The numbers game has been a favorite among restaurateurs for a long time, with the number usually serving as both a moniker and a handy address reminder. So we have Tremont 647 in the South End, 75 Chestnut on Beacon Hill, and 1369 Coffee House in Cambridge, among others.
One of those numerically inclined places is 33 Restaurant & Lounge, where the device was cleverly extended by its logo -- two 3s back to back -- and its original menu, which was neatly split down the middle, half of it featuring French cuisine, the other Italian.
After two years, though, 33 has cast aside that duality, bringing on a new chef and a more streamlined menu that he describes as "Contemporary American." The chef, Anthony Dawodu, has spent much of his career in hotel kitchens, most recently as chef de cuisine of Aujourd'hui at the Four Seasons. His food reflects that grounding: luxurious ingredients prepared with an underpinning of French technique and saucing. In short, fancy hotel food.
The restaurant has been known for its bar scene and its glitzy private functions. The interior has been spruced up a bit, but the focus is still the long bar that hangs over a long staircase to the club downstairs. The bar is underlit in various colors that go deeper and lighter as the night progresses. Sitting near it can be distracting: Sometimes your dining companions are in deep shadow, and at other times they're suddenly highlighted as though illuminated by a searchlight.
The ambience may resemble a chic cocktail lounge, but the owners, Greg Den Herder and Igor Blatnik, seem dedicated to keeping dining an important part of the 33 equation. The dueling menu of old, though, did seem a little unwieldy; you could almost imagine the staff donning their toques when a French order came in, then whipping those off in favor of floppy Italian chefs' hats for another order. The long wine list still hews to the two nations, with only a smattering of American and other bottles.
Dawodu, at his best, makes clear why distilling many influences into one cuisine works well. Something as simple as an arugula salad shines under a well-made sherry vinegar dressing. Golden beets and a few walnuts add some grace notes, making the slices of apple seem superfluous. Big scallops, almost translucent in the center, balance on a bed of potato spaetzle, flecked with herbs. A sea urchin sauce buttressed the scallops, finishing in the mouth with a distinct taste of the sea.
Crabmeat, molded into a ring, sits over a lively gazpacho of minutely diced cucumber, red pepper, and tomato. It's simple, but the distinctively Asian seasonings make it flavorful, with the acidity of the gazpacho bringing out the sweetness of the crabmeat. Dawodu does a good job with roasted garlic gnocchi, a skill many kitchens can't master even though the dish is a menu favorite right now. These prove to be light and tender, along with some fresh morels and peas, in a rich lemon creme fraiche sauce. However, the fried shavings of asparagus that blanket the dish ought to be excised -- they taste as though they were fried much earlier in the day and seem dated to boot.
Pepper-crusted tuna, too, is nothing new on current menus, but the dish well-composed with a fluff of cauliflower-parsnip puree and a garnish of artichoke barigoule, heady with garlic and wine, to bring out the tuna's meaty flavors. A hint of sweetness in a fennel fondue matches beautifully with halibut, and in a phone conversation later Dawodu says that orange juice, slowly cooked with the vegetable, is the source of that sweetness. And a succulent veal chop gains clarity from a simple thyme-scented jus. The plate, with the chop on the bone and thin multicolored carrots and some broccolini, also features a potato rosti, a thick, savory wedge.
However, not everything works well. A poussin, or small chicken, is golden-skinned but a little dry, and the caramelized sauce under it tastes overcooked, too, and slightly acrid. Although a rack of lamb boasts fine and tender meat, the ratatouille with it tastes a little greasy.
There's quite an array of desserts, but again not all are that successful. White chocolate blueberry bread pudding resembles nothing more than a muffin; in fact, it is a muffin, and as such too firm. However, the blueberry compote is quite wonderful. Pyramid-shaped frozen caramel mousse sprinkled with ground pistachios has an interesting taste but is difficult to eat, since getting a spoon into the icy concoction is tricky. Vanilla creme brulee may be standard but is lovely nevertheless. But lemon olive oil ice cream wins hands-down for its creamy texture and elusively sweet-and-not-quite sweet flavor.
On a weeknight soon after the Labor Day holiday, few diners were trying Dawodu's cuisine. That's a shame -- 33 can challenge a lot of Boston restaurants with its food.