Well-trained team serves up unique tastes
569 High St., Westwood
Dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
Thinking about the dinner I had at Chiara Bistro recently, I keep picturing the Los Angeles Lakers’ coach (sorry, Boston), Phil Jackson, running things in the restaurant’s open kitchen, not the real chef Steven LaCount.
Seated at a table with a clear view of the cooks, I had watched LaCount all evening, so I know that he bears only the vaguest resemblance to Jackson. My mind had switched the basketball coach for the chef because LaCount has coached his staff to run his restaurant with the finesse and cohesiveness of a stellar basketball team.
All of which makes for genuine hospitality and phenomenal service. No surprise there, since LaCount was the chef at The Country Club in Brookline (one of America’s first and most exclusive private clubs) for 20 years before opening Chiara in 2005. And no industry lives and breathes service like the club world.
LaCount has clearly trained his employees to work like a team, able to bounce responsibilities among themselves so that each is empowered to play whatever role needs to be filled, at the moment, to meet a guest’s needs. Back servers (bus boys) graciously answer questions; the general manager buses tables; the hostess expedites food deliveries; the wait staff does it all.
The space itself is equally welcoming. There’s plenty of room near the bar for mingling and a cozy corner with easy chairs around a fireplace.
The bread basket came with a pretty round of sweet butter from the Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. - one of the purest flavors I took away from the evening. If you haven’t rediscovered artisanal butter, try this one.
We started with dessert - not really - but our first appetizer was unspeakably delicious. I hesitate to utter its name: hand-crafted gnocchi quattro formaggio with green peas, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, and truffle oil ($9).
Next, we shared two more appetizers: crab cakes ($10) and a single grilled lamb chop cleverly called a “lollichop,’’ which are sold individually, the way oysters are, for $8 each.
The crab cake had the unmistakable zing of lemon zest in each bite and a nice crispy outside. I didn’t quite understand why the dish needed a dollop of deviled egg salad on top and fingerling potatoes and bacon beneath it, although each was fine and filling.
The lollichop was cooked a perfect medium rare and covered with a black olive tapenade. It rested on grain mustard. I found the two condiments too similar to enhance each other, but the chop was good with one or the other.
I very much appreciated the pan-roasted free-range chicken ($23) main course. It was a thick breast with a good sear to the skin served in a pool of wonderful light marsala wine sauce. At its side were perfectly cooked French green beans with their tiny pointy tips intact. The “soft mascarpone polenta’’ it came with was indeed as soft as baby food, which some of us liked, but did little for me. It did make me wonder again, as I have of late, if today’s fine chefs sometimes underestimate the appeal of fabulously done simple dishes in their quest to create unique ones.
A second main course of sea scallops ($28) was deliciously pan seared and rare. They were served on a rectangular plate of chickpeas (loved those) with a homemade harissa-flavored low-fat yogurt puff on top.
The pineapple upside down cake ($7) was almost like candy rather than cake, and the large chunks of macadamia nut brittle scattered over it were fabulous.
Chiara’s liquid offerings include a great variety of good wines, kindly considered nonalcoholic cocktails, a range of unusual loose teas, espresso drinks, and beer from Canton’s Blue Hills Brewery.
The dinner menu, with its “small plates’’ and “lighter fare’’ selections, gives diners the option of dropping in for a less costly meal if they want to eat out but don’t want to eat too much. A burger, for example, with smoked cheddar, caramelized onions, horseradish, and fries goes for $12.
A few days after eating at Chiara, I talked to LaCount. I confessed that I was picturing him as Phil Jackson coaching a great team.
“That’s exactly right,’’ he said. “It goes back to our club training. We always think of true hospitality versus good service.’’
When I told him that next time I might want to order just a piece of grilled fish and sautéed spinach, he was all over it. “We bend over backwards - it’s encouraged - for anyone with any dietary concerns or just preferences to ask for what they want.’’