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DINING OUT

Scollay Square redux with good service

Dining out these days often entails a measure of fantasy. You want to be entertained and amused as well as fed, and you're willing to suspend disbelief to join in the fun. At least to a point. Scollay Square, a new restaurant on Beacon Hill replacing the old Black Goose, starts out with a fictional premise. On a block drenched in history, the restaurant's black wrought-iron fencing fits right in, and the interior is lined with blown-up photographs of the curved brick buildings and gaudy signs of the old Scollay Square. Replicas of old-fashioned streetlamps light the entrance, and even the television set over the bar is discreetly hidden by a wooden divider.

The real Scollay Square wasn't on this perch of hill, of course, and certainly not across from the Boston Athenaeum or down the street from the townhouses of Beacon Hill. No, the raunchy, liquor-drenched bars and strip joints depicted in the grainy black-and-white photos were where City Hall Plaza is now. Perhaps only the cement wasteland of the new could make the old Scollay Square look attractive. But nostalgia gives a sheen to the days of burlesque, and that seeps into the restaurant's ambience.

But there are other details that stretch the imagination. At the end of a call, the reservationist tells me that the wine list has many fine bottles and to let him know if we want one decanted before we arrive. The wine list, heavy on California and Australia, is varied enough, matched well to the cuisine, and fairly priced, but not exceptional. In all the wine-centric restaurants I've gone to over the years, no one has ever thought it necessary to ask ahead of time about decanting. Another time, he gives me a confirmation number as though the place was going to be so packed that it would be difficult to keep track of names -- on two visits on weeknights, it was never more than about half-filled.

But the most curious aspect is the description of some of the dishes. Scollay Square, owned by Brad Dalbeck and Chris Damian, who is also the chef, has a serviceable, broad-based menu. A few dishes are a little odd, such as a fusiony portobello quesadilla with a soy sauce marinade and Monterey Jack cheese. The dish tastes like a bar snack, a little heavy on the salt and frying, but isn't bad in flavor.

However, one has to wonder when the waitress carefully explains a dinner special of white cod fed organically in the ocean. We pass on that -- and later the authoritative Kim Marden of Capt'n Marden's Seafoods says he has never heard of organically feeding cod or even of white cod. I'm skeptical, too, about "organic" sirloin, though the cut is fine and grilled to order.

The best of the dishes are straightforward, American standbys. A whole head of iceberg lettuce sports a piquant blue cheese dressing and plenty of crunchy bits of bacon. Oven-fried oysters with tasso ham and spinach cream really are the old classic oysters Rockefeller and is rich and quite tasty. Grilled lamb chops are meaty, flavorful, and moist.

Seared scallops are delicious, although the accompanying crab risotto cake is much too browned. And the flavor of cider-brined roasted double-cut pork chops is pretty good, though they're not particularly tender.

But if the devil is in the details, again here lies the trouble. Crab cakes in an appetizer are so overbrowned that the taste of the oil used in the searing overpowers the crab flavor. The asparagus with the entrees is grilled to limp olive green. Lobster mashed potatoes give only the barest hint of lobster. Spinach with the meat dishes is way past wilted. And a special of halibut poached in olive oil tastes of the oil and not particularly fresh, though the white beans and tomato stew underneath are appealing.

Desserts are short-listed and fit the American model -- fairly heavy and rich. We try a white chocolate bread pudding with a charity tie-in -- the proceeds from sales last week are going to breast cancer research. It's sweet, gooey, and satisfying. So is a little chocolate bundt, nothing unusual but fine for topping off a steak-and-chops sort of dinner.

In fact, the virtues of Scollay Square, whose owners opened Border Cafe in Saugus and other restaurants, are in well-prepared middle-of-the-road dishes. With its comfortable ambience and thoughtful and attentive service, the restaurant fills a niche between several high-style places -- the Federalist next door and No. 9 Park and Spire close by. Now that the patio seating is open in good weather, it should be mobbed.

There's no need to get all fancy with the descriptions.

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.

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Bristol Solid starSolid star Four Seasons Hotel, 200 Boylston St., Boston. 617-351-2053. The Bristol, sans the lounge designation and with fuller menu, sports stylish classics. But the real energy is in the power breakfasts. (4/15/04)Istanbul Cafe Solid starSolid star 1/2 1418 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton. 617-232-1700. Moving up from a small place to a stylishly appointed restaurant, this Turkish restaurant celebrates a light, vegetable-rich cuisine. (4/8/04)

Catch Solid starSolid star 1/2 34 Church St., Winchester. 781-729-1040. A lively ambience and appealing food make this little restaurant a big draw for this suburban town. Chris Parsons' cuisine is good enough to draw eaters from everywhere. (4/1/04) L Solid starSolid starSolid star 234 Berkeley St., Boston. 617-266-4680. Cafe Louis morphs into L, with a stylish new minimalist look. Chef Pino Maffeo's cuisine is modern, too, and as delicious as it is cutting edge. (3/25/04)

Rani Solid starSolid star 1353 Beacon St., Brookline. 617-734-0400. Indian cuisine branches out into Hyderabadi dishes, a straddling of the rich foods of the north and the spicier tones of the south. The cuisine is an appealing adventure; unfortunately, the service is sometimes an adventure of another kind. (3/18/04)

Blackfin Chop House & Raw Bar Solid starSolid star 1/2 116 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617-247-2400. Anthony Ambrose has reinvented Ambrosia on Huntington into a steak and seafood place. With a nifty raw bar and sparklingly fresh fish, it's a great comeback act. (3/11/04)

Chilli Garden Solid starSolid starSolid star 41 Riverside Ave., Medford. 781-396-0817. Sichaun specialities at their spiciest and best are lovingly presented here. The restaurant is simple, but the cuisine is sophisticated and heady. (3/4/04)

La Morra Solid starSolid starSolid star 48 Boylston St., Brookline Village. 617-739-0007. Rustic-stye Italian fare is exuberantly celebrated by chef/owner Josh Ziskin. From Venetian tapas to delicious pastas to hearty main dishes, his cooking is the new version of comfort food. (2/19/04)

Grotto Solid starSolid star 1/2 37 Bowdoin St., Boston. 617-227-3434. The imaginative and elaborate cuisine belies Grotto's cozy but rather bare basement ambience. From a tiny kitchen, chef/owner Scott Herritt creates some lovely dishes such as a gutsy large bean and tripe soup. (2/12/04)

Jumbo Seafood Restaurant Solid starSolid starSolid star 10 Langley Road, Newton. 617-332-3600. Super-fresh seafood and exquisitely prepared Hong Kong specialities make this extension of Chinatown -- but with tablecloth service -- a worthy addition to the suburbs. (1/29/04) Anthem Solid starSolid star 138 Portland St., Boston. 617-523-8383. A North Station brewpub morphed into an upscale spot, Anthem's theme is chef Robert Fathman's comfort food. When it's good, it is very good. The prices are reasonable, and the bar lively. (1/22/04)

The Salt Box Solid starSolid star 1/2 141 High St., Ipswich. 978-356-5676. Chef/owner Paul Booras's latest venture puts seafood front and center. His bold flavors and attention to detail make this North Shore restaurant shine. (1/15/04)

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