Bon Savor charms
Jamaica Plain spot splits time between France, South America
Hail, Boston, our city of neighborhoods. From the east, the aroma of tortillas on the griddle, char-bottomed pizza pies, and airplane fumes mingled with paper-cup coffee. By the water, lobster wholesalers, urban fish shacks, and metal shipping containers in Cezanne hues, dispersing into North End brick, garlic sizzling in olive oil, and sauces cooked for hours. Live shrimp and pea shoots and pork potstickers in Chinatown, ginger and scallions and white rice plain and perfect. On to lobster Savannah. Oysters and chowder. Fenway franks. The South End, roast chicken, sticky buns, steak frites, rinse, repeat. And into the boroughs: Irish bars, burritos, Burmese soups, soul food, sushi seven ways (or more). For every quirky little neighborhood, dozens of quirky little restaurants and dishes, and the people who love them. It is as good a reason as any to live here. Better than most.
Bon Savor is a fine reminder of this, in and of Jamaica Plain, and as much about charm and personality as food. It is the brick-and-mortar progeny of Oleg Konovalov and Ibonne Zabala, a Russian and a Colombian (who are also parents of a 10-month-old). They opened the place four years ago and in August brought in a new chef, Marco Suarez, who was previously at the vast Eastern Standard. He left it behind for Lilliput. Bon Savor is the size of a generous closet, with tile floors and brick walls. Despite the difference in their sizes, the two establishments share a characteristic: conviviality.
When you walk through the door at Bon Savor, there is happy energy and candlelight. Servers are solicitous and kind. Tables are full midweek, and the people at them don’t have far to travel afterward. This is the release at the end of the day, the last stop before bed and nothing that needs to be done. Suarez’s food works well for that mood. There’s a bit of richness, balanced by citrus and herbs and light, flavorful salads. Bon Savor also offers a raw bar, with $1 oysters on Tuesdays.
The menu divides its time between France and South America, a condition we all can envy. Would you like some French onion soup or mussels Provençal? The former is lighter than many versions, with a gentle broth and cheese that ornaments the soup rather than overwhelms it. Mussels are fine, and their broth of tomatoes, wine, capers, and fennel is lovely. Or perhaps you feel more like empanadas or Peruvian ceviche. The turnovers are baked in a dough that becomes nut brown in the oven and crisp at the edges. They’re filled with shredded beef and drizzled with not enough chimichurri. The menu promises striped bass ceviche, but on each occasion we visit, it features tuna; the menu is about to change with the season, and the striped bass is likely to migrate with it. The tuna ceviche tastes clean and tart, plated with plantain chips and a pretty salad. It’s a good example of Bon Savor’s style: fresh and simple, but special. Unfortunately, the red peppers in the dish wage a flavor war with the fish, and who wins depends on the composition of each bite.
When the menu changes, it is also likely to leave behind a fava and radish salad. Let us hope for a winter version, because the dish is delightful. It is a vertical flume of favas, peas, radishes, and frisee in a lemony dressing. The salad is topped with toasts; on one side is a quenelle of Parmesan butter, on the other three little piles of salt. One spears some vegetables, drags them through the butter, then dunks them in the salt. It is a brighter, more complete version of the classic French snack of radishes, butter, and salt. Another salad is more traditional: a little tumbleweed of frisee, a poached egg, and lardons.
Steak Argentina is good enough to make one cry - maybe that’s how it got so salty one night. Even overseasoned, it’s delicious, chewy and rare with a great sear. Thank you, Argentina, for giving us steak with chimichurri, a culinary pairing a la George and Gracie, the straight man and the zany sidekick. The hanger steak is matched with a hearts of palm salad and a generous skillet of potato gratin.
Moqueca, the Brazilian seafood stew, showcases clams, squid, mussels, and perfect shrimp in a warming broth of tomato and coconut milk. It’s fantastic.
A seared tuna dish is not. The fish comes with what appears to be corn pudding with a cloying sweetness; a glance at the menu reveals this to be coconut quinoa that has merged with the corn that comes on the side. Again, red peppers blare annoyingly, the taste equivalent of interrupting every time someone tries to talk. I’m not convinced they belong with fish except in very rare instances. Tomato chutney just adds another layer of confusion. A braised pork shank special one night is also a jumble of flavor, too-sweet spices and bland meat, a large helping of sameness cloaked in brown sauce.
Not all is meaty here. There are good options for vegetarians, including arroz con vegetales, a risotto-like affair brimming with vegetables. Coquillettes aux trois fromages is possibly the fanciest name ever for macaroni and cheese; the three are Gouda, gruyere, and gorgonzola. The Gouda is most pronounced, with its smoky, bacon-like flavor. The pasta would be better with fewer sun-dried tomatoes, a chewy blight on this creamy landscape.
Crepes sweet and savory are a focus of the menu. The Bon Savor crepe is a thin, light pancake filled with mushrooms, corn, and large, fatty chunks of bacon. It might be too rich if not for the accompanying salad of chayote, which tastes a bit like a cross between fennel and cucumbers.
For dessert, you might try a crepe filled with dulce de leche, zigzagged with chocolate sauce and served with whipped cream. The chocolate and whipped cream could go; this crepe would be delicious sprinkled simply with confectioner’s sugar. There’s also tres leches cake, heavier than it ought to be but with nice flavor, and a brownie-like chocolate torte served with notably bad ice cream. It’s supposed to be vanilla, I’m guessing, but it tastes more like Band-Aid. When the oysters are Duxbury and the cheese Tarentaise, and the menu reads “We use local and organic ingredients whenever possible’’ at the bottom, some attention is being paid to sourcing. J.P. Licks is right down the street.
The short wine list could also use sprucing in this arena. Selections include the uninteresting Rex Goliath pinot noir and the simple but food-friendly-enough Zestos tempranillo-garnacha blend. It’s nice to find such reasonably priced bottles (more than half are in the $20s), but more unusual finds would better suit the food. Ditto the beer list. The drinks feel behind the rest of the program at Bon Savor.
But this is a place that does not have pretensions. It’s not the kind of restaurant you go out of your way for - it’s the kind you eat at, regularly and gladly, in your own neck of the woods. Hail, Boston, our city of neighborhood restaurants.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.