End-of-2018 Dining Out: Four Mini Boston Restaurant Reviews

As 2018 comes to a close, our food editors visit four new spots that didn’t score full-length reviews by our critic, but definitely deserve your attention before the ball (and a brand-new bounty of potential hot spots) drops.

Photo by Lizzy Barrett

Bootleg Special
Spicy seafood boils are on-trend in Boston, and this jazzy spot is the most audaciously glam place to find them. Whereas casual, local mini chains such as Loui Loui and Holly Crab in Allston appeal to budget-conscious college students with plastic sacks of gussied-up shellfish, the South End’s Bootleg Special elevates the Houston-born fusion of Asian-Cajun boils with its service and style.

Here, crack-your-own crawfish, shrimp, mussels, and more are tossed in bold sauces and delivered to the table in gleaming silver bowls. The signature Bootleg Special ($79) is a fine feast for a group, adding to the mix a pound-and-a-quarter lobster, plus a half-pound each of clams, andouille sausage, and other tasty vittles. The garlicky signature Bootleg Sauce could have used more kick, but we’ll return for the Thai-inspired coconut curry, which pairs well with meaty snow crab legs ($25). Silky garlic noodles ($8) are a must-order starter, slicked with an umami-laden gravy of fish and soy sauces and just a hint of sugar. A “fried duo” of fresh oysters and whole-belly clams ($19) is an excellent appetizer, and the same expertly fried seafood fills crisp baguettes for po’boys ($16).

Bootleg makes the most of its limited cordials license, offering intriguing riffs on classic cocktails, like the communal Hurricane Bowl ($22/$42) with passion-fruit rum. The high-ceilinged dining room, meanwhile—full of vintage rugs, graffiti, and high/low flourishes including distressed wallpaper and a neon “Live Nudes” sign—brings added Bourbon Street flavor. When I don disposable gloves and clip a splatter-protecting plastic bib around my neck, it’s not typically underneath the warm glow of chandeliers. But that’s the spirit at Bootleg Special, a hot mess worth having. —Jacqueline Cain

Photo by Lizzy Barrett

Fool’s Errand
Tiffani Faison’s latest hot spot radiates the confidence of a top chef. Only someone with the DGAF moxie of Faison, after all, would plop an unconventional, standing-room-only “adult snack bar” with a fortified-wine-forward beverage program by Fenway Park—prime real estate for a tourist-friendly beer bar. And Fool’s, a fun, clever alternative to staid Hub watering holes, certainly shines in its small Boylston Street space between Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama, both of which Faison also owns and operates with her wife, Kelly Walsh.

When guests gather at the three-sided bar or perimeter-wrapping drink rails, Fool’s feels like a high-end house party the couple might host. But there’s nothing snobbish about the space, which combines French-country wallpaper with more irreverent design details—such as a massive photo of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg, mid-embrace, that hangs in the bathroom.

Friendly, informed service, led by beverage director Daniel Motsinger, eliminates any intimidation when navigating the spot’s smart little book of wines, sherries, and vermouths, and cocktails are playful and unpretentious. We sip them over fancied-up finger foods, executed nightly by chef de cuisine Ellie Roycroft. Among the most stellar examples: mille feuille ($16)—buttery, crispy potatoes stacked neatly and dripping with melted raclette and shaved truffles, or sour cream and caviar—and the “tuna salad” ($11), which artfully layers elements of the childhood-sandwich staple, such as dill pickles and diced celery, atop high-quality tinned tuna belly. Equal parts chic and cheeky, Fool’s is a brilliant addition to Fenway. —J.C.

Photo by Lizzy Barrett

Talulla is named for the two-year-old daughter of owners Conor Dennehy and Danielle Ayer, prodigious talents who are doing an exceptional job raising their young restaurant. The April-born standout, swaddled in exposed brick and white tablecloths, is a warm little nest for finer dining tucked among pretty homes in a quiet corner of Cambridge. It feels so very loved by its proud parents—and offers back that warmth to guests, if at grownup prices.

The 12-table room looks formal but is responsibly laid-back, the kind of place where NPR tote bags are tucked beneath seats and rolled-up shirtsleeves dig into oft-changing dishes that are smart and satisfying, such as perfectly pan-roasted, thyme-jus-gussied chicken breast ($34) accompanied by a crispy thigh stuffed with Swiss chard farce. The à la carte approach is fine, but chef Dennehy really delights with prix-fixe ($60) and multi-course tasting menus ($95): One evening brings miso-cured fluke crudo with slices of apple and raw matsutake mushroom in tantalizing, not-too-tart Granny Smith juice with elderberry vinegar; luscious foie gras torchon, marinated with cinnamon and sweet wine, accompanied by gingerbread crumble and crab-apple compote; and spectacular roasted squab wrapped in a rillette of confit leg, dredged in toasted hazelnuts, and served with sweet roasted Concord grapes.

Wine pairings ($35 prix fixe; $65 tasting menu) excel thanks to Ayer, former wine captain at Barbara Lynch’s Menton, who offers delightful surprises, like a floral, honey-evoking pour of Samos Vin Doux, a unique Greek muscat. Every new parent makes the occasional misstep—a bland corn bomb underwhelmed as dessert—but this still-new arrival is walking at a point where others still crawl. Meet Talulla, your best new reason to get a babysitter. —Scott Kearnan

Photo by Lizzy Barrett

With the march debut of celeste, chef JuanMa Calderón and general manager Maria Rondeau invited Somerville’s Union Square to the brick-and-mortar version of the pop-up they previously hosted at their home. We accept, with pleasure. Here Calderón continues to draw on recipes from his native Peru, including those reflecting the country’s significant influences from Asian cuisines, and serves them with soulful charm and finesse.

Celeste’s dinner-party-size space—six open-kitchen-side seats and a few banquettes sandwiched by art-gallery-white walls—pulses with creative passion; Rondeau is an architect by trade, Calderón a filmmaker. Unsurprisingly, plates are exciting and structurally sound little productions: Signature mixed ceviche ($19) is offered in a bountiful portion, enlivening seafood such as blue cod with vibrantly spiced citrus juice; ají de gallina ($22) is a comforting stew of shredded chicken in a creamy sauce of Parmesan, garlic, walnuts, and bright ají amarillo chili. The menu is kept tight and tidy, though recurring daily specials, like Tuesday’s arroz con pollo, a simple but superb cilantro-rice-and-chicken dish, and Friday’s “Early Bird Tacos” (try the tender lamb with canary beans), keep things interesting.

So do the drinks, especially a pisco sour spiked with a shot of house-made chicha morada, an Andean region–born beverage made from purple corn, fruit, and cinnamon. Craft beers and wines, from Maine-made suds to French malbec, offer a few additional passport stamps. Yet for all its transporting flavor, Celeste is very much a neighborhood joint. It feels comfortable and familiar, like an extension of its owners’ home, where all of this flavor first began. —S.K.