Tapas served with sophistication
Editor's note: Alison Arnett recently retired from the Globe. Dining Out will feature a rotation of guest reviewers until the paper names a new restaurant critic.
City planners would have us believe that the Bulfinch Triangle, an angular wedge of land near North Station, will be Boston's new hip neighborhood, the next SoWa or SoBo. Whether they're visionary or delusional remains to be seen. A few upscale restaurants have opened in the area, although one of them -- Angus Beef Steakhouse -- bit the dust after barely a year.
Its successor, Flat Iron Tapas Bar & Lounge, in the Bulfinch Hotel, arrived in March with a very different concept. Gone are the $36 ribeyes, replaced by the appetizer-sized plates of food common in Spain, most of them priced between 5 and 10 bucks. Gone, too, is the Midwestern décor. The new look is va-va-voom, with red leather benches, stainless-steel beaded curtains, and a fabulous rippled back wall the color of cayenne pepper.
Factor in the flat-screen TVs and menu half-devoted to wine, cocktails, and imported beers, and we start to suspect the food is an afterthought, meant only to soak up the liquor.
Until we try the cinnamon-chili Chilean sea bass.
How to describe this explosion of enormous, unexpected flavors? The fish itself is magnificent -- perfectly cooked, the texture of butter. Totally infused with cinnamony sweetness, it's also more complexly sugary, and we struggle to identify the tastes that dance on our tongues. No wonder: The marinade, we later learn, is a complicated elixir of red miso, rice vinegar, sake, star anise, and mirin, the Asian cooking wine. The mixture is nearly caramelized, creating a burnt sweetness of incredible depth.
It is beautiful, too. The sea bass arrives in a white broth, fragrant with ginger and lemongrass and dappled with green droplets of herbed oil.
Tender pork belly confit has a similarly electrifying effect. It's cured in garlic, bay leaf, thyme, pimento, and peppercorn; then slow-cooked in olive oil, turning the meat decadently rich. A wonderfully sweet, chunky mixture of French lentils and green apples, richened with pumpkin seed oil and balsamic vinegar, shares the plate.
As dish after dish arrives at our table, we are wowed again and again.
A thick slice of applewood-smoked bacon permeates a bowl of white beans with smoky saltiness. Braised shortrib sliders, flecked with caramelized onions, come on buttered, baked brioche buns. Tuna tartar's delightful twist is a fruity sauce of coconut milk, kaffir lime, and slippery tapioca beads.
The wizard behind this outstanding food is Thomas Ciszak, a European-trained chef who worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Germany before coming to the US to cook, including at Manhattan's famous Tavern on the Green. He now splits his time between Flat Iron and Copeland, a classy hotel restaurant in Morristown, N.J., where he is executive chef. In Boston, his focused menu offers about two dozen chilled and hot tapas items, as well as cocktails crowned with edible flowers and wines available by the half-glass, something we wish more restaurants had.
Ciszak is creative and adventurous without being over the top. Sea bass ceviche gets fiery bite from jalapeno and chili oil, and it's made intensely citrusy by lemon confit preserved in salt and sugar. In a tuna sandwich, something as simple as a slice of tomato steals the show. Cooked in paprika oil, it absorbs the spicy liquid into its soft flesh until it tastes spectacularly stewed.
Those successes make the occasional shortfalls especially surprising. The saffron aioli accompanying crispy jumbo shrimp, which are wrapped in potato strings and deep-fried, is gloppy and bland. Underripe cantaloupe is easy to spot, so the tough, flavorless melon that comes with the Serrano ham and a dessert of macerated fruit is unacceptable. So is watery ice cream drizzled with waxy chocolate.
But Flat Iron's main flaw is that it's heavily meat-centric, leaving few choices for vegetarians beyond French fries. Even a shredded Romaine salad is draped with anchovies.
And given all this sophisticated food, it's a shame the wait staff is so clueless. Our waitresses were unable to answer most of our questions about ingredients and preparations and sometimes gave incorrect information. What is the "crosne" in the tuna tartar? They had no idea. (Answer: Chinese artichokes.) What are the tiny rose-colored beads on the seared salmon? No idea. (Answer: red peppercorns.) As for what one waitress described as "Chinese sausage" on the charcuterie plate, it's actually a spreadable Spanish sausage called sobrasada.
Still, the food is generally so excellent that it's a pity Flat Iron often seems to be playing to an empty house. On our three visits, it was largely deserted, even on a Friday night. The oddball location can't help -- too far from the Financial District to attract a robust after-work crowd, not close enough to TD Banknorth Garden to draw pre-game types. Nor can the peculiarity of being a hotel restaurant, which we were reminded of every time nature called.
Visiting the restroom requires riding an elevator to the basement; following a sterile corridor past a maintenance room, an electrical closet, a janitor's cabinet, and a sad-looking fitness center; and being bombarded by mysterious beeps once you finally reach the toilet. The long, lonely journey is a literal buzzkill, wiping away the happy effect of the food and wine upstairs.
Good thing we know how to remedy that. For pure eating fun, nothing trumps the cheesecake lollipops tree. Picture this: 10 skewers protruding like branches from a miniature tree stand. On the tip of each is a small orb of superb cheesecake -- rich, light, creamy -- dipped in chocolate and candy. It's loads of fun. It's tabletop art. And it's absolutely delicious.
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.