This is my swan song, my last review for The Boston Globe. Of course, one wants to end on a sweet note (not always dessert, but more on that later). And who better to create this serendipity than Jody Adams, a chef whose generous and natural cooking has delighted me for years?
It has been 13 years since Michela Larson and Adams opened Rialto in Harvard Square - a span when Boston's restaurant scene exploded. In a time period when Boston chefs went international or at least opened multiple places, Adams and her partners gingerly toyed with other locations - opening and closing a suburban restaurant and successfully starting blu downtown. Last year, Adams, Larson, and other partners decided to part amicably. Adams chose to concentrate on Rialto, while Larson and other partners moved on to the just-opened Rocca in the lower South End.
For her solo act, Adams revamped her Mediterranean menu, creating one that's all Italian, except for a small selection of old favorites. The expansive wine list offers Italian vintages by regions and has a range of affordable as well as pricey bottles in both Italian and other wines. Adams also remodeled, lightening and brightening the dining room that overlooks Harvard Square. Some of the changes are subtle, such as white shutters along the long windows instead of the previous black. Some are more noticeable: gauzy, wheat-colored curtains that define spaces; potted evergreens that bring a touch of the outside in; a hostess desk at the entrance to the bar area to help orientate diners. The colors are soothing, and the dining room is significantly quieter than it used to be. My only complaint is that the back room, lacking the trees, seems to lack a design focus, and it feels a little like being in - well, a back room.
Adams, in a phone interview, says she's looking for clarity in both the design and her menu. What always makes her so delightful as a chef is this ability to think through her food, beyond techniques or styles, to the essence. When she says she's after simplicity, that doesn't mean too plain. But it does mean that, in most dishes, the flavors will be clear and the finish clean.
Take a dish of spinach gnocchi with spring vegetables. Gnocchi is a restaurant favorite in the past few years, impressive because few home cooks attempt it. But often it is disappointingly heavy and/or mushy. Adams's gnocchi is not only beautifully light, but the cream sauce imbued with Parmesan and dotted with fava beans, peas, and herbs is so good that we leave not a spoonful in the serving bowl. Tuna crudo, the Italian version of tartare, is a stalwart everywhere, but this version distinguishes itself with its vibrant flavor and striking accompaniments of beets and blood-orange slices.
Rialto's red wine risotto is so memorable that it outshines the excellent versions I had recently in Rome. It's a humble-looking dish, a sort of muted shade of beigey-brown flecked with wine-shaded radicchio, but one taste and I am hooked. Its flavor is mild yet with the sharp kick of radicchio; the rice creamy against the tongue, its texture livened with the crunch of the almond pesto.
I often gravitate toward seafood since it's lighter, particularly when you're tasting several main courses. Although salmon, perfectly underdone to my taste, is good, and a grilled bass with fennel and prosciutto pleasing, it's really the meat dishes that shine. Slow-braised rabbit is especially flavorful and tender in its lovely dark pan sauce. The latest craze of confit rabbit and duck legs can render the dark meat tough, even if it's tasty. In this dish and in the slow-roasted duck from the Rialto Classic menu, the dark and light meats are wonderfully tender without being salty or tough. It's an older way of cooking, perhaps, but one worth savoring. Guinea hen, a rarity on menus, is another great dish, its skin crackly and flesh soft. A little potato and tomato tart, though, is very simple and almost overshadows the bird.
Not everything works as well. Citrus-braised pork cheek is fork-tender but bland, and its bed of polenta is undersalted. Beef short ribs with celery and marrow displays the same characteristics and is a little oily. Farro pappardelle is obviously freshly made, but it's gummy. And a cod dish with cardoons is odd. The cod with a nice topping of seasoned crumbs in a little casserole is fine, but the cardoons, fried in a tempura style, have no discernible taste.
This menu is offered in four courses, which is a difficult sell, I think, though Adams says many are embracing it. Even though the portions are smaller than at many restaurants - just right for me - the length of the meal over that many resettings of silverware and plating can be tedious. That depends a lot on the service. One evening, our server seems distracted, concentrating on two large and boisterous parties on either side of us, until Adams walks through the dining room and spots us. Our server snaps to attention after that. On the second visit, the waitress is attentive, cheerful, and quick to answer questions; we could have settled in for hours.
Rialto's dessert is a good course to linger over. A dried cherry and hazelnut panettone bread pudding manages to be decadent without being heavy; an espresso and orange semifreddo is a delightful alternative to ice cream. But the buttermilk sherbet with a mascarpone tart in a cornmeal crust, offset with blueberries soaked in grappa, really steals the show, as simple as it is.
When I first heard about Adams's plans to shift her focus, I thought she risked being submerged into a sea of Italian eateries. Yet the new Rialto shows that a great chef can plumb the depths of cuisine and envelope the diner in her excitement.