The Boston Globe’s notoriously picky restaurant reviewer, Devra First, recently bestowed her first “Extraordinary” four-star review in over two years to the chefs at Ribelle in Brookline. Serving Italian cuisine—in the loosest sense of the term—chef/owner Tim Maslow has a quilt of experiences that inform his cooking. At only 29 years old, Maslow has run the kitchen in a globally-recognized restaurant, revamped his father’s 25-year-old lunch joint, and opened his own restaurant. Although he was influenced by his Italian background, and his a father owned a sandwich shop in Watertown,Maslow honed his cooking chops at the momofuku ssäm bar, a luxe Japanese restaurant in Manhattan where Maslow quickly climbed through the kitchen ranks to Chef de Cuisine.
The minimalist delicacy of Japanese flavors and the robust sauces and earthiness of Italian cuisine seem opposite, yet Maslow proves they are complimentary. The influences of his two culinary backgrounds are evident in everything from the décor to the cocktail menu. The sculptural, metallic light fixtures illuminate a single, rough-hewn wooden table that extends the entire length of the restaurant, with separate parties squeezed together like one boisterous Italian family. The wine, beer, and cocktail menus are impressive but unpretentious; wines by the glass are numbered under “reds,” “pinks,” and “whites,” rather than by year or vineyard.
The cocktails are reason enough to visit Ribelle. The ingredients in the varied potions would satisfy even the pickiest connoisseur, with many house-made syrups, tonics, bitters, and juices. The bartender explained that one whisky-based drink, flavored with Earl Grey tea and lemon, was named for the nostalgic smells associated with grandfathers, and another gin-based one with fermented beet juice and hops would be best for one who likes to drink beer but is looking for something with more kick. “Progress and Needs” layers dark spiced rums over ginger beer and lemon,for a delicious Dark and Stormy with a twist. (The waitress regretfully informed us that the homemade small-batch ginger beer made with fresh shaved ginger had already been used up for the week.) By the time our waitress had walked us through the menus and the many small plates of food began arriving, the anticipation from watching delicately-plated, colorful dishes reach our neighbors had reached a breaking point.
While kale salads are now increasingly passé, Maslow’s twist on the trend is roasted with savory oyster crema and topped with fried quinoa. Listed under “vegetables” on the unconventionally organized menu (the other minimalist categories were “seafood,” “bread + grains,” and “meat”), the densely flavorful oyster sauce and the chewiness of the greens perfectly mimics a seafood dish.
Many of the dishes are sparse and flavor-dense, but the truffle egg toast is straight comfort food. Presented with a jaunty semolina bread hat and a heavy topping of melted cheese and shishito peppers, the so-fresh-it-was-orange yolk spills out from its concealed nest with one swift knife slice. This plate perfectly embodies Maslow’s unification of Japanese deliberateness and simplicity with the Italian emphasis on quality ingredients.
The favorite dish of the bunch, with more layered surprises, is the duck liver mousse listed under the “meat” section, though deserving of its own elevated category above the standard castes of food. The mousse itself is rich and light, and embedded with various jewel-toned berries and enormous fresh capers. Rather than being served on the expected toasted bread, perfectly crunchy homemade breadsticks draped over the mousse make this luxurious dish casual and fun. The je ne sais quoi of the plate is revealed when a bottom layer of warm chamomile-scented honey sauce spills forth, creating the perfect blend of savory and sweet.
Though there are many other excellent dishes—tripe and gnocchi in tomato sauce, or shrimp and citrus wedges over rye bigoli—the grand finale is the most creative and memorable: olive oil ice cream with a dark-chocolate shell. Between the salty bite of the olive oil and the creamy sweetness of the ice cream, this is one of those pairings that should have emerged years ago. This is the new pinnacle of the salty-sweet dessert idealism. The chocolate shell adds a childish and whimsical topping that reminds me of my favorite hometown soft-serve stand.
A great meal can be anything from a simple barbecue in great company to a Michelin-starred black tie affair, but the laid-back atmosphere and imaginative creations at Ribelle guarantee an unforgettable and inevitably fun experience. Though the price tags on the biggest dishes can be restrictive, there are great dishes at easy price points for lowly students as well. The Globe hit the nail on the head with those four stars.