Gabriel Frasca has his first kitchen all his own, and you can tell he's giddy with the creative power. After several years of working at Aquitaine Bis in Chestnut Hill and then under Michael Schlow at Radius, his talent is well-established and his skills honed.
But there's nothing like the rush of taking the reins and riding solo. His cuisine is effusive and detail-oriented, rooted in the season and yet innovative. He tries combinations that sound far-fetched, such as topping pizza with chicken livers, pickled grapes, and onion fondue. Sometimes it's brilliant (or would be if the pizza crust wasn't limp). And sometimes, when he retreats to the simplicity of a green pea soup, he shows he can pull every bit of flavor out of one of the earliest spring vegetables.
Frasca is the second chef at Spire, the second-floor restaurant in the newish Nine Zero Hotel. Done in a minimalist style, the dining room huddles behind a busy bar, the big domed recessed ceiling lights giving it a slightly space-age feeling. As long as your view is of Boston Common, visible from the southwest corner windows, the room feels inviting and connected to Boston. But with pretty but techno-cool wrinkly blue curtains everywhere, a very polished floor (treacherous for spiky heels) and oversized banquettes, the rest of the room can feel chilly.
Nothing warms a room like good service, and one evening our waitress excels in not only the fuzzy part but also the technical aspects of carefully describing the dishes, discussing the wines, and even keeping track of who ordered what. Think how often that's done correctly these days -- as in the waiter calling out "Who had the chicken?"
Frasca's appetizers are ornate miniatures, obviously labor-intensive and beautiful to look at. The pea soup is poured out of a French press coffee pot over a delicately pleated dumpling filled with lobster. On an earlier visit, Chantenay carrot soup -- another delightfully flavorful concoction tasting cleanly of the vegetable -- is presented in the same way over chunks of lobster and a few hazelnuts and cranberries. Pieces and tendrils of squid are tender bites over a crunchy little salad of cabbage, onion, and avocado. Its flavor is Asian crossed with a spicy hint of a South American ceviche, clean and invigorating.
Tiny gnocchi are light little morsels to deliver a punch in braised oxtail stew strewn with shavings of salty ricotta salata. Red and white tuna tartare is shaped into torpedos and flanked by a generous dollop of Osetra caviar and a tempuraed caperberry. This plate is all subtle contrasts -- the clean, sea taste of the tuna, the marbling effect of red mixed with white in the tuna, bracing against a crunchy paper-thin cracker studded with black pepper. And then sharp flavors come through, of the caviar and caperberry under its sheath of puffy, fried batter.
Frasca is more expansive in his main courses, not merely in larger portion sizes but the sweep of the concept. Three giant diver scallops ride a wave of orange candy roaster squash dotted with black trumpet mushrooms. The scallops are creamy inside, protected by the pan-seared crust, their flavor heightened with liberal splashes of lime juice. Halibut is a lovely, muscular cut of fish accompanied by morels, carefully grilled asparagus, and ramp-flecked spaetzle, tiny versions of that German cross between a noodle and a dumpling.
King salmon is another assertive fish on a bed of oranges and grapefruit. Endive marmalade and braised spinach add tangy and sweet notes, and the fish is napped with a pouf of whipped bearnaise. The contrasts of sharp, sweet, and buttery rich are fantastic with the fish, marred only slightly by a little too much sweetness.
A maple-brined pork chop is tender and so strongly brined that it almost tastes like fresh ham. The smoky flavor works well, though, with tiny French lentils and a puree of cauliflower, surrounded by dribbles of curry oil. Chicken confit manages to be tender and flavorful and has a great supporting cast of spring vegetables studded with a little bacon.
A few other dishes aren't as successful. Roasted duck breast has great accompaniments: braised red cabbage, a pretty crusted pot pie of parsnips, and a mound of sauteed persimmon. But the duck itself tastes flat. And spice-crusted skate wing is mild, but without the cucumber, mango, radish, and jalapeno tangle of sharp flavors would fade into instant obscurity.
Spire has a good, if not great, wine list that avoids the eye-popping price ranges of some hotel dining rooms.
The desserts, however, need no caveats: They're imaginative, well-thought-out and delicious. A cone-shaped pineapple cake is a lighter version of a pound cake studded with pineapple and topped with a dried pineapple fan. Sheep's milk yogurt sorbet cuts the richness and adds its own tangy finish. Beignets filled with red bean paste are like a rarefied version of those red bean dumplings in Chinatown. With a dreamy coconut sorbet in a saffron soup, the dessert tops even a chocolate tart with its own star: a generous scoop of Meyer lemon ice cream. And on another visit, a basil ice cream eclipsed almost every other sweet.
Frasca's food is not all perfect, but eating here can be exciting. The sparkle of creativity is a clear reward.