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Elaborate cuisine that's simply delicious
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  December 12, 2008
4.0 4.0 Stars

NO MUSSEL Razor clams make for a great dish in a terrific Mediterranean broth.

Erbaluce | 617.426.6969 | 69 Church Street, Boston | Open Sun–Thurs, 5–10 pm; and Fri & Sat, 5–11 pm | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Access up one step from sidewalk level
If they start rotisserie leagues for restaurants, I'm never going to draft a chef in the first round. I just can't follow them all, what with their constant job changes and stints working for other chefs — for a week, for a year, taking out the garbage, who knows? I can follow maybe 10 Boston chefs, each of whom has a really distinctive style. One I lost track of is Charles Draghi, who was a pioneer with transparent infusion sauces at the North End's Marcuccio's for what seemed like 45 seconds. Then he popped up at Limbo for another shining moment. I also caught him as the opening chef at 33, where I had one of the best meals ever served in the most distracting surroundings imaginable (they have since moderated both the cheffery and the interior design).

Then what happened to Draghi? It turns out he went over to the dark side and became a waiter for five years. Does working the front of the room, seeing how diners actually order and react, make you a better chef? Maybe. Now Draghi finally has his own restaurant, Erbaluce, and his food has a mature style that combines the best of the experimental "épices" cuisine — the early version of the science-lab stuff he used to do — with the locavore "terroirs" cuisine that is the current rage. Keeping things Italian puts it all in focus.

Food started with white-bean paste in a pool of virgin olive oil, with Tuscan bread to dip in it. The bean paste was intriguingly spiced with nutmeg and pepper and — what? These moments of intrigue recur, as Draghi is a flavor artist.

In an appetizer of roasted whole turnips with raisin locro ($16), for example, there was an amazing interaction between the slightly spicy taste of the turnips and something in the cheese. The whole thing ends up as bracing as parsnips, even though parsnips aren't involved. Razor clams ($9), in a broth with saffron and fennel, are a meatier twist on mussels. (They're also sandier, as razor clams are burrowing creatures and cannot be cultured on ropes.) This is a great dish of seafood in a terrific Mediterranean broth; we asked for spoons to finish it.

A salad of matsutake mushrooms with arugula ($16) was captivating. I've gathered armillaria caligata, the New England cousin of the Japanese pine-forest mushroom, but only once have had them on a restaurant menu. Matsutake are usually grilled lightly to keep their unique aroma. Draghi served a few slices raw, and just slightly wilted the arugula to take out some of its bite. Underneath the salad is a layer of smelly double-crème cheese; it all makes for a perfectly harmonized trio.

Draghi has such a way with pasta that I snuck in an order of gnocchi with wild boar ($22) as an appetizer. The contrast of uncannily light pasta squares and chunks of intense red meat made this, too, a memorable dish. My favorite entrée , though sadly no longer available, was mormora ($26), a European sea-bass filet described by our server as "a white fish, but like a bluefish, or sort of on the way to a bluefish, maybe like a mackerel." So what's a white fish that's compared to two dark-meat fishes? Mormora turns out to be a Mediterranean sea bass somewhere between a redfish and striped bass — a very good somewhere to be. The chef served it on fennel, a few dots of "anise hyssop pesto," and some fingerling potatoes.

Porbeagle ($21) is a widespread but uncommon shark. Here the small steak was similar to dense swordfish, with peppers and onions on top and greens and butter beans underneath. Duckling ($27) is described as coming "two ways," but you really get three, since the rare breast and slow-roasted leg are accompanied by Savoy cabbage stuffed with chopped duck meat and nutmeg. For a seriously carnivorous meal, the veal loin ($26) is closer to roast beef than the old idea of penned, lily-white veal. Thick slices come with parsnips and winter vegetables.

The wine list is all Italian and features smaller producers. Bottles start in the $30s. Italian whites are up and down, but Sardinian vermentino, here the 2007 Santaudi "Villa Souris" ($8/glass), is piney with some effervescence, like a chenin blanc; it's wonderful with food. A 2005 La Vostra Chianti ($8) was light and fully mature, but the star of the reds by the glass was a 2006 Dolcetto d'Alba from the Roagna winery ($10), which was as full and somber as a young Barolo. Dolcetto is supposed to be the lightest of the three red grapes of Piedmont, but nobody told Roagna.

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Related: Ecco Restaurant and Martini Bar, Bond Restaurant and Lounge, Benatti, More more >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle, Beverages, Food and Cooking,  More more >
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