At first blush, Back Bay Harry’s looks like one of those places that’s probably more flash than substance. From the immaculate marble bar with the funky display of illuminated bottles at one end, to the cocktails with film-inspired names and offbeat ingredients, to the celebrity chef with the blue hair, one might get the impression that this place is trying really, really hard to be bold, different, unconventional. And places like that usually end up feeling phony and contrived.
But even when it seems like its approach is over the top, as with its eight-ingredient drinks or diva-themed Sunday brunches, Back Bay Harry’s somehow avoids overdoing things. What could easily feel forced instead seems genuine and fun.
The upscale bistro, which opened in October 2013, is the creative vision of designer Taniya Nayak and chef Jason Santos. Nayak is an interior designer whose work has been featured on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, the Food Network, and HGTV, among others. She’s also appeared on a slew of TV shows, including Oprah and the Today Show.
Her expertise shows at Back Bay Harry’s. The space is sophisticated and modern, with a long, 18-seat bar, hardwood floors, and perfect lighting. If there’s such a thing as “casual sexy,” this is it. And the trippy light display at one end – a glowing rectangular pattern of green and white wine bottles – is an instant conversation starter.
Chef Santos brings a little star power of his own. The man with the striking blue hair appeared on Season 7 of Hell’s Kitchen, the cooking reality show in which renowned British chef Gordon Ramsay hurls insults at less-experienced chefs. But apparently he didn’t yell at Jason all that much, since he made it to the final round and finished as the runner-up. Locally, he’s also the executive chef at Abby Lane.
Santos’s dishes reflect his uniquely creative approach to cuisine. He often combines ingredients that may seem disparate but end up wonderfully balanced, with flavors that complement each other in unexpected ways. And as seems appropriate for the environment, there’s an emphasis on presentation.
Curried onion and cauliflower hummus is served with pink peppercorns and warm naan, arranged in the shape of a star.
Cast iron baked brie is topped with maple-roasted figs, caramelized onions, and candied walnuts, and served with warm garlic bread. It’s the perfect appetizer for a chilly night, with each flavor blending with the warm, gooey brie.
But few dishes better demonstrate chef Santos’s knowledge of how flavors interact than the Mission fig pizza. Topped with Mission figs, butternut squash, bleu cheese, an aged balsamic reduction, arugula, and caramelized onions, it’s a flatbread on which a palette of flavor notes – sweet, nutty, sharp, tangy, and earthy – work in harmony, without any getting lost.
Back Bay Harry’s’ cocktail program takes a similar approach – big flavors, lots of ingredients, and unusual combinations. I admit, this is where I was expecting things to go off the rails. Looking at the composition of some of the drinks, I thought they might be too complicated for their own good. And several of the ingredients – lime sherbet? – sounded gimmicky. But once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Beverage director Jarek Mountain’s cocktails are imaginative and playful, and even those that appeared excessive were instead balanced and nuanced. Trying to identify all of the cultural references behind the cocktails’ names is a good pastime while you’re imbibing.
Cousin Eddie is far more elegant than its “Vacation” namesake. Made with chai-infused Irish whiskey, St. George Spiced Pear liqueur, Boston Harbor Distillery’s Seymour’s Boston Cream, bay leaf tincture, vanilla bean syrup, and egg white, it’s creamy and rich, but not overly sweet.
Milk of the Poppy – not the only Game of Thrones-inspired moniker – started off on the spring cocktail list, but it’s easy to see why it got moved to the winter menu. This mix of Michter’s bourbon, Grand Poppy (an amaro-like herbal liqueur), Suze (a French aperitif), strawberry shrub, cinnamon bark, fresh lemon, fennel, and vanilla bitters is a complex blend of bitter and fruity flavors that work surprisingly well together.
The Pineapple Express infuses Nantucket’s Triple Eight vodka with pineapple and jalapeño, combining it with hum (an amaro-like botanical liqueur), orgeat, and fresh lime, with a roasted pineapple garnish. It’s sweet and spicy, but not too much of either.
The Son of a Nutcracker is the closest thing to a classic drink, with its Manhattan-like combination of Redemption rye, Benedictine, China-China amer, a spray of absinthe, and a sprinkling of nutmeg on the surface. The China-China gives it a Fernet-like kick at the end, and the absinthe is subtle but ever-distinctive.
One of the most popular drinks, the Dark Krystal is distinguished by its striking blood-red hue. This margarita-like drink combines pomegranate tequila, fresh lime, fresh lemon, and agave nectar, topped with champagne.
Another popular entry, and easily the most complicated, is called Thunder Buddies. This one’s a doozy – Nolet’s gin, Real McCoy 5-year rum, house cranberry cordial, Pommeau, St. George Pear brandy, sherry, pimento bitters, and the ingredient I was most inclined to be skeptical about, lime sherbet. Not that I should have been any less skeptical about how this mishmash of diverse components was going to work. And yet they come together to form a drink that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
In a way, such a cocktail is emblematic of Back Bay Harry’s itself. The drink and the bar both reflect a vivid imagination and a sense of daring. They may seem a little over the top. Yet they’re also full of artistry, attention to detail, and an unmistakable playfulness. In the wrong hands, the whole thing could be a hot mess. But between a talented designer, a smart chef, and an innovative beverage director, they manage to get the proportions right.
Address: 142 Berkeley Street, Boston
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