If you're enticed inside by the lively colors of a Mass. Ave storefront restaurant in Arlington Heights, you'll find fare as fresh and bold as the lemon-, lime-, and cantaloupe-colored decor. Johnny Levins, Caribbean by birth, French and cosmopolitan by training, has brought his considerable expertise to this lively bistro, which opened four months ago.
Before that, Levins and catering manager Jodi Auerbach had started Something Savory as a catering business out of Levins's Cambridge kitchen. Fans of Levins from his previous years at the Green Street Grill can find his sophisticated but bold signature style in full swing at this new location. Catering and takeout are popular options, with an exotic array of side dishes and entrees available by the ounce.
Giant sunflowers by a local artist harmonize well with the sunny, informal decor. You can find standard lunch fare such as a roast vegetable wrap ($7.50) and a ``Classic Cheese Burger" ($9) here, but being more venturesome has a big payoff. Extensive lunch and dinner specials are posted each day, and both these and the regular menu selections will make your taste buds perk up.
Levins's Caribbean background (he was born on the tiny island of Nevis) is reflected in dishes such as roti, a West Indian ``sandwich" of curried chicken, potatoes, and cabbage ($8.75); and in rasta pasta, served with calabaza, sweet potato, green papaya, and coconut milk ($8 for lunch; dinner entree $12.50).
With his personal touches, Levins has elevated traditional island fare to sophisticated cuisine. One of his culinary secrets is the 10 gallons or so of finely diced fresh vegetables he always has on hand. Shallots, sweet potatoes, and carrots are among his favorites, and they add depth and texture to many of his dishes.
Levins grinds his pepper and spices by hand. The jerk recipe he uses for meat, fish, and poultry involves an elaborate alchemy among a dozen ingredients combined in batches of wet and dry. These are people who are passionate about food, and you'll find top-notch ingredients here: Black Pearl salmon, andouille sausage, hand-chosen seafood, fruits and vegetables brought in daily.
A cold tomato avocado soup (8 oz. $4.25; 12 oz. $6.25) tasted like a cross between gazpacho and salsa, redolent of cilantro. Levins has wisely restrained himself from spicing up the commendable seafood chowder, thick with mashed potatoes and the day's fresh fish (8 oz. $5.25; 12 oz. $7.25).
For a spicier soup, try the tomato-based conch chowder, (8 oz. $5; 12 oz. $7). A mesclun salad ($5/$7.50) featured slivered hearts of palm, jicama, and mango with a tangy pomegranate vinaigrette, a mellow blend of tropical and other flavors.
Although the restaurant closes at 8 p.m., it's worth making the effort to come for an early dinner or to get takeout for a leisurely meal later. We tried a Caribbean specialty named fungi (pronounced fun-jhee) made from okra and cornmeal ($13.25). If this doesn't sound appealing, just think of what Italians have done with polenta. This is even better, a savory, grainy square flecked with vegetables and grilled ( Levins's innovation) to perfection. It's served with Black Tiger shrimp and, perhaps to appease New Englanders' version of fungi, mixed mushrooms in a lemon butter herb white wine sauce. It's a stellar assembly.
A huge bowl of jambalaya ($11; with shrimp, $13) features sausage, smoked chicken, red beans, and rice, and was fiery enough to make steam come out of your ears.
Portions are generous: a lunchtime catfish sandwich featured two perfectly cooked fillets over a red pepper remoulade ($9), and the fried chicken ($8.25) featured four pieces of chicken as well as gently curried rice and beans and a generous heap of golden plantains, the best we've ever sampled.
Although it wasn't printed on our menu, wait staff obligingly told us about offerings for kids when we came en famille: grilled cheese, pizza, and similar kid fare are available for $5.
Get a doggie bag to save room for dessert: Levins makes most of them himself. A rum pineapple upside-down cake looked moist and tempting, but the key lime tart won out, a creamy, tangy treat with tiny slivers of fresh key limes on top. Key lime cheesecake is a must-try for another occasion and there are plenty of chocolate delicacies on hand, too.
This classy home-style restaurant brings the colors and the burst of flavor of a ripe mango to the local dining scene.