STEAK THING UP: The eponymous flat-iron steak tastes terrific.
What we used to have at the Bulfinch Hotel was an odd steakhouse that didn’t quite work. What we have now is an odd tapas bar that works for drinks and a bite, but not really for dinner. I mean, you can assemble small plates that add up to protein, vegetable, and starch, but it won’t feel like dinner. It will feel like tapas — though it’s somewhat hard to accept a tapas bar with a German-born chef and no tortilla (the Spanish potato omelet). The real issue, I suspect, is that the German-born (and rather creative) chef works out of New Jersey, so he can’t exorcise the devils that get into the details.
Flat Iron Tapas Bar | 107 Merrimac Street (Bulfinch Hotel), Boston | Open Mon–Fri, 6:30–10:30 am and 4:30–11 pm; Sat, 7:30–11:30 am and 4:30–11 pm; and Sun, 7:30–11:30 am | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | No valet parking | Up two steps from sidewalk level; elevator access to basement bathroom | 617.778.2900
But he sure can spec olive oil! The pour, with a simple basket of sliced French bread, hits all the bases: grassy, floury, fruity, olive-y. It’s super. See if you can save some for the recent special platter of heirloom tomatoes ($9.95). Admittedly, the sum of the yellow, red, and “black” tomato slices is about that of one average tomato, but the little that is there is choice, and is subtly enhanced with a dash of vinegar. The only other real vegetable option is “leaves of Romaine lettuce” ($5), actually a kind of no-croutons Caesar salad with terrific fresh Manchego cheese (an authentic tapa), white anchovies on top (another), and a dressing made oddly sweet with bits of lemon confit.
It is quite daring for a hotel to have such an experimental restaurant, but tourists will be fine with the clam chowder with “bacon foam” ($5). It’s excellent chowder with all the right flavors, filled with clam meat and potato and thickened with a little starch, and the cappuccino-like foam on top is not very distracting. Likewise, the eponymous flat-iron steak ($11) — well, actually both the steak and the restaurant are named for the triangular footprint of the building, like an antique clothes iron — tastes terrific and came medium-rare as ordered. But tourists may be shocked at a four-ounce square of meat, not even the whole triangle, and more shocked when you realize it’s been pre-sliced and then reconstructed, so it comes apart in gravy. They’ll be okay with the French fries ($6), even though they’re served in paper in a square wire container. At least, they will be okay once they find the real ketchup among the three sauces. There’s another ketchup, doctored up like steak sauce, and a “saffron aioli” that comes off as very yolky homemade mayonnaise. The fries have excellent potato flavor and quite a lot of sea salt. If, on the other hand, a tourist orders the lemon chicken ($6), the shock is that it is a mere finger of chicken, topped with micro greens. It, too, breaks into pre-cut slices, which are overdone, as flaky as fish, and have barbecue sauce burnt on, Boston-style.
Now, here’s what the culinary tourist should have. Number one: the tuna tartare ($8). Chef Thomas Ciszak has earned his rep with this one. The tuna is somehow infused with a strong flavor of kaffir lime leaves, and served in coconut milk with giant tapioca pearls, the kind that go in bubble tea. The textures are perfect foils for each other. There is a secondary flavor of chopped chives. I’ve never eaten raw tuna that wasn’t flavored with soy, ginger, wasabi, or sesame before. I will again.
Number two: cinnamon-glazed Chilean sea bass ($11.95). Another novel combination, it features just a bit of cinnamon on rich, flaky whitefish (another perfect four-ounce diet portion), and is topped with a petite braised fennel.
Number three: fried calamari ($9). This is an authentic Spanish tapa, but here served with several innovations. Chef Ciszak has added fried chorizo sausage slices and fried jalapeno slices for heat. The dip, a fiery mayonnaise, is also quite flavorful and spicy-hot. The squid are dry-fried, but the real treat is a grilled, flavorful tomato underneath, similar to the white bread used to soak up barbecue juice in old Southern barbecue shacks.
Number four: jumbo lump crab cake ($13). It’s not jumbo, but it is brilliant. What the chef has done here is made some kind of thickener to be used just on the surfaces, so there are two browned crusts with a filling of almost pure crab meat. This has another nice mustard grain sauce, but the crab cake itself is fabulous already.
I also liked the grilled octopus with chorizo ($8). This is two authentic tapas mixed together and served in a most un-Spanish way: on a frisée salad with a citric vinaigrette dressing. A smoked salmon dish ($8) featured a few fingerling potato slices and the mustard-grain vinaigrette, the salmon salty enough for drinks.