Restaurant Review: Tico

Michael Schlow presents a medley of Spanish and Latin-American cuisines in the Back Bay—and hits plenty of high notes.

Tico's eclectic interior bears no traces of the spot's former occupant, Cottonwood. Photograph by Keller + Keller.

Tico’s eclectic interior bears no traces of the spot’s former occupant, Cottonwood. Photograph by Keller + Keller.

Tico shouldn’t be good. Despite the big-name talent behind it — Michael Schlow, of the highly successful Radius and Via Matta — it seems like a formula restaurant. Schlow has recently hit the casino trail, opening an Alta Strada at Foxwoods’ MGM Grand to follow the one in Wellesley. His now-closed seafood restaurant, Great Bay, never found its feet.

Whether Tico turns out to be a Great Bay or a Via Matta remains to be seen. After all, Schlow didn’t make his name on Spanish and Latin-American food. He did that with the Italian food that inspired Via Matta and Alta Strada. And at Tico, he’s mixing and matching and Americanizing, something he never did with Italian cuisine. Not even Ken Oringer, the Boston restaurant operator Schlow seems to be following in extending his ethnic range, varies the dishes at Toro and Coppa quite as much as Schlow does at Tico.

Which brings me back to my initial skepticism. Tico is in the somewhat-corporate Back Bay space long occupied by Cottonwood, and its natural audience is office workers and businesspeople who’ve come to relax during or after work — people who don’t want to be challenged by food that’s too odd or too spicy, or by much of anything, really. The room is slick, a bit dark, and comfortable in a Westin sort of way. And the Americanness I detected in the Mexican, Costa Rican, Peruvian, and Venezuelan dishes on Tico’s menu seems to be aimed at blunting raw spice or rough sauces, at smoothing out all the edges on the plates and making the mild dishes go down easy.

It works. I’d heard mixed reports before going, particularly about the service, but even with the numerous glitches, I thoroughly enjoyed much of what I ate at Tico, and found myself happier to go back than I thought I would be after an uneven first dinner. Joshua Smith, Schlow’s main cook at Tico, and a longtime associate, Luis Morales, the director of culinary operations, are looking to build a crowd-pleasing menu. (The restaurant’s name is slang for someone from Costa Rica — a local — explained Morales.)

And what could be better received than, say, a BLT taco? Smith’s variation ($9) featured shredded cabbage marinated in lime juice, chipotle aioli standing in for mayo, and green-tomato jam; it was just enough of a change to make this its own dish. The tortillas, from the local company Cinco de Mayo, were fresh and good. I asked for so many that eventually the manager solemnly informed me I’d have to pay for them. (I did, and gladly.)

Because the kitchen plays it safe, the trick is finding dishes that deliver flavor and don’t crumble into blandness. On the taco list, crunchy edamame, tomatillo, and cucumber ($8) was all cool crunch and no depth; even chipotle aioli couldn’t rescue the lobster-and-avocado taco ($12) from seeming like a caterer’s conceit. But one filled with tender pork and spicy cucumber ($9) was a smart mix of tastes: Mexican cilantro, poblanos, tomatillo, Spanish cayenne, and Japanese rice wine vinegar came together to make something ethnically unidentifiable but both sweet and piquant.
Small plates, including the tacos and an assortment of dishes a la plancha, make up the bulk of the offerings. The latter are little bites of (chewy, uninteresting) cubed tenderloin in a green chili sauce ($7) or (good, if surprisingly mild) tidbits of boneless quail meat in a fresh mango–yellow pepper sauce ($9). These servings are even tinier and less substantial than the already dainty tacos. An additional selection of small plates offered a midpoint in quantity between those diminutive items and the entrées; three or so of these can and probably should make up a meal, given the variable quality of the main courses. (I wonder, though, why nowhere does the term “tapas” come up — perhaps because Schlow is ceding tapas to Oringer at Toro?) One standout small plate was barbecued shrimp accompanied by an irresistible mango salad with vinegar-honey-chili sauce ($9).

But the vegetables are the most reliably vibrant of all. Brussels sprouts caramelized in bacon fat ($8) were just as great as they sound, and were made even better by the addition of jalapeños, kumquats, mint, sherry vinegar, and thinly sliced red onion. Cauliflower roasted with thyme and finished with butter and a creamy sauce of crumbly, fetalike cotija cheese ($7) got its crunch from fried Peruvian fava beans tossed on top. It’s an original dish worthy of imitation. Even an extremely simple salad of shredded cabbage with a mint-parsley-cilantro salsa verde spiked with white anchovy and sprinkled with crushed almonds ($6) — a take, Morales told me, on an everyday salad his Costa Rican family used to make — had diners young and old vying for bites.

None of the other small plates I tried lived up to these. The Spanish tortilla ($8), that staple dish of tapas bars, was bland despite the inclusion of roasted poblanos, and lacked the lush eggy-potatoey comfort of the usual omelet-torte. Chorizo risotto with pasilla chilies, scallions, and Parmigiano ($11) succeeded in being comforting but wasn’t exactly interesting. A mushroom-and-cheese quesadilla with black-truffle salsa ($10) was a greasy, chemical-tinged failure, and came to the table nearly cold. Fried Manchego with spicy pomegranate-honey sauce ($9), which should have been a sure-fire hit, was instead boring and undersalted, something I very seldom say. And creamy gigante beans with chorizo and green onions ($10) were neither creamy nor cooked through.

Entrées were likewise unpredictable. Tender pork with white beans, smoked bacon, kale, and cumin ($24) was fatty and undercooked, with unpleasantly crunchy, also undercooked kale; the bacon seemed to have wandered in from some other dish. Seared branzino ($26) was flavorless and limp, though the accompanying salad of Brussels sprouts and bacon was welcome. Yet salmon with mushrooms, hominy, Swiss chard, and spicy shellfish vinaigrette ($24) was one of the nicest salmon dishes I’ve had in months, the sauce warm and deeply flavored, the fish medium rare and rich.

Desserts were more consistent. Peanut butter mousse ($10) looked awful and heavy but tasted creamy and good, and the chocolate gelato it came with happily dominated the peanut butter. And a chocolate tart ($10) was beautiful, with a perfect thin crust and an austere dark chocolate filling that would be at home in Paris.

Who’ll be Tico’s crowd? The twentysomething careerists Schlow seems to be after? Maybe. When I dined, the bar was populated but the dining room was nearly empty. It’s a big room, and will be a challenge to fill. But there’s lots to enjoy at Tico. With luck, and a bit more consistency, diners of all stripes will discover it.

Menu Highlights:

Photograph by Keller + Keller.

Photograph by Keller + Keller.

1) Brussels sprouts with bacon, kumquats, mint, and jalapeños, $8.

Photograph by Keller + Keller.

Photograph by Keller + Keller.

2) Bacon, cabbage, and green-tomato taco with chipotle aioli, $9.

Photograph by Keller + Keller.

Photograph by Keller + Keller.

3) Salmon with mushrooms, hominy, and Swiss chard, $24.

Photo by Keller + Keller.

Photo by Keller + Keller.

4) Barbecued shrimp with mango salad and vinegar-honey-chili sauce, $9.

Plus | Roasted cauliflower with creamy chipotle, $7 | Peanut butter mousse, $10 | Chocolate tart, $10

Tico, 222 Berkeley St., Boston, 617-351-0400,

Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at the  Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.