Dining Out: Perfectly Matched

What do you get when you pair fashion diva Tess Enright and veteran chef Susan Regis? Some very haute plates.

Tess Enright might just sit in your lap when you dine at Pava, her new restaurant in Newton Centre. She’s a force of nature, the wife in the husband-and-wife team behind Tess & Carlos, the minimalist, exclusive clothing boutique just next door in a prime Centre Street location. We’d hardly been seated five minutes when Enright suddenly appeared at our table, talking as if resuming a long conversation we’d just left off. Why had I come in without her noticing me, it was so nice to see me, did I like the semolina–golden raisin rolls from the pizza oven? (I did, a lot.) I was sure I’d been outed.

But I hadn’t. That’s just the way she is. By the end of my second dinner, I knew about her four children, all under six; her welcoming of families and youngsters despite the hauteur of Pava’s space; her habit of ushering people into the boutique to wait for a table; which dishes she particularly liked; what hours she worked—oh, about anything you could name. She’s wildly exuberant, and just as generous: When we ordered all but two of the pastas, she insisted on sending those two to the table, and they didn’t appear on the bill. (Neither I nor my guests knew her or had shopped in her store.) Enright’s natural extravagance has made for a restaurant where ingredients and equipment are the best, because she does things that way. Prices are high, yes—but so is quality.

Enright’s warmth contrasts with the room’s coolness: Stark, long, and narrow, with green and frosted white glass, it could be a lunch spot in a modern-art museum. Pava may have started as a kind of high-fashion hobby, a way to bring to the store well-heeled clients from downtown and the better-off suburbs. But it’s the most satisfying and exciting Italian-style, ingredient-driven restaurant since Michael Schlow came on the scene at Café Louis (now Restaurant L), another restaurant in a clothes shop with the latest designs and sky-high prices.

I’ll be frank: I didn’t know Susan Regis had it in her. I should have, of course—she was longtime chef at Lydia Shire’s legendary Biba, and later at UpStairs on the Square. But I’d never seen the West Coast sensibility she’s mixing with Italian fare, the insistence on lightness and freshness with consistently strong underpinnings of flavor. Perhaps it was the time Regis recently spent cooking with her sister at Boulettes Larder in San Francisco, a gourmet café that has justly become a cult destination for its immaculately fresh food and the simple skill with which everything is made. I could eat often and happily at Pava—if I could afford it.

I could tell we were in for something memorable when we tried the grilled octopus ($12). Yes, octopus—don’t malign it; it’s even more like squid than rabbit is like chicken. And like squid, octopus is often sheer, flavorless rubber. But Regis’s is like what you would find at a Greek fishing village—she gets the tentacles perfectly blackened and chewy. Little white beans floated on a few drops of beany broth enriched with top-flight oil and flecked with fennel.

The pizzas had a lovely thin crust, with shallot-garlic oil and a shallot base—common elements of Pava’s several varieties—and pecorino Sardo topped our pizza bianco ($15). Regis has a big brick oven in the kitchen and she puts it to good use, not just for pizza, but also for the slightly smoky tomato sauce that goes on the pasta and the pepperoni pizza ($15). She creates the breads herself, including those dense and terrific rolls, an airy but flavor-filled baguette, and homemade crackers thin as phyllo, painted with oil and sprinkled with salt.

No hiding that Regis’s strong suit is pasta. The high point of the menu is the pasta pyramids with fresh ricotta, pea shoots, and pancetta ($22), a line of delicate square bundles marching down a long oval plate. The filling of the eggy, thin, homemade pasta was so ethereal that I have no memory of the pea shoots. This is the stuff people board planes to Italy for. Beet chitarra with short ribs and candied ginger ($24), though, is a purely Regis creation, chosen for the beauty of the saturated magenta that suffuses the handmade, square-edged string pasta. It reads sweet, but isn’t too much so—unlike the Bolognese with tagliatelle ($22), which was something of a disappointment. Pork and chicken liver, among the bases of Bolognese, are often sweet, but this was almost cloying—perhaps a result of the overnight simmering of the tomatoes in the wood oven. The tagliatelle, however, was wonderfully soft and slurpy.

No hiding, either, that the main courses are a letdown after the pasta heights. The meat hardly tastes of anything, most lamentably the Berkshire pork ($28), which usually restores my faith in the Other White Meat. Served with apple ravioli, it was bland and a bit overdone. Chestnut-crusted lamb ($29) sounds wonderful, and I welcome sweet, chewy, fresh sautéed chestnuts at any time; plus, Regis ingeniously obtained American chestnuts, a native rarity just being revived and worthy of every cook’s support. But the lovely pink meat also failed to deliver the hoped-for flavor. The local gray sole ($25), in small translucent fillets, tasted only of the oil it had been quickly sautéed in—though the “forbidden” black rice, a short-grain variety, was nutty and good, and made a dramatic contrast with the fish. All the vegetables were cooked extremely well, particularly the kale and the roasted fingerlings that accompanied the grass-fed beef ($34). Indeed, that beef was the only truly satisfactory red meat—a happy surprise, given that grass-fed is usually the diciest beef for flavor.

By far the best entrée was the chicken: air-dried (versus being rinsed during processing) Canadian chicken ($24) with black truffle, celery, and hothouse lovage that gave a hint of the celery-on-hallucinogens sharpness of the real spring thing. This is chicken the way you want it: moist but not mealy, with a distinctive but not gamy taste.

The focus of that chicken, the glorious pasta pyramids, and those little semolina-raisin rolls are all very good reasons to come back. Desserts taste quite nice, too, particularly a frozen chocolate-hazelnut pave ($10), with layers of mousse, cake, and nut meringue, and triangles of nicely tart Meyer lemon semifreddo ($10), garnished with an extravagantly big brown-butter tuile. Even the wine list emphasizes impressive, well-priced offerings, especially the Caprezzana Super Tuscan offered at a surprisingly reasonable $36 a bottle. But you’ll have to decide whether you’re ready to join Tess Enright’s family. I am.

Pava, 1280 CENTRE ST., NEWTON CENTRE, 617-965-0905.
CHEF: Susan Regis