Upscale gone overboard

Email|Print| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
May 3, 2007

Editor's note: Alison Arnett retired from the Globe last week. Dining Out will feature a rotation of guest reviewers until the paper names a new restaurant critic.

It's tough to pinpoint exactly what caused our Apocrypha experience to morph from merely pretentious to utterly preposterous.

Perhaps it was the doctorate in linguistics needed to decipher the menu's courses. (Fylgan? Nyhsta? Laggost? When did West Saxon and Old High German become trendy?) Or the freakishly choreographed delivery of each dish, which left us feeling like victims of a guerrilla ambush.

Or maybe Apocrypha's true shark-jumping moment came when a pale green sheet of paper, folded in thirds, arrived on a small slate tablet at the end of our meal. Inside, on an otherwise blank page, was a cheery handwritten note: "Dinner for four: $250.95. Thank you!"

No receipt. No itemization. No way to know whether gratuity had been included. No way to check for overcharges or other inaccuracies. No record of what we had ordered in case we wanted to remember later what type of wine we drank or to tally up what we individually owed.

Could this seriously be our bill? It was. Is wanting a receipt now declasse? At Apocrypha, apparently so; when I sheepishly asked for an itemized check, our waiter seemed caught off-guard. This, finally, was when our dinner careened into satire.

Apocrypha, which opened three months ago, is a white tablecloth suburban restaurant that desperately wants to be sophisticated but comes across as simply silly.

The salt from the flats of Peru. The servers' grating insistence on calling drinks "libations." The cocktails prepared either "canonically" or "apocryphally." At one point, four servers swarmed our table, positioned themselves at each corner, made coordinated eye contact, nodded sharply in unison, and plunked down our plates in a synchronized move. Aha! This must be the "ethereal timing" and "subtle precision" of the waitstaff described on the restaurant's website. As one of my companions whispered after the squadron dispersed: "They're trying awfully, awfully, awfully hard."

Apocrypha's chef-owner, Jodi Geiser, hails from the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and the Bedford Village Inn in New Hampshire, famous for their luxurious service. They are obviously the models for her first solo venture. She and her business partner, Keith Bernhard, her soon-to-be husband, intended to open in the South End and nearly clinched a deal for the space that ultimately became Petit Robert Bistro, No. 2. That plan collapsed when the landlord decided their concept wasn't a good fit, so they wound up in a little shopping plaza in Needham.

The couple is betting there's an appetite in the prosperous western 'burbs for $15 beers, $65 caviar appetizers, $175 tasting menus, and Lilliputian portions. There might be if the food were fantastic, but it isn't memorable enough to justify its prices.

Geiser is clearly a chef with talent. Her cooking can be imaginative, as in the tiny meatballs filled with a sweet marmalade of oxtail, shallots, and molasses; or fettuccini with meaty porcini mushrooms, slivers of fingerling potato, and a light sage sauce made creamy with only Parmesan, extra virgin olive oil, and pasta cooking water. I love her beef ribeye, draped with brisket and roasted to create the flavor of prime rib.

She can be artistic and dramatic, too. Caesar salad for two, prepared tableside, is performance art, although in the end it tastes like an ordinary Caesar. A dessert called the soda shoppe is adorable: Its five micro-sized ice cream treats could each fit comfortably in a thimble. But bigger portions of the baby banana split and petite hot fudge sundae would be preferable to the watery root beer float.

Geiser bakes three types of bread daily, and her changing bread baskets are a delight. On one visit, I'm tempted to buy the salty pancetta bread by the loaf; on another, the bite-size pecan currant biscuits go down like candy. She also makes her own ice creams and sherbets, pickles her own cornichons, and concocts a homemade gelee of cognac and blackberry liqueur. It's all very ambitious and elaborate.

Still, disappointments abound. A calamari appetizer promises three preparations - fried, grilled, and stewed - and we lap up the spicy-sweet tomato sauce spiked with red pepper and honey. But the three calamari pieces are so minuscule we can barely find them amid the Peruvian giant white lima beans, let alone differentiate them.

Lemon-braised Atlantic halibut is bland and dry. A shallot-ricotta omelet is ludicrously small, as if meant for a dollhouse. Worse, its rubbery texture is the result of Geiser's regrettable technique of pre-making the egg wrappers. And its $27 price tag should offend anyone who works for a living.

Why all the frying, which masks underlying flavors? Herb-crusted shad roe and breaded Vermont rabbit tenderloin are indistinguishable; they might as well be hush puppies. Ditto for brioche-breaded baby lamb, an amuse-bouche, although at Apocrypha that course is called "dalier" (Anglo-French derivation, circa 1300s; see the website's terminology page for a translation cheat sheet).

The same dessert can showcase Geiser's strengths and weaknesses. Her chocolate-caramel swirl ice cream is divine, like frozen mousse, but it's paired with almond cake that spent too long in the oven. A trio of creamy pear, lime, and pineapple sherbets in a pool of verdant basil syrup is the star of the sweets.

Service aims for high elegance. But coffee came without spoons; water glasses were often refilled after each sip, which was overkill; and the waitstaff is strangely obsessed with emptying the waste basket whenever a guest leaves the loo. Trash in the trash can? How gauche!

Maybe with time Apocrypha will grow comfortable in its skin, and $42 for a serving of ribeye will feel like money well-spent. For now - much like the dining room mural intended to evoke Provence that instead lends a pizzeria feel - its dreams of greatness are delusions of grandeur.


Cuisine: American

Address: 45 Chapel St., Needham

Phone: 781-781-9200

Hours: Tue-Fri 5-9:30 p.m., Sat 5-10:30 p.m., Sun-Mon closed. Reservations for eight or fewer.

Prices: Appetizers $12-$65, entrees $27-$42, desserts $7-$12. Tasting menu $85-$175.

Web site:

May We Suggest: APPETIZER Fettuccini with fingerling potatoes, porcini mushrooms, and sage.
ENTREE Beef ribeye with brisket.
DESSERT Soft-serve sherbet with basil syrup.

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