Pork shumai at 28 Degrees


It’s never a good idea for a restaurant to rest on its laurels. How many places open to great acclaim, draw crowds for a while, and then fade to irrelevance because they got cocky and stopped trying hard to please? 28 Degrees (1 Appleton Street, Boston, 617.728.0728) started off gangbusters five years ago, immediately attracting a loyal following with its then-novel small-plates concept, big cocktails, pounding house-music soundtrack, and dead-gorgeous Mark Bombara interior design. It achieved a rare balancing act, drawing equally from South End boys craving a chic local hangout and heteros who dug the lively, nightclubby vibe. And while first-time visitors always buzzed about the beautiful bathrooms, nobody talked much about the food.

It’s not high-rolling 2006 anymore: customers are flintier with their entertainment dollars. The Beehive and the soon-to-open Noche next door offer nearby alternatives for a drink and a nosh in a beautiful room. So 28 Degrees wisely decided to add a little superstar firepower to its lineup, hiring William Kovel as consulting chef. Kovel, who won four-star raves for his work at the helm of Aujourd’hui, has brought his refined, Asian-influenced New American sensibility to 28’s casual roster of small bites, shareable plates, and gourmet brick-oven pizzas. His crab salad martini ($13) provides an appropriately dramatic opening note — you could mistake it for a whimsical, whipped-cream-topped dessert if not for its garnish of gaufrette potatoes. Its Thai-leaning accents of mango and red onion make it a perfectly refreshing savory starter. And an entree of spring pea ravioli ($15) is the kind of carefully handmade dish that Kovel might have plated at the Four Seasons, a marvel of fresh-pasta texture, bright spring flavors, and the subtle earthy contrasts of oyster mushrooms and roasted tomato.

Perhaps most emblematic of how Kovel has adapted his serious aesthetic to the easygoing, plate-passing style here is his sprightly appetizer of pork shumai ($12). It’s light and delicious, an eye-catching, multi-culti hybrid artfully bedecked with curly ribbons of scallion. It recalls Japanese shumai with its open-faced design and gingery pork filling, and it also evokes Indonesian siomai with its pool of kecap manis (the grandfather of ketchup: a tomato-free, sweetened soy-sauce dip) and subtly fiery sweet chili sauce. 28 Degrees has always been about looking good and having fun — it just needed to get back to the gym, and Kovel has definitely managed to add some culinary muscle tone to the menu.