Beyond That Homely Exterior, A Haute Dining Out Experience

DINING OUT

June 19, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Boston's, 210-214 Back River Neck Road, (410) 391-5700 Open Sundays for brunch, Mondays to Saturdays for lunch, every night for dinner. AE, MC, V. Prices: appetizers, $3.95- $8.75; entrees, $9.95-$21. HHH1/2

Being the companion of a restaurant critic isn't all it's cracked up to be. I had lured two friends to Back River Neck Road -- about a 45-minute trip for them -- with promises of haute cuisine, and I could tell I was going to have to drag them kicking and screaming from the car.

"What's Plan B?" one of them asked suspiciously.

There was no Plan B. The place looked -- how shall I put this delicately? -- like a dump, but it was late and I was hungry. It was Boston's or the Pizza John's nearby, a tossup except that we were parked in front of Boston's.

All I knew about it was that Brian Boston, the owner and chef of the new restaurant, had worked at Pier 500 when I had last eaten there; and we had had a very good meal. But from the looks of this place, maybe it was a different Brian Boston.

I called the next morning and asked why he had decided to open his restaurant in Essex, an area not known for its fine dining if you don't count steamed crabs.

"That's exactly why I started looking for a place around here three years ago," he said. "I have a mix of customers, blue- and white-collar. The ones with money who live on the water are regulars, others come here for special occasions." (He was also planning to start serving steamed crabs when I talked to him.)

By now you've guessed that what we found inside was haute cuisine. But the place still looked like a renovated roadhouse, even though our dining room was prettily decked out with fresh flowers and candles.

The menu has a little something for everyone, so hearts of iceberg are given equal billing with Euro mix salad, and you can start with a boboli pizza or "Imported Smoked Salmon 5 Ways." Seafood offerings include crab cakes with Old Bay chips and coleslaw, and rainbow trout with a pear, apple and onion chutney.

Perhaps a third of the offerings are marked with a little heart, indicating dishes that are lower in fat and salt. Notice I say "lower" rather than "low," although I'm sure you could request no butter or no salt. But heart-healthy doesn't mean dishes that have less flavor or texture: You can watch your diet here and actually enjoy yourself (if you ignore the hot, crusty little French rolls and curls of sweet butter).

Take the portobello mushroom appetizer. The grilled woodsy flavor of the giant mushroom was a showcase for snowy lumps of crab meat and chopped tomatoes fragrant with basil. If you're going for broke and not counting calories, have Boston's crab soup: intensely creamy, delicately seasoned and filled with a scandalous amount of back fin. Even something you can get anywhere like clams casino is beautifully prepared here, with just the right ratio of crisp bacon to fat, little clams, all bathed in a well-seasoned butter.

You might start with a salad, specifically the fine Euro mix salad. Baby lettuces were tossed with toasted pine nuts, a sprinkling of fresh raspberries and a fragrant creamy raspberry vinaigrette. When I had this salad at Pier 500, the dressing was raspberry-jam sweet. This, however, was just about perfect: tart with an edge of sweetness and the essence of fruit.

Best of all our main courses was the rack of lamb -- a generous number of tender, pink-centered chops edged with the tiniest bit of crisp fat. Its dark, winy sauce was glorious, and fresh rosemary struck a decisive but not too intrusive note. Great care was taken with vegetables, including grilled red and yellow pepper strips and a lovely julienne of squashes and red onion.

Grilled swordfish came with a round of herb butter just beginning to melt deliciously into the wonderfully fresh fish. It was bedded down on buttery grilled Belgian endive with a fan of saffron potatoes (less interesting than they sound; they tasted like nothing more exciting than boiled potatoes undercooked and colored yellow).

Chef Boston makes several pastas, including a heart-healthy penne tossed with big shrimp, lumps of crab meat, tomato and fresh basil. The dish has so much flavor you won't notice it's not dripping in oil or covered with cheese.

The service, though informal, was spectacularly good from start to finish. Of course, the place was fairly empty late on a Tuesday evening, but I've never noticed a lack of customers preventing sloppy service.

So far the food as well as the service had been outstanding, and we were looking forward to sampling the handsome pastries on the nearby cart. But I was surprised that a kitchen so concerned with a healthy diet didn't offer any fruit desserts, or at least some less-caloric alternative to the double chocolate fudge offerings. I was more surprised that the pastries we tried were quite tasteless except for a banana split cheesecake -- and I'm not sure banana is my favorite flavor in cheesecake. But to make up for everything, Boston's serves wonderful Kona coffee; and if you order decaffeinated, it's delicately flavored with cinnamon and vanilla.

1% Next: Stone Mill Bakery and Ecole

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