A Brookline fusion success is the latest entry in Siobhan Carew's small but curious restaurant empire
by Robert Nadeau
202 Washington Street (Brookline Village), Brookline
Open Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.;
Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
No credit cards
Up two steps from sidewalk level
Siobhan Carew, who established herself as a pretty unusual Irishwoman
when she opened the successful Pomodoro restaurant in the North End, went into
my personal hall of fame for her role in her husband's place, Matt Murphy's Pub
-- the only Irish pub in Greater Boston with notably fine food. Now she's
reaching for the record books with Bok Choy, a pan-Asian bistro. Admittedly,
she isn't trying to execute this mostly Chinese menu by herself. She borrowed
her chef from Pomodoro.
Cookbooks in hand, this is a restaurateur smashing stereotypes at every turn.
You could make the joke that Bok Choy reaches back to Carew's "roots" -- not
the tubers of her native country, but the burdock and lotus root of the
macrobiotic kitchens where she worked when she first got to Boston. But the
real story is that her restaurants are getting better the farther they reach.
Not every dish here outstrips its Asian or European archetype, but Bok Choy is
one of the very few fusion-food restaurants where I have tasted dishes with
One example is the appetizer of scallion rice cake with spicy long beans
($7.95). The fried rice patties seem more Italian than Asian, but the garlic
and hot-pepper flavors underlying the scallions are reminiscent of certain
Szechuan dishes. The long beans, often beautiful but relatively tasteless, are
here perked up with a Malaysian-style red curry sauce. This is a small plate
with so much flavor that vegetarians (and some smart nonvegetarians) will use
it as an entrée. Still more successful was the spicy seaweed and
watercress salad ($5.95), pairing a Japanese treatment of green, crunchy
shredded seaweed with a Western use of watercress. The typically Korean
sesame-soy dressing makes this a salad plate of an entirely new and
irresistible kind. Lily bud and tiger shrimp soup ($5.95) had a powerfully
earthy broth flavored by the lily buds, which is what happens when you make
this kind of soup at half the size and twice the intensity you'd find in a
Cantonese restaurant. The result will delight some; others will find it
macrobiotic, if not medicinal.
The Malaysian red curry sauce reappears in the fire-roasted lamb ($18.95),
where it serves as an exciting counterpoint. The meat is essentially
Continental; in an Asian restaurant, one seldom encounters such tender, juicy
slices of lamb with such a tasty crust. The sauce, though, is from another
world entirely. The vegetable, on all the dinners our night, was sautéed
pea tendrils -- a European treatment of the way Asian cuisines utilize a
European plant. The theme of Continental-quality meat with Asian flavors also
turned up to good effect in an entrée of grilled pork loin with hoisin
glaze ($14.95). Fans of Chinatown pork will be pleasantly surprised by the
tender slices of loin, and reassured when the "au jus" gravy tastes of sweet
bean paste and soy. The lagniappe was two nice meaty spareribs -- again,
juicier than Chinese but familiarly flavored.
The same kind of success attended an entrée of spicy half lobster and
tiger shrimp ($16.95). The half lobster was small but very accurately cooked,
not overdone and dried out as lobster commonly is in a Chinatown stir-fry. The
claw was already shelled, a nice touch, and the shrimp were delectably
underdone. If we've seen that spicy red curry sauce before, we needn't worry,
because we have a chef fresh from the North End -- where they know how to vary
a red sauce by thinning it and cooking it into various dishes. Here the sauce
picked up a little shellfish flavor and didn't jump out the way it did on the
long beans or the lamb. Shelled peas also seemed Chinese in this context.
When synergy doesn't rocket a dish up to the stratosphere, Bok Choy resorts to
copying the Asian styles, which is a very acceptable fallback. If I ordered
these clams in black bean sauce ($8.95) in a Chinatown restaurant, I would
praise the quality of the tiny littleneck clams and admit that the sauce was
just middling -- gray and a little starchy, not as piquant as the best black
bean sauces. Steamed whole bass ($16.95) made the common mistake of using a
small, farmed striped bass. These freshwater fish, which don't have nearly the
flavor of wild ocean stripers, require a stronger sauce than the mild
lemongrass-scallion broth served here. Save this sauce for an ocean fish like
red snapper or tautog or even porgy. When it has to be domestic striped bass,
pile on the ginger and garlic, or fry it in a spicy sweet-and-sour.
Rice ($1.95) is on every platter -- a Japanese-style medium-grain variety --
but I found it somewhat hard and underdone. Desserts also tend toward the
tentative, but the trio of sorbets ($5.95) is another brilliant bit of fusion.
The three scoops are served in a sandpot with an exotic garnish of pomegranate
seeds and mint, but it's the flavors that impress most. The pear had a rich and
distinctive Asian-pear taste; the sweet, purple, berry-like sorbet is made with
Wu Wei tea; the third flavor was mandarin orange. I haven't had such
provocative sorbets in any Boston fusion restaurant, although they're an
important feature at such nationally known places as China Moon, in San
Francisco, and Vong, in New York City.
Fried banana wontons ($5.95) were a more familiar kind of goodness: fried
dough with hot, sweet banana filling, over an irrelevant coconut cream sauce.
That sauce would be more fruitfully applied to the Asian rice pudding ($5.95),
which is more of that Japanese-type rice cooked with coconut milk to a sticky
richness. It had the comforting quality of a Malaysian dessert, but I would
have liked a French-style fruit purée for contrast. (There, it's
happened: I'm arguing for more fusion instead of an authentic Asian style.)
Bok Choy doesn't have a liquor license yet. In the meantime, what's served is
accurately watery, earthy Chinese-restaurant tea. Although I generally prefer
Chinese food to Irish food, this may be an exception. Especially with South
Brookline water, one wants the tea strong.
The rooms are redecorated in much darker colors than I remember from any of
the previous three restaurants in this space (Pacifico being the most recent),
but it works well with the complicated architectural décor. Here, as in
several other places, fusion jazz is thought to go with fusion food. While this
may be better than just going with the herd and cuing up the Gipsy Kings, there
would be nothing wrong with more distinctive jazz -- or, given the macrobiotic
influences, a little New Age music. Not that I'm arguing for downtown style or
Cambridge style here. Informality -- the yellowing pages of Chinese-language
newspapers that wallpaper the bathroom -- generally suits the place.
The restaurant doesn't accept credit cards, and won't soon, if it tries to
follow the system at Pomodoro. Nor has it revived the valet parking from its
predecessor, Pacifico. This looks to me like an experiment: is it worth
annoying some of the admittedly fickle culinary tourists to keep the restaurant
more available for the neighborhood, and a little cheaper to run?