growing pains

Following the trajectory of American pop music divas and Brazilian futbol stars, the restaurant formerly known as Anago Bistro has lost the "Bistro"--both in name and spirit--and gained some attitude. After a move downtown to the swanky Lenox Hotel and a complete make-over, Anago has ratcheted up its image a few major notches. In its previous incarnation at 798 Main Street (now home of Salts Restaurant), Anago Bistro was a hidden gem--intimate, understated, and consistently excellent. Alas, popularity corrupts. With the move toward self-iconization and the strategic new location, Anago's former cachet has been exploited. The larger, hipper Anago is struggling to adapt to its new image.

Judging from the caliber of its clientele, Anago has due cause to strut: Yo-Yo Ma--a frequent visitor to the restaurant--was spotted amid the crowd of expense-account diners. Strut it does. In true L.A. style customers arrive at the appointed time of their reservation to be told that their table is being set. Two or three drinks (approximately 30 minutes) later, they are ushered to their seats. As well as allowing customers to loosen their pursestrings (and if the racy behavior that we witnessed was standard, their inhibitions as well) this clever maneuver forces customers to revel in the plushly appointed, opulent bar. Unfortunately, the cozy bar is not meant to accommodate quite so many backed-up tables. Its Egyptiannate gold painted ceiling and walls, lonic columns, upturned mushroom-shaped lamps, and low-slung red velvet chairs become a bit oppressive when the bar is packed. However, as the crowd thinned out, the elegance of the space emerged.

Similarly, the restaurant proper is impeccably decorated. The high ceilings allow the bustle of happy diners free reign, red matte walls create an atmosphere that is almost too trendy for traditional Boston. The kitchen is open, accented by classy copper heating lamps. The wrought iron chandeliers, with yellow lanterns in place of bulbs, hang like copies of Aleksandr Rodchenko's Spatial Constructions. Apparently, Yo-Yo Ma et al are satisfied with Anago's sexy new image. However, with its arrival onto the scene, the prices have gone up and the quality of the food has gone down; Anago is trying too hard to reconcile profile with taste.

This was especially true of our appetizers, which sounded simple enough but proved slightly overburdened. Winter Roast Salad ($9) was brimming with boiled fingerling potatoes, fresh, sweet yellow beets, maytag blue cheese, black olives and greens. However, the freshness of the ingredients was smothered by a pasty, creamy dressing. The Trio of Carpaccio ($13) was a similar case of good ingredients overwhelmed by sauce. Tender, delicious raw scallops, peppered beef, and tuna arrived on a platter elegantly garnished by veggies and greens. Each variety of carpaccio was doused liberally with a different sauce: scallops were accompanied by red pepper vinaigrette, beef by creamy caper sauce, and tuna by an unidentifiable dressing that looked like Russian dressing and tasted of anchovies. The result was a slightly heavy-handed conflict of flavors.

Though it was a Wednesday night, the restaurant was crowded, and consequently Anago had run out of some of the entrees that were listed on its menu. They also had run out of half-bottles of our chosen wine, and generously offered us glasses on the house. The entrees that were available were admirably prepared and proved far less saucy than the appetizers. Grilled Beef Sirloin ($26) was cooked perfectly, medium rare, and served atop a savory potato and wild mushroom cake, accompanied by a sharp rocquefort sauce and tangy onion marmalade. Wilted greens lightened the deliciously rich dish. Veal Brisket ($23) was entirely devoid of grease without being desiccated, matched by soft roast pearl onion polenta. Sliced, cooked pear in mustard sauce and lightly fried onion rings rested on a light, sweet, smoky sauce. Again, this entree far outmatched the appetizers. Though the preparation was complicated, the dish didn't evince the same schizophrenia as the appetizers. The tastes were balanced and fused comfortably into one another. The quality of the entrees proved yet again that when it comes to food, less is more.


Dessert consisted of a strawberry-lychee soup with rhubarb sorbet that was fruity and light, stopping just short of being too sweet. The second dessert was flourless almond/orange cake, crunchy and light, spiced by orange zest and whipped cream. Flourless cake is generally dense, rich, and chocolate, but this was none of the above, an ideal choice for Passover. In the end, the desserts, like the entrees, far outshone the appetizers.

On April 19th, the day after this review was written, Anago unveiled its new Spring menu (to further heighten the sense of anticipation, its contents were kept under wraps). Hopefully, Anago will take the opportunity to remember its simpler roots, tone down the food and let the toned-up decor speak for itself.

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