Names are meaningful. It matters whether you're a Montague or a Capulet. By any other name, Urkel wouldn't have been Urkel. "President Kucinich" just doesn't have that American leader ring. So when opening a new restaurant, or revamping an old one, the name is key.
Some restaurateurs go the eponymous route - T.W. Food appropriates its chef's initials, while Myers + Chang takes the two-fisted surname approach. But chef Pino Maffeo has always done his own thing in the kitchen (to very nice effect), and so he did in naming his restaurant. He had helmed the place, located in Louis Boston and initially known as Restaurant L, for three years. When the chance came to buy it, he and business partners Nino Trotta and Olzhas Tugelbayev jumped. They redecorated, reconfigured the menu, built a new bar and lounge area, and reopened in May.
They called the new place Boston Public Meat. (Would P.M. have been such a terrible name?) But banish images of flashers running through the Public Garden. Make way for dumplings.
The restaurant offers a mash-up of Asian flavors and steakhouse favorites. And Maffeo has since dropped the "Meat," now using the more dignified appellation Boston Public. (Trotta says this was meant to be the original name and that the "Meat" was the result of a PR mixup. In a phone interview in May, however, Maffeo discussed the name Boston Public Meat. He said, "I like the name. I think it's bold.") The menu offers wontons, edamame (made even better with melted butter), and spring rolls. It also offers Black Angus filets (ultra-tender and beefy), sirloin, and burgers. You can get a side of bok choy or taro puree with your steak, but other than that, the Asian and the steakhouse don't really cross paths. There's no wasabi sauce or ginger-soy butter topping the meat, just a choice of good old hollandaise, bearnaise, or a deep, winey oxtail reduction.
This means there's something for the meat-and-potatoes types, and something for the more adventurous eaters. Not the vegetarians, though, save for a few nice salads - the Boston Public chopped salad, for example, which, disappointingly, isn't chopped. But it is an ample melange of red-leaf lettuce, hair-thin bell pepper strips, goat cheese, pistachios, and more. Few tossed salads go beyond perfunctory, and this one is a pleasure to eat. Another worthy salad is the generally cliched beet and goat cheese version. Here there are no greens. Beets, tender and sweet, sit beside spheres of goat cheese that have been rolled in different herbs and spices. Along the side of the plate is a comet-shaped smear of herbed mayonnaise for dipping. The presentation is playful, and the colors vibrant.
The restaurant serves lunch and dinner, which have slightly different menus and attract slightly different crowds. Much of the lunch menu is a downsized version of dinner, with a few noodle dishes thrown in. (Don't fall for the so-called glass noodles, another misnomer. They're a standard flour variety, lacking spring.) Much of the dinner crowd is an upsized version of the fashionable lunchtime Louis/Newbury Street crowd, with a few more European families and dressier outfits thrown in. At night the place is dim; during lunch you can better see the chocolate brown walls, the carved panels of dark wood, and the jumbo polka dot wallpaper in the bar. The space is austerely chic. "Couldn't they find any paintings?" someone asks.
The divided menu works particularly well at lunch, when skinny shopaholics can nibble tuna summer rolls while their boyfriends are rewarded for a morning of patience by a half-pound Kobe burger with cinnamon pickles. The burger is an efficient beef delivery system for those having a craving, but it could use more salt. The pickles are more interesting - they're served standing in a glass of ice. The first bite inevitably has a cold shard attached to it, so it comes with a crunch. Then there's the briny taste of a half-sour dill. And then it washes gently onto your tongue, the flavor of cinnamon.
The burger also comes with fries, which you can get as a side, too. They are giant and rectangular, served stacked like a Jenga tower. How do they get these potato bricks so tender and fluffy on the inside and yet so crispy on the outside? It's a real feat. But on another visit, the fries are smaller and about half of them aren't cooked through. An inconsistent feat.
There's something a little unsettling about the divided menu, though. It's split into categories such as Chinatown (which also encompasses items Japanese, Thai, and Laotian), Public Garden (salads), Boston Meat Market (steaks etc.), and Boston Rod & Reel (fish). Must we segregate? Boston is a city of neighborhoods, but at least on a menu it would be nice to see the Chinatown residents and the Public Garden denizens come together.
Take the cod dish, ghettoized in the lower left corner with just two other Rod & Reelers. It deserves the spotlight, as it's possibly the best thing on the menu - one of the best dishes I've had in a while, in fact. The fish is light and flaky and full of flavor, the top nicely browned. It sits on a square of tofu with some slightly bitter greens and sauteed shiitake; the tofu is submerged in a pool of gingery, mild soy broth. The flavors are clean and clear and beautifully complementary.
The second-best thing on the menu might be the Laotian pork ribs with green chili sauce. These are the same ribs Maffeo served at Restaurant L - the old menu and the new aren't actually that different - and they are still excellent. The meat is tender and sweet; the sauce packs heat; and there's sticky rice on the side to cool your burning kisser. There's also a wet cloth and a finger bowl; it's hard to eat this dish and look couth. Can I have a side of floss, please?
Desserts rotate; one night we have a sundae of chocolate and white chocolate ice creams with a drizzle of dulce de leche, as well as a goat cheese cheesecake. They're good, but I'd rather have gone the simple Asian citrus sorbet route instead.
Maybe that's because we've ordered meat-and-potatoes desserts, and I'm not in a meat-and-potatoes mood. Boston Public feels like two restaurants in one. Both are very good. Just don't wander into the wrong neighborhood by mistake.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.