Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Italian-American Fine Dining Lives (and Thrives) at Capo

Who knew that Italian-American dining would ever be frowned upon in foodie circles these days? Regional Italian-inspired restaurants have popped up in recent years and the seriousness of the dishes those kitchens produced have seemed to taken the pure, unadulterated fun out of what I recall from my childhood – a heaping portion of veal parmigiana with an equally heaping portion of spaghetti and meatballs. These restaurants have gradually, inexplicably lost their popularity, that is until restaurants like Capo emerge. Chef Tony Susi - he of the one widely acclaimed and now sadly shuttered North End staple Sage – has opened up a 300 seat behemoth in – wait for it – the South End. Wait a minute, Southie, you ask? Is Susi’s spaghetti accommodated by Bangers and Mash given the historically populated Irish-American neighborhood?

                Surprisingly, the neighborhood works wonderfully, especially since its gentrification over the past several years and a culinary renaissance led by the group that not only oversees Capo – which opened in mid-February of this year – but also successful eateries Lincoln and Loco Taqueria on bustling West Broadway Street. The locals were hungry, and who ever thought they would gravitate towards the Italian-American cuisine made popular in the North End? Whitey Bulger must be rolling over in his prison cell as we speak.

                One caveat: the restaurant is extremely loud. On a lovely summer night, the floor-to-ceiling windows out front are open, and the gleeful laughter and chatter from the hoard of customers can be heard from afar. The establishment seats 300, with two long, illuminated bars extending from front to back. Here’s a recommendation: grab a booth or table in the back room where a large stone fireplace resides – it is far quieter there, as opposed to the front room, whose terrible acoustics force one to shout for audible conversation. The space - occupied by younger and older clientele - is modern, decked out in white tile floors, brick and repurposed wood walls and spherical lighting. Susi himself can be seen in the open kitchen, in which his oak-fired brick oven pizza is also visibly churning out smoky, nicely charred pies.

                We opt to share small plates under the bar sfizi section of the menu, starting with the creamy, dreamy short rib arancini with herb aoili ($8), rice balls possessing a super crispy exterior and a fontina cheese center packed with ultra-tender pulled short rib that left a dining companion and I consuming in silence and with eyes closed in sheer pleasure. Roasted lamb skewers ($9) are also a pleasant surprise, nicely seasoned with sides of fresh agrodolce peppers and salsa verde that provide a cold, spicy counterpoint to the meat. My only quibble? Wider pieces of meat on the skewers – akin to a thick slab of beef teriyaki – would have been appreciated, as the thin slices made for a more challenging dipping experience. House-made pastas come in half and full portions. Spaghetti Pomodoro ($8 or $16), like most of Capo’s dishes, are simply, yet well executed and nicely plated, served up in a hearty, basil-spiked tomato sauce.

While entrée portions are certainly adequate in size and price (none exceeds $26 and most fall in the teens), be forewarned: they are not at all humongous as other local critics have previously suggested, and none come with any sides, although rather nondescript items such as grilled asparagus can be had for $6-7 apiece. Veal saltimbocca ($25) features thinly pounded meat, tenderly sautéed in a rich white wine and butter sauce, and is topped with prosciutto and a tad too much basil that gives the dish a slightly bitter aftertaste. Better yet are the more traditional, red sauce dishes includeing generous portions of exceptionally battered, pan-fried chicken ($17) and eggplant ($13) parmigiana, harmoniously swimming in a pool of that delectable tomato sauce along with melted mozzarella.

Bar manager Kevin Mabry is formerly of popular, recently re-opened Boston restaurant jm Curley, and he brings his inventive riffs on traditional cocktails to Capo, including a fancified Margerita playfully called the Don Corleone ($12) in tribute to The Godfather (the term ‘Capo,’ after all, signifies Mob Captain in Italian), a sweet and sour blend with Don Julio blanco tequila, Pierre Ferrand dry Curacao, blood orange and lime. A stiffer, no less equally enjoyable option is a fun take on the Old Fashioned called King Cole ($12), bourbon infused with ever subtle tones of more tropical pineapple and banana flavors mixed with Fernet Branca. In the spirit of keeping all things Italian, Capo boasts an all-Italian wine selection, including a rare, much appreciated wine-on-tap program featuring house cabernet, Pinot Grigio, and Rose available by glass ($8), carafe ($18 or $36), or for larger, thirstier groups – jugs ($48).

Desserts are also noteworthy. A non-traditional serving of tiramisu laced with tiny shreds of bitter chocolate brittle is memorable for its surprising lightness and heavy, espresso liquer-tinged alcohol content, although the spongy ladyfingers I seek are somewhat lost in the dish. Rarely sighted, often underappreciated olive oil cake (which I last sampled at Brookline’s Ribelle) gets much love here, the cake ultra moist and topped with marscapone and honey.

In spite of the chaos of the large crowds, service was extremely personable, polished and seamless, particularly after our initial waitress – she of self-admitted three days on the job – was instantly swapped out for a more seasoned waitress who was better equipped to provide recommendations once the front of the house was informed of my wife’s dairy allergy. Several servers, in fact, stopped by to check in throughout the evening, one of whom even checked with Susi to determine what type of clam was used for my wife’s wonderfully garlicky-spicy order of linguine Vongole ($11/$23) given that one of our inquisitive dining companions often goes clamming on Cape Cod.

Upon leaving Capo, one might experience a headache given the extreme noise levels which one only hopes Susi and his staff will quickly remedy. However, given Susi’s well-executed, delicious, and relatively affordable Italian-American cuisine, there is much pleasure to be had to offset that pain. Whitey, it’s a shame that you decided to flee town way back when – you’re missing a highly rewarding meal at Capo. In the words of Peter Clemenza from The Godfather: you’ll want to leave the gun and take the cannoli.



Monday, May 16, 2016

Banyan’s Bark is as Strong as its (Asian-inspired Small) Bites

Don’t look now, but there’s been an Asian invasion overtaking Boston’s dining scene during the past several months. From a pair of Fenway favorites– Hojoko, Nancy and Tim Cushman’s wacky, fun, more affordable riff on the Japanese izakaya, and Tiffani Faison’s successful ode to Asian street fare, Tiger Mama – along with Chef David Punch’s rice and ramen-laden Little Big Diner in Newton, Asian is the New Cuisine. And for good reason: other more longstanding establishments, such as Joanne Chang’s beloved South End Asian tapas eatery, Myers and Chang, and southward, Providence’s innovative, Cambodian-influenced restaurant, North, have perfected the ancient recipe for success. Take Asian small plates, put one’s unique spin on them, and let diners enjoy them in a fun, hip environment. Also integral to the recipe are an engaged owner (Rebecca Roth Gullo, who also runs nearby popular upscale pub, The Gallows) and respected chef (Phillip Tang, formerly of now-shuttered East by Northeast in Cambridge).

                Enter Banyan Bar + Refuge, located on what I consider to be one of the hippest sections of the South End, residing alongside the equally hip Beehive on Tremont Street. Which is ironic, because there’s distinctly more buzz emanating from this neighborhood since Banyan’s arrival. While the iconic Hamersley’s Bistro and Chef Gordon’s universally revered roast chicken will be missed, the restaurant itself, with all of its seriousness, seemed to be well past its prime and out of touch with what locals sought. A romantically lit outdoor brick patio remains a perfect setting for a late spring/early summer meal. Inside Banyan, while the open kitchen remains, much else has changed. Banyan tree themes permeate throughout the space, from floor to ceiling branches (perhaps in tribute to the late Rainforest Café?) to twig-like chandeliers. The quietness and solemnity that accompanied the older crowds whom frequented Hamersley’s has been replaced by modern music and a younger crowd, both of which can lead to rather loud acoustics (nab a corner seat in the back to offset some of this).

The bar is adequately staffed with three bartenders to handle a surge of customers awaiting their tables. And these are some serious bartenders pouring some serious – and seriously fun- cocktails. Ours knows the ingredients inside and out (all of them, he explains, played a key role creating the concoctions), is personable and engaging, making for a highly enjoyable pre-dining experience. The drinks – like the restaurant itself- are unique and fun. The Supreme Leader consists of thai chile-infused vodka and lime – “7 out of an overall heat scale of 10,” our bartender politely, accurately warns ahead of time. The result is refreshing and spicy, although promised coconut flavors are muddled. Several delicious cocktails are served on tap (like The Gallows), including a potent Painkiller that features a dollop of coconut milk foam and a stiff, subtly sweet Tangerine Old Fashion (akin to a citrusy Manhattan, with tangerine-infused bourbon). And if you’re in for real fun, ask for the Kirin Slushie, beer topped with a frozen cloud of what else? - beer. This playful concoction resembles the boozy slushie machine at the adventurous, aforementioned North.

                The menu is split out into various sections, primarily consisting of shareable small plates that one may ultimately not want to share. Under ‘Vegetables,’ the Daikon fries ($8) are thick, perfectly crisped slabs of potatoes served with spicy gochujang ketchup and picked ramp aioli. A lighter option includes a lovely dish fresh peas and edamame ($8), with pickled onion strawberries, five spice tofu and rhubarb. While the combination of flavors and textures initially sound strange – sweet, salty, tart, crunchy, soft – they surprisingly manage to work well together.

                Under ‘Buns and Dumplings and Noodles,’ house beef and broccoli wontons ($12) with fermented black bean and marrow sauce sound appealing, but theyre a bit too doughy and there is no seasoning to serve as a counterpoint to the excessive amount of salt in the dish. It’s the least appealing menu item we sample that evening. Better is the warm lobster served on a toasted house bun ($15), accompanied by delicious honey miso butter and pickled sea beans that wonderfully cut into the sweetness of the crustacean, of which I would have preferred larger meat chunks. Best amongst this group was a clever riff on traditional Italian Bolognese labeled seafood red curry ‘bolognese’ ($16), made with house made ramen noodles (which are surprisingly absent from much of the menu, whereas buns, are ahem…overly abundant.), crispy sweet potato, peanut, and thai basil. While the dish is literally and figuratively a continent away from what Nonna would make, trust me when I say that this spicy, uniquely textured interpretation is a major success.

                My favorite section of the menu involves Tang’s adventurous takes on ‘Seafood and Meat.’ Smoked pork ribs ($9) feature incredibly tender meat that are perhaps a tad too sweet due to a heavy-handedness with sweet potato hoison sauce and are not quite smoky enough. “Takoyaki” ($9) is a beautifully plated dish of braised calamari (in quotation marks since the tako represents Japanese octopus, while Tang playfully swaps this out with calamari) that is converted into fried spheres, topped with nori, aioli, smoky bonito flakes, and sweet soy glaze. It’s lovely to look at and fun to eat – think miniature fried donuts, except the flour replaced with fish. Also, don’t run away from, but instead run towards the fried pig tails ($8), tender pieces of meat served in a rich pineapple sweet and sour sauce, laced with peanut and cilantro.

                Service was unobtrusive and efficient. A dropped fork was quickly replaced, drinks swiftly refilled or replaced, and our waiter was polished and casual. Altogether a highly successful evening. RIP Hamersley’s Bistro. For Banyan and the South End, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.