A different take on familiar spot
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  February 6, 2008
1.0 1.0 Stars
PAN-ROASTED SEA BASS: Actually striped bass, with green peppers and lobster mashed
potatoes — it’s first class.

Cafeteria | 279A Newbury Street, Boston | Open daily, 11:30 am–10 pm | AE, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Entrance down 8 steps from sidewalk level | 617.536.2233

The early buzz on Cafeteria was that some staff from the lamented Armani Café were going to try and transplant that high-fashion vibe to their new endeavor. Two problems: Armani Café was a light and airy upstairs dining room, while Cafeteria is mostly below street level. Armani Café had, at least when I reviewed it soon after it opened, incredible food. Cafeteria doesn’t. It has credible food, and what now have to be considered moderate prices (other than the wines), served in a cute, too-loud room with very high seating.

Food begins well with crusty Italian bread and top-quality extra-virgin olive oil. My favorite appetizer was fried calamari ($9), which came to the table piping hot and still crisp, with a fine spicy mayonnaise. Minestrone ($7) tasted fresh and vegan. I would have liked some grated cheese to mellow it.

But an eggplant napoleon ($9) showed a heavy hand at the deep fryer. The discs of eggplant were overly breaded and browned, layered into a stack with spinach, cheese, and tomato. It made for good eating, not great. (You would do a lot better with the eggplant rollatini at Ricardo’s in the North End.) Another appetizer, roasted-beet salad ($9), is getting too familiar. Like crème brûlée, it needs a twist. Cafeteria’s is a simple one: three colors of beets, string beans, goat cheese, walnuts, and a balsamic dressing. I get more concentrated flavor when I roast beets at home, so maybe these weren’t actually roasted.

The best entrée I tried was pan-roasted sea bass ($29). We had the server check what kind of bass it was, since we don’t eat Chilean sea bass (unsustainable fishery, too much mercury), and the local black sea bass seldom get past the Chinese-restaurant chefs. “It’s a wild sea bass from here,” said the server. Well, it turned out to be a fine chunk of striped bass, which will not show up locally for about five months, but it did taste wild and fresh. With green beans and lobster mashed potatoes, this was first class. Gnocchi with short ribs ($20) is a nice winter stew, featuring beefy chunks in salty gravy, with dumplings (the literal translation of gnocchi) that weren’t feather light but certainly decent enough.

Veal Milanese ($22), however, was another leaden fry job. The veal flavor was overwhelmed, and the plate was only saved by a nifty arugula salad and a few grape tomatoes. Tagliatelle Bolognese ($18) was proper, chewy ribbons of pasta, served with a burger-ish sauce where one might have expected a lighter Italian meat sauce with veal.

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