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[Dining Out]

Todd English’s Bonfire
Down in flames

dining out
Todd English’s Bonfire
(617) 262-3473
Boston Park Plaza Hotel,
64 Arlington Street (Park Square), Boston
Open Sun, 5–10 p.m.; Mon–Wed, 5–10:30 p.m.; Thurs–Sat, 5–11 p.m.
AE, DC, Di, MC, Vi
Valet parking
Street-level access

Todd English’s Bonfire may be the worst expensive restaurant I’ve reviewed in more than 25 years. It’s a failure of design. Grilled meats are unpleasantly charred, fried dishes wildly over-salted and over-peppered. This would be easy enough to fix, by locking up the salt and turning down the grill, but the underlying flavors and concepts are quite ordinary — the char and the salt and pepper are the only things standing between a famous chef and culinary bankruptcy.

How could this happen? Todd English knows how to grill. I remember well his food at the original Michaela’s, with its brilliant Tuscan-style grilling inspired by Al Forno in Providence. How has he arrived at a situation where he cannot organize a kitchen in downtown Boston to serve a proper $48 steak?

This column does not speculate or gossip. Let me describe the situation as precisely as I can, and perhaps this will bring forth an explanation or repairs.

Friday night, December 14. I arrive with my son at 6 p.m. We are seated without a reservation. The restaurant is empty. The bread tray has a couple of soft, sweet corn sticks and a fluffy mini-loaf with a salt crust. It comes with sweet butter and a cheese spread we like. There seems to be a Latin American theme, with mambos and cumbias playing, Chilean wines featured, and some pan-American dishes on the menu. We’re psyched. Our appetizers are empanadas ($8.50) and fried calamari ($11). The empanadas are five teeny versions of the Argentine national pastry, arranged on a salsa-salad. The problem is that scaling something half the size of a calzone down to the size of a Peking ravioli leaves it more bready than it ought to be. The filling, which ought to be minced beef, olives, and such, is just salty beef. The calamari is a small portion of nicely fried squid, heavily dusted with a mixture of pepper and salt that makes them almost inedible. The innovation here is the inclusion of peanuts among the squid; it’s served with a pineapple-based salsa that’s nice but nothing new. I’m still psyched.

Our main dishes are " Todd’s Smoked Brisket " ($21) and a mixed grill ($27). The brisket is remarkably poor. It has been smoked, but perhaps too rapidly, or perhaps as part of other processes. Most of it is dried out, and all of it is charred on the outside. I think it may have been reheated on the grill and then sliced way too thick, about three-quarters of an inch. There’s a lot of it, but I can’t eat much. The barbecue sauce on it is okay, but I’ve had lots better brisket for one-third the price at Blue Ribbon Barbecue, and they serve better corn bread and throw in some coleslaw besides. The mixed grill is lavish, like platters at Olives. The menu mentions a lamb chop, and the platter includes two terrific chops. The menu mentions sausage, and the dish comes with a white one like a bratwurst and a smoked garlic sausage like a kielbasa. They’re supermarket-level sausages. The sweetbread is very good. But the pork ribs are tender inside and charred on the outside. They might have been smoked, but the smoke has been torched right off. They’re over-salted, too. A nice feature of the mixed grill is that you get three of the 11 sauces. (You get only one sauce with any of the expensive steaks and must pay $3.50 for the second.) The mixed grill comes with a classic béarnaise, a bordelaise without much wine flavor, and a horseradish cream that is perhaps your best all-around bet.

Our side dishes were tempura green beans ($6) and sweet potato ($5). The former is a really good idea, but again, the beans come inedibly frosted with salt and pepper. When I cleaned off a few, I wasn't impressed with their quality. The portion is impressive, but I’d swap it for two dozen good ones. The sweet potato is fine, and the jalapeño butter is rather good. On the wines by the glass, the Atlas malbec ($8.50) strikes me as something like an awkward California zinfandel, lots of everything and possibly very good with grilled meat — if you can find a decent piece to work with here.

When the waiter offers us the leftovers for lunch, we pretty much refuse. I almost never complain in restaurants, but when the third staffer asks — it’s still a slow evening — I admit that the brisket and ribs were too charred to take home. We’re then treated to an El Rey milk chocolate brûlée ($9.25), and it’s truly the king of chocolate puddings, with two nifty double-chocolate cookies on the side. They also pay for our decaf coffees ($2.50), which are outstanding.

Now if I were a normal diner, I would make a mental note: next time, skip the appetizers, have the rack of lamb and the chocolate brûlée, and have plenty of vegetables for lunch. But as a critic in mid review, I am somewhat concerned. Among my worries is the fact that I had complained, and staffers might remember me and simply " under salt " my food. I wait four days on the tiny chance that the salt and char were some kind of accident that might be corrected.

But when we go back — the following Tuesday and an hour later — the restaurant is packed, and the food is much the same, only considerably slower. This time we take our appetizers from the " taco menu, " which ranges from the " pato taco " ($12) of confit duck and foie gras to the lobster taco ($12). These tacos aren’t made on fried corn tortillas, but on soft flour pancakes like those used for Peking duck. The portion is three " tacos " ; the duck ones are rolled up with a little red mole, a pretty good taste of foie gras, not much evidence of the cured confit meat, and side salsa of horseradish and corn. The lobster ones are open, and a lot like the lobster pizza at Biba, only smaller and without the crispy crust. (Remember that Todd English made quite a reputation with grilled pizza at Olives and Figs, so these limp tacos are, like, what’s wrong with this picture?) Both tacos come with a little football of guacamole, topped by some sprouted greens that serve as a flag.

We also try a " Caesar Salad de Tijuana " ($9). This is supposed to be authentic, but it isn’t made at tableside, probably includes anchovies (which Caesar Cardini didn’t use), and is made mainly with baby leaf lettuces that are entirely limp by the time our salad gets to the table. The croutons aren’t much good, either.

Since Bonfire is supposed to be a steakhouse, I put my son up to the 32-ounce porterhouse steak ($48). I order the Veal Oscar ($29). It turns out that Veal Oscar is what Bonfire is sort of good at. They omit the white asparagus, or grind it with the crabmeat into a flavorful topping for a good, meaty-tasting, somewhat chewy veal scallop served on mashed potatoes. But a bonfire, any bonfire, is too hot for steak. The porterhouse, ordered medium-rare, comes medium-well (well-done on the fillet side), and, again, charred unpleasantly. It also comes to the table sliced (I imagine it overcooking while waiting for this extra treatment, and losing juiciness afterward). It’s a big enough steak that you could take the slices, remove the char, and still have a steak dinner — with some to take home. It has some flavor of dry aging, as well, but I’ve had fuller-flavored porterhouse, especially on the sirloin side.

To check the salt situation, we have a side order of fried onion rings ($5). Still too salty to eat, and mostly breading despite thick rings of onion. Again, the coffee and tea are superb, and the desserts are good, though not so focused as the brûlée. " Warm Gooey Pecan Pie " ($9) is overly deconstructed, with a pastry turret of baked glazed pecans that taste rather strudel-like, while maple-bourbon ice cream (heavy on the bourbon) melts on top. Where’s the gooey part? Fresh coconut tart with mango sorbet ($8.75) is two slices crossed over a ball of sorbet, which is acidic and lurid — almost too highly flavored to eat. The coconut slices are dull.

Service is quite good our first night, and helpful — though slow — on the second. Several servers play different roles, but none dropped a stitch, especially in the all-important matter of water-refilling. The room is classic steakhouse red and black, with a pretty forest of wrought-iron saplings that serves as a divider. It will make a handsome restaurant, if someone does some serious rethinking — and pronto. The dessert chef seems to be on the square; maybe she could look at, say, The Joy of Cooking and figure out how to make a decent steak and how to plug up three-quarters of the holes in that salt shaker.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at

Issue Date: January 3-10, 2002

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