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Covering all the bases with first-class Albanian and more
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  October 17, 2007
2.0 2.0 Stars
FORK-TENDER GRILLED OCTOPUS: Tentacles almost big enough to carry off Captain Nemo.

Vlora | 545 Boylston Street, Boston | Open daily, 5–11 pm
AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Access down 24 steps from sidewalk level; call ahead for sidewalk-level access via elevator | 617.638.9699
Lured by the promise of Albanian/Mediterranean food, I’d been waiting for Vlora to open since it was first announced in the spring. Thankfully, it was worth the wait. Named for the seacoast town where chef Aldo Velaj was born, this is a first-class establishment with lots of tasty food — only some of which is Albanian. That’s to be expected, since Velaj worked in restaurants in Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean before reaching the United States.

Some may find the exterior off-putting, since Vlora is located in a potentially difficult, sub-street-level space on a quiet block in Back Bay. But it, too, is first class. After a fine modern makeover, the room is now open and spacious, like a trattoria off a village square. Limestone-like tiles complement the atmosphere, as do a variety of wall treatments: glass, flame-orange paint, a long box of sansevieria (snake plants), a mural of the town of Vlora, and a quarried stone pillar. Chairs are upholstered white; tables are shiny black. And the soundtrack goes from hip-hop to Middle Eastern folk in a hurry.

The food, however, is consistent while covering all the bases. We began with a basket of excellent sourdough rolls with a dip of olive oil, olives, sprigs of rosemary, and a heap of lemon pulp. The “fork-tender grilled octopus” ($11.95) is true to its name and brings three tentacles almost big enough to carry off Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I’d have this as a late-night supper (served here until 1 am). The trio of pies ($8.50) — a mini spinach pie, mini tomato-onion tart, and mini feta pastry, each with terrific filo — is perfect for sharing. Albanian tava ($7.50), an individual casserole of baked summer vegetables with a creamy tomato sauce and some cheese, might remind Greek-Americans of a chef-improved tourlou. And attractive slices of pan-roasted zucchini served with tangy garlic yogurt and a garnish of fried onion strings ($7.95) were also good, though not great. Saganaki ($8.95), a big square of fried cheese with peppers and cucumbers, sounds as tempting for a bar snack as for an appetizer — which is the management’s intent.

Main dishes can be pedestrian. The best might be the grilled barbounia ($21.95), which our server described as “a whole fish like red snapper, but with a lot more flavor than red snapper.” In fact, barbounia is the Greek term for fabulous Mediterranean red mullet. Here you get three fish the size of grilled sardines; ours came fresh but somewhat overdone. Ask the server to bring this dish as soon as it’s ready, regardless of when the other entrées arrive — if you’re eating red mullet, you don’t care about anyone else’s food. (Plus, you can use the head start to deal with the bones.)

My next favorite entrée was scallops ($19.95), highly flavored and sautéed with a touch of breading. A well-seasoned filet of sole ($21.95), prepared the same way, offered more to eat, but the edges were dry. As with the barbounia, ask for this dish to be served immediately. Roast chicken ($19.95) was nicely seasoned, but the white meat was overdone, while the dark-meat quarter was much better. Pappardelle e panna ($13.95) had pasta so soft that it reminded me of eating “ribbon macaroni and (ricotta) cheese.”

All entrées come with a choice of a dozen side dishes, many of which could also double as bar snacks. I particularly recommend the French fries ($3.95), made from fresh-tasting potatoes and served with a bit of skin in a paper cone. There’s nothing wrong with the pasticcio ($4.40), a pasta-potato cube, or the cabbage Vlora style ($5.25), either, which is cold and slightly pickled. More familiar to most diners will be roasted cauliflower ($6.50) and carrots ($5.75), both of which are excellent, as is a side of sautéed green beans ($5.95). Lemon potatoes ($5.75) are slightly tart and have the color of orange slices. Sautéed mushrooms ($6.50) benefit from lots of onion. And Italian rice pilaf ($4.25) has some bits of vegetable and capers. It was unusual and surprising, albeit more weird than good. Our night, blue-cheese spinach ($4.75) tasted more like feta-cheese spinach, but was still a nice variation.

Vlora has a nice selection of wines from throughout the world, with some interesting obscurities, especially from Hungary. A glass of 2002 Ferenc Takler Kekfrankos ($10/glass; $40/bottle) was a blend of red grapes from France with a backbone of Hungarian kadarka — altogether, it was as complex as a pretty good Chateauneuf. A bottle of 2005 Catamayor tannat ($9.50/$38) is another example of a minor grape from France that turned into something really terrific in South America (in this case, Uruguay). The French versions of this wine are wicked tannic, but this one was jammy and full of fruit with only soft tannins. It made for a fine food wine. Coffee ($2.95) is very good; decaf ($2.95) was clean but thin.

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