Good start to finish
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  November 14, 2007
3.0 3.0 Stars
TURKEY-PORTOBELLO MEATLOAF: As beefy as the real stuff.

Coda | 329 Columbus Avenue, Boston | Open daily, 11:30–4 pm; 5 pm–midnight | AE, Di, MC, Vi | Full bar | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access | 617.536.CODA
Yup, even I am becoming more conservative. Here, with Coda, we have a new South End restaurant that doesn’t break a lot of new ground, but it does everything pretty nicely and is as comfortable as an old shoe. There was a time when I would have called it unimaginative or plain. Any day now, I will be in one of those ice-cream parlors where the special is rye-whiskey-macadamia-nut-blue-cheese sorbet, and I will hear myself ordering . . . vanilla.

In the meantime, Coda is just right. There are enough references to “modern bistro” at this Columbus Avenue storefront-turned-dining-room that you know you’re in the South End, but there are also some solid offerings at moderate prices so you could even imagine yourself in the old South End. We started with a basket of sliced French bread and a nifty spread of what tasted like sun-dried tomatoes and cheese. Appetizers are the new entrées, and are rather large here, but you won’t be surprised or scandalized by the Prince Edward Island mussels ($9). You get a big heap of shells holding small-but-tasty mussels in a smooth wine-anise-scented sauce that’s good enough to slurp. As for the “crispy fried calamari” ($8): love the dry-fried squid, hate the adjective misconstruction. Is Coco the only “crisp” in town? And how do they get the bite into the mayonnaise-like sauce? White pepper, perhaps?

On the big-app side, I loved the pot stickers ($8). These are homemade with mostly vegetables inside and served with stir-fry on top and all around. Slow-cooked duck confit with cassoulet ($11) is just barely an appetizer. You get a whole duck leg and thigh, with a pretty good cure that’s tender and a little salty, and a stew of sausage, undercooked white beans (sorry, chef, but cassoulet is slow food), and a bit of very flavorful tomato (which may have kept the beans from softening).

Real entrées come with a common vegetable garnish, which on our night was snap beans with a bit of garlic. Steak frites ($22) is now made with a rib eye and is a few dollars more than when it was made with hanger steak. Steak fans will pay without complaint but may not share their outstanding shoestring fried potatoes. A char-grilled pork chop ($18) was almost two inches thick, but slightly overdone and slightly dried out. What it needed was chutney. What it got was chestnut gnocchi (not too chestnut-flavored, but loveable nuggets of slightly browned starch) and those green beans. The doggy-bag piece finally got the chutney it deserved at lunch the next day.

Turkey-portobello meatloaf ($13) is a best buy. With the caramelized onion “marmalade” on top, this is as beefy as the real stuff, and the plain mashed potatoes are super with it. (See how conservative he’s getting, Maude? This guy used to want parsnips or celery root in his mashed potatoes.) A salmon special brought rich, grilled farm salmon and a fine side of Caribbean-style oily rice, green beans, and a little fresh tomato sauce on top.

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