Dining Out: My Blu Heaven
More years ago than anyone present cares to remember, I was a guest at Michela Larson's house when a fresh Culinary Institute of America graduate named Todd English cooked a tryout dinner with his wife, Olivia, aiming for a job at the not-yet-opened Michela's. I say this to confess that I'm a longtime friend of Michela's and to show that she has a track record for spotting and developing talent.
A few years later, I was invited through mutual friends to the Belmont home of Leon deMagistris to try a dinner cooked by his son Dante, back from a triumphant yearlong apprenticeship at Don Alfonso, a southern Italian restaurant that had just performed the almost unheard-of feat of winning a third Michelin star. Barely into his twenties but with an impressive Italian and French rèsumé, Dante was cooking at Café Louis under the rising star in town, Michael Schlow (in his pre-Radius days).
I'm not the talent-spotter Michela is. She watched Dante as he filled in for vacationing chefs all over town and built up his own solid local reputation. Along with her partners in Rialto and the recently closed Red Clay—Jody Adams, Karen Haskell, and Gary Sullivan—she decided the time was right for the young talent to have his own domain, and that it should be blu, their new restaurant at the very posh, spalike Sports Club/LA adjacent to the sleek, new Ritz-Carlton on Boston Common.
Still, I feel I was twice present at the creation. I have no idea if Dante deMagistris, now just 27, will prove to have anything like Todd English's drive, or will cut such a figure with the public. But now that he has his own restaurant as a showcase rather than just the lively family kitchen upstairs from his father Leon's popular Belmont hair salon, I can predict that he will cut a national figure with diners who seek out food with true flavors and that extra something—that ingredient that lifts a dish to the inspired.
This is, granted, not the same as finding a diamond in the rough. Being presented by Larson and company is like getting the star treatment at the old MGM. The service is welcoming and completely professional, and the bar promises to be a downtown meeting spot equivalent to Harvard Square's Rialto. The drinks are well mixed, and the wine list is small, unchallenging, and reliable.
Blu is in an odd location. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and blond wood paneling, it looks the part of neighbor to a spa. The only blue in sight is in a series of big framed photographs that might have been taken in a swimming pool. The actual entrance to the health club is across the landing from the restaurant, so you don't have to pass guilt-inducing treadmills on the way to your table. But you do pass through a café area serving fruit, salads, and healthful snacks to the pampered and fit patrons before you enter the long, undulating dining room, with a curtain-glass wall of blue-tinted glass. (Did those windows give the restaurant its name?) It's an incongruous setting for a place serving serious, if perfectly healthful, food. Somehow the light colors make it seem better suited to day than evening. And, in fact, blu is serving a quick, good business lunch, separate from the wraps and salads in the cafeteria out front. The small lunch menu even has a modestly priced version of the chef's star dish.
DeMagistris came by his sophisticated simplicity by starting to cook and think about food as a child, when he had the incalculable benefit of watching and helping his Avellino-born grandmother, who lived to cook. Of four brothers, he was the one who became interested in cooking, and it seemed natural that he would spend a year or two in Italy after high school. In the grand European tradition, restaurants became his secondary school. The high point of his life, he says, was being given near autonomy over the Don Alfonso menu when the husband-and-wife owners decided to spend a few months learning from Michel Guérard—the summer months when their garden, on a steep hillside in the paradisiacal Amalfi coast, south of Naples, was at its most abundant. Dante later learned that many of the anonymous Michelin inspection visits took place on his watch.
Working in paradise—and under the amiable and dedicated owners of Don Alfonso, who put ingredients foremost—gave deMagistris an unusually sure sense of what tastes right together. He'll put ginger and orange into a sweet potato purée, for example; there's nothing unusual in that, although it's awfully good. Then he'll make the just-right match with venison so big and tender it looks and even tastes like poached filet of beef ($30), crusted with maple sugar and deglazed with maple vinegar. Or he'll put orange chunks into the cavity of a marinated chicken before roasting it ($25), and a few thin slices of kumquat into the excellent small-cubed root-vegetable hash he serves along with the chicken, the pan juices spiked with Grand Marnier. Again, the orange is a stabilizing overtone, nothing more, and nothing too sweet.
On an entrée I devoured, striped bass ($27), I hardly noticed the rosemary lemon vinaigrette, so taken was I with a sweet, intensely aromatic herb I couldn't identify scattered sparingly over the top; the chef later told me it was “micro celery and beet tops,” tiny sprigs of sprouted seed that reminded him of the herbs that grew wild in that volcanic Neapolitan hillside garden. The cooking method—steamed, without skin—was very different from the usual oven searing, which leaves perfectly crisp skin. Nonetheless, this was the most beautifully flavored fish I've had in a long time, and the herbal complement showed the chef's typical and exemplary restraint.
So far, deMagistris has been husbanding his late grandmother's recipe treasury, something he'll probably dole out slowly and carefully over a long career. But early in blu's life, he did offer a taste of its riches: potato gnocchi ($22), more resilient than most because Signora deMagistris wanted no part of cloudlike, airy gnocchi that dissolve in your mouth. She believed gnocchi should have bite, like barely al dente pasta. Her technique was secret, and her grandson is keeping it that way, making the whole night's supply himself. His staff's incentive to stay is the promise of an extremely valuable one-year bonus: a gnocchi lesson.
I'm holding out for pasta, the memory of which sends Dante into elated reveries: Helping his grandmother make pasta was his favorite task from a very young age, he says, which makes me eager to see pasta added to the menu. For now I'll content myself with the silken chestnut soup with roasted porcini mushrooms ($11), whose deep flavor tastes far more of the delicate and elusive chestnuts than the mushrooms (it's mysteriously creamy despite a sworn absence of cream), and the beautifully soft seared foie gras with tiny diamonds of candied leeks ($18), the current if-you-must, do-this-one foie gras dish in town.
Yes, there are a few misfires: roasted lobster, with too-chewy meat and too little of it for the price ($36), whose potato mashed with coral makes a pretty red side dish but is oddly fishy; a too-soft quinoa and amaranth “salad” under horseradish and pistachio-crusted seared salmon ($26) that offers insufficient contrast of textures; and generally unremarkable desserts that show a chef's curiosity (sage froth with roasted chestnut bread pudding) but remain vaguely unsatisfying experiments.
No matter. There's a plate waiting for you of the best gnocchi your grandmother never made, including a lunchtime bargain edition ($17). Even with the restaurant and bar on the fourth floor, and the new downtown's impossible parking situation, I'm starting to think the Ladder District might deserve its new name—and be remembered as the place that gave rise to a shining new talent.