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.
It took the place of a dingy convenience store. Its dining room is a beautiful contrast of oranges, greens, and whites. Its menu features wild morels, sun chokes, and pea tendrils in a town where dinner out once meant pizza and subs. And it was made possible by two magic words: liquor license.
For most of its history, affluent Belmont was a stubbornly dry town, shunning even eateries that served alcohol. Because of this policy, it became a restaurant-starved island surrounded by communities with thriving food scenes. The dining landscape improved when the town gave out a handful of beer and wine licenses several years ago.
And now, behold classy Savinos Grill, recipient of Belmont's first-ever full liquor license -- and proof that a moribund dining scene can be transformed by merely offering the public cocktails with their meals.
Tom Cutrone, a classically trained chef who opened Savinos in April, has brought fine dining to Belmont. His customers seem giddy with delight and also a bit incredulous, as if they still can't believe the place is real.
"I can't tell you how many people come in and say, 'Thank you so much for opening up in Belmont,' " said Cutrone, who spent 30 years cooking at well-regarded local restaurants, most recently Isabella in Dedham. "Booze in Belmont -- they're so happy."
Cutrone defines his cooking as Mediterranean or contemporary Italian, a broad-brush description that gives him wide reign. His menu emphasizes straightforward preparations of meats, seafood, and a cornucopia of fresh vegetables. But he adds sophisticated twists, like a splash of Sambuca that lends a hint of licorice to outstanding steamed mussels, a spritz of nutmeg that gives fried polenta pleasing sweetness, and, atop halibut, a garnish of salted flash-fried parsley that melts on the tongue like cotton candy.
Light sauces, simple seasonings, and seasonal produce reflect the Mediterranean influence. Pan-sauteed mahi mahi showcases this fresh, healthful approach. It is seasoned with only salt and pepper, allowing the delicate flavor of the fish to prevail. It arrives on a bed of chewy wild rice with sautéed escarole, Swiss chard, and dandelion greens. Fish broth touched with butter adds a whisper of richness.
A roasted half chicken, too, benefits from simplicity. Its crackly rosemary-glazed skin protects a moist interior, and a robust marinade of orange juice, rosemary, Dijon mustard, and garlic permeates the meat.
Many of the meats are grilled or pan-seared first, then finished in the oven, locking in flavor and moisture and ensuring even cooking. A pork chop is quite thick, but it's tender inside and out, perfect for sopping up grapey port wine sauce. Likewise, pan-roasted halibut has a seared exterior, but inside it's flaky and moist. Saffron white wine sauce perfumes the fish and a medley of roasted fennel, leeks, baby zucchini, and fingerling potatoes.
Each dish brings its own unique melange of veggies: asparagus, baby carrots, and fried parsnips with chicken; broccoli rabe and braised shallots with pork; caramelized cipollini onions, baby cauliflower, portobello mushroom, and spinach with sirloin. Presentation is artistic. In an appetizer of two meaty scallops, peppery Napa slaw is not only excellent, it's also riotously colorful: orange carrots, yellow squash, red onions, black poppy seeds, all married in tangy rice wine vinegar.
A romaine salad, the red and white leaves stacked in a small tower, is also a work of art. But it's unwieldy to cut, and crouton sticks are so hard one went careening off the plate when we try to spear it. And the too-fishy, too-salty Caesar dressing looks as though it had been applied with a pastry tube, in gloppy streaks.
There is an occasional timidity to Cutrone's cooking, an absence of oomph. A tilapia special needs something -- anything -- to enliven the mild white fish. Ribbony tomato pappardelle, the sole vegetarian entrée, is tossed in bland vegetable broth. Better, bolder tastes are found in the lightly curried couscous and carrot-ginger puree that come with pinenut-crusted salmon, and in the chili-spiced mango chutney that accompanies thinly sliced duck breast.
Only one dessert, a delicately creamy crème caramel, is made in-house. The rest are supplied by Vicki Lee Boyajian, whose eponymous bakery is around the corner, and Angelato, a local gelateria. The highlights are densely rich triple-chocolate cake coated with thick ganache and amaretto cheesecake that's impossibly light. They trump a tart with an overly thick crust and too little fruit.
Cutrone, who named the Cushing Square restaurant after his late father, Savino (the missing apostrophe in the restaurant's name is a grammatical quirk), deserves high accolades for the gorgeous dining room. Its color scheme -- persimmon, lime, celery, sage -- is striking. Lovely white pendant lamps dangle overhead. A central bar makes the room feel more intimate than its 130 seats, although, due to an oddity of local liquor laws, there are no stools. That's because patrons must eat when they drink, so two high-top "community tables" serve as the bar's sitting area.
In an ingenious layout scheme, built-in benches, outfitted with seat cushions and back pillows, angle out from the walls, creating private nooks. At one point, I left our table and was startled to find another couple around the bend . It's a clever use of space. If we're lucky, it may mark the beginning of a design trend.