Editor’s note: Devra First recently stepped down as restaurant critic. Dining Out will feature a rotation of guest reviewers until the paper names a new critic. Starred reviews will return at that time.
Sometimes you enter a restaurant harboring a fantasy.
Especially when the place is new, and it's a chilly New England night, and you're craving soft black sand, scorching sun, grilled fish, bottles of pine-pitchy retsina. And the restaurant, Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar, serves Greek food, which years ago you sampled on an island where the dishes were salty and sweet and fresh as if pulled from the earth and sea that day. You were young and you tanned with impunity. Who wouldn't want to relive that, just a little?
Which is to say, it is possible my hopes ran unrealistically high when I stepped inside Michael Schlow's latest establishment. Strolling in from Boston's twinkling Park Plaza, I'm fairly certain I sniffed the Aegean.
But there is something in the air. Doretta isn't the first upscale Greek restaurant in Boston, and it won't be the last. Committee, on the waterfront, has been offering spirited mezze for six months. Chefs Jody Adams and Brendan Pelley are set to open Greek restaurants here this spring.
Schlow comes to this cuisine out of affection; he married into a Greek family. Doretta is restaurant No. 8 in his growing empire, one that crisscrosses the country, switching nationalities with each location. Just down the street you'll find Tico, his restaurant inspired by Mexico, Spain, and South America, where the art looks familiar (featuring the same lipsticked woman who haunts Doretta, painted by Schlow's wife, Adrienne) and the menu boasts several common proteins (yellowtail, octopus, lamb) although in different coats. Is there a block-long, conveyor-belted tunnel connecting subterranean kitchens? How many borders can Schlow, or any chef, cross?
The best place to ponder such burning questions is at Doretta's bar, which will make you want to linger for a long, long time. When this space was Via Matta, his celebrated Italian restaurant, the bar sat to the side. Now it beckons, oasis-like, at the center of a dusky room, against a gorgeous, 60-foot, trout-speckled wall. It makes the siren song of the drinks menu, with its clutch of signature cocktails, even harder to steer past.
Medusa's Locks, made of gin, cucumber-jalapeno syrup, and lemon, arrives looking like kale juice, then transmits sly heat, vegetal flare, the oxen power of juniper. In its red, raw presentation, Persephone's Seeds verges on the carnal, a heady blend of bourbon, pomegranate, celery bitters and tentura, a Greek spirit made of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and citrus. Such offerings make one all too happy to leave behind musty cliche (that retsina) and embrace the Grecian present.
It's when drinking turns to eating that the fantasy starts to wobble. If a restaurant has a psychic heartbeat, a sort of gastro-EKG — "kardia," Greek for heart — Doretta's flares toward the convulsive. Sure, small plates hit the table in a wonderful pitter-patter — the kitchen's action centers on mezze — but their success rate is an erratic series of peaks and valleys.
The first plunge comes in the form of cauliflower spread. With "caviar," it's a reinterpretation of taramasalata. The traditional version — fish roe whipped with olive oil, lemon juice, bread — is a briny volley into the sea. With the cauliflower included, it's more of a cannonball. If fish have lent progeny to the project, they've wasted their time. The flavor is lost. The whipped feta suffers a similar fate, tipping closer to Philadelphia cream than sheep-borne funk.
Suddenly a radiant peak: yellowtail with crushed green olives, dill, and spicy lemon. Followed by another: roasted eggplant with toasted walnuts and red pepper, each member of the trio holding forth and challenging the others.
Give us great bread and just about anything can be forgiven. Sadly, the flatbread lacks the lift or chew or earthiness of fresh pita. It is flat in every way, as if a forlorn hippie has commandeered the fire with a bag of spelt, a mallet, and his Moosewood cookbook, circa 1977.
The mezze spike on haphazardly, with troughs that can be hard to comprehend. Bulgur wheat with charred broccoli, overpowered by a raisin-y sweetness, could audition for mead-soaked gruel in the next "Game of Thrones." Lamb meatballs come with a pleasurably crunchy exterior, though it tastes like the butcher sold the kitchen a cow in a sheep costume. Once more the essential gaminess of a key Greek ingredient suffers in translation.
On that Greek island of my youth, I encountered the finest calamari ever fried. It's a taste I've pursued ever since, mostly in futility. Doretta's version, well-breaded, smacks initially of squid, then finishes as straight oil. (The fry cook should walk a half-mile to Chinatown's Best Little Restaurant, where the salt and pepper squid practically hovers above the plate with a touch so light, so commanding.) The "crispy" zucchini chips may be sliced dime-thin, but they too have the pervasive weight and flavor of frying oil.
The grilled octopus calms the anxious heart back down, with traces of char kept in check by sweet onions and capers. "Crunchy" (a.k.a. fried) eggplant with smoky yogurt and a tomato-harissa compote is one more revelation, as are roasted red peppers with onion, capers, and anchovies. Each of these mezze manages a three-way pact between subtlety, brightness, and heft.
Main courses fall under either "fish" or "meat." The "15 hour lamb shoulder" shows up brick-shaped and cut into domino-size pieces. Unlike those meatballs, it tastes like the real thing, but the consistency is oddly uniform, mushy, over-fatted, as if the meat has been extruded into a terrine. Adding insult to another Greek staple, the gigandes (or butter) beans are undersalted, and too often undercooked.
Grilled branzino (sea bass) would make sense, but here it's a pan-seared fillet. For $32, it comes palm-size, pinkie-thin, with no sauce. (Why else pan-sear it?) What predominates, again, is the flavor of frying. Add red pepper and capers to the plate and the delicate fish is nearly elbowed off.
And then the kitchen gods take pity. The $48 loin lamb chops offer salvation at last. As they should, considering they cost more than the sneakers I'm wearing. Three of them arrive, grilled, 2 inches thick, smoky and pungent, brilliantly charred. Slip the gigandes to the side; they remain insipid. But these lamb chops? Eureka!
Will it come as any surprise that the desserts are both good and so-so? The baklava is light on pastry, heavy on filling, no better than at your local Greek diner. The cookie plate, featuring Schlow's mother-in-law's recipes, would be better served in the morning with jet-fuel espresso. But almond cake and galaktoboureko, semolina custard layered with phyllo, reel you right back in.
This up and down at Doretta Taverna puts your long-lost Greek island teasingly out of reach. That smell of salty air? It's still all in your head.
DORETTA TAVERNA & RAW BAR
79 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-422-0008, www.dorettaboston.comAll major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
PRICES Raw bar $12-$22. Small plates $5-$16. Platters $26-$48. Desserts $8-$10.
HOURS Dinner daily 5-10:30 p.m.
(bar menu until 1 a.m.). Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (bar menu 2:30-5 p.m.).
NOISE LEVEL Spirited
WHAT TO ORDER Yellowtail with green olives, grilled octopus, crunchy eggplant, roasted peppers with anchovies, loin lamb chops, toasted almond cake, galaktoboureko.
Ted Weesner can be reached at email@example.com.