When you enter Biba, you can't help but notice the mural by artist Robert Jessup that spans the wall above the first-floor bar. Colorful and mysterious, its lusty characters cavort across kitchen tables and poker games in merriment. A swarthy sailor tips his cup to you, a cigar-chewing poker face winks through the smoke at what must be a perfect hand and two lovers tumble obliviously into their own seduction, sending their wine glasses splashing. These characters beckon to the fashionable crowd below as they wait for tables, munching on unusual bar tapas like marrow on toast, morcilla and yuca, and oyster shooters.
When chef-owner Lydia Shire commissioned Jessup, she asked that he include three things: a can of anchovies, a man smoking a cigar and a woman's naked breast. The first two represent her worry that America is giving in to its neurosis: a fear of flavorful food and carefree leisure. The breast, says Shire, is there for insurance: "In case the restaurant gets slow, at least there will be something here to attract a few guys."
Slow times at Biba? Don't count on it. Food with anything less than explosive flavor? Not while Shire's in the kitchen. Her reputation for foods that bar-no-fancy has been widely known since her seminal career began in the early '70s in hotels like the Bostonian and the Los Angeles Four Seasons, well before opening her own restaurant four years ago to both the raves and bewilderment of Bostonians who'd never seen anything like it.
To start, there's the bar, which allows cigar smoking, a rarity in any city. Though cigars aren't allowed up in the dining room, there is a special cigar corner down at the bar, with a big, lumpy "Winston Churchill" couch and a sleek easy chair designed by Adam Tihany (who designed Biba). Not coincidentally, this corner has a great view of the Jessup mural.
During April, however, Biba held its first annual Cigar Night when cigar smokers feted the rare privilege of smoking upstairs. But a trip to the dining room is worth it, even if you do have to leave the humidor (which maître d' Frank King and local tobacconist L. Perretti keep stocked with Upmanns and Fuentes) for after dinner.
Upstairs, you are greeted by the scent and crackle of the wood that fires Biba's brick hearth and tandoor ovens, in which cooks roast spitted suckling pig, fire lobster pizzas, and bake the hot breads that arrive at tables accompanied by delightfully real anchovy butter.
The reflection of these flames flickers behind you in the glass wall that partitions wine buyer Craig Gandolph's compact but meticulously selected wine cellar. Changing four times a year to keep up with the menu, the affordable list is 60 percent American and stocked with a strong selection of Pinot Noirs from lesser-known houses.
Step forward, and the aromas of clay-fired garlic and sweet spice enshroud the lively atmosphere with a rapturous perfume. The colorful walls are hung with fabrics and photos from Shire's many travels, the ceiling is painted with the vibrant designs of kilim rugs and the floor is tiled in an unusual pattern of light-and-dark-striped hardwoods. The windows border the far wall and reveal views of the lush Public Gardens.
In contrast to the elaborate patterns surrounding them, the tables are pure, simple white--all the better to highlight the stunning dishes. The menu, not surprisingly, is unconventional. Divided into sections entitled meat, starch, legumina, and offal (innards), it offers an eclectic variety of tantalizing creations like hot broth of steeped almonds with chicken and foie gras, pan-fried daikon cakes, baby lamb over burning rosemary and marmouls with Syrian-spiced coffee. And the many-layered textures of the food are entrancing. The beef carpaccio, for example, is sweet and tender. It snaps with fresh fava beans and spicy bitter greens. It matures with the aged sharpness of shaved Parmesan. It sparks with capers, fried until they are black and crispy, like salty nuggets. And amazingly, above all that, one can still taste the soft delicate elegance of a few celery leaves.
Then, just when you're thinking that you've never tasted anything like this before, Shire declares, "I'm old-fashioned. Absolutely." Such comforting classics as creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, grilled lamb chops and grilled lobster bathed in whiskey butter are familiar options indeed. But rarely these days are they ever so good and indulgent. Shire also views her affection for offal as old-fashioned. "I'm afraid an entire generation may grow up and not know what a [cow's] brain tastes like."
But as Biba chef Susan Regis explains, there is more than historical preservation to their penchant for offal: "We enjoy the element of surprise and challenge in presenting offal to Bostonians. There are really people out there who are looking for a kidney but can't find one [on any menu]. Granted, on occasion we've sent a brain to somebody who's given it mixed reviews. But tasting food is an emotion, and we'd like to think that we have a sense of humor."
Craig LaBan is a freelance writer, photographer and chef.
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