…I saw the plan clearly. She lures people from across the street by carefully leaving open a door to her very interesting prep kitchen, and when they wander in, she immobilizes them with cheerful banter about food. When they are relaxed and unable to defend themselves, she pounces! We were being forced to eat at some overpriced dump of hers that probably was a few days from closing. I saw the possibility of escape when her assistant told her that the restaurant was full. Then the trap’s jaws snapped firmly shut as Barbara Lynch firmly told her employee to “make it happen; tell them it is for me.”
We beat a hasty retreat, all the while feeling the tug of reservations from which there was no graceful way out. But we had baseball, and almost as important, Fenway franks to enjoy. And maybe the restaurant wouldn’t be too awful; hopefully, we wouldn’t get food poisoning.
The baseball was grand, the franks were excellent (with brown, not yellow, mustard — a nice touch), the beer was just what one would expect: crappy, bordering on bad. But at least it was cold, and there was a lot of it!
At lunch the next day, we took a look at Sportello’s menu. I was dismayed to see that the menu looked very, very nice. Just the sort of food that I enjoy. Clearly, this Lynch was a formidable opponent. At this point, I was so suspicious that I was entertaining thoughts of a modern-day Sweeney Todd. But first there was ice cream to be eaten, at the absolutely fantastic J.P. Licks. I eat ice cream about twice each month, but this stuff is worth eating more often. Nothing weird, just excellent-quality ice cream in interesting flavors.
But dinner loomed, so I accepted my fate of becoming a meat pie in a London pub. The restaurant is on the second floor of what looks like a big warehouse in a nice, but certainly quiet neighborhood. We discovered later that it is one of three joints in the building, with a huge, immaculate and fascinating kitchen on the ground floor. In addition to Sportello there is a bar called Drink (how clever!) and a more elegant and expensive restaurant called Menton.
Clearly Barbara Lynch was having fun with her design team, because Sportello was like nothing I had ever seen. The 1950s lunch counter vibe was unmistakable, with two long U-shaped counters, a few tables, and a bakery display. But it worked! Strange, a little disconcerting, but when we sat down at the corner of the counter we realized that for conversation (and sharing food), it was very nice. It was also packed, so my suspicion was allayed that we were a temporary lifeline for a failing restaurant.
As soon as we were identified as the kitchen crashers from the previous day, we were treated like royalty. Actually, we were treated very nicely even before! Our waiter (Sarah) was a charming, soft-spoken young woman who displayed an impressive knowledge of the wines and food. Anyone who knows about La Quercia pork is okay in my book, and that is just one of the many things she impressed us with. One of the amusing things about this restaurant is the extremely casual look coupled with thoroughly professional service, and Sarah fit in perfectly.
After 15 minutes, I realized that if I were to be chopped up for bangers, this isn’t a bad place to have my last meal! We began with an amuse bouche that was delightful — creamy ricotta! And then Mike ordered something that I rarely eat, mostly because it is rarely done well. Figs and prosciutto. Sounds simple, but the figs are usually too ripe, and the sweetness and creamy texture overwhelms the delicate ham. But these were perfect. The figs were firm, with just a hint of sweetness that matched well with the delicate prosciutto.
I noticed an interesting dish on the appetizer list, but everyone sneered at my pedestrian tastes. Citrus-cured bluefish sounded great to me, but let’s face it, bluefish is usually too oily and too strong for most people. Luckily, Sarah took pity on me and brought a taste for everyone (did I mention that she was a wonderful waiter?). The fish was tender and mild, and the curing added a complexity that was great. It was served with tiny slices of radish and some fantastic fresh peas. Yes…peas. They were marvelous.
My lovely wife had an excellent dish of roasted asparagus on a lovely crostini with fava beans (and some of that great ricotta). It looked beautiful, too, which was good, because that was the only way I was going to appreciate it. My wife can swing a mean elbow when there are dishes like this one in front of her. Missy had a nice local greens salad with tiny beets. I am no fan of beets, but these were impressive, and sweet. Mike had risotto that I remember as perfectly cooked, but I don’t recall anything else about it. And I had the best gnocchi I have ever eaten. Perfection on a plate. If you are ever in Boston, order this dish. Ethereally light gnocchi that were unbelievably tender, sitting in a luscious, rich cream and butter sauce, with some of those fresh peas. Simple? Maybe. But the devil is in the details, and this kitchen executed perfectly.
After I finished off that gnocchi, I looked around for the hidden slide down to the abattoir, thinking that if I’m going to go out on a peak, I was certainly there! But they brought a very nice piece of fluke instead. If I were to quibble, I would say that it was a bit overdone. Not by much, and if the kitchen hadn’t raised my expectations so much by their previous successes, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. And I got more peas!
My lovely wife ordered the swordfish with prosciutto, and Mike had to copy her because it really was a great-looking dish. Once again, a simple idea but executed perfectly. The swordfish was layered with a piece of prosciutto and then simply sautéed and probably finished in a warm oven. But the ham was lovely and crisp; a perfect counterpoint to the fish.
Ah, but what of Missy? At first glance, a plate of tagliatelle with bolognese seems a straightforward order. Perhaps even boring. But what a bolognese! I make a pretty good one, and this version was so much better that I was embarrassed for my meager cooking skills. The texture was like nothing I had ever had, and the intensity of flavors was startling, yet it didn’t overpower the fresh pasta. Marvelous. The dish of the evening.
We had been warned not to miss the coconut cake, but really, how good could it be? Well, pretty damned good, just like everything else at this gem of a restaurant. The service was relaxed and professional, the kitchen’s attention to detail was impressive, the wines were interesting, and my favorite detail, the tableware, was of high quality and interesting. Ah, but we were special guests of the owner! Of course we were going to get special service. That may be true for a few things (Mike and I got a fascinating tour of the main kitchen, led by Heather, one of the managers, and that great bluefish tasting was complements of the restaurant*), but they can’t magically make the kitchen this impressive, or quickly teach the waiters all about the wines and food. And let’s face it, we may be wonderful and charming and elegant, but we certainly aren’t important, and there is a limit to what can and should be done for the guests, no matter who they are. Yes, they were assuredly more attentive, but we got the same food as everyone else that night, and it was the food that made us want to go back!
*And Sarah, our wonderful waiter, was very generous with tastes of interesting wines. Did I mention that she was an excellent, thoroughly professional waiter?