A critic could make a career out of following Michael Scelfo from restaurant to restaurant. Since he came to the Boston area, he has cooked at the defunct Tea Tray in the Sky in Arlington and for brief stints at several other places before most recently transforming a North End hamburger joint, North Street Grille, into a neighborhood hit.
Now he's popped up at Good Life, a place that was renovated from funky '50s lounge to a nightclub several years ago. Close to downtown offices and retail businesses, it has always been a magnet for the after-work crowd, and a vodka bar downstairs attracts the party-hearty sorts.
Scelfo can make you moan over fried oysters or jealously guard your plate of carbonara. Installing him into a place that had never been known for its cuisine could be viewed as a brilliant maneuver or an odd one. Will the suits tossing back the post-grind beers notice? Can the vodka crowd appreciate the fact that the pasta curls around chunks of kurobata bacon? Will the club kids get the word plays on the pizza menu?
As a dining experience, Good Life is more drop-in than someplace to seek out. The color scheme is basic black and white, and the dining room is both chilly looking, and some nights it's just plain cold. After being seated there one night, the only party in the dark room, we ask to move to the livelier bar area and immediately feel relaxed - and warmer. On subsequent visits, we hunt seats at the bar or around the high tables along the edges, preferring the chatter and surges of customers moving in and out to the rather drab dining area. The waitstaff makes up for lack of polish with enthusiasm - one young woman cannot stop telling us how wonderful the new menu is. But there are a few times when it's almost necessary to trip one of them to get water glasses refilled or inquire about when the main courses might arrive.
In a phone interview, Scelfo says he hopes to create good food in a place that is known as a nightclub and to entice the after-work crowd to come back to dine. The care he takes with something that sounds as simple as a mixed green salad shows why they might want to linger. A rectangular plate holds a pile of fresh and crisp greens tossed with just enough tangy vinaigrette. On the other side of the plate is a mound of cubed beets, pancetta, and crumbles of blue cheese. Scelfo could have mixed all this together, and it would have still tasted great. But the presentation makes the beet salad seem like a little gift, and the contrasts actually sharpen the flavors of both salads. Fried oysters are just as good - the crisp cornmeal crust protecting the tender mollusks. A lightly dressed celery root salad adds verve and more crispness.
At a place like Good Life, you might be tempted to stick with sandwiches. An appetizer of pressed duck reuben balances sweet and sour and salty. Shredded duck confit has hints of ginger smoothed out by Gruyere and then brightened with sour cherries. It's a sophisticated little treat. A Cuban sandwich has meltingly tender pork carnitas and thin slices of ham between focaccia-like toast. Although the zucchini pickles are tasty, the advertised avocado went missing. Too bad, since it would have further lightened a rather heavy dish. And a burger has all kinds of goodies - from smoked bacon to grilled apples and onions - instead of brioche. However, all the extras didn't make up for the fact that the meat was a tad overdone.
Scelfo spins his whimsy (his Tea Tray menu had a dish called "Three shakes of a lamb's tail") in the pizza section. An apple pie sounds odd with its mix of apple, caramelized onions, and smoked cheddar. I'm not sure the concoction is really a pizza - maybe more like a flatbread tart - but it's flavorful. The local "fun guy" pizza is topped with mushrooms (fungi). Those are fine, but pizza needs more zip. It ends up tasting more of gorgonzola than anything else.
Main-course dishes might be expected to fall flat in a nightclub setting, but here they shine. Roast chicken is textbook perfect with a gravy that's creamy without being heavy. Monkfish captures the headiness of the fish by matching its strength to a vinegar sauce, plenty of chunky bacon and fingerling potatoes, and shavings of Brussels sprouts add some green crunch. My favorite is spaghetti carbonara, a dish that might sound ordinary but is devilishly difficult to get right. There's a nice studding of bacon, a good amount of Parmesan, and properly done pasta. But it's the egg sauce that elevates the concept. It must be light and silken, pulling together the elements without weighing them down. Scelfo nails it, and the carbonara is glorious.
That's about it. The wine list is adequate and reasonably priced but not interesting. A banana bread pudding with caramel and a decorative crunchy Italian pizzelle (wafer cookie) is appealing, but the other offerings of cheesecake and fallen chocolate cake aren't too interesting. And the coffee is way overcooked. For some diners, it's about time to head down to the vodka lounge, anyway. Others, like me, will just save an appetite for another visit for Scelfo's best dishes.