We're in a subterranean Back Bay space, a waterfall to our right, potted plants to our left, an expanse of leather chairs and shiny black tables before us, and a constellation of tiny, twinkling lights overhead. The room looks loungy, like the kind of spot where people come to drink strong cocktails and smooth talk their way into getting someone's digits. But the lounginess is only surface deep. At Vlora, an almost three-month-old Mediterranean restaurant with a strong Albanian accent, you need only look at your plate to realize this isn't a place for smooth talk. What you see is what you get.
And what you see is a tentacle, whole and reaching for you with a curled tip. It's purple beneath its grill marks, unmistakably what it is: "fork-tender grilled octopus," as the menu says. Another restaurant might have taken the sucker-studded limb and sliced it, then arrayed it tamely on a bed of this with a garnish of that. Vlora chef-owner Aldo Velaj places a few chunks of tomato and cucumber on the plate, but there the prettifying ends. And why shouldn't it? You did order octopus, after all. This octopus is fantastic, fork-tender as described, a bit smoky from the grill, but otherwise one unabbreviated exploration of the clean, politer-than-tuna flavor of the cephalopod.
Vlora doesn't candy-coat. Its offerings include straight-up sides - sauteed mushrooms, roasted carrots - and entrees other restaurateurs might be chary of serving, such as grilled ostrich steak and barbounia (a.k.a. red mullet), a fish booby-trapped with millions of tiny bones. On one visit, our waiter dismantles the fish for us, removing the skeleton. As he lifts it out, several bones fall into one diner's lap. Another waiter might apologize. Ours smiles slyly and says, "A souvenir from Vlora."
And why should he apologize? You did order fish, after all. They have bones. This matter-of-factness about the animals we eat doesn't feel made in America, where children are often introduced to fish in stick form, heads and bones long lost. Velaj named his restaurant for his home town in Albania - a Google image search reveals a coastal paradise, albeit one with sharks - and the food feels like something you might actually eat in the region, not an Americanized take on a cuisine (though there is a hamburger, the fish stick of the beef world, for the really desperately picky). Preparations are simple and fairly healthy - there's lots of olive oil and lemon, and the closest Vlora gets to a sauce is a side of spinach made creamy and ripe with the addition of blue cheese. If you like the ingredients in a dish, you'll like the dish itself. If you don't, you won't. The cooking is pleasingly unfussy - the restaurant's website goes so far as to call it minimalist.
The barbounia, for example, is simply grilled and served with a choice of two sides (as are all the meat and fish dishes). It has an excellent flavor, but it's a bit dry. Same with grilled yellow-fin tuna and sardines. That ostrich steak, however, manages to be both tender and dense, merging the best flavor components of both red and white meat. Why don't we see ostrich more often?
But the real reasons to eat at Vlora are its appetizers and sides. The restaurant's biggest nod to plating is one of its best dishes, "watermelon and feta tidbit." If we have to have genetically modified food in the world, scientists could at least make up for it by engineering watermelon like this. Its perfection seems almost unnatural; the giant cubes are crimson, intensely crunchy and juicy even out of season, and nearly seedless. The beautiful red blocks are topped with square white hats of tangy feta, then sprinkled with olive oil, a bit of balsamic, and crushed black pepper.
Equally simple, equally good, and utterly different is the cabbage Vlora-style. It's served cold, the cabbage bathed in olive oil so that it takes on the oil's slippery quality, its cruciferous sharpness tempered by a generous squeeze of lemon. The side turns peasant cabbage into something luxurious.
More earthly are dishes such as saganaki, a trio of pies, and Albanian tava. The first, a Greek appetizer, is a square of kefalograviera cheese pan-fried till it's golden, then flambeed with white wine. Eat it fast - it starts to lose its charm when it cools. The pies are a foray into phyllo, one spinach, one tomato, and one onion. The phyllo dominates - despite their different fillings, they're all similarly tasty. Tava is like an Albanian shepherd's pie, a little casserole of potatoes, tomatoes, and other vegetables, bound together with bechamel and cheese. It's warm and cozy - with a glass of red wine, it would be the perfect supper to eat by the ski lodge fire.
Or by the waterfall. The wine list at Vlora offers many options beyond the ordinary, and even when you order by the glass, the bottle is brought to your table for you to examine and taste. Unfortunately, the restaurant is out of an intriguing blend of kekfrankos, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, kadarka, and cabernet franc from Hungary's Ferenc Takler, but we do try the Sangue di Giuda (Judas's blood), an unusual Italian sparkler so sweet we wish it had been billed as a dessert wine, though there's a good selection of these as well.
That's good, because dessert itself is often underwhelming. Phyllo-based kataif and baklava are dry; kasata, a light, parfait-like concoction drizzled with caramel sauce, is the better choice. In addition to the usual coffee and tea options, Vlora makes a Greek frappe, a cold coffee drink made foamy by shaking. No wimpy espresso shot, it's an excellent choice if you want to pull an all-nighter - I was still buzzing at 4 a.m.
I should have known when the waiter set the tall glass in front of me that it would be strong. When Vlora says octopus, it means octopus. When it says coffee, it means coffee. When a fish has bones, it really has bones. Even after the waiter fillets the barbounia, it's still full of them. Later in the meal, he notices us laboring to pick them out and smiles slyly. "You don't eat barbounia fast," he says. "You eat it while you relax." At Vlora, food is meant to be savored bones, tentacles, and all.