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Restaurant Marliave

Introducing a menu that multitasks
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  December 12, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

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FOURTH INCARNATION: The landmark Marliave is back for an upscale round.

Restaurant Marliave | 617.422.0004 | 10 Bosworth Street, Boston | Open Sun–Thurs, 11:30 am–10 pm; and Fri & Sat, 11:30 am–11 pm | AE, DC, MC, VI | Full bar | Valet parking, $16 at Nine Zero Hotel | Access up many stairs
The Marliave is 132 years old. It opened as a French restaurant, survived Prohibition as a speakeasy, and at some point became Italian. And so, in the lifetime of the Boston Phoenix, it was a relatively cheap, old-fashioned Italian café spread oddly over three floors and a charming porch, which is now enclosed. Two years ago the restaurant was shuttered to be lovingly rehabilitated by chef Scott Herritt, of Beacon Hill's cozy basement-level Grotto. Now Herritt is running the three-level circus that is the new Marliave: an oyster bar; a New England food/speakeasy-flavor bar-bistro; and a fine-dining room, with which we are here concerned. The news from up top is good: old Marliave fans may have a little sticker shock, but the upstairs food is mostly Italian and mostly terrific.

On the dining-room menu, the operative word is "variation." Each appetizers and dessert, for example, presents more than one treatment of an ingredient or flavor, while each entrée is actually divided into two courses, with one making something like an Italian pasta middle course and the other a modest, nouvelle-portion entrûe. It's a lot to take in, but it works quite well in pacing a luxurious dinner over an evening.

The appetizers seem to be the hardest to get right when it comes to the multitasking. My favorite was Eva's Garden Salad ($17), which manages to highlight two delicious kinds of heirloom tomatoes during out-of-season November, along with mesclun, edible nasturtium flowers, and a demitasse of rich tomato-veggie bisque. Beet salad ($17) includes a similar cuplet of cold borscht, a marvelous row of cubed mousses (goat cheese and red and yellow beets), and a somewhat silly toothpick skewer of sliced beets and multicolored cheese.

The duck appetizer ($17) brings two scrumptious meatballs in a port-wine reduction, plus foie gras (fattened duck liver) stuffed into a few ravioli. Unfortunately, the foie gras got lost inside the pasta, but you get the idea. Three pairs of oysters ($17) all fell short: oysters Rockefeller tasted mostly like cheese; oysters casino were overwhelmed by salty bacon; and oysters Champagne were just more cheese with oysters baked in there somewhere. It'd be better to simply perfect one of these recipes.

The lobster dish ($39) starts as an Italian pasta course of lobster-meat macaroni that is pure pleasure; the second version is a stack of claws and tails poached with butter on a little spinach, along with some fingerling potato slices. What a great, lazy way to eat a lobster! The Colorado lamb ($39) begins with chunks of braised lamb and feather-light gnocchi; then, a couple of thick chops and a superb wild-mushroom stew.

Veal Milanese ($39) gives you a chewy risotto featuring a chunk of braised veal and a sprig of fresh chervil; it's followed by an excellent veal loin chop with a bit of breading. The latter evokes schnitzel à la Holstein, with an egg over light and some grilled asparagus. This could bring back "Continental" cuisine.

Even the vegetarian dinner ($39), based on wild mushrooms, has multiple components, with a course of whole-wheat lasagna (actually ribbons the width of tagliatelle on layers of wild mushrooms, enhanced with truffle oil and some spinach), followed by mushroom pot pie with onions, potatoes, and parsnips under a huge pouf of puff pastry. Since when does the vegetarian get the comfort food?

The Marliave's wine list is extensive and reasonably priced, though it doesn't start until the high $30s. We had a bottle of 2006 Bernard Baudry "Les Granges" Chinon ($38). This one is made from young vines, and was very light for a Chinon, with enough acidity for the food, but not a lot else going for it. We were happier with 2005 Château Pesquié Côtes-du-Ventoux Cuvée Terrasses ($45), a big basket of fruit with plenty of oomph to take on the big Rhône names. A request for a Coke ($2.50) produces a souvenir bottle some will remember from the 1950s as a "nickel Coke."

Desserts continue the cubist theme of many takes on one flavor. For chocolate ($10), there's a piece of flourless chocolate cake, a truffle, and a rather good dish of chocolate pudding. For vanilla ($10), it's a half-size crème brûlée, a mini-cup of tiramisu, and a somewhat bland little cupcake. Ice cream ($10) is actually the wild and crazy dessert here: you can choose three of four flavors, and we picked mint, ginger, and lavender. Mint and ginger ice creams are always welcome, but I sometimes forget that soap-like aromas, such as lavender, are nicely tempered in ice cream.

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