Is this the restaurant the West End has been waiting for?
In the swiftly changing West End, new Boston huddles up against old. Luxury condos cast their shadows over those who slumber in the lee of North Station, wrapped in rough gray blankets. Krejci scores in the last seconds of the game, sending boisterous fans off to the sports bars that surround TD Garden; workers pour out of just-constructed offices to eat gourmet burgers and drink craft beer. In the backdrop, the wishbone towers of the Zakim soar above the sparkling water.
This neighborhood is once again a dynamic part of the city, with all of its contradictions and imperfections and stories simultaneously told. The restaurant Alcove — facing the water, tucked away in the Lovejoy Wharf development alongside Converse world headquarters and Night Shift’s brewery and restaurant — belongs undeniably to the new. But it also has a legacy. Owner Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli grew up working at his uncle Chris Schlesinger’s long-beloved East Coast Grill, making his way through some of our best restaurants (Eastern Standard, Craigie on Main, Island Creek Oyster Bar) before opening his own in October.
If there is any doubt the area has changed, take a look around the restaurant, a classy space decorated in blues, grays, and earth tones. There’s a welcoming U-shaped bar at the center, a lounge to one side and a dining area to the other, a glass-enclosed private room showcasing a wall-size blue topographical map. Hordes of 20-somethings decompress after a long day, strewing coats on couches; the bar area is a civilized mosh pit. Men in suits banter jovially over dinner. Parents appear bearing their young. It’s so loud in here, a crying baby doesn’t even register. When Alcove opened, I wondered if people would come, if enough of the neighborhood wanted fancy cocktails and $32 whole roasted branzino. I forgot the neighborhood isn’t what it used to be. This is the restaurant it was waiting for.
And when I visit, I find some of what one would expect from a place run by Schlesinger-Guidelli, who has a proven track record managing both front of house and bar programs. Servers know their stuff and are friendly and timely (although we have to wait a half-hour past our reservation time on one visit). A library of wine from small producers is on display in floor-to-ceiling cases. Bartenders do a good job with those fancy cocktails, but they’ve also got the necessary basics down: “You look like you’ve had a Wednesday,” says the hospitable Will Piquette (Yvonne’s) after I have, indeed, had a Wednesday. “Let me make you a drink.” And I do, as grateful for the sympathy as the bourbon.
It’s when the food starts to arrive that Alcove falters. Executive chef Maxime Fanton is French, grew up in Italy, and worked in Spain at a Michelin-starred restaurant; executive sous chef Brian Paszko was previously at the hyperlocal Cultivar. Schlesinger-Guidelli has roots on the stretch along Buzzards Bay often referred to as the Farm Coast. The menu is thus a hybrid of New England, Europe, and the Mediterranean, which is about as specific as saying that it offers food. It ranges from local raw bar and charcuterie to pasta dishes to New American fare prepared with tamari, salsa verde, and other pillars of the international pantry, along with comfort food designed to split the shrinking difference between game-day crowds and those who dine for sport.
The kitchen serves up moments of ingenuity. There’s a genius dish: an avocado filled with smoky, rich harissa aioli, then charred so it looks as though it’s still wearing its black peel. When you cut into what appears to be a whole fruit, the orange aioli comes oozing out. (The dish’s pleasures depend greatly on the avocado’s being ripe, which sometimes it is not.)
Slices of prosciutto are draped on a large white plate beside a saucer of the creamy cheese stracciatella, drizzled with balsamic and served with puffs of sweetish whole-wheat fried dough: Italy goes to the fair. The flavors are good together, and fun to mix and match from bite to bite. And Jonah crab cocktail turns out not to be shrimp cocktail’s cousin, but rather more of a crab salad spread out prettily across the plate, mixed with passion fruit and slivered kumquats.
There are offerings satisfyingly rendered: Tender pieces of octopus layered with potatoes, olives, and dollops of harissa, simple and flavorful. A nicely cooked piece of sea bream with a fresh, herb-flecked tomato sauce over roasted broccolini and quinoa. A burger topped with good cheddar from Jasper Hill Farm, caramelized onions, and bread-and-butter pickles. (The fries taste as if the cooking oil needs to be changed.)
Too often, however, dishes are well conceived but less well executed. I love the idea of the pared-down TSG salad, named for the boss: just greens, turnips, and cider vinaigrette. It arrives heavily dressed yet mysteriously tasteless, aside from a strong note of horseradish. Brussels sprouts are prepared with fried shallots, chiles, and balsamic vinegar; they taste good, but they are oily. Pappardelle make a promising base for sauce, wide, crimped noodles with some bite. But the accompanying beef sugo with cranberries and dark chocolate is dry, almost crumbly, and doesn’t deliver the intriguing flavors promised in the description.
A roast half-chicken comes rubbed in zesty spices, but all of the moisture is cooked out of the white meat. An accompanying lime wedge is tiny and juiceless; salsa verde helps with the dryness. Beneath the bird is a bed of undercooked rice. That whole branzino is arrestingly presented, head on, resting on its belly as if ready to swim, sides pulled outward onto the plate. The meat is tender, but the skin is terribly flabby. A sprinkle of crisped speck on top helps make up for it with a little crunch. The fish is served over radicchio leaves that are too slippery to cut into and too big to eat whole. Many of the dishes need salt and acid.
Pastry chef Alexandra Artinian turns out the likes of Eton mess with winter citrus, grapefruit posset with white chocolate streusel, and a buckwheat brownie sundae with Earl Grey ice cream and ginger marmalade. These are good ideas also prone to flaws: some of the citrus segments cut free from their membranes, others not; the streusel far too sweet; little tea flavor to the ice cream. Still, it is a relief to see a restaurant reach beyond panna cotta and bread pudding.
In Alcove, we have a clubhouse for a new neighborhood. With its stunning views, the patio will rank among the city’s best in the coming months. And on a waterfront dominated by chains, here is an independent restaurant with deep local ties. The West End has shown how much it needs this place and wants to support it. I’d like to see that rewarded with sharper cooking.
50 Lovejoy Wharf, West End, 617-248-0050, www.alcoveboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $8-$19. Entrees $12-$32. Desserts $6-$12.
Hours Dinner Sun 4:30-10:30 p.m., Mon-Thu 5-11 p.m., Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-midnight. Lunch Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Brunch Sun 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Noise level Very loud (84-94 decibels).
What to order Prosciutto with stracciatella and fried dough, charred avocado, Spanish octopus, cheeseburger.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary | ★ ★ ★ Excellent | ★ ★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor