How much credit should one get for ambition? Tonic has it in tons. The restaurant, opened in April, brings something new to Forest Hills. And unexpected. Until now, one hasn’t been able to order butter-poached white asparagus over sweet corn veloute with egg and candied bacon within spitting distance of the station at the end of the Orange Line. This has been the territory of diners, liquor and convenience stores, and longtime hangout the Dogwood Cafe, perhaps best known for its pizza. A year ago, upscale cafe Fazenda opened. Tonic follows on its heels, with executive chef Ryan Kelly’s Asian-influenced interpretations of bistro food and a list of fruity martinis. It’s likely that the swankification of Jamaica Plain will one day overtake this part of the neighborhood, particularly after the looming Casey Overpass comes down, to be replaced by a parkway. But Tonic arrives ahead of schedule.
The restaurant features a sleek, turquoise-lit bar and banquettes upholstered in orange reptilian pleather. The shades on the hanging lights are decorated with city skylines. The “i” in the restaurant’s logo is a martini glass. Genial men in white button-downs, ties, and black aprons wait tables and tend bar. There’s a lounge-lizard urbanity about the place. In this environment, there’s little on Kelly’s menu one would predict.
The delight would be to find it all wonderful. Unfortunately, the kitchen reaches for heights it often can’t attain. The gap between concept and execution can be mystifying. Cold cucumber consomme, for instance, sounds simple and refreshing on a summer night. The bowl contains no liquid, just an elaborate arrangement of cubist vegetation — daikon, cucumber, and jicama carved into careful shapes, cherry tomatoes flayed so their skins flare upward like dapper capes. The consomme comes in a separate vessel, for the customer to pour on top. The dish is pretty and elegant. Yet this is more saline solution than soup. For anyone who’s ever been to a Passover seder, it conjures the part of the meal where one dips parsley in salt water. The easy part of the dish — blending cold cucumbers into something palatable — is a failure, while the persnickety preparation is just so.
That white asparagus isn’t poached in butter for long, because it’s crisp, barely cooked, with none of the melting richness one would expect. The sweet corn veloute over which it’s served is sweet indeed, too much so. I want a little less sugar in my bowl. That way the candied bacon would serve as decadent counterpoint rather than more of the same.
Pan-seared scallops are spread across a white plate, presented with parsnip puree and daikon cleverly cut to look just like scallops — confusing to the taste buds at first, as one tries to figure out why the seafood tastes like a root vegetable. The plate is drizzled with saba, a syrup made from grape must, and the scallops topped with slivers of grapefruit. The flavors work well together, but the scallops are greasy and cold by the time they get to the table.
Salmon ballotine is a visual surprise: It looks like sausage. The dish desperately needs salt. It’s nearly tasteless, and accompaniments of spinach, pickled shallots, and chive oil can’t help. Shiso tartar sauce doesn’t taste like shiso, but it is a fine tartar sauce all the same.
Beet salad “root to leaf” is another arresting presentation, this one better-tasting. Beet leaves are cut into slivers, then mounded in a line, crisscrossed with stems. Cooked roots appear in slices, surrounded by goat cheese squeezed in dollops about the plate like pastry cream. Hibiscus vinaigrette, berries, and radicchio round out the ingredients. Tiny greens fly like flags from slits in beets and berries.
Tempura fried pork belly reveals Kelly’s background at Japanese restaurant Haru (he has also spent time at Canary Square, Foundry on Elm, and Clio). It’s a fine idea — rich pork in crisp batter, touched with five-spice powder, served atop a slaw of pickled bean sprouts enlivened with fresh herbs.
Among the experimental dishes, there are standards, as well. Roast chicken is a beautifully cooked half-bird with a bright salad of watercress and citrus. The accompanying purple potato salad is dry and bland, but this simple, homey dish is one of Tonic’s best. A molasses brined pork chop, a bit overcooked but flavorful, comes with sweet potato puree and chunks of cooked, underripe peaches and other fruit. It feels awfully autumnal for
July, but it just manages to avoid tipping too far into sweetness. Take the pork away from the heat a bit earlier and leave the fruit on a bit longer, and this would be just right.
Like nearly every restaurant in town, Tonic offers a burger, this one topped with bacon-mustard jam. A crisp Parmesan frico, or wafer, is a fun departure from the usual melted cheese. French fries are thick-cut, steaming hot, yet entirely, mysteriously flaccid. Guess they need Fry-agra.
There is inequity in the burger department. Our tiny patty swims in its bun. At every other table, people are eating burgers nearly twice the size. And there is a burger at just about every other table. Despite Tonic’s culinary ambition, a simple sandwich seems to be what many of its guests still want.
One evening, as we share a very nice creme brulee and a vegan berry shortcake with soy whipped cream (it tastes just like tofu), several people wander in looking confused.
“Is this the Dogwood?” one woman asks.
“No,” replies the host with a slightly pained smile. “No, ma’am, it’s not.”Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.