|Crispy tempura sea bass is paired with red onion, cherry tomatoes, and shaved jalapeno. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)|
Much too little shines at Noche
Tartare, sashimi, tempura are bright spots on a tepid menu
More. That’s what I want from Noche. More flavor. More spice. More freshness. More finesse. The South End restaurant, located in the former Icarus space, has a Spanish name. Chef Reginald Collier comes to Boston from Miami. You can’t blame a guest for expecting some sort of Latin accent. Aside from the basket of plantain chips that starts each meal instead of bread, Noche might as well be called Night. (It does serve until 1:30 a.m.)
Instead, the menu is Pan-Asian-Cal-Mediterro-American. It’s a jumble. Tempura, goat cheese, and jalapenos are the most commonly recurring components. At least it’s not local-seasonal or upscale-comfort. It doesn’t look like any other menu in town.
Appetizers rely heavily on seafood. Collier was previously chef at a place called Doraku Sushi, and tartare, sashimi, and tempura are all here. These are some of Noche’s stronger dishes. Crispy tempura sea bass is nicely fried, the fish paired with red onion, cherry tomatoes, and shaved jalapeno. The flavors are bright, the textures several different kinds of crisp. The jalapeno slices are hard to come by, and more of them would make the dish better.
Bluefin tuna tartare joins with avocado relish, tobiko, and ponzu sauce, tortilla chips protruding like sails. The fish isn’t the most flavorful, but these ingredients are always going to taste just fine together. If you’re leery of eating bluefin tuna, brace yourself for Chilean sea bass coming in the entree round, served with bean sprouts and mushrooms. The future of both species is troubled. What responsibility should a restaurant bear for serving sustainable fish? Each establishment must answer that for itself, and responses raise questions of their own. (For one: If you aren’t concerned about the long-term viability of the food you serve, does that mean you don’t expect to be in business long?)
Description and presentation don’t always match at Noche. When we order braised short ribs, we expect succulent chunks of meat. We get a small serving of flattened strips, more like beef jerky in appearance, coated in a red sauce that tastes like ketchup spiked with cumin.
When we order jalapenos with spicy chorizo and goat cheese, we envision generous slices of chorizo. We get cheese-filled slices of jalapeno sprinkled with tiny bits of chorizo. The peppers are shriveled around the edges and barely spicy; the chorizo is bland.
Tiger shrimp are tiny — maybe they’re cubs. They’re terribly overcooked, hard and rubbery, served with crescents of onion tempura and a thick, orange spicy mayonnaise.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to picture. “Roasted Statler chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, Parmesan, peppercorn, Boursin cheese, herb infused rice, broccoli sauté, mustard sauce’’ sounds like something concocted by a stoner raiding the pantry late at night. It turns out to be a simple dish of stuffed chicken with plain broccoli and Minute-esque rice.
A vegetarian entree involving cannellini features a pile of undercooked, plain beans topped with a bit of roasted tomato, spinach, and fried potato strings.
Ingredients don’t always taste or look their best. Lamb chops have the mildest flavor, paired with apple chutney and potatoes; more-assertive meat would turn this into a nice dish. Bolognese is made with tender, savory veal cheek, but it appears to have been sitting under a heat lamp. Scallops are crusted in coriander, which doesn’t hide the faint ammonia whiff they give off. They’re served with caper butter that lacks pungency and off-season asparagus. Other issues aside, there are only three scallops, albeit large ones, in a dish that costs $25. It would leave a hungry person wanting, or at least ordering a $7 side of manchego whipped potatoes.
For dessert, chocolate symphony cake tastes prefabricated. It comes with a toasted marshmallow, a cute touch. Warm French toast cake with chocolate ganache is eggy and sweet, made eccentric by a sprinkling of paprika and a sprig of thyme planted upright in its surface like a flag.
Noche has a good neighborhood bar scene — it’s friendly, the cucumber gimlets are refreshing, the servers are sweethearts. Men who wear suits for work sit next to men who wear suits for fashion, dates nibble on each other, and everyone has a good time. In the dark bar area, dangling lights twinkle, reflected in mirrored walls; the game plays on large twin TVs. Pop goes the dining room, with white leather chairs, geometric-patterned ceilings, and walls covered in round mirrors. Another wall is decorated with a chart of the moon in its different phases. Icarus flew too close to the sun; the decor here is appropriately nocturnal. Noche looks like the nightspot it wants to be.
There are dishes on the menu that hint at the nightspot it still could become: a pork chop with black beans and rice and jicama slaw, guava flan, churros with dulce de leche. These aren’t necessarily well executed, but they take the right tone: fun, bold, with personality. The ever-busy Orinoco, a few blocks away, proves Bostonians can handle these things. There’s no need to be timid.
If Noche wants to capture our taste buds, we’re going to need more. More flavor, more spice, more freshness, and more finesse.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.