Ah, bliss: a server who knows exactly what’s on her menu. Add to that rarity a seat next to the open kitchen — which smells first of spicy chorizo, then roast chicken, and throughout the evening a dreamy lineup of other dishes — and the view it affords of leaping flames and a kitchen crew working together so an entire table’s plates are ready at exactly the same time. To top it off, the food’s good, too? That’s entertainment.
Waban Kitchen, across from the Green Line’s Waban Station in Newton, and in the intimate space that used to house Mediterranean favorite Kouzina, gets an awful lot right. In addition to knowing the menu, servers don’t ask diners whether they’ve been to the restaurant before. (Really, who cares?) And they haven’t been instructed by focus group-addled corporate managers to introduce themselves to diners, a practice that always seems to embarrass the waiters as much as it does me.
Instead, the staff talks about the food, and their respect and enthusiasm for it are catching. One night, we hear about a special that’s just plain inspired: An appetizer of roasted cipollini onions “Rockefeller,” piping hot, the “Rockefeller” topping a fluffy mix of breadcrumbs, mussels, and bacon the chefs cure. The plate is scattered with small pickled shiitake mushrooms and scallion strips, both of which gave the dish bite, a nice contrast with the sweet onions. It takes a lot for me to give one to my husband, but the tiny cubes of thick bacon -- not too crispy, not too soft -- put me in a good mood.
Then he shares his scallops, one of the menu’s “sharing plates,” and we are even. Seared, small, and sweet, they came with dollops of a simple lemon-olive oil sauce and shaved dry-pan-fried Brussels sprouts, a preparation that leaves them papery (in a good way; they almost melt) and intensely flavored. I only wish that the dollops were puddles, as the lemon is so nice with both the fish and the green. We share Wagyu steak tartare, too. Its most striking feature is not the buttery bits of soft beef, but the sharply and meticulously diced red onion in the raw beef. The dice are so small that they burst into perfect shots of flavor and texture after you begin to really taste the meat and its mustard-caper dressing. Though this may now be a cliche of TV cooking shows, the onions in the tartare are a testament to the kitchen staff’s attention to even the most basic tasks. After all, that’s what holds up and makes possible the showy stuff.
With those dishes, we try a glass of Four Graces pinot noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, a terroir that’s become fashionable over the last 10 or so years because its weather, cooler than California’s, means the wine isn’t too tannic. It often tastes of light fruits, sometimes with herbs and minerals, too. But for my $16, this particular wine tastes a little too much like gasoline smells. We do better with the $13 Roche de Bellene from Burgundy and, on another night, spring for a dry, floral sparkling rose from California, $17 a glass.
The rose is the recommended wine with lobster pot pie, which is indeed a good idea. Also classified as a “sharing” plate, the dish is really very small, better for one person. Creamy and richly sauced, tiny black-eyed peas are an earthy surprise tucked in with the sweet lobster meat. Unfortunately (and this was one of very few problems at this place, but a persistent one), the dish’s crust on top of the pie is chewy instead of crisp, hard to cut, and not pleasing.
An appetizer that gets it all right, including the size for sharing, is mussels with housemade chorizo. The sweet heat of the sausage tastes better with every bite, and keeps you coming back to the heap of mussels and fresh tomato-garlic sauce. One dining companion finds a limp leaf in her “Perfect Green Salad” one night, but my strongest impression of the dish is that beets, which are used to flavor the dressing, really do work in vinaigrette, giving some heft to its other main flavor, red wine vinegar, and making the dish very pretty.
The kitchen, overseen by chef and owner Jeffrey Fournier and chef de cuisine Jakob White, again displays its careful attention to detail with “Chef Fournier’s Famous Bolognese.” The serving is enormous, incredibly fragrant, and, arrives at the table radiating heat. But with the unique scent of sauce made from veal, pork, beef, and pancetta, plus lots of rosemary and thyme, it’s hard, in fact, to wait for your first bites to cool before eating them. It’s the only main dish (there’s also a spinach sid) on the menus of both Waban and its sister, 51 Lincoln, less than two miles away in Newton Highlands. If you order only one thing here, make it this.
Steak isn’t surprising, it’s just a good example of its ilk: a chewy cut, flatiron, with plenty of beefy taste. On the side, celery root puree is rich and a great match for the beef, and the roast potatoes one night have a perfect crust created by the chef’s finishing them in a cast iron pan over a high flame, then in the oven. The handful of green beans on the plate mean you actually get to eat your vegetables here, a concept that seems an afterthought in some kitchens, even those restaurants charging in the $20 to $35 range, where it seems like a square meal is due. Roast chicken is juicy and coated in five spice powder (this half-bird could feed two), and though star anise dominates the juices that pool and run into the garlicky mashed potatoes, it’s great with the poultry and with the potatoes.
Two fish entrees are lighter and more inventive. Delicate fried fluke, dusted with semolina, salt, and pepper, is flaky and tasty for the first several bites. Wait more than a few minutes, though, and the hot plate it appears on continues to cook the fish, leaving it dry. This entree, too, comes with plentiful sides, a bit of carrot puree, and a pile of grill-finished asparagus. Salmon, glazed with sweet hoisin, comes with mushroom risotto that still has bite, to go with its creamy, black tea-tinged sauce. This dish, like the bolognese, is a winner.
But alas, at dessert, the hits stopped coming. After such a great meal, I am looking forward to working my way through the sweet side of things, a handful of pies. (There’s also a creative, rotating selection of ice cream and sorbet: beet, which tastes like it sounds (a bit weird) maple-thyme, which was out the night I ask for it, and lobster-chocolate, that we all agree seems like a stunt.
What could be better than a dessert menu of pies? Not much -- unless the crust is no good. Like the pot pie, all of the sweet pies have chewy, thick crusts that put up a fight with fork, knife, and, if you got that far, incisor. Deep-dish servings are generous and fillings, in general, very good. Not too sweet, pecan-caramel has broken pecans rather than pretty halves, but the flavor is brown sugary and nicely nutty. Mousse-like peanut butter-chocolate pie is rich but again, not a sugar bomb. The custard pie, heavier than the others, sits too flat in its deep dish, but, faithful to its obviously fresh ingredients, is a pure marriage of eggs, milk, and honey.
But who needs dessert, anyway? Enjoy one last bite of your pasta or fish, finish with coffee or a glass of rose, and toast your good fortune at landing a seat.
It’s going to be hard to get one.