GO FISH: The scrod at Potbellies is sweet, local, and tasty.
Two trends are currently sweeping through the food universe: lavishly upscale steak houses and modest bistros featuring local produce. But local produce is at its peak right now, and steaks age well, so you may as well head for the bistros. Certainly Potbellies (which only seats about 20, so don’t all rush there tonight) is rolling with the tomatoes and green beans, serving excellent comfort food at diner prices. But this diner-cum-bistro also illustrates one of Nadeau’s old adages: the worse it looks, the better it tastes.
Potbellies Kitchen | 87 A Street, South Boston | Open Mon–Fri, 8 am–10 pm; and Sat, 5–10 pm | MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Access up one step from street level | 617.269.2233
Actually, Potbellies’ platters do have a certain minimalist chic, though not a lot of time is spent on garnishes or sauces, so your food tastes like food. That’s a good thing.
For example, the tomato salad ($6) brings simple tomatoes, not heirlooms, selected for ripeness and enhanced with just enough Italian-table-cheese shavings, balsamic vinegar, and red onion. There’s nothing clever about the Caesar salad ($6), either, except its freshness. And an order of spicy green beans ($5), cooked in some red oil and garlic, has a kind of Asian theme.
A heap of mussels ($9) were seasonally small — they spawn in the summer months — but were fresh and done up in a garlicky wine soup. It was served with slices of fluffy white Italian bread, perfect for dipping, so you’re not in want of olive oil or butter. Fried calamari ($8) came fresh and hot, with fried peperoncini and a sharp salsa-like dip. And perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all was the chili ($5). Although it involves tomatoes, onions, and hamburger (all banned from my own chili pot), it wasn’t overly sweet or overly spiced, and I thought it was rather good.
Main dishes begin with sandwiches as low as $6, and top out with an $18 steak. This is a flatiron chuck steak, usually rubbed with spices, but our night there was a special with a soy marinade, so that’s what we had. It was cooked to order, full of flavor, and served with two side dishes. My favorite side was a carrot-fennel salad in sweet vinegar, like Japanese pickles. (East Coast Grill’s Chris Schlesinger himself couldn’t have done much better.) Cucumbers in vinegar were also very good. Mashed potatoes were honest but a little dull, and broccoli rabe was killer, seasoned with garlic and salt. A roasted half chicken ($12) was somewhere between diner- and bistro-quality fare — impeccably cooked with a crisp skin and tender meat throughout, but unimaginatively seasoned. One almost wanted gloopy gravy, as with the potatoes.
As for the fish, mako ($14) was a lovely piece, lighter and tastier than most commercial swordfish steaks, and served with a dab of mint chutney — a rare bistro gesture for Potbellies. Scrod ($12) was the sweet local stuff, and also very nice.
Much of what was once considered to be strictly Italian food now has found its place on American comfort-food menus. True to its name, both such dishes I tried here were as comforting as could be. Cheese ravioli ($9) brought pillows of ricotta with a bit livelier tomato sauce than you might make at home, and were much improved by shavings of that table cheese. And pasta Bolognese ($12), which used ziti instead, had an average meat sauce. But then again, great Bolognese is hard to find, so this is still a pretty good dish.
A few wines are available, many of which can be startlingly cheap. I ordered a glass of rosé, Condesa de Leganza ($4.25), made from tempranillo grapes in La Mancha, Spain. It may be the last glass of restaurant wine under $5 in the United States. Of course, it was served in the same small tumbler as the water, so it didn’t have much nose, but it was entirely drinkable. The water service is excellent, since you refill your own glass from a carafe on the table. And decaf coffee ($1.75) was also excellent. But tea ($1.75) — as you might expect — lacked presentation: it was a bag steeped in a mug of hot water.
There was only one dessert, a lemon-berry cake ($5): a big slice of the old-fashioned yellow variety, with white icing, and lemon and berries sandwiched between the layers. For a diner, it was an outstanding dessert.
One waiter serves all at Potbellies, but seemed as comfortable with our multi-course trial as with slapping down a sandwich for a hungry trucker. Overall, the service was excellent.
The décor matches the bistro-diner straddle of the menu, with ochre and black walls and just enough stainless steel to hint at the former, and white quarry-tile floors and black tables to pull it toward the latter. Despite these efforts, there tends not to be enough people for a measurable atmosphere. The old soul-music tape in the background is just dandy, however, and most other diners I saw were young couples from the new South Boston, or perhaps the artists’ lofts to the north. Someone coming off a shift at Gillette would fit right in as well, though, and dine happily.
I review food, not film, but people have been asking me about Ratatouille, so I finally got around to checking it out. It’s lots of fun, and remarkably insightful about restaurants, with the tiny but fascinating exception of the title dish. I certainly hope that restaurant owners believe critics announce themselves, are cadaverously thin, and sound like Peter O’Toole, since I am not much like that and want to remain anonymous. But, in actuality, the dish that named the film and charmed the critic looks more like the homely peasant stew glimpsed in the flashback than the elaborately decorative cake that serves as the pièce de résistance. In fact, the version featured in the film wouldn’t have the right flavor at all. Use the recipe of the late Richard Olney, get thee to the farmer’s market, spare the squash, and your ratatouille will please even the cadaverous gourmets who sound like O’Toole.
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