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Loading Zone offers adventurous food, artful decor

LOADING ZONE

150 Kneeland St., Boston.

By DAVID HOGG

and ROBIN KULLBERG

EVERYONE WHO LOOKS IN on Loading Zone is impressed. Each of the tables is actually a shallow glass-topped box, the contents of which were designed and created by a different artist. The chairs are tall and beautiful, with casters in unexpected places. The entire service is glass except for the cutlery, which is unusual but elegant. Lights hang from exposed steel conduits that are bent and twisted into knots. The napkins are actually huge industrial dishcloths. Loading Zone may be pretentious, but in our book, that is often a good thing.

The menu lists traditional American dishes such as spareribs and pulled pork, as well as the out-of-the-ordinary, such as Baha shrimp and scallops in fresh tomatillo sauce.

Loading Zone likes to provide extreme flavors and surprising combinations of different ingredients. We began with the smoked chicken salad in cilantro vinaigrette ($5.95). It consisted of pieces of tender smoked chicken on a bed of romaine lettuce with tomato, mushroom and red onion. The dressing was excellent. David thought that the chicken had just the right flavor, but Robin would have preferred it if it had actually tasted smoked.

The very strong vinaigrette included not only lemon juice, but orange juice as well, which made it almost sweet. On the other hand, the smoked chicken had a very subtle flavor and was quite savory. The combination was just the tiniest bit reminiscent of Palmolive, although others might disagree.

Before we go overboard, however, we should say that the dish was good, particularly if the dressing was used sparingly. It was large, too, and would have filled either of us up as a main course.

As a main course, David ordered the grilled vegetables and polenta ($9.95). For the benefit of those less sophisticated than ourselves: polenta is a very stiff, solid porridge made from cornmeal, and in this case contained small pieces of tomato and herbs. Polenta has a simple corn flavor, and Loading Zone's rendition was perfect. It had been briefly grilled with the vegetables, giving it an occasional bite. The vegetables, being very lightly cooked, were strongly flavored. The onions were pungent -- though in a good way -- but the eggplant was less than tender. The fairly mild polenta meshed with the loud vegetables beautifully. It was an excellent dish.

Robin ordered the grilled chicken with peanut sauce ($10.95). It came on a bed of rice with three additional vegetables: a red bean, corn and onion salad; squash; and greens. The delicate peanut sauce went well with the grilled flavor of the chicken, but the side dishes were the most interesting. The bean salad was awash in an unexpectedly powerful liquid that we thought was flavored with jalape~no peppers. The squash and the greens were also very spicy and very different.

Some might be scared off by Loading Zone's prices, but if what we ordered was any indication, the size of the courses makes up for at least some of the price. The only thing we finished was the appetizer, and that only because it came first.

Of course, this did not stop us from ordering some carrot cake ($3.50) with our coffee. The cake was a pleasant surprise: it was neither the dry, crumbly stuff purchased in cafeterias, nor the wet, thick stuff obtained in caf'es. Rather, it was light and fresh. There was also a selection of pies which we are sure are good, because we have tasted them in Loading Zone's sibling (and neighboring) restaurant, The Blue Diner.

Loading Zone gets a good recommendation because it is adventurous, if not always perfect. The biggest danger is getting a set of strong flavors that don't go well together, but at least the individual components will be enjoyable. One should go at least once if only to check out the exceptional d'ecor.