711 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain
Open Tue–Thu, 5–10 p.m., and Fri–Sat, 5–10:30 p.m.
Beer and wine
No valet parking
Street-level access at back door
No sooner do I proclaim Roslindale Village the new South End, restaurant-wise, than Jamaica Plain ("The Cambridge of the South") strikes back with Arbor — a Mediterranean bistro so starkly decorated, and serving such tasty and decorated small (and often square) plates, that it really belongs in the Ladder District alongside Mantra. I don’t know why people want to eat in a room that’s like an art gallery with all the art missing, but I do know why they’ll want to eat at Arbor. It’s the food.
To be fair, none of the previous restaurants in this long, thin, high space has been entirely comfortable. The previous 711 Grill couldn’t do it with Vietnamese food. Pinardi’s couldn’t do it with hearty breakfasts. The wood floors, granite tables, and black bentwood chairs seem to come with the location. Painting the walls textured gray with black wainscoting doesn’t warm it up much, nor do yellow lamps, a few curtains, or wisps of lite folk and jazz background music.
That said, the food transports you to sunny isles and seaports. The menu changes daily and is divided into meze (all $5), "First" (larger appetizers), and "Main." The perfect meze is actually the wonderful platelette of homemade hummus served with slices of Tuscan bread. But the perfect "Small" is actually the "Tasting of all six" meze ($16). This is served on a glass rectangle and has perfectly designed two-bite portions. The night we ordered it, the winner was Lulu’s Tchoutchouka, a little stew of roast peppers and onions with a couple of small black olives. But everything else was good, too: a wonderfully tender micro-burger of lamb sausage with spiced potatoes, spicier grilled shrimp on a bed of cress, nuggets of Provençal goat cheese marinated in oil in a wood cup, a just-slightly-smoky baba ghanoosh with cilantro and sesame salt, and a bit of smoked salmon on shaved fennel, with a "gazpacho" of mostly cucumber.
Another night we had the meze of tortilla española ($5), an eggy wedge of the classic Spanish potato omelet with a little tomato sauce, and mushrooms à la grecque ($5), a square plate of mildly marinated button mushrooms. Among the appetizers proper, I liked the orange-and-date salad ($9), with onions, cilantro, and a Sicilian cinnamon flavor. Beignets of cod brandade gribiche ($9) are swell, but over-described. What you get are a pair of good old New England codfish balls with a superior tartar sauce. Brandade is a Provençal dip of salt cod and potatoes, which is kind of the hard way to get to codfish cakes. Beignets are the French version of fried dough, or any fritters, but a lot of diners will be expecting fried dough with a codfish dip. Steamed black mussels ($11) have a nice tomato sauce with a bacon-y overtone, but the mussels are seasonally small. Come back for this in late fall. A salad of organic lettuces ($7) has a nice garlicky dressing.
Mains will satisfy hearty eaters, especially the rosemary-cured Pipestone pork rack chop ($19), which looked as big as a catcher’s mitt on the next table. On our table, wild king salmon ($20) was a fine chunk of pink fish done just right (which is very slightly underdone). Wild salmon is refreshingly lean after a winter of farmed salmon, but still a rich and delicious fish, here presented on crunchy asparagus, grilled Vidalia onions, and small boiled potatoes. Wild striped bass ($19) is a smaller chunk of another flavorful fish, with some beets, rather gently roasted, and a bed of leeks that benefit more from a salty mustard butter than the fish does.
Chicken bouillabaisse ($19) sounds like a nouvelle stunt, but is actually an old Provençal dish, and rather a nice way to stew a half chicken — in a tomato sauce flavored with saffron and studded with slices of fennel and potato. And perhaps the best of all our Mains was Moroccan spiced lamb ($22). This is that lean, rare lamb that tastes like beef, but crusted with cinnamon and pepper for a Moroccan aftertaste. I liked the side of couscous, but thought the blueberries in the ratatouille a failed experiment.
Arbor’s wine list is all French and American, and the low-level French regionals will surprise a new generation of wine lovers who have been priced out of major-label French wine for the last 10 years. Each night has a white and a red wine sold in various carafes for very little. The red Corbières 2001 Col des Ventes ($5 for .15 liter/$12 half liter/$24 liter) was a thin, light, quaffable wine with more flavor than body — quite the opposite of dating-bar merlot, and a lot more suitable with food. On an early dinner, I hit a spoiled glass of Beaujolais ($6). Just when improved technology, artificial corks, and younger wines have all but eliminated the old reasons for sending back a bottle of wine, I have twice in a month hit spoiled glasses of wine. Both occasions were early dinners, where the wine had probably been held over from the previous night. There are technologies for preserving open bottles, but they apparently aren’t widely used in restaurants. In any case, the etiquette is the same: send it back advising a smell of the slight vinegar aroma that can develop, or a taste of the spoiled aftertaste. I switched to the sangria ($8), which is what used to be done with leftover wine. At Arbor, it is an excellent minty and citric blend with melon and pineapple chunks.
Desserts are remarkably good, especially the "Carnaroli Rice Pudding ‘Brûlée’" ($7), a creamy pudding of my favorite risotto rice with a bit of burnt-sugar crust and excellent blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. An orange semifreddo ($7) was almost fully frozen into mousse-rich ice cream with a lovely lavender-honey sauce and heaps of chopped figs, berries, cherries, strawberries, and peaches. Cherry-almond financier ($7) was just seven perfect marinated cherries, four studding the soufflé-like cupcake of the financier, and three more in a wine sauce on the side. Strawberries in balsamic vinegar ($7) turned out to be a provocative combination, especially with coarsely ground black pepper. Three little scoops of superb vanilla gelato pulled it together.
Service at Arbor was excellent on both visits. You may have read in the Boston Globe about a very active child distracting the staff one night. That was the night of one of our visits, and my wife eventually made a small scene with the parents when this child started playing with the front door as though she might dart out into Centre Street. The service was just as good when we returned on a child-free night.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com