Expect the EclecticBy Daniel Metz
1418 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton
There’s a touch of schizophrenia evident at Uva, a moderately-sized bistro a few blocks west of Harvard Ave. in Brighton. It can’t decide whether it wants to be a casual, unassuming “pasteria,” with plain brick walls, simple decor, waiters in jeans, and very friendly service. Or whether it wants to be that type of pretentious restaurant that focuses on elegant presentations but leaves diners wondering, “Where’s the beef?” Ultimately I believe Uva settles at a funky, eclectic medium that will satisfy most patrons who come in with an open mind. (A primary example of its funkiness: where else can you sit down to a pepperoni pizza with a bottle of 1988 Chateau D’Yquem, one of the most famous estates of Bordeaux?)
Our meal on a recent Friday night began with a bit of pretension in the form of the daily appetizer special: foie gras ravioli with a mushroom and black truffle sauce ($10). I admit I ordered this because I’d never tasted foie gras before; unfortunately, I still don’t have a clue what it tastes like. The three (yes, three) tiny ravioli were stuffed...wait a minute, “stuffed” is definitely the wrong word. There was a bit of something inside, but ultimately I had to take the waiter’s word that it was foie gras. At least the rich sauce, oozing with caramelized onions and mushrooms and dotted with fresh peas, was worth sopping up with bread, but on the whole our “appetizers” were a wash, especially considering we split only one because of the cost. In retrospect we should have ordered the Caesar salad for two ($7.75), a sizeable portion I saw being eagerly consumed on many other tables.
There was nothing pretentious about our entrees, an ingeniously-flavored chicken dish and a down-home, hearty pizza. My wife chose the roasted chicken breast with a confit of chicken gratin, kumquats and parsley root ($17.50). This was a generous portion of tender and flavorful white meat, the only drawback is the too-salty soy-sauce glaze. The tangy kumquats really jazzed up what’s usually the most boring dish on a restaurant’s menu. Accompanying the dish was a scrumptious and decadent gratin -- a shallow cup composed primarily of small chicken pieces cooked in their own fat, sprinkled with cheese and placed under a broiler until the top becomes crispy. Calorie counters might wish to skip this one, but will be hard pressed to leave it on their plate once they taste it.
I ventured even further from the high road with a big, 8-slice make-your-own pizza. (Pizza and pasta are the only vegetarian options at Uva.). I chose fresh mushrooms and sweet sausage (bringing its price to $15.00), which were served atop a thin crust covered with a tasty tomato and basil sauce, and a moderate amount of a fairly nondescript cheese. I’m still not convinced the mushrooms were fresh. The sausage was juicy and flavorful, but a bit too spicy to go with the red wine I suspect most will consume with this dish. In retrospect the pizza was a bad choice. Not because it was so terrible, but because I think the kitchen here can do a lot better.
One cannot write about Uva without mentioning its wines. Uva’s wine pricing policy is famous: every wine on their extensive list is priced $10 above its wholesale price. That means great bargains, especially at the upper end, where some bottles will be priced for less than you can get them in the store, something that is almost unheard of for restaurant wine offerings. The wines practically call out to be bought, tempting diners from behind the glass panels that separate the dining room from their storage area. Unfortunately, only four wines (two reds and two whites) are offered by the glass (at $4 each).
Desserts showed Uva at its funky best. The first, a dark chocolate cake with poached kumquats, was delicious, dense and rich but not cloyingly sweet. And the whipped marscarpone topping was a welcome substitute for the expected whipped cream. But if the chocolate cake was excellent, our second dessert was absolute heaven, without exaggeration the best dessert I’ve tasted in my life -- a goat cheese cheesecake with blood oranges. What, you’re asking, isn’t goat cheese usually pretty strong, pungent stuff? Yes!! And amazingly, it worked perfectly: every bite infused with strong, only slightly-sweetened cheese flavors, interacting perfectly with the syrupy orange topping. A truly decadent and ingenious dessert.
The next time I come to Uva I’d skip the pizza and try to match some of the meat entrees with some hearty red wines. Some that look worth trying include native lamb grilled and roasted with braised kale and sour apple compote ($22.00) and petite filet mignon with braised beef cheeks, herbed spaetzle, candied onions and a red wine beef jus ($22.00). There are seafood offerings as well, including a tempting yellowfin tuna with a crispy crab cake, cilantro and a warm coriander vinaigrette ($19.75). With all its funkiness and good food, Uva is a fun restaurant to splurge on once in a while, to impress a date, or to get your parents to take you to when they come up for graduation. Best of all, Uva shows you don’t have to suffer the annoyance of snooty waiters and uptight dress codes to enjoy really interesting food in Boston.