The Boston Phoenix
February 18 - 25, 1999

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Radius

Michael Schlow, one of the city's best chefs, reaches a new level. But what's with the wood paneling?

Dining Out by Stephen Heuser

Radius
(617) 426-1234
8 High Street (Financial District), Boston
Open for lunch Mon-Fri, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; and for dinner Mon-Thurs, 5:30-10 p.m., and Fri and Sat, 5:30-11 p.m.
Full bar
AE, CB, DC, MC, Visa
Street-level access
Smoking in the bar area
There aren't many chefs in Boston who share Michael Schlow's ability to knock a dish out of the park. Ken Oringer, at Clio; Todd English, when he's actually in his restaurant; maybe a handful of others. What separates these chefs from even the very best of their rivals is an ability to conceive something new that doesn't feel contrived -- say, fennel and grilled shrimp on grapefruit segments -- and then execute it with a precision that makes you feel as though any other grapefruit but this one would have been second best.

Radius opened in December, after nine months of the kind of anticipatory hoopla usually reserved for Steven Spielberg movies. We're at the address of the old Schroeder's here, a quirky space near the corner of High and Summer Streets, about as far downtown as you can go without nudging aside a bulldozer. The name Radius, one assumes, comes from the semicircular shape of the dining room, which is echoed in the clever business cards (square on one side, rounded on the other), in the bathroom doors, and in the extraordinarily smooth white head of the bartender, who, like all the male employees, wears an odd Maoist ensemble of dark work jacket, dark pants, and white T-shirt. (The waitresses get off comparatively easy, with white shirts under dark aprons.)

Beneath the proletarian outfits, though, everyone exudes a sybarite's delight in the menu; both our bartender (the night we ate at the bar) and our waiter (the night we didn't) cut loose with an almost touching enthusiasm for the food they were serving. The waiter asked my companion and me separately if we'd enjoyed dinner; the bartender explained how people traveled across the country just to try the crème brûlée. It is generally a good sign if a waiter is both enthusiastic and informed (one without the other is usually excruciating), and in this case their passion was justified. Michael Schlow is among the best, and at the grandly sized Radius he manages, if anything, to be more consistent than he was at his last restaurant, the tiny Café Louis.

The grapefruit-and-shrimp dish, for instance, was smart and clean and perky, with pink sections of grapefruit supporting alabaster-white grilled shrimp, and a crisp pale-and-deep-green salad of arugula and sliced fennel in the middle ($13). A "tart" of crab and cucumber ($12) took the wise course of pairing two delightful ingredients, shredded crab meat and crispy diced cucumber, and then not messing with them too much: the shape was a cylinder, with a single cumined tortilla chip on the plate and a dollop of bright-red fish roe punctuating the top.

Other appetizers took the opposite approach with just as much success: instead of teasing sharp and delicate flavors apart, they mashed round and hearty ones together. The duck, pistachio, and roasted-pear terrine ($12) was a couple of thick slices of rustic, velvety pressed meat balanced on a very salty and flavorful bed of white lentils. Rich and sweet in another way was a plate of sweetbreads ($11), soft little fatty organs fried extra-crispy in a delicately flaky batter. At the center of the plate, amid the sweetbreads and the sticky Madeira gravy, was a "mushroom and potato pavé," a little confection of layered mushrooms and potato slices that has gained a new name since it appeared at Café Louis as the more plebeian "potato and mushroom tart." It has also gained a deeper mushroom flavor, and the potatoes have softened into gentler, parchment-colored layers. This was one of the things that impressed me about Radius -- not that the chef is recycling his ideas, but that he's doing them better this time. His previous restaurant, for all its acclaim, had moments when the execution of a dish didn't match its promise; Radius seems to have done away with those, and the only question remaining is whether the food really justifies its price.

Thirty-seven dollars, in other words, is a lot of money for a plate of anything. In this case the anything is venison, and the pepper-crusted steak is cooked to a painterly deep pink inside and served over truffle-infused polenta (another trick held over from Louis), with a little stew of diced carrots and baby artichokes and the kind of forest mushrooms that sell for $27 a pound at Savenor's when you can get them at all. There may not be a better plate of venison in the city, certainly not within crane's reach of the Big Dig, but still: even a very successful dish has to answer to the great accounting department in the sky.

The Maine salmon ($26) seems a positive bargain by comparison, cooked to a moist pink, with a handsome seared-orange exterior. The fillet rubbed noses with both the familiar and the exotic: French lentils on one side of the plate and creamy celery-root purée on the other, all touched by a sauce alive with fugitive spices. Seafood is a big part of the Radius menu; another dish features four scallops on a plate, in almost kingly isolation around a mound of mashed potatoes (sorry, "potato purée") studded with trumpet mushrooms and piled high with crispy fried leeks ($27).

For dessert, a grapefruit tart ($9) had grapefruit caramelized just a bit at the edges, served on a flat, crumbly crust with delicate muscat sorbet and a mint leaf. And the crème brûlée ($9) -- well, our bartender was right. This is a dish worth a trip: both light and rich, with a perfect glassy crust and a hit of vanilla bean inside.

The wine list, assembled by co-owner Chris Myers, is a giant thing that probably merits a column in itself. The good news is that you can get a decent glass for $6 or $7, or a neat half-bottle for less than $30, or a 1982 Chateau Leoville Las Cases for, oh, $675.

The artful menu and obsessive wine list, though, sit strangely with the décor. I had not realized there was quite so fine a line between tony and cheesy; no doubt a lot of work has gone into the place, but, as with the Great Leap Forward waiter suits, it doesn't always come off with the intended flair. There is glossy red paint, white acoustic tile overhead, and, behind the bar, a wall that I could swear is decal wood grain.

Still, there are neat touches, like the Zen-garden bathroom sinks, the totally gratuitous candlelit lounge between the restaurant and the bathrooms, and the "communal table," a long affair shaped like a huge antique surfboard with space for 18 people who don't mind eating a $100 dinner on stools next to strangers -- and, more important, who have forgotten to make reservations.

There is one interesting thing about this table: it puts you cheek-to-jowl with the rest of the Radius clientele. This is a purely expense-account crowd; two men near us one night were making a deal to sell hundreds of buses to two other men near us, while on the other side of the table a gray-permed former magazine honcho put the moves on a woman who was not his wife. At every table, some of the best food in the city is going down the gullets of people who barely seem to notice it; as annoying as I find the food-mafia types who circulate around the city's hot-spot restaurants, this group seemed scarier yet. The people who can afford Michael Schlow's cooking are the people with so much money they don't care. All commercial artists are lapdogs of capital, as the Maoists would probably say, but it's rarely quite so obvious.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@phx.com.


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