Bar Mezzana is the restaurant every condo developer wants on the ground floor as a sales tool—a place that can actually boost property values, that will serve both the people who live nearby and the entire city. It has a bar with snacks good enough to make a reasonably priced meal, amply portioned entrées, and a dining room that feels assured, lively, and welcoming for people of many ages (if not many income levels). It’s also helping to define a neighborhood that’s just defining itself: the sprawling Ink Block development between Chinatown and the South End, in fact the creation of developers.
In ways other than real estate, Bar Mezzana is gold-plated. Chef/co-owner Colin Lynch cooked at No. 9 Park, the flagship of Barbara Lynch (they’re not related), and was the opening chef at Menton, where I was impressed by his meticulous attention to detail. Here he’s combining Menton’s technique and elegant presentation with rustic Italian cooking he seems to have naturally grasped, just as Barbara Lynch did at Galleria Italiana and then No. 9. They’re both Boston-area Irish kids, and Colin hadn’t even been to Italy until just before the new restaurant opened. But his generous, flavor-packed food gets at the essence of what makes people love Italy.
Lynch’s many crostini, for instance, are just things on toast. But what toast, and what things. First, the toast is sliced from Iggy’s giant francese, so it’s already hard to go wrong, especially when the bread is grilled without the butane fumes that seem to permeate other grilled foods lately (admittedly a low bar, but startlingly uncommon these days), and the olive oil is fresh, clear, and fruity. A thick schmear of ricotta provides a carpet for a stew of roasted, confetti-colored peppers ($9), sweet from red onions and sugar, salty from Ligurian olives, and slightly sour from red wine vinegar. Eggplant ($8), smoky from the grill and sweet from honey with a light kick of Calabrian chili, is made similarly lush by an underlying layer of fresh goat cheese.
Like Ana Sortun and Yotam Ottolenghi, Lynch likes putting plush beds of soft cheese or sweetly spiced, bright-orange squash tahini under both toast toppings and salads, which he’s pretty brilliant at conceiving. The root vegetable salad ($14) is an unglamorous name for a glamorous dish. Starting with squash tahini at the base, it was a canny combination of ingredients both lightly cooked (winter squash, roasted carrots, blanched cabbage and turnips) and raw (Honeycrisp apples, radish), with tiny cubes of ricotta salata. Bite-size, with plenty of crunch, it was like an addictive autumn trail mix. Corn salad ($14), which stretched the corn season to its fall-snap limits, combined fresh, barely cooked sweet kernels with walnuts toasted in brown butter, and barely sautéed chanterelle slices over goat cheese thinned with a bit of milk. The combination was so unexpectedly right that I had to have it every time I visited.
Lynch could stop at crostini and salads and still have a satisfying restaurant. A few of the crostini, in fact, even move into bargain-meal territory, such as plump, meaty quail—a whole one, grilled and served on two skewers, improbably priced at $14. The very first thing I tasted at Bar Mezzana was toast with grilled sardines ($9)—a perfectly moist, meaty selection of fresh fish, ample for a meal with a simple salad. It’s also easy to eat lightly but luxuriously—and veer right out of bargain territory. My favorite crostini was served not on Iggy’s but on a sweet, homemade white-cornmeal bread topped with lardo and Osetra caviar ($15), a dream breakfast that’s also dreamy with drinks.
The surprise category is crudos, which show off the easy mastery Lynch developed while serving as chef at O Ya during the planning and build-out of Bar Mezzana. Crudo is trending nationally, but few chefs have Lynch’s delicate hand at choosing the acid (lime, yuzu, Meyer lemon) and heat (Fresno chili, horseradish, red jalapeño, green-chili salsa verde) that will best set off those little slices. Everything vanished in seconds, making a dent only in the bill (crudos range from $12 for yellowtail to $34 for Santa Barbara sea urchin).
Pastas are where Lynch’s flavor instincts are right on, but his execution is not as good as with the crostini, which you’d swear were made by an Italian. (Here, SRV, with its native-grain, hand-milled pastas, gets the edge.) In every instance he oversauces, and in far too many weighs down sauces with butter and cream. Lobster was utterly lost in the paccheri ($20), oversize tubes in a cream sauce; the guanciale with bucatini ($19) was undercooked and rubbery, and there was too much of it; the cheese in the spaghetti cacio e pepe ($18) was so abundant that it oversalted the dish; and a clear, powerfully flavored consommé for homemade tortellini in brodo ($15) was so overloaded with black pepper I didn’t want to finish it. Best overall was garganelli with duck ragout ($22), because the gamey, wine-y ragout was so well made; but again, it overpowered the pasta, and even if you often feel cheated of sauce, you’ll wish there were less of it here.
Main courses are almost an afterthought, and none stood out with the clear-eyed vision of the first courses. You can go home with leftovers after ordering the perfectly fine chicken under a brick ($27), notable less for the moist chicken and not-quite-crisp-enough skin than for the marvelous blackened Brussels sprouts with caramelized onions, crisped bacon, and currants—an accompaniment so good it should be offered as a side all its own—and creamed kale, which tames but doesn’t drown out the firm-textured greens.
Desserts are mostly gelato-based and minimal, but pastry chef Christina Larson makes a beautifully crisp crostata dough, a cross between pie crust and shortbread—with crunchy sugar on top. It’s so good you won’t really care what the featured fruit is ($10).
The fact is, none of the shortcomings will stop me from making Bar Mezzana one of my South End go-tos. It’s a restaurant firing on, say, five of six cylinders after just six months, with so much that’s so good I want to go back even while writing about it. Bar Mezzana has created its own urban landscape, one you’ll want to be a part of—if maybe stop just short of buying a condo so you’ll be only an elevator ride away.
★ ★ ★
360 Harrison Ave., Boston, 617-530-1770, barmezzana.com.
Ricotta and peperonata crostini, $9
Shima aji crudo, $15
Root vegetable salad, $14
Critic Corby Kummer is an editor at the Atlantic and the author of The Joy of Coffee and The Pleasures of Slow Food.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor
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