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Food, decor are among the mysteries of Boston Public

Is it a lounge or restaurant?

At Boston Public, the restaurant with spartan decor at Louis Boston, the focus is on Asian cuisine, steaks, and seafood. At Boston Public, the restaurant with spartan decor at Louis Boston, the focus is on Asian cuisine, steaks, and seafood. (JOHN BOHN/GLOBE STAFF)

Boston Public is the current incarnation of the restaurant space at Louis Boston, and the other night the place was a scene. A chummy private function occupied the bar space - lots of business types engaged in some kind of epic happy hour. Through the door that leads from the bar to the dining room, a different scene was taking place. It was less crowded and less loud. It was also less fun.

When you're at Boston Public for a meal other than lunch, it's hard to get around the idea that you're eating in any place other than a room in some mansion, namely the one with the orgy and human sacrifice in "Eyes Wide Shut." The space used to be Restaurant L, which slayed the attendant stuffiness with delicate lighting that also complemented the outstanding food. Those were the days. The lighting now is harsher and, at least on this night, so is some of the food, which seems unfathomable since the chef is still Pino Maffeo, who's now an owner of Boston Public.

The guiding culinary principle is a little bit Asian and a little bit steakhouse, with a little bit of seafood. There's not a lot of fusion among these ideas. The menu gives them all separate but equal billing, hemming in what you suspect could happen if some of the ingredients were to cross paths. When they do seem to meet, though, the effect is underwhelming. The glazed king salmon had a miso chipotle glaze that was more pleasant than delicious, and the pickled vegetables that came with it were more bitter than zesty. Pork ribs were so dry that there was nothing the tangy green-chili sauce could do to loosen them up. The less said about the hard sticky rice that came with it, the better. A friend had both a few weeks ago and loved them. What happened? A tender, buttery 12-ounce sirloin steak was more like it.

Besides that soulless name, the real trouble with Boston Public on, say, a Friday night is that it's unclear what it even is. The lack of appreciable decor says, "Somebody throw us a housewarming party." Never mind that because the loos are located in the dining room, there's a steady flow of traffic past most tables. Otherwise, the address and prices are those of a self-serious upscale restaurant (a Kobe beef rib-eye is available for $22 an ounce with a three-ounce minimum). And by about 10:30, it's entirely apparent that something else is up.

Suddenly, two large speakers were standing in front of an adjacent table. And the semi-functioning bar in the dining room was more crowded than it had been all evening. Plus, everyone seems to be a friend of the staff or the owners, like the table of dapper Italians to the left. As a diner, there's pressure: Are we crashing the party? Concerned, someone looked around and asked his waiter what was happening.

"Oh, it turns into a lounge."

"When?"

"About half an hour."

"So should we hurry?"

"No, no. Here the food comes first."

Yes, but tonight only technically.

Boston Public, 234 Berkeley St., 617-266-4680. Entrees, $20-$66.

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