An atmosphere to savor, but lack of flavor
Aragosta’s Italian fare missing key ingredient
Executive chef David Daniels was spoiled in his last post. Topper’s at the Wauwinet, on Nantucket, is one of the island’s most idyllic spots. One can arrive at the inn by boat, stroll on the lawn, and watch the sunset over the water while sipping something from the extensive wine list. Under Daniels’s watch, the food was pretty idyllic, too. His chilled pea soup with crisp tempura peas, mint, and frozen Greek yogurt stands out in my memory, a perfect spring dish.
Daniels is back on the mainland, at the new Aragosta Bar + Bistro, which opened in April. The restaurant replaces Sensing in the Fairmont Battery Wharf hotel. It’s not Topper’s, but it’s a sweet spot in its own right, with a patio that looks onto a slice of water. The staff is warm and attentive, and the freshly made sangria is some of the best in town. The Cilantro Sting, a drink that merges the herb with tequila, vodka, limes, and chilies, is also excellent.
The food, however, is less ideal. Diners had high hopes for Sensing, because famed French chef Guy Martin was attached to the project. Daniels inspires high hopes, too. His seafood-heavy Italian menu beguiles with meatballs and polenta, seared tuna, pork chops with peppers, and plenty of the lobster dishes you’d expect. (“Aragosta’’ means “lobster’’ in Italian.) But thus far, the cooking is not up to the level Daniels achieved at Topper’s.
Meals begin with promise and excellent, crusty bread to dip in olive oil. First courses are stronger than main dishes. Deep orange bisque has a concentrated flavor, the essence of lobster distilled in a bowl. It comes with a summery counterpoint of tortellini with sweet corn filling, although the pasta is undercooked. Scallop crudo is refreshing, the raw shellfish laid out in translucent slices with shaved fennel, capers, and the lightest whiff of limoncello. Calamari is sauteed until tender, then served as a salad with arugula, tomato, and balsamic. It’s jarring to find the squid icebox cold rather than warm from the pan.
Meatballs made from braised veal and pancetta have a sweet flavor reminiscent of the Swedish variant, although these are served with soft polenta, decidedly Italian. Baccala fritters have almost no salt cod flavor. They come with North End lobster gravy, a tribute to Aragosta’s neighborhood and its signature ingredient. But there’s barely any sauce on the plate.
Although the menu lists full portions of pasta, the kitchen is happy to serve half-orders upon request. Whole grain spaghetti comes with tomato sauce and roasted garlic scampi. The crustaceans are tender, but the garlic and chili promised on the menu are barely discernible. Lobster ravioli are packets of pasta plump with coral-colored lobster filling, tossed with more chunks of lobster, wilted pea greens, and tender cauliflower. It’s a good dish, although the pasta is again slightly undercooked.
A main course of cod is well conceived, the fish served with spring pea risotto, pistachio butter, and “leaves of small beets,’’ as the menu puts it. But the fish is bland, underseasoned. A thick pork chop is dry; the Fontina that tops it lends the meat a funky, off taste. Tuna is prepared with flavors that remind one of Sicily: roasted fennel, Marcona almonds, and a golden raisin puree. The accompaniments are wonderful, but the fish is not. Two large pieces of tuna are cooked on one side, but not for long enough — the fish is tan on the bottom, with no browning. The top is left unseared, cold to the touch. It takes the concept of rare tuna too far.
Fisherman’s stew is amply stocked with clams and mussels, but the saffron broth is wan. Lobster fra diavolo is an even guiltier offender, the lobster served over soggy spaghettini in a kick-free red sauce no devil would be caught eating. If you know people who complain that bell peppers are too spicy, this may be the fra diavolo for them. Where is the flavor?
For dessert, a semifreddo features the flavors of Boston cream pie, a clever idea. An average chocolate cake is augmented by stellar goat cheese caramel, like dulce de leche with tang. Apricot cheesecake is a strange creation, all sour, barely sweet.
It’s one of the menu’s healthy suggestions, marked on the menu with a leaf icon. So are the scallop crudo, lobster ravioli, and fisherman’s stew, among other dishes. Regardless of the results, this effort is much appreciated. These dishes don’t seem spa-like or austere. They don’t induce a feeling of deprivation in the person who orders them. Many restaurants glorify heavy, fat-laden fare, celebrating bacon and butter as though tomorrow will never come. Food culture in the US currently has a split personality. On the one hand, we vilify fast food as unhealthy, demanding access to fresh fruits and vegetables for all. On the other, we spend significant amounts of money at upscale restaurants on dishes that taste wonderful but load diners with calories, fat, and sodium. The heart wants what it wants. But it also needs what it needs to be healthy.
Aragosta’s patio is an urban idyll, but that’s not enough. There’s plenty of Italian fare to be found in the North End. For fans of Daniels from his Topper’s days, the food disappoints. More flavor is needed here.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.