I don’t know why restaurants in high-end clothing stores are so good. In my clumsy life, food is one of the natural enemies of clothing. But there’s Armani Café, and here’s Restaurant L, the successor to Café Louis. Why do they have these tempting restaurants in clothing stores? Doesn’t fashion move quickly enough without their having to fatten us up and out of last year’s sizes in order to sell more suits? I suppose the idea is that there are fashions in food too. And Restaurant L’s chef, Pino Maffeo, is at the forefront of culinary fashion. I was prepared for test-tube soup, frothed sauces, weird combinations, visual scandals — all that New York stuff. And you get some of that, but I wasn’t prepared for the fun and all-around-satisfying flavor of Maffeo’s food.
FOOD IN FASHION: The menu at Restaurant L, at Louis Boston, is fun and all-around satisfying.
L’s rooms, like Armani’s, are decorated sparely, with bare wood and a simple color scheme of white, gray, red, and black. The feeling is light, and the colors go with anything you wear. In better weather, a few more tables are set on the landing outside the back door.
Fun starts with the breadbasket: two small Chinese steamers filled with a salty flatbread, maybe a hint of Middle Eastern spices. No olive oil, no butter — the next big thing is . . . cream-cheese balls. A complimentary bite sets an Asian theme that runs throughout the meal. It’s a fried-crabmeat-filled wonton with sushi-bar-style spicy mayonnaise. You can continue this theme with soft-shell-crab tempura ($16). It comes vertical on a platter with a long smear of incredibly delicious wasabi mayonnaise. Soft-shell crab can be dull, but not this one. It was gloriously fried and bursting with flavor (also bursting with juice, the natural enemy of neckties). And there was a little Thai-style papaya salad.
You can steer clear of the Asian theme with papardelle in late-season tomato sauce ($14). Red-sauce Italian food is no friend of dress shirts either, but when it’s this perfect, who cares? The pasta had just the right amount of chewiness; the tomato sauce was the real deal (with an Abruzzese dose of hot pepper); and a topping of paper-thin eggplant slices was high-fashion (and harmless to silk or worsted wool).
You can also opt for something safe, conventional, and exquisite, like Alaskan-king-crab salad ($16), which is a triangle of meaty crab salad, the only oddity being a slice of artichoke “brûlée” coated with caramelized sugar. Barbecued baby-back ribs ($13) were the only weak appetizer. There were five meaty ribs, done Boston-style with the barbecue sauce burnt on. It came with a fiery green chili/tomatillo sauce, allegedly Laotian, and a steamer of somewhat pointless sticky rice.
Main dishes simply could not fail. A slow-roasted chicken ($25) was a tender and juicy boned breast, no small trick, with the single wing bone sticking up. The skin, with a layer of sliced porcini underneath, was fabulously crisp. The rest of the dish was made up of oyster mushrooms and Chinese cabbage, held together with a silky purée that might have been the season’s first winter squash or, following the Asian theme, taro.
Grilled salmon ($28) was the usual cut of skin-on filet, but with lean, wild pink salmon, as meaty as meat. It’s served with an ingenious cake of sticky rice — so much better with some sesame seeds for flavor, and a topping of Japanese-style lightly pickled cucumber and carrot slices. A side order of Asian greens ($6) brought a tasty, stemmy vegetable, perhaps Chinese broccoli. Warm lobster with coconut emulsion ($38) was presented in a giant bowl as a vertical dish, the tail sections removed from the shell and spiraling around each other to make a tower. The claws remained in some of the shell to keep warm and were served with just a wisp of the coconut sauce; the effect is less rich than dipping one’s lobster in butter at a lobster shack, but tastier.
“Applewood grilled market beef with four salts” (market price, recently $55) was, our night, a 28-ounce rib steak. With the outer layer trimmed and a single bone protruding from the middle, it looked like a dinosaur drumstick, but came medium-rare as ordered. The entrecôte is a much underrated cut of meat. The four salts, served in Chinese soup spoons, were strongly flavored truffled salt, a black-lava sea salt from Hawaii, a gray sea salt from France, and a white sea salt from England. The latter three were fun to look at; all tasted similarly salty and went well with the beef.