A nattily attired white-haired couple peers at the menu posted outside. A man wearing shorts in October and toting a camera soon follows suit. Over the course of dinner at City Landing, that menu gets the kind of eyeballs most websites only dream of. More restaurants are opening in this part of town. But near the aquarium, the harbor, a host of attractions, and a plethora of hotels, a nice place to sit down for a civilized meal still isn't the easiest thing to come by. For years, the space that is now City Landing housed the original branch of Sel de la Terre. It was that nice place, recommended by countless concierges, along with the Long Wharf Legal Sea Foods. City Landing is perfectly positioned to take over where Sel de la Terre left off.
Chef-owner Bill Brodsky comes to Boston from the Cape, where he previously spent more than a decade at Wequassett Resort and Golf Club in Harwich; he brings with him chef de cuisine Patrick Enage. The restaurant has been redone, with stone-and-tile columns, lime-green optic-print fabric on the booths, and an airy feeling. There is new emphasis on the bar area, with a "Bar Crumbs" menu of tasty, lower-priced small plates and well-made cocktails such as the Docksider (corn whiskey, lemon juice, honey syrup, Cherry Heering, and Boston Bittahs). The beer list is heavily local, with mainstream craft leanings. Wine is available in 6- and 9-ounce pours; bottles, categorized as "light," "medium," or "full," run a gamut of price points. City Landing offers children's, gluten-free, and vegetarian menus (the Thai curry-esque grilled seitan in curried carrot broth is quite tasty). Hospitality is an emphasis, with hosts who remember guests from visit to visit, and servers who check in frequently, then check in to make sure it's not too frequently.
In short, City Landing lands already formed, ready to offer wide audiences with different needs a pleasant dining experience. In this area, that's money, a niche most restaurateurs would be pleased to fill. Yet one gets the feeling Brodsky is aiming for more. Perhaps that has to do with the website, filled with movie trailer-worthy blurbs:
"Bill Brodsky spent a decade wowing a discerning clientele with haute cuisine and superb service," raves the Improper Bostonian. "His imagination and refined palate allow him to create knockout dishes," exclaims the James Beard Foundation. "We knew his next step would be something big, and he has not disappointed," opines Boston Common.
Such pronouncements raise expectations for the food, and sometimes they are met. At the bar one night, crisp, salty chicken wings dusted with five-spice powder hit the spot. They are accompanied by wasabi-ranch dressing, a combination alternately weird and appealing. Lobster-corn fritters with saffron aioli are pleasantly springy, if extremely short on either lobster or corn.
And the regular menu offers a series of winning appetizers. Mini lobster rolls are adorable, buttery, and classic — two down-sized rolls of toasted Portuguese bread, split down the middle, filled with fresh, nicely cooked lobster meat and little more, just as it should be. "Bostonian" shrimp and grits is a dish of rich cornmeal with linguica sausage and shrimp cooked just through, so they have a bit of snap still when one bites in.
City Landing serves three soups, yellow tomato bisque, onion bisque, and clam chowder, available also as a sampler of two kinds. Though the onion bisque has a sharp note, it's topped with plenty of golden-brown cheese to redeem it, and the tomato bisque is lovely. A golden broth with deep flavor, it comes with a flaky cheese straw on the side. A white pizzetta is just right to share, topped with chicken-and-apple sausage and oven-cured yet still tender tomatoes.
Main dishes and desserts, however, put the brakes on too many initially promising meals. Chicken francaise — with heavy spinach gnocchi, tomatoes, green beans, and a sauce of wine, lemon, and butter — is pleasantly tangy but dull. Berkshire pork Oscar feels sophisticated and nostalgic at once, the meat topped with a crab cake and asparagus, served in a pool of bearnaise. But overcooked pork, with the complexion of a sanatorium patient, ruins the dish. Likewise, the haddock fried up for fish and chips is dry and tough, sliding out of its crisp cloak of batter each time you cut a bite. Pan-roasted flounder has much in common with the chicken francaise; the fish is served with tomatoes, asparagus, crisped pieces of artichoke, and a champagne-mustard butter sauce. It is underseasoned and bland. Even a side dish of macaroni and cheese, enticingly golden and gooey, needs salt.
Beef tenderloin with a mild-mannered rub of coffee and brown sugar is sliced thin, plated with wedges of tomato, chunks of not-quite-ripe avocado, and a fruity red mole sauce. The flavors are there, a souped-up version of a summer steak salad. But this is a very small serving for the price: $39. (City Landing's main dishes tend to be pleasingly human-sized, in general, rather than gargantuan.) The real standout is Brodsky's take on liver and onions, a swank modernization of an often-stodgy dish. Thin pieces of nicely charred, musky liver are matched with thick-cut, house-made bacon and a pierogi filled with potato and porcini.
The dessert menu leans toward the richer end of the spectrum. A chocolate-caramel torte has a filling that is gritty but tastes good, and the crust is properly baked, as is too seldom the case in restaurants. A blondie sundae seems like a sure thing, but the blondie tastes off, like a maple-scented candle, and the white chocolate-espresso ice cream served with it lacks punch. An oversize chocolate cupcake comes with vanilla filling and topped with piped-on frosting; the cake itself has only a hint of cocoa flavor, despite its rich appearance. There is, however, a nice selection of cheese.
This is Brodsky's first venture as owner, but it's clear he learned well at Wequassett. Although City Landing has only been open since the end of July, there is a sureness and maturity to the place. Rather than trying to build buzz or create a scene, Brodsky focuses on fundamentals: service and food that has the potential to appeal to many. In many ways, the restaurant is off to a strong start. Now the meals demand a stronger finish.