90 Exeter Street, Boston
Open daily, 5 p.m.Ė2 a.m.
AE, Di, MC, Vi
Access down full flight of stairs
For people who like to follow the chefs, Rene Michelena is an elusive target. Now heís at La Bettola, now heís not. Now heís at Centro, now heís not. Is he at St. Botolph? It closes. Heís at the Vault. He changes the menu away from his best style, he leaves. Now heís working with Laura Brennan on Caffe Umbra, then heís moving on to ...
Now heís at Saint.
Michelena is worth following because he has a style. His kitchens send out plump and juicy morsels, with flavors hinged at a meeting point of Mediterranean and Asian cuisine that happens to be his birthplace, the Philippines, where Spanish-Chinese-Indonesian-American-local culinary fusion has been ongoing for centuries.
At Saint he has a menu entirely of small plates, divided not by courses but by temperatures: " Cooler, " " Getting Warmer, " and " Hot íní Heavy. " This is somewhat misleading, as none of the food comes out really hot or really cold, and the meatier items are mostly in the last category, but everything is in the nature of tapas/bar snacks. This is because Saint is basically a nightclub, with low seating, a mild-jungle-techno background, bizarre lighting, trick mirrors, and little round tables. (To get a lot of small plates onto a small table, the waiters use a wrought-iron plant stand that erects three plates on a sort of candelabrum. Talk about vertical food!) The format is still evolving, so we were able to sneak in easily at 6 p.m. for a before-theater dinner. This is presently a pretty good way to use Saint, as it isnít crowded and smoky at that hour, and the most extreme lighting effects arenít going yet.
How Michelenaís food will fare for the intended crowd ó which is supposed to be cool, wealthy, and a little older, Oceanís 11 night-clubbers who are perhaps put off by the Eurotrash and fake-ID throng ó is a more interesting question. The food at Saint is pricey, and it has enough spice to eat with strong drinks, but not so much as to turn anyone off. Itís all nibbles, which is sexy, but there arenít a lot of vegetables ó which women want. Some dishes are slippery or juicy enough to drip onto expensive outfits. (Our party also managed to slide a dish off the small table and drop a green bean into a glass of wine, but we are perhaps in a clumsier demographic.) The initial effort to sell expensive memberships seems to have faded, and there is talk about live entertainment and even cover bands. The bar format means that this is the best food in Boston you can smoke and drink with, but only until May 5, when a new ordinance will force hard decisions among addictions.
Since the dishes appear in random order, hereís what we tried in the order of my preference.
" KL " curried crab cakes ($12). Iím not sure if " KL " stands for Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) or kaffir lime. What you get is rather like glorified Thai tod mun, two patties of crab with a lot of galangal (mustardy ginger), plus some hot pepper, garnished with a square lemongrass-loaded potato pancake.
King-crab maki ($16). The key to this is real crab meat, with a little shiitake mushroom as well. The seven rolls are very nicely made, although the rice is blander than Japanese sushi, the better to taste the subtleties of the seafood. This also comes with a bit of crab salad ó thanks for the veggies ó on a leaf of shiso.
Pumpkin cappellacci ($8). What you have is five hat-shaped pasta stuffed with just-slightly sweet pumpkin in a butter sauce with toasted hazelnuts and a little parmesan cheese. Golly, itís good.
Lemon-chicken-parsnip fries ($11). This is presented in a paper cone set into a wrought-iron ring stand that also holds the dipping sauce. Itís always a decision with fried food because it really tastes best when itís hot, but you have to let it drain to get the grease off, which takes time. We didnít want grease on the clothes we wore to Saint, so our fries were dry and lukewarm and a little soft. The parsnip fry has a lot more flavor than the potato, but it goes softer sooner. The chicken strips are done in a batter with a little corn meal (I think) to approximate crunch, but they are also on the soft side. Nevertheless, the dish works; itís a little more filling than some of the others, and it has a great lemony white-balsamic-vinegar dip, slightly sweet like Vietnamese nuoc cham.
Speaking of Vietnamese food, smoked-scallop spring rolls ($11) are closer to the soft " summer rolls " but not so pretty. The smoke flavor is not overpowering, and there is a loose scallop with salad as a lagniappe, but the rolls are dominated by the scallop in a way that real Asian spring rolls, or lumpia, generally arenít.
Balinese melting short ribs ($16). Nothing Balinese hits me, but the melting beefy flavor is really special, and this one from the hot íní heavy menu approximates a real dinner with some underdone green beans. Grilled aged sirloin ($22) is the most like a mini-entrée, since the slices are served over a few slices of fingerling potatoes (and chestnuts) and under a mini-salad of cress. The menu promises onion rings, but the balsamic browned onions that come are much tastier. (Michelena tends to overspecify on the menu, and then experiment. I couldnít locate promised gobo in the maki, black sesame seed with the green beans, or kaffir-lime juice with the crab cakes. But all the dishes were fun.)
Grilled prawns ($18). Michelenaís undercooking keeps these juicy and delicious, but I never did find the " creamy garlic potato " under the bit of salad. Grilled swordfish ($14) is a couple of small steaks that satisfy on the protein level, in a " tomato saffron coulis " that brings smiling memories of Centro.
There are some safer choices, like " ditalini mac and cheese " ($18) and an artichoke pizzetta ($12), or you can cop on the menu with an assortment, such as the silver platter ($32), the bento box ($30), or a cheese platter ($30). I had to pass on the bento box because it uses one item made from Chilean sea bass, which is currently over-fished. (Memo to chefs: if your dream dish requires an oily white fish, try Alaskan sable.)
The pu-pu-platter approach governs the only dessert offered: Sweetness Weakness ($14). Our night it was micro-crème-brûlée, a Grand Marnier chocolate mousse, a cup of drunken-pear crisp, a layered cake with banana and chocolate, and the showstopper: a little rice pudding sweetened with coconut, lightened with a little chopped Asian pear, and garnished with sweet star fruit.
Cappuccino ($3.75) and espresso ($3.75) are quite good. We tried a " Storyville " cocktail ($10), since the space was once a famous Boston jazz club. It was kind of a whiskey sour made with gin. The wine list is familiar and overpriced at the low end, and there are 11 champagnes ($80Ė$525), with vintages of Roederer Crystal at the high end. Iíll get used to spending $9 for a glass of wine faster than Iíll get used to ordering it without knowing the vintage. RH Phillips " Toasted Head " chardonnay ($9) did well against this cuisine; Cambria " Juliaís Vineyard " pinot noir ($9) didnít, mostly because it was served at room temperature and ought to be cooler.
If you go for the nightclub scene, the décor is generally black and gray with red accents, more sinner than saint, with a lot of liquid candles, chain curtains, padded walls, and glowing colored lights. I would not wear patterned fabrics.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com