Upscale Greek cuisine is having a moment in Boston, currently drawing crowds at the Seaport’s glitzy Committee and debuting imminently at two South End venues (Wink & Nod and Kava). But when Michael Schlow jumps into the fray, a moment can start to look like an Important Trend. Can a local celebrity chef finally make Bostonians ditch their notion of Greek fare as the province of no-frills neighborhood joints and gyros stands? Inspired by his wife Adrienne’s Greek heritage, Schlow appears set on doing just that, replacing his long-running Via Matta with the new Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar.
Fans of Via Matta may gawp at the space’s physical transformation: A big, foursquare bar now commands the center of a dimly lit dining room. Plain wooden tables, chairs and floors yield fashionably ear-splitting acoustics barely softened by perimeter leather banquettes. Adrienne Schlow’s vivid paintings provide the few splashes of color and hints of modernity. In the old bar’s space, a show kitchen tantalizingly displays whole fish and shellfish on ice, which makes it hard not to order a dozen local oysters ($19), pristine and sweet, or prettily fanned-out slices of raw yellowtail ($14) with a not-overbearing accent of crushed olives. This is high-quality raw bar at downtown prices.
That imposing, spacious bar seems built for grazing. How easy it is to make a meal of traditional Mediterranean spreads served with excellent pita, like roasted eggplant ($6) with walnuts and red pepper, runny whipped feta ($5) with pickled jalapeños for punch, and delectable fava bean hummus ($7) sprinkled with chewy apricots and giant pine nuts. These beautifully exemplify the virtues of the Greek kitchen: a few clear, simple flavors allowed to shine, brightened with great olive oil, lemon, salt and fresh herbs. Those same qualities make the village salad ($10 per person) nearly miraculous: simple cherry tomatoes (a wise winter choice), cucumbers, red onions and red-wine vinegar, lifted to wonderment by excellent briny olives, dreamy feta and fresh oregano, instantly banishing the memory of a thousand perfunctory, dreadful Greek salads.
Small plates mostly hit that traditional bull’s-eye, as in grilled octopus ($16) with onions and capers, given a skillful one-two of grill-char and tenderness, and squares of flaky, oily-but-not-too-oily spinach pie ($9). Gigandes beans ($10) with kale and garlic are similarly earthy and satisfying, another brilliantly simple salad. The cumin accent and crisp panko coating on lamb meatballs ($12) might nonplus a traditionalist, but they benefit from properly gamy lamb flavor and good acid balance from tomato, yogurt and lemon zest. That acid balance goes sorely missing in certain dishes, like small warm shrimp ($13) showered in breadcrumbs and dill. (Ask for extra lemons; they help.) Breaking from the Greek tradition of overcooking vegetable sides works nicely with string beans ($8) but goes too raw in zucchini ($8) with tomatoes and black olives. Crispy zucchini chips ($12) get a brisk cucumber/yogurt dip but a limp fry job. Roasted peppers ($11) with capers and red onion hit their mark, thanks to terrific, fierce white anchovies.
After many small plates, entrees may seem superfluous, but it’s worth finding room for lusciously fatty, meltingly tender 15-hour lamb shoulder ($28) with gigandes beans and kale, the pot roast of the Greek gods. A fillet of branzino ($34) is perfectly cooked with a side of grilled fennel but seems a bit meager for the price. Red snapper ($32) is a heftier, skin-on chunk of similarly beautiful, fresh fish, but arrives quite underdone. Chicken ($26) with lemon, garlic and herbs reflects more skillful technique, but repeat accompaniments of gigandes beans and kale can start to feel rote.
Desserts are mostly hits: Galaktoboureko ($10) is a lighter, airier, not-too-sweet version of the classic Greek pastry of semolina custard in phyllo, while chocolate cake ($10) with espresso ganache and fig jam is appropriately swoonily rich. Toasted almond cake ($10) is dry enough to require bites of its fine smoked-apple gelato.
As befits a taverna, Doretta’s bar program is versatile and food-friendly, notably in a wine list dotted with lovely Greek wines by the glass ($9-$26), like the flinty-yet-fruity white 2014 Domaine Sigalas ($12) from Santorini, and the lush, tannic red 2010 Boutari from Naoussa ($14). Cocktails are witty yet not too challenging, as in the Sidecar variant that is The Crazy Way ($13) of brandy, cinnamony Rakomelo liqueur and blood orange, and the Tiki-ish flavors of the Santorini ($13) of dark rum, herb spirit, falernum and pineapple. A dozen beer bottles ($6-$19) lean global and crafty. Service is smooth and ingratiating, but needs to better coordinate sequencing with the kitchen at times to avoid a pileup of plates that can’t fit at the table.
Ultimately, Doretta provides a useful reintroduction to the elemental pleasures of Greek cookery in an urbane if occasionally uneven package, its kitchen shining brightest in those smaller, more traditional plates. With any luck, Schlow and his emerging competition will finally convince Bostonians to give one of the world’s great foundational cuisines the overdue respect it deserves.
– Fava bean hummus
– Village salad
– Grilled octopus
– Gigandes beans
– 15-hour lamb shoulder
Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar 79 Park Plaza, Boston (617-422-0008) dorettaboston.com
Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 am-2:30 pm, limited bar menu, 2:30-5 pm; dinner, Sun.-Thu., 5-10:30 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5-11 pm; bar open nightly till 1 am
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby public parking garages
Liquor: Full bar