300 Summer Street, Fort Point Channel (South Boston) open Mon–Fri, 8–11 am and 11:30 am–9 pm
Ae, dc, di, mc, vi
Beer and wine
No valet parking
Sidewalk-level access via elevator; restaurant is full flight of stairs below street level
Channel Café occupies the former home of the 300 Café, which was run as a second restaurant by the lamented Claremont Café. It remains a hip enclave next to the Fort Point Arts Community gallery, which is open for browsing as though it were the living room next to the dining room in a large house. Remarkably, the Channel Café, with a new owner and a new chef, still has some very good food, although different than what the space used to offer. The owner is now Ana Crowley, an artist and sculptor whose work (linked to the Web site of the restaurant) is a lot spikier than the tone of the café. The chef, Connal McCullough, is a good hand with meat and vegetables .(What else is there? Well, there’s pastry and bread, where McCullough has yet to show his mastery, and there’s chocolate and starches, where his record is still developing.) The chef also picks the very cool, cutting-edge music.
The bread basket is weak, however, with fluffy white slices. The effect is multiplied if you order an appetizer with the same bread toasted, such as the bluefish pâté ($6) or sometimes the soup of the day ($4.50). We had the latter when it was tomato, and it was a giant bowl of somewhat thick soup, as spicy as pizza sauce. So you’ve got pizza sauce in a giant bowl, and then these toasts standing in it that don’t much work.
The bluefish pâté works anyway, because it is smoother than the usual stuff, yet has almost as much smoked-fish flavor per spread.
My favorite appetizer, though, was the "roasted vegetable quesadilla" ($8). We’ve come a long way from the old Mexican quesadilla, which was a little cheese worked into a corn tortilla, with maybe a slice of chili. At the Channel Café we have a whole meal, a 14-inch flour tortilla folded over a lot of cheese and veggies to make four pizza-size slices of serious food. The vegetables are mushrooms, carrots, squash, and onions, and the Mexican spices are reasonably consistent, so it still reads as Mexican food even though it fills you up like a calzone.
I also liked the dolmas plate ($5) with four grape leaves rolled around soft, lemony rice, a nice salad of field greens, and most of a roasted red pepper. I could also appetize, and sometimes lunch, on a side dish like the spicy chickpeas ($4), which were actually a substitution for lentils. These chickpeas were done in something like a curry, but not specifically a curry: a very nice effect, and a goodly heap of chickpeas, about as much as a supermarket can of aloo chole.
For entrées, I loved the balsamic-glazed pork tenderloin ($15). I mean, we are feeling a little bohemian here, which used to mean that you ignore conventional wisdom and go for what is really good. The pork loin is cut on the bias to make two vertical towers, but with not a lot of glaze, a nice side of garlicky green beans, and whipped mashed potatoes with plenty of butter. This dish is as much diner as bistro, just better than either.
Marinated-steak salad ($13) is another winner, in part because when you order the steak medium rare, you actually get that. The greens are good enough — there’s no great evidence of the marinade — but the gorgonzola cheese is a nice accent, as are the sun-dried tomatoes, once you accept that tomato season is usually over by October; we’re just having an exceptionally warm fall.
The "½ chicken cooked under a brick" ($12) is unharmed and has no flavor of the brick, but ours was a little oversalted, and the sautéed baby spinach with it was badly oversalted. Oven-fried potato slices are very good, however. The chicken is boned before flattening, except for one wing bone, so you have a sort of longer, lower version of the "Statler" chicken breast. With some kind of a sauce, this would be a major entrée in the South End.
A special on ravioli stuffed with chicken and peas ($15) was clearly homemade. The seven large triangles of stuffed pasta had wonderful chew, but the ground-chicken filling came up powdery and dry, even with whole peas inside and a creamy cheese sauce outside. Again, a little more polish, and you’d have something legendary.
The wine list is short, with nine wines, but the most remarkable drink I had was pear-flavored [hard] cider ($3.50) This is made by Woodchuck in Vermont, and seems to be a confection based on hard cider rather than fermented pear juice (which would be "perry") or a mixed cider (which would be a traditional trick). The bottle has a list of ingredients, including "natural pear flavor" and "hard cider." But the result is a clear liquid that smells like a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but quaffs like a light beer.
For real wine, the Barefoot cabernet sauvignon, non-vintage ($6/24) is as light and fruity as Beaujolais, but does taste like cabernet and goes well with food. The 2002 Black Swan merlot ($5 glass only) is more solid, but had no real character when we tasted it. They brew iced tea, and make a decent cup of decaf ($2) or herb tea ($1.75). Desserts weren’t much on either of our visits. The best we were offered was a choice of three kinds of homemade cookies ($1.50/each). Naturally we had all three, and the nod went to peanut butter, a fine flavor for a rich, soft cookie. Double chocolate was rich but not really defined, and chocolate chip was excellent, in the soft, underbaked mode so popular these days.
Atmosphere is hard to guess from two early and empty weeknights. Of course, the Channel Café is only open weeknights. Allegedly a crowd drifts in later in the evening, and later in the week. Certainly the feeling that real artists might be hanging out, watching reactions to their pieces in the gallery, is bracing.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.