Blue hair at night, diner’s delight. See no blue hair, diner beware.
“Santos is in the house,” a friend says as I slide beside her into a plush curved booth at Back Bay Harry’s, a new restaurant where the seating treats anyone like a VIP. The booths are covered in sea-foam green, and they are extremely lounge-worthy. The restaurant — formerly Geoffrey’s, before that, Laurel — looks luminous in this iteration, with brass chandeliers, mirrors, and chevron-patterned columns glimmering with pearlescent tile.
“Santos” would be Jason Santos, whose trademark sapphire mane is easily spotted, recognizable from his stint on the Fox reality show “Hell’s Kitchen.” He is the chef here — working with chef de cuisine Eric Buonagurio and sous chef Andrei Enikeev — as well as local restaurants Blue Inc. and Abby Lane. Back Bay Harry’s is named for owner Harry Collings, a former Boston Redevelopment Authority official known for his charitable work with the likes of Fenway Community Health Center, PFLAG, and AIDS Action Committee.
You want Santos in the house. The menu splits the difference between the comfort food of Abby Lane and the more-experimental Blue Inc. Here, there are enough safe bets to go around — a solid burger, an appealing salad board with greens, tomatoes, green beans, goat cheese, and bacon. And then there are big, bold international flavors, touches of whimsy, and pastrami in places it might not ordinarily be found. It is an individualist’s cuisine, so perhaps it is no surprise that it is most successful in the hands of the individual who envisions it. Although every meal has hits and misses — and sometimes little else but misses — the food at Back Bay Harry’s is better when Santos is present.
Pastrami Bolognese, for instance, is a wonderful dish — clever, delicious, eye-catching. It features ink-black pappardelle, tender white squid, and that dark red sauce, a signature of the chef, the pastrami tolling a deep, savory note in the background.
Pastrami appears again in creamy macaroni and cheese, tart with mustard, incorporating chives and pumpernickel crumbs: Pasta meets the deli sandwich. And Chinatown buns collide with Southern cooking when sliders are stuffed with sweet — almost too sweet — barbecued pork, cucumber, and scallion. Mild tuna tartare gets a boost from vibrant accompaniments, the raw fish combined with melon, lemongrass, and long, brick-colored strands that look like saffron but are actually chile threads. Multicolored shrimp chips on the side are the visual equivalent of confetti.
Boneless buttermilk fried chicken is a pleasure one night, served with potato puree, spinach, barbecue syrup, and plump doughnut holes. The chicken is juicy, encased in crunchy batter. The syrup and doughnuts offer just enough sweetness.
But on another visit, the chicken is dry, the spinach barely present, the barbecue syrup drenching everything in sweetness, the doughnuts showered in spices that manage to evoke Cool Ranch Doritos.
Scallops have a texture not ordinarily found in seafood, unnervingly soft. They are served with angel hair pasta and salty but otherwise flavorless saffron-lobster broth. The dish, which sounds lovely, is barely edible.
Fish tacos are plain and lack spice, served on pasty tortillas. Butternut squash soup is sweet as dessert. Meatloaf Wellington is wrapped in tough pastry, the temperature uneven, in a pool of viscous gravy. At least the green beans are good. Onion rings go uneaten, coated in something called “creole spice” that tastes like barbecue potato chips. And desserts — from maple pecan cheesecake that is unpleasantly warm to soggy creme brulee that seems to have been torched hours earlier — are awful. At least there is ice cream and sorbet from Christina’s.
Service is as uneven as the food. A host, asked whether the restaurant might make change for the parking meters, shrugs unhelpfully: “Ask at the bar.” Entrees are delivered when appetizers are still half-eaten on the table; diners are left to rearrange food and plates so it can all fit. A forgetful server brightly relays the day’s specials, then returns a few minutes later to do it all again, just as brightly. Yet servers are frequently solicitous and deft.
Where Back Bay Harry’s succeeds is as a place to drink with friends, with an entertainingly wacky cocktail program and a welcoming bar staff. Drinks take their names from pop culture — for instance, the King of the North (a “Game of Thrones” reference) and Tigers Love Pepper, They Hate Cinnamon (a quote from “The Hangover”). These aren’t your everyday potions. The Dr. Kenneth Noisewater (thank you, “Anchorman”) is a mix of Greek liqueur, elderflower, marmalade, brown sugar, Dijon mustard, orange-flower water, and lemon. It’s not half bad. There’s a concise beer list with something for every palate, from Bud Light on tap to “22 oz. big boys” of Anderson Valley Bourbon Barrel Stout. Pricing for wine starts at $8 a glass.
It seems to work for the area. Always crowded, this is the Zelig of restaurants, its character shifting throughout the day to suit the audience. People from nearby offices arrive at lunch, followed by after-work drinkers and local residents at dinner. At 10, the music gets louder and the pre-club crowd arrives. Like Geoffrey’s before it, Back Bay Harry’s is a hangout for the gay community. With its convivial neighborhood spirit, the restaurant is always a good time. It’s just not always a good restaurant.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.