On a good night, Radius dazzles
New chef, new cuisine keep standards high
Radius tried to kill me.
The restaurant served me a seven-course tasting menu so delicious I could not stop eating, with portions so abundant I really should have. There was an amuse-bouche of lobster bisque, its toasty, deep flavor underpinned with the perfume of lemongrass. Tuna tartare was so fresh you could taste the fish’s last quiver. A course of salmon was a full meal in itself, the fish slow-roasted into fatty glory and served with soba in a white bowl with chopsticks. Pork came with cashews, crunchy jicama, and a swoony, dulce de leche-like drizzle of spicy coconut caramel. There were scallops, there was lamb, and just when we had fully lost count of the courses, there was rib eye atop a pillow of Robuchon potatoes. A later calculation revealed roughly two days’ worth of calories packed into one dinner. It was self-gavage, forced only by the temptation on the plate. The dishes were strong, influenced by Asia as well as France, the generosity all American. The flavors were strikingly combined, the presentation thoughtful but not precious. Had my seams burst, it would have been a glorious way to go.
And I was relieved.
Because at previous meals, Radius did not try to kill me. It did not try to dazzle me with brilliance, delight me with the unexpected, or court me with ardor. It tried to keep me happy in a more ordinary fashion, serving me good food, often excellent, in large portions. Servers went through the motions, pulling out chairs and crumbing tables and replacing napkins. I saw most of the marks of a very fine restaurant. But until now, not an extraordinary one.
Executive chef and co-owner Michael Schlow opened Radius in late 1998, with former partner Christopher Myers. Matthew Audette is the chef de cuisine. When the Globe last reviewed the restaurant in 2006, it received four stars. As a highly regarded establishment in the Financial District, it has always been a place for businesspeople to take other businesspeople they want to impress. The space is well suited for that, its large tables spread respectfully far apart for privacy. The dining room, a white rotunda with fat columns and crimson accents, looks a bit like a bank in a red-light district. This is where money goes to get decadent.
But the restaurant walks a fine line, because times and tastes have changed. Expense accounts are not what they used to be. Food is a widespread obsession, a major cultural presence. (Schlow himself frequently appears on TV, in shows such as “Top Chef Masters.’’) The tender beef with butter-logged potatoes that works so well at business dinners may be less appealing to adventurous diners — or even to the chefs cooking it, who are more inclined than ever to be jazzed by the likes of organ meat and flavors non-European. Audette, who has worked at both Tremont 647 and Aujourd’hui, may be the perfect person to bridge tradition and free-spiritedness.
A first course of gnocchi on the a la carte menu would satisfy anyone. The potato dumplings are light, tossed with braised rabbit and mushrooms, deeply savory. Then the sweet, vegetal presence of celeriac reveals itself, lingering after each swallow.
Slices of tender poached duck are served in a preparation similar to the pork of the tasting menu — coconut caramel with jicama and cashews, plus some greens and a delicious paste made from grilled scallions. The flavors are dynamite together, the duck classic.
Pork chop and crisp pork belly are paired with edamame and broccolini, the stalks grilled as the scallions were in the duck appetizer. The nearly burned flavor adds dimension. What makes the dish is a dark sauce based on coffee, like a caffeinated version of Mexican mole. The entree plays with bitterness in several forms, then sends in a ray of light with accents of Meyer lemon and yuzu.
A Mediterranean sea bass preparation is clever and delicious. Two pieces of crisp-skinned fish share the plate with heads of poached baby fennel, tomato confit, and a take on the mille-feuille — layer upon layer of thinly sliced potato pressed together into a rectangle, crisp and golden at the top and bottom and tender in the center. A creamy drizzle on the plate at first appears to be mustard sauce, until a bite reveals the “seeds’’ to be caviar.
“Everyday’s-your-birthday cake’’ is a dense, towering chocolate slice topped with tall sparkler candles. It’s verging on dry, but it makes dessert feel like a party. And goat cheese cheesecake has a pleasing barnyard tang; it comes with purple huckleberry ice cream and a buckwheat tuile.
Another night, however, the gnocchi are leaden and unappealing, the flavors thrown off balance into heaviness.
Monkfish is greasy and somewhat cold (“pretty gross,’’ my notes say eloquently). It’s served with squash, cockles, potatoes, and pork, but there’s not enough contrast. It’s like one heavy chord.
An appetizer of calamari contains burned garlic; a scrambled egg with lobster and caviar is just fine, but boring brioche keeps it from attaining the simple elegance it aims for. It’s also $20; the least expensive entree is $32. It’s disappointing to find the kitchen performing so well on some nights and less so on others. Which Radius will you encounter when you decide to splurge?
The business lunch is bread and butter for Radius. Its lounge is a popular after-work stop, with cocktails, creative snacks, and a deservedly famous $19 burger. But its dining room can be nearly empty midweek, so quiet it’s impossible to tune out the bizarre mix of music. (From disco to a Bob Marley cover to an electronic piece apparently composed by robots on hallucinogens, whoa!)
Perhaps some diners feel out of place in the inner sanctum. I’m an anonymous reviewer, but I’ll reveal this much about my appearance: I’m not a man in a dark blue suit, which puts me in the minority here. Occasionally, I wonder whether this may be a handicap. For instance, a sommelier is never sent to my table when I ask for assistance with wine, an omission I’ve never encountered elsewhere. Servers simply make recommendations. These turn out well (many of the wait staff are very knowledgeable), and not so well. “Everyone likes sauvignon blanc,’’ one server assures us archly, recommending an inexpensive bottle for a party eating beef, lamb, and fish. He never asks our price range. As times have changed, so have uniforms. People who don’t look the part may still require a nice tipple (though for some of Radius’s impressive wine list an expense account wouldn’t hurt). It’s time to stop financial profiling.
Since opening Radius, Schlow has increasingly gravitated toward simpler food with bold and direct flavors, designed to showcase ingredients. So goes the nation. He is behind Via Matta and two branches of Alta Strada, and is set to open a new restaurant in Back Bay in 2011. Called Tico, it will serve fare inspired by Latin America. In a phone interview last year about his “Top Chef Masters’’ appearance, conversation quickly veered toward his passion for Mexican food and his wish for more Boston restaurants serving it well. Today’s ambitious young chefs are less focused on linens and formality and grande cuisine. Were Schlow to open his first restaurant now, would it be Radius? One wonders how many new establishments like it we’ll see in coming years.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.