It's a summer weeknight during the Democratic National Convention, and we're waiting a few minutes for a table at West on Centre, West Roxbury's first plunge into upscale dining. Downtown Boston seems deserted, and restaurateurs from Back Bay to the North End to Cambridge have been quoted in print and on television complaining about lousy business. On this particular evening, though, West on Centre is flush with customers. Families with young children sit at long tables in the bar area, eating burgers and macaroni and cheese. Foursomes chat in the dining room over fish entrees and salads. There are even a few couples at the table in front of the open kitchen chatting with the bevy of white-coated cooks. A sleek, smoothly run successor to a neighborhood watering hole, West is the newest outpost of Michael Conlon's stable of restaurants and bars, which includes Peking Tom's downtown, the Paramount on Beacon Hill, and the Blarney Stone in Dorchester. In an expanded form, it replaces Buck Mulligan's, which was also in the family. Rather than a menu heavy on bar food, though, chef Michael McEwen mans a gleaming kitchen that turns out dishes such as pan-seared haddock with clams, bacon, and Swiss chard. West also seems to signify larger changes going on in the neighborhood; after years of watching as nearby Roslindale revived into a vibrant dining and shopping scene, West Roxbury appears eager to catch up.
West patrons are heavily from the neighborhood -- one evening we dine with a Boston city councilor, who identifies a score of notables from West Roxbury -- and the cuisine is apparently what the neighborhood wants. In a phone interview, Conlon, who owns the restaurant with Joseph Green, says the plan is to keep prices in line and cater to locals and patrons from nearby suburbs. The formula seems to be working, and the place brims with cheer and possibility.
One evening, our waitress asks if we'd like another table, after a server overheard a member of our party mention that the light from the kitchen was beaming into her eyes. Another evening, noticing that I didn't finish my portion, our waitress was so solicitous about whether I liked my meal that I felt almost guilty.
And West patrons had better bring their appetites. We start one evening with chilled tomato soup, a big bowl accompanied by grilled cheese sandwiches. The soup is classic, deeply flavored and clean on the tongue; the crustless cheese toasts remind me in the nicest sort of way of childhood lunches at my grandmother's. And the portion size is enough for a light meal. Chunks of lamb sausage accompanied by potato salad and pickles are another hearty and appealing appetizer. Salads are more modest but boast well-handled, fresh ingredients and a judicious hand with the dressing.
McEwen, who previously was chef at Peking Tom's and other more urban restaurants, says in a phone interview that he's gearing his food to his new clientele. Although the main-course dishes may be simpler than those offered at fancier establishments, there's no need for apology. The menu lists pan-fried haddock with clams and bacon, but the dish really is a beautifully deconstructed fish stew. The fish, firm and sweet, gains extra bounce from chunks of bacon, fingerling potatoes, and clams in a thin cream sauce, with Swiss chard adding a complementary sharp taste.
West does a good roast chicken, surely a benchmark of a neighborhood place, especially one with Irish roots. Its skin is handsomely lacquered and crisped, and the flesh inside, both on the white and the dark meat portion, is moist. The chicken sits atop a mountain of whipped potatoes laced with creamed spinach, surrounded by a rivulet of pan sauce; all of the elements add up to a most satisfying whole.
Roasted swordfish is another carefully executed dish, as is a sirloin club steak smothered with caramelized onions and a dark, winey sauce. A big bowl of spaghetti and all manner of shellfish, served in a flavorful roasted tomato sauce, caught the feeling of summer. And only the weepy, pureed sweet potatoes that didn't seem to taste of the advertised pecans detract from a thick, perfectly cooked pork chop.
West's dessert list stretches to cover all bases. We decide not to indulge in a baked Alaska, described as for four or more, with its rather unorthodox elements including chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, cookie crumbs, and meringue. The berry cobbler, with lots of plump blueberries and slices of mango under a biscuity crust, finishes the meal in fine style, and strawberry shortcake with strawberry ice cream is pretty and pleasing. There's chocolate raspberry torte for those who need a chocolate fix, although for me, the extreme sweetness set my teeth on edge. One warm evening, a plate of ice cream and cookies turns to a globby mess within minutes.
West still has a few kinks to iron out, illustrated one evening when the runners arrive so quickly with our entrees that the waitress has to rush over with new silverware. But with good food, eager service, and a will to please, West puts a high sheen on the term "neighborhood restaurant."
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.
Aujourd'hui 1/2 200 Boylston St., Four Seasons, Boston. 617-351-2071. Aujourd'hui gets a new look and a new French chef and a new bar. While other restaurants are moving toward the casual, Aujourd'hui is upping the ante into Modern French -- with generally good results. (7/29/04)
Atasca 1/2 50 Hampshire St., Cambridge. 617-621-6991. Though fish soups and hearty stews might come to mind when Portuguese fare is suggested, the traditional small plates, slightly larger than tapas portions, are a big draw at this family-run restaurant. The wine list, all Portuguese, is also excellent. (7/22/04)
Maxwell's 148 148 East Central St., Natick. 508-907-6262. Italian and Asian cuisines coexist on the menu in an upscale spot. Sometimes the dishes soar, sometimes they fall. Soliticious and friendly service, however, is consistent. (7/15/04)
Piattini 226 Newbury St., Boston. 617-536-2020. Little plates are the way to go in this cozy spot on Newbury Street. Nibble sauteed shrimp and tomatoes on bruschetta, or maybe a salad, and watch the fashionable world go by. (7/8/04)
Cygnet 24 West St., Beverly Farms. 978-922-9221. Combining the feeling of a neighborhood spot with sophistication in the food and wine, Cygnet manages to appeal to a wide swath of eaters. (7/1/04)
Sophia's 1/2 1270 Boylston St., Boston. 617-351-7001. Chef Jeffrey Fournier creates magic with small plates in a funky dance club. Each is intelligently composed as well as delicious. (6/17/04)
Atria 137 Main St, Edgartown. 508-627-5850. Bleu 7 Market St., Mashpee Commons, Mashpee. 508-539-7907. Two resort restaurants appeal to year-round residents also. Atria's attention to detail and dedication to locally grown shows on the plate. Bleu's French heritage infuses the best dishes. (6/10/04)
Grill 23 & Bar 1/2 161 Berkeley St., Boston. 617-542-2255. Crowds flock to this big restaurant with a luxe men's club look. The steaks, especially the fantastic Kobe ribeye cap, and seafood are attractions. (6/3/04)
The Federalist Bar 1/2 15 Beacon St., Boston. 617-670-2515. Jer.Ne Bar 12 Avery St., Boston. 617-574-7175. These hotel restaurant bars offer full menus. The Federalist's small plates are every bit as ambitious as the main menu; Jer.Ne's more casual fare features a great burger. (5/27/04) Salts 798 Main St., Cambridge. 617-876-8444. New owners bring new luster to this intimate spot near Central Square. Chef/co-owner Gabreil Bremer's style is sophisticated and his flavors true. And the whole duck is fantastic. (5/20/04)