Sunday, July 19, 2015

Erbaluce Represents a Sour Grape Dining Experience

Erbaluce was hailed by local food critics several years ago as one of Boston's top Italian restaurants, primarily for its daring cuisine under chef Charles Draghi and its cozy, hospitalable setting and waitstaff. The restaurant, named after a Piedmont grape, continues to push the envelope for more adventurous diners with dishes including wild boar and rabbit, but sadly, this spot tucked away in Boston's Bay Village (just a stone's throw away from more luxurious, spotlight-stealing establishments such as seafood staple Ostra and the recently opened Vegas-themed steakhouse STRIP by Strega) appears to have lost its luster.

Draghi himself can be seen preparing meals along with his band of merry chefs in the kitchen that adorns the back of the dining room. The waitstaff is unfortunately hit or miss. The individual who refills out breadbasket (wonderfully fresh, slightly crispy concoctions including sourdough mixed cinnamon) is vivacious, witty and funny, while our main server, although very knowledgeable of the menu, is reserved and at time seemingly a bit pretentious (it doesn't help that he abruptly takes an awful, overly icy sorbet away from our table at a dining companion's request, only to silently take the bill a few minutes later, sans apology, to remove the expense from the bill). It's a weird dynamic, for sure - is the restaurant's ambience supposed to be fun, serious, or a blend of both?

Herbs and spices seem to be Drahgi's sweet spot, and he accentuates these in a lovely, light rendering of scallops crudo, nicely cut dollops of fish tossed with basil.

It's Draghi's entrees, however, where these herbs tend to get lost. In lieu of the wild boar, which our server indicated possessed more of a gamey, chewy consistency to it, he recommended as his favorite dish rabbit with rhubarb and strawberries. While I found the meat - which came in a very generous portion consisting of loin and leg - very nicely cooked and surprisingly tender, there was very little of the rhubarb's sweet-tart flavor in the dish, but rather, a slightly off-putting gamey tone that dominated the dish. It made me regret passing on the equally intriguing parpadelle with boar ragu. A more conservative steak dish, while cooked appropriately, was surprisingly lacking the bold seasoning and herbs that the meat demanded and on which Draghi's kitchen prides itself.

Desserts were where Erbaluce faltered. The aforementioned sorbet was prepared with egg whites and supposed to lead to a creamy texture, and not the icy version that fell apart. My chocolate cremeaux dish, while tasty, was woefully undercooked, with flecks of sugar apparent within every bite. Complimentary housemade truffles served after dessert, while delightful, were oddly timed, and I had wishes I had known about these prior to ordering our sweet misfires.

The restaurant boasts an appealing, extensive, and often well-priced variety of northern Italian wines by the glass and bottle to pair with Draghi's experimental cuisine.

All in all, Erbaluce, for all of its inventiveness, feels merely average in Boston's present-day culinary scene. This 'grape' unfortunately left a more sour aftertaste in this reviewer's mouth.

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