Unadulterated, unrestrained, uncensored exuberance.
That’s what radiates from Douglass Williams when he talks about food.
He rhapsodizes about the first time, as a little kid, he pressed a fork atop dough to crosshatch a peanut butter cookie. He recounts in crisp detail drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice blended with ice and sugar, Spanish-style, while growing up on the Jersey Shore. He still retains his earliest childhood cooking memory: making scrambled eggs for his dad.
And he recalls the first time he watched a Food Network competition and realized, in a pivotal life moment, I can make a living doing this!
“Grown men sweating and crying and burning themselves — I hadn’t known that people competed on that level, or with so much pride,” Williams says by phone. “I remember sitting up on my couch and saying, ‘Whatever that is they’re doing, I need to be doing that.’”
Fast-forward two decades and you’ll find Williams — now 32 and with years of restaurant work under his belt, including in New York, Paris, and Thailand, and at Radius and Coppa in Boston — running a restaurant of his own.
In November, he opened Mida in a high-traffic spot on the South End/Roxbury line (it was previously Estelle’s and the short-lived Cluckit, which lasted just three months), and his ambitions are towering: to run “a world-class restaurant in a neighborhood setting.”
Mida achieves the look, channeling the chic bistros of Manhattan and Montparnasse with ceramic tile, black wood, light gray walls, pendant lighting, farm tables, and an open kitchen. In a pop of color, the sleek bar is fronted by blue back-lit mesh.
The 70-seat space exudes contemporary urban sophistication, but prepare to get cozy. The tables can feel elbow-to-elbow; at one point, the couple next to us seems as immersed in our conversation about property taxes as we are.
In keeping with current trends, Mida bills itself as a “shared dining experience.” You know the drill: The waitstaff recommends ordering multiple dishes from each section of the menu and passing them around. Or there’s the “Mida Experience,” where for $45 apiece (an additional $35 with wine) you can let the kitchen decide what you’ll eat.
The restaurant describes itself as Italian, but it is so only in the broadest sense. It’s mostly a playground for Williams to dabble in eclectic ingredients (pickled cranberries, beef heart, salt-baked celery root, cracked rye crumbs, nasturtium petals) and creative food chemistry (squash foam, dehydrated parsley, fermented kale stems) to his heart’s content.
His enthusiasm is endearing. It’s also simultaneously his strength and his weakness. Some of Mida’s dishes are overly busy, as if Williams were a contestant on a cooking show given a dozen oddball ingredients and challenged to turn them into a meal.
The end result is sometimes a delight, like the tubular paccheri pasta with pureed pumpkin, red apple, pistachios, and Parmesan, a combination that gets crunch and subtle sweetness from the fruit. Other times it’s disjointed. Why, for instance, are pickled smelts atop an otherwise excellent piece of flaky hake with a perfect light-brown sear? Why so much pickling overall? The answer to that comes later.
Williams excels at pasta, and we enjoy every one we try.
Crowned by a beautiful egg yolk, fettuccine with diced pancetta is a light variation on carbonara. Stir it all together to create a rich gold sauce. Resembling little torches, the torchio gets meaty texture from shiitake mushrooms and tang from roasted tomato.
Beef shoulder triangoli, filled with red cabbage and golden raisins, look like delicate pierogi and sit in a thin, savory, dark sauce made from the bones of duck and lamb. Agnolotti, shaped like tiny purses, are bathed in brown butter, dotted with hazelnuts, and filled with mushroom confit.
The quality of appetizers (“piccoli” and “singoli”) is mixed.
One of my favorites is the chewy Maine grains salad, made with triticale, wheat berries, and pickled cranberries. It’s like softened Grape Nuts. “Pickles” aren’t brined cucumbers, as you might expect. Instead, they’re fermented root vegetables — rutabaga, beet, radish, carrot — thin-sliced and sharply vinegary.
Smoked scallop crudo paired with watermelon radish and blood orange is a light, clean trio. But it’s marred by a pasty citron sauce with bitter overtones, probably because of lemon pith mixed in with the zest. Fried salt fish bacalao is tasty in the way all fried things are, although its exotic-sounding sauce of mint, fennel, and preserved lemon simply looks and tastes like green pea puree.
A potato grilled with rosemary arrives coated in a green powder so dusty we could practically blow it off, like a rub that needs more rubbing. Williams makes it by dehydrating parsley stems, an effort to prevent any trimmings from going unused. It’s an admirable goal, one that reduces food waste and controls costs, but sometimes he goes overboard.
More than half the lamb rib, for example, is a thick band of fat. Unsolicited, our waitress informs us of the fattiness as we place our order, an indicator that previous customers have been surprised not to get a leaner cut. Williams tells me he leaves the fat intact to moisturize the meat, but also for budgetary reasons.
“The reality of a small restaurant is we can’t throw food away,” he explains, “so we have to find a way to make it part of the dish.” But if the customer leaves the fat uneaten, is that goal achieved?
The same economical philosophy explains the bite of vinegar common on Mida’s menu. To preserve everything from unused lemon slices to discarded kale stems, many of the restaurant’s fruits and vegetables are fermented in its cool, dry basement and repurposed in other dishes — from pickled shallots with the hake to pickled turnip with the steak to fermented cabbage in the caponata.
There are three entrees, usually fish, poultry, and beef. Oddly, we aren’t asked how we want our meat cooked. That turns out fine with the excellent dry-aged strip steak, which arrives a juicy medium. But the duck breast is medium-rare on one visit, its center purple, and medium-well on another.
For dessert lovers, there’s only one choice besides a cheese plate: moist citrus-poppyseed cake with a nice crumb and lively flavor. Just like the scallop crudo’s sauce, though, the accompanying roasted lemon-buttermilk-ricotta custard is offputtingly bitter. Dear kitchen: you’re tasting these creations before they’re served, right?
Mida’s waitstaff is warm, gracious, and welcoming, but sometimes borders on intrusive, swooping in to refold napkins each time a guest goes to the loo and refilling water glasses after a few sips. They need to back off a bit.
That advice would serve Williams well in general: Go easier on the fermenting and pickling, focus on cementing the basics before tackling the fancy stuff, don’t forget the value of restraint, don’t try so hard to impress.
His passion is evident, and he’s created a beautiful space. Now he needs to make sure his execution matches his enthusiasm.
782 Tremont St., South End, Boston, 617-936-3490, www.midaboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $6-$18. Entrees $16-$32. Desserts $6.50-$10.
Hours Mon-Sat 5:30-11 p.m., Sun 5:30-10 p.m. (Late-night menu Wed-Sat 11 p.m.-1 a.m. Bar until 1 a.m. Mon-Wed, 2 a.m. Thu-Sat, and 10:30 p.m. Sun.)
Noise Level Moderate
What to order Maine grains salad; roasted hake; fettuccine with pancetta, kale, and egg yolk; beef shoulder triangoli; paccheri with pureed pumpkin, red apple, and pistachio; agnolotti with mushroom confit, brown butter, and hazelnuts; citrus-poppyseed cakeSacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.