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Dining out

$2 tacos and a pajama brunch

Tremont 647 serves up fun and big flavors

The momos at Tremont 647 are fried pork dumplings served with soy sauce and sriracha. The momos at Tremont 647 are fried pork dumplings served with soy sauce and sriracha. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 3, 2009
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There is a time and a place for highly constructed dishes, subtle saucing, evening wear, and quiet conversation.

And there is a time and a place for gravy fries with gooey cheese, house-made pop tarts, pajamas, and a loud funk/soul soundtrack.

Doesn't everything feel too serious lately? Wouldn't you like to be served banana-Nutella pancakes and Tibetan momos by a gentleman in a plaid bathrobe? Or perhaps eat $2 tacos in a room jam-packed with other people who just. Need. Some. Fun. Please?

Tremont 647 has been open since 1996, and it has always served as a steam valve for its South End neighbors. For that, it seems, they continue to be grateful - it's common for people to queue for Pajama Brunch on weekends or for Taco Tuesdays, a recent introduction drawing budget-minded flocks. Chef-owner Andy Husbands likes big flavors and the tastes of the world. You are likely to find satay, flautas, paella, and tzatziki on the same menu, along with American comfort food like lobster mac 'n' cheese and the "grass-fed half pound burger daddy."

And as of this year, you are likely to find new executive chef Isadora Sarto in the open kitchen at the center of the long, narrow restaurant. She has worked at the Ritz-Carlton and Cafe Boulud in New York, and was (briefly) a chef at Clink in the Liberty Hotel. Tremont 647 has a new pastry chef, as well; Kat Craddock came from Excelsior and was previously at Hot Chocolate in Chicago.

Sarto is now responsible for about 60 percent of the menu, Husbands says later by phone, and she brings a lighter touch and a fondness for France to the kitchen. Still, longtime and signature dishes remain the heart of Tremont 647's offerings. Those momos are popular for a reason, and regulars would riot if Husbands removed the fried dumplings filled with juicy pork, served with soy sauce and sriracha. If it ain't broke, why 86 it?

For the most part, the big flavors work. A skewer of grilled lamb is served with a cucumber salad that's like a chunkier version of Greek tzatziki; the meat has great flavor and chew and goes well with the cooling cucumbers. Recently, the traditional Tremont 647 lobster mac 'n' cheese was offered in sphere form, battered with Ritz cracker crumbs, fried, and served with Meyer lemon aioli. The dish was good, but regulars wanted their traditional baked version back, and 647 aims to please.

Tortilla soup looks like a plain, thick potage but tastes vibrant, flavored with smoky pasilla chilies and tortillas blended into the broth. A tostada salad incorporates lettuce, queso fresco, pico de gallo, and vegetarian chili. Is it super-exciting? No. But at $6 and big enough for a light supper, it's satisfying. And if you're a vegetarian, you're not bummed to be eating here. There's an entree called 3 Tastes of Asia that offers Vietnamese-style fresh rolls, wontons filled with tofu and napa cabbage, and sweet and sour noodles on the same plate. The flavors could be more differentiated and brighter here, but it is far from the vegetarian pasta dish restaurants often halfheartedly proffer as the only meatless option.

Chicken is marinated in pesto, then roasted on racks above a grill till the skin is crisp and dark. The dark meat is juicy and delicious, while the white meat is a bit dry; it comes with good, garlicky broccoli rabe and cheesy polenta fries that aren't nearly cheesy enough.

The burger is very good when it's cooked to your liking. The beef, topped with the barbecue-like "secret sauce," is rich and flavorful enough on its own - adding the optional bacon and cheddar to this baby might be overkill (sweet, sweet overkill). Hanger steak, on the other hand, is rarer than requested on one occasion. It's tasty meat, though, served with bacon, chive, and sour cream mashed potatoes.

There are lighter, subtler dishes on the menu, though they're in the minority. A cream of English pea soup one night is spring in a bowl, simple and vividly green, served with jamon Serrano and swirls of mint creme fraiche. A dish of wild striped bass echoes the seasonal flavor but takes it to another continent; the fish is glazed in hoisin, elegantly plated with a swirl of mint and edamame puree, pea shoots, and stir-fried napa cabbage and shiitake mushrooms.

It's very good, so it's disappointing when halibut served with coconut curried sweet potatoes and rhubarb is bland. Likewise when a seafood risotto is gummy and you can't taste the lobster broth it's supposed to be made with. A salad of "shaved crunchy zucchini" and arugula with goat cheese and walnuts has us looking forward to something fresh and light - I pictured the zucchini raw or blanched, but "crunchy" turns out to mean "battered and fried."

It's always interesting to see what dishes a chef attaches his or her name to. At Tremont 647, that's "Andy's '180' ribs" and "Andy's signature banana cream pie." You'd expect these to be standouts, but though the ribs taste great, they are far too chewy. The meat should offer a bit of resistance coming off the bone, but it's holding on for dear life. Husbands is a barbecue guy - he used to work at East Coast Grill, he served barbecue at his former restaurant Rouge, and he participates in barbecue competitions, where 180 is a perfect score. Sadly, not the night we had them.

The banana cream pie is pleasantly sweet, but Husbands might be better off attaching his name to the spiced doughnut holes. They come with a show. The server arrives with a paper bag, shakes it dramatically, then spills its contents onto a plate: springy, hot pieces of doughnut shaken with sugar. They have a light orange blossom flavor and come with dishes of rhubarb compote and custard for dipping. Rice pudding is worth mentioning too, barely sweet and studded with dates, candied citrus, and pistachios. It may not be to everyone's liking, as it's not the usual but instead a more sophisticated and exotic version.

But even when Tremont 647's food doesn't score a 180, the place is winning. Strangers are friendly, bartenders banter, the neighborhood turns out in force. Tremont 647 isn't about polish, and no one wants it to be. Husbands and crew clearly aim for fun, and they keep hitting that nail on the head. After almost 13 years, it's clear that fun can mean serious business.

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

TREMONT 647

647 Tremont St., Boston. 617-266-4600. www.tremont647.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $6-$13. Entrees $12.50-$25. Dessert $7.50-$13.

Hours Dinner Sun-Wed 5:30-10 p.m., Thu 5:30-10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m. Brunch Sat 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

Noise level We need the funk, gotta have that funk.

May we suggest

Wood-grilled lamb skewer, momos, pesto-marinated chicken, spiced doughnut holes.