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dining out

At BoMA in the South End, a surprise on your plate

At BoMA Restaurant + Bar in the South End, kale, mesclun greens, and shaved fennel salad.

DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF

At BoMA Restaurant + Bar in the South End, kale, mesclun greens, and shaved fennel salad.

At first glance, BoMA seems like yet another low-key, seasonal-local, modern-American South End joint, this one taking the place of the late beloved Pho Republique. There are burgers, steaks, and tacos on the menu, and the website’s “about” section has the obligatory homage to local produce, meat, fish, and cheese.

So. I’ll start with a cup of squash-parsnip soup and a craft beer brewed less than a mile away. Then I’ll have the sirloin-blend burger with Vermont cheddar and housemade ketchup and pickles. For dessert, why don’t I just die of boredom?

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But when you sit down and read the actual menu at BoMA, things seem more hopeful. When your food arrives, you sit up, because it is obvious that this place is different: Somebody in the kitchen is having fun. It quickly becomes clear that so much craft goes into every dish, so much consideration, that when a plate arrives at your table, there’s more happening on it than you expected, and the surprise is almost always a happy one.

Grilled shrimp from the restaurant’s ever changing “tiny plates” menu is a good example. A jumbo shrimp, just one, arrives head-on and in the shell, hot from the fryer and sprinkled with chili-lime salt. Also on the plate is a micro-salad of mostly frisee lettuce, barely more than a garnish. As you cut a bite of the shrimp and breathe in the briny steam, you notice something else shining up from the plate. Small, bright, nearly transparent, chartreuse slices of pickled watermelon rind round out the sweet and salty of the shrimp with a little bit of sugar and a splash of vinegar. You add a little to your fork and take a bite, and the combination is fantastic. The pickles, made over the summer as chef Christopher Bussell was preparing for BoMA’s October opening, give this winter’s shrimp dish heart.

A swordfish entree on an earlier version of the menu — still the same meaty fish grilled hot and left juicy on the inside — came with crispy shrimp, a tangle of bok choy, steamed artichoke hearts, and (surprise!) tender gnocchi. The artichoke went out of season and the gnocchi were too time-consuming not to play more of a starring role, though they’ll be back, Bussell tells me later on the phone. The new version keeps the shrimp and bok choy, and adds a fried sticky rice cake and curry sauce.

It’s the same with the kale-fennel salad. Pretty, frilly leaves of Tuscan kale, julienned and mixed with equal parts mesclun greens and shaved fennel, have neither too much nor too little apple-orange vinaigrette, which doesn’t overpower the greens or the orange segments. It is a fine, upstanding salad. Then comes the crunch, and it becomes something more — a really great salad, one you might make a special trip to the South End to have again. With a handful of spiced and candied almonds, the kitchen wants you to notice that someone came into work that morning, blended sugar and salt and chili powder (made fresh from three kinds of chilies), and roasted nuts in the mixture and set them aside to be sprinkled, hours later, on the greens.

And you are very glad indeed that someone went to all that trouble.

It’s not all candied almonds at BoMA, however. A lemon pudding dessert comes topped with foam — foam? — and a yogurt-passion fruit “pearl,” a bubble created through a molecular gastronomy technique that spills into a hard-to-eat puddle when you poke it with a fork. This was all carefully crafted, to be sure, but awfully fussy. Much, much nicer is the plate of three cheeses served with a piece of honeycomb and a dollop of sweet-sour cranberry gastrique.

On one visit, deconstructed shepherd’s pie — lamb stew served with a fluff of panko-topped cheesy mashed potatoes on top — comes with barely any meat, and what is there is so gristle-studded it is hard to eat. Bucatini with pesto and Maine rock shrimp has so much liquid in the bowl that it ceases to be pesto and comes awfully close to basil-noodle stew, turning the tiny shrimp a sickly green. An otherwise excellent and tender duck confit and chestnut-stuffed ravioli in cream-pistachio sauce arrives with the ravioli undercooked one night, the corners just plain hard. This is particularly disappointing because the rich chestnut filling is so good, and matches so well with the duck and spicy broccoli rabe.

The shrimp taco appetizer comes with sweetened carrots and cilantro mayonnaise but could use some heat — any heat, just a few slices of jalapeno would be nice — to wake it up. That slip seems especially strange since the tacos with short rib are divine. The tortillas, one of the few things on the menu not made in Bussell’s kitchen, are fresh and have enough heft to hold the soupy, slow-cooked meat. Napa cabbage and carrots are pickled lightly and stuffed inside for brightness, and there are raw jalapenos and fresh queso anejo cheese. A similar mix of pickled carrots and daikon, these made with rice vinegar, show up in a banh mi, though there aren’t enough of them inside the baguette with the fresh cilantro, chicken liver pate, and barbecued pork.

A word about navigating BoMA’s menu: I won’t argue that one large shrimp with a teensy-weensy leaf of frisee is indeed a “tiny plate.” Well categorized, folks. Our server warned that a single plate wasn’t enough to share, and it wasn’t. But when we ordered two “tiny” helpings of the ultra-fluffy, fontina- and truffle oil-infused tater tots for our group of five — there are four tots to a plate — we didn’t finish them. Portions in general are generous, though in addition to tiny, there are “small plates,” “lighter fare,” and “large plates.” So, how to make a meal? Three tiny dishes and one large? Two smalls and a light? Ask for guidance.

“Small” mussels one friend orders as an appetizer would have been fine for two or three. They’re good, too, the butter-wine sauce made with sweet Marsala instead of the more typical dry white, and a big dose of thyme. Beet salad, also “small,” is just right for one, warm beet slices stacked alternately with slices of creamy goat cheese.

And, yes, that goat cheese on the beets is from Vermont, and so is the glossy melted cheddar on the custom-blended burger, made to Bussell’s specifications with chuck, brisket, and short rib meat. And yes, he makes his own brioche buns to fit the big patty. And yes, the ketchup and pickles are house-made. And they’re really quite good.

I couldn’t possibly be bored.

Anne V. Nelson can be reached at anelson@globe.com.
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