MANY HAPPY RETURNS: There's plenty worth coming back for at Brownstone.
A lot of good but fake Mexican food has been made under the bridge where Prairie Star — and, prior to that, Baja Cantina — used to be located. Brownstone has since brought bistro pretensions to the space, with prices that are quite modest for the South End/Back Bay line. Not everything works, but, with some selections, this could be a place for many happy returns.
You can certainly start with one of the “bites,” such as medjool dates stuffed with feta ($4), which are four large pieces of fruit with hot cheese, similar to a cheese Danish. Or you can try a bar-like appetizer, such as the fritto misto ($9), which features well-fried squid, flavorful mussels, some shrimp, and even slices of lemon and red and green jalapeño, served with a spicy mayonnaise. Plus, there’s crab dip ($9), nicely set out with pita toasts, and chicken lollipops ($7), which are more Bangkok than Buffalo and are glazed with syrupy hot-pepper “squid sauce.” What makes the latter a lollipop is the wing section, the meat of which has been pushed up to create a bone “handle.”
If your fantasy is bistro, have something like the green-bean-and-feta salad ($7), which is nicely flavored by lots of sliced red onions and a fine vinaigrette. Or consider the side dish of roast asparagus ($5). The portion is only six spears of pencil thickness, but the roasting is nicely done so the flavor is concentrated with just a touch of char.
Then the variety ends: entrées are, inexplicably, all bistro. Budget-bistro buffs may well stick to one course and some wine. Veal breast ($18) is one to try. It’s rolled around lots of herbs and sliced into a couple of inch-thick rounds. Underneath is a stew of fresh peas, carrots, wild mushrooms, and onions; one wants only more gravy. The dish is usually presented with gnocchi, the better to spread that mushroom-veal flavor around, but on our night they were out and large spiral pasta were substituted.
Citrus and anise blue cod ($17) features a New Zealand fish instead of a true cod, though it still has the same big flakes and mild white flavor. The platter is picked up with house-pickled beets and lots of arugula on top. Just as good were medallions of pork tenderloin ($17), served with chimichurri sauce, a green purée of parsley, and a rather un–South American quantity of garlic. The yucca fries on the side were a chef’s oddity; yucca is such a starchy root that breading and frying probably reduces the pure starch proportion.
Lemon risotto ($18) featured shrimp, real crabmeat, and artichoke. A number of restaurants have started making risotto out of non-Italian rice and even long-grain rice, as they have done here. They’ve also calmed down about the amount of wine and stock that is classically cooked into the rice, so the dish is less intense, but still good.
One obstacle that might prevent Brownstone from reaching bistro heaven is the limited wine list. Vintage years aren’t listed, and there are only 21 wines, nine of which are served by the glass. The bar is solid, based on sampling a gin and tonic ($6.50), which is made here with Plymouth gin. A glass of Archetype shiraz ($8/glass; $30/bottle) was as soft as dating-bar merlot, but showed a little alcohol — it’s hard to make a subtle shiraz in Australia. A Mezzacana pinot grigio ($7/$24) was cold and crisp, with a somewhat characteristic nose, but was squinchy on the palate, similar to press wine. It’s possible that our early dinner earned us pours of last night’s wines, though they were still good. The kitchen was out of both decaf and herbal tea.
Desserts are the weakest course at Brownstone, although many will enjoy the chocolate torte ($7), which is like eating hot, unbaked brownie dough. A couple of crostadas ($7) were free-form individual pies, with nice-enough crust but overdone fillings. The mango aroma had been cooked out of the mango-blueberry pie, and even the strawberry-rhubarb variety was somewhat dry. A peanut-butter tart ($6) was more of a bar-food dessert, but rather better than its more limited kind.
Service on a quiet weeknight was quite good. The bar fills up, but the dining area doesn’t. It’s even kind of quiet, despite loud bar conversation and some background R&B. If you have good eyesight, you can watch the Red Sox game on several large TVs. These are not bistro sights and sounds, yet the “gastro-pub” form continues to proliferate, and Brownstone is warming up to it. This might work as a kind of starter restaurant, like a starter house; after all, the unrelated Bluestone Bistro had that feel in its early years: all twentysomethings breaking into dining out.
The room supports both pub and bistro uses with its exposed brick, purple-brown wainscoting, red-stained tables, yellow walls, salmon outside panels, and ceiling fans. Large leather booths convey a comfortable feeling of stability, though the empty tables show that something is still missing. More bar food, perhaps?