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Back Bay spot gains a following with some nifty combinations
35 Stanhope St., Boston
Restaurant reviewed 02/11/97 by Alison Arnett
Round the corner and down the block from the Hard Rock Cafe, its doormen looking forlorn without the crowds of summer tourists, is a set of carved wooden doors without a sign. This spot on quiet Stanhope Street doesn't even look like a restaurant - until the door opens. Walk inside and voila: A buzz of conversation, a cloud of smoke, laughter, a roomful of people even on a weeknight.
Restaurant Zinc may seem off the beaten track (although a fluttering awning does bear the name), but even in the brief time since it's been open, Zinc has been discovered.
There's something urbane about the place, with its namesake zinc bar crafted in Paris and its soft-toned woods. The young owners, Keith Orr and Chris Spann, who both cut their restaurant teeth working in the Olives Group management, greet diners and usher them past the hubbub of the bar scene to the narrow dining area in the rear.
The colors and fabrics in the room are subdued; there are just enough decorative elements to catch one's eye without being distracting (although the votive lights on the tables flicker dangerously near sleeves). The noise level is just as high as in the bar area, and the space is so tight that the wait staff have to practically choreograph their steps to avoid colliding. But each table seems to be populated by people whose faces look familar - local oft-photographed literati and business tycoons perhaps.
The chef is Nicholas Tischler, and his food is tailor-made for the ambience of the room. It's sophisticated, the flavors are subtle, the combinations sometimes surprising.
Tischler maintains a nice balance on his menu so that his appetizers are really beginnings. Hand-cut steak tartare, a mound of glistening meat rather coarsely chopped, was straightforwardly classic. The mild tastes of soft chevre marinated in a fruity olive oil bounced against bitter salad greens. A Provencal fisherman's soup, which Tischler says he makes with only flat fish, had an almost chunky texture and an excellent clarity of flavor - it tasted like something a fisherman would recognize. Zinc also sports raw bar selections, from plump oysters to clams to an extravagant platter for two that I watched a woman who looked like a model and her companion devour one evening. Lots of protein and no fat.
Tischler saves his firepower for the entrees, though. Formerly at several New York City restaurants, Aureole and Lutece among them, this young man brings a different take to his food. One wouldn't call it austere. But compared to what might be the Boston style - strong flavors and abundant portions - these dishes are minimalist. The smaller servings are more to current Manhattan standards, which is fine with me, but I've found that there's always someone in the party who feels underfed.
Mild skate wing is flourished with an intense olive verjus sauce that almost tastes like hoisin sauce. Tiny squashes and golden beets flank the fish, demanding their own portion of attention. That's it - no mountain of potatoes or risotto to fill in.
Roast chicken, crusty without, moist within, rests above a nest of soft-flavored lentils. Fluffs of cornmeal, cooked down into a creamy, oatmeal-like consistency but not thickened like polenta, surround the lentils and a drizzle of earthy flavor turns out to be foie gras sauce. Gigantic sea scallops, which Tischler says he shucks by hand, are meaty enough to almost fool the mouth, yet delicate against a dark sauce. The wild oyster mushrooms with them wonderfully bring out all the delicate nuances of the scallops in just a film of dark sauce.
Hangar steak, a fancy name for skirt, was thick and juicy but upstaged by, of all things, Brussels sprouts, taken apart into tender, little leaves that had been lightly grilled. They had a lovely, vegetal flavor to them, so unlike the cabbagey taste one might imagine. Potatoes were mashed into a plain, soft puff brightened by tensely roasted tomato jam.
My favorite dish was a surprise, perhaps one reason I found it so appealing. The menu says Atlantic salmon, smoked to order, which Tischler says means exactly what it says. So a thick fillet of salmon gently conveys smokiness without being at all what one might expect from the words ``smoked salmon.'' This savory flavor contrasts against the spiky bitterness of mizuna. Roasted fava beans sprinkled on top give an accent note.
Two other surprises had their strong points as well as drawbacks. The rich, dark sauce with a lavish dish of lobster and little stacked sandwiches of wild mushrooms tasted decidedly sweet, reminiscent of the vanilla flavoring common several years ago with lobster. Tischler said the sweetness came from beets and other root vegetables cooked down. I thought it worked with the richness of the lobster, but still was a little odd. Odder still, though, was the sweetness, almost brown sugary, of the braised lamb shank with root vegetables and Chantenay carrots from Maine.
Although a dinner companion liked the dish, I thought the flavor, which Tischler said came from long braising of the meat with the large, sweet carrots, was discordant.
But, despite a misstep here or there, that such sophistication can come from a 25-year-old chef is amazing. More amazing still is the fact that Tischler is also the dessert chef - and he makes the dinner rolls! For dessert, he keeps things simple. Vanilla ice cream with poached cranberries and apricot was a pleasing end to the meal, as was a lovely creme brulee. Green apple sorbet really tasted like the fruit, a clean bracing taste. Chocolate mousse and some crepes finished the list; they were fine, but this isn't a place to look for dessert extravaganza.
As befits a restaurant opened by managers, the service at Zinc is efficient, although the tone can range from very friendly to almost disdainful. However, the waiters and waitresses are quite knowledgeable about the wines and the menu. The waits between courses can stretch out at times, but perhaps this is a function of the place being still very new.
Restaurant Zinc mixes some great attributes - a talented chef, nicely though-out wine list, comparatively reasonable prices - with perhaps understandable hints of cockiness, considering its instant popularity. But the owners obviously hit a wave of Zeitgeist, the right place at the right time. Hopefully, Zinc can ride it successfully into longevity.
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