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Dining Out

Comfort outstrips the cuisine

Barlow’s kitchen needs heat turned up

Barlow's The meat loaf at Barlow's in South Boston comes with its perimeter wrapped in bacon, with mushroom gravy, and beside garlicky spinach and mashed potatoes. (Yoon S. Byun, Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / March 17, 2010

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Destination restaurants are the stuff of special occasions. You want to celebrate, dress up, eat wonderful things, and you’ll travel to another town, state, or even country to do it. Arrows, French Laundry, El Bulli . . . the longer it takes to get there, the more exciting it is to arrive.

But as nice as it is to have these places, even more important are the restaurants that come to you — places where you can walk in and be instantly comfortable, without going out of your way or spending hours on speed-dial exactly 30 days before you actually want to eat. They’re the places you take for granted, until you find yourself living or working in a neighborhood where there aren’t many of them.

Into such a landscape comes Barlow’s. It opened in December on A Street in Fort Point, where old brick warehouse buildings invite start-ups and artists to set up shop. Despite the neighborhood’s long-predicted hotness, there is still only a smattering of restaurants to feed its populace.

So that populace got excited about Barlow’s, the kind of pub-with-food that might barely register in another part of town. And Barlow’s does have something to offer them.

It’s a very appealing space — big and open, with brick walls, high ceilings painted in terra-cotta hues, and works by local artists. The bar provides a central gathering space, smack in the middle of the room.

There is a focus on friendly service. Waitresses converse with you, offer occasional tastes of cocktails so you can make sure you like them before committing, and are attentive to the needs and tenor of each table. One evening, when talk pauses as our server arrives with food, she says, “Oh, don’t stop with the juicy stuff just because I’m here.’’ At the end of the night, you might see a chef emerge from the kitchen and pull up a seat at the bar. There’s not much of a fourth wall here — we’re all just people doing our thing, employees and customers alike. The emphasis is on Barlow’s warm atmosphere.

It ought to be more on the food.

Barlow’s is part of the Superior Dining Group, which also operates Devlin’s, Orleans, Porter Belly’s, and Warren Tavern, all similarly down-to-earth pubs known more as hangouts than for their cuisine. Barlow’s has passable dishes to fill your stomach as you sip cantaloupe martinis, margaritas, and spiked hot chocolate drinks; the beer list includes draught selections from Coors Light to Guinness to Rapscallion, and bottles from Amstel Light to Duvel.

You might try risotto arancini, crisp-coated balls of cheesy rice with marinara sauce for dipping. Lamb skewers feature mild, nicely salted meat with mint and almond pesto. They’re served over a salad of cucumbers, feta cheese, and red onions, a pleasing array of Greek-influenced flavors.

There are several pizzas, topped with anything from roasted chicken, bacon, and spinach to sausage, artichoke, eggplant, and pesto. One with fig spread, arugula, prosciutto, and the world’s most subdued Gorgonzola gets flavors right and texture all wrong. At the edges, the crust is as puffy and soft as the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Barlow’s menu is heavy on repeat ingredients: arugula, nuts, and creamy cheese appear frequently. All are in a beet salad with goat cheese. The beets are oddly soggy, marring an otherwise nice salad.

Meat loaf is a solid berg of ground beef shored up by a perimeter of bacon. The comfort is all there, buttressed by mashed potatoes, garlicky spinach, and mushroom gravy. It’s hard to go too far wrong with these flavors. Likewise, pappardelle Bolognese coddles the diner, with long, thick, flat noodles and a savory meat sauce. It comes with grilled garlic toast.

Burgers should be great here. But they’re only decent. A half-pound sirloin burger and a three-grain veggie are mammoth, plate-crowding affairs. The former comes with caramelized onions and fontina on brioche, the latter with tomato, red onion, and tzatziki. Both come with adequate french fries, crisp and golden, making like they didn’t just step out of the freezer.

These dishes are solid, if nothing to rave about. Not everything comes out looking so good.

Chicken lacks flavor, the taste of the bird overwhelmed by dried cranberries on the plate. It comes with walnut stuffing and house-made gnocchi, gummy carbo-bombs. In general, meat at Barlow’s is an oddly insipid affair. Sirloin au poivre looks perfectly cooked, but where is the flavor? The meat has an odd sourness, as if from lemon juice, and its texture is mealy. One imagines the cow it came from and wants to cry. There’s not much in the way of pepper, either. There is plenty of blue cheese fondue drizzled over it, but that also has little flavor.

There are rotating daily specials, which ought to get a diner excited anew each night. The ones we try make the week seem longer. Tuesday brings veal piccata, dry and mournful, concealed under a regurgitation of gooey artichoke-spinach risotto and a blizzard of capers. In the groovy, earnest, vegetarian days of high school, a friend of mine wrote a song called “Bessie the Cow.’’ The chorus began: “Please don’t call my friend veal / or make her your meal.’’ The composition was entirely forgettable, and entirely forgotten, until I tried this dish and found myself humming its refrain.

Wednesday’s short rib looks impressive, but the most flavorful thing on the plate is the Durkee-esque crisped shallots. The meat comes with polenta. I think they meant to say pabulum. Higher-quality ingredients and better presentation are called for across the board. In some of the dishes, one can practically taste the stabilizers and high-fructose corn syrup.

For dessert, you’ll find the likes of bananas Foster cheesecake and milk chocolate creme brulee. The former isn’t flambeed; it is gooey, with a scant few slivers of banana on top. The latter is essentially chocolate pudding with a torched top. It comes with “housemade cookies’’ — shortbread and seriously burned biscotti. Why serve burned cookies? If they’d been left off the plate, we wouldn’t have known the difference.

One section of the menu allows diners to create their own dish: Choose one each from eight different proteins and as many sides. If you want lamb sirloin, scallops, or turkey tips with tamari brown rice, so be it. If you’d prefer Brussels sprouts with candied pecans (not very candied, it turns out), sweet potato mash, or Asian greens, the choice is yours. Our waitress tells us this section of the menu is geared toward people who want to eat a bit lighter. Barlow’s thinks about its customers. It needs to think harder about its food. It’s nice to have another place to gather in Fort Point. For dinner, there are better options, even in a part of town without many.

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

BARLOW’S

241 A St., South Boston. 617-338-2142. www.barlowsrestaurant.com.

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $6-$14. Entrees $11-$26. Desserts $7.

Hours Dinner Sun-Wed 5- 10 p.m., Thu-Sat 5-11 p.m. Bar menu Sun-Wed 3-11 p.m., Thu-Sat 3 p.m.-midnight. Lunch Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Brunch Sun 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest Risotto arancini, minted lamb skewers, bacon-wrapped meat loaf, pappardelle Bolognese.

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