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dining out

Parla is a little speakeasy with big ambitions

Boston, MA - 08/15/14: Local Striped Bass is served at Parla restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts. The dish consists of local striped bass on a bed of black quinoa salad, artichoke heart relish, citrus "pudding", sautŽed green beans, and saffron aioli. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Striped bass atop black quinoa at Parla.

Alcohol has been legal in the United States since Prohibition ended in 1933. Yet people keep opening speakeasies. The latest to arrive is Parla, which showed up to tease the North End with a Hanover Street sign reading “Things are changing. #doyouspeak,” alongside a logo of two old-fashioned keys in a skull-and-crossbones “X.” What could it be? The suspense wasn’t killing us, because by now we knew.

It was some fun when speakeasies reemerged a few years back. To drink cocktails crafted by serious sorts in suspenders, customers had to be in the know, entering signless storefronts and traipsing into hushed basement spaces. The trend has brought us better bartending and ingredients; it has restored to prominence delightful drinks we seldom got to enjoy and birthed plenty of new ones. Good stuff. But the novelty has faded.

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Except, perhaps, in the North End. Those who flock to the neighborhood want Italian food. Those who frequent it regularly don’t want it all of the time. And the streets are changing, with a taqueria here, a cannoli-free bakery there. When that Pinkberry opened, it was a watershed moment.

“Parla” means “speak” in Italian. (It is incidental that it might also sound like the word “parlor” spoken with a Boston accent.) Chef Eric Buonagurio (Back Bay Harry’s, Blue Inc.) serves up lobster ravioli and seafood brodetto alongside Asian-influenced octopus salad and ramen noodle “carbonara.” Cocktails have names like Sacco & Vanzetti and L’Atto Finale. It is a speakeasy that takes its surroundings into account.

The room is so tiny it feels like eating and drinking in a 1920s-themed diorama, filled with amber light and framed newspapers that trumpet “U.S. is voted dry” and “Prohibition ends at last!” There is a mural of a flapper whispering “Shh!” with the word “Omerta” below, and barrels that look hand-lettered bearing the words “ale,” “wine,” “whiskey,” and “moonshine” above the wee bar, four stools wide. “It’s like a Disney speakeasy,” observes one dining companion, and one half-expects a mechanized bootlegger to come popping out of the wall at any time.

The space is too small to hold all of its ambitions. With more than two dozen drinks, the cocktail list feels as though it belongs to a much larger bar. Dishes feature many unusual ingredients, in such small amounts it’s hard to taste them.

The strawberry rye and smoked sea salt rim of the Vaudeville Margarita register on the palate, but the pink peppercorn-infused agave does not. Two patrons order Bee Sting Juleps, made with habanero honey-infused whiskey; one sips and shrugs, the other sweats. Later, the bill reveals one is full spice, the other mild. But no one mentions different levels of heat are an option, so no one orders them this way. Cocktail roulette! The Archduke’s Mule (grapefruit vodka, applejack, apricot liqueur) and Al Capone’s Mule (rye, balsamic vinegar, basil, Cynar) taste the same, like ginger beer in cute copper mugs. The Barnburner Old-Fashioned — bourbon infused with maple and bacon, bacon simple syrup, smoke bitters, and a candied bacon garnish — is a gimmicky drink it would be hard to resist ordering, were it available.

That octopus is tender and fresh, miso-marinated tendrils served on thin-sliced pickled cucumber, topped with tobiko and tiny flowers. It’s tasty. But yuzu aioli, squid ink olive oil, and Thai basil are hard to discern. Local striped bass is cooked perfectly, with gorgeously crisp skin and just the right dose of salt. It sits atop black quinoa that has a pleasant, toasted flavor. The most alluring ingredients — artichoke heart relish, citrus “pudding” — come in wee bites and dots. Lobster ravioli is delicious, although it seems more like ravioli with lobster; if there is any seafood in the filling, it is minimal. Pea shoots, a truffle demi, wild mushrooms, and cauliflower puree and florets are all there, too, apparently: I wonder what I’ve eaten in one velvety, smooth bite, then remember the puree and try to find more, to no avail.

Boston, MA - 08/15/14: Ramen Noodle "Carbonara" is served at Parla restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts. The dish consists of slow roasted karabuta pork belly, chilies, poached egg, broccoli rabe, guanciale dashi, and parmesan. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Ramen noodle “carbonara” in guanciale-tinted dashi with roast pork belly, poached egg, broccoli rabe, and Parmesan.

Stepping back a bit on the onslaught of components can work wonders. Mussels are themselves nothing to write home about, but the creamy broth, tinged with Thai basil and green chiles, is a subtle delight. A dish that brings together ramen and carbonara is clever and delicious: a thick hank of noodles swims in guanciale-tinted dashi with roast pork belly, poached egg, broccoli rabe, and Parmesan. Break the yolk and swirl it into the broth, then add pho-reminiscent garnishes of Asian herbs and chiles. And arancini are a simple success, crisp and creamy rice balls filled with braised oxtail and peas, with red sauce for dipping.

Dessert needs to find a middle ground. On the one hand, you’ve got s’mores, a white plate with a tin lid. It’s pulled aside with a puff of smoke, filling the joint with autumnal perfume. Underneath are smears and bites of chocolate, pulverized graham cracker and some kind of beige dust, pink-peppercorn marshmallows that don’t taste like pink peppercorn, and a quenelle of lovely ice cream that is said to be smoked vanilla but tastes like toasted marshmallows.

On the other hand, there is seasonal ice cream. “What flavors do you have tonight?” we ask. “Ummm, vanilla,” the server replies. Somewhere, a ripe peach dies a little inside.

Parla has big dreams and good ideas. Now it needs focus. Some nights servers are spacy and addled, leaving tables without drinks for long stretches and confusing orders; some nights they are professional and attentive, comping a dessert to apologize for a brief disturbance while shutting the windows that open onto the street. Give us well-made drinks and all the flavors we are promised. Then we will really have something to talk about.

Boston, MA - 08/15/14: The Baby Octopus Salad is served at Parla restaurant in Boston, Massachusetts. The dish consists of baby octopus, miso marinade, yuzu aioli, tobiko pickled cucumbers, squid ink olive oil, and thai basil. (Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe)

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Octopus salad.

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Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.
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