Chef Michael Burgess has an understated mastery that seems to pick up at Masona Grill right where he left off at the lamented Nightingale. One reflection of his wisdom is seasoning, and how to use surface salt for a burst of flavor without over-salting the entire dish. This first shows up in the bread basket, unchanged from Nightingale’s: a thick but greaseless quasi-focaccia, topped with herbal salt, and thick-cut whole-grain bread that reminds you to order something with a sauce. The Peruvian heritage of owner Miguel Sifnugel (formerly of Claremont Café) also adds some interesting twists.
PRACTICALLY PERFECT: From food to service, Masona Grill impresses.
For example, Burgess served a porcini-rich wild-mushroom tart with mesclun salad at the Nightingale; now it’s four wild-mushroom empanadas ($9) — Latin-style turnovers with the same filling, pastry, and salad, but also a roasted tomato (and maybe eggplant) chutney. Codfish cakes ($10) also are more Latin than New England, with the full flavor of dried salt cod, made to the taste of someone who grew up on bacalao. Wild-boar pâté ($13), likely from game-farm boar, was a solid country terrine with a chunk of lean pork at the center to assure that gamey character. The plate comes with the usual gherkins, toasts, and trimmings for pâté, but this is rather lean stuff. An appetizer of prosciutto and roasted pear ($12) soared on the ripeness of the pear. We actually found ourselves brushing aside the thin-sliced ham and shaved prosciutto (with a drizzle of balsamic something) to get to the fruit.
Entrées were the perfect flight. Perhaps the knockout was another Nightingale platter: the rare breast and slow-roasted leg of a duck ($27). The meats were perfection of their kind, the seasoning at perfect pitch, and the side dishes of mashed potato and sauce plus wine-y sour cherries were up to the level of the duck. I suspect these were the new Hungarian hybrid sour cherries, which have more color and flavor than Montmorency cherries. Seared skate wing ($20), another holdover from Nightingale, was even better than I remembered it, both for the larger piece of breaded and broiled skate, easily stripped off the single piece of cartilage between “filets,” and for the sides of grilled potatoes and Brussels sprouts as well as sautéed collards or chard with a bit of chew. Skate is one of the tastiest seafoods around, so if you’ve been hesitant, this is a great place to start.
Roasted halibut ($26) is also different from the Nightingale version, although in a more Iberian than Latin-American way. It’s a perfect piece of light fish crusted with seasoning, but over a fabulous broth — pass the bread, please — of fish, four littleneck clams, thin-sliced aged chorizo, and collards. Seared sea scallops ($25) were likewise superior and well-seasoned knobs of flavor, with greens and a risotto made just right: not crunchy, not gooey.
The wine list is short and looks good, but we were a non-drinking table. From past tasting, I would be confident with any of the Chilean or Argentine bottles I saw. Tea ($3.50) is brewed loose-leaf in a pewter pot with a filter. I favor the china pot with the same arrangement, but this does well, and the teas are fresh and flavorful, to judge by our green and herbal pots. Decaf coffee ($2.50) was very good.
Desserts, likewise, didn’t let us down. My favorite was the pear-and-ginger upside-down cake ($7). I’ve already described the pears, but here they were served on top of a rich, soft, moist gingerbread as satisfying as pudding. Chocolate pot de crème ($7) was more intense than the best mousse, since you get all those air bubbles out of the way and spoon chocolate almost as thick as fudge. Lemon roulade ($7) had a fine, delicate flavor in both the sponge cake and lemon mousse (still not much air), with raspberry sauce. And a pumpkin tart ($7) understated the spice but had pure pumpkin flavor as well as a pretty good crust.
Having tasted four excellent full dinners, am I worried about the other six appetizers/small plates and four entrées? No. But since a carpet without a mistake is an insult to Allah, I will find a fault. The restaurant’s Web site,//Masonagrill.net, is mis-programmed in such a way that you have to know to click into the frame to get it to scroll down. So there.
Service was excellent and our server’s recommendations were superb, but then, so was everything else. The atmosphere was quiet on a weeknight — this isn’t a great location until you know where it is, a few corners off Centre Street, despite facing the West Roxbury commuter-rail station. The view of the station from window tables is not fabulous, either. There wasn’t any background music our night, which is fine with me, although the Nightingale had jazz to die for.