Betting on gentrification is risky in the restaurant business. For every Toro or Drink, there are dozens of places that fail by arriving in a potentially up-and-coming neighborhood a little too soon. Consider Chickadee, which alighted this summer in a remote, still mostly industrial corner of the Seaport, far from its glitzy new high-rises, with few signs of life beyond the cruise ship terminal, Reebok’s headquarters and the Boston Design Center. Who would venture to this lonely, land’s-end area for fine dining, especially at night, when it feels particularly desolate? Well, we did, a bunch of times—even though we wished we’d gotten a cab instead of walking home one late night—because Chickadee, co-owned by veteran GM Ted Kilpatrick (recently of O Ya’s Manhattan ventures) and chef John daSilva (ex-Spoke Wine Bar), is pretty great.
Kilpatrick’s beverage program reflects his roots at No. 9 Park, starting with elegant craft cocktails boasting of-the-moment accents, as in the vivid Red Hawk ($13) of aged tequila, roasted red pepper puree and lime juice, and the austere Albatross ($13) of genever, plum shrub, bitters and pink salt. There’s a short, geeky, heavily local list of beer and cider on draft and in bottles and cans ($6-$14), plus a clever, nice-priced, Old-World-centric wine program with 15 by-the-glass offerings ($12-$22) and 54 bottles ($48-$395, most under $90).
Chef daSilva’s food leans mostly European, punched up by Levantine and North African embellishments. There’s fine technique hiding even in seemingly humble dishes, and lots worth Instagramming. His menu opens with simple drinking-food snacks like smoked sea trout dip ($8) ringed with rye crisps and topped with creamy horseradish dressing flecked with snipped dill and chives, and savory sour-cream-and-onion donuts ($9) with a dip of crème fraîche dashed with caviar and chive blossoms. Crab gratin ($12) in a creamy corn base is a delectably airy, custardy, nearly sweet dip for puffy rice crackers.
Squid ink fusilli
Then there are cold dishes like a vibrant cucumber gazpacho ($11) garnished with grilled stone fruits, cucumber slices, a smear of basil oil and sprinkles of feta and bulgur. Grilled carrots ($12) are shaved into attractive curls, lightly dressed in vinaigrette and plopped over creamy avocado hummus with hazelnuts and more fresh herbs. A chopped salad ($12) tosses cubes of apple and turnip with medjool dates and bulgur, not overwhelmed by a subtle labneh ranch dressing. As at Spoke, daSilva shows a particularly adept hand with fresh pastas, from lighter renditions like potato bigoli ($15, half/$26, full) with littlenecks, green harissa and shaved pecorino to fiercely flavored squid ink fusilli ($16/$28) with soppressata, tomatoes and ink-stained bread crumbs as well as lumache ($16/$28) under a deep, rich lamb ragu with fresh favas topped with a dollop of vadouvan-dusted labneh
There’s enough joy to this point in the menu to overlook the entrees, but that would be a mistake, as they include several stunners, starting with a lovely, generous plate of big, nicely browned, super-fresh sea scallops ($32) with bits of honeynut squash and leeks. Roasted porchetta ($30) is a dramatic swirl of a cross-section of a rolled pork-shoulder with accompaniments that sound bizarre—watermelon, fried peanuts, jalapeño and colatura (a stinky Italian fish sauce), really?—but yield a smashing synthesis on the palate. Spiced duck breast ($32) features fantastically crisp-skinned, just-fatty slices of duck, a cylinder of sublime duck sausage and the niftily contrasting crunch of jicama and smoked almonds. Grilled lamb harira ($36) reads like a novel gloss on cassoulet: perfectly pink chunks of lamb loin and hunks of superb lamb sausage in a rich stew of chickpeas, red lentils and sweet peppers with a dollop of kohlrabi tzatziki, a fabulous fall/winter dish.
Grilled lamb harira
Desserts include another plate of fried dough in the form of cinnamon malasada ($10), like a sweet donut gussied up with stracciatella and berry jam, though we preferred the more delicate, chef-ier chocolate semifreddo ($11) with its glossy chocolate shell, caramel sauce, crisp phyllo foundation and modernist sprinkles of dehydrated halva and chocolate.
The ambiance deserves special mention as it combines elements that encompass a lot of the restaurant’s broader charms. The high-ceilinged, continuous space that is the dining room and bar has a cool industrial feel befitting the neighborhood and setting in the Innovation and Design Building: blond woods, acid-etched concrete floors, translucent draperies and sleek surfaces echoing the black/white/gray plumage of the eponymous little bird. Generous spacing, manageable noise levels and polished, attentive service contribute to a relaxed, urbane vibe. The place feels a little edgy, but too comfy and unpretentious to be outré.
Given Boston’s recent relentless tide of development, the blank spaces that currently surround Chickadee will likely soon be crowded with new buildings. If that’s the case, here’s hoping that this stretch gets populated with more sophisticated, self-assured indie newcomers like Chickadee and far fewer of the dull national chains that crowd the other side of the Seaport. In the meantime, take the next Lyft or Silver Line bus to get there, so you can say you knew the place, and the neighborhood, when it was cool, before it got hot. ◆
Squid ink fusilli
Spiced duck breast
Grilled lamb harira
Chickadee, 21 Drydock Ave., Boston (617-531-5591) chickadeerestaurant.com; Hours: Mon.-Sat., 11 am-2 pm and 5-10 pm; Liquor: Full; Reservations: Yes; Parking: Free lot (90-minute limit before 6 pm) and nearby private garage