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DINING OUT

Ambitious Lobby bites off more than it can chew

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Devra First
Globe Staff / April 16, 2008

The after-work drink is an American institution. It can be the antidote to a day spent in a suit, or a continuation of it. With our neckties loosened and our heels kicked off, we continue the important business of business. Networking looks easier through flavored-vodka goggles.

And so places like Lobby Bar & Kitchen are an American institution - watering holes in office-heavy locations that get busy during early evening and clear out later. The order in which the descriptors "bar" and "kitchen" surround Lobby's ampersand is no accident. It is one first, secondarily the next.

Indeed, it's a very nice place to clink glasses with co-workers, or to have an intimate gathering with the girls, the other activity in evidence on recent visits. Though Lobby isn't actually a lobby - it used to be Pizza Oggi - it is the size of a rather tiny one, perhaps belonging to a boutique hotel. There are eight seats at the bar, enough tables for 18, and a cozy lounge area with comfy chairs clustered around a copper-backed shelf lined with little candles. The effect is pretty and warm. Lobby's walls are covered in dark wood and smoky mirrors. Upholstery is in earth and rust, and squiggly silver light fixtures hang from the ceiling. It's deftly designed by the same folks who did City Bar, and the aesthetic is similar.

All such a stylish place needs is great cocktails and some well-executed small plates and bar snacks. Nothing complicated - a burger and good fries, a fancified grilled cheese, maybe a little charcuterie. But Lobby's ambitions are bigger than finger food, and that's where things start to get ham-handed.

For though there is a bar menu that includes the likes of chicken lollipops and petit filet burgers, there is also a dinner menu. And it wants you to eat the kind of proper meal a place that puts the bar before the kitchen should think twice about serving.

The plates are hefty. Porcini-encrusted lamb chops bear no evidence of porcini, though the lamb is tasty, if a tad on the undercooked side. It's served with whipped purple potatoes, lurid beside the nearly bleeding meat; the dish is studded with pieces of dried fruit. It looks festive, like something you might get at an Italian bakery around Christmas time. If it's plated with a heavy hand, at least it doesn't taste bad.

The same cannot be said for the roasted Cornish hen. The bird itself is OK, but the double starch it's served with - risotto and stuffing - isn't. Both are as salty as soup mix, and with a similar flavor. "This tastes like bad Chinese food," one diner says.

The tuna is better. It's crusted in pretzels, which is fun in and of itself and also adds a welcome crunch. Though the tuna was ordered very, very rare, there isn't even a hint of pink. The flavor is good, but I haven't seen tuna that color outside of a can in years. The promised wasabi in the mashed potatoes is so faint you might be tasting nothing more than the power of suggestion.

Filet mignon does not meet the same fate as the overcooked tuna. It's flavorful and well cooked, accompanied by heavily breaded potato croquettes and some happily bright green sauteed broccolini. Green vegetables do appear here, but they're often hidden under large pieces of meat or embedded in mashed potatoes. You can order broccolini, haricots verts, and asparagus as sides, however. When you're confronted with often over-sweet sauces - pomegranate glaze, orange chicken jus - these unadorned plates beckon.

So does a beet salad. It's a round, a la tuna tartare, of different color beets, held together by goat cheese and made vivid by champagne vinaigrette. The beet chunks sit atop thin, round beet slivers, a dish balanced visually and in terms of flavor.

An appetizer of spicy barbecue beef is also good. Its presentation is unexpected - it arrives on skewers arranged in a pyramid, like a meat teepee, their ends stuck into a slice of star fruit. It's not particularly spicy, but it's flavorful and comes with tasty fried rice noodles.

A trio of fritters is a mixed basket: The corn fritter is delicious, salty and sweet, smushy and crunchy. The cod fritter is fishy but fine. And the conch fritter is vile - the shellfish tastes off.

These fritters also appear on the bar menu, a small list of small plates that feels more to scale in this small space. Homemade pita bread with hummus and baba ganoush, for example, is just the sort of light snack you might want with an after-work drink. The hummus and baba ganoush are fine, but if that pita's homemade, the baker may be living in a pita factory. It has the taste and cardboard-y chew of Thomas' Sahara brand.

Chicken lollipops sport one of the least P.C. menu descriptions I've seen in a while: "Oriental glaze, small Asian salad." (What makes one Oriental and the other Asian?) These little nuggets of chicken on the bone are tasty enough, though the La Choy-like sauce is again too sweet. Petit filet burgers are another decent bar snack. When they say "petit filet," they mean it - the beef's not ground, which makes these more like steak sandwich sliders.

Dessert is a pleasant surprise. Fig bread pudding and pear tart Tatin are both nice sweets. But the clear one to order is the homemade ice cream sandwich trio. This features chocolate chip cookies with mint ice cream, oatmeal cookies with cinnamon ice cream, and molasses ginger cookies with burnt sugar ice cream. It's hard to eat - the ice cream squirts out the sides when you try to cut into a cookie - but it's also hard not to like a trio of ice cream sandwiches.

Another pleasant surprise is the attentive wine service. The list is heavy on California chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon (and full of embarrassing misspellings), but those doing the uncorking are happy to talk about the bottles and clearly want to make sure you like what you're drinking. As for cocktails, they're a mixed drink - sometimes fine, sometimes weak or sugary.

Still, as a watering hole, Lobby is likable. It's cute and stylish, and if your office is nearby, it could be the after-work bar for you. Just remember which side of the ampersand your bread is buttered on.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

LOBBY BAR & KITCHEN

131 Broad St., Boston. 617-261-5353. lobbyboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $8-$16. Entrees $24-$35. Sides $7. Dessert $8-$10.

Hours Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Dinner Mon-Wed 4:30-10:30 p.m. Thurs-Sat 4:30-11 p.m. Closed Sun.

Noise level Conversation easy.

MAY WE SUGGEST

Beet salad, barbecue beef, filet mignon, ice cream sandwich trio.

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