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 The quietness and solemnity that accompanied the older crowds whom frequented Hamersley’s has been replaced by modern music and a younger crowd, both of which can lead to rather loud acoustics (nab a corner seat in the back to offset some of this).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.