Across the nation, speakeasy-style bars are a trend that won’t quit. Squirreled away behind moving bookshelves and employees-only doors, underground watering holes thrive in nearly every major city except Boston, where our hottest spots are in plain sight. So when word started circulating about Wink & Nod’s South End opening in March, we expected the self-styled speakeasy to boast at least some of the traits that characterize this bar species elsewhere—a “secret” entrance down an alley, perhaps, or a worn-looking facade.
Instead, we got a press release. And stationed outside the restaurant’s Appleton Street entrance—beneath quite-visible signage—is a suited gentleman who greets guests as they arrive. “Welcome to Wink & Nod,” he announces. Secrecy, schmecrecy. There might as well have been a strobe light.
But the theme plays out in the decor. A dramatic redesign of the space has erased all signs of Noche, the previous restaurant, replacing the glossy contemporary finishes with moody, vintage-style details like tufted booth seating and a tin ceiling. Crystal chandeliers and low lighting lend the bar an inviting air.
Because Wink & Nod is a partnership with Whisk, a local pop-up restaurant venture from chefs Jeremy Kean and Philip Kruta, food and drink programs operate somewhat independently. The bar side of things is headed up by general manager Curtis McMillan, and the recipes are thoughtful: Almost every juice, tonic and syrup is handmade by the staff, combined in careful proportion to make signature offerings like the Vera Prescott, a Tiki-inspired combo of Cutty Sark Prohibition scotch, house-made ginger ale and pear puree, and the Jennifer ($12), a vodka-based drink with apricot liqueur and honey-hibiscus syrup. (Cocktails are named after screen sirens and other bombshells.)
The locavore menu, designed for sharing, changes with the season. But you can count on signature dishes like the Super Yaki ($32), an assortment of skewered grilled meats presented in a sealed mason jar full of dense white smoke, which releases as your server lifts the lid. It’s tender, flavorful and filling, not to mention fun, and worth ordering for a bigger party. Another signature is the black pasta ($26), a nest of handmade squid-ink tagliatelle with an intensely savory tomato-based ragu of baby octopus, cauliflower and miso, which our table devoured at a recent dinner. The supermoist foie gras duck meatballs ($21) didn’t last long either. Kalbi short rib ($15), accompanied by foraged mushrooms, petite beets and other Lilliputian veggies, had the soft, even texture of meat cooked sous-vide rather than braised, and was another table favorite.
On the lighter side, kale salad with za’atar spices, preserved lemon and black sesame ($9) had great acidity and crunch. But while oysters with smoked orange mignonette ($18 for six) sounded magnificent, the toppings lent no discernible flavor to the plate. (It also would have been nice if the server or runner had let us know what kind of oysters they were.)
Clearly, Wink & Nod has skill and ambition aplenty. On off nights, though, it feels like the kitchen aspires to more than it can reliably execute, and the products of the bar and kitchen suffer many of the same afflictions. Why call out that the Maude cocktail (sherry, lemon, egg white and rye, $12) will be served in a coupe when it turns up at the table in an Old Fashioned glass? Why take pains to highlight a 62-degree egg—a trendy preparation designed to yield a perfectly runny center—when what arrives is completely cooked through? Why push hard for guests to order the house-made Fresh Twinkie ($8), when the dessert is dry and barely filled?
Luckily, despite lots of disconnect, there’s never discord. From the cheerful staffers to the patrons getting rowdy at the bar, everybody’s happy at Wink & Nod. Spirits flow freely, and spirits are high. And that is something that’s not easy to find.
-Foie gras duck meatballs
-Kalbi short rib
Hours: 5 pm-2 am nightly
Credit Cards: Yes
Parking: Metered street parking
Liquor: Full bar
Wink & Nod | 3 Appleton St., Boston | 617-482-0117 | winkandnod.com