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Dining Out

Bit of the past, bite of the present

Stoddard’s historical decor mixes with comfort food/fine dining menu

Halibut in a citrus-brown butter sauce with pine nuts, raisins, and cauliflower. . Halibut in a citrus-brown butter sauce with pine nuts, raisins, and cauliflower. . (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / July 21, 2010

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Nobody ever gets his shoes shined here.

Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale is a tribute to “those great Bostonians that walked these winding streets long before us,’’ according to the menu. The building that houses the Downtown Crossing restaurant dates to 1868. It’s been a corset store, sewing machine retailer, bait and tackle shop, and cutlery. The owners make the most of its historical aspects. The space is decorated with reclaimed wood and exposed brick, with tin ceilings and indoor lampposts modeled after ones that appeared on Boston streets of the era. Antique sewing machines, meat grinders, and other gadgets are on display (as is a selection of corsets, though these look brand new). There is a long bar lined with taps, a lineup of multiple cask-conditioned ales, and a list of old-school cocktails.

And there is a shoeshine station. No one’s ever seated in it. Boston just isn’t that “Mad Men’’ yet, at least not in summer. “Everyone wears flip-flops,’’ one waitress explains.

At least half the customers seem to. They are the ones also clad in shorts and T-shirts. The other half of the crowd wears plaid button-downs and grandpa caps. It looks like a turf war between frat boys and hipsters, but everyone comes in the spirit of friendship. It’s not good for the soundtrack, which is half big band, half classic rock one recent evening, an aurally confusing mix. But Stoddard’s is one of the few downtown restaurants that serves its purpose equally well for tourists and residents, of all stripes. And if the kid fresh off the Freedom Trail with his parents wants to know why there are bras hanging on the walls, well, chalk that up to continuing education.

In this history theme park, in a neighborhood catering to out-of-towners and those looking to quench a post-work thirst, it’s a relief to find that attention is also paid to the food. It’s a relief, in fact, that Stoddard’s is open at all. The restaurant began operations in April, after so many delays it appeared it might be history too.

It’s co-owned by the people behind nightlife group 6one7 Productions and Italian restaurant Ivy, right across the street. Executive chef Mark Cina has put together a menu that falls somewhere between comfort food and fine dining, with plenty of clever little snacks for the tipplers.

Some, like deviled eggs and a pot of pickles, aren’t worth bothering with. The former taste like hard-boiled eggs with aerated yolks; there’s no tang to them. But there are plenty to go around — when the menu says there are three per order, it means whole eggs, not halves. That’s a nice change for a dish that’s often skimpy. The pot of pickles just contains gherkins and bread-and-butter pickles, which are slightly fizzy, just past their peak. With a wave of interesting pickles in restaurants around town, Stoddard’s can do better here.

This is clear from Cina’s well-made charcuterie. It’s a bountiful assortment — rich pate de campagne studded with pistachios, an incredibly salty but incredibly tasty bresaola, sausage with hard-boiled quail eggs embedded in the center, tiny and delicious pastrami sandwiches with slaw, duck prosciutto spiced with cinnamon, clove, anise, coriander, and long pepper. . . . As with the deviled eggs, we get more than we expect.

There are plenty of other things to munch with your Delirium Tremens or Pretty Things Jack d’Or, both on tap, along with about 20 other selections. There are generally five cask-conditioned ales on offer, as well as a long list of bottles. Lobster scallion hushpuppies are savory rounds of dough with plenty of lobster flavor. They are served with spicy avocado aioli that isn’t spicy and doesn’t taste like avocado, but the hushpuppies are good enough to stand on their own. Similarly, fondue made from aged Gouda and cask ale lacks strong cheese or beer flavor. It’s mild and on the runny side, but it’s still a vat of cheese sauce with plenty of crunchy accompaniments for dipping: soft-pretzel nuggets, apples, fennel, carrots, and peppers. It’s hard to argue with that.

Stoddard’s does a very good burger, too. Made from Meyer natural beef, it comes on a black pepper brioche bun from Iggy’s, with cheddar, pickles, and a house-made, tomato-based sauce (just don’t call it ketchup, which Cina hates, he later reveals by phone). It’s nestled in a giant field of skinny, salty fries. These are a better choice than the onion rings, which are puffy, pale, and greasy.

Chicken potpie is a skillet brimming with braised meat and chicken sausage, along with potatoes cut in spheres, parsnips, celery root, and other root vegetables. Parsnip veloute binds it all together. The pie dough lid tastes handmade, although it’s not particularly flaky and arrives one evening slightly burned.

A merguez sausage sandwich entices with its condiments, turnip kraut and ramp aioli, but something has gone awry with the charcuterie-making skills here. The lamb is underspiced and intensely gamy, the texture dry and crumbly.

At a restaurant that gives ale equal billing in its name, good drinking snacks and comfort food aren’t that surprising. But Cina and his crew have a deft touch with more elegant dishes, too. Crispy on top, juicy within, cod comes with fennel-scented sauce, more of those round potatoes, and a piperade composed largely of red peppers. Halibut is slightly overcooked one night, but it comes in a wonderfully tart and balanced citrus-brown butter sauce, with pine nuts, raisins, and cauliflower: sour, sweet, and savory.

Stoddard’s best dish may be ballotine of rabbit, tender rounds of pancetta-wrapped meat stuffed with rabbit mousse. On the side are spiced prune compote, sauteed nettles, and glazed salsify. The sweetness of the prunes and bitterness of the greens complement the rabbit’s richness.

Dessert, however, may be the restaurant’s weakest point. A ganache-like chocolate terrine comes with dried, chewy pomegranate seeds. It ought to come with a side of floss. Rhubarb panna cotta is far too stiff and barely tastes like rhubarb. Even a bourbon float needs more ice cream.

Well-mixed cocktails compensate. The list draws from Jerry Thomas’s “How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companion,’’ first published in 1862: Brandy Crustas, Gin Slings, and the like. It also features a house punch that is fruity without being too sweet. The secret recipe may involve bourbon and port. “We were inspired to create a cocktail program that rekindled the creative spirit of our forefathers, considering that the cocktail was basically America’s only gift to the culinary world,’’ the menu boldly states. (Tell that to gumbo, corn bread, barbecue, and other regional specialties.)

Service can be uneven, particularly when the place is busy. Orders are occasionally mixed up or misdelivered, and there can be a wait for food or attention. But the servers are sweet and impressively well schooled in Stoddard’s beer list, readily offering descriptions and recommendations. Some are a bit weaker when it comes to food. Explaining why the accompaniments on one dish have changed, our server informs us that “ramps are out of season, and they don’t want to use canned vegetables.’’ That is good to know.

Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale lives up to its billing, offering both. It gives tourists a taste of living Boston history. It gives locals a good-looking hangout and a reasonable price point. And it gives everyone a shoeshine. Come scuffed and hungry.

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

STODDARD’S FINE FOOD & ALE

48 Temple Place, Boston. 617-426-0048. www.stoddards foodandale.com.

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $4-$15. Entrees $13-$35. Desserts $5-$7.

Hours Tue-Sat dinner 5-10:45 p.m., Sun brunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Bar open until 2 a.m.

Noise level Conversation easy earlier, gets loud later.

May we suggest Charcuterie plate, fondue, ballotine of rabbit, halibut.