TALL ORDER: “Chianti Slow-Braised Shortribs” features all the titular flavors, plus a stuffed baked-potato skin and wilted spinach — a real treat.
An East Boston bistro? Kind of doesn't have a ring to it — especially since we're not talking about Orient Heights or Jeffries Point. Ecco, perhaps East Boston's first trendy bistro, is three twists around the tunnel entrance from the airport road and about as close to the Central and Maverick Squares midpoint as you can get without a FastLane transponder, but would win fans in any Boston neighborhood. Eastie just has cheaper real estate, so prices here are pleasantly moderate.
|Ecco Restaurant and Martini Bar | 107 Porter Street, East Boston | 617.561.1112 | Open Sunday–Thursday, 4–10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 4–10:30 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Full Bar | Large private parking lot off Paris Street, behind the restaurant | Street-level access|
The "martini bar" part of Ecco's name refers to a two-page list of retro cocktails and revised versions. The "Ecco Martini" ($9.95), made with imported gin or vodka and cheese-stuffed olives, is about as classic as it gets. Whether shaken or stirred, a martini should be a cold, dry drink that emphasizes the herbal and resinous notes of the gin. What this needed was more chill and a more expressive brand of spirits. There was no such problem with a well-balanced white-peach bellini ($9.95), nor a reasonably sour "Pomegranate Margarita" ($9.95) or a basil mojito ($9.95) — the last, a successful variation of the refreshing Cuban mint julep. The one aesthetic problem in the current revival of mixed drinks has been the tendency to sweeten the traditional sour and bitter accents. Ecco avoids this trap, except where clearly labeled. After all, no one will order a "French vanilla martini" under any illusion that it would be a dry, bracing drink.
Food starts with excellent, warm whole-grain bread in a kind of cigar box and a spread that tastes like butter and cheese compounded. Something as basic as flash-fried calamari ($8.50) stands out for the fantastic frying, the fresh-tasting squid, and the superior dip of mayonnaise with lemon and Sriracha hot sauce. Because most of the heat in chile sauce is oil-soluble, and mayonnaise is an oil-in-water emulsion, the sauce has just a nice bite and tons of flavor.
Wild-mushroom chowder ($8.50) with a cone of porcini-inflected potato in the center is superb, with a meaty-woodsy flavor to the cream stock and lots of different wild mushrooms in the bowl. Lobster and roasted corn chowder ($10) has an impressive amount of lobster meat and an interesting accent of cilantro, but the stock isn't based on seafood. That's odd, since the kitchen also produces a "Simply Mussel 'Hot Pot' " ($9), a big heap of cultured mussels in a butter-leek-garlic-wine sauce good enough to soak up with the three provided toasts. (The chefs could steal a little mussel broth for the lobster chowder.)
Be sure to get your greens with something like the Waldorf salad ($8), which is more fun than anything ever served at the Waldorf. It features endive, arugula, baby spinach greens, caramelized walnuts, slices of Granny Smith apple, and marinated raisins, plus a curry dressing that doesn't take over. Because Ecco's original concept was for drinks and small plates, there is a disproportionate number of starters to entrées. The menu has a little sushi, for example; we didn't. But you could easily enjoy a three-course dinner at Ecco rather than a night of simply grazing and drinking.
The outstanding entrée for my money — well, really, for the Phoenix's expense money — is the roasted half chicken ($17). I'm returning to the old idea of judging a chef by how he prepares a roast chicken, and this was perfectly tender despite being mostly boned and crusty on top. It was also well-seasoned, and had a fine clear gravy. Add a potato cake and garlicky broccoli rabe and I'm a happy fox in any henhouse.
"Agro-Dolce Chianti Slow-Braised Shortribs of Beef" ($18) defies my conventional wisdom about over-described food. It actually has all those flavors on top of the full, beefy flavor of (bone-in) short ribs, a stuffed baked-potato skin, and just-wilted baby spinach.
"Seared Sesame & Pepper Crusted Rare Tuna 'Au Poivre' " ($19.50) is on every bistro menu now in one form or another, but this is a very good version, with fresh English peas and a cylinder of jasmine-rice risotto. It makes for a wonderful platter of contrasts: raw and cooked, lean and fat, protein and starch, spring green and vivid sashimi crimson. Only a grilled salmon fillet ($17.50) was at a lower level — the fish a little overcooked, with a kind of stodgy corn crust that was meant to be herbal. There, mashed potatoes saved the day.