What’s the deal-a with Avila?

Friday night was our twice monthly Date Night… and the first one we have had in quite a while — due to various holiday parties and gatherings. So earlier in the week, I plugged our date and time preferences into http://www.opentable.com/ and began eyeing the listings to find a suitable place. I decided on Avila, which opened in May of 2006 in a brand new space formerly occupied by a parking lot. Avila is described as modern Mediterranean and is the brainchild of Steve DiFillippo, founder and owner of the Davio’s [now] chain of restaurants.

I didn’t do much homework before selecting Avila, other than taking a peak at their menu — which looked yummy — and picking a place that was in Back Bay — because we hadn’t dined there in a while.

First off, Avila is not in what I consider to be the Back Bay… at 1 Charles Street South, it’s in the Theater District. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… except, restaurants in the Theater District attract a certain type of clientele: the pre-theater crowd and tourists (both professional and personal). Therefore, the vibe of the place wasn’t as trendy or interesting as I had hoped. It was more of a middle-aged, relaxed crowd… rather than a hipster/young professional one. Again, this was fine… just not what I happened to be in the mood for.

In any case, aside from the ambiance, our overall experience was a positive one. The restaurant was a bit empty when we arrived at 7pm, but became and stayed about 80% full for the remainder of our visit. They have valet parking… at $16 bucks a pop… which I consider to be pretty pricey considering the location. The staff was attentive, friendly and fairly educated on the menu and the very extensive (over 300 bins) — and expensive — wine list.

The dining room is very spacious and open, with high ceilings and warm and inviting decor theme. The one caveat: as cars are turning onto Charles Street from Boylston, the headlights shine right in the windows and into the eyes of all customers seated in that direction (which was my husband’s case). He found the lights to be distracting and annoying. Perhaps they should close the curtains at night?

The menu has a large selection of items — ranging from small plates, first courses and pastas to entrees, specialties and sides (ala carte). We opted to do the tapas thing and ordered only small dishes to share. After selecting our 4 small plates and 3 first courses, our waitress suggested a way to divvy up the 7 dishes into 3 courses, serving similar tasting dishes together. I was happy with her selections and welcomed the suggestion.

Our first “course” was Salt Cod Poppers with balsamic mayonnaise, Duck Egg with Truffle Oil and Grilled Squid with Tomatoes and Croutons ($5 each). The poppers were very good, as was the mayo that accompanied them. They were definitely my second favorite dish of the evening. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the duck egg… At Clio, we once had a duck egg that was soft-boiled and served in it’s shell (it was delicious). I guess that’s what I was hoping for, because I was a little disappointed to see a single fried egg (diner style) with a smidgen of truffle oil on top. Definitely nothing special… and not worth the $5 price tag. The grilled squid was decent. It was cooked properly, had a nice flavor and was served with copped tomatoes and [what appeared to be] pre-made croutons (vs. homemade).

As a second course, we had the Nantucket Bay Scallops served atop of a cauliflower puree with baby mache ($13) and an appetizer-sized order of the Fresh Rigatoni, with Hubbard squash, wild mushrooms and Vermont chevre ($11). The rigatoni was a bit heavy as a side, but had a very nice flavor. All pasta dishes can be ordered as either an entree or an appetizer. We would probably recommend getting this particular pasta dish as an entree, as it was quite filling. The bay scallops were yummy, though a tiny bit overcooked. I really enjoyed the cauliflower puree and seared scallops together; it was a nice combination.

For a final course, we had the Hudson Valley Foie Gras, served atop toast points with a peppercorn roasted pineapple relish ($15) and fried Halloumi Cheese, with medjool dates, cashews and ouzo. The foie gras was nicely flavored and I really liked the combination of it with the subtlety of the pineapple relish. The actual “cuts” of foie gras were definitely on the lower end. They weren’t “to die for”; rather “pretty good”. That said, the halloumi cheese was the best dish of the night. I LOVED it… the saltiness of the fried cheese paired with the sweet dates, cashews and ouzo was a lovely combination and left me wanting more. We both highly recommend this final dish.

We passed on dessert, as we were too full… and wanted to finish our bottle of wine — 2006 Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc ($49). On Ferrari Carano’s website, this bottle of wine is $17! We’d had it before and felt like it… so we splurged. The price of this bottle is very representative of the rest of the wine menu though… expensive.

All-in-all it was a good experience. Date night worth? Sure… especially for pre-theater. If you’re looking for ambiance, sexiness, trendiness or funky… forget it. If you want a decent meal, with a nice wine list and extensive menu, then this place is for you. We probably won’t go back… just because it was good rather than phenomenal. At this point, we have so many places to try that we don’t bother with second visits unless we were blown away.

On a final note, Avila also serves brunch and lunch and has a separate bar menu with “Pinchos” at $5 and a variety of “Segundo”, which to appear to be a Mediterranean twist on bar food. In other words, this place has something for everyone in the food category. I think even the pickiest eaters could find something they would like.

Avila in Boston

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