For a snapshot of South Boston history, look no further than the storefront at 28 West Broadway. In the ’60s, the Transit Cafe played host to a loansharking crew. In the ’70s, Whitey Bulger held court at Triple O’s Lounge, plotting murders and extortion in the bar’s upstairs room. In 2011, the neighborhood did a double-take when the bar was shuttered and then replaced by, of all things, an Asian tapas bar. The Starbucks that went in across the street was seen as the death knell for Southie’s past.
Now, the space is host to a new girl in town, The Maiden. Its logo features a fierce, sword-wielding woman who might have been comfortable going toe to toe with the Southie foes of old. The menu is just as bold, with a mix of artful dishes that can both surprise and delight.
The restaurant is the sister site to Sam’s at Louis, and the brainchild of local hospitality gurus Drew, Esti, and Jon Parsons, who have focused on this project while Sam’s is on temporary hiatus while they build out its new space. There’s a flirty, cheeky sensibility on display in both the menu and little touches, from an eclectic wine-list matrix to bizarre bathroom decor. It’s intriguing.
At first, this Maiden seems more like a manic pixie dream girl — pretty, playful, and adventurous, but lacking a great deal of depth. The space has an attractive Scandinavian aesthetic, with whitewashed brick walls and kettlebell-like light fixtures. An array of cozy, dimly lit high-top tables cluster around the bar, and in the back room, industrial-chic family-style tables are illuminated by tea lights. A menagerie of faux-taxidermied animal busts, seemingly sourced from an Anthropologie catalog, lines the walls.
It’s in the restrooms where the real Zooey Deschanel-level quirkiness kicks in. The decor plays on the many manifestations of the word “maiden.” The ladies’ room looks as if it were designed by a princess-obsessed 5-year-old who was given a gallon of Mountain Dew and a container of gold glitter — though the mounted unicorn head is a nice touch. I’m told the men’s room is an ode to Iron Maiden, with the heavy metal band’s albums playing on repeat. It’s all charming and a tad silly at the same time.
The drinks menu is similarly curious. The list of mostly European wines is organized in a grid, with the X-axis ranging from “lawful” to “chaotic,” while the Y-axis runs from “good” to “evil.” I believe the intention is to help drinkers navigate from familiar lighter-weight pours to more-unctuous, exotic varietals. The result, however, is confusing. The cocktails are also strangely categorized, listed under the headings “Reviving,” “Sustaining,” and “Aggro Inducing.” “Can you explain?” I ask a server, who simply tells me “it’s kind of a joke,” but fails to reveal the punch line.
Still, the bartender makes a good drink. I don’t typically choose cocktails named after my grandmother’s undergarments, but the Maidenform was a delicious, tawny mix of Irish whiskey, apricot and chamomile liqueurs, and allspice dram. The Holden You Down was a sophisticated take on a kalimotxo, with Fernet and bitters added to the cola-and-red wine classic.
The dinner menu, at first glance, seems a tad shallow, if only for the fact that the left half is devoted to charcuterie, cheese, and oysters, things largely cured and created off site. But the bivalves arrive fresh and expertly shucked. Clothespins attached to the dish denote each oyster’s origins. It’s a little thing, but it’s appreciated.
You’re safe closing your eyes and picking any of the salumi from Waltham’s New England Charcuterie, sister to the fabulous Moody’s Delicatessen. House-made meats are a bit more hit or miss. The duck prosciutto is as good as any I’ve tried, but the pile of cured lamb-belly ribbons lay on the wooden paddle, untouched after a few bites.
It’s on the right side of the menu that The Maiden, via chef Jason Cheek, begins to really show its depth. The roasted oysters, bathed in butter, uni, and piquillo peppers, are pause-your-companions-mid-sentence-because-they-need-to-try-this good, and disappear far too fast. A pork belly empanada has a firm crust and a smoky, surprisingly spicy bite. The grilled prawns, served on skewers with charred lime, chimichurri, and muhammara, are an exotic, tangy dish. The ricotta meatballs, unfortunately, are a bit mealy and seem like an afterthought.
Everyone loves a good burger, and The Maiden delivers with a juicy patty on a soft sesame-seed bun, with a slice of melty Sternenberger Bergkase cheese and house-made pickle sauce, plus crispy hand-cut fries. The sweetness of the tender, honey-brined chicken is offset with the subtle flavors of the smoked pear, spiced cauliflower, and fermented Brussels “kraut” that arrive alongside it. A plate of tarragon gnocchi, escargots, melted leeks, and crispy shallots looks a hot mess, but it’s a delicious one. The hanger steak’s miso-cola marinade winningly ups the umami quotient.
There are a few off-putting moments among the entrees. The seared scallops are slightly underdone, and have an acrid note, as though the Meyer lemon burned in the pan. But they’re almost overshadowed by the velvety parsley root puree, crisp kale sprouts, and pecan flecks that accompany them. The fettuccine is handmade but bland, a nod to vegetarians that falls flat. And the chicken-fried rabbit special tastes like . . . chicken. Fine, but not a standout.
Desserts are limited to only one option each evening, so groups looking to share a few sweets are left hanging. But the creations from the kitchen are consistently alluring without being cloying. The dense madeline cake topped with cream-cheese frosting and raisin-caramel drizzle is nothing Proust would recognize, but that’s the point. And salted toffee pot de creme with Chantilly cream and Old Bay popcorn is both sweet and spicy, with a hint of whimsy.
While The Maiden’s prices are slightly higher than at a typical neighborhood joint, the restaurant is a welcome addition to the ever-shifting Southie. This new girl next door just might be the one.
28 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-315-7829, www.themaidenboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Not wheelchair accessible.
Prices Raw bar $2-$3.25. Charcuterie $8-$14. Snacks $6-$16. Appetizers $10-$14. Entrees $16-$36.
Hours Sun brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 4-9 p.m. (bar 11:30 a.m.-midnight), Mon-Thu dinner 5-10 p.m. (bar 4 p.m.-midnight), Fri dinner 5-11 p.m. (bar 4 p.m.-1 a.m), Sat brunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 4-11 p.m. (bar 11:30-1 a.m.).
Noise level Conversationally chatty over an indie-rock soundtrack. Can’t say the same for the men’s bathroom.
What to order Cheese and charcuterie board, roasted oysters, pork belly empanadas, grilled prawns, burger, miso-cola marinated steak.
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos and on betaboston.com.