I was surprised by Flux when it opened last spring. I found its minimalist look stark and uninviting, the staff slightly unwelcoming, and the food ordinary (mostly woefully overcooked). I'm such a big fan of co-owners Dan Mathieu and his Max Ultimate Food catering partner Neal Balkowitsch that I decided to stay away. They had either overextended themselves in catering and had no business opening a restaurant at the same time or they were going through bumpy early days. What a difference a year makes. Who knows what was going on? Flux is a new place. They've gone on a self-improvement kick, brought in two new chefs, changed general managers, added color, curtains, and warmth. Was a new plasma TV over the bar necessary? Obviously the clientele thought so. If I avoided every place with one, I'd be forced to eat at home every night.
But aside from some lumpy undercooked sandwich bread, soggy homemade pizza, and endless tracks of a jerky synthetic thump some call music, Flux is fabulous. That is to say, it's friendly; the food is terrific and beautifully seasoned across the board; service is quick; and the place adds something quite nice to the neighborhood. Prices are mostly within Cheap's $15 entree allowance, but they have gone up over the year. But then, so has the quality of the food.
On a frigid Monday night recently, employees were sitting around in clusters, and we practically had the 100-seat place to ourselves. It was worrisome. The bartender told us that he's never seen the place so empty. He poured wine into sturdy Old-Fashioned glasses. I find this part of the no-frills ethos charming.
General manager Kevin Squicciarino explained later on the phone that by making the decor fuss-free, they could keep the prices down. Indeed, there are no flowers or cloth napkins on the tables, which are thick slabs of formica decorated with rectangles of blue plastic placemats. The seating is airport utilitarian. Natural linen covers the windows; topiaries sit on the ledges; and bowls of purple orchids decorate the entrance and sit in clusters in tall, rectangular glass vases on the bar. It has a chic cafeteria quality to it.
Any resemblance to a cafeteria ends when the food arrives. The bartender's salmon recommendation ($15) was crusty-topped moist fish that flaked with the touch of a fork. The fillet sat on steamed baby bok choy with an inky-black rice and a ginger vinaigrette. The remarkable burger ($10), big and tender with a sweet-hot onion chutney, was topped with a crisp rasher of smoky bacon.
Some of the coriander-crusted calamari ($9) clumped together in the fry pan, but they were hot and crisp, and it was fun to pull the tentacles apart, dip them in a garlic mayo (homemade!) or into a hot tomato sauce. Even the pepperoncini and cilantro leaves were fried, which made them deliciously crisp. Frisee, the curly French lettuce, Great Hill blue cheese, and cubes of roasted beets, arranged together in a salad ($9) were perfumed with an aromatic white truffle dressing.
On another visit, a garlic-anchovy vinaigrette was splendid and hardly visible on crisp romaine leaves ($6.50). And the mixed greens ($6), which promised a champagne vinaigrette, was dressed with the same nice anchovy mixture, accompanied by a clever sesame lavash cracker, which was a rectangle of fresh pasta baked until golden.
A steak sandwich ($14) arrived at the table a veritable tower of bread and meat, two puffy pieces of something that looked like pizza dough, folded and stacked. The delicious meat inside was mostly tender, tossed with charmula -- mint, cilantro, and oil mixed into a kind of Moroccan pesto -- along with cucumbers in yogurt. Once the underbaked bread was removed, the filling was delightful. (Chef: Lose the bread and call this a steak salad.) We couldn't eat more than a few bites of the tomato and mozzarella pizza ($10) because of a soggy crust. What this kitchen doesn't do well is bake dough.
Yet, the focaccia on the grilled vegetable sandwich ($11) was chewy and flavorful, slathered with a basil pesto, and filled with roasted peppers, eggplant, summer squash, and blue cheese.
We couldn't help dipping into the entrees that were beyond Cheap's limits. A thick pork chop, pink inside, caramelized at the edges, with an aromatic mushroom and parsnip hash, was $1 over. A beautiful roasted chicken breast was the same price.
Lemon mousse ($5) was all creamy without enough lemon acidity, a mixed berry cobbler ($5) dark and not too sweet with a flaky drop-scone crust.
By the second and third visits, we were happy to see Flux hopping. On a recent weekend, some of the South End's most handsome men were here, eyeing one another and treating Flux like a big cocktail party. A sweet waitress, new on the job and obviously overwhelmed on one visit, was smiling by the end of the meal. She and the staff are in light-blue T-shirts, another move to add brightness to the setting.
I understand now what owners Mathieu and Balkowitsch were up to initially. They decided that they'd do at Flux what they do when there's a party in an empty loft: The crowd and the food -- hip dressers and great plates -- become the decor.
And they do.
All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at ae.boston.com/dining Madina Market's Kitchen 72 Brighton Ave., Brighton. 617-787-4400. Don't let the bare-bones look and feel of this small storefront scare you away: It's what happens in the kitchen that counts. The food is aromatic and spicy, though you can decide just how spicy you want to get. (The cook will ask.) Try the chappali kebab, the Pakistani equivalent of a hamburger -- though much more interesting. The naan, or bread cooked in the clay oven, is wonderful, the tikka masalas creamy and flavorful, the tandoori chicken and shish kebabs moist. Wash it all down with a mango lassi. (3/11/04, B.E.)
Moogy's 154 Chestnut Hill Ave., Brighton. 617-254-8114. You could describe Moogy's as a sub shop. But that wouldn't capture the merry madness of this place, which has checker boards built into its tabletops, hoagies with names like Jolly Green Giant and Cow Meets Egg, and specialties like banana-cheese omelettes and grilled triple-decker peanut butter, banana and marshmallow sandwiches. All-day breakfasts are particularly good, especially the peanut butter-chip pancakes and French-toast sandwiches. There's even something for Fido: homemade bone-shaped dog treats flavored with "pea-mutt" butter. (3/4/04, S.P.)
Luciano's 561 Cambridge St., East Cambridge. 617-441-8222. Take the olive oil and garlic that infuses Portuguese food, the starchy root vegetables and beans of West Africa, and add in a little island flair, and you get the hearty but vibrant fare served at this Cape Verdean restaurant. The generous daily lunch buffet, which includes a few Brazilian dishes as well, is the way to go. If you go a la carte, don't miss the grilled octopus. (2/26/04, D.T.)