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The Savant Project

Mostly mediocre, but with flourishes of excellence
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  January 7, 2009
1.0 1.0 Stars

A NOVEL TWIST: Steak frites are a job well done — especially the French-fried onions.

The Savant Project | 617.566.5958 | 1625 Tremont Street, Boston | Open Mon–Fri, 11:30 AM–2:30 PM and 5–10 PM; and Sat, 5–10 PM | AE, MC, VI | Beer and Wine | No Valet Parking | Sidewalk-level access to most tables
It showed such promise: great name, good early food reviews, and rumors of expansion plans. But a year later, with no empire in sight, there's a simpler menu, scattered service on a slow night, and a tired quality to much of what we ate.

"The Savant Project" is still a great name, and the place still has that autistic-savant quality of following its own logic. My first attempt to review the place found it closed on the night of a major sports event, for instance. When we did get inside another evening, the muted TV over the bar was tuned to the ION network, a cable channel featuring reruns. The background music seems to be alt rock, of the REM variety.

And how can you not love a menu that offers "Julio Cesar's Mexican Hangover Soup" ($5/cup; $8/bowl)? Answer: if the soup is served lukewarm and doesn't taste like much. I would've guessed the "Mexican" part would make it tortilla soup, but no: we had bland vegetables and one tasty cube of beef in a dull broth. Perhaps that's all that one with a terrible hangover can handle. (Just don't order it sober.)

Tempura-fried veggies ($8) are a better bet, though without the distinct breading of real Japanese tempura. It's still a big pile of fried food: green beans, carrots, onions, squash. It comes with a little cup of peanut-mustard dip that I dribbled over the top.

Greek salad ($8.50) is typical, except this one has better greens and fried cubes of feta cheese. This last item sounds like a smart idea, but it's more of a . . . savant project. The cubes are larger than most in Greek salads, the better to dip in bread crumbs and deep-fry. Problem is, that much feta cheese in one bite is too salty. So now we have to cut up the cheese in our Greek salad.

The pick of our entrèes was "beer-battered fish tacos with smoky slaw" ($15). The tacos are soft tortillas wrapped around fried cod, and while not quite up there with some I've had in Baja — or even those at the lamented Cafè D — they are delicious, classic fish tacos. Since fish tacos aren't real Mexican food anyway, why shouldn't Boston develop them as a specialty?

Steak frites ($18) are a job well done. The novel twist here is to cut the steak into logs and stack them the way some restaurants stack French fries or panisses. The actual frites, not bad at all, are just a heap; the best part (aside from a perfectly nice steak) is the French-fried onions. Pine-nut-crusted pork ($18) is, like the fried feta, a super-sounding idea, but the cook has to learn that nuts brown faster than bread crumbs. By the time this platter reached me, I had a couple pieces of pork scaloppini with nuts so burned their taste was unrecognizable. Scalloped sweet potatoes and a salad of field greens were fine.

The Savant Project has some ingenious cocktails made without hard liquor, but on our cold night they were unable to make the one with port wine and hot cider. Out of cider. (There is a supermarket across the street.) Six taps isn't many, but one was Harpoon Winter Warmer ($4.50), a clean draught of amber delight. Two glasses of red wine were clearly poured from leftover bottles — always a risk in dining early. One had a spoiled taste on the end; the other had built up some volatile acidity. Modern winemaking technology has just about eliminated these two problems from any bottle you can afford, but the bottle left open overnight is subject to corruption. No point even naming these wines — it wasn't the fault of the makers.

The better of the desserts we tried was the "sake drunken berry cup" ($7), a nice assortment of berries soaked in sweetened sake, more like syrup than an alcoholic drink. Deep-fried churros with powdered sugar and dark-chocolate dipping sauce ($6) might have evoked Spain, had the crullers been larger and cooked through. Uncooked dough at the center isn't cool. In Spain, they use thickened hot chocolate with milk. This was dark chocolate, thicker than most mousse. No problem with dipping, though, because after the first bite we discarded the churros and ate the chocolate with a spoon. A crème brèlèe duo ($7) was supposed to be ginger and mango. I got the ginger, not the mango.

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , american cuisine , Culture and Lifestyle , Food and Cooking ,  More more >
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