The South End’s new Banyan Bar + Refuge has great bones. It’s run by Rebecca Roth Gullo and Seth Yaffe of the nearby Gallows and Blackbird Doughnuts, 5-year-old and 9-month-old smashes, respectively. Chef Phillip Tang hails from East by Northeast, a beloved, bygone Inman Square Asian joint. Their redo of the revered Hamersley’s Bistro space is breathtaking: The spacious patio oasis remains, the bar has been expanded into a hopping grazing spot, and the dining room is now an airy cathedral festooned with nests of bare branches. It’s like stumbling on a sunlit glade in a grove of stately white birches in winter. The hallowed ghost of Gordon’s roast chicken might gasp in admiration.
Tang’s open kitchen turns out an ambitious menu that alternates between glorified reworkings of casual Asian dishes and the voguish, umami-heavy East/West fusion of David Chang’s Momofuku empire. The results are frequently sensational. Takoyaki ($11), a gloss on Japanese street-food octopus fritters, is superb: airy fried-dough spheres with bits of braised squid in a sweet soy glaze and drizzles of aioli dusted with waving flakes of bonito. Fried pig tails ($8), slices in garlic/black-bean sauce with gremolata, are a crispy, fatty, bony pleasure—the gourmand’s Saugus Wings. Grilled corn ($8) is risky in Toro’s ’hood, but Tang sweetly reinvents it, subbing togarashi for espelette, whipped coconut for aioli and toasted coconut for cotija. Lacinato kale salad ($10) is a generous, amply dressed bowl of greens brilliantly punched up with fried shallots. Octopus ($16) is finely chopped, piquantly dressed with grapefruit, sweet chili sauce and peanuts, and served on lettuce wraps: complex, delightful, drippy. Similarly messy but impeccable are grilled head-on shrimp ($16), plump behemoths that don’t need the Thai-inflected yellow curry sauce.
Not every dish is flawless in concept or execution. House pork wontons ($12) show skill in their hand-crafted boiled dumplings, but their delicacy is pummeled by a heavy sauce of smoked tahini. Cast-iron duck-confit crispy rice ($25) is a homely, overpriced fiasco: uncrisp rice bedecked with limp duck, pale corn relish and a poached egg, white-on-white on a white plate, the bland squiggle of gochujang ketchup no help. Crudos offer a very pricey few bites, their delicate foundations overwhelmed by adornments. The flavor of smoked scallops ($15) barely ekes through layers of corn puree, pickled celery and potato sticks; fluke ($14) is undetectable under soy-ginger vinaigrette, chili oil, orange segments and crushed cashews.
Tang makes great Chinese breads for wrapping around sweet/savory/spicy fillings. His fantastic lobster roll ($15) fills a chewy, English-muffin-like bun with lots of warm lobster dressed with honey miso butter: the Connecticut shore by way of Shaanxi, with a side of pickled sea beans for briny contrast. A fried oyster bun ($11) fills mantou (think puffy, steamed wheat tortilla) with savory soy cucumbers, arugula and garlic/black-bean aioli, but brutally overfries its oyster to a dry brown lump. Red-braised pulled pork ($8) on mantou fares better with tender pork, crunchy slaw and fried shallots, though the whole is more evocative of Charlotte than Jiangsu.
Larger dishes are simpler and more consistent. Fried chicken ($27) punches up an able fry job with acidic chimichurri and funky furikake, plus good Kewpie-mayo potato salad, again recalling the American South more than Southern China. Whole fried fish (scup on one night, $32) is barely seasoned with spicy lime sauce, a faint accent of Sichuan-peppercorn salt and mild ginger/scallion relish, but flawless cooking of a meaty specimen with some crisp skin is its own perfect pleasure. The sole dessert, cream puffs ($10) glazed with miso caramel and flecked with sesame seeds, offers a sweet parting nod to East/West fusion.
The busy bar serves a few Tiki-inspired drinks, like the on-tap Painkiller ($12) of spiced rum and pineapple and orange juices topped with coconut foam—kicky and fun. Cocktails often feature house-infused spirits, like plum-infused rye in the Umeboshi Old Fashioned ($12); most skew sweet by 21st-century standards. The bartenders, while amiable and hustling, don’t boast the craft scholarship that most new indies hire away from Garrett Harker or Barbara Lynch. Three jars of sake ($12-$15), a dozen wines by the glass ($9-$12) and a compact, mostly-Asian roster of beer ($5-$12) offer nice-priced, better-suited accompaniment. You’ll have to dig deep for a bottle of wine: The list of 14 runs $55-$180, with most choices under $75. Table service mostly lives up to the prices, with a few rough-edged exceptions.
Banyan appears to be triangulating carefully, competing not only for sophisticated city dwellers but tourists and suburbanites. Its mild take on East/West fusion seems aimed at diners who find Shojo and Ribelle too weird, its cocktails a comfort to drinkers weary of complex craft concoctions. The gorgeous room and pretty small plates seem tailored for special occasions and deal-closing date nights. But longevity in a space this big hinges on neighborhood loyalty, and South Enders are a demanding bunch. To win that crowd at these prices, Banyan’s talented team is going to have to execute with a little more consistency.
-Octopus lettuce cup
-Fried whole fish
Hours: Sun.-Wed., 5 pm-midnight, Thu.-Sat., 5 pm-1 am
Parking: Metered street spaces, nearby private lots, valet
Liquor: Full bar
Banyan Bar + Refuge 553 Tremont St., Boston (617-556-4211) banyanboston.com