Thursday, May 22, 2014

Food Lets Out a Rebel Yell at Ribelle

Tim Maslow is not only man of the hour amongst Boston’s culinary landscape– he’s eagerly attempting to re-define it with highly innovative fare rarely seen – or attempted – north of New York City. Maslow, who worked in that same city for several years under the tutelage of superstar chef David Chang at his universally revered Momofuku restaurants (he ultimately became chef de cuisine at Momofuku Ssam Bar), ultimately decided to take both his training and immense talent up north to Watertown, MA. It was there where he decided to miraculously transform his father’s sandwich shop, Strip T’s, into a much-buzzed about dining destination serving fascinating items from razor clams with chili jam, cilantro and sesame to sourdough brioche donuts topped with tarragon.

Now comes Ribelle, Maslow’s own attempt to conquer contemporary Italian cuisine, located in Brookline’s suddenly trendy Washington Square neighborhood (it’s across the street from other popular dining hotspots including Fairsted Kitchen and Barcelona Wine Bar). The restaurant’s name in Italian stands for ‘rebel,’ and Maslow’s menu isn’t afraid to stray from the culinary norm. Many of the options are intended for more adventurous diners, who will no doubt squint their noses at the dishes’ off-kilter ingredients, excitedly questioning if and how such bold and unique flavors will meld together.

The atmosphere, like Maslow’s food, is trendy and fun. A long, illuminated bar – with lights resembling ice cubes hanging overhead – extends onto the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where servers with hats slave away preparing meals under Maslow’s close watch (He isn’t afraid to deep-six a dish if it is not up to his lofty standards, which I witness when waiting to use the restroom). Equally long communal tables foster friendly, albeit loud conversation. For a more intimate meal, on a nice spring/summer evening, I suggest scoring either an outside table overlooking Beacon Street or an indoor table abutting the large window that opens out streetside. Tattooed servers are affable, graciously providing their recommendations accompanied by thought-provoking explanations behind them.

And boy, is there high-calibur cuisine to be had. While I lamented the fact that the much ballyhooed lamb tartare dish was out of season, my spirits quickly perked up when sampling a half plate of rigatoni with fennel, octopus, and smoked tomato sauce ($15 for half plate, $26 for whole). Like most dishes at Ribelle, it’s wonderfully seasoned and highly complex – there are lots of intense flavors that linger on the palate well after each bite, like miniature umami bombs. Sesame buns ($8) are essentially two glorified vegi sliders containing chickpea fritters slathered with calabrian mayo. The buns are super fresh, and the fritters are once again nicely seasoned, if not a tad excessively spicy due to an overzealous application of mayo (my wife, however, adores the dish). Entrees include a medium rare lamb neck alongside chickpeas, peas, and pea green paste. While the dish was adequate and the meat nicely cooked, it was my least favorite, as the ingredients seemed to be repetitive, while the flavor of the pea green paste was slightly off-putting. My favorite entrée, however, was the squid fideo – black ink pasta perfectly cooked al dente and served with buttery chunks of lobster ($27). The dish features an accompanying dollop of almond paste that, on its face, seems superfluous, but when blended into the pasta, is essential to the overall success of the dish.

Desserts are equally strong. I had my heart set on ordering Ribelle’s staple dish – olive oil ice cream topped with a hard chocolate shell. “It’s good, but it’s ice cream,” our waitress honestly states, instead steering me to a trio of avocado mousse, hibiscus ice, and tapioca, once again a delicious testament to Maslow’s mad-scientist experimentation that produces the sweetest culinary music.

For suburban dining, wine selections are a bit pricey per glass ($11-15), but are well thought out (a select handful of sparklers, whites and reds adorn the menu) and playfully described (i.e. a bubbly is labeled “bright, but rich enough to cut the cheese”). It’s this type of cheekiness that makes Ribelle so memorable, and reminds you that there is approachability to Maslow’s complex cuisine.

While Ribelle’s squished-up neon script sign is barely recognizable from Beacon Street, most of the food certainly stands out. Maslow’s culinary rebel yell can be heard well into the suburbs of Brookline and far beyond. He has ‘stripped’ away every culinary cliché on his menu to create food that is distinctly his own – and it fits him to a ‘T.’

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