Dining Out: Branching Out
Arbor has been received rapturously, partly because it opened a new frontier to downtown-worthy dining in Jamaica Plain, where diners have been waiting for a restaurant a bit larger and more polished than the charming but tiny Ten Tables. Despite the somewhat alarming pace of gentrification in this neighborhood, there hasn't been much in the way of fine dining beyond good Thai and Indian, light lunch and supper at the endearing Cantata, the wildly popular Sunday brunch at Centre Street Café, and the nonpareil Doyle's.
Worthy choices all. But last summer, a sleek, very urban restaurant appeared opposite Boomerangs, the city's wittiest and most idiosyncratic thrift shop, and it quickly took off. It's easy to see why Arbor has become a star overnight. The flavors of its Mediterranean, Moroccan-themed food are unfussy and true, and when the ingredients and execution match the chef's confident conception, the results are first-rate. The service is lovely, right in keeping with what Jamaica Plain die-hards don't want to see changed: a casual and worldly, but not arrogant, attitude.
Arbor, the neighbors can be reassured, is owned by the chef—not a dreaded chain or long-distance investor. A few of the drawbacks that can go along with an independent restaurant are in evidence: uneven preparation from dish to dish and uneven performance from night to night. But the crowds making Arbor a success don't seem to mind.
I don't mind much either, when a few dishes are so on target. Douglas Organ, the chef and owner, has taken to the spices of North Africa and makes a Moroccan spiced lamb ($24) so irresistible that this dish alone puts J.P. on Boston's culinary map. It's one of those crusty, pink-red roast lamb dishes that makes you wonder how anyone could prefer tenderloin of beef—in fact, how anyone could question the succulent superiority of lamb. Perhaps the secret is the dry rub that has a little bit of everything, from sweet spices to cayenne to orange and lemon, in which the top round of lamb sits for several days. It's served with Israeli couscous, that chef's darling that looks like mini-Kix and is actually a pasta, toasted and then cooked like a risotto. The eggplant marmalade is also a fine, regionally apt accompaniment, but those thickly cut ovals of lamb need nothing more to elevate this dish into the meat pantheon.
Organ is an anomaly in the Boston restaurant scene: He's not from here, and he didn't train here. He co-owned and ran two successful restaurants on the other side of the country, in San Diego. He just decided to move here, he told me on the phone, because he had “never lived in New England.” Given his sense of style, his savvy commitment to a great neighborhood, and his fresh sense of flavor, he's more than welcome. But he needs to work on the quality that separates an interesting and talented restaurateur from a full professional: consistency.
At one dinner, for instance, the rosemary-cured pork chop with Brussels sprouts, lavender honey, and green apple confit ($22) was so rubbery it was hard to cut the big slab. Another evening it was more manageable, though the meat was still daunting. The semolina gnocchi under a blanket of melted fontina and over a thin tomato coulis ($18) were yet more puzzling, rubbery one night (probably from being run under a broiler too long to melt the cheese), tender and soothing another.
In fact, an early weeknight dinner seemed as if it could have been cooked by a different kitchen than a Friday night dinner a few weeks later. Fish dishes, especially, were out of focus on the weeknight and veered into sharp view on the Friday. This was noticeable particularly with the wild striped bass with green lentil ragout, warm escarole salad, pancetta, and mustard sauce ($23). On the weeknight, the striped bass, one of my favorites, had little flavor and the accompaniments seemed limp and merged. On the Friday, the fish tasted like itself and the vegetables were suddenly perky.
A few things were equally impressive at both meals. Organ is very good on duck, which he calls the “most versatile” meat product. A sauce of shredded duck confit with portobello mushrooms was smooth and mildly earthy, even if the pappardelle with which it was tossed were a bit tough ($19). I hope some dishes will stay on the menu, with seasonal variations: the roasted butternut squash soup ($10), rich flavored and with the essence of sweet golden squash, and the Moroccan romaine salad with blood oranges, Medjool dates, picholine olives, and spiced almonds ($10).
Each has bright, distinct flavors, judiciously juxtaposed. A room-temperature couscous salad molded as a wide flat disc, which appears as an appetizer with scallops, is a perfect balance of sweet and salty with a few sharp flavor notes of citrus and ginger.
Perhaps Organ has brought from California this sense of honoring individual ingredients that are hardly altered, not to mention finding a way to use that state's luscious dates. He's admirably supporting the Roslindale bakery Fornax, supplying his diners with generous slabs of its thick-crusted, big rustic loaves.
Organ also serves as pastry chef, and he's choosing creamy, comforting desserts like lemon semifreddo, which one night was almost the right barely frozen consistency and another the chip-at-it, overfrozen challenge that it is in too many other local restaurants. The caramel pot de crème, though, scales the lamb heights: It's a lush, soft, deeply flavored cross between pudding and crème brûlée, and perfect.
What potential! The unusual and well-priced wine list, the happily familiar and knowledgeable service, the sleek setting—Arbor is on its way to becoming both a neighborhood standby and a destination for diners in search of a bright new talent. That talent needs only a bit of fine-tuning to keep customers coming back for years.