Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Mediterranean Cuisine Comes Ashore to Suburbs at Chiara Bistro

Twelve years after its much-anticipated opening, Westwood’s Chiara Bistro still casts a culinary spell. Long considered one of the finest suburban dining establishments in Massachusetts, the 100-seat Mediterranean bistro – founded by executive chef/owner Steve LaCount and lovingly named after his nana – continues to impress with its chic, upscale ambience, its polished, friendly waitstaff, and its adventurous, well-executed fare.

                Don’t let Chiara’s suburban strip mall location (off of Route 109) fool you. There’s elegance to be discovered inside the restaurant by way of warm woods (California redwoods), Italian marble, ceramic tile, leather, windows draped in glossy silk, square lamps, an alcove bar, and a modern exhibition kitchen.

                Fortunately, LaCount’s menu holds up against, if not exceeds the restaurant’s glamorous d├ęcor (albeit at a high price point for suburban dining that is justified). A complimentary bread basket arrives, which includes thin olive focaccia crisps accompanied by a unique, refreshingly light, vibrant green-colored pesto feta spread. An amuse bouche features spoonfuls of creamy cauliflower soup (much to the dismay of my wife, who can’t indulge due to her dairy intolerance – this was the only misstep of the evening from our otherwise excellent server, who knew of this intolerance beforehand yet did not swap out the one spoon for an alternate small bite).

                Appetizers were spot-on, beginning with a playful riff on a traditional Italian dish, which resulted in some of the most delectable potato gnocchi ($13 for the starter, $25 for the main course, the latter of which I’d highly recommend) I’ve ever consumed. LaCount’s hand-crafted version features ethereal, ultra-light pillows of the potato-infused pasta, whose flavor is enhanced by pairing it with incredibly tender, thinly shredded red wine braised boar and beef shortrib. All of this was topped with velvety sheep’s milk pecorino whose tartness beautifully melded with the sweetness of the meat’s red wine reduction. It’s simply divine.

                Almost as equally memorable is the steak tartare ($15), a visually striking rendition that consists of a generous, square-shaped wedge of precisely diced meat served over sweet, house-made chips and a grilled baguette. The meat is nicely seasoned and possesses the melt-in-your-mouth texture that a good tartare should always, and yet (no pun intended) rarely ever has. The succulent grilled lamb ($13) is served ‘lollipop’ style, is cooked to perfection (a nicely pink, medium rare), and is accompanied by an intriguing array of Mediterranean-inspired sides such as grilled eggplant, roasted fennel, tomato quinoa tabuleh, cured olives, a welcomed dash of heat from harissa, and a cooling contrast of minted lemon yogurt.

                Aside from that impeccable gnocchi, Chiara also nails the simpler dishes as well, including four plump, tender, perfectly pan-roasted Gulf of Main shrimp served over creamy mushroom risotto.

                Similar to its cuisine, Chiara’s cocktail menu is seasonally inspired, inventive, and well-executed (most fall in the $12 range). Take for instance, this fun trio of spirits: the Pilgrim Manhattan, made with bourbon and house made cranberry vermouth; the aptly named Granny’s Redemption, rye infused with Granny Smith apples and spices; and the Chiara Whiskey Orchard, blended with scotch, bourbon, rye, chestnut liquer, a hint of maple syrup, and infused with roasted pecans.

                And don’t forget to conclude your evening with dessert. My wife gushed over an exquisite tasting, non-icy coconut sorbet, resulting in her exclamation that Chiara’s version rivaled Mistral’s chocolate sorbet, the best she’s ever sampled (and she’s sampled many) over the years. The specialty dessert – coconut cake – was surprisingly light, drizzled with caramel sauce and paired with an equally good dollop of pineapple sorbet.

                Aside from the minor hiccup over the amuse bouche, our server was extremely knowledgeable, attentive, genial, and spot-on with her recommendations throughout the evening.

                Given its exceptional service, cuisine, and ambience, I’ll gladly overlook Chiara’s unassuming, outside strip mall setting and enjoy the relaxed, yet upscale ambience, top-notch service, and creative, superbly prepared culinary treasures that are hidden inside.