Dining Out: Shining Star

Here's my first piece of advice about Domani Bar & Trattoria, the new restaurant above the superchic downstairs club Saint in the Copley Square Hotel: Go while chef Rene Michelena is devoting all his attention to it. One of the most talented chefs in Boston, Michelena has had a tendency to settle at one stove, delight diners with his skill, range, and imagination, and then move on.

Now he's here, and along with chef de cuisine David Robinson and fellow co-owner Brian Lesser, he's created a menu similar to but a bit more freewheeling than the classic Italian one he designed a few years ago at Centro in Central Square. Centro was a high point in Cambridge restaurant history. There Michelena distilled his exceptional training at two of the country's most innovative kitchens: Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Joachim Splichal's Patina in Los Angeles.

I much preferred Centro, where the food was focused, moderately priced, and terrific. Simplicity, after all, is much harder than the artful presentation of an exotic ingredient. Though being Italian is not a requirement, as Bill Bradley (Rustic Kitchen), Luis Morales and uber-chef Michael Schlow (Via Matta), and Josh Ziskin (La Morra) demonstrate, Centro pointed the way. I miss it still.

Luckily we have Domani, which isn't quite the same bowl of tagliolini but is a very happy addition to a part of Back Bay that is curiously low on locally owned restaurants. Note, too, that it's open for lunch and brunch (unlike, say, Robert Fathman's Azure, in the Lenox) and is right on the street, with outdoor seating in good weather—big pluses in a city whose most careful chefs seem allergic to lunch. The designer, Stephen Sousa, has chosen burnt orange and brown tones, along with dark wood tables (no tablecloths), and mod wallpaper with cheerful, fat alphabet letters and numbers. Some walls have deeply molded beige waves that may look like the background of The Scream but provide a cool and soothing effect (although the noise level of the hard surfaces do not). The crowd is part hotel guests, part clubgoers from Saint, which has its own separate menu.

To my surprise, Michelena is most successful when he brings out a ruffle from the Trotter-Splichal days or adds the Asian flourishes with which he experimented at La Bettola in the South End. A pheasant consommé ($8), for instance, has the expected wild mushrooms, unexpected crayfish, and a wonderful balance of sweet and acidic. I hope it will inspire others to try one of cuisine's most dreaded yet rewarding challenges.

Traditionalists will like the caesar salad with fresh-poached egg ($10) and love the thin-crusted rectangular pizza Margherita ($11), which Michelena later dismissed as something he tosses off for “common folk who want something really simple.” Well, call me common. I could have pizza this good every night of the week. Michelena varies the pizzas with seasonal ingredients, as in a spring version with shrimp and pea stems with roasted garlic and chili flakes ($12). I wasn't surprised that it was the same dough Michelena had used at several other restaurants: This is the kind of simplicity it takes years to get right.

Pastas begin veering off in Michelena's new directions. The tagliolini with pesto, asparagus, and black pepper ($14 or $8 for a half-portion) was straightforward, with fresh herbs, good oil, and imported pasta. The tortellini ($15, $9 for half) were more unusual, shaped as they were like plump, square little gifts. But the menu description (“filled with peas and favas”) gave no hint that sweet and strong orange zest and mint would dominate the vegetables—or that those vegetables included soybeans. The sauce, a burnt orange syrup, made for a dish that could have been dessert (sugar and savory in the same course is a trend Trotterites like to play with). A waste of tender homemade pasta, I thought. But the technique was impeccable.

Main courses go on the farthest excursions. I found them genuinely interesting, and again mixed. The surprise success was a dish innocently called baked black cod with carrot-truffle glaze ($21). Taking inspiration from the sweet-salty glaze that grilled eel gets in Japanese restaurants, Michelena has devised a marinade of sugar, miso, carrot, and white wine that completely permeates the fish. The effect was very sweet, but the melting, saturated texture was like an extremely soft gravlax. The accompanying sliced Yukon gold potatoes, baked with invisible onions and carrots, were just right.

No other main course rose to quite the same level. The Arctic char steaks ($19), in an elaborate boneless roll stuffed with shallots and curry and served alongside caponata with chickpeas added for crunch, seemed like too many flavors mixed to too little effect. And the fish, flavor-challenged in the best of circumstances, was a bit mealy. Braised rabbit with golden raisins, olives, and red wine ($20) sounded good. But the meat was stringy and dry, and the fat, chewy raisins and olives refused to meld. Better were the fresh and greaseless spring rolls stuffed with white chunks of loin meat, wrapped in a bright green lining of spinach, pea stems, and garlic.

And check out the prices: very moderate for this part of town, with generous portions. Our splurge was the bistecca Fiorentina, $32 of prime rib-eye with a strong-flavored mustard-and-bay-leaf marinade. It was just fine, though it was served with practically no vegetables.

Desserts, by Centro veteran Marla Redinger, are in line with the main courses, which is to say a mixed scorecard. The pistachio millefoglie ($8) sounded wonderful but the cardamom syrup was a bit too intense. The best was the banana-butterscotch Napoleon ($8), with a tender banana cake and mild malted chocolate sauce.

Domani's team is showing its talent every night, with Michelena himself conducting the performance. Go while the original cast is still playing.