Small plates in a big hurry
If service slowed, there’d be plenty to enjoy
In life, timing is everything. At restaurants that specialize in small plates, it ought to be.
The dishes are designed for sharing, as your server will tell you each and every time. (When can we dispose of this preprandial preamble, establishments secure in the knowledge that diners grasp the concept?) Order two to three plates per person, he or she will recommend. You imagine a leisurely evening sampling a few things, chatting, sipping wine, then sampling the next round when it arrives. How civilized. But nine times out of 10, the dishes you’ve ordered arrive simultaneously. They barely fit on the table. You help your server arrange and rearrange in a game of diner’s Tetris. And then your leisurely evening becomes a free-for-all, as friends shove friends out of the way in order to secure a few bites. Soon enough, everything is cold.
94 Mass Ave is no guiltier of this than any other place in town. But it’s still guilty. You want to take time to taste the tempting mini-dishes created by chef Nicholas Dixon (Lucky’s). But sage gnocchi with squash and brown butter, lobster grilled cheese, mahi mahi tacos, fried chicken with biscuits, short ribs, and cheese fondue arrive pell-mell. Tasting them all at once gives you a stomach ache and leaves you unsatisfied, the worst of both worlds.
A slower pace would make all the difference. The gnocchi is sauteed, offering two textures, chewy with crisp surfaces. It’s paired with slightly caramelized roasted acorn squash, bits of candied walnuts, and nutty brown butter, wonderfully savory and sweet. It’s served in two little islands on a long plate, which makes it feel more elegant than homey. Though it’s a small plate, it’s a fairly generous serving. It costs just $6. One wants to think about all the ways this dish is good, but it’s time to move on.
Wee grilled cheese sandwiches with lobster? Now that’s a good thing, too. (The menu also offers a lobster-free mini grilled cheese, as well as two takes on the mini cheeseburger.) Crisp brioche holds bites of seafood and gooey brie and Muenster. For each little sandwich triangle, there’s an equally mini teacup of lobster-tomato bisque. (The sandwiches are more of a hit than the soup at my table; people seem to want plain old classic tomato.) It’s a clever update of a classic childhood lunch. You could dwell on its winking tastiness, if you weren’t already sampling a tiny fish taco.
These arrive four to a plate, spiced mahi mahi in crisp shells with avocado puree and mango salsa. There are chips on the plate, too, with tomato salsa. The taco flavors pair well together, tropical and festive, but the fish is over-the-top salty. Chicken, steak, and lobster tacos are also available.
Perhaps the only dish as trendy as lobster tacos right now is chicken and waffles. 94 Mass Ave passes up the opportunity to make teeny Eggos, instead pairing drumsticks with little biscuits. The chicken is juicy, the batter thick and crisp. Not too shabby, even if the biscuits are on the heavy side. Again, the dish is punctuated with a wink — a flourish of gravy on the plate, quite soigne with a garnish of minced chives.
Braised short rib is tender and rich, served with richer sour cream-and-onion scalloped potatoes and sauteed shiitake mushrooms. Kobe beef mini burgers come topped with Muenster, bacon aioli, and a sunny-side-up quail egg, the perfect size for the sandwich. If you haven’t had enough richness, a vat of dripping Emmental and Gruyere cheese should do it. It comes with bread for dipping. (You can add tenderloin; our meat is dry and not so much cooked as singed. It doesn’t add to the experience.)
To set off the fat, there is a sprightly dish of thin-sliced zucchini rounds with fried capers, lemon, and olive oil.
But a beet salad comes with ribbons of beet rather than wedges; it’s hard to tell the roots are even there. Tater tots are disappointing, more like croquettes in texture, although tasty enough. Meatballs and shrimp dumplings are fine, but not standouts. A vast skillet of truffled macaroni and cheese — one of a few larger dishes on the menu, but, yes, still meant for sharing — is booby-trapped with peas, broccoli, and mushrooms, a strange combination.
Dessert might be decadent profiteroles with a caramelized banana, Nutella, and vanilla ice cream, or a tart Meyer lemon cheesecake.
This is cute food, well thought out. It deserves better cocktails to accompany it. The drinks menu has potential. It features the Grace Margarita, with pink peppercorns and smoked sea salt; the Mass Ave Smash, rye with Velvet Falernum, sage, and cranberry; and the Original Book Club, vodka with cucumber, lemon, mint, and soda. This last spawned a list of vodka and soda drinks with different flavors (ginger and lime, lemon and blueberry) referred to as “members of the ‘book club.’ ’’ There is imagination here, but not balance. The pink peppercorns are indistinguishable in the margarita; a drink called Alibi’s Rehab tastes only of the elderflower liqueur it contains. And no drink seems particularly strong.
There’s a quirky little wine list, featuring the likes of Austrian Zweigelt (served about 10 degrees too warm) and Italian moscato giallo. If only the beer offered were anywhere near as interesting. The Blue Moons and Bud Lites don’t match the spirit of the place.
Servers are clearly interested in food, and they want to share their knowledge, even if it’s not always wisdom you asked about or care to receive. On a crazy weekend night, with capable general manager Dimitra Tsourianis in the house, things run reasonably well. On a slow Tuesday, the staff seems less invested. They’re just not trying very hard to impress.
The Lyons Group opened 94 Mass Ave in late January. (It was originally called Mass Ave, but perhaps that was too generic. With the new name, you never forget where it’s located.) This space used to be Match, serving sliders, Pop Rocks martinis, and $5 entrees on ladies’ nights. 94 Mass Ave feels similar but slightly more grown-up. Match’s gas fireplace still burns at the back of the room; there are now shelves of books and silver trophies on the mantel. The crowd is on the young side, packing the curved leather booths and long, communal tables on Fridays and Saturdays. They’re looking for someplace fun and stylish with a friendly price tag. That’s 94 Mass Ave, where the small plates are perfect for sharing, if not in a leisurely fashion.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.