The spark of imagination lights up a not-at-all prosaic restaurant in
by Stephen Heuser
352a Mass Ave, Arlington; 648-2800
Dinner: Tues - Sat, 5 to 10 p.m.
Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Sunday brunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Beer and wine
AE, MC, Visa
Plain butcher-block tables, cornflower-blue wainscoting, a handful of
photos scattered around the wall. I certainly liked Prose -- liked it a lot --
but you wouldn't exactly call it the ultimate in fine dining. The ultimate in
clever cooking? Maybe. Prose, whose logo has a little dictionary-style macron
over the "o," is every bit as clever about its cooking as its typography. It's
a nice spare corner spot (actually a converted spaghetti house), but not the
sort of place you'd go if you wanted to be fawned over by waiters.
It is, however, the sort of place you'd go to try something you've never had
before, perhaps something you never imagined would even be made. The restaurant
is very much the work of its eccentric chef-owner, Debbie Shore (formerly of
the Black Crow Caffè), who opened it in May. If you've never heard of
Prose, and I hadn't before a few weeks ago, that may be because it has operated
in the media shadow of a neighboring restaurant in Arlington: Flora, which
opened just a bit earlier with more space and much better media connections.
But Prose, whose dining room you could stack a few times into Flora's elegant
renovated-bank space, serves a much more distinctive menu, and even seems to be
building its all-important suburban client base. On a recent Saturday night, we
ate among a solid crowd, no line but every table full. (And there may never be
a line, since, unlike a lot of its competitors, Prose does indeed take
It's a good thing Arlington can support two quality eateries, because Prose is
a very worthwhile restaurant. The service can be a bit erratic, which seems
characteristic of a lot of chef-owned places so closely focused on food, but
it's friendly enough. And the first time we visited, our meal ended with a
half-hour conversation with the chef. She had no idea I was in the
restaurant-reviewing dodge, but was eager to talk about her place, about why
she's in Arlington instead of Boston proper (rent!), and about the challenge of
staying afloat until word spreads to enough people.
The Prose idiom is what you'd call New American, which means a freewheeling
synthesis of all sorts of ingredients and traditions. A couple of times the
results were just too much, as with a dish of fettucine with leeks, artichokes,
broccoli rabe, garlic, goat cheese, and almond oil ($14), which edged toward
gloppiness. But, for the most part, we found Prose on-target, innovative, and
The dishes I liked best were the most outré, the product of either a
penchant for risk-taking or an uncommonly confident hand. We had a soup, for
instance, that was listed on the handwritten menu as containing tomatillos,
apple, ginger, and cream. With a description like that, you don't know
what to expect; it turned out to be a rough, surprisingly hearty soup,
playing the sour of the tomatillos off the sweetness of the apple, with the
ginger adding an almost chiliesque electricity to the taste. Somehow, in the
balance, the soup didn't taste exotic, per se -- not quite like anything
else I've had, but not a shock to the system, either.
I'd say much the same thing about the grilled Chilean sea bass ($17), which
came in all kinds of stuff. The fish was nicely charred on the grill, served
with a list of ingredients that read like the produce aisle of a
Bread&Circus -- cilantro, blood oranges, chili pepper, baby bok choy. The
whole thing was arranged over couscous in a sherry-clam broth, and, as
excessive and theme-blurring as it all sounds, the net result was good fish in
a vigorous stew, a crazy mélange of heat and fruit and grain anchored by
the quiet substance of the grilled white bass flesh. The same experience in a
slightly toned-down form was a grilled-chicken dish with apples and molasses
and mustard in the sauce ($15). Actually, the mustard was "roasted garlic
mustard," but by the time that many flavors have entered the picture it's hard
to tease them apart. The starch component here was a rich mound of mashed
The meat-'n'-potatoes end of the menu one night was a tender grilled ribeye
steak ($16), which was charred and rubbed with a spice mixture and served with
a dark demiglaze. The fries -- sweet-potato wedges -- were cooked to that ideal
point where they have crackly skins and a soft interior.
If any of this sounds good, and it should, a warning: the menu changes
quicker then O.J.'s alibi. I visited on a Wednesday night, then the following
Saturday, and the only two items still on the menu the second time were the
salads (a caesar, $5, and mesclun, $4). We saw a few ingredients and ideas
resurface: wild-mushroom polenta under a very nice rainbow-trout fillet one
night ($16) and then on its own, with goat cheese, in a beautifully lush
appetizer the next ($7). The kitchen seems to sustain a remarkable pitch of
inspiration, though its commitment to novelty places some limits on the menu:
it runs to about four appetizers and five main courses per night. A menu that
short can be a liability for some diners, but, in a room the size of Prose, it
made us feel like we were trusting ourselves to the hands of a personal chef.
One con of Prose is that the desserts, on limited inspection, aren't up to the
standard of the other food on the menu. We missed being able to order a
chocolate torte one night, as the kitchen had run out, but both tiramisu and a
promising-sounding pistachio-pear mousse were a bit on the bland side.
The wine list, though, was plenty adequate, bypassing big-name producers for
slightly more interesting wines from California, Australia, and southern
France. Happily, about half of the 24 wines are available by the glass, and --
pleasingly for a restaurant that might not be prohibitive but certainly isn't
cheap -- except for a few special bottles, the list tops out in the mid-$20s.
The beer selection is short and sharp, with boutique beers from San Francisco,
Maine, and the Alsace (!). And parking? Hey, just pull up on Mass Ave. There
are some advantages to suburban living.