THE BEET GOES ON Presented like a scorpion roll, this beet salad is perhaps Tonic's most visually
Bad restaurant idea number 16: let's do a neighborhood bar-bistro where there already is one (the down-market but much-loved Dogwood Café, 77 steps away — I counted), where the daytime lunch crowd runs home in the afternoon (from the West Roxbury district courthouse), and where some condo kids moving into a historic streetcar suburb might like the presentations of a sushi bar with the pretentions of a bistro, all at a moderate price point. Maybe.
Aside from the obvious difficulties of featuring really visual food for a critic who has shown no visual sense since getting married (a local columnist once asked Mrs. Nadeau, "How did a cupcake like you end up with an unmade bed like him?"), Tonic's menu is brilliant but erratic, offering glimpses of the high end — chef Ryan Kelly worked at Haru Sushi, Clio, Foundry on Elm (a personal favorite), and Canary Square — but some flops as well.
We begin with real Italian bread and excellent olive oil three ways (plain, garlic, red pepper flakes). One of the most visually arresting dishes is a beet salad ($11), presented like a scorpion roll, with salty, crunchy beet greens embedding chunks of undersalted boiled beet. Most bites average out.
One of my guests was a friend of the chef, so we sampled some appetizers as amuse-bouches. Tempura fried pork belly ($12) was just right as a single bite of fried fat, tossed with an Asian salad and fresh cilantro. More might be too much. Fresh spring roll ($12) was presented sliced like turrets of maki, bristling with shredded vegetables and some cellophane noodles.
One of the more difficult appetizers is an object lesson in the perils of deconstruction: parsnip chowder ($8). It starts with the usually fatal presentation of solids in a bowl, with soup poured over. The chef knows enough to keep the liquid hot in a sake flask, and the solids are three terrific tempura clams and some "candy bacon" (which is not that sweet). But the soup is just hot milk filled with tiny cubes of parsnip that have no flavor. This is why home cooks make soups and stews: because we mix everything in the pot, and it gets better that way.
Tonic does better on an easy appetizer like mussels steamed in ale ($13), with French bistro fries in it, and a sharp, salty broth touched with fennel. Celtic salad ($14) must refer to the colors of the Irish flag, with a lot of frisée of greens, plus some shredded white vegetables topped with egg standing in for the green, orange, and white.
Pan-seared scallops ($25) in a Japanese presentation, dotted about a big plate? Cool. Faux scallops made of daikon radish? Not so cool. Grapefruit sections? Okay. But my favorite entrée was a hearty double pork chop ($18) with some molasses glaze and sweet-potato fries. The fries are limp as ever, but the flavor is great.
A side of roast and confit vegetables ($6) makes a vegan dinner of fingerling potatoes, browned fava beans, white asparagus, cabbage in grape molasses, green beans, and fennel.