Several years ago, following the economic downturn, upscale restaurants like celebrity chef Michael Schlow’s long departed, yet fondly remembered flagship, Radius, succumbed to the tighter budgets of their once loyal clientele. Smaller plates became more en vogue, and so began the downfall of other legendary eateries including the recently departed, highly regarded Clio under Chef Oringer (don’t fret too much for him, though, as global small plate haven Little Donkey, Italian staple Coppa, legendary South End Spanish tapas mainstay Toro, and sushi headliner Uni all continue to thrive).
Sufficed to say, with the economic upswing, there are more restaurants opening that dare to be different – albeit quite expensive, but well worth the investment for special occasion dining. Take, for instance, Asta, Alex Crabb’s inventive prix fixe only menu that takes diners on a wild, delightful culinary adventure. And only a few years into its run, there’s Liquid Art House, the perfect confluence of literal and culinary artwork for customers’ viewing and tasting pleasure.
The visually arresting space – located at the corners of Arlington and Stuart Street (how fitting and of no small irony that LAH sits at the cusp of the Theatre District) – dually serves as both a high-end restaurant and contemporary art gallery where all of the artwork is available for purchase. Owner Ruta Lukian’s backstory is a most fascinating one: born in Lithuania, emigrating to America, flourishing as a Wall Street investment banker, and ultimately deciding to fulfill her dream of opening a place for artists, art lovers, and diners alike. The ambience is impressively grandiose, a hybrid of cosmopolitan and avant-garde. A striking rotunda marble bar resides smack dab in LAH’s center, with an even more strikingly beautiful, massive, purple hand-blown Venetian glass chandelier whose claw-like shape appears to almost be reaching down from the giant 24-foot ceilings and virtually grabbing hold of customers. Abstract artwork both large (majestic canvases) and small adorn the giant walls and flows into the dining room. Even the bathrooms scream chez chic, as evidenced by stunning semi-nude painted portraits of mermaids painted on frosted glass doors.
Fortunately, LAH has not lost any of its culinary innovation left by its notable predecessor, Rachel Klein (who opened up her own endeavor, RFK Kitchen, in her resident Needham to mixed critical reception). Chef Johnny Sheehan – whose impressive pedigree includes graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, stints at aforementioned Clio and Uni under Oringer’s tutelage, and most recently at Plymouth’s New World Tavern) – has earned several culinary accolades, and it’s easy to ascertain why. He’s not only followed the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ deconstructed style that became a calling card for Klein, but infuses his own unique riffs on some of the most exquisite fare I’ve had the fortune of tasting in quite some time.
The evening begins inauspiciously enough, as a first batch of deep-fried salt and pepper prawns ($19) are woefully and visibly overcooked, the meat dry where it should be moist and tender. This is brought to the attention of our genial and knowledgeable waitress – who, oh by the way, did not serve us this initial course – and she is deeply apologetic about the mishap, stating had she laid eyes on the prawn’s dark exterior, would never have brought this tableside (we wholeheartedly agree with her). She offers to have the kitchen bring us a second round, and this time they are cooked to perfection, the spicy orange chile oil with peanuts now in vibrant harmony with the juicy, succulent meat (the entire mishap and quick, professional correction by the waitstaff harkened back to my visit to opulent seafood restaurant, Ostra, where a badly charred plate of grilled octopus was quickly, and most deliciously rectified). While I found the doughy, sesame-seed encrusted exterior of Himalayan chicken momos ($10) a bit too chewy for my taste, these dumplings stuffed with ground meat were easy on the palate given the addictive, innovative pool of black pepper tomato sauce in which they swam. For such a typically gaunt bird, a surprisingly generous amount of tender meat accompanies LAH’s quail – the majority of which is graciously deboned by the kitchen – and is uniquely stuffed with sweet Asian forbidden rice which enhances the flavor component of what is often considered by many to be the flounder of birds.
And Sheehan’s piece de resistance is not to be missed. Pan seared halibut ($39) is unlike any other version of the meaty fish I’ve sampled. It’s a ginormous, beautifully pan-seared (resembling a hash brown in texture) tender cut, and its eye-popping to look at. Akin to an abstract Picasso masterpiece, there are many deconstructed elements to the plate that miraculously come together – tiny, crunchy hearts of palm, pineapple chunks, yellow-orange beads of jellied mango passion fruit, and pea-green dollops of chile-mint vinaigrette. An aromatic Thai curried coconut broth is than theatrically poured around the fish. This is seriously complex, pristinely executed fine dining at its peak, resulting in a smorgasbord of flavors ranging from sweet and creamy to crunchy and spicy. It’s simply divine and will undoubtedly be topping many dining critics’ top dishes in Boston for 2017.
Executive pastry chef Ryan Boya’s uniquely shaped sweets (all $14 with exception of sorbets) rival Sheehan’s dishes innovation-wise, many of which were apparently inspired by the World of Tomorrow architecture at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Breakfast in a NYC Hotel Room is a deconstructed masterpiece, consisting of a thin bagel chip onto which peanut butter and cream cheese mousses, peanuts, and coffee milk ice cream, all of which is left for diners to playfully schmear onto the bagel chip. It’s whimsical, fun, and delectable.
And that dish encapsulates my experience at LAH. And oh, what an experience you’ll have. While you’re left with a bill that might approach the price of a low-level Picasso (kidding!), you’ll no doubt me reminiscing about your time there for days, if not months and years later. In the trustworthy and innovative hands of Lukian and Sheehan, Liquid Art House has successfully brought artistic fine dining style to Boston.