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Reversing a restaurant curse

Some dining addresses just seem doomed to fail. Here’s how one restaurant group has set about reversing the particular curse of a troubled South End venue -- not that they believe in that nonsense.

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MARK MATCHO

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THE GAPING ATRIUM at 500 Harrison is aflutter with buzz saws and jackhammers and thick, gauzy dust clouds, as construction crews methodically obliterate every telltale vestige of its former tenant. But ghosts? Not here. Seth Woods doesn’t believe in them. He also doesn’t believe in curses, which you can tell by how vehemently the chef dismisses the implication that his latest dining venture might come with a gratis side of the supernatural. In fact, he gets downright rankled that the topic even comes up. On the eve of our tour of the overhaul-in-progress, Woods and his Aquitaine Group partners Matt Burns and Jeff Gates nearly pull the plug once it slips out that paranormal blather might figure into this story about their new restaurant, slated to open this spring in this space – this decidedly not-cursed space – which until December 2010 housed the Italian eatery Rocca.

Fortunately (oops: charitably), Woods throws me a bone. “For a restaurant to succeed,” he says, “you need a certain confluence of factors – the right people, the right concept, the right food, the right location, the right fiscal structure.” It’s all perfectly . . . rational. “Yes, there are spaces where multiple concepts haven’t worked, and people like to explain it as a ‘curse’ or ‘jinx.’ But some spaces simply present more of a challenge for nailing that ideal confluence.”

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Woods has reason to be reasonable. In 1995, he opened the unpretentious and still successful Metropolis Cafe on nearby Tremont Street. Since 1988, he and his partners in the Aquitaine Group have specialized in placing that kind of neighborhood eatery – think Aquitaine, Union – in not-quite-gentrified pockets of the South End. Just two blocks away, their French brasserie, Gaslight, has been going gangbusters from the day it opened in August 2007. And in a town that’s quick to ascribe preternatural hoodoo to disappointing outcomes – where family recipes for Bambino-bane still get passed down through generations – an outright rejection of doom-mongering forces is, frankly, refreshing.

That said, if a restaurant space is merely a logic puzzle, this one’s calibrated to “expert.” As the frenetic activity surrounding us makes plain, this particular address requires far more than a new name and a fresh coat of paint. Former Rocca patrons will scarcely recognize the place. The wavy blue and tan carpeting, meant to evoke the mountainous coast of Italy’s Liguria region, has been stripped away. And the almost two-story circular bar on the first floor, the old spot’s most striking feature? Demolished.

The most dramatic change is the eradication of the ground level altogether. Patrons will still come in the old front door, but a new, grand staircase will sweep them up to the dining room and forthcoming lounge area. The second floor will be enlarged, extended to the windows overlooking the back patio, the former atrium gone. The rest of the ground floor will be walled off, reserved for private parties.

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“The big challenge here? Two floors,” Woods says, perhaps a little too hopefully. “It took us multiple times walking in before we finally said, you know what, let’s get rid of the bar down here. Let’s put in a big, impressive staircase and take the entire energy upstairs. If you’re sitting at a communal table here, or if you’re sitting at a banquette over there, the bar is transferring energy to the room, the room to the bar, and so on.”

He has a point. At Rocca, the party was downstairs, centered around the bar; moving upstairs to a table felt like a demotion. Beyond the architecture, however, Woods and his partners hesitate to indulge in direct comparisons with their predecessors, seasoned restaurant pros Karen Haskell, Michela Larson and Gary Sullivan, who had run Rialto, Noir, and Blu with their former partner, chef Jody Adams, before opening Rocca on their own. Yet their experience is a ghost that clearly vexes Woods and his group. “There was a legit operator – not some first-time newbie owners – who came in here and had a problem,” he says. “So we are proceeding with extreme caution and humility.”

 Humility? In spades. But some might quibble with “extreme caution.” Where veteran restaurateurs failed with a mid-priced Italian menu, Woods and his partners aren’t trying their luck on Mediterranean or French (two concepts already in the group’s wheelhouse). Nor are they treading farther afield, experimenting with eclectic upscale gastropub or farm-to-table Japanese tavern.

 They’re going with mid-priced Italian, too. 

 

***

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/file

WHAT GOES AROUND . . .Rocca’s showstopping circular bar was the place’s intimate, beating heart.Too bad there were 100 more seats to fill upstairs.

THE AQUITAINE GUYS aren’t the only ones to bristle at talk of star-crossed storefronts, of haunted haunts – those curiously luckless addresses that never seem to catch a break. One bistro owner patently refuses to discuss the coup she instigated last year in a North Shore space long plagued by a revolving door of failed ventures – forwarding, via a bewildered publicist, a list of topics “she’d be thrilled to chat about instead.” Five other restaurateurs demur, despite similarly auspicious tales, one copping to concerns about undercutting the positive mojo. The first rule of Restaurant Curse Reversal Club . . . 

Josh Webber, though, has no qualms about discussing his turnaround of a once-doomed Hingham address: an old Colonial house that, despite prime Main Street real estate, struggled for decades with upscale lessees (most recently, a Blackfin Chop House). What the area desperately needed, he felt, was a “flexible” place offering diners both high-end and casual options. Opened in 2007, Scarlet Oak Tavern nailed that vision, with its comfy dining room, conspicuously large bar-seating area, and kitchen set to prepare $9 brick-oven pizzas, $35 rib-eyes, and everything in between. Critics hailed the place; first-timers became regulars. (Admittedly, the hot, bubbling blue-crab-cheddar dip with toasted lavash could turn just about any place around.) “When you’re in the suburbs and you’ve got a large restaurant like ours, you have to appeal to a broad range of people,” says Webber. Going on five years, the appeal remains; the curse, reversed.

Managing the public’s perception of your restaurant can be just as important as price point, layout, or even whether you’re doing formal Greek or casual Spanish, says Garrett Harker. Or at least I think that’s what he’s saying. It’s not even 6 p.m. (on a Monday), and already the crowds at his Island Creek Oyster Bar in Kenmore Square are producing an enviable, conversation-sapping din. They’re here for the $2 oysters and $10 glasses of Macon-Chardonnay, the former wrangled by one of Harker’s co-proprietors, Island Creek Oysters, the Duxbury shellfish farm growing pristine bivalves that are served by the nation’s most vaunted chefs. They’re also here for the vibe, which feels warm, welcoming, and legitimately cool.

 Only a few years earlier, this room was considerably quieter. That was during the era of Great Bay, Michael Schlow’s upscale seafood place that opened in 2003 to wild acclaim then languished with a chronically half-empty dining room until its backers backed out in 2009. Prevailing wisdom held that the neighborhood, drawing scruffy students, Fenway Park pilgrims, and Rathskeller nostalgists, simply wasn’t ready for sophisticated, pricey dining. Meanwhile, Harker’s own Eastern Standard, just a few doors down the block, couldn’t reset tables fast enough, thanks to its casual, inexpensive brasserie grub. Or so the story went.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

CHOP CHOP: Aquitaine (pictured: Woods and chef de cuisine Chris Robins) is transforming the old Rocca.

 It’s a neat yet flawed theory. For starters, the fare at Eastern Standard has never been particularly populist (Jamie “Offal” Bissonnette was the opening chef!). And even if Great Bay’s average price point was a few dollars higher than Eastern Standard’s, it was right on par with Island Creek’s current pricing. No, the number one reason Great Bay dwindled in popularity is that it was fine dining. It felt fancy, from the white tablecloths to the soulless nightclub-chic decor to the admittedly terrific clam chowder that was so overwrought in its presentation, it practically required two servers. That might have worked in the Financial District, but in Kenmore Square, in a softening economy, it fizzled like a re-corked bottle of by-the-glass Cristal.

 What Harker and team have done well with both Eastern Standard and Island Creek is to keep up the appearances of casual dining even when price points say otherwise. “You think of E-S and you tend to remember the more humble offerings, the grilled cheese, the burger,” says Harker. “But we’ve had a seared foie gras on the menu since day one.”

Crucially, neither restaurant feels clubby or exclusive, for which you can thank a service staff that, under Harker’s watchful eye, has remained ruthless in ensuring no customer feels secondary, whether or not they’re ordering foie gras. In an age where customer-review websites like Yelp reign, despotically – the tiniest perceived slight by a weary hostess can spell the difference between a five-star and a one-star rating – the importance of an ace front of the house cannot be overstated. Make us feel warmly welcomed and we’ll line up for anything you serve. (Lest you wonder if a change in kitchen personnel might have made the difference at Great Bay, consider that Jeremy Sewell, its opening chef, eventually took the reins at Eastern Standard. Now he’s an Island Creek owner and in charge of the menu there, too.)

Scanning the crowd at Island Creek, I’m tempted to accuse Harker of stocking the pond with ringers. It’s comically staged-looking: sweat-shirted twentysomethings in this corner, Prada-shod scenesters in that one, off-shift restaurant-industry guys in blazers, jeans, and untucked Alfani button-downs bringing up the middle – I half expect to see tank truckers sporting Citgo garb. Significantly, that mix is echoed in the look of the place, which weaves reclaimed wooden fencing, spent oyster shells, and tattered fishnets into its sleek, stylized decor. Talk about a confluence.

Not for nothing, it encapsulates how a restaurateur (a brasserie pro, to be exact) with a well-calibrated sense of a neighborhood can take over the faltering property next door, retain its price point and basic concept, and turn its luck around. Not a bad model to follow if you – you know – ever wanted to do something similar.

***

Across town, brasserie pros Woods, Burns, and Gates are explaining what made them choose Italian, of all things. “You know, it’s actually funny we don’t have an Italian restaurant,” Woods says. “From a cuisine perspective, it’s really our first love.” Huh. Almost what a guy who owns a bunch of bistros might say before tackling his first ristorante. But wait: Turns out, all three did begin their careers in Italian eateries. By the time they were ready to open their own places, however, “Italian had gone into something of a lull,” Burns says. “The hottest restaurants were French – the brasserie, the bistro.” Thus, a nascent Aquitaine Group began its journey down the Gallic highway.

In the last five or six years, the pendulum began to swing back the other way, says Burns. “There’s been this resurgence in Italian – not so much fine dining but sort of an ‘urban trattoria.’ Very traditional Italian food but with a new emphasis on ingredients.” A few years back, they say, they started very casually to sketch out a vision. Fond memories of eating in Rome were a recurring theme – specifically, meals at modest, chef-run trattorias tucked away along residential side streets, far from Piazza Navona tourists. They were sure about launching an Italian venture someday; they simply had no idea where to put it. And, anyway, they were plenty busy getting Gaslight up and running.

Just a few months ago, the vacancy at 500 Harrison started the wheels turning again. But it wasn’t even close to the look they’d envisioned for the project: They wanted a “raw” space – the exposed brick and “existing history” they remembered from Rome – not cork paneling, carpeting, and a bar like a stage. On the other hand: Talk about convenient.

“So then we looked again at all the original brick, the beautiful columns – it’s such a beautiful old factory,” says Woods. Soon they were looking at what it would cost to strip away the Rocca team’s contemporary build-out, to restore it to something resembling its original state. Removing the carpet and wallpaper was easy; so, too, was razing the downstairs bar. More precarious was the two-story glass facade out back, a blatant anachronism that would be unfeasible to remove. The solution: Graft a grid of old-school factory panes over Rocca’s new ones. “We decided we had to do it,” Gates sighs, and you can almost hear a ka-ching go off in his head. “They weren’t making panes of glass that big 100 years ago, so it sticks out like a sore thumb.”

If the Aquitaine guys are the models of conviction when describing the ambitious face lift they’ve undertaken, they become less so when talk turns to food; clearly, they’re still working out a philosophy. Woods tries the word “cosmopolitan” on for size, then quickly retreats (“No, no, no – that isn’t right”), not like he doesn’t have a vision, but rather like a master sculptor who does his best work by chiseling away just a little, then stepping back and checking the tweak from every angle.

So far, we’ve managed to discuss virtually every aspect of the new restaurant without actually talking about Rocca. “We have no interest in disparaging another restaurateur,” Woods reminds me. Fair enough. But it would seem foolhardy not to soak in the failed restaurant’s lessons. And in hindsight, it isn’t that difficult to surmise what went wrong.

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By spring 2007, the South End had established itself as a dining mecca. But that was up on Tremont Street, maybe Washington for the adventurous. Harrison Avenue, by contrast, was still but a twinkle in some industrial-chic visionary’s eye: an urbanscape of smokestacks, faded brick, and rust-streaked window panes with understated signage (an upholstery firm, American Crane & Hoist) meant to draw account reps, not retail or restaurant foot traffic. Rocca Kitchen & Bar, with its wall of glass and red neon sign, burst onto the scene like a shimmering, bejeweled flower from some distant – and luxurious – planet. The Sapphire Restaurant Group’s sparkling new venture was in the neighborhood, yes, just not of it.

Rocca’s polished gambit felt curiously at odds with the South End’s tastes, not just SoWa’s grittiness. Small plates and bare-bones decor – not tablecloths and loungey sleekness – were becoming the name of the game, and chilled-out spots like Toro, the Butcher Shop, and, later, Myers and Chang and Coppa were happy to oblige. To be sure, Rocca’s whimsical Ligurian fantasia never was as tone-deaf as slick ventures like Sibling Rivalry, Noche, and the now-closed Banq, which seemed like costumed carpetbaggers dropped in from Manhattan or Las Vegas to wow the provinces. Yet one got the uncanny sensation that Sapphire’s Karen Haskell, Michela Larson, and Gary Sullivan had left genteel Rialto in Harvard Square only to remake it in their adopted milieu. What’s more, there was something vaguely theme park about the relentless Liguriana emanating from every crevice, crest, and sea-inspired light sculpture.

Down the road, Gaslight, which opened four months later, did not dodge the fromage altogether. But it did nail a certain live-from-Oberkampf authenticity that, despite the nightly overdoses of piped-in Piaf, rang true – or at least, not wholly contrived.

Larson points out that her timing – gambling on a big, shiny place in 2007, just as the stock market was about to really sag – was, well, unlucky. “We built a big restaurant there, and I think when the world just went a little wacky, if we could’ve divvied it up in some way and treated it a little bit differently, it would’ve been helpful.”

But for such a big place, Rocca somehow still had an aura of exclusivity. It could feel cliquey and insular, like a standing private gathering – fab for those in the loop but fatal for the poor commuter who’d “snagged” a 7 p.m. date-night reservation on OpenTable at the hot new boite (the one with free parking!), only to be whisked upstairs and deposited into the deafening silence of an empty dining room, as faraway strains of the real party mocked from below. While a 40-seat eatery like Coppa can afford to play the clubby card, Rocca, with more than four times that number, needed if not to court suburbanites, at least to avoid alienating them outright.

During the first six months Rocca was open, I remember having a conversation with a frustrated Larson, who seemed genuinely worried over customer complaints about the house-made pasta: not the quality – there just wasn’t enough on the plate. Authentic primi-sized portioning designed for a three-course meal was certainly a hard sell in Boston, we sighed. Weeks later, though, a new section showed up on the menu. Its header (if memory serves) did not, in fact, read “Troughs of Workaday Dried Pasta for Indelicate Rubes.” It just felt, very distinctly, like it did.

To see Larson, a true hospitality pro, off her A-game was more than a little surreal. To close observers, though, the timing of Rocca’s opening itself was curious. Just six months earlier, the partnership that had built Noir, Rialto, and Blu had split up, with Haskell, Larson, and Sullivan keeping Blu and Jody Adams, the chef of the group, keeping Rialto. (Noir is now owned by the Charles Hotel.) Rumors swirled that the split was anything but amicable. Either way, when a group of management experts opened its first place without its old powerhouse chef partner, atmosphere seemed to come first, the food, second. It’s not that it wasn’t good; it just wasn’t especially memorable. The absence of dazzlers – those standouts that get gastro-evangelists all fired up, that keep a restaurant on regular rotation for Chowhounders doing food crawls through the South End – was another nail in Rocca’s coffin, probably the most important one.

Then, in March 2010, that changed. Larson and Sullivan replaced their original chef, Tom Fosnot – a talented but fairly green import from Blu – with Tiffani Faison, a rising star who’d gained national attention on the premiere season of reality TV’s Top Chef. Suddenly, dazzlers were everywhere: taleggio-stuffed pasta “envelopes” with fresh peas and still-crunchy roasted rainbow carrots, light-as-air fried artichokes tossed with herbs and lemon zest then dropped onto a schmear of roasted garlic puree. So dramatic was the change-up that food critics stood in line to re-review the place – including the Globe’s Devra First, who awarded the rejiggered Rocca three full stars, up from the two she’d given in 2007.

 More than just about any kind of story, this town loves a good turnaround. A curse reversal. An against-the-odds victory. But it wasn’t to be. Though its managers worked to the last moment to save the business, Rocca closed on December 31, 2010. Staffers found out that day.

*** 

Two weeks after my initial tour, I meet again with chef Seth Woods and Chris Robins, who currently runs Gaslight’s kitchen and will be the new restaurant’s chef de cuisine. I’ve come with a list of questions about Aquitaine-Does-Italian. Let’s cut the coy, already. How will the new place distinguish itself from the fettuccine Alfredo fray? If there’s one thing Boston never hurt for, it’s 1.5-star Italian.

And they’re ready this time to talk food. “We want to be a real Roman-style trattoria to the neighborhood,” says Robins. Uh-oh. Ligurian makeover: Rome edition? Woods chimes in. “We’re not gonna get too funky – well, maybe 20 percent of the menu. For the rest, we’ll take the classics, still be progressive, but in a way that makes it possible for people to eat dinner here, not just dine here.”

It’s all sounding good, if abstract. Until they pull out an actual working menu – a very rough sketch, they warn. Though it’s typed up, you can practically pick out the eraser marks, the triple rewrites, the fully formed flashes of brilliance that came rolling out in a single, caffeinated swoop. Or not: The secondi section has a cryptic (and tempting) line that reads “Italian chicken Kiev, truffle butter – need description from Seth.” 

Yes, there are classics, but they have serious teeth. Woods and his chefs have always had a penchant for bold, vivid, gutsy flavors, preferring to err on the side of rich, unctuous, salty, and piquant rather than risk an overly whispered dud. Sure enough, the draft menu for Cinquecento (oh, yeah: that’ll be its name) doesn’t break form. Steak tartare is dressed up with toasted hazelnuts, shaved truffles, and crispy house-cured guanciale bacon. Veal-and-tarragon meatballs come with an intriguing “shiitake pesto.” Homemade tagliatelle get tossed with chanterelles, char-grilled radicchio, and fresh basil; gnocchi with rosemary-scented venison ragu. Chicken diavolo is grilled and ramped up with pickled chilies, lemon, and “spicy” broccoli rabe. Here and there are strains of New York super-chef Mario Batali, maybe a nod or two to his Del Posto partner Lidia Bastianich. First and foremost, though, you can tell that someone in the group is a huge fan of Morandi, Keith McNally’s modern trattoria in Greenwich Village. In fact, if Morandi were as much a muse for the Aquitaine guys as some mythical Roman cucina, I wouldn’t be surprised – after all, McNally’s Soho brasserie Balthazar is Gaslight’s closest exemplar, stateside. Nor disappointed: In a crowded Italian field, a Morandi-style trattoria-cum-brasserie may very well be the only remaining variation this city’s still starved for. We’ve got nothing like it. It’s more than a little appealing.

Appealing, as long as the Aquitaine Group can steer clear of the pitfalls, some of which confront any new venture, while others are particular to the one at hand. Perhaps most crucial is getting the kitchen crew together early. Consistent execution wasn’t exactly Gaslight’s strongpoint its first six months – there were fumbles aplenty, thanks in part to the enormous dining room. They’d be wise, too, to nip their restaurant Union’s current identity crisis in the bud so they can focus on training a line for the new venture.

And they could do worse than to pay heed to the cautionary lessons of Rocca and Great Bay. To study the playbook behind Island Creek Oyster Bar.

To wit: Keep the look of the dishes simple. That’s the Aquitaine Group’s usual MO, but nothing would sap the modernity like a sous-chef with a fondness for high-touch presentation – the sort of mannerist, throwback-nouvelle platings that make the cool kids forget that Daniel Bruce of Meritage may still be the best cook in town.

Home in quickly on the dazzlers, and promote them relentlessly. “The best damned arancini in the city!” will always make a better story line than “an appealing menu of solidly executed fare from the Fill-in-the-Blank region of Italy.” Speaking of which, don’t overplay the goopy nostalgia, Roman or otherwise.

Larson, for her part, wishes them well. “I think it’s great that they’re doing it,” she says, and you can tell she means it. “They know what they’re doing. I think they’ll be really smart about it.” Based on the evidence so far, it’s not a far-fetched prediction. The Aquitaine guys have long had the pulse of the neighborhood. The building looks terrific. The urban trattoria concept is compelling. And don’t forget the free parking.

That said, a sage-burning ceremony in the atrium of 500 Harrison couldn’t hurt – you know, just in case. 

Jolyon Helterman is a Boston-based writer and a former editor for Cook’s Illustrated, The Week, and Boston magazines. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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