Chef Driven

What a difference a chef makes: Marianne Miller, newly established at Bobino, turns an old reliable into a new joy

A chunky steak tartare ($10) made with lots of red onion, lemon zest, verjus, and a bit of mustard was good in a sturdy, country way. Mussels ($12) were prepared one day in a dark, salty beer broth with bacon, then served topped with handfuls of shredded green cabbage that had been cooked just until the pale leaves had their green, licorice aspect brought forward. I couldn't really see eating the cabbage, it seemed almost like the seaweed mussels are cooked in sometimes, but the preparation gave the mussels a nice, unusual sort of Alsatian accent. It was wonderful to find the mussels themselves given a cook's full attention: They were sweet, soft, oceanic, fantastically clean, and ideally cooked.

A whole poached artichoke was delicious, if knee-wobblingly decadent, as the huge $12 beast was served, literally, in a soup bowl of hot "beurre fondu"--that is, melted butter. Pluck a leaf, dip it in the butter, swill it down with some crisp white wine and plenty of bread, and by the time you reach the lush artichoke heart you'll feel the heady intoxication of someone who is vacationing in France in 1978 and eating a whole artichoke dripping with butter; what a wonderful world that must have been, before they invented constant public-health carping about what you eat! In any event, if you vegetarians have felt left out of the whole mind-altering decadence of foie gras, now there is a mind-altering decadence just for you.

The full entrées are a bit hard to head into after the intensity of the appetizers, but I found a number that were thoroughly charming. My favorite was another butter-bomb, panko-crusted veal scallopini ($24). For this extravaganza, beautifully textured, weighty little pillows of garlic-thyme gnocchi floated in a bath of silky butter, nestled among the first plump green peas of spring. Each gnocco had the perfect balance of plush weight and springy resilience to it, and by themselves would have been utterly unforgettable. And yet, they were nowhere near alone. On top were two golden medallions of sweet, light, pure veal, fried to a state of fork-tender cutlety joy, and on top of those were four loops of slightly pickled, salted cucumber, each loop curled loosely around a spoonful of shredded red radish: The cold, raw, sweet, spicy radish was a radical addition and, like a cold sun-shower moving through a perfect hot summer day, brought the excellence of each element of veal and gnocchi into stark relief. A tour de force of a preparation.

A vegetarian dish of Bergamasca polenta ($19) was served such that triangles of the fluffy, refined Italian corn cake were seared dark and crisp outside. Pierce the shell and you found an ivory-colored, elegantly subtle middle. The polenta was dressed with a plate-licking tangy, creamy Pecorino cheese sauce scattered with a spoonful of micro-diced chives, and beside it came a sort of deconstructed caponata, an eggplant confit and a mélange of roasted red and yellow peppers. Rack of lamb ($27) was as red as strawberries, memorably tender, and served with nicely al dente flageolet beans. I did try one clanking failure, a hot charcuterie plate ($26) of smoked pork tenderloin, pork belly, cabbage, apples, and a square of creamy, layered potatoes: Each element was so obliteratingly salty I couldn't eat it. Odd. Oh well, that's what proves a kitchen is made of humans, and not magicians.

Pastries and sweets, by Christian Aldrich, are often excellent. I especially liked the homemade profiteroles, four wonderfully fresh miniature éclairs filled with nicely bitter coffee ice cream and served with a pitcher of the silkiest possible dark caramel sauce. They were worth driving an hour for. Chocolate truffles were incredibly delicious; there were dark ones filled with a fleur de sel caramel that were so rich and powerful it was nearly disorienting to eat them. I had them another night as part of a more ambitious chocolate tasting, with chocolate sorbet and a chocolate mousse cake, and concluded that they need to stand alone, because they make any other chocolate thing taste like an also-ran.

A few little things at Bobino still need adjusting if it really wants to be a great restaurant. Servers are sweet, well-meaning, and make you feel terrifically comfortable, but it would be nice if they could add a few more big-restaurant tricks to their act. For instance, if everyone united as one and figured out some way to write on the tickets who gets what dish, so that anyone delivering the plates might know, that would be marvelous. The bathroom, which the restaurant shares with a neighboring coffee shop, needs a revamp.

The wine program needs work. First, it's pricey. Most bottles seem to cost 300 to 400 percent what they do retail, like a $9 retail Hogue Riesling for $30. Second, you have to be something of a mind reader to know what's actually on the list. Is the "Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc Gundlach Bundschu, Sonoma Valley $42" the California winery's $12-ish table red, Bearitage, or its more prestigious $17-ish Rhinefarm Vineyards Mountain Cuvée? If you know enough to ask that question, you are a wine person, and Bobino's wine pricing will probably eliminate the restaurant as a first-choice destination. Moreover, if it's not the pricing that bugs you, it'll be the heavy reliance on best-known, big-brand wines, or the ridiculous omission of any wine's vintage.

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