272 Boylston Street, Boston
Open Mon–Thu, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 4:30–10:30 p.m.; Fri, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 4:30–11 p.m.; Sat, 4:30–11 p.m.; and Sun, 4:30–10 p.m.
AE, DC, Di, MC, Vi
Valet parking, $14
Excelsior means "ever upward" in Latin, but in English it only means the wood shavings used as packing material. I assume that Lydia Shire wants the Latin word for this relaunch of her signature restaurant, Biba, even if that kind of Excelsior is the motto of — gasp! — New York State. But she has also repacked her original concept in quite a lot of padding. Biba was playful, outrageous, expensive, and decorated with tropical woods, and the menu featured "offal" and "starch" and giant deconstructed desserts. Excelsior is more like other expensive restaurants. It’s darker, more sober, and not so loud, and features steak and lobster in treatments that won’t drip on expensive suits. There’s a bit of the old Biba here and there: a daring condiment, an appetizer of sweetbreads, the lobster pizza, the sense of a bold woman entering a men’s club. But the second iteration of Lydia Shire’s restaurant is like the second Bush presidency: much more conservative, even grimmer, more serious about the eternal verities, less willing to joke. Of course, the more-traditional menu is also more familiar, and many diners will be delighted with great versions of steak and lobster. Excelsior is an extremely competent restaurant that does quite a lot very, very well. I’ve noted a few weaknesses, but they’ll all likely be gone before this issue of the Phoenix is off the stands.
One surprising weakness is the breadbasket, although some parts are quite good. We had the thin, buttery roti baked downstairs, slices of a sweetish pumpernickel studded with fruit, and large slices of a buttery white loaf with black pepper. All were good, but the sum was too greasy. It needs a traditional French or Italian loaf for blotting up a bit of sauce.
One of our simplest appetizers, "chilled native oysters/pea shooters" ($18), offers a good opportunity for mingling conservative and radical ideas on the same plate. The basic six Wellfleet oysters on the half-shell make for a classic that needs no embellishment. But the shot glass of cold puréed peas is a brilliant way to add a sip of a second flavor and texture to any mouthful of oyster. The other shot glass, of a clear tomato-emulsion sauce with a bit of red-pepper oil, is even more striking. The "tomato water sauce," popularized locally by chef Charles Draghi, formerly of Marcuccio’s, Limbo, and 33, has more tomato flavor than most of the red tomato sauces, so a sip of this outdoes the traditional cocktail sauce.
A deceptively simple appetizer like "heirloom tomato/ripe peach salad" ($13) takes wing on the impeccable produce that is surprisingly complementary. I found the Gorgonzola puffs somewhat heavy and tasteless, as though they had been made a day earlier to be stuffed with something. An obviously novel appetizer like "hamachi/sweet squash scallop raviolis" ($21) is really four things: a strip of rich broiled hamachi tuna; a layered taste of puréed squash topped with a slice of sea scallop; a giant puffed chip of shrimp toast; and a mini-bowl of white miso soup. I guess the idea was a Japanese dinner at dollhouse scale, but any of the first three could be built into a fine appetizer without so much confusion.
"Flan of brûléed ‘sugar and butter’ corn, chanterelle glaze" ($16) is a neat spin on a Japanese dinner custard like chawan mushi. There’s a shallow dish of very delicate custard, just flavored with corn, then a broiled section of corn on the cob, and a browned sauté of the wild mushrooms and corn kernels.
While appetizers are quite expensive, entrées are at typical steak-house prices, with the caveat that you may also want a side dish or two. The "man’s steak" ($36) is a tasty sirloin with a bit of Roquefort butter and some pickled beets and laced potato chips. The "lady’s steak" ($36) has an even heartier treatment of marrow and two kinds of garlic. I liked the hacked-ginger lobster tails ($39) served Chinese style, lightly fried in ginger and scallions with some sautéed greens, scattered fried coconut strips, and an intriguing sweet-rice cake. Just enough shell is left on to remind me of Chinatown lobsters, but not enough to make this at all hard to eat. The Sauternes-poached lobster ($39), in a European-style wisp of sauce, is also superb, with a purée of peas as rich as guacamole, and a topping of fried ... carrot?
I also enjoyed the vertical roaster duck ($28), although I didn’t pick up much jasmine spice, just savory leg meat and a sliced, beef-like rare breast. The garnishes here are a delectably greasy patty of taro and a potato chip of sliced pineapple.
Does this sound like a risky abundance of Asian fusion food so close to Chinatown? Perhaps, but Excelsior would get away with it, were it not for weaker Asian effects in the side dishes. The "wok-stirred" pea tendrils ($9) were nicely underdone, but overly flavored with raw garlic and ginger, and half the size of a cheaper, better Chinatown portion. The "twice fried yellow and green snap beans" ($8) were overdone, and — the classic weakness of Anglo stir-fry — greasy and limp. Yucca fries ($6) would have been in the old Biba "Starches" column. These are actually long yucca tater tots, more like panisses (peanut and chickpea fries) than anything Latino, but satisfyingly fried and starchy, with a nice lively salsa dip.
The wine list is international, long, and expensive, and the restaurant design emphasizes it by taking most diners on a glass elevator through the wine-storage areas. Still, some more affordable bottles and half-bottles are only just being added, and we could find little to fit a group of red-wine drinkers eating lots of seafood. I settled on a Loire red, a bottle of 2001 Domaine Joguet "Les Petites Roches" Chinon ($40). Chilled, it might have done the job, being the lighter, fruitier style of French red, with enough acidity for lobster and scallop. Coffee, decaf, and tea (all $3) were good and served well, but not the special experiences one might expect at this level.
The desserts are not so stunning (nor so shocking) as what I remember from Biba, but they will make new memories, especially the sourdough chocolate cake ($10). If there is any sourdough in this, it’s the only flour used, as it tastes like 200 percent chocolate, but the fromage blanc ice cream does have a buttermilk-like sour quality that is very complementary. Sticky toffee pudding with Devon cream ($10) is an English-style pudding served in the shape of a star, with a star-shaped wafer to decorate it, and makes a wonderful comfort dessert. Mascarpone-cream napoleon ($10) is so deconstructed that it doesn’t even look like a napoleon, but rather like a pile of sweetened cream with a few wafers sticking up as the layers. It’s saved by an excellent poached pear on the side.
The rooms retain a view of the trees and a bit of the Common, with a neutral interior enlivened by red lamps and some abstract paintings on the walls. Carpeting should reduce the noise, but it’s still a louder restaurant than its competitors. Tables are somewhat small for the plates and tend to clutter up. Service is very good and unobtrusive. I remember a lot of food explanation from a waitress early on at Biba. Now we all know more, the menu explains itself, and servers can be more relaxed.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com