Monday, March 24, 2014

Fairsted Kitchen a Homey Addition to Brookline Dining Scene

Open since last fall, Fairsted Kitchen is one of a number of restaurants (along with Tim Maslow’s much-ballyhooed Ribelle and Barcelona Wine Bar) that have re-vitalized what was once a relatively stagnant Washington Square neighborhood dining scene. Don’t let the eatery’s cozy, charming interior fool you – the cuisine that’s coming out of this kitchen is some of the most innovative, exciting fare in the Boston area.

The restaurant’s ambience is quaint, resembling a small antique home and seating only 47 customers. A small bar greets patrons who push their way through curtains, while most are seated a little too tightly together and dine communally against the dining room walls, which are painted and papered in gold and turquoise colors. Pendants hanging from the ceiling add to the New England charm of the place, which is evident in lots of items at Fairsted, including an antique clear glass punch bowl used to playfully pour a cocktail filled with rum and black tea into small tea cups. Our waitress explains that all of the china and tableware have been discovered by the owner at local flea markets. Flea market-to-table dining, anyone? It goes to show that it’s casualness, and not pretentiousness, that Fairsted successfully aims for and achieves. One small quibble: the loud music seems out of place with the restaurant’s restrained vibe, and makes for somewhat challenging conversation.

Portions range from snacks and sides ($8), small (appetizers at $13), large (entrees from $19-$33), and table (family-style dining, including braised oxtail at $51 and chateaubriand at $85). Executive Chef W. Scott Osif’s cuisine is tinged with influences from across the globe. We start with a small tasting, the pig’s head lettuce wrap, which is a bona fide steal at $5 and far less ‘offal’ than the name suggests. The pork is breaded and fried into a crisp round with carrots, daikon, and cilantro. I’m guessing there’s harissa or a spice or some sort that is cooked into the fried meat, since it gives of an unexpected, sweat-inducing, yet welcomed burst of heat. I would have preferred that heat emanate from a sauce, if only to add some balance to the overall texture of the dish, which was a tad too dry to my liking. Other snacks were superb, starting with a nod to the French in the form of savory, deep-fried cod beignets, which possessed a crispy exterior brimming with a moist, white fish interior. The fritters swim in a pool of zesty, smoked tomato confict for dipping, and provide nice balance to the sweetness of the fried shell coating. Equally enticing is the Middle Eastern-inspired hummus – a light, bright, velvety chickpea spread that also incorporates unique ingredients such as pickled fennel and pine nuts for contrast in texture, all of which can be enjoyed atop thin, crunchy sourdough crostinis.

Small plates did not disappoint, either. The ricotta gnocchi were perfectly cooked al dente and duck confit added richness and a touch of saltiness that nicely balanced out the sweetness of the parmesan reggiano in which the pasta was melted. And just to demonstrate how Chef Osif routinely turns traditional foreign fare on its head, he even incorporates kohlrabi, a German turnip, into what is a traditionally Italian pasta dish. And you haven’t lived until you savor the delectable cumin-infused lamb ribs, tender, deeply-charred fleshes of meat that fall off of the bone, whose flavors are further enhanced when dipped in spicy vinegar sauce, a welcomed umami flavor from Asia.

An entrée of smoked duck is also good, if somewhat of a letdown, as the medium-rear cooked meat seemed a tad cold while the accompanying crispy potato pancake was excessively salty.

Dessert offerings are slim but worthy. A chocolate mousse is an airier alternative to denser versions I’ve sampled, but sadly, the cardamom-infused whipped cream added barely discernable traces of the spice I had hoped would counter the bitterness of the chocolate. Fortunately, in the absence of an espresso machine, a French press coffee provided a nice, personal touch.

Cocktails both innovative in name and ingredients adorn the menu. No Sleep Till Brookline , mixed with Bourbon Amaro Montenegro, lemon, sugar, and bitters, is a libation that would make the Beastie Boys proud, and in the fun spirit that Fairsted’s cocktail program emits, would keep anyone rockin’ on and on ‘till the break of dawn. So, too, would other concoctions that gleefully mix Spanish sherry and sweet vermouth over ice. The extensive wine selection is impressive, ranging from a Sparkling Malbec to more hidden jewels such as a 2009 Dignac Peljesac hailing from Croatia. Fairsted’s beer selection is equally enticing, including four beers on draft from Jack’s Abby Brewing based out of Framingham, which includes the Smoke and Dagger ($6), one of the smoked schwarzbiers that are now the drink du jour, as well as the Framinghammer, a Baltic porter. Other intriguing bottles include the potent Andescher Dunkel out of Germany and a St. Louis Cherry produced in Belgium.

While the service at Fairsted was good, I felt somewhat let down by the hype surrounding the staff’s exceptional level of hospitality. While Boston Globe food critic Devra First sang the restaurant’s praises in this regard, I ask you this: what hospitable host keeps its guests waiting nearly twenty minutes before taking a drink order, goes prolonged stretches without refilling water glasses, and then politely, yet prematurely ushers them out shortly after their meals have concluded so that another party may take their table?

Overall, I left Fairsted Kitchen more impressed with its globe-trotting, bold cuisine than with its service. It’s the food, and not the overly-hyped hospitality, that shines brightest and makes Fairsted a dining destination worth writing home about.