Letting loose at Tico
Tacos, tequila, and a party atmosphere
Lobster tacos and tequila are 2011’s version of the upscale pub fare and whiskey we saw everywhere in 2010. As food trends go, I’ll take it. Lighter, spicier, it reflects optimism. Comfort food is a security blanket with which to curl up and inward. Nuevo Latino fare means we’re ready to go out again and have a party.
Of all the new restaurants embracing this cuisine, Michael Schlow’s Tico may be the most anticipated. His reputation precedes him. When the chef-owner of Radius, Via Matta, and Alta Strada and “Top Chef Masters’’ contestant opens a restaurant, expectations are high.
Tico also takes over a prime location, the former Cottonwood Cafe, midway between the Arlington and Copley T stations.
It’s no surprise, then, to find the restaurant rather a scene on most nights. Decorated in warm tones, with ornate lamps and curlicued ceilings, the place is so dark these details are nearly lost. The room is divided in half. On the bar side, the crush of people makes eating a challenge. The early post-work crowd morphs into dressed-up night-on-the-towners, and Schlow’s eclectic soundtrack plays loudly.
In the dining room, it’s the menu that’s densely populated. It encompasses about 50 dishes — two dozen small plates, plus various takes on tacos, grilled skewers, and entrees.
The food is influenced by Mexico, but also Spain and South America. (“Tico’’ is slang for someone from Costa Rica, but that seems to be incidental.) You’ll find plenty of jalapenos and chipotles, and lots of lime. For those with chiliphobia, fear not. Nothing at Tico will blow your head off. For chiliphiles, this can frustrate, when there are so many promises of spice.
Vegetables take a starring role, which would be great for vegetarians if there weren’t bacon in just about everything. Those dishes without bacon are laced with chorizo — executive chef Joshua Smith (Four Seasons) is big on charcuterie, a server informs us one evening.
There are some colossal flavor combinations. In one small plate, Brussels sprouts are combined with bacon, kumquats, mint, and jalapenos. The dish practically shouts in your mouth. It’s bright, hot, and earthy, the kind of unlikely creation a chef might come up with in a dream, or on a drug.
Squares of Manchego cheese are fried up crisp and served with pomegranate honey. Everyone who comes here will want this dish — it sates our secret cravings for mozzarella sticks, in a more sophisticated fashion. The pomegranate honey is a tart-sweet foil for the cheese.
Corn is stirred together with bacon, chilies, and Thai basil, vegetable sugars and animal fats mingling with herbs and spice: New England meets Bangkok street food.
Tacos might feature lightly spicy shrimp with bacon (of course), avocado, and pickled onions, or two textures of beef (braised tender and crispy) with a sauce of smoky morita chilies, sliced radishes, and pickled jalapenos. Both are very good, on opposite poles — the former lively, the latter savory and deep. They come on a single seared corn tortilla.
Among the entrees, a simple dish of chicken shines. The bird’s skin is perfectly golden, the meat tender. It’s served with crisp potatoes, saffron aioli, and Peruvian asparagus. “What makes the asparagus Peruvian?’’ someone asks a server. “It’s from Peru,’’ she says. Oh. It may not change the taste, but it does sound more exotic. It’s vaguely refreshing to see a restaurant proudly proclaim the faraway origins of its produce. I’m as much a fan of eating local as the next guy, but when olive oil, wine, and cheese come from another continent, need we look so askance at the occasional stalk of asparagus?
Schlow’s burger at Radius has gained renown, and Tico offers another really good version. It’s topped with cheddar, chipotle mayonnaise, and what Smith refers to as “an obnoxious amount’’ of bacon. (Are you surprised?)
On some nights, the flavors sing and the food is excellent. On others, there are frequent flaws: not enough heat, not enough acid, not enough contrast, not enough oomph.
That corn that was so marvelous one evening falls flat another — the mix of ingredients is off. Fried chicken tacos with fennel slaw are tasty, but the chicken is a bit dry, and the theoretically spicy buttermilk dressing adds little in the way of zip. Snap peas with orange zest, Tabasco butter, and “crunchies’’ taste mostly like plain snap peas with a bit of orange zest. Creamy gigante beans with chorizo are undercooked, and a spinach salad seems to be undressed. Quail grilled “a la plancha’’ with mango and aji amarillo is an unappealing few bites of tough meat, greasy and cold.
Dessert brings cookie plates, chocolate tarts, and the attention-getting caramelized banana with chocolate gelato, peanut butter, and chocolate sauce. It’s a decadent little banana split.
Margaritas here are simple and good — tart, not sweet. But a blood orange version doesn’t taste like blood orange, and each time I try to order a spicy cucumber cocktail, the bar is out of cucumber puree. Wine hails largely from Spain, Argentina, and Portugal. It brings with it an above-average markup. Ditto tequila. There is a wide selection, but those sipping in bulk might want to repair to another tequila den, where they’ll find many of the same bottles for $1-$3 less per pour.
Servers are friendly, attentive for a place this crowded, and fairly knowledgeable about the tequila list, although plates sometimes get whisked away prematurely. Even with a reservation, there’s often a bit of a wait for a table. Tico is noisy and busy, full of energy. More than a serious restaurant, it feels like a nightspot serving good food. But Tico isn’t trying for serious. Schlow and company feel it in the air. We’re ready for a party.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.