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Cozy neighborhood bistro still serves superior food.

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Its current incarnation has been there five years. Walking into Bacchus for me was a bit like returning to a college hangout, evoking fond memories and hoping that the place would be as good as I remembered.

My favorite was Mudbones, a name that chef-owner Joe Craig borrowed from a Richard Pryor character. At Mudbones, the frenetic Craig offered a giant serving of pasta a la vodka, enough for four, for $14, which you could wash down with a decent bottle of pinot grigio for a mere $10.

After Craig collapsed from exhaustion, the space was taken over by Cabo's, which moved over to Broad Street after a year, and for the last five years it has been operated as Bacchus by chef-owner Chris DiLauro.

Inflation has taken its toll, but the pasta at Bacchus remains a bargain at $12, with toppings that include goat cheese, spinach and cream and mushrooms and ricotta, and there are half a dozen bottles of wine for $20. Most entrees range from $19 to $29.

DiLauro began his love affair with food as a 15-year-old dishwasher for a cooking cousin. He then trained at Johnson and Wales in Norfolk and honed his skills as a caterer in New York and as a chef here at the Berkeley Hotel and at Helen's.

At Bacchus, DiLauro turns out fresh, quality meals in a welcoming atmosphere. Typical of the care DiLauro takes with food are his pesto and crŠme fraiche. The pesto is made not in a food processor, but by hand, chopping garlic, basil and toasted pine nuts, and then adding lemon juice, olive oil and grated Parmesan. The result is a classic Italian sauce that enhances the flavor of sautéed grouper and shrimp.

He makes the crŠme fraiche with heavy cream and buttermilk, which sits for 36 hours, at which point it takes on a velvety texture. When I had it, DiLauro added horseradish, a flourish that brought out the flavor of a ribeye steak so large that it covered an ample side of au gratin potatoes.

Bouillabaisse arrived on a plate rather than in a bowl, but it nonetheless contained enough of a mildly spicy broth of saffron and tomato to complement the mix of seafood. The chief ingredients were mussels and clams, still in their shells, plus a couple of bites of squid, and one shrimp and one small scallop. Sea scallops, expertly seared, were drizzled in truffle oil and surrounded by prosciutto.

A high quality slice of veal scallopini was pounded thin, covered with a dusting of flour, sautéed and topped with brown butter, lemon and capers. It was complemented by au gratin potatoes, corn freshly cut from the cob and broccolini, which is another specialty of the house.

Broccolini is a hybrid vegetable that is a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale. DiLauro, on two occasions, seemingly used it on every plate we tasted. It's so popular that some customers call ahead to make sure it's on the menu. For my taste, though, it was a nice diversion, but better enjoyed with less frequency.

A dozen appetizers, from $5 to $10, feature seafood, vegetables and two kinds of pizza, the traditional Italian white and another topped with mozzarella and tomatoes. The broccolini was sautéed al dente and combined with a broth of olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmesan that made for great dipping with the just-out-of-the-oven dinner rolls. Red wine gave a great color to large, juicy braised portabella mushrooms.

The restaurant seats about three dozen in the main dining area, and a balcony added three years ago accommodates another dozen. I suggest trying for a booth near the back, which is the best place to avoid smokers who crowd around at the handsome bar in the front. You can also watch DiLauro and assistant Jeff Sweeney prepare the food in an open kitchen.

DiLauro's business partner, Nancy Fisher, who runs the front of the house, reports that some of the regulars at the bar still talk about those good old days at Mudbones, whose spirit lives on at the present-day Bacchus. S



Bacchus ($$$)
2 N. Meadow St.
355-9919
www.bacchusonmain.com

Dinner only: Monday through Thursday 5-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m.




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