Dining Out: Tall Order

Anyone who lives a bit beyond Boston and likes eating out may dream of a chef-owned restaurant in the neighborhood—a little spot near home where the food has some of the dressy panache of city restaurants without the bother of the Pike and parking.

Anyone who lives a bit beyond Boston and likes eating out may dream of a chef-owned restaurant in the neighborhood—a little spot near home where the food has some of the dressy panache of city restaurants without the bother of the Pike and parking. Quince, in a large storefront in downtown Needham, fills this appealing bill. It has a hip-on-a-budget look, an airy, loftlike feel, and a long and ambitious menu that could easily fit in somewhere like the South End.

The trouble is that Quince’s menu is roughly twice as long and ambitious as it should be. This is a known problem with new chef-owned (or, as is the case here, co-owned) restaurants. It’s as if the chef is so thrilled to finally be open that all the dishes he or she has been dreaming up go right onto the menu.

Like many chefs who realize their dream, Ian Grossman first worked in restaurants with big reputations and big resources: four years at L’Espalier, mostly in the front of the house, and then at its sister, Sel de la Terre. These restaurants steam along because diners always get exactly what they come for (special-occasion hushed elegance at L’Espalier, lively and professional Provençal food at Sel de la Terre). Grossman can clearly do a lot. But having your own, modest restaurant means facing limitations on how much help you can afford, and knowing that loyalty is above all built on consistency.

Quince doesn’t have the resources of either of Grossman’s former employers—and yet its menu is longer than Sel de la Terre’s. The remarkable thing is how many of the dishes are fully realized, and how much direct flavor is on offer this early. I enjoyed several dishes I tried at Quince, and I’d recommend it especially to people who live in the area and are hungry for an independent restaurant. What I didn’t enjoy was the spotty execution. That’s where that long menu comes in—it’s simply too much for a small staff to do well night after night.

The first time I dined at Quince, with three guests, many of the tables were full. The service was slightly distracted, though very friendly, and much of the meal was listless and tepid. I left thinking this was an amiable failure. The second time, our table was challengingly large (seven people, all ordering different dishes), but only one other table, for two, was filled. The food was hotter, fresher, sharper. The few dishes I had liked before seemed much more vivid. My whole opinion changed.

This means Grossman has work to do—especially when he’s charging prices comparable with those of downtown restaurants. He can start with the first courses, which are disparate in technique yet often fairly elaborate—fine in principle, but not a good idea with a staff this small. For instance, the Maine crab cakes with avocado mousse and rémoulade ($10), large thimble shapes with the mousse a thin winding stream below, look immaculate. But the cakes were both greasy and cool. The caponata open ravioli ($8), wide-cut ribbons of pasta with diced eggplant, tomato, and onion, was pleasant. So was the nice asparagus salad with crisped pancetta, pine nuts, and capers ($9), which has already become a signature, and tuna tartare with smoked-paprika vinaigrette ($12). But none of these went much beyond the sum of their parts. Of the first courses I tried, only the sautéed chicken livers with peach gastrique ($8) gave a hint of what sets Grossman’s cooking apart.

What that is, I decided after the second meal, is the ability to let good meat and fish alone. Cooks who boast of their trips to the farmers’ market and knowledge of local vegetables (cooks I want to know) often say they aim to do as little as possible, and make the fresh flavors sing. That’s great. But even these cooks will reflexively brine pork and chicken, soaking the meat in a salty solution to make it juicier and more flavorful. Grossman doesn’t trick up his meat. Those chicken livers were whole, dry, nicely chewy and browned on the outside—and made no apologies for being liver. Along with a slightly gamey but tender rack of lamb, they were my favorite things on the menu. Meat that dares speak its name! Chefs who give lip service to “real food” should take note.

The pork loin ($28) was cooked well in every sense, with a thin topping of homemade quince paste with honey (now there’s a signature in the making) over a shallow pool of Gorgonzola polenta, hot and full of just-stirred flavor. The vegetables—in this case, roasted baby carrots and sautéed green beans—didn’t have the distinctiveness of the meats, something I found true across the menu. Grilled Australian lamb rack ($29) was the best lamb I’ve had in a long time because it tasted unmistakably like lamb—not just a wimpy hint of lamb flavor but a full hit, without being gross and muttony. It was a deep rose but not blue, with crunchy bits even on the elegantly “frenched” (trimmed) bones, and tender but not mealy. It made me want to come back to Quince.

Not everything is so memorable, though, and even good dishes don’t always arrive at their best. The zucchini “spaghetti” and baby clams, confit tomato, and lemon-caper tapenade that came with the wild salmon ($28) were an indistinct hodgepodge. Same with the escabèche of fennel and peppers under the grilled blue marlin ($28), another sparkling-fresh, perfectly grilled piece of fish that deserved better. The chicken marinated with kalamata olives ($25) had firm, decisive texture and actual flavor, as so little chicken does these days, and it hadn’t been brined, either (though salty olive paste kind of counts). But one night the accompanying saffron risotto was cool to cold—a real shame, since when it’s hot it’s good enough to eat alone. It’s a picture of a kitchen sprinting when it should be aiming for an easy stride.

The pastry chef, Courtney Civitareale, shows a bit of that same impatience, with a way-too-frozen chocolate semifreddo ($8) in a pretty scalloped mold, sitting on a nice round of chocolate cake with port cherry sauce, and profiteroles ($10) with dense, just-okay vanilla ice cream—an example of several complicated techniques in only two dishes. But most unusual for a pastry chef, Civitareale stays in the kitchen every night and prepares plates fresh for diners. It shows: Her crème brûlée ($9) is hands down the best in Boston, with pure vanilla cream flavor, delicate texture, and a thin, crackling, absolutely fresh crust. And it comes with a hot, just-baked madeleine. The lemon sorbet ($6) is puckeringly tart but not unpleasant, smooth and nongranular, set off by a bittersweet lime aspic. She’s good.

And, perhaps, a trifle too ambitious—like the chef. Grossman, with some heavy editing, and Civitareale, with a bit of restraint, can easily hit their stride. And their neighbors will be grateful to be spared those taxing drives.