BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
On paper, Evoo never should have worked. A location at a drab intersection in Somerville, a prissy name that stands for “extra-virgin olive oil,” and an equally precious menu, with dishes combining everything from house-made kimchee to barbecued lamb in a single entrée: Better business plans than this have come from the Harvard area. Peter McCarthy’s restaurant is still going strong in its fifth year, however, thanks to dazzling, if uneven, food and curtains that hide Somerville from the customers.
McCarthy loves to play with his food; every dish on the menu is changed slightly from day to day. When his ingredient combinations work, the result is mindblowing. The barbecued rack of lamb ($26) is smoked with tea, brushed with barbeque sauce and served with fried hoisin-glazed tofu, kimchee and radish sprouts. The kimchee alone is better than most Korean restaurants would offer; it is warmed to mute the piquant flavor of its fermented cabbage, and it forms a perfect bridge between the spicier, astringent radish sprouts and the tea-sweetened lamb. Smoking lamb with tea is not terribly novel, but the execution here is perfect, the hearty flavor of lamb drawn out wonderfully by the tea, if overwhelmed a touch by the barbeque sauce.
Other genres of food are recreated with equal ease. The mild, succulent pork in the homemade garlic sausage ($9) is mated with fresh, crispy relish and a habanero coleslaw with tiny bits of sweet cornbread. The dish recalls the best flavors of food at a smoky barbeque joint, and yet makes them seem fresher and more distinct than you ever thought possible.
The showboating turns more serious when McCarthy focuses on seasonal ingredients, with even better results. He uses slices of black truffle to pay homage to the roasted-garlic porcini flan, ($13) served atop local wild hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. The best dish I’ve eaten in Boston, the flan’s heavenly light, creamy texture soaked up the earthy flavor of the porcini mushrooms. This throws the subtle variations in earthiness provided by the truffles and the moist, firm hen-of-the-woods mushrooms into stark relief. Ravioli with porcini, spinach and mozzerella and mortadella cheeses ($18) is transformed by a coulis of local tomatoes, which adds warmth, moisture and a lightly acidic flavor without overwhelming the pasta.
The Achilles heel of Evoo’s food is not impossible complexity, though it has plenty of that; one rather gets the sense that Peter McCarthy had a childhood trauma involving low sodium. A balsamic vinegar and olive oil mixture for dipping bread is ruined by romano cheese, which soaks up the oil and reminds me of the last time I licked Cheeto dust off my fingers. The cutesy “Duck, Duck, Goose,” ($23) tries to balance a perfectly-seared piece of duck foie gras with a confit of duck leg and sliced goose breast, but the charred outsides of the goose breast crumble into the sherry-ginger-soy sauce and render it vaguely unpleasant. A salad of fresh beets, apples, Great Hill blue cheese and sour cream ($8) would have been excellent, but the gratuitous addition of hazelnuts, smoked bacon and fried onions made it brackish instead.
Many other dishes are returned to perfection by quick removal of the more obviously salty ingredients. A grilled Maine salmon with oyster mushrooms ($19) is splendid without the ridiculous fried potato straws atop it. A country terrine ($11) mixes pork rillette, pheasant, rabbit and duck pates into a delicious combination of a pate’s rich smoothness and the stringier meat of a rilette, but it tastes like beef jerky until I remove the prosciutto wrapped around it. Once you do, the pistachios and dried cherries embedded in the terrine shine through. The homemade pickles and wild blueberry jam are extremely impressive – how many Cambridge restaurants even make their own bread, let alone pickles?
Evoo’s desserts are less impressive than the best of its entrees, but very comforting nonetheless. The sticky toffee pudding cake with armagnac-prune ice cream ($8) was the best I had, a simple, moist end to the chaotic flavors that preceded it.
For those willing to walk 10 minutes into Somerville and eat their way around a few salty dishes, Evoo is very rewarding. The best argument is the 7-course blind tasting menu ($50), the best way to experience Peter McCarthy’s genius and constant innovation. You might wrinkle your nose occasionally, but you’ll never stop coming back.
118 Beacon Street
6-11 (F,Sa), 5-11 (Su)