When a dependable cafe is replaced by a high-end restaurant, it can throw off the balance of a neighborhood. Suddenly the $16 fig and prosciutto pizza is out, and a $95 eight-course prix-fixe menu with a $60 wine pairing is in. What the heck is a hungry working girl supposed to do for dinner on a random Wednesday night?
Café 47 in the Back Bay wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but it was an affordable oasis in a sea of trendy, spendy Newbury Street-style spots. Asta, the restaurant that opened in its place in January, offers three prix-fixe tasting menus, featuring unusual creations such as “after the storm,” an ocean-scented seaweed pasta studded with mussels, poached cabbage, fat salmon roe, dollops of Meyer lemon custard, and toasted seaweed, all of which does indeed look like what washes up on the beach after a nor’easter — but tastes infinitely better.
Asta may not become a regular weeknight haunt, but for those in search of an unorthodox special-occasion restaurant, its appealing, unpredictable dishes are worth experiencing.
But first, diners will have to figure out that asta is open. The sign is the same one used by the former inhabitants, with the phrase “pizza and pasta” mostly painted over, leaving just the “asta” behind (the name comes from the dog in “The Thin Man” movies). There are no hours posted, no menu in the window, no Facebook PR campaign. Inside, the DIY concept continues, with a few dead branches perched haphazardly on the front window ledge and dried flowers hanging on the wall. That’s pretty much it for decor, unless you count the bunnies and birds spray-painted in the hallway outside the restrooms or the Ryan Gosling poster hanging in the men’s room.
Owners Alex Crabb, of L’Espalier, and his girlfriend, Shish Parsigian, a former manager at Hi-Rise Bread Co., went all out on the food, however. The three-course menu, the homiest of the options, starts with a rich, silky mushroom soup enlivened with curried crème fraiche. A simple omelet with crispy duck confit, Gruyere, tarragon, and chervil is replaced on another night by a juicy pork chop topped with a thick crust of crushed black peppercorns and a green-peppercorn-laden Armagnac sauce served in a little pitcher. Our advice: Pour it all on. Dessert steals the show here: a long, skinny piece of coconut cream pie — velvety custard inside, crunchy toasted coconut and espresso dust outside, pure bliss all the way through.
The five-course menu leads off with a risotto of sorts, featuring tiny grains of carrot instead of rice and undetectable traces of licorice powder and mustard oil; Crabb says he wants it to taste like “a more perfect carrot,” but to us it tastes like a perfectly regular carrot. A scallop is butterflied into a long strip and grilled, served on top of farro cooked in beet juice and beer with pickled blueberries, a lovely and unexpected combination.
Braised celery gets a well-deserved starring role, accompanied by delectable sheets of crackling chicken skin and black garlic formed into soft knobs of gnocchi. The Rohan duck, raised in upstate New York, is stunning, both to look at — surrounded by bright red circles of raw, pickled, and roasted beets, as well as some beet foam — and to eat, with a rosy, flavorful breast and buttery skin. Just avoid the dots of bitter malt oil on the plate. Last up: a dense date cake with whiskey sauce brightened by a tart lime curd.
The eight-course menu is the most playful, with the tasty beach detritus of “after the storm” and “anticipation of spring,” a bit of food theater in which the server pours chicken broth over a pile of snow-like popcorn powder, melting it to reveal the green watercress and radish sprouts beneath it. It’s a clever take on chicken soup, but is unfortunately bogged down by sticky, overcooked chicken. “Essex right now,” featuring ingredients currently available at Apple Street Farm, owned by Frank McClelland of L’Espalier, is another unusual creation: a fried egg floating in maple-flavored water with morsels of crisp bacon. Spring pea greens save it from being breakfast, but it’s still an odd thing to eat in the middle of dinner.
Rounding out the eight courses are an earthy parsnip puree topped with poached oysters one night and nicely charred razor clams on another; a salt cod and potato concoction flecked with fennel and a spritz of aquavit that looks like scalloped potatoes and tastes like upscale chowder; a tender rib-eye surrounded by roasted, pickled, soured, and pureed onions; and a little pile of blood orange, grapefruit, and other citrus, mellowed by creamy brown butter vinaigrette and crunchy cocoa nibs — a true taste-bud sensation. For dessert, there’s a buttery almond and apricot cake sitting in a perfumed rosemary milk bath. Three hours after we arrive, the chefs are wiping down the stove and it’s time to go home.
The kitchen is part of the dining room, separated from high-top tables in the back by a long work table; the chefs also deliver each dish, a nice connection for diners who like to meet those preparing their food. When we sit near the kitchen, we can see the chefs place mushrooms in a bowl of soup with tweezer-like tongs and sear pork chops; at the end of the night, they pop open cans of Lionshead beer as they sharpen their knives. It’s almost as if we’re at a friend’s house — only we don’t feel obligated to help.
The staff is exceedingly gracious, greeting each guest with a glass of champagne and bringing out little bowls of warming gingery fish stew on a bitter night. They may even let you swap items between menus if you ask nicely — and vegetarians who give the restaurant advance notice will get a customized tasting menu. Glasses of fermented kombucha tea are paired with the citrus course; on another visit, we all get a shot of Lillet with Fernet foam.
Like almost all the chefs in the kitchen, the knowledgeable sommelier also hails from L’Espalier, and she switches up the wine pairings beautifully as she goes: a crisp Austrian gruner veltliner for the carrot dish, a French grenache-syrah blend with the duck, and a Spanish Amoroso sherry for the date cake.
As fussy as the food may sound, it’s a highly unfussy experience. Need a clean fork? Just reach into one of the drawers at the table and grab one. Some chairs have sheepskin on the seats; some don’t. Hip-hop, electronica, and ’70s rock play on the stereo. L’Espalier this ain’t.
Nor is it Café 47. I still long for a comfortable neighborhood hangout, but this high-concept, stripped-down new kid on the block is definitely growing on me.Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.