I’m not generally one to follow chefs, but I’ve been watching the career of Charles Draghi because he has such a distinctive style. Draghi uses obscure herbs more radically than anyone around Boston and is a master of clear, water-based sauces of remarkable flavor intensity. For some reason, he always ends up presenting his cuisine in restaurants where it’s very hard to concentrate on the food. At Marcuccio’s, where I first noticed his " tomato-water sauce " and rosewater-chocolate pavé, there was a clash with the red-sauce identity of a crowded North End restaurant. At Limbo, the dining room was hidden behind a trendy bar scene. Now, at 33, it’s the design of the eating space itself that distracts. You either eat on the outdoor terrace, aromas lost in the breeze, or you come inside to a fun-house space of tilted floors and ceilings and walls that never come to a square corner. Many of these walls are translucent and lit from within by a computer-controlled lighting project that changes colors by the minute — one can barely read the menu, never mind decipher an entrée.
Presumably the chef likes the challenge of these settings, or thinks they are appropriate for cutting-edge cuisine. And perhaps he’s right, but for me Mantra works as an avant-garde design for avant-garde food, and 33 does not. It’s also confusing that the menu is organized into French and Italian sides, thus dividing the " tartares " from the " carpaccios. " The mostly Latino servers seemed a little bewildered themselves, although fully professional. It probably all makes more sense to the owners, Italians who have lived mostly in Venezuela, than it does to diners of less-hyphenated backgrounds.
That said, the food can be mighty fine, beginning with an overly complicated breadbasket of hard rolls, potato rolls, bread sticks, sliced French bread, and sliced country loaf — served with both flowery virgin olive oil and sweet butter.
As in several new restaurants, there aren’t a lot of vegetables with entrées, encouraging us to spend on a salad as well as an appetizer, and perhaps also on side-dish vegetables. Nevertheless, my favorite appetizer is the tonno piemontese ($17), a tuna-based slab of stuff that really seems like French pâté. The reddish tuna is ground up with chunks of pimento and topped with cubes of raw tuna for a spectacular eating experience. Bisque d’homard ($10) is a real lobster bisque, but it’s artfully flavored with a little anise to resemble the stock of a bouillabaisse and topped with a sprig of chervil, the herb that has the same flavor. " 33 Classic Chowder " ($10, $16 for two) has a powerful shellfish broth with a smoky bacon flavor, but is made with scallops — a classic only in Nova Scotia. An appetizer of grilled asparagus ($12) is impeccably flecked with char and concentrated by the dry heat, fanned out on a square plate with peelings of parmesan and a poached egg for dipping sauce.
A special salad of local beans and beets ($9) has dandelion greens to frame the bitter edge of vegetable flavors, and sharp goat cheese to define another edge. The " Printemps " salad ($9) features a " champagne Dijon dressing, " but that is very mild, the better to reveal the fresh herbs among the greens, including fresh tarragon. The frisée salad ($11) offers a livelier mix.
Both Draghi hallmarks — radical herbs and flavorful sauce — were evident in a daily special of sea bass with basil-geranium sauce ($29). The chunk of fish was marooned on an anchovy toast in a bowl of a minty-lemony sauce, evidently infused with scented geraniums, a difficult perfume to use in the kitchen. A slice of perfect eggplant — really a better foil for the exotic sauce than even the fish — perfected the dish. By contrast, a special of soft-shell crabs ($32) was not special. Crabs haven’t much flavor when molting, so one must do something more even after frying them. Draghi elected to use a variety of roasted hot peppers, and they were terrific but overwhelmed the seafood. The dish was further weakened by oily sautéed greens.
I thought a lot more of the sautéed arugula and fried potatoes served with costoletta di vitello (veal chop) alla milanese ($39). I also liked the saffron-tomato sauce. But there wasn’t enough of it to get through the dried-out fried veal chop. Pansotti ($18) make for an ideal vegetarian entrée, perhaps the best solution yet to the problem of what on the vegetarian plate replaces the big piece of meat. Pansotti are giant ravioli, three triangles presented as many contemporary restaurants present a piece of fish, as though each pansotto were a vertical entrée.
Of the side dishes, the choice might be the ratatouille ($8), rather dry-looking cubes of vegetables in an herbal sauce. White asparagus ($12) is perfectly good, but expensive. Braised endives ($7) were rich but dull, despite a spike of purple basil on top.
The wine list is Italian and French like the menu, and seriously expensive, with only a few choices under $50. This may seem less painful at $10 to $12 per glass, but the moderate bottle we had, 1996 Château la Caminade ($10 glass/$38 bottle) from Cahors, was an excellent and decently aged example of this intense French regional red. Tea ($4) is served loose in proper pots, and decaf ($3) is quite good. San Pellegrino water is $6.
Of the 10 desserts, don’t miss the sorbets, where Draghi’s herbal infusions produce something special. We had an orange-saffron sorbet ($7) that would have been a fine seafood sauce if warmed up without the sugar. Vanilla crème brûlée ($10) had the dry aromatic quality of Mexican vanilla. A dish of strawberries ($12) was reasonably ripe, nicely garnished with mascarpone and sweet old balsamic vinegar. The Piedmontese chocolate pot with hazelnuts ($9) is just fudge with chopped nuts, and why not? A poached pear ($11) is purple-black like the merlot used to poach it, and infused with cloves.
Service at 33 does its best, but the menu may be too long, and even on a moderately crowded weekday evening there were odd pauses around the salads, the entrées lagged, and the desserts came out in waves. By focusing on the food, one can block out most of the lighting effects, but not the throb of the basement disco. Those who follow chefs must brave the terrors of postmodern décor.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com