Restaurant Review: BoMa in South End

This South End newcomer has some work to do before it can become the next neighborhood success story.

boma south end

The dining room at BoMa, the latest addition to Washington Street. (Photos by Kristen Tieg)

Over the past few years in Boston, the idea of a neighborhood place that serves elevated bar food has become a go-to model for restaurateurs. They think gastropub and see dollar signs—high profit margins on relatively modest fare, à la the Spotted Pig, in New York. Three years ago Russell House Tavern and the Gallows showed that the model could work here, and soon afterward came JM Curley, in Downtown Crossing, and Park, in Harvard Square.

The South End’s BoMa is the latest entry in the gastropub genre. And it seems to be aiming for exactly what the Gallows, on the same block, has already claimed: a noisy crowd that likes the food enough to stay awhile but not too long. Some of the dishes are tantalizingly interesting—ambitious and so close to exceptional that you want the owners and staff to make their goals bigger. First, though, they need to make the food and service consistent, and cultivate some regulars. This is a competitive stretch of Washington Street where restaurants regularly fail. The former occupants of BoMa’s space, Bombay Club and Pho Republique, were frequently packed, but never enough to keep them in business, and on the next block, Boston Chops just opened in the building that once housed Banq and Ginger Park. It’s unclear whether this area even needs another friendly joint serving nice food.

The man who’s taken on the challenge is co-owner Shane Manfred, who has run several restaurants outside Boston and still operates Bellino’s, in Wakefield. For his first in-town venture he’s created a dark, somewhat cavernous space that looks like a sports bar minus the big TV screens. (The name isn’t the play on “Boston, Massachusetts” that it seems to be—rather,  it’s an East African word, derived from ancient Persian, that means “safe haven.”) Manfred is a strapping, welcoming host who circulates the dining room most nights, but he doesn’t stay on top of the many service glitches. The uniformly friendly staff is inattentive, and not in close communication with the kitchen, which turns out dishes in an either unexpectedly rapid-fire or strangely lagging fashion.

Manfred did show ambition by hiring Chris Bussell, who was previously the chef-owner of Butterfish—a restaurant in the space once occupied by Craigie Street Bistrot and currently home to Ten Tables Cambridge—and who more recently worked in several straight-ahead Italian restaurants in the North End (Terramia, Bacco). Bussell utilizes the French technique he learned from the master chef and teacher John Vyhanek, of the Ritz in its continental-cuisine glory days, and melds it with his North End experience. He’s emphasizing thoughtful touches such as house-roasted olives and homemade chili paste and stocks—the types of things that have become de rigueur at restaurants like Strip-T’s, another example of a bar/diner that pole-vaulted to dining-destination status.

Some of the dishes on Bussell’s menu (divided into “tiny” and “small” plates, “light fare,” and “large plates”) show evidence of that care. One is a “small plate” of short-rib tacos ($11). The pulled meat, slow-roasted for six hours, is so good that Bussell should be serving a short-rib entrée. In taco form—topped with house-pickled cabbage and carrots with some jalapeño for bite—it makes for a satisfying snack. So do tacos with thumbnail-size rock shrimp ($10), sweet treats available only in the coldest winter months. Bussell deep-fries them like popcorn shrimp, then adds them to a base of cilantro mayonnaise, shredded carrots cooked in honey-agave nectar, and habanero peppers.

boma south end

Charcuterie plate, $14.

boma south end

Grilled hanger steak, $25. Another menu highlight: short-rib tacos, $11