Dining Out: Flying High

Few things are more admirable than owner-chefs who seek out the best and most local ingredients. These chefs change their growers and fishermen as they find better ones, and stay loyal to the good ones. They never compromise quality for convenience by groggily phoning in the next day's order to a single central supplier while the evening's last loads of dishes are trundling through the industrial washer.

Chris Douglass is one of them. His Icarus, in the South End, is among the city's most pleasant places to have an easygoing private dinner, either academic—one doctor told me that Icarus is “every search committee's restaurant of choice”—or romantic. On several recent visits I saw young couples clearly on their first important date, pretending to study the wine list.

Douglass came of age in a Boston just falling under the spell of nouvelle cuisine, and especially nouvelle American cuisine. In the late '70s and early '80s the queens of cooking were, of course, Julia Child and Madeleine Kamman, who was attracting a cult following with her courses in French techniques adapted for American kitchens and American creativity. Odette Bery was serving French-inspired food prepared using careful French techniques at Another Season, the pretty Beacon Hill restaurant now occupied by Lala Rokh, which itself importantly introduced Persian cuisine to a public happy to be educated.

As a very young apprentice Douglass worked in the kitchen of Another Season, learning classic techniques from Bery (who went on to teach at Boston University's Metropolitan College). During a summer working in Provincetown, he met Tom Hall and John Bellott, who were about to open a restaurant in the rapidly gentrifying South End. Icarus was a pioneer of the flea market-furnished, oak-tabled restaurant that was then getting attention at a spot in another awakening university city on the West Coast: Berkeley's Chez Panisse. Over the years, Icarus moved around the South End several times, finally settling into its downstairs quarters at the corner of Appleton and Tremont streets in 1987. A year and a half ago Hall and Bellott departed for Roslindale and opened Gusto (“Mucho Gusto,” June), with Douglass remaining as chef and co-owner.

Okay, Icarus isn't Chez Panisse. It hasn't set national trends. But it does look an awful lot like it, with its mixture of mismatched oak tables and chairs, art nouveau fringed lampshades, and tulip-shaped sconces; golden oak still holds sway, though there are no ferns. Like Chez Panisse, as the restaurant and its clientele have prospered over the years, the look has been maintained while the comfort has grown plusher and the menu prices have edged higher. The casual, “we-were-once-hippies-and-still-care-about-the-land” roots show in the lending library behind the bar, full of cookbooks featuring organic and artisan-produced food, and in the customers themselves, who almost eerily parallel the diners at Chez Panisse in their academic comfort and casual dress. That attitude shows in the service too. It's terrific—caring and really helpful without ever being pompous or overbearing.

You'll be very comfortable at Icarus. The soft lighting, nice space between tables, and bungalow decor will even help you overlook the lack of windows. You'll have similarly comforting food that will carry you back to the beginnings of the Chez Panisse-inspired American food revolution, prepared with first-rate ingredients. There's an asterisk coming, and here it is: Nothing rises above nice or very nice, but the prices do rise to levels that restrict Icarus dinners to special occasions or search committee-funded interviews.

In a recent series of dinners, I sampled just about every item on the current menu, and found that by far the best choices are the tried-and-true dishes I've enjoyed for years. Polenta with mushrooms ($9.50) is almost as much a Boston classic as Hamersley's mushroom sandwich, and for much the same reason: big lashings of garlic and generous portions of full-flavored wild mushrooms. Douglass told me he folds into the polenta lightly sautéed shallots and leeks, which lighten the mixture and give it an onion wallop. Grilled shrimp with mango and jalapeño sorbet ($12) improves a by-now familiar combination with the use of superior shrimp—Douglass gets it from a local vendor who brings it in direct from the Florida Gulf—and the pretty orange surprise of the sorbet, whose peppery tingle comes clear only after it melts on the tongue. I also liked the goat cheese and beet salad ($10.50), with Massachusetts fresh goat cheese from Hubbardston Farms, and chunks of beets in several colors.

Douglass is best at meat, at choosing it and bringing out its best quality. The two standout main courses were vast chops, pork and lamb, cut generously thick and served just pink in the center. The Colorado lamb chops were smeared with a bread-crumb coating that included pine nuts and lemon peel, served with a shank braised osso buco-style over very good Maine lima beans and spinach. This was the one main course whose many components seemed united, in this case by the fresh lemon-garlic-parsley gremolata over the chops and vegetables and the un-muttony stock that flavored the shank and vegetables. But it was a huge amount of food (and, at $32, the most expensive entrée). In French hands, the French conceit of presenting several preparations of one kind of meat—something popular in American restaurants in the late '80s—would be served in portions far more discreet.

Niman Ranch pork chops are probably the country's highest in flavor, because they're from old-style breeds not raised for fat-fearing Americans who want to believe that pork is the Other White Meat and who will put up with pallid, flavor-free food that turns stringy the minute it's cooked to doneness. Douglass told me he still uses the chef's trick of soaking the chops in brine before grilling them to proper pinkness. A beautifully orange sweet-potato soufflé added color to this food-laden plate ($26), but a bourbon-packed butter with shallots and sweet-potato purée was far too rich. In fact, the kitchen seems stuck in the late-'70s idea that butter is always better, and never got with the '90s olive oil program. This is an honorable choice, and one many cooks continue to make, but it does make getting through an entrée pretty difficult.

On all the main courses the use of vegetables is judicious, seasonal, and pretty to look at, and shows Douglass' great care in finding local farmers and the best vendors. His strengths are meat and vegetables, and he's better with big single cuts like the aforementioned chops than fancier, if pretty, preparations such as a somewhat dry sliced rabbit loin ($29), cut to show fresh peas in the stuffing. (The meaty rabbit leg, on the other hand, is sweet, not stringy, and just right.) And non-polenta carbohydrates are to be avoided, if a “pasta whim” of tagliatelle with vegetables ($12) and gnocchi with baby artichokes and pungent balsamic-braised portobello mushrooms ($21) are indications. Both were unpleasantly tough, and Douglass revealed his French training in preferring butter as a dressing and running the gnocchi under a broiler to melt a grated-taleggio topping.

Desserts sound homey and good, with crisps and homemade ice creams, but were too rich and too low in flavor—the exception is a chocolate molten soufflé cake for two ($16), which you should order with your entrées—and lacked the sense of color and texture variation of the entrées. The wines are not quite as pricey as the entrées, but, as with the main menu, you pay the freight for the well-chosen, high quality choices. Both a $110 French chardonnay and $36 zinfandel were absolutely right complements to the grilled tuna ($29.50) and the rabbit.

You won't find bargains, but you also won't run up against unwelcome surprises at a meal where you don't want risk. And that can be a fine thing when dining is so pleasant. On one Friday we listened with half an ear to the jazz standards of pianist Mark Kross, a Friday-evening fixture for the past 10 years, and his guest musician, clarinetist John LaPorta. This was live music that was familiar and happy and local—everything Icarus has made its own.