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Fine, eccentric cuisine that’s hardly prison food
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  October 31, 2007
richly flavored meat for two.

The Charles Street Jail was condemned as unfit for prisoners in the mid 1970s, but lingered in use until 1990. Nearly 20 years and more than $100 million later, it has been rebuilt as a luxury hotel, with a restaurant cleverly named Clink. The idea of dining in a former jail is fun, and some of the food is quite good. Some of the food, however, is too cute by half — though not because of jail jokes, which are mercifully restrained.

The restaurant has a few iron bars between the tables and the open kitchen, but is heavy on carpeting, butcher-block café tables, abstract paintings, and acid jazz. Even the large windows are now unobstructed, and only some bare brick and the odd iron fitting remain to remind us that the building is very old, not to mention a reformed Bastille.

Clink’s menu runs from bar snacks ($5) and small plates ($8 to $14) to entrées for two ($38 to $48) and Japanese hot-stone-cooked steaks and scallops priced in four-ounce increments. If that weren’t eccentric enough, wine is served in four sizes: a 100-milliliter “taste,” a 250-milliliter “large glass” served in a laboratory beaker, a 500-milliliter two-thirds bottle, and the usual 750-milliliter bottle. Desserts are served for either two or four diners. In all, portions are generally, but not reliably, small.

Probably the weirdest thing about Clink is a seeming reluctance to serve bread. The most expensive entrées have no starch side dishes, and when we asked for bread, we got a tumbler of breadsticks and some salt butter balls. Another table had real bread, so we asked for that, but we got a plate with a whole-wheat roll cut into four pieces. Maybe that was a jail joke.

Clink | 215 Charles Street (Liberty Hotel), Boston | Open Daily, 5:30 am–11 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Valet parking $10 with validation | Street-level access | 617.224.4004
Bread aside, our small plates were generally impressive. And unlike the protein-based entrées, there are also quite a few vegetables from which to choose. One of my favorites was the braised red cabbage ($8), which was perfectly prepared. There’s a lot of it too, even when shared. Artichoke salad ($10) had only a few morsels of artichoke heart, but shaved fresh porcini more than made up for that. Roasted beet salad ($10) brought familiar cubes of dark red and golden beets, with an unfamiliar blue-cheese mousse, some nice micro-greens, and a pleasant crunch of toasted pumpkin seeds. Parmesan polenta ($11) sacrificed quality for cuteness, as our tiny bowl was lukewarm. A side of mostly shiitake wild mushrooms in an iron skillet, however, was excellent. Sweet potato ($8) was perhaps a little precious. It was four small puffs of puréed potato, two with pineapple-sage flower sprigs.

My favorite entrée was a lamb-shank special ($20) with rainbow chard, roasted red pepper, and an irresistible glass of panisses — chickpea fries as rich and smooth inside as the finest polenta, with a slight breading and crust outside. This special was meant for one person, but served two about as well as the ones so intended. We asked for more panisses and were charged $5, which was money well spent. My only suggestion for this entrée would be to serve it on a platter that catches the juices of the slow-stewed shank, rather than the plank which allowed them to spill onto the table.

Espresso-braised short ribs ($48) was the most expensive entrée, and while it brought soft, richly flavored meat for two, that’s all it is. The only garnish was a tiny container of glazed small onions. Red snapper ($46), on the other hand, was steamed as a whole fish, Chinese-style, and strewn with enoki mushrooms and bits of pepper. It was served with seasoned-vinegar Thai jasmine rice, reminiscent of the sushi variety, and a complementary Thai-style curry-gravy. Again, the service undermines the chef here: our fish (probably a five-pounder before cleaning) was served hanging over the edges of a Chinese steamer. That’s silly, and the transfer time probably contributed to the fish being slightly overdone, and therefore less flavorful (but easier to pick off the bones).

The wine list at Clink is complicated by the many different portions sold, but has wine-press adjectives to help you choose. Our waiter up-sold me to Medusa 2004 “Lovers Lane” Zinfandel ($13/100 ml; $28/250 ml; $55/500 ml; $69/bottle), a wine he described as chocolaty. And it was, in that Port-wine way of very-high-alcohol, big zins. I’d buy a bottle or two for home. Some of the cheaper wines on the list, a 2005 Trimbach Alsatian riesling ($8; $18; $36; $44) and a 2005 Tamari Argentine malbec ($6; $13; $26; $29) showed very well in the oversize glasses. The former is crisp and aromatic; the latter a nicely proportioned red wine with a lot of spice in the nose. Ice water was frequently refilled, and decaf coffee was very tasty.

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Related: Sage, Da Vinci Ristorante, Tresca, More more >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , CLINK, Culture and Lifestyle, Food and Cooking,  More more >
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