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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.

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