Dining out

Tradition with a twist

Email|Print| Text size + By Devra First, Globe Staff
August 23, 2007

Ken Oringer's restaurants keep getting earthier. The chef's recent trajectory has taken him from refined interpretations of French and Japanese cuisine (Clio and Uni) to sophisticated bar food (tapas spot Toro) to homey Mexican dishes like chile verde and tacos on homemade tortillas (La Verdad). With KO Prime, he arrives at the primal: giant hunks of meat.

But primal doesn't mean inelegant. This steakhouse does what you'd expect a Ken Oringer steakhouse to do: serve high-quality meat and sides prepared in ways you won't see at Outback. Filet mignon goes to Argentina with a topping of chimichurri, cutting the richness with tang. Thin slices of skirt steak, amazingly tender, are edged in North African spices. Creamed spinach becomes creamy spinach with mascarpone. The twists here are more conservative than those at Clio -- they build on steakhouse tradition rather than reinventing it.

Located in the Nine Zero Hotel space that was Spire, the restaurant feels luxe but adheres to the hard-times ethos of not wasting any part of the animal. It serves bone marrow, head cheese as part of a charcuterie platter, and sweetbreads; the d?cor itself could be classified as Cow Revival. Floors are covered in furry squares of hide, there are Holstein-patterned settees, and the placemats are buttery brown leather. Even the low tables in the lounging area by the bar look like giant hoofs. (In a strange touch, the ceiling features pieces of the painting "American Gothic," visible through round cutouts. Is this symbolic -- an allusion to the veneer of edge KO Prime gives American food? Or is it merely designer's whimsy? Discuss while you wait for your food.)

On a recent Monday evening, that bar brings the concept of the "man cave" out of the basement and into the open. The seats are filled with solo drinkers in suits, watching the Sox game as intently as if it's the last they'll ever see. At $13, a cocktail called La Verdad (basically a margarita padded out with ice) is both tinier and more expensive than its counterpart at the Fenway spot it's named for. But if you're looking for a post-show or post-movie bite to eat, the late-night bar menu, offered from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., is an enticing option.

As for the dining room, it brings the concept of an actual cave into the restaurant. It's dark in there, several shades past romantic. On one visit we notice the servers squiring flashlights to the night-vision-impaired, who are struggling to read the menu. The food looks beautiful so far as we can see, with swirls of this and dollops of that and plenty of attention paid to presentation. Why take such care with plating and interior design and then make both so hard to appreciate?

Perhaps the KO Prime crew is going on the theory that curtailing one sense heightens the others. The food here certainly does taste good. That bone marrow concentrates the essence of beef; as the runny globs of gelatin dissolve, their richness spreads smoothly across the tongue. It's served in three pieces of bone, alongside stewed oxtail that's just as intensely flavorful and gives you more to chew on; mustard and pickled shallots are acidic counterpoints.

Japanese wagyu beef New York strip makes filet mignon seem tough by comparison -- it's velvety and absurdly luxurious. It's what a pro athlete would order, what a disgraced CEO might choose for a last meal before heading to white-collar prison, what you'd like to have for your birthday dinner to celebrate an age ending in 0. It costs $30 an ounce, with a 3-ounce minimum. That's $9 for each small slice. The other entrees cost considerably less, but with sides ordered separately and most bottles of wine more than $100, a meal at KO Prime can turn into a real indulgence.

While you're indulging, beef is what to order. Rack of lamb is fine but somewhat boring, and a pork shoulder is coated in an unpleasantly bitter coffee glaze. Dover sole, an expensive fish, gets a meuniere treatment that's delicious but a bit overwhelming; less sauce would let the sole shine. But from the 30-ounce rib eye chop (with its Flintstonian protruding bone, it's roughly the size and shape of a badminton racket) to the Kobe flat iron with romesco sauce, we don't find a dud among the steaks. The wagyu beef tartare is also a fine rendition, if not discernibly wagyu (veal sweetbreads served "McNugget style" are discernibly McNugget, however -- the sauce on the chewy chunks tastes a lot like McDonald's Sweet 'N Sour).

The sides are Oringer and chef de cuisine Jamie Bissonnette's chance to be more offbeat, and Okinawa sweet potatoes are just that. The purple mash tastes kind of like bean paste; it would be better in a Japanese dessert than with steak. But the other sides are more standard, mainly variations on a theme of spuds: frites, gratin, baked, but not mashed. Potato puree aligote looks like Play-Doh but tastes great, so laden with cheese it's stretchy. Vegetable options include ginormous stalks of asparagus with hollandaise, and pea greens that are far too salty (a recurring issue here) but cooked perfectly and redolent of ginger; pea risotto, however, is overcooked.

Steakhouse desserts can seem like an afterthought, but here they don't. The chocolate bread pudding is meltingly intense; one night there's a tart served with wineberries, delicious little jewels only in season for a short time, Bissonnette says later. Service isn't an afterthought, either. The wait staff is excellent, professional and friendly.

The restaurant could have riffed a bit more on steakhouse traditions, but then some traditions are worth honoring. With decadent touches here and unusual ingredients there, KO Prime balances opulence and edge.


Cuisine: Unknown

Address: 90 Tremont St., Boston

Phone: 617-617-0202

Hours: Breakfast: Mon-Fri 6:30-10:30 a.m. Brunch: Sat & Sun 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Mon-Sat 5:30-10 p.m., Sun 5:30-9 p.m. Bar menu: Daily 10 p.m.-1 a.m.

Prices: Appetizers $2-$20. Entrees $24-$90+. Sides $6-$9. Desserts $10-$13.

Web site:

May We Suggest: Appetizers Wagyu beef tartare, bone marrow.
Entrees Filet mignon with chimichurri, skirt steak with North African spices, Japanese Wagyu beef New York Strip
Sides Fingerling potato puree, Eva's pea greens.
Desserts Cho

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