The Thrill of the Grill, New American Style
by James Campbell, NK
Tremont 647 is a charming neighborhood bistro set in the heart of Boston’s chi-chi South End. Since opening in 1996 it’s earned quite a reputation for `boldly flavored American cuisine with inventive global influences’. An intriguing promise, but would the reality live up to the hype?
Passing briskly through the amply stocked bar, my companion Stoney Desmarest* and I arrived in the 70-seat main salon, dominated by an enormous grill running along one side. The ambience was informal and quirky, a curious mix of post-war Warsaw caf‚ and ’60s US diner rendered in dim mustard hues and backed by the soft rhythms of bossanova. Did the designers have a big idea in mind? If so, I confess it passed me by. Wallpaper readers, beware: the food is supposed to do the talking at Tremont 647. Uncluttered d‚cor is all very well, but surely a few small touches would have helped spruce the place up – adding a crisp cotton cloth and a tasteful illumination to cover the modesty of our bare wooden table, for example.
Chef Andy Husbands had an early chance to put his best foot forward as Stoney made a beeline for the `signature’ starter: fiery pork momos with soy-sake dipping sauce and sriraccha. That’s New Americanese for bite-sized balls of delicately spiced pork fried in batter. Mouthwatering though these flavorful morsels were, `fiery’ might seem a smidge disingenuous to patrons whose palates – like mine – were annealed by regular Friday night curry sessions during college days. But Stoney had no qualms; she scoffed her momos with such alacrity I almost missed out on my rightful bite!
I kicked off with one of the night’s specials, mashed Chinese-style chicken livers prepared with a blend of five spices. Rich and moist, this divine pƒt‚ skillfully blended exotic herby undertones with the salty tang of fresh liver. I felt no fowl ever perished for a nobler cause, but my squeamish companion wrinkled her elegant nose in disgust and made me devour the generous portion unassisted. `It’s offal’, she remarked.
True to form, Stoney plumped for the chef’s big-name entr‚e, Chilean sea bass served in a banana leaf, garnished with a medley of vegetables and coconut jasmine rice. The lady declared herself well pleased with the individual elements – the bass succulent and buttery, the rice fragrant – but wished more of the accompaniments’ flavor had transferred to the fish itself, which turned out a tad bland. I dined on a tender flank of grilled tuna steak on a bed of tasty noodles. This fish too was done to perfection, its seared integument yielding to a deliciously rare core. Shame, though, about the thick sweet-and-sour sauce that smothered the whole ensemble and seemed to overwhelm the tuna’s subtle grace notes.
Enophiles are well served by the extensive wine list that runs from refined Burgundies to heady Zinfandels. The selections – most weighing in between $20-$30 a bottle – ably complement the chef’s palette of spices.
Professional duty compelled us to sample dessert, so we chose to split a chocolate mousse cake topped with cappuccino crŠme. What a taste of heaven! Ambrosial is the only word to describe such a decadent confection. Diners with lighter taste in sweets are not short of choice, with delights like stinky cheese and fruit plate on the card. Just make sure to visit when you’re famished. Neither of us was equal to our king-sized portions.
The staff was pleasantly efficient, and our waitress struck a good balance between attentiveness and privacy. Speedy food service made for another tick in the credit column. No doubt visiting on Memorial Day, a slow night in the South End, helped in this respect. (One can, however, have too much of a good thing, as we did when our main dishes turned up before I’d finished my starter – a trivial but clumsy slip in a classy establishment like this).
So how did we feel on stepping out into the night air $120 lighter? Put it this way – if Tremont 647 were an MBA student, it couldn’t fail to earn a couple of 1s for its hearty, zesty cuisine. But a Baker Scholarship is out of the question, and these guys are charging Baker-grade prices. For all his exotic spices, it seems Andy Husbands has yet to discover the magical ingredient that helps the very best restaurants transcend the mere sum their parts and serve up a unique night to remember.
Why not head down to Tremont 647 and judge for yourself? It’s open seven nights for dinner and sports a fabulous bar where you can hang out and watch the world go by. Valet parking is available for motorheads not up to the trek from the Back Bay T.
* Editor’s Note: Stoney has decided to adopt her porn star moniker for the rest of her HBS career, forsaking the `boring’ name by which some may know her better.