Shortly after Cultivar opened in June, I snacked my way delightfully through an evening. We ate yakitori beets, a beautifully composed swoop of saffron and magenta roots set on creamy ricotta and threaded with delicate greens, a coddled egg nestled alongside and the seasoning mixture furikake sprinkled on top. In theory, the dish sounded Japanese. In practice, it was an elegant take on beet salad. We inhaled squid ink messinesi, short strands of black pasta tossed with squid, lobster, clams, and tomato, the dish warmed with Calabrian chile. We drank gin drinks from beautiful clay mugs festooned with tropical flowers and fresh herbs. The dishes felt fresh, elegant but easy. We rolled out in high spirits.
In July, I returned for lunch. It was like eating at a different restaurant. The bluefish Caesar sandwich was mostly heavy focaccia. The Nashville hot chicken was undercooked. The cheeseburger — with its fancy house grind of chuck, brisket, and dry-aged rib-eye cap, plus house-made American cheese — was an average cheeseburger. It took forever to get water.
At dinner in September, the meal began with pull-apart rolls served on a wood board with a cloud of seeded butter, winning hearts in one clever move. There was a luxurious salad of burrata with peas, hazelnuts, and brown-butter bread crumbs — but then there was also toast, topped with swordfish pate and crunchy peaches, that tasted like it was made for Instagram, not ingestion. A whole roast chicken for two, with blue-corn polenta and wild mushroom stuffing, was served in a silver dish scattered with nasturtium leaves. So pretty, so underseasoned, so nearly wonderful. For dessert, Concord grape panna cotta was a shimmering two-toned round of purple and lavender, the plate adorned with crumbles and curves and dollops. So much work went into that presentation; so much gelatin went into that panna cotta. It could have bounced off the walls. We could have, too. By the time we got drinks, we should have been into our second course. I spent dessert frantically texting the sitter various forms of apology.
I was confused, so I just kept eating — from melon salads and tomato leaf bucatini through chestnut cappelletti and venison with root vegetables and cocoa jus.
I’m glad I did. Surely, steadily, Cultivar is growing into itself.
Chef Mary Dumont has spent her career in illustrious kitchens — Jardiniere in San Francisco, Blackbird in Chicago, Harvest in Cambridge — and now, at last, she has the place of her own she has been working toward. It is a beautiful spot, decorated in neutrals with calming accents of seafoam green and dark blue, tree-branch chandeliers and seasonal arrangements reinforcing the botanical theme. And it is particularly welcome in this part of town, where restaurant options run toward casual chains, and the closing of places like Radius has left a void.
Dumont has assembled a solid team, including chef de cuisine Brian Young, executive pastry chef Robert Gonzalez, and Tom Mastricola, a force in local hospitality since he was opening bar manager of No. 9 Park. Cultivar is a continuation of Dumont’s commitment to seasonal, regional ingredients and the people who produce them. Now she counts herself among them: Cultivar grows some of its own food on site, in a hydroponic garden inside a modified shipping container from Freight Farms.
A cultivar is a plant propagated for select characteristics. It is harder to maintain that kind of control with a restaurant, where having vision meets herding cats. And maybe it’s best to let go just a little. The food at Cultivar can feel deliberate, mannered. Some plates are as carefully composed as the guards at Buckingham Palace; you want to mug at them to try to make them laugh. Take, for instance, duck breast served over red quinoa with Brussels sprouts and shaved carrots. The slices of duck are overcooked, the interesting flavors of rooibos and lemongrass promised on the menu are missing, and the quinoa needs salt. It tastes tame, even as it arcs arrestingly around the edge of a handsome brown plate.
Contrast it with a dish served the same night, the easy-to-miss — but unmissable! — crispy Thai pork belly listed at the bottom of the menu under “snacks to share.” Tender, just the right amount of fatty, crisp at the edges, it is served in a wooden bowl, topped with cracklins, fresh herbs, thin-sliced radishes, chiles, and a Southeast Asian vinaigrette so fragrant and complex I can’t stop eating it. The contrasting textures and flavors are bold, but the dish is still technically adept. It’s one of the best things I ate in 2017. (I also recall loving Dumont’s braised pork belly at Harvest a decade ago.)
A well-balanced Hubbard squash soup tinged with red curry accomplishes something similar, but with more subtlety. It’s poured tableside, and our server splits it between two bowls without our asking, a significant service upgrade from Cultivar’s earlier days. A dish of grilled scallops is just clever enough, adding into the mix springy bites of scallop mousseline, gnocchi cloaked in vivid nasturtium pesto, turnips, and a sprinkling of bagel-style “everything” seeds. And that squid ink messinesi, still on the menu, has only gotten better, its flavors deeper and lustier.
Gonzalez’s desserts are feasts for the eyes: One of malted milk chocolate custard with Calvados-poached pears and cocoa-nib praline ice cream practically prances across the plate. It’s a riot of shapes and colors — a quenelle here, a frilled violet meringue there, an underlay of magenta, piles of chocolate crumbles, strewn purple blossoms and green leaves. It eats more like a candy plate than a dessert of custard and poached pears, however. A humbler presentation of persimmon and yuzu coconut sorbet with almond mousse and pickled Asian pear is less successful; next to the elaborate chocolate presentation, it feels like something the kitchen didn’t expect anyone to order.
The cocktail menu remains gin-oriented. I’m a fan of the focus but wish the results currently felt less summery. Time for an update. (The recently debuted gin-cocktail list at Our Fathers in Allston is a neat demonstration of how versatile and year-round the spirit is.)
After months of experimentation in the shipping-container garden, Dumont recently posted a picture of a bright red root crowned in green leaves, soil still clinging to the bottom — “our first legit crop of breakfast radish.” That hard-won success, that vibrant harvest finally in hand, is as good a symbol for Cultivar as any. When all of its dishes are as good as its best ones, the restaurant will be in full flower.
Ames Hotel, 1 Court St., Boston, 617-979-8203, www.cultivarboston.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $12-$21. Entrees $26-$58. Desserts $13.
Hours Dinner daily 5-10 p.m. (bar until 1). Lunch Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Brunch Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Noise level Just right. You can have a real conversation, but it doesn’t feel hushed.
What to order Yakitori beets, Hubbard squash soup, crispy Thai pork belly, squid ink messinesi, grilled scallops.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.