Good start to finish
Rating: 3.0 stars
November 14, 2007 5:14:06 PM
TURKEY-PORTOBELLO MEATLOAF: As beefy as the real stuff.

Coda | 329 Columbus Avenue, Boston | Open daily, 11:30–4 pm; 5 pm–midnight | AE, Di, MC, Vi | Full bar | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access | 617.536.CODA
Yup, even I am becoming more conservative. Here, with Coda, we have a new South End restaurant that doesn’t break a lot of new ground, but it does everything pretty nicely and is as comfortable as an old shoe. There was a time when I would have called it unimaginative or plain. Any day now, I will be in one of those ice-cream parlors where the special is rye-whiskey-macadamia-nut-blue-cheese sorbet, and I will hear myself ordering . . . vanilla.

In the meantime, Coda is just right. There are enough references to “modern bistro” at this Columbus Avenue storefront-turned-dining-room that you know you’re in the South End, but there are also some solid offerings at moderate prices so you could even imagine yourself in the old South End. We started with a basket of sliced French bread and a nifty spread of what tasted like sun-dried tomatoes and cheese. Appetizers are the new entrées, and are rather large here, but you won’t be surprised or scandalized by the Prince Edward Island mussels ($9). You get a big heap of shells holding small-but-tasty mussels in a smooth wine-anise-scented sauce that’s good enough to slurp. As for the “crispy fried calamari” ($8): love the dry-fried squid, hate the adjective misconstruction. Is Coco the only “crisp” in town? And how do they get the bite into the mayonnaise-like sauce? White pepper, perhaps?

On the big-app side, I loved the pot stickers ($8). These are homemade with mostly vegetables inside and served with stir-fry on top and all around. Slow-cooked duck confit with cassoulet ($11) is just barely an appetizer. You get a whole duck leg and thigh, with a pretty good cure that’s tender and a little salty, and a stew of sausage, undercooked white beans (sorry, chef, but cassoulet is slow food), and a bit of very flavorful tomato (which may have kept the beans from softening).

Real entrées come with a common vegetable garnish, which on our night was snap beans with a bit of garlic. Steak frites ($22) is now made with a rib eye and is a few dollars more than when it was made with hanger steak. Steak fans will pay without complaint but may not share their outstanding shoestring fried potatoes. A char-grilled pork chop ($18) was almost two inches thick, but slightly overdone and slightly dried out. What it needed was chutney. What it got was chestnut gnocchi (not too chestnut-flavored, but loveable nuggets of slightly browned starch) and those green beans. The doggy-bag piece finally got the chutney it deserved at lunch the next day.

Turkey-portobello meatloaf ($13) is a best buy. With the caramelized onion “marmalade” on top, this is as beefy as the real stuff, and the plain mashed potatoes are super with it. (See how conservative he’s getting, Maude? This guy used to want parsnips or celery root in his mashed potatoes.) A salmon special brought rich, grilled farm salmon and a fine side of Caribbean-style oily rice, green beans, and a little fresh tomato sauce on top.

This somewhat plain food is an ideal foil for an adventurous wine list — or at least one that’s adventurously written. “The aromas here are quintessential albariño, with pineapple, white peach, and a hint of ginger. Beautifully smooth, the wine is fragrant with papaya and alive with well-balanced acidity.” That was the description for our Burgans 2006 albariño ($9/glass; $30/bottle), a trendy Spanish white in which my increasingly conservative nose picked up, oh, pine-y and flowery aromas with a crisp finish. It made for good drinking, as did the 2006 Doña Paula malbec ($8/$29), an Argentine red that’s the perfect match for turkey-portobello meatloaf. There are also some choice microbrews on draft. A Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout ($5.50) is like Guinness, only bitterer, sweeter, and higher in alcohol. This is what Guinness tastes like if you’re a twentysomething light-beer drinker having it for the first time.

There was only one dessert the night we dined at Coda. (Sometimes they have two.) It was cinnamon cheesecake with crème Anglaise ($6.50). Since the thinned custard sauce is vanilla, I actually did order vanilla. On a table with chocolate and fruit desserts, I don’t think I would pay much attention to this or any cheesecake. But all by itself, it was rather rich and fascinating.

Service at Coda is excellent, in part because this is a small-ish, long room with a little kitchen that just turns things out. The space used to be the beloved, tawdry Tim’s Tavern, but it’s been delightfully and conservatively redone with one long bare-brick wall, the other broken up by wood, a bar, two TVs, and a beige stretch with modern abstract paintings. Despite some background music, it’s even decently quiet when half-full on a rainy night.

Is dinner at Coda memorable? Maybe not. Maybe in six months all I will remember will be the meatloaf or the cheesecake or the pot stickers. Or maybe all I will remember is the calm satisfaction at the end of the meal.

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Robert Nadeau:


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