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The right ingredients

At North 26, menu outshines dishes

Corn dogs and lobster deviled egg appetizers at North 26. Corn dogs and lobster deviled egg appetizers at North 26. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / November 18, 2009

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North 26, opened in the Millennium Bostonian Hotel this past fall, has a seasoned chef of the New England school: Brian Flagg, who cooked with Jasper White at Jasper’s and Summer Shack and Todd English at Olives, and was executive chef at Harvard Square’s Harvest in the mid-’90s. His John Hancock is all over the menu, which features stiff-upper-lip New World ingredients such as squash, haddock, and venison, paired with Newer World items like coconut milk, preserved lemons, and chourico. Picture a Pilgrim with tattoos.

Unfortunately, Flagg’s presence doesn’t emanate as strongly from the kitchen. Talk to any hotel chef about the job and it won’t be long till he or she touches on the challenges: running a restaurant that’s almost always open, from breakfast to room service; dealing with the divergent needs of travelers with kids, businesspeople, and locals; and getting enough staff enough training. It’s a recipe for distraction. The food at North 26 needs a sure hand to bring it back in line with the appealing menu.

Some things are fine as they are. For the after-work set, there is a bar bite menu, each item $5. A lobster deviled egg is light on the lobster but still a fine snack - just don’t think about the markup. And miniature corn dogs are appealing junk food, three fatty mini dogs on skewers, encased in spongy dough and served with mustard.

An appetizer of clam pozole is as good as it gets, combining roasted Woodbury clams in the shell, comforting hominy, and a bracingly spicy, restorative broth. A kuri squash bisque is touched with coconut milk and ginger, with candy-like shreds of sweet potato on top. Lamb ribs with cumin are tender, with good flavor.

But many of North 26’s menu descriptions entice with ingredients that don’t show up on the plate. The pozole is meant to have cilantro mole, the squash bisque pepitas and cilantro. Capers are promised with the Rhode Island calamari, but there are none. (The grilled squid is oddly served, sliced part of the way through so it remains a floppy tube of loops rather than discrete rings. It’s served with appealing roasted tomatoes and polenta, but the squid itself is slightly slimy.) And a crucial omission: Oyster and tasso shortcake, incredibly appealing in concept, has little in the way of oysters. The most memorable part of the dish is the scallion biscuit it’s served with.

Other dishes are oversauced or oversweet. A large slab of sirloin is about the size of three decks of cards, crosshatched from the grill; it comes with oddly flavorless sauteed mushrooms, green beans, and a delicious potato cake. The meat is smothered in demi-glace. Tiny, rare lamb chops get lost beneath a goat cheese drizzle. They’re served with excruciatingly salty Swiss chard and chewy, awful carrot gnocchi (the orange lumps in the white goat cheese sauce resemble an ambrosia salad). The toasted caraway spaetzle that come with venison are only marginally better, dried out and lacking caraway flavor. The venison is cooked nicely but stifled by red currant jus. Pork osso buco is better, tender meat with whipped potatoes and a bevy of pearl onions.

New England shellfish stew is a generous assemblage of lobster, clams, chewy scallops, and more, in a mellow broth. But a monkfish entree is frightening to behold: Its surface resembles a fabric sample for a tan velour couch, dull and off in color and texture. It tastes better than it looks, but it doesn’t look like something you want to taste.

For dessert, there’s a Boston cream whoopie pie that is too much cake, not enough vanilla bean pastry cream or chocolate ganache. It comes with a spoon-shaped cookie, a cute touch. Pear fritters are dark brown fried dough served with three sweet sauces, milk chocolate, butterscotch, and sangria. They’re not bad, but there’s hardly any pear there. A German chocolate peanut butter torte is the gooey-sweet extravaganza you’d expect, and not bad at that.

For a restaurant that serves food of the heavy, sweet variety, cocktails are surprisingly light, refreshing, and well made. A bloody Manhattan - made with bourbon, vermouth, and blood orange bitters - is all gentlemanly sophistication. The Perfect North 26, a vodka martini, is balanced and crisp; it comes with “our chef’s own stuffed olives,’’ which turn out to be filled with . . . chocolate? Wow, that tastes weird. Fortunately, the unsuspecting drinker is not allergic. A margarita and a Bloody Mary are textbook versions, served with lime and celery garnishes fresher than some of the ingredients that appear in the dishes. Like your lobster deviled egg, your glass of wine comes with a healthy markup.

North 26 is staffed by a team of affable servers with accents from all over. Unless you’re here for breakfast, you may never see the long, narrow dining room decorated in hickory and walnut, with wood shutters and a wine wall. It’s hotel handsome, but at dinner it’s already laid out with coffee cups and other morning accouterments. Guests are seated at the front, by the bar, a more generic, less welcoming space.

The restaurant is hard by Faneuil Hall, a location that could use a place like this, done well. What we have here is a nice menu in need of supervision. It may not be enough to get diners to choose North 26 over the nearby North End.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

NORTH 26

Millennium Bostonian Hotel, 26 North St., Boston. 617-557-3640. www.millenniumhotels.com/millenniumboston. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $5-$12. Entrees $22-$27. Desserts $6-$8.

Hours Mon-Fri 6:30 a.m.- 10:30 p.m., Sat-Sun 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Bar Sun-Thu 11 a.m.- midnight, Fri-Sat 11-1 a.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest

Corn dogs, bisque of red kuri squash, roasted Woodbury clam pozole, pork osso buco.

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