Boston Public

The best of the star-chef-run steak houses
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  February 20, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars
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GRASS-FED SIRLOIN: Terrific with the default red-wine reduction sauce.

Boston Public | 234 Berkeley Street (Rear of Louis Boston), Boston | Open Mon, noon–3 pm; and Tues–Sat, noon–3 Pm And 6–10 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | On-site parking lot, $15 | Access up eight steps from street level 617.266.4680
We cowboyed up the Phoenix expense account when Spire turned into fancy steak house KO Prime, and loped along when The Federalist became Mooo. With Boston Public (née Restaurant L), we may be headed for the last roundup of this odd star-chef steak-house reinvention fad.

In this case, the chef, Pino Maffeo, has stayed in the chef saddle and also picked up co-ownership reins. As such conversions go, Boston Public is both better (as a restaurant) for its efforts and worse (since it drops the edgiest innovations of Restaurant L). The design has gone from stark metallic to stark Chinese-brown, both taking from the attached clothing store, Louis Boston, a décor that makes people and their clothing stand out.

The problem with having a fancy-pants chef redo the all-American steak house is that steak-house psychology is neo-primitive — the cowboy myth and all that. Boston Public works, in part, because it does that area of the menu without a lot of frills, then adds superb raw oysters and some old greatest hits, such as the Laotian ribs. So the menu has a split personality. Since you don’t, just order what you like, and it will be expensive and memorable.

The bread basket is filled with slices of sweet, buttery rolls, served with a cheese spread. One tends to demolish this stuff while trying to parse a menu with category names like Boston Meat Market, Public Garden (the salads), Chinatown, Boston Green Market (side vegetables), Boston Rod & Reel (three fish entrées), and Boston Fish Pier (shellfish).

The oysters ($2.50 to $2.80/each) are served in excellent condition, each with a tag describing its origin. My favorite of a recent group from Maine and Massachusetts was an Island Creek ($2.50) just up from Duxbury. It was as fresh and sweet as a Wellfleet, and larger. Pressed eggplant ($5.95) is a neo-Japanese treatment of the vegetable, shredded and pickled with a bit of mint. Sweet-potato dumpling soup ($12) is based on Vietnamese pho, with a lighter, clear, peppery broth, and fresh fillings of Asian basil, bok choy, Chinese broccoli, and six sweet-potato ravioli. The hoisin sauce and chili-pepper paste on the side weren’t needed. Shumai ($10) are 10 barrel-shaped Chinese-style dumplings in a bamboo steamer, each with a toothpick. Their quality doesn’t rival what you’d get in Chinatown, as ours were a little rubbery by the time we got them, but the double portion is cool. And the “Organic Green House Salad” ($11) was a demonstration of why we love certain chefs. It’s just a big salad with a few sun-dried tomatoes and fried pistachio bits, but the greens and dressing were outstanding.

Steaks get as pricy as by-the-ounce Wagyu beef, but save for a few more years and you can buy that Lamborghini instead. The grass-fed sirloin ($37) is terrific with the default red-wine reduction sauce, though you could opt for béarnaise. The kitchen tends to send these steaks out a shade less cooked than ordered: I asked for rare and got blood-rare. The oven is set to 1800 degrees, however, so there’s a nice char on the outside.

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Related: Restaurant L, Mario’s, 2006 restaurant awards, More more >
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