Restaurant Review: Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar
Michael Schlow’s pan-Latin eatery, Tico, launched a late-night menu in February. The theme: nikkei, a quirky Japanese/Peruvian mash-up currently setting the foodie world ablaze from Lima to London. Deviled eggs plumped with chilies, tempura crumbs, and sea urchin. Short-rib gyoza dumplings laced with ají panca hot sauce. A seafaring sunomono (pickled salad) that swapped in shrimp, octopus, and ceviche marinade for the cucumber and vinegar. It would be hard, in the year 2016, to be more on-trend.
Meanwhile, two blocks away in Park Square, Doretta Taverna—Schlow’s strangely anachronous paean to chic Greek—sleepwalks through the Hellenic hit parade with unblinking, perfunctory correctness. (Spoiler: That’s on a good day.) It would be hard, in the year 2016, to seem more throwback and, well, boring.
Last year, when Schlow announced plans for the old Via Matta space, I automatically assumed Doretta would be a looser, cheffier take on the genre—“tavernas” like you find on hipper blocks of Athens, not the literal cafeterias slinging verbatim renditions of Greek standards. Wrong. Doretta plays it as straight as Artemis’s arrow, if comically less threatening. Branzino ($38), dorade ($37), and other quivering sea creatures keep their distance in an icy display case. Unless you talk your server into it, that’s the most intimate piscine action you’ll experience until it arrives already chosen, weighed, filleted, and plated. (Schlow told me he dispensed with the traditional whole presentation because “no one wants to see the head.” In 2016.) Likewise, loin lamb chops ($48), thick and marbled, are marinated in…exactly what you’d expect. No more. No less. Not to besmirch the timeworn charms of garlic, lemon, parsley, mint, and dill as reliable lamb perker-uppers. But this is Boilerplate City, folks. As in, full-immersion suburban chophouse—with better sourcing, a surer hand, and a bigger oregano budget.
To be fair, that trifecta sometimes hits above its pay grade. Purged of “Greek salad” Americanisms like shredded lettuce and ticking-brine-bomb pepperoncinis, the Village Salad ($14) was transcendent. Deep-purple kalamata olives read first as ripened stone fruit before settling into savory—a plump cherry’s saline cousin. The excellent, velvety feta didn’t crumble so much as yield. Salt, red wine vinegar, and oregano—introduced gently to tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion—coaxed the wan, vegetal moisture out, amplifying the flavors. The reward was a balanced, oregano-perfumed dressing that ended up not on the salad, but of it.
Other solid options: Poached shrimp ($18), enhanced with lemon, chilies, and good olive oil, evoked the understated clarity of Tico’s ceviches. Fork-tender grilled octopus ($18) was a breathtaking study in simple counterpoint—capers, Vidalias, and peppery oil achieving an elegant harmony of salt, sweet, and smoke. Lightly charred Brussels sprouts ($11), tossed with honey, jalapeño, and loukaniko sausage, were a clever play on the ubiquitous bacon version—and a rare moment that felt not just modern but born of genuine creative spark. So, too, the galaktoboureko ($10), a masterful reboot of the soggy original that forgoes the usual syrup soak in favor of still-crispy phyllo layered to order with velvety semolina custard.
But those are exceptions. Several months out of the gate, Schlow and executive chef Luis Morales’s menu was still rife with clunkers—the bulk of which felt more like hastily dashed-off recipes than execution glitches. Too many items seemed uncomfortably “insta-Greek”: i.e., formulaic, Greek-ish translations of dishes that, if I had to guess, sounded nice on paper; didn’t quite pan out; and now endure life as wobbly placeholders awaiting apotheosis—or euthanasia—whenever Schlow gets a moment. (While I was reviewing Doretta No. 1, he was hunting for venues in the DC area to install Alta Strada No. 3 or Tico No. 3.)
Crushed green olives, dill, and spicy lemon were a tad loud for mild raw yellowtail ($14) but competently checked off the Greek Flavor Profile box. I liked it better than the salmon crudo ($12), dolloped with Greek yogurt that amplified the fish’s natural coppery mid-palate notes to extremes. Been missing Via Matta’s justly famous pork-veal meatballs? Yup, right over there, looking stunning in Hellenic drag—mildly spiced lamb meatballs ($12) with tomato-harissa, yogurt, and cumin accessories—but at the expense of the original’s less-is-more vividness and pop.
Encountering such monotony from a guy rattling off deep-track nikkei riffs down the block would be puzzling enough. But an Olympic year, in particular, feels like the worst time to enter the Greek arena rocking only the compulsories. Especially when your competition is lighting the sky on fire with breathtaking triple axels at every turn (see: Pelekasis, in the South End), or at least sprucing up the choreography enough to look reasonably this-decade (see: the Seaport’s drearily named Committee).
The dining room walls, by contrast, are lovely, especially the artwork by Schlow’s wife, Adrienne, with its Twombly-esque calligraphic elegance and Duchampian trompe l’oeil wit. It deserves better lighting, as does the food on your plate. An age-old debate, yet here we are, finally, in some rare part of the matrix where Instagramming millennials and Heritage on the Garden dowagers have the same preference.
Service swung from adequate to polished—the latter especially when Megan Cormier, Doretta’s excellent GM/wine director, was on the floor—to bizarre. One night I brought in just the right wine geeks to take some higher-end Greek bottles for a spin. “Any intel on these?” I asked my server, indicating two I’d short-listed.
“For a group like this,” he advised, in hushed tones, cocking his head in the direction of my chattering party, “I like to recommend quantity over quality.” Huh, really. For a group like this. “Yup. See that Orvieto for nine bucks a glass? We can also,” he paused, milking the conspiratorial moment, “sell it by the bottle.”
As we giggled childishly into our stems of middling Italian table wine, we took mock inventory of whose errant grooming decision had sandbagged our baller status. For a group like this…became the catch phrase of the night.
In all fairness to our down-selling waiter, the rest of the meal proceeded seamlessly, smooth as ouzo. And who knows? Maybe he had the number on Doretta’s true target audience.
Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar, 79 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-422-0008, dorettaboston.com.
Grilled octopus, $18
Village Salad, $14
Loin lamb chops, $48
Critic Jolyon Helterman’s work has also appeared in Hemispheres, Cook’s Illustrated, and The Week.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor