- Walter Novak
- Lolita's small plates are full of big flavor. Foreground: Risotto with calf's liver and peas.
From a critic's perspective, Michael and Liz Symon's new Tremont restaurant -- snuggled into the space formerly occupied by their Lola Bistro -- is one big bust. After all, it takes at least 1,200 words to fill this damn page, and just how many ways can one write that Lolita is every bit as good as anticipated?
Not that the absence of fatal flaws will come as a surprise to members of the Symons' unofficial (it is still "unofficial," isn't it?) fan club: After cutting a high-energy swath through the region's once sleepy dining scene with their award-winning, trend-setting, limelight-hogging Lola, pretty much the only way the couple could truly surprise us would be by suddenly adopting a macrobiotic diet and spending their days prostrate in silent meditation.
Not likely. Just watching the tightly wound twosome buzz around the dining room -- expediting orders, greeting friends, and doing nearly everything short of wiping chins to ensure diners' comfort -- is enough to make even a toddler crave some shut-eye. And when you stop to consider the demands this year has already placed on their time -- closing seven-year-old Lola in April and retooling for the June opening of Lolita, all the while revving up for the much-anticipated October launch of the new Lola, on downtown's East Fourth Street -- it's obvious that the dynamic duo has way too much energy and acumen to allow for many mistakes.
But what the heck: Nobody's perfect. Let's prove that right now and get it out of the way. (Those of you hoping to read about major culinary shipwrecks and shocking service blunders may want to skip ahead a few paragraphs; you won't find them here.) First, during a weeknight visit, a pair of pre-dinner cocktails could scarcely have been more boring: The Beta -- allegedly a blend of gin-infused vodka, fresh lime juice, and soda -- tasted like watered-down ginger ale, and the Delta -- lemon juice, Stoli Citros, and an edible orchid -- was so impotent that even a skinny, mostly teetotaling companion couldn't get off on it. Still, our server made sure the drinks didn't leave a bad taste: When she asked how we were enjoying the cocktails, we murmured a slight complaint; her fair response was to discreetly remove them from the table and the $14 charge from our bill.
The other oversight occurred during the same visit, when staffers forgot to provide side plates for our bread -- a sturdy, crusty epi-style baguette, by the way, tucked into a small, napkin-lined tin pail, sided by a saucer of grassy, extra-virgin Greek olive oil for dipping -- so we were forced to shove each morsel directly into our gaping maws.
While we're picking nits, I'll also mention that the menu's type can be hard to read, leading at least two diners that we know of to think they had ordered "pork" (a meat), when they had actually ordered "porgy" (a fish). And dairyphobes, beware: Although Symon has never claimed to cater to dieters, there is hardly a dish on the menu that doesn't include cheese and/or rich, homemade yogurt, in some form or another.
On the other hand, Lolita's charms are nearly as easy to summarize as her flaws. That is, there are very few surprises. After all, we're talking about Lola's little sister here, and while the name, menu, and decor have all been changed, the well-known factors that made Lola the charmer she was -- the smart compositions, the explosively nuanced flavors, the chic, idiosyncratic ambiance -- remain firmly in place.
Tops among the changes, of course, is the new menu's Mediterranean stance, which can be clearly appreciated in the nearly two dozen meze-like small plates, the six slightly more substantial appetizers, and the 10 hearty entrées. Per-plate prices range from $3.50 for a bite of imported Gorgonzola, served with a spot of sweet quince paste, a drizzle of truffle honey, and a pair of raisin-walnut crostini, to $19 for a firm, juicy, Jamison Farm natural-lamb steak (a leg cut), sided by an eggplant-, pine-nut-, and fava-bean-accented orzo bound with homemade yogurt. (And at a fixed price of $32, the three-course tasting-menu option, which includes a choice of two small plates, an appetizer, and an entrée, may well be the best buy in town.) The challenge for diners, then, is to mix and match among the vegetables, cheeses, breads, meats, and seafoods to create a rustic repast -- as large or small as one may like -- that will prove as satisfying to the soul as to the body.
Credit the food's holistic appeal to the fact that this is an almost-archetypal form of dining, no doubt programmed into the DNA of any of us who can trace our roots back to Italy, Spain, France, Greece (like Symon), or other ancient cultures. A loaf of crusty bread, a hunk of pungent cheese, a cured sausage or two, and maybe a handful of black olives and a passel of fried peppers . . . that was my Italian grandparents' typical midday meal, for instance, and even now, it remains an intensely gratifying way of taking one's daily sustenance.
Imagine, then, what happens to such earthy fare when Symon and his culinary team (headed by chefs John Seeholzer and Jonathon Sawyer) get their respectful hands on it. Ingredients that were merely wholesome and elemental are now transformed into gustatory marvels: piqued with hints of citrus, oregano, garlic, fennel, chiles, olive oil, nuts, and/or dried fruits, and woven into dishes at once subtle, yet assertive, with such a chorus of insightfully combined grace notes that every bite tastes vaguely, hauntingly different from the one before.
Underscoring the food's rugged appeal are myriad smartly chosen appointments. The mezes, for instance, are arranged simply and served on wooden planks; salads, including a mind-blowing composition of sliced beet, freshly made ricotta, matchsticked Granny Smiths, candied pecans, and truffle honey, arrive in substantial bowls glazed in the colors of the Aegean Sea; and everything is slipped onto well-padded tables, draped in white cloths, and finished with brown-paper wrappers.
Even the room's new design and decor reinforce the notion of dining in a decked-out rural bistro: Illumination seeping from the abundant new ceiling fixtures is thick and golden as candlelight; flames from a massive, newly installed woodburning oven cast dancing shadows over the staff, as they sway and swirl through the open kitchen, and a red-and-silver meat slicer crouches like a panther on a countertop, where it gets ample opportunity to turn house-cured salumi into transparent, crimson tiles. In the main-floor dining area, a new seating arrangement echoes the long, communal tables of a classic taverna; you almost expect to see guests raise their trendy, stemless crystal (filled with libations chosen from the concise, appropriately Old World wine menu) into the air and burst into song.
Yet, as with the flavors, the Symons consistently provide tasty, slightly edgy counterpoints to the Mediterranean theme, which serve as welcome reminders that this is still Tremont, not southern Italy, and that the down-to-earth duo is still at the helm. During our recent forays, those personal touches ranged from the unexpected soundtrack of R&B to the kitchen's new biker-style logo -- a menacing skull floating above a pair of crossed chef's knives with the Symon-designed slogan "Live to Cook!"
The final nonsurprise, though, is that not even two months post-opening, Lolita already appears to be wildly successful. Most of Lola's long-term regulars are back in their chosen seats, eagerly trading in their lobster pierogi for a serving of succulent braised-beef-cheek ravioli, sauced with yogurt and topped with buttery sweetbreads; local celebs continue to vie for the remaining reservations and lush little tidbits like artichoke pie and yellowtail "crudo" (a sort of Kerkyra-meets-Kyoto riff on sushi); and on a Saturday night, the 85-seat dining room and patio have turned out as many as 278 covers -- no mean feat, when a mere dinner for two can add up to a dozen individual dishes, including such just-right sweeties as firm Greek-yogurt panna cotta, topped with fresh berries, or citrus-kissed flourless chocolate cake, ribboned with a sheer hint of ancho chile and garnished with anise-flavored, ouzo-infused whipped cream.
So if, come fall, Lolita gives her big sister a run for her money, that won't surprise us either.