Celtic Salad at Tonic
by MC Slim JB
| June 11, 2012
Photo: JOEL VEAK
The restaurant business is tough and unforgiving, and it doesn’t always reward pioneers or innovators. Locals complain that their neighborhood’s restaurants and bars are too much alike, yet a newcomer essaying something different doesn’t always gain their support: folks too readily fall back onto old reliables. Thus one has to credit the owners of Tonic (3698 Washington Street, Jamaica Plain, 617.522.4131) for going out on a limb. In the Forest Hills corner of JP, the usuals tend to be modest American places serving burgers, pizza, and wings and traditional, often gritty Irish-American pubs. Against this backdrop, a small, modern bar/restaurant in the mode of the South End’s Franklin Café seems downright daring.
The modish décor is eye-popping by local standards: a sleek 16-seat bar with chartreuse pendant lights, a 30-seat dining room with chrome and mirror finishes everywhere, fiery-red snakeskin-pleather banquettes, walls and upholstery in pumpkin and maize. No ballgame plays on the flat-screens; they’re dark on weeknights when the music runs to Sinatra, flashing music videos on weekends when the soundtrack is loud, thumping house.
Grazers can order from eight small bar plates ($5) like chicken satay or tuna tartare. The dinner menu offers fine first courses like a parsnip chowder ($8), which complements its milky, parsnip-scented broth with terrific tempura clams, thin slices of candied bacon, fried little cubes of potato, and fresh chervil. Tempura-fried pork belly ($12) starts with a clever idea — deep-frying slabs of pork belly in a light batter makes them nicely lean — but serving the hot protein on top of a cold pickled bean-sprout salad quickly makes both elements lukewarm.
Also original but more successful is penne pasta ($14) with bacon, lemon, pepper, and underdone leaves of Brussels sprouts, all topped with a soft-poached egg. It works like a deconstructed carbonara: hearty and delicious. Molasses-brined double-thick pork chops ($18) are another attractive, value-priced main, served with good sweet-potato fries, though cooked a bit past the requested medium-rare. But the Celtic salad ($14) manages to hit on all cylinders, offering a generous, meal-sized fricassee of crisp yet tender spring vegetables — green and white asparagus, broccoli, green beans, fresh peas — served on a foundation of toasted bread crumbs and topped with another poached egg. Once the kitchen hits its consistency stride, Tonic may garner a fan base that uses the Forest Hills MBTA hub across the street to come from all over, regardless of whether its neighbors ever get on board with its globetrotting menu and shiny in-town ambiance.