Fort Point is now home to some lunchtime giants. I know first hand that a swooping line of hungry nine to fivers occupies Flour without end from 11-3. Their patience comes from visions of tender lamb sandwiched with spunky-sweet chutney, a palm-sized oreo cookie, and a seltzer to wash it all down. The queue at Channel Café is similarly long and proof that Fort Pointers just don’t pack lunches. Why would they? For those looking for a real power hour, though, Sportello is sit-down chic with its lunch counter style and all. It’s mod and clean, almost stark in its whiteness, but somehow the space also proves warm and charming with its friendly (and very “Boston”) servers, place mat menus and casual, up-close and personal open kitchen. Sure, there’s a “takeout” bakery in the same space, but if you have the time, the counter experience makes the meal.
I’m probably the last food adventurer to try it, but I always wanted to see it during the day; I think daylight suits the space best. An affordable (well, more affordable) Barbara Lynch experience is a treat, because I know I won’t be heading down to Menton anytime in the near future. There just was never a good time, and I started reading a lot of mixed reviews. Suddenly, it’s not 2008 anymore, but I finally got there, and it was worth the wait.
Although I know it’s easy for each great meal to outshine the last, I think my no-frills lunch at Sportello might be tied with dinner at Hungry Mother as the best overall new dining experience for me in the past year (and no, I don’t just mean since the start of 2012). What I know for sure is that our warm cauliflower salad made for the best single bite I’ve enjoyed in the past year. It was a snapshot of the kind of food I like to cook and eat: It was earthy, rustic and flavorful with a simple preparation that made the vegetable shine. The cauliflower was cut into small steaks and miniature florets. They browned around the edges from roasting but were still crunchy and fresh. Intermingled with nutty and chewy toasted farro, sweet and citrusy plump golden raisins and briny green olives, the cauliflower sat atop a thick circle of yogurt and a drizzle of fruity olive oil. Each swipe of the fork created a perfectly composed bite with interesting textures and addictive flavors.
We happily munched on some moist, tight-crumbed house-made slices of Scali, a Boston-bred Italian loaf enriched with olive oil that I’ve often found stale, and of supermarket quality. I appreciated this nod to Lynch’s local roots. Rich but light housemade whipped ricotta and a fruit and raisin compote was the perfect topper.
Already feeling the space in my stomach grow smaller and smaller, I was faced with a much larger than expected bowl of steaming Tagliatelle alla Bolognese, one of Lynch’s signatures and a mainstay on many of her menus. If this wasn’t good, it would be pretty embarrassing. Just sayin’. The pasta itself was perfect. I’m going to say it was the best fresh pasta – tagliatelle or otherwise – I’ve had. Ever. Here I go with the superlatives again… Each noodle was springy but amazingly delicate; the tines of my fork were easily visible through the medium-wide ribbons. They were slippery smooth, feather-weight and easy to eat. The sauce was also surprising in its lightness. True, it was rich and a little gamey with an extraordinary depth; A glimpse at a close version of the recipe explains that: beef/pork/veal is swapped for pork/veal/lamb/chicken livers. But it coated the pasta ever so lightly, its flavor concentrated without heft. Parmesan and a fried basil leaf were the perfect finishing touches.
Although outshined by the tagliatelle, the spicy tomato soup was just as flavorful, if not a little too acidic. The spice was strong but did not kill the palate, allowing for the flavors to be enjoyed and savored. I loved the accompanying “caraway grilled cheese,” which was essentially a razor-thin doubled cracker held together by a light sprinkling of Parmesan. It remained almost tooth breakingly crunchy when dipped in the soup and the aroma of caraway was beautiful and mellow.
Being a dutiful reviewer, I tasted desserts in house and took pastries from the bakery to-go. The plated desserts were stunning. It took a hot second for me to decide on the olive oil cake with preserved strawberries and zabaglione. The citrusy, staggered cake soldiers were slightly toasted, moist and so much lighter than a traditional pound cake. The strawberries were bright and packed the most sweetness. The custard was frothy and fleeting. It’s one of those desserts that I try to “retaste” in my head from time to time.
The ice cream sandwich was far from a kiddish second choice. Two flat, dark chocolate-based cookies were studded with smooth white chocolate chips. They neatly encased a perfect round of smooth milk chocolate gelato. It was compact, easy to eat, and heightened by crunchy hidden flecks of sea salt. It was adorable and really complimented the casual but refined vibe of the restaurant.
My take-home treats were solid but not nearly as memorable as the plated ones. While I absolutely adored a moist, floral coconut-honey cake, I found the cookies disappointing. The cornmeal ginger cookie got its flavor entirely from some finely minced crystallized ginger, of which I found about one piece per cookie! The almond amaretti cookie was crisp on the outside and hid a chewy almond paste core. As an almond freak, I thought it would be heaven, but the center was far too sweet and almost artificial and medicinal in its potent almond flavor. Lastly, the chocolate walnut with fleur de sel was fudgier than a cookie and, believe it or not, fudgier than a brownie. It felt like a heavy pile of raw ganache.
I’m actually surprised how much I enjoyed my lunch as a whole. The odds were against it. I’m iffy about communal dining; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I have very high expectations of Lynch’s pasta. I’m really picky about pastry, and there’s some serious Fort Point competition (see first paragraph). The pasta was brilliant, the desserts were memorable and the seating situation was actually my favorite part. When I left full and happy, I already couldn’t wait to go back. Maybe it will be for doughnut Tuesday, maybe for calzone Wednesday, but that for me is the sign of a real “power lunch.”