Dining Out: Bon Savor

With a big new talent in the kitchen and even bigger flavors on the plate, a sleepy J.P. restaurant finally begins to stir.

Photograph by Keller + Keller

Photograph by Keller + Keller

Over the years, several restaurateurs have tried to make a go of it at the corner of Centre and Pond streets in Jamaica Plain. None of their various coffee shops and restaurants succeeded, which was odd, given the prime location. Now its current, extremely ambitious occupants are hoping to reverse the corner’s curse. The duo behind Bon Savor, who opened it as a French bistro in late 2005 and relaunched it as a Colombian spot in 2008, are banking on a new chef—one with bigtime Boston experience—for a third and, with any luck, final reinvention. And they might well make it work.

I should admit that I have a vested interest: I live a very pleasant walk away. And I’ve long had a mostly unrequited love of Latin American cuisine, thus far satisfied only by the homey Venezuelan restaurant Orinoco, which has locations in Brookline and the South End. Bon Savor’s owners, Colombia-raised Ibonne Zabala and her Russian husband, Oleg Konovalov, have long had the homey part down. And by bringing on chef Marco Suarez, formerly head of the brasserie-style kitchen at Eastern Standard and a cook with Argentinean and Italian roots, they’re aiming to refine the food, too.

Despite the well-intentioned overhaul, though, the restaurant hangs on to an awkward contradiction. With its cozy space and subdued lighting, Bon Savor has a grownup, date-restaurant feel, and yet the menu standby has always been, oddly, crêpes—both when it was a French spot and when Suarez’s predecessor, Colombian chef Alba Iris Aranda, added a Latin touch. (Konovalov’s grandmother was famous for her crêpes, and the restaurant uses her recipe.) When Suarez came on in August, he initially worked with the menu he inherited, meaning the crêpes stayed—and they’ll be on the new fall/winter menu as well.

Though they don’t have much to do with Suarez’s ambitious new plans, I have to say I really liked the two crêpe dishes that have remained: the Bon Savor crêpe with mushrooms, bacon, and corn ($15), bound with a few dabs of béchamel and served on a creamy avocado mousse, and the dessert crêpe ($6), which makes a great meal-ender. I knew something special was in store when I walked to the restroom—straight past the stoves, along the cooking line—and saw a pan stacked high with freshly made crêpes. You just don’t find that in local restaurants, which generally take them out of a plastic pack, tortilla-style.

Suarez did sneak a bright red chimichurri sauce over the savory crêpe, and topped it off with sprinkles of julienned chayote, red pepper, and cilantro. Vibrant flavors and raw crunch are his hallmarks, and fresh greens livened up nearly every dish as unannounced but integral components. On the appetizer of confit chicken thighs ($8), for instance, a handsome salad of rainbow chard was the actual centerpiece, with rich, salty (but mildly spiced) pieces of confit serving practically as garnish. It seemed a good way to have your duck fat and eat it, too.

The most successful (and reportedly the most popular) dishes incorporate Suarez’s signature flavors: cilantro, garlic, and charred tomato. Mussels Provençal ($9) was a huge, soupy appetizer with a particularly rich charred tomato–based broth, a hint of fennel, and a wallop of garlic (“It’s in my blood,” Suarez told me with a shrug I could hear over the phone). The Peruvian ceviche ($9) featured a spicy tomato paste he’d found in
“a little bodega,” plus cilantro, lime juice, and a thick clover honey that added a sweet note. And the freshly fried plantain chips were a nice garnish.

Seafood is Suarez’s strong suit, and the best entrée used it alongside those trademark bright flavors: moqueca de peixe ($18), a thick seafood stew with lots of calamari and an irresistible sweetness derived from creamy coconut milk. Suarez’s technique is impressive, though it’s a pity the seafood isn’t top-quality; in fact, none of the proteins struck me as much more than routine. They were fresh but flavorless, and I had the impression that the restaurant skimps on them as a way of keeping costs reasonable. The honey-glazed pork tenderloin ($17), for example, had an interesting peppery glaze, but the meat itself was virtually unidentifiable. The seared tuna with quinoa, coconut milk, and cilantro ($20) was undercooked and tough. “A crime,” Suarez said of customers’ requesting their tuna be cooked through (perhaps they’re aware that it will otherwise arrive practically raw). Call me a criminal, but the quality wasn’t high enough to merit sushi treatment.

Starches, a possible way around that flaw, weren’t much of a help. The version of mac and cheese that Suarez has on the menu, called “coquillettes” (perhaps to dissuade customers from automatically gravitating toward comfort food), had three rich cheeses and a béchamel base but was heavy and uninspiring ($13). The arroz con vegetales ($12)—a.k.a. rice with vegetables—had numerous fans at my table, but it came off as gummy and dull to me.

Suarez is still finding his feet, but at least he’s landed on solid ground. As uneven as I found much of the rest of the menu, the mussels and moqueca, that confit appetizer and ceviche, and a squash soup special ($7)—which he made one night to use up a huge gourd he’d brought back from an apple-picking expedition—were all good to the last bite. Portions are reasonable without being excessive, offering solid value.

And, of course, there are those freshly made crêpes that Suarez can’t take off the menu. They were the basis of the best dessert, one containing an element from Suarez’s childhood that he said he was intent on bringing to his new workplace: dulce de leche. It may no longer be trendy, but I can’t recall having a purer version than his—thick, light-colored, intensely sweet yet wonderfully flavored. He ought to get a patent. You should try it either as a filling for crêpes ($6) or in the lush tres leches cake ($7), a spongy confection that I couldn’t resist. The cake is deceptively airy, with plenty of condensed milk providing a richness you can pretend not to notice, and a spiking of spiced-rum cream sauce. It’s a festive finale to a good meal at an intimate place—one that’s fast becoming a beloved fixture in my neighborhood.