Many things help shape a city’s restaurant scene: the cultural backgrounds of the people who live there, the food that grows in the region, the economy. But few things are more influential than the resident chefs. Ideas are contagious. One guy starts making his own charcuterie, or incorporating Korean influences, or foraging for indigenous plants, or using laboratory ingredients, and soon enough these things are creeping onto other local menus, then beyond.
There are worse things to have spread in your own personal city than a spirit of fun and friendliness. Boston lucks out. How did it happen that a place not exactly known for openness has a culinary scene that thrives on cooperation rather than competition, that is uncommonly generous and giving? Here, when tragedy strikes, chefs immediately band together to create events like Boston Bites Back, benefiting the One Fund. Here, when local rivals for a prestigious James Beard award are announced, they respond by joining forces, as Jamie Bissonnette, Joanne Chang, and Barry Maiden did last month, cooking a fund-raising dinner for the organization Future Chefs.
Chef Louis DiBiccari has been a key force in sowing merriment and mischief. In addition to cooking at restaurants such as Sel de la Terre and Storyville, he hosts events like Chef Louie Night, described as “Iron Chef meets underground supper club.” Guests pick themes and ingredients, revealing them to the cooks at the last minute. And then there are the farm-animal costumes in which he and several chef pals have been known to cavort around town.
In February, Louis and brother Michael opened Tavern Road in Fort Point, a current epicenter of culinary excitement. The restaurant is named for the Boston street where their uncle Adio DiBiccari, a renowned sculptor, had his studio. (His work inspired the mural that adorns one wall.) It is no surprise to find the place animated by a spirit of fun.
On a recent Friday night, the ’80s soundtrack suddenly gives way. 50 Cent takes over, promising, “We gonna sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday.” In the gorgeous open kitchen, cooks grab the hanging heat lamps and shine them outward, waving them like spotlights in time to the music. Michael is celebrating another year, and the staff and all the guests are celebrating with him.
The night’s energy leads to good food. Fried chickpea bites — crisp outside, creamy within, and piping hot — are an ideal snack with beverage director Ryan McGrale’s well-constructed cocktails. The fresh flavors of stubby, sweet Thumbelina carrots, peas, and pea tendrils meet creamy burrata and sheep’s milk yogurt on one plate: simple, satisfying. Confit duck leg — from a separate menu titled “today’s animal,” designed to showcase a rotating roster of whole creatures, from tongue to breast — offers rich meat and crisp skin, set off by cauliflower and ramps. There is perfectly roasted half guinea hen, fragrant with lemon and rosemary.
Tavern Road’s menu is reminiscent of a steakhouse in exactly one way: Main dishes are mostly protein, designed to be augmented by sides. Mellow grilled asparagus gets a lift from bright green goddess dressing. Polenta and spaetzle with Gruyere are both rich and comforting. And risotto with green garlic, pecorino, and lemon is that rare thing, a restaurant risotto that is neither over- or undercooked.
But this style of plating can lead to dull eating, as with a thick piece of trout, cooked well enough but underseasoned. There are just a few bites of peas on the plate to offer distraction. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is porchetta, skin-on pork belly wrapped around more pork and roasted. It is almost too much, a pork orgy, rich meat edged in tough skin, salty as ham, crowned with an intensely acidic fennel slaw. As much as one might enjoy the meat or fish in a particular dish, it is often the other components on the plate that bring one to order it.
It’s a delight when a skillfully roasted whole sea bream arrives at the table, eyes clouded over, with flesh that melts in the mouth. But it’s disappointing that the accompanying ramp kimchi appears in such minute amounts. (A guest, asked for feedback on the dish, says as much to the server, who promises to report back to the kitchen but doesn’t provide more kimchi.) Veal breast is again beautifully cooked, but where are the rhubarb and Thai bird chilies the menu dangles as bait?
Farro is combined with grilled octopus, cured meat, preserved lemon, and golden raisins — a composition that ought to sing but sinks. The flavors are too sweet, the grains clumped and heavy. It may be the only farro dish I’ve ever disliked. Tavern Road’s menu wants to celebrate vegetables and grains as much as meat, but meat is what the kitchen does best. A brimming charcuterie platter reinforces this fact, with fat slices of outrageous andouille and smoky ham.
Dinner ends simply, with a dish of ice cream or a chocolate chip cookie the only sweets. One doesn’t need more.
At lunch, the kitchen turns out more casual, bolder fare in the adjacent space, TR Street Foods. There are pitas filled with lamb meatballs, succulent little beef tacos, riffs on Vietnamese banh mi. The stakes are lower during the day, and this relaxed food is as much fun as the people who make it, as delicious as one hopes it will be.
When I reviewed Storyville last year, I was impressed with Louis DiBiccari’s food and eager for him to open a restaurant of his own. As his sculptor uncle knew, it can take time to turn raw material into finished form. Tavern Road is still a work in progress.