognized. But either extreme is undesirable.

The full wine selection will come in, perhaps the glitches in service will even themselves out, and the crowd will stay as chic as it is – for a few months. Then Draghi will be off again on his quest for his own quarters; he says his contract goes through the end of the year. And perhaps the menu will be shorter and saner, and priced with a more careful eye toward value. What will certainly remain is a nicely renovated space with a checkered – and now very colorful – history and an even faster pace on an already hopping club and restaurant row.