Not to be a troll, but on paper Yvonne’s in Downtown Crossing has made just about every wrong choice possible. Especially for a mid-2010s four-star restaurant. Which it is.
The food, by executive chef Juan Pedrosa and culinary director Tom Berry, is a grab bag of trendy styles and influences. You can have neo-Korean small plates à la David Chang. You can have Argentinean parrilla. On the menu, to the left of the smattering of Filipino, Sardinian, Brit pub, and Turkish, you’ll find Instagram-courting bar bites of murky provenance. Very few Boston restaurants offer this much variety, and when they do, they’re usually on the first and second floors of the Pru.
The vibe is nightclubby. It exudes a self-consciously chic, look-at-me opulence that hasn’t been in vogue since Radius and Excelsior were in their prime. For the half-generation of foodies conditioned to distrust anything more amenities-driven than a food truck, the velvet-swaddled, chandelier-dappled semiotics of Yvonne’s doesn’t just read wrong—it reads precisely wrong. Probably the only way to bait dining-scene snobs more blatantly would be to, I dunno, lease the site of the city’s most august, old-money culinary institution to the folks behind Lolita—Back Bay’s scenester-Mexican boîte—and let them transform it into an ironic bordello with gold-marble flooring and campy portraits of Brahmin royalty.
Oh, wait. That is what happened.
What else? The menu organization is a disaster. The all-shared-plates format is risky for business diners. The entrance—you have to talk your way past a blow-dry bar—may be the lamest conceit since Beehive’s contrived restroom grafitti.
Somehow, improbably, Yvonne’s is a fantastic restaurant, and its exceptionalism feels all the more satisfying for having snuck up on you. Perhaps in the middle of your second visit—which is how long it took me to subdue my own skepticism—you learn to stop worrying and love the bombast. It’s a manic (at times deafening) mess of a high-wire act, but the staff lands it, almost every time.
Oh, and the kitchen? They land the hell out of it. The menu may be an unhinged free-for-all, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a dud. Over the course of three visits, I sampled more than 20 savory offerings, and there’s barely a dish I wouldn’t recommend. This degree of opening polish isn’t normal. In my decade-plus of covering Boston restaurants, I can think of only a handful that weren’t still working out the odd clunker in month three.
The first taste of Pedrosa’s “crispy tater cubes” ($12) should kick-start the revelation that Yvonne’s is a far cry from the likes of Bond or Gem. They’re born of a two-day process that requires cooking the starchy enzymes out of shredded potatoes, resting the mash overnight, shaping it into cubes, and deep-frying to order, after which the bites get plated with a confetti of beet-pickled egg, Gouda, and a cooling “ Joppiesaus,” a Dutch curry-spiked aioli.
Note to gluten-allergy fakers: Knock it off. Yvonne’s carb game is on point. Also: pervasive. Fresh loaves of crusty sourdough are sliced, garlic-oiled, salted, then grilled to support deluxe toppings like hamachi crudo ($14), silky swaths of raw yellowtail tricked out with avocado, passion-fruit brown butter, and “porky” cashews. Anyone still mourning the Hamersley’s open-faced mushroom “sandwich” will find solace in Pedrosa’s charred-maitake toast ($13), the smoky beauties strewn across an umami-bomb bed of whipped miso, teriyaki, and sesame.
Is it cheating to slather on unctuous mounds of bone-marrow butter? For now, I’ll praise the condiment’s ensemble work in two menu showstoppers. First, it provides the haunting muskiness that undergirds the toppings—Moody’s-sourced Turkish beef sausage, mozzarella, basil—on the sujuk “stone-fired” pita ($15). And it is the glorious lily-gilding of the bavette steak “Mirabeau” ($18), holding its own amid caramelized Castelvetrano olives and white-anchovy butter—a small-plate tribute to a recipe Pedrosa and Berry discovered from Locke-Ober’s past.
In case you haven’t noticed, this is a heavy menu. Pedrosa never settles for two flourishes when four or five will do. If Select’s Michael Serpa is the Matisse of plating, Pedrosa is Chihuly. Don’t get me wrong. There is masterful complexity. You get the high notes, the low notes, the bitter warbling in the middle. It’s just that the orchestration can be ruthlessly intense.
We have entered the new normal, when the city’s best restaurants default to small, shareable plates that “come out as soon as they’re ready.” This is all well and good—and the kitchen doesn’t mind, because it’s far easier to fire-and-serve than grapple with boring old yesteryear concerns like pacing and palate fatigue. But now that programming responsibilities have shifted from chefs to diners, cutesy but vague menu section titles like “Snacks,” “Social Plates,” and “Feasts” are 100 percent unhelpful.
Case in point: the Feasts, large-format platters that the menu suggests for two-plus diners but are, in reality, all over the place. With a better road map, I suspect I might have enjoyed the stunning “viper” chop ($95)—a braised then grilled pork short rib perched atop mountains of kimchi fried rice—more that evening than I did the next, rewarmed, at home. The crispy shallots and Korean-banchan-style filigree were a nice touch, but for my palate the dish was a little lacking in tiny “For a Small Village” signs. The crisp tuna fregola ($70) and the tomahawk-style rib-eye ($110), by contrast, seemed more approachable for smaller groups, if just as dramatically presented—and flawlessly executed.
I just hope the skeptics, put off by the discordant road signs, give Yvonne’s a second try. Because there is a genuine joy that emanates from every shard of glitter. In the kitchen’s relentless perfectionism. In the host who spotted my friends at the standing-room-only library bar–cartoonishly balancing pre-meal bites on the backs of stools—strolled over, and pointed out some lounge seats about to open. These were not hallmarks of late-’90s nightclub/restaurant hybrids.
Which goes a long way to helping Yvonne’s make the best case I’ve seen yet for the return of opulence as a legitimate dining paradigm. Perhaps we’ve been sitting in uncomfortable stools at cramped tables with indifferent service for long enough—our noble sacrifice in exchange for non-soulless food.
But what if, just maybe, we could have both?
★ ★ ★ ★
Yvonne’s 2 Winter Place, Boston, 617-267-0047, yvonnesboston.com.
Bavette steak “Mirabeau,” $18
Sujuk stone-fired pita, $15
Crispy tuna fregola, $70
Critic Jolyon Helterman’s work has also appeared in Hemispheres, Cook’s Illustrated, and New York magazine.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor
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