560 Tremont Street, Boston
Open MonĖSat, 5:30Ė10 p.m.
AE, MC, Vi
Beer and wine
Valet parking $12
Access down four steps from sidewalk level; bathroom down full flight of stairs
Perdix means "partridge" in Latin. The restaurant doesnít exactly serve partridge (quail, yes), but Tim Partridge is the co-owner/chef, so the name is covered. His idol is Chris Schlesinger, and his style is hearty and masculine, lively on appetizers, ideal for entrées, and not so pretty on desserts. Partridge started on his own with eight tables in Jamaica Plain, and has now moved up to the South End, in the former basement quarters of Azita and then Truc. The space has been redone to make a sunny atrium in the back (frigid now, great next spring) and a curtained entry at the front (blocks drafts now). Cars coming down Clarendon Street shine their lights directly into the dining room, a problem I donít remember at Azita. More curtains might help.
The food stands on its own, and stands well, if not so tall as some of the vertical food out there. We begin with a pour of sage-y olive oil and excellent French bread. Maybe the sage is in the bread. My favorite appetizer is duck-confit arancini ($10). These are the first such rice croquettes Iíve had with real crunch to the crust, and the spicy flavor of the confit comes through in most bites, though you donít get the meatiness of it. A bit of cranberry-chutney sauce is very effective with many bites, as is a dribble of parsley oil. I also like the somewhat controversial "Nori-wrapped fried tuna" ($11). I mean, you like sushi. You like tempura. Whatís not to like about these four cylinders of tuna, wrapped with seaweed, and flash-fried for a bit of crust? Admittedly, the dominant flavor is the mustard-horseradish bite of wasabi, the big aftertaste is pickled ginger, and the seared part of the tuna is a little fishy. But the gestalt on each of four cylinders is "Wow, thatís a lot of flavors all at once!"
Field-greens salad ($6) is familiar but perfect; Partridgeís lemon-oil dressing is just enough, not too much, and makes each bite sing a little. Ellenís beet salad ($9) is nothing surprising either, except that Partridge gets more concentration out of his roasted beets than the usual chef, and the bits of cheese and walnut jump a little higher as a result.
Partridge is a master of big meat, and of making seafood look and taste like big meat. Not surprisingly, he has made a signature of roasted monkfish ($21), getting a light but full flavor and texture with a bit of crust, adding some ginger and curry to the underlying lentils, and tying them together with puréed-cauliflower sauce. Ductless stuffed sole ($21) wraps a delicately flavored flatfish around a delicate sauté of minced mushrooms, but this looked better than it tasted. It may have needed only a little more salt and pepper, which all had gone to the underlying sauté of split fingerling potatoes, caper berries, and tomato.
Then there is "Todayís steak with whatever Tim wants" (priced daily, recently $26). Our night was a 14-ounce sirloin, wonderful meat, possibly even a little aged, with ideally crisp, bright-green thin beans and a sauté of tomatoes and mushrooms with Italian herbs. A recent special was a Thai-style seafood curry on jasmine rice ($28). The lobster, mussels, and shrimp were all superior specimens, and the green-curry sauce was exceptionally sweet, as though some fresh coconut milk might have been involved.
Perdix has always had a terrific wine list for such a small restaurant. My discovery this time was a glass of 2001 Cellar No. 8 Merlot ($8). This North Coast off-brand is now part of a multinational company that includes Beringer and Stagsí Leap Winery, and this merlot has the soft fruit I expected, plus some of the Bordeaux structure and flavors that get compared to cigars and chocolate. By unfortunate comparison, a glass of perfectly nice Oregon pinot noir (last-minute substitute for a barbera that had run out) was too light even with the sole. A glass of Trimbach reisling from Alsace (usually $21/half-bottle) almost stood up to the seafood curry, and was terrific with everything else on the table. Tea ($5.50) is served as it should be ó loose-leaf in a filter pot made of heat-retaining porcelain. Decaf ($2.50), served in an Illy logo cup that suggests itís from that Italian roaster, was excellent.
Desserts are what are sometimes called "chefís desserts," the implication being that the roast-and-grill kind of chefs make large, full-flavored desserts rather than fussy, pretty ones. They are also apt to call something "Really freakiní good chocolate cake" ($7). Itís double-adjective good, especially if what you really want is fudge, with a side of very tart lemon-custard sauce. And that was my least favorite dessert, so I guess the apple-raisin crisp on ice cream ($7) is "unprintably good." Itís hot, gooey fruit with some pastry and rich ice cream, the worst-looking and best-tasting fruit dessert Iíve had in months and months.
The hot chocolate with cookies ($7) is, maybe, "totally non-bleeping-verbally good." This is a new model of Partridgeís old milk-and-cookies dessert from Jamaica Plain. The cookies are thin, crispy chocolate chip, and just regularly good. But the hot chocolate with them is amazing. You could open a national chain of places to sell this hot chocolate. Itís as rich as Mexican chocolate and tastes better than, uh, any other hot chocolate. Thereís ice cream on top, and that may be important, but only as a suspense builder for the hot chocolate underneath.
Service at Perdix is excellent, dropping a stitch only on the recovery of our coats. The atmosphere is still tiny-restaurant. Itís too small even to get too loud, although there is a point at around 7:15 p.m. when the folk music comes on as an undertone. Given that itís a small basement space, itís somewhat boldly repainted brown, with a marble floor, and a yellow tin ceiling for a little illusion of height. The wall art is photographs of foodstuffs, not a very original idea, but not a distraction either. It would be easy to lose Perdix in the shadows of Hamersleyís Bistro and Icarus, but it would be foolish, very foolish, to do so.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com .