During its decade-long run on Boylston Street, Vox Populi became better known as a pick-up bar than a restaurant. It closed at the end of last year, replaced in July by Forum, a new project from Boston Nightlife Ventures (Noche, the Tap, the Federal). As the name indicates, this is still a meeting place. But now the food is picking up, too.
Culinary director Jared Chianciola has spent time at Eastern Standard, Rialto, Om, and 28 Degrees. Chef de cuisine Rene Caceres comes from San Francisco’s Coi, among others, and sous chef Daniel Lotti has worked at New York’s Eleven Madison Park. Forum is a two-level space, and the team runs it like two different restaurants, with a casual menu on the ground floor and a more ambitious version on the second.
Downstairs, the space is dominated by a large bar that loops like a racetrack around side-by-side flat-screens, seemingly enough for one per customer. Several tables look out onto the street. When there’s a sizable post-work crowd, the ’80s music can be pounding. It doesn’t drown out the courtesy of the managers, who ask diners whether the volume needs to be adjusted.
To match the social mood, this menu offers several social dishes. Fish tacos are made for sharing, three flour tortillas folded around cod and red cabbage slaw, chipotle aioli and salsa lending heat. A dish misleadingly named “chicken waffles’’ omits the “and’’ on purpose. These are essentially chicken fingers in a rice flour waffle batter, served with jalapeño maple syrup. Disappointingly, the chilies fail to make their presence known.
In addition to finger food, the menu offers sandwiches and bistro fare. (The lineup is changing soon.) Lobster chowder is short on both lobster and chowder. It’s so thick it might be better termed stew, a bowl of clams, mussels, and a bite or two of lobster, all bound together with a few tablespoons of thick, fennel-scented broth. The dish is topped with a fried oyster, a nice touch.
For an appetizer of beef crepinettes, short rib braised for 72 hours is shredded and formed into a patty, cooked in caul fat for extra richness. It’s wonderfully tender, served with hen of the woods mushrooms, fried parsnips, and Madeira reduction.
The kitchen has a way with beef. Grilled hanger steak is spot-on, topped with decadent bone marrow butter, served with fried potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Coq au vin is made with Cornish game hen, and it’s a fine dish when you’re eating the dark meat. The white meat, however, is dry.
Upstairs, the dining room is all butterscotch and cream, mirrors and mod light fixtures. Service is more polished. The food echoes the atmosphere, plush with groovy accents.
Cauliflower soup is a velvety white puree with a pool of chocolate blotting its surface like an eclipse. As different as they seem, cauliflower and chocolate can pair well. English chef Heston Blumenthal, of Fat Duck fame, has combined the two flavors in risotto, for example. Here, there is too much chocolate for the ingredients to mesh, but the idea remains compellingly weird.
A raviolo punctured with a fork bleeds gold. It’s filled with yolk, still runny while the pasta is cooked. How do they do that? They pack a filling of sweet potato and mascarpone around it, insulating the yolk from the heat. Still, the pasta is a bit underdone, and the strong flavor of the sweet potato dominates the dish.
Crisp-tender pork belly finds a natural pairing with quince and a light, sauerkraut-like pickle. Black bean puree tilts the dish a few degrees, interesting and delicious. A bowl of ricotta gnocchi with lobster looks unappealing, everything tinted brown by chestnuts and black trumpet mushrooms. But the flavors are deep and earthy, the gnocchi light with just enough chew.
Scallops are too salty, like quite a few of the dishes we sample in the upstairs dining room. They are served with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower “cous cous,’’ which is not really couscous but the vegetable chopped until it faintly resembles the fine-grained pasta. Forum is the kind of restaurant whose menus are laced with quotation marks, leaving the diner to wonder if “Wellington,’’ for instance, is really beef Wellington. (It is, more or less. It’s a very good deconstructed version, featuring filet mignon, foie gras, and wild mushrooms with separate puff pastry biscuits.)
Too many of the menu’s explanations require further explanation. Read between the quotation marks and they tell you something about the kitchen: The people who work here are really thinking about food. Sometimes they are overthinking it. But even when an idea doesn’t work, it isn’t dull.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than dessert, a course that shrugs off plebeian chocolate cake and crème brûlée. We find instead dishes such as “ants on a log,’’ a tribute to the childhood snack of celery filled with peanut butter and raisins. Cocoa nib tuiles are stacked with sliced bananas, peanut butter mousse, and golden raisins, topped with a scoop of celery sorbet. The ice is intriguingly vegetal, the best part of the dish. It’s the dessert equivalent of the Easter Island statues, both arresting and confounding.
Forum puts together a real wine list, extensive and prioritizing product over price point. It’s not afraid to offer expensive bottles. Cocktails are a focus, too. The Vine-Bite brings together cucumber and ginger in perfect balance, but the Crimson Sky tastes like a Glade PlugIns air freshener. The roster of beer plays it somewhat safe for the after-work crowd, but there are selections here to please the beer geek, too.
Forum is a restaurant with ideas, but it also has a practical side. The downstairs menu won’t alienate the former Vox crowd. There is still plenty to attract those who simply want to socialize. Now, though, the people in charge actually want us to eat here, too.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.