Gaul was divided into three parts and Caesar conquered them all. Chef and restaurateur Paul Booras has conquered the suburbs, region by region, starting with the west (Fava and Sweet Basil in Needham), then moving down to the south (Olio in Canton). Now he has moved to the last region -- the North Shore.
Booras, who first gained his chops as one of Todd English's sous chefs, has made his career as an owner by buying small places, rehabbing them himself, building a clientele, and then selling. Here in a larger restaurant with a separate casual lounge and a more formal dining room, he's upping the ante -- especially in comparison to the tiny Olio.
The Salt Box is in a space that used to be the White Cap, a typical North Shore fried seafood place. Booras concentrates on seafood, too; in fact, he has a commercial fishing license, he says in a phone interview. The lounge area, with its menu of pizzettas, burgers, and a few entrees under $15, is a draw, he says, but his more ambitious cooking is in the dining room. The solicitous service matches the decor, and the wine list offers a good range of varieties and prices.
Booras cooked practically in the middle of the room at Olio and Fava, restaurants where open-fire cooking was literally part of the ambience; the Salt Box kitchen, by contrast, is sedately behind swinging doors. Instead of a spare sort of decor, this room is almost too done up, with lots of hanging lamp fixtures and a busily patterned carpet. It's a little like being in an old-fashioned parlor, and when our party comes in on a quiet Sunday evening during the holidays, a companion wants to know if we can move to the livelier lounge side.
What hasn't changed in Booras's peregrinations is his muscular style in food. A Greek salad comes in heroic proportions, each ingredient fresh and crisp, with a big hunk of excellent feta and a distinctively sharp vinaigrette. Another salad of soft Bibb lettuces gets a crisp texture from julienned celery root and a sweet note from chunks of pear. All of it is laid over roasted beets cut so thinly that they resemble rose petals. The combination, along with a thick round of goat cheese covered in herbs, is over the top but good, especially for sharing.
All those virtuous greens leave room to try Booras's crunchy and irresistible fried clams, accompanied by an equally tempting little slaw of cabbage and garlickly aioli-dressed potatoes. Crab cakes are heavy on the breading and much less interesting. A chopped vegetable salad with an over-assertive horseradish cream dressing doesn't help.
You wouldn't call Booras's main courses light. But in the first instance I've seen yet in an upscale restaurant, he does address some dieters' concerns by offering to refashion any entree to meet Atkins diet specifications. He explains that changing sauce bases to stay away from sugar and replacing some side dishes such as mashed potatoes or polenta with cauliflower puree takes time and work for the chefs but answers some customers' requests.
Grilled lamb steak done in this manner has a thin, slightly sharp-tasting sauce that complements the lamb. A cauliflower puree that Booras says many customers mistake for whipped potatoes actually tasted more like celery root to me. The lamb is flavorful and a topping of chopped Kalamata olives and feta rounds out the dish, but I think the next time I would risk the carbs and order the original version.
Booras has always had a way with pork and his version wrapped in prosciutto and served with broccoli rabe has a rich sweetness to the meat offset by the rabe's bitterness. But the veal breast stuffed with porcini mushrooms and tomato is the hearty standout on a cold winter night.
The menu boasts "hand-harvested seafoods," a really chilly thought when the temperature hovers in the single digits. A wood-grilled steak of escolar, a fatty fish with flesh that resembles halibut, is served with stir-fried greens and a soy-based sauce, Asian flavors that are a pleasing contrast to the fish. A bouillabaise contains a wealth of seafood -- grilled lobster, littlenecks, mussels, and white fish -- in a saffron broth. It's abundant and well-made, but nothing unusual until your spoon hits the crisped noodle cake hidden at the bottom. Unfortunately, the noodles are pretty much mush by the time you get there.
Some of the Salt Box's desserts are a little overwrought, too fussily decorated with ice cream and whipped cream and swirls of caramel. A chocolate molten cake is teased into a tower that sinks into a satisfyingly creamy interior when broken with a fork. The sweetness of caramel and candied walnuts overwhelms any hint of fruit in an apple tart. Toasted angel food cake is a lovely alternative, its gentle sweetness nicely offset with the tartness of a kiwi coulis.
Booras seems to have kept his strengths and added some finesse as he has traveled the suburbs. With a little polishing, the Salt Box might be his pearl.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.
Osushi 10 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617-266-2788. Wedged into a tiny nook next to an upscale shopping mall, Osushi is streamlined for a young crowd -- well-made, fresh, and flavorful sushi in a contemporary atmosphere. It's the successor to the old malt shop. (1/8/04)
Vinalia 1/2 101 Arch St., Boston. 617-737-1777. Wine trumps the menu at this svelte new place near Downtown Crossing. The thin-crust pizzas are great as are some of the entrees. But the best aspects are the reasonable prices and the interesting wine list. (01/01/04)Masala Art 990 Great Plain Ave., Needham. 781-449-4050. The widely varied cuisines of India are spread like a banquet for diners. With stylish decor and a lively ambience, this restaurant is poised to catch the new interest in Indian food. (12/18/03)
Union Bar and Grill 1357 Washington st., Boston. 617-423-0555. A chic hangout matched with good food calibrated to hit a wide swath of diners -- what more could a South End restaurant aim for? The service, the food, and the buzz mark a confident newcomer. (12/11/03) Bravo 1/2 Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617-369-3474. Pretty food in a stylish setting marks the latest redo of the Museum of Fine Arts' restaurant. More consistency in some of the dishes and more energy in the short evening hours might cause Bravo to blossom. (11/27/03)
Dedo 69 Church St., Bay Village, Boston. 617-338-9999. Chef Michael Scelfo's simple but stylish New American fare enlivens this neighborhood spot. Duck in any guise is especially good. (11/20/03)
Strega 94 Lafayette St., Salem. 978-741-0004. Italian cuisine and a playful witch theme mark a lively newcomer. The best dishes by chef Brian Counihan follow seasonal paths, with pumpkin risotto. (11/06/03)
The Red House 1/2 98 Winthrop St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. 617-576-0605. Harvard Square seems the right place for a bustling restaurant in a refurbished private home built in 1804. Chef Mark Plourde is prolific, offering dozens of entrees each evening. (10/23/03)
Perdix 560 Tremont, Boston. 617-338-8070. This little restaurant is reborn in a larger South End space. Chef and co-owner Tim Partridge continues his appealing ways with New American cuisine. (10/16/03)