The first thing you see when you enter Persephone are glass cases filled with hanging clothing. They are not, as they may appear, an elaborate system for checking coats. They contain what's for sale here in addition to food. The restaurant Persephone shares its footprint with the boutique Achilles; together they are called the Achilles Project.
Somewhere along the line, evil retail geniuses created the concept of the restaurant/store - locally, Louis Boston has its Boston Public, Tess & Carlos had its Pava (closed for the time being). It's only a matter of time till someone coins a term - gastroboutique? eatail? The composite serves businesses well, pulling in shoppers who then eat, and eaters who then shop. It's a concept particularly well suited to a liminal area like Fort Point Channel, where the Achilles Project is located - a bastion of doubly good taste becomes a destination in a not-yet-destination neighborhood.
But I'm not entirely convinced that fine fabrics and sauteed garlic belong in the same space. You don't want your fashion to smell like food. And you don't want your food to smell like fashion: Restaurant/stores sometimes become more about being there than eating there.
The way to avoid that, it seems, is to enlist someone like Michael Leviton of Lumiere to helm the kitchen. His elegant West Newton bistro is all white walls and white tablecloths. The warehouse-chic Persephone goes in the opposite aesthetic direction - it's a big, loud space full of exposed brick and bare, dangling light fixtures, with Emeco chairs and modular wood tables that can be reconfigured for parties of different sizes. The restaurant and the glass cases where $400 jackets and $1,000 dresses slumber are separated by a bar and lounge area. There, black-and-white films play on TVs overhead, and you can play Guitar Hero or
But Leviton is still a serious chef, even when his food takes a playful turn. (Jeff Pond, formerly of Tomasso Trattoria, is the chef de cuisine; Leviton splits his time between the two restaurants.) This adds up to dishes like red curry chicken wings and baked-to-order bacon and sea salt pretzels. The skin on those wings is crisp as phyllo, and when you bite through it your mouth fills with juice and grease: bar food perfection. The curry that tints the wings orange is what really makes them worthy of obsession, heady with lemongrass and a little heat. And why has it taken so long for bacon and soft pretzels to meet? They get along as well as you would expect, the pretzel dog's more subtle cousin. Here the knot of dough remains the star of the event, warm and studded with salt and bits of crunchy meat. It comes with a little pot of wonderful house-made apple mustard that you'll want to keep slathering on things long after the pretzel is gone.
Persephone's menu forgoes the usual categories of appetizer and entree, divided instead into small, medium, large, and extra large. These are not always to scale - the generous portion of wings seems medium but is filed under small; the plate of jamon iberico with marcona almonds, olives, and manchego is accurately medium, but in the same category the grilled local squid could serve as a main course for someone who's not starving. The large dishes are standard entree size; the extra large are meant for sharing: whole fish, giant rib-eyes, humanely raised veal shoulders.
Beef and lamb are humanely raised, too; the meat comes largely from New England and southern Canada, while the farthest afield Persephone generally goes for fish is the Chesapeake Bay. Produce, too, is local, as the season permits. Persephone is as good to the earth as it is to the animals. (It is becoming harder and harder to discuss restaurants without also delving into their environmental practices - soon, perhaps, instead of a green approach being de rigueur it will simply be par for the course.) The restaurant recycles, composts, converts used oil into biodiesel, and so on. There are a few references to ingredient sourcing on the menu, but Persephone does not beat you over the head with its eco-consciousness; you could eat here and never know that the paper items you're using are largely made from recycled products.
And the wine still comes from far away - the list is food-friendly and moderately priced, like the menu eschewing traditional categories for ones such as "clean & crisp" and "ripe & ready" (ew). Persephone also has rather fantastic cocktails that don't mess around - they are strong. The Achilles Heel indeed slays you, with five different kinds of alcohol and
Pomegranate appears again in a sorbet parfait for dessert, and in the complimentary truffles that come with the check, but that's it. Persephone doesn't beat you over the head with its namesake mythology, either. There are mercifully no references to the underworld or the return of spring.
Still, spring has returned, and that will be reflected on the menu in the coming months. Recently added is artichoke alla giudea, the fried dish for which the Jewish ghetto in Rome is famous. This is one giant artichoke, a perfect globe on its stem - a bit greasy, but tasty nonetheless. In the meantime, there are offerings such as the seared Stonington sea scallop atop chestnut-celeriac puree. The goop is brown and less than lovely, but its nutty/earthy flavor complements the scallop. And the grilled local squid is a genius of a dish, fresh and bright, the squid with a nice bite, served with chickpeas, preserved lemon, and a parsley salad.
These and other small and medium plates are excellent - Persephone is a great place to come for a tapas-style meal. Duck egg en cocotte with mushrooms is a runny delight to be mopped up to the last drop with grilled bread. There's always a nice selection of oysters. The marrow bone resembles an entire femur split lengthwise; slurping its insides will help you understand why dogs often look so goofily happy.
But things get just a little less interesting, a little less satisfying, when the plates get bigger. Chatham cod with mushrooms is too salty and one-note, despite the ginger and scallions, which ought to help. The proportions are just off. An extra-large plate of red snapper features two overly fishy whole fish; fortunately, they're just a stand-in when the restaurant can't get the black bass that's usually served. The whole grilled black bass - served with roasted cauliflower, mustard greens, and capers - is delicious.
A bouillabaisse is fine, with deeply flavored broth and plenty of shellfish. Grilled chicken is served with palate-pleasing, balanced components: arugula, pine nuts, golden raisins, and capers. It's a great flavor combination. Grilled skirt steak is juicy, beefy, and tender.
For dessert you'll find the likes of bananas Foster crepes for two, sadly not flambeed at the table, and creme brulee. On one evening, this was a model version; on another the top was too thick and sugary even for the sweetest tooth. A special apple tart Tatin is worth ordering if it appears again, its caramelized sweetness tempered by excellent sour cream sorbet.
Service at Persephone can be very good, if you get the right person. It can also be shaky. On one visit, a plate sent back to the kitchen because the meat was underdone came back nearly intact, with the offending piece simply removed; to make up for it, the front of the house sent freebies our way pell-mell. This was appreciated, though it went to an extent that made us suspect our anonymity had been compromised.
Still, this is how the staff at a good restaurant should act. At Persephone, food comes before fashion. And before food, a round of Guitar Hero never hurts.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.