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New England Regional | The Tastes of Boston

Deluxe Food, Garden View

Excelsior puts on a high-priced, glamorous show.

January-February 2004

From the start, when the hostess escorts you to the elevator for your ride up to the dining rooms, you know that this is no ordinary restaurant. The elevator is a glass box that passes through Excelsior's 7,000-bottle wine collection on its vertical voyage to the second floor. The spectacular sight of those racks of resting wine bottles, each awaiting its moment, is itself intoxicating, long before anyone has pulled a cork.

EXCELSIOR

272 Boylston Street, Boston.
617-426-7878

Dinner seven days a week. Bar menu available. Reservations recommended.
Excelsior is a blatantly upscale restaurant, where entrées average $30 and one glass—not bottle—of La Fleur de Boüard Pomerol will set you back $18. If these data don't cause the blood to drain from your extremities, read on, because veteran Boston chef and restaurateur Lydia Shire has created, in Excelsior, a new, welcoming, warm place that serves deeply gratifying food in a friendly and attentive ambience.

It also boasts as good a view as any restaurant in Boston, with big windows overlooking the Public Garden. It's the same place where Shire's previous triumph, Biba, delighted affuent diners in the 1990s. There's a cocktail lounge on the first floor, with a bar menu. Boston's glam crowd is back, and so is Shire's celebrated lobster pizza ($24). The dining rooms, in dark wood and warm autumn colors, with original modern paintings, can seat 140, but the space is still cozy and a bit romantic. Occasionally, a local celebrity may materialize at an adjoining table. Even the bread basket here shows originality: for example, a flatbread with embedded peppercorns. We tried the delicious Italian robiola cheese and duxelle mushroom pizza ($18), which makes "yuppie pizza" taste, well, so 1990s. Another starter, the Mediterranean-influenced lamb brik ($16), was ground lamb laced with cumin, chilies, sea salt, and cilantro, flash-fried inside an ultra-thin pastry. Oven-roasted tomatoes and extra-thick yogurt nicely complemented the spicy meat. (By the way, the portions here are generous.) Ethereally light raviolis stuffed with sweet corn purée ($16) came with roasted porcini mushrooms and a lovely butter and herb sauce.

Dark wood and autumnal colors lend a warm feeling to dining at Excelsior.
Photograph by Peter Paige Photography

The tuna au poivre with Roman (semolina) gnocchi ($29) arrived perfectly seared, and the first bite moved our companion to exclaim, "I'll have to grow up and marry this tuna!" A glass of Moss Wood Semillon from Australia ($13)—piquant, with notes of apples and poached pears—perhaps made a more suitable mate. We were tempted by, but did not try, the "Food and Wine Paired" offerings ($85 or $125 with wines), a prix fixe tasting menu of five showy courses, such as foie gras on yam baked in brown sugar brioche.

When the mascarpone mousse Napoleon with ginger poached Seckel pear and whipped cream ($10) arrived for dessert, our first thought was that it should be hanging on the wall with the other visual art. Beautiful, yes, but also delicious. Much the same could be said for Excelsior.

~C.L.